OSAKA, Japan — As I completed putting the puzzle of Jewish Africa leg #7 together, a picture came into view that I had not really expected to see: Leg #8. Significance? Realizing that I am turning my sights to the last stage of my project is thrilling because I am actually going to pull this giant, audacious (and expensive) project off. But the realization of that picture is also a bit disappointing because the ride has been a joy from the start. I don’t want to get off. It’s nearly time to move on, however.
Even before snapping in those final pieces of the itinerary for leg #7 or had any idea of where I needed to go for leg #8, I was, in fact, long focused on the afterlife of Jewish Africa. I’ve been working on securing photo exhibitions and seeking a publisher for many months already. Lately, I’ve had a lot of balls in the air. Good thing I taught myself to juggle when I was about 10 years old.
The end of the photo stages is actually the beginning. When I conceived this Jewish Africa photographic survey project sometime back in 2010, I started with the end: What are my goals? What is my purpose? Above all, Who are the Jews of Africa? As I head into the final two legs, I am feeling pretty confident that I will have answered those questions.
My goal was to create the largest Jewish Africa photographic survey of its kind for the purpose of documenting and sharing a vast Jewish world that is by and large little-known in general Jewish circles beyond the geographical limits of Africa. I believe that my images have captured the breadth and scope of communities across Jewish Africa by reflecting their dynamic ways of life and commitment to the Jewish faith (though their stories will be better and more coherently told in both a book and exhibitions) thus answering the question, Who are the Jews of Africa?
But the job is not yet complete. The story is not yet fully told. Though I know clearly what my final two legs have on the itinerary, I have to get there and get the images.
Leg #7 kicks off with my arrival on July 30 not in Africa, but in London, England and Dublin, Ireland before heading to Cape Verde, Madeira, Melilla, Nigeria, and South Africa. I feel overdue for a visit to the “Motherland” so I am heading to London for a week of downtime (sort of) before launching into a hectic flight schedule. During that week, I’m taking a side excursion to Dublin for two nights to see what is, in fact, my world premier Jewish Africa photo show held at the Irish Jewish Museum from July 6 through September 30. It’s a small show featuring 25 images from 16 countries, but it gives a good glimpse into Jewish Africa — and what I’ve been doing since August 2012.
I got word of confirmation by email on February 3, 2015: “I am happy to say we would be delighted to accept your kind offer to show some of your work at the Irish Jewish Museum as a temporary exhibit. The members of the committee were very impressed with your work and although we have not traditionally taken exhibits from outside Ireland, we think your work would be a very captivating and attractive addition to our display,” wrote my contact. Wow, I thought. I’m honored.
FROM LONDON VIA LISBON, I THEN GO TO CAPE VERDE, (officially the Republic of Cabo Verde), a group of 10 islands off the west coast of Africa, some 490 kilometers (300 miles) from Senegal. I’m including this far-flung archipelago in my Jewish Africa project for its geographical proximity to Africa more than for its political or historical past, though there are plenty of ties, most notably, the slave trade. Long before winning independence from Portugal in 1975 (a colony from 1463), the country also had a storied past as a lair for pirates. Visitors of note include Sir Frances Drake (1580s) and Charles Darwin (1832).
Jews first arrived in Cape Verde between 1460 and 1497 as settlers under the Portuguese flag. A number of Moroccan Jews settled in Cape Verde in the latter half of the 1800s. They were primarily involved in merchandising.
Today, there is no Jewish community, but there are four recently restored cemeteries that are of great interest: one in Praia, Santiago Island; one in Sal Rei, Boa Vista Island; and two on Santo Antao Island, one each in Ponta do Sol and Ribeira Grande. Also on Santo Antao, there is a village called Sinagoga. So, I’ll be doing some island hopping during my week-long stay. Interestingly, due to its Moroccan connections, King Mohammed VI of Morocco financially assisted the cemetery restoration project. (Learn more by visiting the Cape Verde Jewish Heritage Project.)
