True faith, no blood – Howling dervishes of kosovo

Kosovo, Religion

Every year in March members of the Rifai’i order gather in their holy shrine to celebrate Nevruz, an annual holiday marking the beginning of spring and therefore the first day of the new year. At the climax of the celebration religious Sufis in a state of trance, pierce their cheeks and bodies with century-old metal skewers. No blood and no pain seem to appear. 

words & photographs by Michael Biach

What is the human body after birth?” Sheikh Adrihusein Sheh asks me, cigarette in hand. I look at him silently, not knowing what to answer. “Look,” he says, taking a sip of his tea. “A body is like a jar. It is empty after birth. You need to fill it with wisdom.”

It’s March and I am in Prizren, Kosovo’s second largest city, to photograph the Sufi Dervishes of the Rifa’i order, a religious cult that was founded in the 12th century in Basra, Iraq. I was drawn by reports that to celebrate the new year, Rifa’i worshippers dance and pray until they reach a state of trance, and that they pierce parts of their bodies to get closer to god. Sheikh Adrihusein Sheh, their leader, agreed to meet with me.

“A body is like a jar. It is empty after birth. You need to fill it with wisdom”

The Rifa’i order is separate from the rest of the Sufi community in Kosovo, a predominantly Muslim autonomous region that seceded from Serbia. In Prizren, its members number about one hundred. “Some people go to church, others to the mosque or to a synagogue,” says the sheikh. “We go inside our tekke and there, we try to feel the presence of the almighty.”

Sheikh Adrihusein Sheh

Dozens of Sufi branches have settled in Kosovo, Bosnia, and Albania throughout the years. Each is different and has its own way of performing the collective prayer. Sheikh Adrihusein Sheh allowed me to witness his congregation’s yearly dhikr. After our conversation is over, he takes me to the tekke, their holy shrine, where dozens of men are waiting. They soon start to pray and sing. They dance with their upper bodies, not moving their feet, and repeat Allah’s name again and again.

After hours of chanting and praying, the worshippers are ready to proceed with the ultimate proof of devotion: piercing their bodies with centuries-old skewers.

The sheikh prepares the instruments of varying shapes and sizes, and thinner skewers are reserved for children. The scene is intense and theatrical, and the music grows louder. He begins by perforating the cheeks of a younger devotee. More experienced men administer the skewers on themselves.

“Only those who manage to separate the mind from the body will be able to recognize the divine.”

I see hardly any blood spilled and no one seems in pain. When I see the men remove the metal skewers from their flesh without flinching, I remember the sheikh’s earlier words. “Only those who manage to separate the mind from the body will be able to recognize the divine.”

Two older dervishes sit inside the holy shrine, called tekke, prior to the celebration of Nowruz.
Centuries-old metal skewers and swords, which will be used to pierce the believers’ cheeks and hips, hang inside the holy dervish tekke.
Dervishes praying before the celebration.
A boy, too young to be pierced, gets ready to attend his first dhikr. Kids and women observe the ceremony from the first floor.
Sheikh Adrihusein Sheh is the religious leader of the Rifa’i’ order. He reads from the Koran before the Nowruz celebration.
For hours, worshippers pray, sing, and chant, earning the description of “howling dervishes” as they prepare themselves for a state of trance.
Sheikh Adrihusein Sheh pierces his son’s cheek. His eldest will be heir to the leadership of the Rifa’i order.
An experienced Sufi dervish whirls the metal skewer moments before piercing both of his cheeks himself in a state of religious trance.
A dervish with his cheeks pierced during the holy dikhr.
Two young dervish boys with pierced cheeks. The skewers are smaller than those used by the older dervishes.
An old woman is observing the ceremony from the first floor.
A dervish is piercing his cheek.
A young Sufi dervish with blood from where the skewer was removed. Blood is actually a rare sight.
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Where ships go to die – Bangladesh’s ship-breaking yards

Bangladesh, Child Labour, Uncategorized

Bangladesh has become famous for both, ship-building and ship-breaking. While the first has become a major promising industry in recent years, the latter has drawn international attention on the country’s risky working conditions, environmental pollution and the adoption of child labor. Changes occurred but are far from international standards.

words & photographs by Michael Biach

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Bangladesh’s infamous ship-breaking yards in Chittagong. 

