UKRAINE: Jewish Chernobyl

The ruins of Chernobyl’s synagogue – Source: Pierpaolo Mittica

The town of Chernobyl didn’t just spring out of nowhere on April 26, 1986 – it was a long-standing town in northern Ukraine. Chernobyl the town is about 15km south of the power plant (most plant workers lived in Pripyat, the company town built around the reactor). The town has a deep Jewish history, and has been a site of Hasidic pilgrimage for decades – there still is the Chernobyl Hasidic dynasty today.

The Jewish community in Chernobyl, like other Jewish communities in what was the Pale of Settlement, faced pogroms and violence through the centuries. The majority of the Jewish population was murdered during the Holocaust. After the war, the surviving Ukrainian Jews faced the repression of organized religion in the Soviet Union, and many left for Israel or North America. Those who emigrated over the years still feel deep ties to the region, like the Twersky family of Chernobyl Hasidic lineage (warning: Holocaust footage):

When the nuclear disaster happened in 1986, the town of Chernobyl was evacuated and abandoned, with the Ukrainian and Jewish populations scattering across the Soviet Union. Most of the USSR’s Jewish population would later emigrate to Israel, the US, and Canada at the end of the Cold War, though there still is a solid Jewish population in Ukraine today, including Ukrainian President Zelenskyy.

Ukraine still remains an important site of pilgrimage for Hasidic Jews, including the Chernobyl dynasty’s tombs (as well as the location of many family graves). For a personal account of reconnecting with Chernobyl, I’d recommend the article “Why Chernobyl’s Jewish History Still Matters — 31 Years After The Accident” by Anna Khandros, plus Pierpaolo Mittica’s photoessay “Chernobyl before Chernobyl: The Hasidic Jews’ Pilgrimage“.

If you’re interested in learning about other Jewish communities in the former USSR, I covered the Bukharan Jewish community in Uzbekistan last year.

GABON: Bwiti

Most focus on Bwiti seems to be a little superficial – a lot of media characterizes it as a “religion” and there’s a lot of attention from Western lenses on the fact that practices often include the psychedelic iboga root. But Bwiti is really more of a spiritual discipline focused on healing than a standalone religion – it’s flexible and syncretic and incorporates traditional elements of African spirituality, local medicinal plants, plus occasional elements from Christianity. If you speak French, here’s an interesting clip from a larger doc on Bwiti:

And in English, an interview with Moughenda, a Bwiti spiritual leader about the importance of self-knowledge and connection to nature, history, and culture, and why many people turn to Bwiti for healing.

Bwiti isn’t a practice that’s closed off, and there are many videos of initiations and healing ceremonies online. A lot of these vids try to play up the “exotic” lens, but this one below is pretty solid, including comments from practitioners themselves about what’s taking place and why:

Music is a big part of Bwiti ceremonies as well, and often features the ngombi harp and the ngongo mouth bow, plus percussion and singing. Here’s a couple good examples with beautiful complex polyrhythms and use of both male and female voices.

GABON: The Ngombi harp

This video is neat “making-of” the recording of ENY‘s Bele Bela – showcasing the ngombi, a harp played in Gabon and other parts of Central Africa. It lets you set down some really complex polyrhythms, and it’s also called the “sacred harp” because it’s often used in Bwiti religious services.

Here’s a clip of renowed harpist Bokaye (who also builds ngombis) with a more classical performance – you can get a sense for just how complex the rhythms can get. It’s really soothing, almost hypnotic, and takes incredible skill to play at this level.

NEW ZEALAND: Christchurch Cathedral

Drone video still taken inside the cathedral – Source

When the 2011 earthquake devastated the city of Christchurch, killing 185, several iconic buildings were also severely damaged. The Anglican cathedral’s tower and front of the building collapsed. Amazingly, the church’s artist in residence, Sue Spigel, was inside and survived.

