The Atlas of Beauty

Since I found out about the photography project “The Atlas of beauty” by Mihaela Noroc, I cannot get enough of her stunning photographs of women from all over the world.

Mihaela, who grew up in Romania, quit her job three years ago, and started travelling around the world. Through her photography project she wants “to explore the unnoticed beauty which lies in people around us.”

Her portrays reveal the amazing diversity of humanity. At the same time, the women’s stories show how similar we are in our thinking and feeling as human beings no matter where and under which circumstances we live our lives.

The love story behind the Taj Mahal

In 2013, I went to India for the first time in my life. Of course, I had to see Taj Mahal in Agra! I travelled with a friend from New Delhi to Agra by train and we reached the city within four hours. Train rides are quite cheap and convenient in India, but you should book them in advance. The tickets sell out quickly in a country with more than one Billion citizens.

Early in the morning, we were waiting in a long queue in front of the red-sandstone South Gate of the Taj Mahal when an old man approached us. He was in his seventies and worked as a private tour guide in Agra for many years. We booked a walking tour with him to the Taj Mahal and the Agra Fort. It was a very good decision because he helped us to enter the sights in an instant and told us many interesting facts about the buildings.

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The Taj Mahal was built in memory of the Mughal Empress Mumtaz Mahal. She was the third and favourite wife of Shah Jahan, and the only wife who was allowed to advise and accompany her husband during his military campaigns. Mumtaz’s residence in Agra Fort resembles Shah Jahan’s love and admiration for her. It was decorated with pure gold and gemstones, and even had a rose water fountain.

Mumtaz Mahal died while giving birth to her 14th child in 1631. Shah Jahan was heartbroken and went into mourning for one year. Afterwards, he ordered the construction of the Taj Mahal, the final resting place for his favourite wife Mumtaz. The design of the Taj reflects Shah Jahan’s imagination of Mumtaz’s home in paradise. He wanted her grave to be the most beautiful place on Earth and his love for his wife should be visible forever.

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After our visit of the Taj Mahal, our tour guide showed us the marvellous Agra Fort. Here, the love story of Shah Jahan and Mumtaz came to an end. Their third son, Aurangzeb, overthrew his father shortly after the construction of the Taj Mahal was finished.


Shah Jahan was put under house arrest in Agra Fort. Until the end of his life, he could only gaze at the Taj Mahal next to the Yamuna River through a window in his room. In 1666, Shah Jahan was buried alongside his wife Mumtaz.

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Rabindranath Tagore’s poem “Shah-Jehan” beautifully describes Shah Jahan’s longing to preserve his love for Mumtaz forever. And it reminds us of the precious, limited time we all have with our loved ones.

You knew pretty well, Ruler of India, O Shah-Jehan,
That surges of Time takes away all life and youth and riches and honours.
The unique wish of the Emperor was
To perpetuate only your innermost sorrow.
Adamant, even the monarch’s power
Wilt while dozing like the reddening of a twilight,
Solely a prolonged sigh
Might sadden the sky by heaving constantly,
That is all you hoped.
Let vanish, vanish if it must,
The splendour of diamonds and pearls and jewels –
Even as a wizard’s rainbow glow on the horizon’s void –
Let there be
Merely a drop of tears,
On the cheek of Time, dazzling and white,
This Tajmahal.

-Rabindranath Tagore

Ossip Mandelstam: the tragic life of an incredible poet

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Some days ago, I went to the exhibition “Ossip Mandelstam – Wort und Schicksal (word and destiny)” in Heidelberg’s oldtown. The Jewish Russian poet and essayist was a student at Heidelberg University in 1909/10, and it was here that he started writing. His tragic life shows how much our lives are influenced by policy-makers and that beautiful art always finds a way to come to the surface.

In 1913, when Mandelstam was 22, his first collection of poems “The Stone” was published. His early poems reveal that Mandelstam was a gifted writer, and destined to become one of Russia’s best modern poets.

 

What shall I do with this body they gave me,
so much my own, so intimate with me?

For being alive, for the joy of calm breath,
tell me, who should I bless?

I am the flower, and the gardener as well,
and am not solitary, in earth’s cell.

My living warmth, exhaled, you can see,
on the clear glass of eternity.

A pattern set down,
until now, unknown.

Breath evaporates without trace,
but form no one can deface.