“The real deal is made with the ship’s steel,” explains Mostafa, pointing with outstretched hand in the direction of the many shipyards, located behind closely guarded steel doors on the beaches of Sitakund. Mostafa is 28, speaks perfect English and works as a guide and fixer in Chittagong.

“Journalists and photographers are no longer welcome”

Bangladesh’s scrapping industry has made negative headlines in recent years. “Journalists and photographers are no longer welcome here,” Mostafa warns tirelessly and strongly advises against over-intensive research or even entering the shipyards. In recent years environmental and human rights organizations have repeatedly tried to draw attention to the almost incomprehensible conditions in the shipyards. Catastrophic working conditions, environmental degradation and repeated injuries and deaths determine the sad reality of the hardest industry in the country.

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above: scenes from shipbreaking- and shipbuilding areas in Bangladesh.

In dark nights, when the water level is particularly high due to the tides, experienced captains carefully navigate disused freighters and tankers to the shallow shore along the endless beaches of the Bay of Bengal. “Beaching” is part of a global business. At some point, freighters begin their final journey. Previously, international brokers in London or Dubai set the price for steel, and ship-owners sell their discarded ships to international scrapping companies for a price per ton of ship’s scrap.

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© Google Maps

Actually, ships from industrialized countries may not be resold to developing countries since 1998, according to the Basel Toxic Waste Agreement. Nevertheless, almost all ships land on intermediaries on Asia’s shores. In 2010, the Supreme Court in Bangladesh decided not to allow any vessels that did not comply with previously defined environmental standards. According to a World Bank study, up to 200,000 jobs in Bangladesh are directly related to ship dismantling, with more than half of the country’s steel needs coming from Chittagong shipyards. Under pressure from the ship-breaking industry, Sheikh Hasina Wajed, prime minister of the country, soon defused the law.

After a discarded ship has been successfully maneuvered ashore, hundreds of workers begin to tear apart the steel body until nothing remains of the sea’s former giants. They cannot hope for expensive and professional work clothes.

After tense negotiations, access to one of the shipyards is possible. “The scrapping of ships on the coast of Bangladesh has become one of the most important industries in the country,” explains Rafik, a 30-year-old shipyard employee. “People need these jobs and somewhere the ships have to be taken apart,” he adds.

As scrapping in industrialized nations such as the US, Germany, Canada or Italy became unprofitable due to increasing labor and environmental protection in the 1980s, the scrapping industry in Asia’s developing countries made a spectacular triumphant advance. In 2008, Bangladesh was number one in the world with 26 ship recycling yards. It seems almost paradoxical, but with the height of the global economic crisis, which brought sinking freight rates, the order situation in the shipyards have multiplied. More and more ships of the outmoded world merchant fleet began their final journey to the beaches of Asia.

“At the bow of the freighter oil barrels rest in the mud”

This boom is taking a big toll. The scenery in the shipyard quickly confirms all known prejudices about the terrible working conditions. Equipped only with sandals or even barefoot, the mostly very young men stomp through the splintered oily mud.

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Suddenly, a winch is activated and separates another element of the wreck under loud noise. The welders rush to the new piece of steel and begin to dismantle it. Without adequate work equipment, they protect themselves only with sunglasses and headscarves against smoke and sparks.

Everyone is always on the move. The success of the enterprise, and thus the pay of the workers, depends above all on how quickly the ship can be dismantled and the steel can be resold. The needs of the people are given little consideration.

The danger to the environment is visible at the shipyard. At the bow of the freighter oil barrels rest in the mud. Their content will inevitably get into the sea with the next flood along with sealants, heavy metals and paints. A few hundred meters away from the beach fishing boats float in the sea. In the evening they will offer their daily catch –  contaminated with cadmium, lead and arsenic – at the local market.