While other buildings in Christchurch were either repaired or replaced, the cathedral was caught up in legal battles over whether to demolish parts of the building, how to repair what still stood, and how to protect the historic integrity of what was left. Because of that, the church has sat empty, open to the elements, for a decade now. This drone footage was taken before new repair attempts started in 2019 – which now seem to be underway, despite the pandemic.

A temporary church was built shortly after the earthquake to serve as the “Transitional Cathedral”, but has taken on a more endearing name of “The Cardboard Cathedral“. Here’s some neat shots of the inside – those giant structural tubes are actually cardboard.

Unrelated to the earthquake, I’m surprised the original church’s name wasn’t the Christchurch Christ Church Cathedral. “Christ Church” is an excessively common name for Anglican churches around the world – just counting cathedrals, there’s one in Oxford, Dublin, the Falklands, Tanzania, New South Wales, the Bahamas, Episcopal cathedrals in the US, and in every corner of Canada from Vancouver to New Brunswick to the Yukon to down the street from my house in Ottawa! There’s no rule that they have to be named like that; the Anglican Church is just spectacularly unoriginal in naming churches.

The cathedral in 2019 with Camilla, Prince Charles, and PM Ardern – Source

NEW ZEALAND: RNZ Podcasts

Aoraki / Mt Cook – Source

There’s a huge number of New Zealand podcasts to choose from – I’m overwhelmed just by the offerings from RNZ, Aotearoa’s public broadcaster. Much like the CBC here in Canada, they’ve really dedicated themselves to supporting podcasts, and there’s everything from standard radio shows and news to mini-series to really experimental stuff. The following are all RNZ podcasts, I’ll see if I can get to other podcasts as well this month!

The Aotearoa History Show – A 14-part podcast (with a video version on Youtube) covering the entire history of New Zealand – Maori settlement of the islands, the arrival of Europeans, the Musket Wars, the Treaty of Waitangi (and how it was subsequently ignored), the New Zealand Wars, the arrival of refrigeration and how it saved the New Zealand economy, how land and sovereignty was taken from the Maori, the World Wars, the post-war period, and a drunken Prime Minister calling a snap election. Just a generally excellent overview of the whole sweep in 20 minute bites; I really recommend listening to the whole thing.

Great Ideas – A series of podcasts that brings in experts from universities across New Zealand to talk about “big ideas”. I listened to “Every Language is a World” about linguistics, translation, and linguistic determinism – what does it mean when you have a specific word in your language for a concept?

This Way Up: seismic stories – The final episode of a long-running RNZ show, this podcast stitches together archival audio from three different post-earthquake bike trips by the presenter. The first was through Christchurch shortly after the 2011 earthquake, the second from a year later, and the third through a town called Kaikoura after a 2016 earthquake. The presenter also lives in the region and has been affected by the quakes, and gives the people he meets a chance to speak as they try to put their lives and livelihoods back together.

Fight for the Wild – A four-part series looking at the Predator Free 2050 plan and the losses to biodiversity New Zealand has faced since the introduction of rats, possums, and stoats to the islands. The first episode looks at the unique biology of New Zealand wildlife, which evolved without land predators or mammals (apart from some bats), and how it was devastated by the arrival of humans and their animals. The following episodes look at attempts at pest control, Maori perspectives, and the economic effects of the plan. It would be interesting to compare with my home province of Alberta: the only place in the world to successfully eradicate rats completely.

Widows of Shuhada – A short series following four women, all of whom were widowed in the 2019 Christchurch mosque shootings. They talk about the grieving process, their lives before and after, how the Muslim community in Christchurch responded to the murders, and how they continue with their lives and their faith. The host of the podcast is also a Muslim woman from Christchurch – she herself had grown up attending the mosque, and knew many of the victims. It’s a deeply personal and sensitive series.

UZBEKISTAN: Elparvar (2019)

At first blush, Elparvar (roughly “born from the ashes”) is a big historical action-drama. It’s set during the late Khwarazmian Empire, with the imminent invasion of the Mongols. It follows a young man from a family torn between settled urban life and the life of a warrior on horseback. His village is destroyed and his family killed or taken captive by a Mongol attack on the night of his wedding, leading him to seek revenge. It’s high production value, with some beautiful shots, and alternates being gory and gritty with cheesy moments. It’s really fun and at first glance doesn’t seem that deep – the plot may snake around a bit, but you know how it’s going to go.

