Turbans & Pubs - An Exploration of Dudley and Sikhism.

All religions are equal. We often take that sentence to be axiomatic, it is a statement that is often distributed by certain members of the New Atheist community, however, to learn about other religions - or in this case monotheism's - is to be struck both by their similarities and their differences. 

When my girlfriend received a generous scholarship study English in Dudley, she was kindly hosted by a Sikh family.  For a while she has been pestering me to find time to go up to "The Black Country" and meet them, last weekend provided that opportunity.

I knew very little about the young monotheism, in fact I didn't when know whether it was a monotheism until this trip. The religion of Sikhism was founded in India, the land of Hinduism; a ancient, colourful polytheism. This was maybe the source of my confusion and it could be said that Sikhism has far more in common with Judaism, Christianity and Islam. I was eager to learn more.

Mr. Singh - the name my girlfriend always referred to him as - kindly picked us up at the train station. He was a short man with a bespectacled face, an immaculate turban and a bushy grey beard. He welcomed us warmly and began questioning my girlfriend like an inquisitive and attentive father.  


It rained hard on our way to Mr. Singh's house.

Centre: Mr. Singh. Left: Mr.Singh's wife. Right: Noelia, my girlfriend. They were looking at photos of the holiday they had spent together in my girlfriends hometown of Adra, Spain.

We had lunch at Mr. Singh's and then went for a wander around the town. Dudley was depressingly quiet for a Saturday.  Mr. Singh lamented the fact that a lot of the more high-end shops had closed down, moved and been replaced by charity shops and pound shops; Dudley had feel of a town that suffered greatly during the 2008 recession. 

That didn't stop it from having a certain charm. We visited Dudley Priory, a medieval ruin surrounded by semi-detached houses and beautiful gardens.

We also visited a small suburb called Gornal. The sleepy village it is situated on a hill and is split into sections, Lower Gornal, Upper Gornal and Gornal Wood. It was there we found an 19th century graveyard. 

It was here again the Mr. Singh bemoaned the amount of pubs that had closed down, he mused that when he first moved the Dudley there was a pub on almost every street corner.  As we walked from Upper to lower Gornal, the extent of the 'commonisation' was evident. Small shops and businesses had all but closed down, only takeaway restaurants had some life in them. Groups of bored children hung around on street corners and cars full of bored teenagers beeped at us they sped past.  This was very much the heart of Brexit territory.

It was now time for us to visit one of the local Sikh Temples or Gurdwara. When we arrived Noelia changed into some jeans, we both covered our hair, removed our footwear and washed our hands (a very important requirement). We entered the main area of worship; a large room almost empty apart from a raised area decorated with various swords and spears. On this elevation sat two men, one harmoniously reciting text from the Sikh holy book; the Guru Granth Sahib. 

We made our way toward the raised platform, Mr. Singh knelt and kissed the floor. We were then handed some sweet dough which we ate with our hands. A few people sat end listened to the recital. We were then quickly whisked off the another room to eat, again washing our hands before we entered. We were served various vegetable curries with some bread and yoghurt. The room was busier, a group of around 5 women sat on the floor speaking, whilst others were in the kitchen cooking the food.

I must now take a step back from the photographs and tell you a little bit about Sikhism. 

During our walk back from the cemetery I quizzed Mr. Singh on his faith. He firstly expressed what Sikh's consider to be the concept of God; one all pervading spirit. God, in the monotheistic tradition, is perceivable only for a person willing to dedicate their time to the correct worship. Guru Nanak, the founder of Sikhism, like other monotheism's is said to have been ordained with divine qualities as a child. At the age of 30 - the same age Jesus was baptised and began his ministry - Guru Nanak vanished for 3 days only to return and make the heretical claim that "God is neither Hindu nor Mussulman (Muslim)." Unlike Jesus, Guru Nanak was not the embodiment of God, but more a messenger for God. Having the name of God bestowed upon him in the form of cup of nectar, Guru Nanak had permission to proselytise to others, thus Sikhism was born.

One of the main attributes that differentiates Sikhism from Judeo-Christian and Islamic traditions is its attitude towards women. The latter takes a rather boorish attitude towards those born with the ability to bare children and, as a result, has caused untold suffering throughout the ages. Even today, as I write these words, women in many Muslim majority countries enjoy rights akin to chattel.  Sikhism takes a more modern approach to the subject of women, consider this quote from Guru Nanak:

"We are born of woman, we are conceived in the womb of woman, we are engaged and married to woman. We make friendship with woman and the lineage continued because of woman. When one woman dies, we take another one, we are bound with the world through woman. Why should we talk ill of her, who gives birth to kings? The woman is born from woman; there is none without her. Only the One True Lord is without woman"

Mr. Singh explained to me the importance of Guru Nanak's attitudes to women, I observed that (for the time period) those views would've seemed revolutionary. "Yes" Mr. Singh explained "revolutionary!".

