Transcendental Evening with the Art Ensemble of Chicago

@ Café OTO in London, UK.

by Ginastera Sianturi

On Monday the 16th of October, a rather breezy autumn night in east London, the Art Ensemble of Chicago (AEC) transforms Café OTO into a spiritual space, where the world’s sounds meet and gather under one roof. After its successful debut back in February 2017, Café OTO decided to bring the legendary free jazz ensemble back to perform for a 3-night (sold out) residency. Both the young, and those who have been their audience for the last five decade are simply encapsulated and drawn by the ensemble’s virtuosity, improvisational skills, boldness, as well as their rich palettes of colours and textures that still reverberate and resonate to this day.

The ensemble’s multidimensional concept of music, that comes from all walks of life, draws people’s attention for sure. The repetitive layers of music produce natural effects that can put people into a state of ‘trance’, by exploring and experimenting with the conscious and the unconscious state of one’s soul. Hugh Ragin, the man who is in charge of the woodwind section, said that performing in their prime (in 60’s and 70’s) was essentially no different from performing at Cafe OTO 50 years later. He furthered saying that although the setting is different, one thing stays the same, and that is about feeling renewed every time he performs.

Art Ensemble of Chicago – Fly with Honey Bee (Music provided by Vox de Cultura)

The transcendent experience may not be fully integrated into one’s body that has a close and skeptical mind towards the uncharted territory of the human spirits. Many Classical musicians, for instance, struggle to digest AEC music because what they do somewhat against the principles and traditions of Bach, Mozart, and Beethoven. A prominent psychiatrist and psychoanalyst Carl Jung states that consciousness naturally resists anything unconscious and unknown. He also explains in his masterwork “Man and his Symbols” that anthropologists have pointed out that there is a deep and a superstitious fear of novelty among primitive people known as misoneism.

He also argued,” The primitives manifest all the reactions of the wild animal against untoward events, but “civilized” man reacts to new ideas in much the same way, erecting psychological barriers to protect himself from the shock of facing something new. This can easily be observed in any individual’s reaction to his own dreams when obliged to admit a surprising thought. Many pioneers in philosophy, science, and even literature have been victims of the innate conservatism of their contemporaries.”

From the Classical music context, this type of “jazz impromptus” can be difficult to digest and to some extend it can be quite disturbing, leaving the audience with an uncomfortable feeling afterward. Knowledge that has been taught at Conservatoires provides a very limited view of the world because it explains music only from a Western Classical perspective.

Music is a “language”, and therefore, Classical music is just one of the musical languages of the world. Knowing and believing in only one musical language hinder us from having a broader musical horizon, and in a wider spectrum hamper us to gain a better cross-cultural understanding and respect. It is hard for anyone to disagree with Ludwig Wittgenstein who said,” The limit of my language is the limit of my world.” A person’s ability to articulate and express what she or he feels and has in mind is determined by the amount of knowledge and resources of the language(s) that she or he speaks. So if we only “speak” one language of music, then we can be sure that musical traditions in the world will not flourish because each remains within its own compartment. Human expressions will dwindle, and even worse, the musical world will be divisive since pigeonholed knowledge tend to bore views and minds that trivialize others’. Variety of issues happening today already indicate the probability of a more divisive future.

Being divisive is not the only problem we are facing; one’s domination over others is just as onerous. Still in the language domain, English for example, is the most dominating international language in the world. According to Research Trends, 80% of the world’s scientific knowledge is written in English. In many non-English speaking countries, perhaps out of inferiority, English has been embraced as the more important, if not the first, language, leaving national language behind; on the other hand, the people of the native English speakers feel that there is no need to learn other languages since everyone in the world already learn or speak English. So neither domination nor divisiveness will ever give us cross learning atmosphere and attitude. Doing music this way is just the same as beautifying a corpse, in other words, embellishing a subject that will soon be decaying.

In the monotheistic religious tradition, God Almighty gave its prophets miracles, which resonate to the conditions in which they live at a time (e.g.: Moses with the ability to turn his staff into serpent, and Jesus with the miracle to awaken the dead). In Islam, the Muslims believe that the eloquence of the Quran as the greatest miracle of Islam.

In his book “The Heart of Islam”, Seyyed Hossein Nasr explains, “…and since poetic eloquence was the most prized of all virtues for pre-Islamic Arabs, God revealed through the Prophet by far the most eloquent of all Arabic works, the Quran.” He then continues: “Its eloquence not only moved the heart and soul of those Arabs of the seventh century who first heard it, but also moves to tears Muslim believers throughout the world today, even those whose mother tongue is not Arabic, although Arabic is the language of daily prayers for all Muslims, Arab and non-Arab alike. The grace, or barakah (corresponding both etymologically and in meaning to the Hebrew barak), of the text transcends its mental message and moves souls towards God in much the same way that hearing Gregorian Chant in Latin would for centuries in the West deeply affect even those who did not understand the Latin words. Of course, the same can be said for the Latin Mass itself, whose beautiful liturgy was of the deepest significance for some fifteen hundred years even for those Catholics who did not know Latin.”

Invoking Jung, Wittgenstein and Nasr in this writing is to argue that the whole live experience is essential in this context. The sound of AEC moves not only the heart and soul of Jazz enthusiasts but also any other music fans who are interested in sounds’ exploration and improvisation. In order to fully experience and to feel what the music is all about, one must go and watch the AEC live. Such experience can neither be replaced by YouTube nor Spotify, regardless how the two have dramatically changed our perceptions of music in the 21st century. Internet and social media have given us inter-connectivity, but ironically eroded the necessity and values of the real or physical human interaction.

The music kicked off at approximately 8:30 pm; it began with a short moment of silence with all musicians stood and faced to the left of the stage. This could be a ritual and long tradition/gesture of AEC that adds a ‘sacred element’ on to the set. The drone-like sound of woodwind and saxophone immersed gradually to warm up the audience that evoked the function of an overture in a Classical orchestra or Alap in North Indian music as a form of melodic improvisation that precedes Ragas. This introduction produced calm and peaceful effects, serving as a prerequisite language for the audience to absorb the overwhelming, bold, and psychedelic sounds of the AEC that encapsulated the rest of the evening.

AEC is not just about the brilliance and virtuosity in music composing and performing. The evolving composition of its members clearly represents their comprehension on the importance of inter-generational transmission. The line up for this London concert consists of the two founding members, Roscoe Mitchell and Famoudou Don Moye, then the second formation generation, Hugh Ragin and Junius Paul, and the most recent generation, Mazz Swift, Tomeka Reid, and Silvia Bolognesi. It’s amazing how all of them conceptually, musically and technically fit perfectly in the ensemble. The brilliant and brave playing of Mazz Swift (violinist), and Tomeka Reid (cellist), combined with their positive energy, certainly added freshness and oddity of sounds that depict the sound of today’s living in natural acoustics.