But now that I’ve had a chance to learn about the reforms going on in Uzbekistan and ideas of Uzbek identity, there’s more to it. The movie works in a lot of the values that Uzbekistan is looking to see in itself today (I’d argue in the same way an MCU movie does with American values). It reflects a country often caught between greater powers, but with an independent underdog identity. There’s a lot of language about fighting for freedom and liberty. There’s also lot of talk of what is masculinity (especially between fighting, learning, and leading), and while they do rely on the damsel in distress trope, she is a defiant one.

With the recent return of religion to everyday life in Uzbekistan, and the government’s support of moderate Islam as a way to break with the anti-religious past and undermine present problems of extremism, it was interesting to see the subtle placements of the Quran on a stand as a visual shorthand that a character was learned and wise.

The whole movie is available on Youtube, with English subtitles.

UZBEKISTAN: Registan Square

Source: Odyssey Traveller

Registan Square in Samarkand is one of the most iconic locations in Uzbekistan – three huge madrassas, with exquisite ornamentation and tile work, form a large public square. The oldest one madrassa is from the 1400s, the two others from the 1600s, and were built at the time that Samarkand was the heart of the Timurid Empire, and the site of Islamic revival and learning in Central Asia – artisans and scholars came (or were brought) from all over the Empire.

Registan had fallen into disrepair by the start of the 20th century, but went under major restoration during the Soviet era. It’s now a huge tourist draw, and for good reason. Apart from being historically and culturally important, it is absolutely stunning – it’s considered a gems of medieval Islamic architecture and is a UNESCO World Heritage site.

There are many incredible pictures of Registan – I cam across a collection by photographer Jan Willem van Hofwegen that shows the incredible details inside. Here’s a sample of what the interiors look like – take a look at his full collection here.

There’s also great videos out there that give you a sense of the scale and detail of Registan:

Interestingly, the front of the Sher-Dor (“Lion-Bearing”) Madrasah is notable for showing living things, normally prohibited in Islamic art. Most notable are the lions (also called tigers) with a glowing sun-face inside them. The faces have been claimed to be the emir at the time of construction, but it’s likely that these were influenced by older Persian and Zoroastrian traditions.

There are also cool light shows held at Registan!

UZBEKISTAN: Podcasts

The Fergana Valley – Source

Matters of State: Uzbekistan at a Crossroads – A short American foreign policy podcast from 2016, right after the death of longtime president Islam Karimov. They take a brief look at Uzbekistan’s political history under Karimov, where the country may go from there (we now know the new president has made some steps towards reform and improving human rights), and a look at where Uzbekistan sits geopolitically with its neighbours and with larger powers like Russia and China.

BBC – Uzbekistan: The Country of a Hundred Shrines – Uzbek journalist Rustam Qobil, who reports for the BBC across Central Asia, returns to Uzbekistan for the first time in many years to report on religious revival as part of the country’s larger reforms since 2016. He speaks with Islamic students about the Uzbek tradition of shrines, which has both pre-Islamic and Sufi roots, visits the tomb of Daniel (one of several, this one connected with Timur/Tamerlane) and comments on the increased openness and freedom to participate in religion compared to the Soviet and Karimov eras. He also briefly connects how the Mirziyoyev government is supporting a return to religion, specifically moderate Islam and syncretic Uzbek traditions, as a way to head off the growth of religious extremism. An article based off the podcast with pictures is here.

RNZ Kitchen Stories: Hanifa and Nilufar cook Uzbek food – From New Zealand’s public broadcaster, an interview with Nilufar Allayarova and her daughter Hanifa Kodirova, on emigrating from Uzbekistan to New Zealand and Uzbek cuisine. Also included are their family recipes for Uzbek plov, manti, and samsa. If you’re interested in plov, check out my my attempt!