Mostafa urges to stop asking questions and stop taking photos. The owners of the shipyards do not like unexpected visits.

“Poverty and hunger are stronger than the fear of injury and death”

A few years ago, director Shaheen Dill-Riaz, originally from Bangladesh and now living in Germany, returned to the once-white beach of his youth to draw attention to the precarious situation of temporary workers with his documentary “Die Eisenfresser” (Iron Eaters). The multitude of migrant workers comes from the poor north of the country, where crop failures and annual flooding through the monsoon usually make it impossible for them and their families to care. The shipyards in the south of the country offer them the only way to escape the misery. The workers are initially unaware of the danger and exertion, are usually hired in the north without ever having even heard of a shipyard before.

As day laborers, men can decide for themselves how long and how often they work on the yards. However, they do not have a guarantee for regular wages. Often payouts are delayed, leaving nothing to be left after deduction for accommodation and expenses at local retailers. It is not uncommon for workers to return to the north with disillusionment and little merit. Many swear never to return. But Mostafa corrects this view. “A lot of the workers keep coming back, just going home to order their fields,” he says. Poverty and hunger are stronger than the fear of injury and death in shipwrecks.

Whether the conditions on the shipyards will change? Mostafa is skeptical. “In Bangladesh, there is a stark difference between those who have little and those who have nothing,” he says soberly. With an income in mind, workers will risk their lives in this bleak environment, hoping that they will be happy enough to see their families again in the end.

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Stolen Beauty – Tribal Tattoos of Burma’s Chin Women

Adventure, Burma/Myanmar, Nature & Wildlife

The isolated mountains of Burma’s Chin state are home to a number of hill tribes that have been separated from modern world for centuries. Chin women used to follow the thousand-year-old tradition of tattooing their faces. The ritual, officially banned by the government in the 1960s, doesn’t attract modern Chin girls anymore. Soon the thousand-year-old tradition could be gone forever.

words & photographs by Michael Biach

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According to an old legend a Burmese king once traveled to the remote hill regions of Chin state, which was known for its beautiful women. The King then displaced a Chin girl, brought her back to his palace and made her his wife. The girl, desperate and unhappy with its situation, finally managed to escape and tried to make her way back home, always afraid that the king could eventually capture her again. In order not to get caught again she disguised herself by making incisions in her beautiful face using a knife. “It was like she was stealing her own beauty in order to protect herself from the king,” Daw San recounts the old fairytale. The woman in her sixties belongs to the Muun tribe, one of the few Chin sub-tribes that originally practiced the tradition of facial tattoos.

 

“It was like she was stealing her own beauty

in order to protect herself from the king” 

 

“Every little child knows this story,” she further explains with a smile. Anthropologists believe that it is more plausible that not the king but hostile invaders from other tribes kidnapped the girls. The tattoos then would allow them to identify from which tribe a girl originates. Myth or truth, fact is that the adoption of facial tattoos became part of Chin culture nearly a thousand years ago and since then has been passed from one generation to the other. Until recently at least.

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Today the Chin people consist of various sub-groups which are distinguished only by the women’s facial tattoos as well as differences in their language. The tribes are mostly situated between the north of Arakan state and the southeastern hills of Chin state.

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The Burmese government officially banned the tradition in the 1960s after the military took over power in a coup d’état. But the Chin-State has long been neglected by the far-away government or, as others say, the Chin state has long tried to avoid contact with outside rulers. In fact the Chin people were in a state of war with the military regime until June 2012 when a formal truce was announced after power was shifted to a civil government. For most of the isolated hill tribes these past events happened without notice.

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The Chin-State is still one of the country’s poorest and most isolated regions, with a 73% poverty rate according to an official survey. Some areas are widely inaccessible. While this is the reason that local traditions have survived the past centuries, it also means that malnutrition, childhood mortality and the risk for women to die in child bed are tremendous. Efforts of NGOs to push for the construction of streets and the implementation of governmental action could bring an improvement to the people’s living and health standard.