When asked about how more divisive the world today, and the fact that we’re still actually struggling with the same issues that his generation fought for during the Counter Culture Movement in the 60s, Hugh Ragin pointed out that there will always be obstacles that we have to face, no matter when and where. By highlighting the significant role of Duke Ellington in the past, he also urged musicians (and other artists) to get together and bring people together so that we can rise above the impediments.

All cultural manifestations, including music, are contextual. Any music serves its own purposes and ideals according to the contexts in which the music was created at the time. Music is a powerful intermediary that addresses current issues that are relevant to and experienced directly by the musicians and societies they live in. In their early years, AEC challenged the issues by going beyond technique, tonality, and even the existing forms. In this London performance, the whole musical set was thoughtfully constructed and spiritually implemented as it managed to reach and communicate with the deeper souls and spirits of the audience. The set resembles a spiritual journey, a “religious” experience that employs Jazz as a vehicle to express feelings and emotions to the fullest extend by using a vast collection of sounds and musical traditions from around the world. AEC had successfully transformed the evening into a transcendental experience.


Ginastera Sianturi: How do you feel playing now compared to, say, back then in the 70s? Feel any difference with the atmosphere, audience, the vibe and so on?

Hugh Ragin: It’s fresh all the time… I feel renewed every time I play…ha ha ha

I feel energized after the gig myself. It’s been a long day at work, but after listening to your music, I’m up at another level.

Oh that’s beautiful man. That’s the beauty of music, you listen to it, feel refreshed, released…and renewed. I think music does that to me when I practice, when I play. It’s a continuous process, you know.

What do you think of the young musicians today? Especially in the jazz scene…

I think a lot of them learning their history, and keep playing music, and that’s what’s important. I’ve heard a lot of great composers, arrangers, and having seen this, I think the future looks very bright.

Good! It’s great to hear that, because a lot of us didn’t live in the past, but most of the music we create today is still the music of the past.

Yes, but luckily the past was so well documented; with the YouTube, and all that stuff, you can dig down really deep and find out what’s going on. To have young people and listener like you are encouraging; your presence and our sharing are vitamins for the soul, you know.

Let’s talk about the world today a little bit. Compared to the divisive world of the 1960s, it seems like the today’s world is even more divisive, and in a negative way because people are eradicating the values that the 60s generation stood for. We’re still struggling with the same issues, but doing it in reverse, don’t you agree?

Yeaah, but there’s always been that way, you know. It’s nothing new. It seems like these are always gonna be overbearing obstacles, no matter what. This is what music is all about, a way of getting out of the depression smoothly.

Music is a powerful bridge for that, isn’t it?

Powerful man! I was just reading about how Duke Ellington was really linking a lot of people back in the day when he was playing, you know. He was really a catalyst for social justice, by doing what he does with the music.

As a young musician, I feel that we’re losing context today. How do we gain that again back to, you know, where people play music within context, and respond to actual issues that are happening?

Have you seen this exhibition? There’s an exhibition here at the museum; It’s about soul music and art, I forgot the name of it. It’s a great exhibition to check out the history, and an idea of getting the artists back together. Getting people of different disciplines together again; dancers, painters, artists, literary people, musicians, talking and having conversation, just like what we’re doing now, engaging. I think if we ever get closer to that, that’s gonna help bring us back, and that’s gonna be huge. People like you, and me, we have to be on a mission as motivational speakers, get the people involved in this. That’s really our job, that’s the lane we drive in…ha ha ha.

I agree, 100%! The young needs a lot of advise from the past, it’s something we never experience. So, thank you very much for your time, it’s been a great chat!.


In Search of a Meaningful Life

Popular MIT anthropology course offers contemplation and dialogue on life’s big questions.

by Meg Murphy | School of Engineering | MIT News

Zareen Choudhury and her friends have yet to pinpoint the meaning of life, but it’s not for lack of trying. Dorm study sessions often veer off into more abstract territory — and once they get going, hours go by, p-sets are forgotten, and nailing down answers to life’s persistent questions is all that matters.

“Many of us at MIT have these deep, late-night conversations about the grander purpose of our existences,” says Choudhury, a senior in electrical engineering and computer science. She never expected MIT to offer a classroom forum for those debates, but then she came across a new anthropology course. Course 21A.157 (The Meaning of Life), examines how a variety of cultural traditions approach the question of how to live a meaningful life. “It seemed fascinating to have a structured and guided discussion forum for that conversation,” she says.

The faculty who created the course, Graham Jones and Heather Paxson, say they recognized a widespread hunger for self-reflection and shared dialogue among students. Their course explores how people grapple with meaning in their daily lives and communities through various cultural traditions. By looking at different social and historical practices, students develop tools for thinking about moral concerns.

“I love the personal aspect. I don’t necessarily get that with my technical classes,” says Choudhury. “I compare my own experiences with case studies from class. It gives me new perspectives on questions I’ve always grappled with — and that enriches my life.”

What does a better world really look like?

One of the choreographers of the class, Paxson, who is the William R. Kenan, Jr. Professor of Anthropology and a Margaret MacVicar Faculty Fellow, remembers a recent discussion in 21A.157 around a unit on work and meaning. Students steered their attention toward MIT’s often-articulated mission to bring knowledge to bear on the world’s great challenges.

“Students hear all the time that they’re going to change the world,” Paxson says. “They feel a lot of pressure. They want to explore what that really means. How do you change the world for the better? What does it mean to do that well?”

Jones, an associate professor of anthropology, nods enthusiastically. Earlier he and Paxson had led the class down the bustling Infinite Corridor and ducked into a light-filled room featuring a floor mural by modernist Sol LeWitt. “Let’s just spend a quiet moment here,” Jones had said. Now he and Paxson are watching the students earnestly trying to relax. “They are learning to carve out time for reflection,” he says.

The LeWitt visit marks the final minutes of a lively class that had centered on how the Western Apache Indians of Arizona learn moral lessons by reflecting on the landscape around them. “What does wisdom mean to the Apache?” Jones had asked. “How do they create meaning through stories about places? How do they use places to make sense of the world?” Students then volunteered examples from literature, art, and popular culture that resonate with their own pursuit of meaning. Now, it seems, the LeWitt gallery is resonating, too.

When asked for his take on the popularity of this class, which is so well-attended tardy students are often left standing in the back of the packed classroom, Jones tells a story. A few years ago, a student told him excitedly about a UROP (Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program) experience doing lab research on radically extending human life. Jones asked the student about the ethical implications of the work, and its potential effects on the meaning of life. The student was stunned. Until he was asked, he simply hadn’t considered those dimensions. He was swept up in the thrill of chasing his experimental results. Until that moment, science was all.