From Lesvos to Paris - Reflections on the work of Alex Majoli.

©  Alex Majoli

© Alex Majoli

The Greek island of Lesvos sits, much closer, to the Turkish coast than the Greek. On this island a mass exodus of Greeks and Armenians braved the Aegean Sea on over-crowded boats from the shores of Turkey, across the channel to escape a renewal of ethnic tensions, the Greco-Turkish war. 

That was 1922, it is now 2016 and Lesvos is seeing a very similar exodus, but of peoples further east. Alex Majoli, an Italian photographer, in 2015 found himself witness to this exodus, and with his camera he has captured a stark, theatrical tragedy. His use of high contrast black and white make his images almost timeless; they could have been captured on black and white film in 1922 and processed in a dark room. Instead, Majoli is using modern digital camera equipment, instead of rickety rafts the refugees arrive on dinghies, instead of blankets the refugees can be seen wrapped in foil. 

©  Alex Majoli

© Alex Majoli

Majoli's images are surreal and ethereal, small glimpses of a vast human tragedy. Indeed, Majoli himself claims he took inspiration from an Italian absurdist novelist called Luigi Pirandello. The photographer Robert Capa famously mused that 'If your pictures aren't good enough, you're not close enough'. This is certainly the case with Majoli, his photo's are close enough for us to see the subjects frightened eyes and ethnic features. However, Majoli has framed them in a way that give us the position of the audience in a theatre and his flash is a stage light, illuminating the events as they unfold. 

If you compare Majoli's images with those of another photographer, Warren Richardson, it can illustrate what I mean. Richardson won the 2015 World Press Photograph of the year with his image of a small child being passed through barbed wire by a tired-eyed father to the hands of an person unseen. This image was illuminated not by a flash, but by moon light, and the camera's high ISO allowed for extra exposure. In the case of Richardson's style, his images are snap shots taken in the heat of the moment. They look and feel like memories, etched into the mind of a witness, the ISO noise and the motion blur caused by slow shutter speeds make them rough and gritty; with Richardson you're in the moment, with Majoli, you're standing outside it.  Both have a dreamlike and timeless quality, but in the case of Majoli, you are more aware of the photographer.

©  Warren Richardson

© Warren Richardson

On the opposite side of this crisis, is Europe, the refugees destination. But, Europe is dealing with a crisis of its own; which is a direct result of this mass exodus. Open borders in Europe have allowed mass migration onto the continent; which has been both a blessing and a curse. My opinion of mass immigration will not be discussed in this piece as I wish to concentrate my energy on the photo's themselves, but - and it must be said - mass migrations of peoples from one culture to another will inevitably cause tensions. It is to these tensions that Majoli also pointed his lens.

On November 2015, on a Friday night in Paris the city was the target of a massacre. The perpetrators of the attack - one of many in recent years - were doing it in the name of Islam. This, one of largest of the Abrahamic religions, is the religion of many of the refugees landing on the shores of Lesvos. The bullets that may have killed the friends and relatives of the refugees, were fired with the same motivation as the ones that killed French socialites; in the name global Jihad. 

©  Alex Majoli

© Alex Majoli

Majoli travelled to Paris to witness the aftermath of the November attacks. In his photographic style, he captures a city that is in shock, mourning the dead and intrigued at this new level of violent religious fervour. In my favourite picture, taken in a restaurant a mere 100 metres from one of the establishments that was attacked, a women reads a newspaper with the simple headline typed in bold L'HORREUR. Around her, the restaurant is packed full of people eating and drinking wine. The France in this picture, is the France of Hemingway's A Moveable Feast, a place of leisurely cafe's, bars and terraces. It shows the defiance of the Parisian spirit.    

©  Alex Majoli

© Alex Majoli

This is why I consider Majoli's work to be so meaningful and - I would argue - necessary. On the one hand we see the bedraggled masses arriving scared onto a foreign continent, often risking their lives and spending large sums of money to make the perilous journey; of which nothing is certain. On the other, we see Europeans, confused at witnessing a new type of religious violence, one that wants to police free speech and expression, often upheld by politicians in the name of multiculturalism and, failing that, through extreme violence. Majoli's images offer beautifully poignant moments in an ever-changing and complicated drama.