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“People are now hoping that they will profit from the truce and from the booming tourist industry in Myanmar,” says Nay Aung, a 28-year-old guide from Bagan who is regularly organizing trips into the area for NGOs and adventurous tourists. Traveling to hill areas of Chin state is quite challenging and by now still far off the beaten track. Areas are only accessible by four-wheel-driving jeeps on damaged rough tracks. The two-to-three days drive is halted by river crossings, mudflows or flat tires. New roads are currently under construction, often with the use of low-paid child labor, but are not to be expected before the next three years. “Part of the roads get damaged again during the rainy season,” says Nay Aung, “this makes it hard to finish the construction”.

 

“All the faces with tattoos are those of old women”

 

The mountainous area has always been wild and inaccessible. The Chin accepted the harsh and inhospitable conditions of the mountainous regions for centuries by choice, so they could avoid foreign influence and invasion.

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But times are changing and more and more Chin, especially the young, are willing to open their region for a better health care, maintenance and modernity. “All the faces with tattoos are those of old women,” says Daw San. Her striking face is graced with distinctive patterns that symbolize a pearl necklace and a dominant ‘Y’ that is illustrating a sacrifice trunk. The tattoo shows that she is a member of the Muun tribe. The differences in the patterns of the about twelve facial-tattoo practicing Chin-tribes vary from simple dots practiced by the Daai tribe or straight lines by the Yindu tribe to spiderweb-like tattoos of the Laytoo or even the full-face tattoos of the Ubun tribe where not even a single dot is spared.

“Every tattoo has a spiritual meaning and defines the values of the tribe,” says Daw San. The sacrifice trunk in her face reflects the totem of her village. “So we know who we are and we can find our ancestors in the afterlife by identifying the tattoos,” Daw San is convinced.

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The Chin, although most converted to Christianity by American Baptists a hundred years ago, are strongly committed to Animism. Every man or woman needs a ‘House of Spirits,’ a secure place for the afterlife. Once in his or her life, the tradition says, a member of the Muun tribe must hold a sacred ceremony to avoid harm by spirits and gain peace for the afterlife. During the week-long celebration the Muun will sacrifice one chicken, one wild pig, one goat and one wild buffalo and will divide the food with the tribe’s shaman and the remaining villagers. If the ritual is fulfilled one will collect flat stones from the river to build a ‘house of spirits’. After the death of a tribe member its remains are cremated and the ashes are laid to rest under the stone altar. “One is deemed to be alive until the bones have been disappeared,” explains Daw San. Only the most experienced hunters – or the wealthiest villagers – are able to repeat the ritual a second time in their life. “If this happens,” Daw San recounts further, “one is allowed to build the altar next to his or her home.”

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The town of Mindat is situated five hours on foot through the mountains from the ‘house of spirits’ cemetery of this group of Muun villagers. The town doesn’t differ much from other places in modern-day Burma. Local boys play soccer as the sun goes down; some girls drive through the village on motorbikes; and trucks and jeeps park in front of the town’s market. The place is completely alien to the remaining tribe-members who live their lives quite isolated on the hills.

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“Today the girls, at least in Mindat, see the fading custom as an unattractive relic of the past and they are aware of outside beauty standards,” says Daw San with a cautious smile. Decades ago it would have been out of question for a man to marry an un-tattooed girl. “When I was a little girl”, she says, “it would have been impossible not get tattooed. Every woman was proud of her tattoo.”

 

“Today the girls see the custom as an unattractive relic of the past”

 

Daw San is aware of ongoing development in the remote corners Chin state where she lives, and this gives her hope that a better life is on the way. She is happy for this, but she also fears the consequences for the Chin’s traditional lifestyle. She doesn’t doubt that her face is one of the last with a tribal tattoo.

“Soon,” she says, “this thousand-year-old tradition will be gone forever.”

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