Matthew Ryback, an aeronautical and astronautical engineering senior currently enrolled in 21A.157, says MIT students need a push toward reflection. He says the exposure to ethnographies about people worldwide has changed the way he thinks. “You see how people derive meaning from their lives, and you reflect on your own life, potentially changing it for the better.”

Time out

Near the end of the semester, Jones invites students to visit the Society of Saint John the Evangelist, a monastery just down Memorial Drive from the MIT campus, with sprawling gardens, striking architecture, and clergy who spend much of their time in silent contemplation.

The students observe a service. For first-year student Loewen Cavill, the rhythm of the prayers, the ornate high ceilings, and the incense thick in the air get her thinking about religious services she attended with her family back home. When they chat with the brothers after the service, Cavill notes quietly, “I notice a difference in myself. I see that I’ve changed.”

In the broadest sense, of course, this is exactly what college is for: to make you unfamiliar to yourself, to open up new spaces of understanding through the introduction of knowledge of all kinds. What 21A.157 offers is both broad and personal enough to stand in some contrast to, say, thermodynamics. Students read cross-cultural studies of family, wealth, sexuality, community, and faith, seeing in them points of both familiarity and eye-opening difference.

Sometimes, as in Cavill’s case, new awareness happens in a moment, through an interaction with a place. She had studied the Apache practice of reflecting on morally significant places, but now she had experienced something like it herself — and on some level, the “meaning” of her life had just changed. She was not alone. A third-year electrical engineering and computer science student, Rachel Thornton, tells Brother David Vryhof: “All of this is very different than normal MIT life. We don’t have these scheduled moments to stop and think.”

“Now you know where we are,” says Vryhof, a soft-spoken man in long black robes. “This is a place that is quiet and peaceful, and you can come here and do that kind of thinking.”

“The Meaning of Life” is a course name that appears to promise a lot. But the professors are lighthearted about the wording — it serves to draw the attention of engineering and science students. “It’s not really the meaning of life. We’re not answering eternal questions. We’re thinking about how people around the world seek meaning,” says Paxson. “Students jump into these conversations. They want to make room for reflection.”

Reprinted with permission of MIT News

The Krakatoa Sunsets

Foreword from Listen To The World

[Jakarta, LTTW] Krakatoa was one of the super volcanoes of the world in the same line with other “giants”, The Yellowstone & the Long Valley caldera in US, The Aira caldera in southern Japan, The Taupo caldera in New Zealand and Glen Coe in Scotland. Super volcano is a volcanology term used to describe a bigger scale of volcano that has a significant amount of magma and potentially produces eruption larger than 1,000 km3 in volume.

Indonesia has three super-volcanoes, standing majestically among hundreds of volcanoes that span across Indonesian archipelago. The three super volcanoes are Toba caldera, Tambora and the Child of Krakatoa. Approximately 73000-75000 years ago, Mt. Toba exploded before it turned into a gigantic lake, known today as the Lake Toba. In 1815, Tambora erupted, spewing hundreds cubic kilometer of volcanic debris and its effect transformed the climate globally for years. Not only that, In 1883 similar explosion also happened on Indonesia’s Sunda Strait (Selat Sunda) on which Mount Krakatoa stood tall. The explosion of Krakatoa generated dark sky that reached as far as Europe and eventually changed the global climate. Mt Krakatoa explosion also gave birth to a new volcanic offspring called the Child of Krakatoa.

Although the presence of volcanoes on this earth are considered as a threat  by some of people, there are unexpected benefits that we gained from volcanoes. Mt. Krakatoa explosion, for example, brought about specialized field of study called volcanology, and it has been a muse for artists and writers to create their arts.  Departing from this point of view, LttW presents this article that shows a number of committed individuals, observing & spending their lives studying volcano impacts.


The Krakatoa Sunsets

“This article was originally published in The Public Domain Review under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0. If you wish to reuse it please see:

When a volcano erupted on a small island in Indonesia in 1883, the evening skies of the world glowed for months with strange colours. Richard Hamblyn explores a little-known series of letters that the poet Gerard Manley Hopkins sent in to the journal Nature describing the phenomenon – letters that would constitute the majority of the small handful of writings published while he was alive.

During the winter of 1883 the poet Gerard Manley Hopkins descended into one of his periodic depressions, “a wretched state of weakness and weariness, I can’t tell why,” he wrote, “always drowsy and incapable of reading or thinking to any effect.” It was partly boredom: Hopkins was ungainfully employed at a Catholic boarding school in Lancashire, where much of his time was spent steering his pupils through their university entrance exams. The thought that he was wasting his time and talents weighed heavily upon him during the long, brooding walks he took through the “sweet landscape” of Ribblesdale, “thy lovely dale”, as he described it in one of the handful of poems he managed to compose that winter. He was about to turn forty and felt trapped.

Such was his state of mind when the Krakatoa sunsets began. The tiny volcanic island of Krakatoa (located halfway between Java and Sumatra) had staged a spectacular eruption at the end of August 1883, jettisoning billions of tonnes of ash and debris deep into the earth’’s upper atmosphere. Nearly 40,000 people had been killed by a series of mountainous waves thrown out by the force of the explosion: the Javan port of Anjer had been almost completely destroyed, along with more than a hundred coastal towns and villages. ““All gone. Plenty lives lost”, as a telegram sent from Serang reported, and for weeks afterwards the bodies of the drowned continued to wash up along the shoreline. Meanwhile, the vast volcanic ash-cloud had spread into a semi-opaque band that threaded slowly westward around the equator, forming memorable sunsets and afterglows across the earth’’s lower latitudes. A few weeks later, the stratospheric veil moved outwards from the tropics to the poles, and by late October 1883 most of the world, including Britain, was being subjected to lurid evening displays, caused by the scattering of incoming light by the meandering volcanic haze. Throughout November and December, the skies flared through virulent shades of green, blue, copper and magenta, “more like inflamed flesh than the lucid reds of ordinary sunsets,” wrote Hopkins; “the glow is intense; that is what strikes everyone; it has prolonged the daylight, and optically changed the season; it bathes the whole sky, it is mistaken for the reflection of a great fire.”