BBC: Lost Stories From Uzbekistan – Another BBC Uzbek journalist, Ibrat Safo, covers how Stalin’s purges in the 1930s affected Uzbekistan, and how a chance meeting with a professor in Tashkent helped Safo find out his own family history – including about family members that had disappeared in the purges.

SRB Podcast: Islam Karimov’s Uzbekistan – A discussion from 2015 with an expert on Uzbekistan about the then-current political situation in Karimov’s declining years (he would die the next year), the political history of Uzbekistan post-USSR and the power struggles happening around who would succeed Karimov. A lot of the episode’s predictions have come true in the last six years, including Uzbekistan’s careful balance between the US, China, and Russia – a position not always in its control – and its role as an Islamic country fighting against Islamic fundamentalism.

UZBEKISTAN: Bukharian Jews and the Bukharian Language

The Bukharian Jewish community is really fascinating – it was an ancient community, centred around Bukhara, in Uzbekistan, with Jewish people residing in Central Asia for thousands of years. This Uzbek video gives a very gentle overview of the community, though it demurely skips over the Soviet period and other persecutions.

The Bukharian Jewish community was one of many Jewish groups that fled en masse to Israel and North America as soon as the USSR fell in the 90s, looking to escape the repression and cultural assimilation they had faced under the Soviet Union. They weren’t the only Jewish community to do so – and My Promised Land by Ari Shavit (which I read in my month on Israel) talks about the demographic and cultural upheavals of all these new communities arriving all of a sudden. There were 45,000 Bukharian Jews in Central Asia before 1990, but only 1500 still live in Uzbekistan today.

Here’s a few clips of the community today – interviews with the small community that still lives in Uzbekistan, the larger community in North America, and interviews with the Bukharian community in Israel, which has roots there from the 19th century.

The Bukharian language spoken by the Jewish community is a dialect of Tajik, with loanwords from Hebrew, Russian, and Uzbek. Since it’s based in Tajik, it’s in the Persian language family (unlike Uzbek, which is Turkic). Bukharian has a level of mutual intelligibility with other Persian languages – here’s a really cool video of a Bukharian speaker sharing poetry with Persian speakers from Afghanistan and Iran and talking about how much they can understand (in English / subtitled).

TRINIDAD AND TOBAGO: Indian Arrival Day

Indian Arrival Day is a commemoration of the arrival of the first indentured labourers from India to Trinidad, and touches on both the challenges people faced, and as a celebration of Indian culture and history. The British Empire turned to Indian indentured labour as a replacement to slavery (workers were paid, though only a pittance, and worked in similar conditions as people did under slavery, but did get land grants after their term was up), and it was not limited to Trinidad. Similar holidays are held around the Caribbean, in South Africa, and Fiji.

It’s a bittersweet holiday, as it’s both a celebration of a culture that not just survived hardship and dislocation, but thrived. However, it’s also a holiday that commemorates those who did not make it through the suffering, and that many labourers were pressured into leaving India through force, trickery, or desperation. I recommend reading Arthur Dash’s editorial “An immigration storyfor more context.

There are also those in the Indo-Caribbean community that are against celebrating Indian Arrival Day, seeing it as a deeply colonial holiday. It’s also criticized as fuelling racial divides, particularly with the historical legacies of British colonialism – the post-indentureship land grants gave the Indian community a significant financial leg up over the Afro-Caribbean community, and there were often outright attempts by the British to divide the Indian and African communities as a way to keep control. Guyanese writer Rajiv Mohabir’s article “Why I Will Never Celebrate Indian Arrival Dayis a good read on this view, and those historical legacies definitely shone through in Green Days by the River.

Another interesting element is that the Indo-Carribean community both developed their own identity, and kept a lot deep connections with India, including religion and music. This video below from Shawn at Hindu Lifestyle has a great look at West Indian Hinduism and identity, as well as the extra layer of identity that comes from being an Indo-Trinidadian raised in Canada.