July 22, 2015

Beggars dressed like kings

When I am able to settle long enough in one place, or when a community welcomes me in a loving way, I like to take a moment during my stay to walk the streets and make portraits of the people that live there. Some of them have never owned a picture of themselves, so it's my way of saying thank you, and it allows me to introduce them to you. So for this post, I'd like you to meet the locals from Fatehpur Sikri, a small town of Uttar Pradesh.

Fatehpur Sikri is quite unique. It has one of the biggest mosque in India, built in the 16th century by the emperor Akbar. The city was capital of the Mughal empire until 1585. An hour north of the Taj Mahal, it's one of the only muslim villages in that region. But because it is located so close to the biggest attraction in India, Fatehpur Sikri doesn't see many foreigners. It is merely a half-day stop – most people come for two hours, and go back, which mean the population isn't able to draw an income from tourism (if you except scamming, which they are amazing at). The town has been long forgotten by humanitarian action. As a result, the living standards are way below the average of the state, and of India itself. More than 70% of the families live with less than a dollar a day – the rate of primary education is 34%, about 40% less than the country's average. Traditions have a strong hold here, and the number of girls getting married before they turn fourteen is frightening.

But that's not what I want you to know about them, because these people are not numbers. And while numbers can help you understand how they live, what really will make you understand is see it for yourself. So go over there and let them charm you. I did.

The man who allowed me to discover this town is called Ali. When he's not helping out in the mosk, he's herding buffalos with his father. I met him on my first day, while visiting the mosque. Next thing I know, he was dragging me by the hand to meet one of the high priests, Anwar – who also became my dear friend. Later, Ali settled me in his family home, and every morning for a week, he would take me to the mosk at sunrise to hear the prayers, while waiting for the chai to brew. Anwar, singing, would take out of his bag a series of perfume vials, and put different scents on my wrists : opium, amber, rose, jasmine. Then he would draw a protective sign on my forehead and say : « You're ready to go out now ».

One day, as we are discussing their beliefs, they ask me about mine. Not wanting to offend them, I tone down my usual answer from « I'm a radical atheist » to « My family was protestant, but I choose to believe that there is no creator and no authority judging us, only human choices and free will ». I say this slightly worried, but you know what ? I was underestimating them. Ali takes my hand in his and he says : « You know the first thing I believe ? Allaha eka hai. Allah is one. It means that my blood, your blood, it's the same. If you are wounded, I will bleed. So it doesn't matter what you believe, because you are my friend, and we are grateful to know you ». And I look at the three of us sitting in the middle of a silent 400 years old mosque – the sufi priest, the illiterate buffalo-herder, and the girl traveler now writing these words– and I think this is the world I want to live in.

I am forever grateful to Ali and Anwar, who have been the kindest, funniest hosts I could wish for. I hope I can repay the favor someday.

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