Gerard Manley Hopkins in 1866, detail from a photo by Thomas C. Bayfield. National Portrait Gallery

In common with most other observers at the time, Hopkins had no idea what was causing the phenomenon, but he grew fascinated by the daily atmospheric displays, tracking their changing appearances over the course of that unsettled winter. At the end of December he collated his observations into a remarkable 2,000-word document, which he sent to the leading science journal, Nature. The article, published in January 1884, was a masterpiece of reportage, a heightened prose poem that mixed rhapsodic literary experimentation with a high degree of meteorological rigour:

Above the green in turn appeared a red glow, broader and burlier in make; it was softly brindled, and in the ribs or bars the colour was rosier, in the channels where the blue of the sky shone through it was a mallow colour. Above this was a vague lilac. The red was first noticed 45º above the horizon, and spokes or beams could be seen in it, compared by one beholder to a man’s open hand. By 4.45 the red had driven out the green, and, fusing with the remains of the orange, reached the horizon. By that time the east, which had a rose tinge, became of a duller red, compared to sand; according to my observation, the ground of the sky in the east was green or else tawny, and the crimson only in the clouds. A great sheet of heavy dark cloud, with a reefed or puckered make, drew off the west in the course of the pageant: the edge of this and the smaller pellets of cloud that filed across the bright field of the sundown caught a livid green. At 5 the red in the west was fainter, at 5.20 it became notably rosier and livelier; but it was never of a pure rose. A faint dusky blush was left as late as 5.30, or later. While these changes were going on in the sky, the landscape of Ribblesdale glowed with a frowning brown. (from G. M. Hopkins, “The Remarkable Sunsets”, Nature 29 (3 January 1884), pp. 222-23)

Hopkins was a gifted empirical observer with a near-forensic interest in the search for written equivalents to the complexity of the natural world. Such interest in the language of precision was shared by many scientists at the time, science, like poetry, being an inherently descriptive enterprise. Anyone who reads the official Royal Society report on the Krakatoa sunsets (published in 1888) will find flights of poetic prose to rival those of Hopkins, who described such language as “the current language heightened and unlike itself,” a dynamic written form that was particularly suited to the expression of what he called “inscape”: the distinctive unity of all natural phenomena that gives everything in nature its characterising beauty and uniqueness. The force of being that holds these dynamic identities together he termed “instress”, instress being the essential energy that enables an observer to recognise the inscape of another being. These post-Romantic notions formed a kind of personal poetic creed, a logocentric natural theology that was rooted in the work of Duns Scotus, the medieval Christian philosopher.

Photograph taken in 1928 of the destroyed Krakatoa island resurfacing, forming what is known now as ‘Anak Krakatau’, or ‘Child of Krakatoa’. Tropenmuseum of the Royal Tropical Institute (KIT).

For Hopkins, inscape and instress lay at the heart of his religious and poetic practice, as well as being vital means of apprehending the natural world. In a journal entry for 22 April 1871, for instance, he records “such a lovely damasking in the sky as today I never felt before. The blue was charged with simple instress, the higher, zenith sky earnest and frowning, lower more light and sweet.” Note that he felt the damasking as well as saw it, and note, too, his calibrated descriptions of the banded blues of the sky, the higher “earnest and frowning”, the lower “more light and sweet.” His journals are full of such poetic quantifications, which he used as notes towards a quintet of articles that he published in the journal Nature, all on meteorological subjects. The first two, published in November 1882 and November 1883, were letters describing anti-crepuscular rays (cloud-shadows that appear in the evening sky opposite the sun), while the following three were all on the subject of the Krakatoa sunsets, which had evidently furnished the melancholy Hopkins with a much-needed source of distraction.

He was not alone in his interest; all over the world, writers, artists and scientists responded to the drama of the volcanic skies. The poets Algernon Swinburne, Robert Bridges and Alfred Tennyson (then poet laureate), wrote lengthy descriptive strophes prompted by the unearthly twilights, although, as the historian Richard Altick pointed out, “the only good poetry that resulted from the celestial displays is found in Hopkins’ prose” (Richard D. Altick, “Four Victorian Poets and an Exploding Island”, Victorian Studies 3 (March 1960), p. 258). This is a fair assessment, though I do have a sneaking fondness for Tennyson’s blank-verse approximation of the cadences of Victorian popular science:

Had the fierce ashes of some fiery peak
Been hurl’d so high they ranged about the globe?
For day by day, thro’ many a blood-red eve . . .
The wrathful sunset glared . . . (“St. Telemachus”, pub. 1892)

Visual artists also found themselves extending their colour ranges in awed emulation of the skies. Painter William Ascroft spent many evenings making pastel sky-sketches from the banks of the Thames at Chelsea, noting his frustration that he “could only secure in a kind of chromatic shorthand the heart of the effect, as so much of the beauty of afterglow consisted in concentration.” He exhibited more than five hundred of these highly-coloured pastels in the galleries of the Science Museum, in the repository of which they remain to this day, little known and rarely seen.

Three of the hundreds of sketches carried out by William Ascroft in the winter of 1883/4 – used as the frontispiece of The Eruption of Krakatoa, and Subsequent Phenomena: Report of the Krakatoa committee of the Royal Society (1888), ed. by G.J. Simmons.

In Oslo, by contrast, the sunsets helped inspire one of the world’s best-known paintings: Edvard Munch was walking with some friends one evening as the sun descended through the haze: “it was as if a flaming sword of blood slashed open the vault of heaven,” he recalled; “the atmosphere turned to blood – with glaring tongues of fire – the hills became deep blue – the fjord shaded into cold blue – among the yellow and red colours – that garish blood-red – on the road – and the railing – my companions’ faces became yellow-white – I felt something like a great scream – and truly I heard a great scream.” His painting The Scream (1893), of which he made several versions, is an enduring (and much stolen) expressionist masterpiece, a vision of human desolation writhing beneath an apocalyptic sky, as “a great unending scream pierces through nature.” As it happens, the final eruption of Krakatoa on 27 August 1883 was the loudest sound ever recorded, travelling almost 5,000 km, and heard over nearly a tenth of the earth’s surface: a great scream indeed.

As for Hopkins, the publication of his Krakatoa essay coincided with the welcome offer of a professorship in classics at University College Dublin. He left Lancashire for Ireland in February 1884, relieved to have made his escape. It didn’t last. Homesick, lonely and overworked, Hopkins succumbed to his worst depression yet, his misery traced in the so-called “terrible” sonnets of 1885 (“I wake and feel the fell of dark, not day”). He died of typhoid fever in June 1889 (aged 44), and was buried in an unmarked grave. Only his close friend Robert Bridges was aware of his greatness as a poet, and the bulk of his work remained unpublished until 1918. In fact, apart from a handful of minor poems that had appeared in obscure periodicals, the five Nature articles were the only works that Hopkins published in his lifetime.

Richard Hamblyn’s books include The Invention of Clouds , which won the 2002 Los Angeles Times Book Prize and was shortlisted for the Samuel Johnson Prize; Terra: Tales of the Earth (2009), a study of natural disasters; and The Art of Science (2011), an anthology of readable science writing from the Babylonians to the Higgs Boson. He is a lecturer in creative writing at Birkbeck, University of London.

