Signatures of the gods: Michael Taussig on Hoda Afshar's 'Speak The Wind'

Poetry and reality seem to combine with the winds that coalesce into spirit possession on the islands in the Strait of Hormuz, at the extreme southern tip of Iran. There it can get to 45 degrees centigrade, and nearby US nuclear-powered submarines and oil tankers make their way into and out of the Persian Gulf.

The concentration of power and history in this narrow waterway is astonishing. To adopt standard nomenclature and call it a ‘choke-point’ seems insufficient unless you take it literally. In maps it comes across as a freak of nature, part of a child’s puzzle with the southern element shaped like a horn protruding into the sea while the northern element opposite is an inverted V shaped inlet as if awaiting the south to close in. Imagine the helmsman navigating a long tanker through these tight bends.

In his letters about his visit to the enchanted land of the Tarahumara Indians of northern Mexico, Antonin Artaud wrote of its unusual rock formations as signatures of the gods. That certainly seems the case here too, in this choke-point of history and power where we can see ‘gods’ signatures’ — a place of sand and mountains, red, white, yellow, black, blue, and green that at times seem crafted by human hands on the scale of giants.

This is also a land of pearl divers and the descendants of African slaves brought by Muslim traders across several centuries. In Iran such slavery was officially abolished only as late as 1929 and there is a fierce racial prejudice against people of African descent, many of whom drifted south to these islands. Is it so surprising then that this history provokes mediums who channel spirits in the form of the winds coming from Africa? There are other winds, too, coming north from Saudi Arabia and west from India.

I say ‘channel’ history, but I could just as well use the English language term, ‘strait’, as in the strait of Hormuz that invaginates history no less than geography since this suggests something narrow and perilous, even mythical, forcing you to enter at the risk of your life. Think of Odysseus forcing his oarsmen to row through the straits formed by Scylla and Charybidis. Think of what it means to die or at least forsake your self, your being and your consciousness to become the ‘horse’ of the spirit that has lowered itself onto you.

Most extraordinary of all is the person possessed by this spirit-wind, seeking cure, writhing and dancing while covered by a large cloth. Meanwhile the drummers drum and the shaman recites the poetry of the wind in Swahili, Arabic, or Farsi, depending on where the wind comes from. What the visual medium of photography cannot easily communicate is the magic of the sound of the drums and stringed instruments, and the poetry of the shaman, who supplants the Muslim mullah and western physician. All this is required for the winds to ‘lower’ themselves into the sick person under the care of the shaman.

It is tempting to understand these events in medical terms aimed at curing body and soul but, what if we reverse cause and effect and think of the winds — these spirit winds of history — as taking advantage of human illness to perpetuate the history of slavery, cruelty, and caprice? 


Excerpt from 'Winds of History' by Michael Taussig, from Speak The Wind by Hoda Afshar.

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June 2021
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