-Ossip Mandelstam

Mandelstam was well-known in Russian literary circles, but not able to earn a living as a poet. The October Revolution in 1917 was a turning point in his life, because Stalin and his followers brutally silenced all critical voices. Mandelstam started to store his poems in his memory, instead of writing them down. Together with his wife Nadeschda, he was forced to live in inner exile in different places, such as Moscow, St. Petersburg, and Tiflis.

 

I don’t remember the word I wished to say.
The blind swallow returns to the hall of shadow,
on shorn wings, with the translucent ones to play.
The song of night is sung without memory, though.

No birds. No blossoms on the dried flowers.
The manes of night’s horses are translucent.
An empty boat drifts on the naked river.
Lost among grasshoppers the word’s quiescent.

It swells slowly like a shrine, or a canvas sheet,
hurling itself down, mad, like Antigone,
or falls, now, a dead swallow at our feet.
with a twig of greenness, and a Stygian sympathy.

to bring back the diffidence of the intuitive caress,
and the full delight of recognition.
I am so fearful of the sobs of The Muses,
the mist, the bell-sounds, perdition.

Mortal creatures can love and recognise: sound may
pour out, for them, through their fingers, and overflow:
I don’t remember the word I wished to say,
and a fleshless thought returns to the house of shadow.

The translucent one speaks in another guise,
always the swallow, dear one, Antigone….
on the lips the burning of black ice,
and Stygian sounds in the memory

-Ossip Mandelstam

Mandelstam composed a vituperative poem directed against Stalin in 1933, and got arrested, tortured, and banished. In 1938, Mandelstam died in a prison in Wladiwostok. Fortunately, his wife Nadeschda and his friends could remember many of his poems and save them for later generations.

The sad truth is that Mandelstam’s tragic life is nothing special. Even today, critical writers are monitored and face punishment in all parts of the world.

 

The shell

Night, maybe you don’t need
From the world’s reach,
a shell without a pearl’s seed,
I’m thrown on your beach.

You move indifferent seas,
and always sing,
but you will still be pleased,
with this superfluous thing.

You lie nearby on the shore,
wrapped in your chasuble,
and the great bell of the waves’ roar,
you will fasten to the shell.

Your murmuring foam will kiss
the walls of the fragile shell,
with wind and rain and mist,
like a heart where nothing dwells.

-Ossip Mandelstam

(translation of poems by A. S. Kline)

Heidelberg Castle: a symbol of German Romanticism

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Heidelberg’s castle rests above the old town, from where it commands a spectacular view.
The castle was built and extended over three centuries. During the war of succession (1688-1648), it was twice destroyed by the French and, in 1764, the remains of the castle were struck by lightning – igniting a fire which destroyed it once again. The castle was not reconstructed until today. Its facade became a symbol of the epoch of German Romanticism (Deutsche Romantik).

From 1804 to 1818, there  were some famous German romantics in Heidelberg, including Joseph von Eichendorff, Achim von Arnim, Clemens Brentano, and Johann Joseph von Görres.
German Romanticism was a reaction against the rationalization of the Enlightenment movement. For German Romantics, nature was not an exterior, liveless space, which could be fully understood by science. Instead, it was an experience, and a source of inspiration.

German Romantics saw the universe as an interconnected whole. They could connect with the sorrounding nature through their feelings. Therefore, strong emotions were a main source for their creative works, mainly literature, music and visual arts.

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The castle turned into a ruin. Some people may say that it looks ugly and should be reconstructed. For the German Romantics, the destruction of the castle shows its vulnerability and beauty.

 

A ramble through London’s Banglatown

During my bachelor studies, I attended a seminar about migration and diaspora communities. One session was about the creation of ethnic neighbourhoods in bigger cities. This reminded me of my stay at a friend’s place nearby Banglatown in Brick Lane, London. I decided to go back there and write my final paper about this interesting place in England’s capital city.

In former times, Brick Lane was situated outside of London’s city walls. Known as a slum with a high crime rate and poor housing conditions, it became the home of different immigrant communities. In the 16th century, the French Huguenots who are famous for their mastery in silk weaving and beer brewery settled in the area. They were followed by the Irish who escaped the Potato Famine and Jews who looked for a new place to settle down when the ethnic cleansing campaigns occurred in Poland and Russia at the turn of the 20th century.