Links to Works

Letters by Gerard Manley Hopkins in Nature, Vol XXIX, November 1883 to April 1884.
“The Remarkable Sunsets”, p.222-3, Jan 3rd 1884
“Shadow-Beams in the East at Sunset”, p.55, Nov 17th 1883
“Green Sun”, p.7, Nov 1st 1883

Letter by Gerard Manley Hopkins in Nature, Vol XXVII, November 1882 to April 1883.
“A Curious Halo”, p.55, Nov 16th 1882

The Eruption of Krakatoa, and Subsequent Phenomena: Report of the Krakatoa committee of the Royal Society (1888), Ed. by G.J. Simmons.
Internet Archive link

Recommended Readings

The Art of Science: A Natural History of Ideas (2011), by Richard Hamblyn.
Gerard Manley Hopkins and the Victorian Visual World (2008), by Catherine Phillips.


The Sex Workers Who are Stopping HIV

by Jules Montague

Sex workers in Mozambique are providing health support to those at the margins of society. They face political and financial challenges, but against the odds they are helping thousands. Jules Montague reports.

It’s late when we reach Inhamízua on the outskirts of the city.

Stalls sell crackling chicken feet and sizzling plantain. Scores of men and women are gathered by a makeshift bar topped with corrugated steel. Spirits are high. The sound of laughter rises above the rumble of trucks trundling by.

Light from the gas station across the road illuminates the scene. Some of the women sit on white plastic chairs, nursing infants. It’s a nativity scene of sorts, set under coconut trees and soundtracked by Marrabenta-style dance music surging from a battered loudspeaker.

Luisa* and I walk behind the bar, through dried mud and over shards of glass and used condoms. We’re at the huts now. It’s 80 meticais for five minutes – about a pound. A bottle of beer in this town, to put things in context, costs 55.

In Beira, like everywhere else, sex sells – and there’s a good chance that HIV will be part of the transaction. Truckers drive here along the trade corridor that stretches from Zimbabwe’s eastern border. The end of their journey is a Mozambican port city where life expectancy is less than 50 and HIV rates are among the highest in the world. When they leave, that legacy often follows them.

One in ten adults in Mozambique is HIV positive, making the country’s HIV prevalence the eighth highest globally. But while the government has made progress on controlling the epidemic in recent years, reaching the marginalised along the Beira corridor has remained difficult.

How do you reach a population that is perpetually mobile? A population fearful of police intimidation, or of being found out by friends and family? In their eyes, they have little to gain from meeting you and everything to lose. To reach them, you need an innovative approach.

On we go, Luisa and I and the others, to place after place late into the night. Hotspots they call them, each one the same – makeshift bars with white plastic chairs, pumping music, overturned trucks, stacks of old tyres, broken beer bottles, and every time those huts out back.

© Billy Clark

Luisa is a peer educator – part of a team that dispenses medical advice to the local community – but will return to these streets as a sex worker when money is low.

And her story is the story of this project.

For here in Beira, I’ve discovered a group helping people to help themselves – even as Mozambique threatens to fall back into the political chaos of its past. Amid the discord, this project is countering the seeming inevitability of contracting HIV along the transport corridor by enabling sex workers to become peer educators for a couple of nights each week, sometimes more. Joined by counsellors and outreach workers, they provide safe-sex guidance, offer advice on family planning, and deliver on-the-spot HIV testing. They distribute condoms and lubricants. And, crucially, they connect some 3,800 sex workers and 4,500 long-distance truck drivers to health clinics they might otherwise never visit.

This is the Corridor Project, established by Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) in January 2014. And despite its perilous situation, it’s reaching the unreachable.


The story of Mozambique’s HIV epidemic is embedded in its history of bloodshed.

After a decade of armed struggle, Mozambique gained independence from Portugal in June 1975. Hundreds of thousands of Portuguese fled, including many who worked in healthcare. By Independence Day, just 80 doctors remained in the whole of the country.

The Mozambique Liberation Front (FRELIMO) came to power, but inherited a fractured country with a fragile infrastructure and few skilled workers. Within two years a brutal civil war had broken out, with FRELIMO violently confronted by the Resistência Nacional Moçambicana (RENAMO), an armed and much-feared rebel movement. Over the next 15 years, up to a million died and 10 per cent of the country’s population became war refugees.

Yet as HIV ravaged neighbouring countries, Mozambique was shielded by limited population movement into the country.

A peace agreement was eventually reached in 1992, and with international help the government began to focus on improving the country’s main transport corridors to restore economic growth. Ripe for development was the Beira corridor, spanning the 300 km from the Indian Ocean to Zimbabwe’s eastern border. Previously marred by dilapidated infrastructure, staff shortages and bandit attacks, transport links from Beira’s rehabilitated port soon stretched to surrounding countries.

Mozambique was open for business.

But development came at a cost. When populations become more mobile, so do sexually transmitted infections like HIV. Long-distance drivers, for example, are more likely to engage in transactional sex, with a string of partners. They frequently make overnight stops, arriving with money to spend in the midst of poorer communities.

Within 15 years of its first, solitary case, one million people in Mozambique were living with HIV

And so after the civil war, truck drivers often carried HIV from stop to stop along the Beira corridor until they reached their families at home. Sex workers followed the money. And HIV followed them all.

Meanwhile, refugees returned from neighbouring countries – another factor believed to have contributed to a rise in HIV rates. Mozambique’s first case was reported in 1986. By the end of 1992, there had been 662 confirmed cases. By 1998 that number had risen to 10,863.

These spiralling rates partly represented improved diagnostics, but the figures went far beyond this. Within 15 years of that first, solitary case, one million people in Mozambique were living with HIV.

Yet solid political and economic reforms had led Mozambique to become one of the fastest-growing economies in Africa, with GDP growth of 7 per cent per annum. The government prioritised HIV prevention and treatment, and international donors stepped forward. The number of people on HIV treatment grew 37-fold between 2004 and 2013.

By mid-2016, about 900,000 people living with HIV were receiving antiretroviral treatment, three times as many as in 2012. Expanded treatment coverage for pregnant women living with HIV resulted in a 73 per cent decline in new infections among children in just three years. New HIV infections among adults dropped by 40 per cent from 2004 to 2014.

Mozambique had become a shining example of how to battle an HIV epidemic. Yet there was a missing piece in the puzzle.

Its HIV success story did not extend to the Beira corridor – it didn’t even come close.


Our group receives a warm welcome at our next stop – Pinta Boca’s Premium Bar. Many of the peer educators are familiar faces here.