THEN IT’S ON TO THE PORTUGUESE ARCHIPELAGO OF MADEIRA for two nights, also included in my project for its geographical proximity to Africa more than for its political or historical ties. I’m not expecting to get much photographically as there is only a small, mainly derelict cemetery (as far as I can tell) and the facade of the former Shaar Hashamaim Synagogue (built in 1836, it is apparently now shops). Jews arrived in Madeira from Morocco in 1819 and worked in the garment industry. By the end of the Second World War, there were few Jews left, and today there is no Jewish community at all.
FLYING ONCE AGAIN VIA LISBON with a connection in Madrid too, I then go to mainland Africa, no, Europe. No, wait. Africa. Well, both…at the same time. Huh? No, I don’t possess a superhuman power (though I do send my hologram to work). The Spanish enclave of Melilla is geographically African yet politically European. Some call Melilla “Spanish Morocco.” Moroccans surely don’t. As one might expect, they consider the autonomous port city on their north coast as disputed territory (along with Ceuta, another “Spanish Moroccan” autonomous port city also on the northern coast of Morocco where I hope to go on my final Jewish Africa leg. In fact, several peñón, or island forts, off northern Morocco, are controlled by Spain).
Melilla became a place of Jewish refuge in 1492 to flee the Spanish Inquisition (both Melilla and Ceuta were only indirectly influenced by the Inquisition). By 1535, at least 1,500 Jews had settled there, and a Jewish presence has been unbroken ever since. Evidence of a long-time Jewish presence is found in the expansive Jewish cemetery with graves dating to 1565. At one time, there were some three dozen synagogues in the fortified town, several of which are still open and operational today.
Over the years, Jewish numbers swelled and deflated with political circumstances and even took in a number of refugees fleeing Nazi advances. Today, some 800 Jews reside in Melilla (and some 300 in Ceuta).
WITH FLIGHT CONNECTIONS IN MADRID AND ISTANBUL, it’s into the heart of a more “African destination” — Nigeria. Admittedly, I feel a measure of trepidation traveling there (there are few places I feel that way about anymore). Its reputation for violence and outrageous attacks by Boko Haram proceed itself. But I am taking an “acceptable” risk.
Let me clarify where I am going and why. I am only going to Abuja, the capital. As it says on the wikitravel Abuja page (and as I’ve heard from various contacts), “Abuja tends to be a sharp contrast against the background of the rest of Nigeria. While car hijackings and armed robbery are high in Lagos, and kidnapping of foreign oil workers is prevalent in the Niger delta, Abuja in sharp contrast, is one of the safest metropolitan cites in Nigeria.” Even the Japanese clerk at the Embassy of Nigeria in Tokyo told me by phone, “Oh, Abuja. Safe. Safe. No problem.” And, with all due respect to Japanese, Japanese are perhaps the most nervous travelers out there.
I am keen to include Nigeria in my Jewish Africa project for one simple reason: the Igbo Jews. Unfortunately, however, I am not willing to travel to Igbo Land in the southern region of the country because the risks are “unacceptable”. But there is a contingent in Abuja. So, limited as it might be, I am going to meet and photograph their community in the capital.
One may also be able to measure the sense of safety and security of Abuja by the presence of Chabad-Lubavitch, which has an active Center that serves the religious and social needs of some 400 expat Jews (including some 120 kids, and some 1,200 Jews in Nigeria over all, not including the Igbo communities).
One thing I’ve learned over the years is that the world is a safer, kinder, gentler place than it is in news reels. But I am no fool and I have done my homework on safety and security. In fact, I am more concerned about reckless drivers as a more realistic direct personal danger than Boko Haram.
FINALLY, I HEAD “HOME” TO SOUTH AFRICA which I sorely missed on leg #6. I’ll be in Johannesburg for a week and four days in Cape Town from where I’ll make the long journey back to Osaka via Johannesburg and Istanbul. Though I have yet to fill up the South African calendar with any photo appointments, I do have several social calls to make, including a meeting with a publisher (but that’s a story yet to be written).
Upon my return to Osaka, exhausted, I will be stepping out of 7 and striding into 8.
Click for JEWISH AFRICA PHOTO HIGHLIGHTS.
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