The first Bengali immigrants were lascars (East Indian sailors or army servants) who settled nearby the docks in East London. Most of them came from Sylhet, the Northeastern division of Bangladesh, and found work in the garment factories around Brick Lane. At the same time, the first Indian restaurants opened in the street to cater the vast number of Asian single men. The oldest restaurant in Brick Lane is Nazrul. It opened in 1979. In the 1970s, many Bengali men could manage to bring their wives, children and extended family members through chain migration to East London’s borough of Tower Hamlets where Brick Lane is situated. They all lived close to the Jamme Masjid Brick Lane, the garment workshops, the curry restaurants and the first Bengali food store Taj Stores.

After renaming Spitalfields into Spitalfields & Banglatown in 1997, street signs in Bengali, a gateway and streetlights adorned with the red and green colors of the Bangladesh flag were added. The number of curry restaurants increased from eight in 1989 to 41 in 2002.

The urban regeneration programme included also the St. Mary’s Park nearby Brick Lane. It was renamed Altab Ali Park in memory of the Bangladeshi worker Altab Ali who was murdered in a racist attack in 1978. After his death, the Bangladeshi community organized a public funeral which resulted in a rise of the community’s self-confidence. Together with white left-wing and anarchist groups, the Bangladeshis formed a resistance movement against racist attacks.

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Since 1999, the park is also the site of the Shaheed Minar. It symbolizes a mother protecting her children with the orb of the sun in the background. Every year, the Bangladeshi community gathers at the park to commemorate the martyrs shot dead in 1952 by the Pakistani Police while protesting against the imposition of Urdu as Pakistan’s state language. A poem by the Bengali poet and national anthem writer of India and Bangladesh, Rabindranath Tagore (1861 – 1941), is embedded in path of the park:

The shade of my tree is offered to those who come and go fleetingly. Its fruit matures for somebody whose coming I wait for constantly.

Banglatown empowered the Bangladeshi community. It is more visible to the public and it gained from benefits of wealth creation, but the design of a ‘single culture area’ brings also negative effects. Banglatown implies that the culture of the Bangladeshi community is fixed and homogenous and can be consumed as such. The curry restaurants and street furniture reflect the uniqueness and otherness of the diaspora. Especially, the second and third generations of the immigrant community have more adopted to the London lifestyle. Nowadays, the British-born Bangladeshis tend to call themselves British-Bangladeshi, British-Muslim or British-Asian to express their multiple identity. Furthermore, the focus on only one ethnic group in a diverse borough like Tower Hamlets sparks another source for tension.

The Bangladeshi immigrants live close to each other to protect themselves. Many of them rent flats in run down houses because of discriminating housing policies and there is also a separation in the school system. 95 % of the pupils at Christ Church in Brick Lane are Bangladeshi. By keeping the contact of children with different ethnic backgrounds to a minimum, it is hard to build a tolerant community in the area.

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In the 1990s, Brick Lane became an attractive destination for London’s creative industry where artists, designers and entrepreneurs could find affordable workspaces. Brick Lane was transformed into their new playground including the Truman Brewery, the Whitechapel Gallery, Spitalfields Market and ‘Rich Mix’. The Truman Brewery and the Spitalfields Market host famous flea markets, designer shops, food stalls, night clubs and bars while ‘Rich Mix’ organizes a wide variety of different events and the Whitechapel Gallery displays the work of famous artists.

Meanwhile, the Bangladeshi diaspora is disturbed by litter, noise and the drug consumption of the young crowd. Gang fights and youth disorder are serious problems in Tower Hamlets and keep the crime rate at a high level. As a consequence, some Bangladeshis already moved to other districts of London. Furthermore, the curry restaurants have to compete with new food stalls, high-class restaurants, coffee shops and fast food chains.

Since the young creative scene substantially improved the living standard in Brick Lane, the rent and property prices increased massively. The former bad reputation of East London was replaced by trendy bars and clubs, fancy flagship stores and start-up companies. Leading street art artists like Banksy constantly change Brick Lane’s look, famous actors like Keira Knightley move to the area and make it a ‘hip place’ where everybody wants to be and tourist guides show their customers where Jack the Ripper and the Kray Brothers committed their crimes in East London.

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Brick Lane has welcomed different immigrant communities in the past. The predecessors of the Bangladeshis, the Jews, could only obtain two baigel shops. The boom of East London probably turns the Bangladeshi diaspora into the last ethnic group that can obviously show its presence in the street. The best example to see the ever-changing nature of Brick Lane might be the Jamme Masjid. It was built by the Huguenots as a Protestant church and later on, transformed into a synagogue by the Jews and afterwards into a mosque by the Bangladeshis. One relict from the past is its inscription: Umbra sumus. We are shadows.

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