Luisa carries a notebook and collects the telephone numbers of sex workers who want to be called during the week with advice on how and where to get antiretroviral drugs. Quanto custa? They’re free, Luisa replies. To one woman standing by a pool table, its legs embedded deep in the mud and cues nowhere to be seen, Luisa says yes, she can get refills at the clinic if she has run out. And TB treatment, too? Sure, Luisa says. She’ll call her tomorrow with advice.

The pages of Luisa’s notebook are filling up fast.

A man drinking a bottle of Impala beer approaches one of the women sitting on a white plastic chair by the roadside. She passes her baby gently to a fellow worker and walks towards the huts with the truck driver. A rapidinha, they call it – a quickie.

The Corridor Project is not about one organisation. It’s really about 300

Jaime – a counsellor from MSF – has joined us tonight. He knows this crowd well, too. As he bounces one of the infants on his knee, a camionista, a long-distance truck driver, steps forward. “Can I have the test?” he asks. Jaime walks him towards the van and the man gets an HIV test there and then. A preliminary result follows 15 minutes later. If his test is later confirmed as positive, he will join the 1.5 million others in Mozambique living with HIV at the last count.

We end up back in the van – now 144 red condoms lighter, each 53 millimetres wide and made of natural latex rubber. Luisa and others like her are just the right people to be here: better suited than well-meaning outsiders who, without relatable experiences, might never be able to connect with those at risk in such a profoundly personal way.

Luisa, 29 years old and a mother of five, tells me that her ex left her soon after she was gang-raped. The attack gave her HIV. For her, it was too late. But not for these women, she believes.

By the end of this week, her notebook will be full.

© Billy Clark

It’s fair to say there was an endless amount of bargaining to get the MSF Corridor Project off the ground – and no better woman to contend with this than its Brazilian coordinator, Daniela Cerqueira Batista.

A psychologist by background, Daniela is effortlessly glamorous in a Goan beach sort of way. There are kisses on either cheek and arms flung around those she meets. Her messages have more emojis than mine have characters. Her energy is resolutely undiminished by this oppressive heat, despite managing a team of 90 here in Beira.

When she saw how expensive books were at a local sale here, she set about trying to establish a library. When she couldn’t find a Pride flag, she picked up a multicoloured umbrella back in Brazil. And so on Rua Dom Francisco Gorjão, the umbrella now forms an improvised Pride symbol stuck above the front door of MSF’s Beira headquarters.

Meeting after meeting it took to set up the Corridor Project – with local NGOs, transport sector representatives, law enforcement agencies, Ministry of Health officials, truckers’ unions, border community representatives and customs personnel. Add to that input from donors and funding institutions, including the US President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR), the Global Fund and many others.

The Corridor Project is not about one organisation. It’s really about 300. In a country of 43 languages.

But these alliances ultimately proved fruitful, explains Daniela, establishing firm links with port companies who hold staff education sessions, community theatre groups who put on productions with safe-sex themes, and organisations who run workshops on domestic abuse. And the project would be incomplete without its linkage to care – the health centres at Ponta Gêa and Munhava.

Some lessons you just won’t find in textbooks. In the early days, those working as part of the project wore MSF T-shirts but were shunned – sex workers and truck drivers associated the charity solely with HIV care and didn’t approach the peer educators in case others thought they were HIV positive. Staff at the health centres soon learned to dispense antiretroviral drugs in boxes that had fake labels – that way, patients could go home with a box that looked like it was just full of painkillers.

They want to change their own lives and help their sisters on the streets

Mobile clinics have now been established along the corridor, with adapted opening times; sex workers and truck drivers work unconventional hours. MSF counsellors and peer educators make door-to-door visits and stop by 200 hotspots along the corridor. And their staff support care at government health centres so that stigma and discrimination do not drive these marginalised populations away. The Corridor Project now stretches across Mozambique and has been extended to Malawi and Zimbabwe.

More recently, MSF has introduced health passports for all patients diagnosed with HIV who are on treatment. Containing test results and medication regimens, they allow for continuity of care along the corridor. MSF are working to have these multilingual passports recognised in Zimbabwe and Malawi – if they are successful, patients could receive uninterrupted HIV treatment across borders.

And then there are the peer educators. At those makeshift bars, it’s Luisa and the others who engender a sense of genuine trust, connection, camaraderie and solidarity. They’ve been there; sometimes they still are. And back at Rua Dom Francisco Gorjão, they’re involved in all aspects of the project – design, implementation, decision making and oversight, at the community level and nationally. Luisa has a chance, if she wants it, to progress through the organisation; several peer educators have become counsellors. Others have been supported to set up their own businesses.

© Billy Clark

Luisa receives remuneration for her peer educator role. I ask Sebastiana Cumbe, supervisor of psychological support, how this factors into sex workers signing up to this project. “Yes, there is a salary,” she tells me. “But it’s not just that. They want to change their own lives and help their sisters on the streets.”

Not many projects provide that linkage to care, a bridge between community and clinic. A 2016 study assessed healthcare programmes for sub-Saharan African truck drivers in 30 countries. Of 22 programmes, only three covered testing and care for conditions other than HIV, such as TB and malaria. Few tested for other STIs. Just above half have been evaluated to date. And where data has been gathered, it primarily focuses on the number of sites established, staff trained, resources used or clients reached. It’s one thing to give out condoms, but another thing for people to use them. Few projects have reported on impact indicators such as changes in infection rates.

In 2016, 71 per cent of the HIV-negative sex workers in the Corridor Project were retested at least once, with 94 per cent still HIV negative when retested. It’s these sorts of metrics that should help scale up and sustain the programme.

If, that is, the project can weather the political challenges faced by Mozambique, both now and in the future.


“You’re sick,” Luisa’s partner had said to her. He had just found out that she had been raped. Then, he left her.

She had already been a sex worker for some time when it happened. Her first child had been born when Luisa was 14; her second, four years later. So she became the family breadwinner when her partner couldn’t get a job.

She remembers her first day on the streets. Overcome by shame when she saw a neighbour, she ran home before a single transaction. But two days later, with no food for her children, she returned.

She always ensured her clients wore condoms, even though they would pay more if they didn’t have to. The ones who refused, she refused them too. She remained HIV negative.

I would have been more ashamed if I had to beg my friends for money. This was a conscious decision

“Half the money now,” the client had said that night. “Half the money after we have sex.” He wanted her to travel away from the huts. In the car, he phoned his friends.

“He took out a gun and told me, ‘Get out,’ and I did. He told me to take my clothes off and I did. His friends arrived. They had sex with me, five people. But they didn’t use a condom. Afterwards, he left me there. I had no strength left, and then I took my clothes, I hitched a ride and went to the hospital.”

Luisa’s internal and external injuries were so severe that she was unable to work for another six months.

She was tested again, not too long after. She was HIV positive.

Worldwide, sex workers are 12 times as likely as the general population to be HIV positive. Across 16 sub-Saharan African countries surveyed in 2012, the prevalence of HIV among sex workers was 37 per cent.

“When I was sick,” Luisa tells me, “my children ended up not going to school because I couldn’t afford paying for the school truck, because I didn’t have money left. MSF always came to take me to the hospital, to do everything. I didn’t have anything left to eat because I couldn’t go on the streets. They gave me a letter and I went to collect food, even when I said I had HIV. And I started to take some medicine. Slowly, I recovered.”

Luisa has five children now, aged between two and fourteen.

She became an MSF peer educator two years ago. As she walks through that dried mud and over those shards of glass, I see something in her. Energy. Empathy. A need to be there for others the way others were there for her.

She works less frequently on the streets than she did before. But she does not regret her choices. “I would have been more ashamed if I had to beg my friends for money. This was a conscious decision. When my heart tells me to do something, I do it.”

© Billy Clark

Back at Rua Dom Francisco Gorjão, I meet 22-year-old Antonio*. He explains how the Corridor Project reaches out to other at-risk populations, not just those connected to sex work. Similar strategies are used for each group, despite their differences.

Antonio knew as a child in Maputo that he was different from his friends. Or at least he was made to feel different. As he played with dolls and cookery sets, his stepmother told him to play with cars, to make friends with boys instead of girls. In his teens he was sent to live in Beira with his cousins. “Here I felt comfortable,” he says. “I was able to paint my nails, freely wear make-up and dresses.” He was sometimes bullied at school. But Beira became his home.

His journey with his own family has been more difficult. He visited his sister’s house recently with a gay female friend. Afterwards, his sister said if she were to discover her daughters were gay, she would murder them with her own hands.

Antonio works as a peer educator for men who have sex with men (MSM). Globally, gay men and other MSM are 19 times more likely to be living with HIV than the general population. A recent Beira study found a third of MSM over the age of 25 are living with HIV.

Another recent study suggested a third of MSM in Beira had never been tested for HIV. Fourteen per cent of those said that this was because they simply did not know where to go.

These interventions are a necessary first step. The larger question is what can we do to remove stigma and other barriers

With such high HIV rates in Beira’s MSM, the cornerstone of MSF’s work here is to scale up preventative strategies. This is where PrEP comes in – pre-exposure prophylaxis. By taking a certain combination of drugs in one daily tablet, people can reduce their risk of contracting HIV by more than 90 per cent. (It does not protect against other STIs, and missing doses decreases its effectiveness.)

José Carlos Beirão manages the PrEP Operational Research Project, established within the Corridor Project in 2016, and the only one of its kind in Mozambique. So far 214 participants, MSM as well as female sex workers, have been recruited, with a target of 250. Beirão hopes that by the end of the project, he’ll be able to understand the demand for PrEP and the feasibility and acceptability of implementing a wide-scale PrEP programme.

I ask Ken Ho, an HIV specialist and prominent PrEP researcher at the University of Pittsburgh, whether he thinks the corridor approach might be applicable to settings far outside Beira.

“We know that young black MSM are disproportionally impacted by HIV,” he explains. “These are the same people who may have limited access to healthcare because of lack of insurance, distrust of medical institutions, or fear of stigmatisation.” And so he sees the corridor approach as being relevant in the USA, at least initially in establishing a link with difficult-to-reach populations.

But he sounds a note of caution: “The risk is that these targeted interventions function more like Band-Aids and allow – perhaps even encourage – the underlying problems to persist. So I think they are a necessary first step. The larger question is what can we do to remove stigma and other barriers that are responsible for the disparities in the first place.”

Antonio’s confidence has grown since his schooldays, he tells me.

For him, it’s about visibility. When he arrived in Beira, nobody looked like him. Now he sees others who do. Boys growing up today, he believes, will have a chance to think differently because of this: I see it, I can be it.


I am outside Beira’s airport, right where José Manuel was shot dead in April 2016. He was a RENAMO member of the National Council for Defence and Security. Formerly the civil war rebels, RENAMO are now the opposition party. Human Rights Watch noted reports that it had taken the police ten hours to arrive on the scene.

Armed conflict resumed in Mozambique in 2015, after two decades of peace. The results of the 2014 general election, won by FRELIMO, were bitterly contested by RENAMO. There were summary executions of villagers, abductions and sexual violence, political assassinations, raids on health clinics, attacks on civilian buses, and even reports of mass graves.

Mozambique was in danger of plunging back into the chaos of its past. Faced with violence from both sides, over 11,000 Mozambicans fled to Malawi and Zimbabwe. By the end of 2016, a truce had been agreed, and most of the refugees had returned, but many families remain internally displaced.

In 2016 economic growth halved, with a downturn in commodity prices. And then there was an astonishing and ultimately devastating admission from the government: it had guaranteed $1.5 billion in secret, unconstitutional loans. Fourteen donor countries and multilateral institutions – including the UK, the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank – promptly suspended direct support to the state budget. The foreign debt burden has risen to $9.9bn – up 20 per cent a year over the last five years.

By the beginning of 2017, cholera outbreaks had become so common that they were barely making the national news. The cost of bread and other staples was rising. The currency was falling. Nurses were not being paid. The ceasefire is still holding, but uneasily so.

Ordinary people in Mozambique are paying a high price. It is possible the Corridor Project will, too.

The average Mozambican’s daily struggle remains to lift themselves out of poverty

Health infrastructure is already in a perilous state. There are only three doctors per 100,000 people, one of the worst ratios in the world. Already more than half the population must walk an hour or more to their nearest health facility. Just over half of health facilities lack electricity and 41 per cent have no running water.

Mozambique expert Alex Vines has been head of the Africa Programme at Chatham House, an international affairs think-tank in London, since 2002. How will recent political and economic developments affect healthcare in Mozambique, I ask him, and in turn the Corridor Project?

Vines points out that the ceasefire is at least indefinite, and that better rains over recent months have provided some economic respite. “But the debt burden – because of the undisclosed loans scandal of 2016 and suspension of direct budget support by international donors – has seriously impacted the government’s finances, and this has a knock-on impact on healthcare and HIV programmes,” he explains.

Mozambique receives more than 95 per cent of its HIV programme funding through international donors. The Corridor Project depends heavily on this funding, and it could suffer profoundly. Vines is hopeful, though: “I believe the international donors will resume their direct support of the government but will require greater accountability. Trust is central to this.”

What happens next to the support of healthcare, and in turn to the Corridor Project, he believes, will partly depend on the outcome of an ongoing independent audit into those murky secret loans.

But a question remains, Vines says, about some leading donors. Donald Trump has proposed a cut in US global health funding, which will affect projects in Mozambique related to family planning. Who will fill those gaps remains unclear. Mozambique’s longstanding status as a donor darling is now far from secure.

The withdrawal of funding for the Corridor Project is something Caroline Rose, MSF’s head of mission in Mozambique, is only too aware of, even at ground level. “In the field we are receiving more and more requests from health facilities in trouble: ‘Could you fix our ambulance?’ ‘Could you transport our drugs from our clinic to the districts?’ ‘Could you pay for fuel?’” She is negotiating with international donors to the project, encouraging them to implement interim funding strategies until more long-term solutions are ironed out.

Vines envisages that the country will have a difficult few years before large-scale exporting of gas reserves starts, in the mid-2020s. Mozambique is now entering another election cycle that will doubtless be contentious, and which will likely span the next two years. “Meanwhile, the average Mozambican’s daily struggle remains to lift themselves out of poverty.”

And so women like Luisa will continue to walk towards those huts each night. They will take further risks to feed their families. As Mozambique’s uncertain future unfolds, ventures like the Corridor Project will be needed more than ever.

© Billy Clark

Luisa is healthy and optimistic for her future, for the future of her children. The corridor is where she has found, at different times, a livelihood, unspeakable trauma, a feeling of community and now a sense of purpose. In some ways it has defined her life, even as it has endangered it.

In 2014, the Corridor Project was established to reach the unreachable. Night by night, hotspot by hotspot, from one gas station to the next. It’s early days, but already it has connected with thousands of sex workers and truck drivers. Preliminary figures suggest this is giving a significant boost to HIV prevention and treatment. And the project refuses to fade even in the face of precarious funding streams and a deeply fractious political climate.

The night is over for us. In a few hours, the sun will rise. Traders will set up their stalls at Mercado do Goto to hawk fruit and vegetables. Fishermen will repair their nets by Macúti beach lighthouse, their wooden boats pulled high up onto the sand. Luisa will walk her children to school.

Daniela will fling open the doors of her office under the Pride umbrella.

The Corridor Project will live to see another day.


* Some names have been changed.

This article first appeared on Mosaic and is republished here under a Creative Commons licence.

Q&A: How Architecture Paved the Way for Syria’s War

by Hazem Badr

Young Syrian architect Marwa al-Sabouni stood behind the ruined buildings of Homs, her home city, in a picture chosen by the publishing house as the cover for her book, “The Battle for Home: Memoir of a Syrian Architect.”

Sabouni believes that architectural practices are one of the reasons that fuelled the conflict in Syria — by separating districts and dividing people based on their race or religion, fostering segregation and isolation, and so increasing the chances of conflict.

She reviewed the history of architecture in the city, comparing the old neighbourhoods of Homs to what they had become just prior to the outbreak of the conflict. And as a result of that review, she felt that modern architecture was one of the reasons behind the city’s loss of identity and social cohesion.

In a telephone interview with SciDev.Net from Syria, where she still lives, we discover a vision to transform her ideas into reality.

Hazem Badr: How did architecture play a role in the loss of identity and social cohesion?

Marwa al-Sabouni: The answer requires knowledge of the history of the ancient neighbourhoods of Homs, so as to compare the past with what they have become.

In the old neighbourhoods of Homs, people of different origins and religions lived together in one ‘melting pot’, coming together through elements of architecture. This was represented in neighbourhoods through small shops that met the needs of all residents, and public gardens that gave people living in the same neighbourhood a chance to meet in one place, in a sense ‘melting’ them into one socially cohesive society.

In this environment there was a sense of loyalty and belonging to the homeland. But this was lost with modern architecture, which turned the city into soulless concrete blocks.

So how would you take the idea of restoring the older architectural spirit to the authorities, considering the possibility that your theory might not be economically viable? 

The ideas I advocate in my book do not pay as much attention to the economic aspect as they do to retaining intimacy and harmony among the population. We should not have separate neighbourhoods for Turkmens, Alawites, farmers, and Bedouins, where each group lives in a secluded area. This segregation turned into a sectarian conflict.

I did not address the authorities in my book, yet I am puzzled by the ideas adopted in implementing slum housing projects. For example, in our Arab world, people are given concrete blocks as living units inside special housing projects. And this is along the lines of the categorization approach which resulted in loss of harmony.

Could you give me a practical example that goes against this thinking in architecture?

I tried to apply my ideas in the planning of Baba Amr (the two gates of Amr) neighbourhood, which was destroyed completely during the Syrian conflict. It contains what’s called the eighth gate of the city of Homs, which is distinct from the other seven gates as it comprises two gates.

I introduced the project to the UN-Habitat competition and won the first prize in 2014. I hope it will become the model for re-planning the rest of the slums, which account for 40 per cent of residential areas in Syria.

In planning this project, I turned the population’s psychological and spiritual needs into ideas in architecture — represented, for example, by backyard gardens and internal courtyards connected to each housing unit. I took into account the fact that these units should not be very high, so they become extensions of the streets in the neighbourhood; this is because modern architecture has killed off the pulse of life in the streets. The old neighbourhoods’ streets were like a family home in which people of different sects, races, and religions met, creating a sense of unity and harmony.

What about people’s basic needs, were they taken into account in the design?

Modern architecture established hyper- and super-markets, which are not much different in design from modern housing. Simply, they are concrete blocks where people gather and live.

On the other hand, the old markets adapted to the needs of the people. Instead of buying bread from the supermarket you could go to a baker; and when in need of any other commodity, a small shop would offer it. This created an intimate relationship between the seller and the buyer, regardless of their race and religion, and it also instilled harmony between people meeting each other in the market. In planning the Baba Amr neighbourhood I was keen on bringing back this sense of market community as well.

Your main idea is based on an architecture that does not discriminate between people of different ethnicities and religions. Doesn’t this contradict the Islamic design of some neighbourhoods in pre-conflict Syria?

This is an opportunity to talk about the concept of Islamic architecture. In the past, Islamic architecture was consistent with the human dimension that I advocate for — it didn’t differentiate between residents of the same neighbourhood based on their beliefs, and I adopted this in my design. In modern Islamic architecture, a group of architectural elements that aren’t authentic to Islamic design are being connected to each other randomly to give  a “false” Islamic appearance.

However, a sense of identity cannot be found in individual architectural characteristics. Rather, they are an indirect result of meaningful and beautiful design that is consistent with the spirit of a place.

Have you found a supporter to implement your ideas?

I’ve put down my thoughts in a book, which achieved significant sales in Europe — where it was published in English — yet it has not been distributed in the Arab world. I hope it will be translated into Arabic, and that my ideas find an attentive audience when the time comes to rebuild Syria.
This piece was produced by the Middle East and North Africa edition.

This article was originally published on SciDev.Net. Read the original article.