God's Lovers by Nicolaas H Biegman

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God's Lovers by Nicolaas H Biegman

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Category: Travel
Rating: 2/5
Reviewer: Lesley Mason
Reviewed by Lesley Mason
Summary: Sadly one that simply does not live up to expectations. The photographic focus is narrowed down to a study of one specific ritual. Some interesting information in the introduction...but not easy to extract. Borrow the book if you've a special interest in the subject matter.
Buy? No Borrow? Maybe
Pages: 300 Date: April 2007
Publisher: Kegan Paul
ISBN: 978-0710311917

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Biegman has studied Arabic, Turkish, Islam and Serbo-Croat as well as spending much of his working life in the Dutch diplomatic corps. From the late 1980s he has spent his time on photographic projects both commercially and for the U.N.

That he is a photographer of skill and insight isn't in question. That he has an understanding of Islam that is worth being shared with those of us who have most of our knowledge through the distorted lens of recent events and extremist pressures, is a touchstone that he should hold to. However, I have to express a deep disappointment with this book.

Perhaps I was misled by the subtitle: A Sufi Community in Macedonia... the community is not the focus of the photo-essay at all. The pictures are almost exclusively dedicated to the zikr ritual... with very little to give insight into the community for whom it is so important. But we'll come to images in a moment.

The book opens with an introduction by the photographer that starts well enough with an explanation of the Sufis or Dervishes as the gentlest and most tolerant believers imbued with a mysticism that is essentially non-political, non-violent and centred on a burning love of God. Biegman's aim of sharing other aspects of the faith is to be welcomed and supported but as he attempts to explain the mysticism that is Sufi, its historical and geographical contexts, its contrasts with other forms of Islam he has a tendency to get bogged down in the need to share the detail of his knowledge, which clouds the enlightenment he could be shedding. Something incidentally which I suspect is reflected in his photography - he comes across as being a 'technical' photographer, fascinated by and exploring the effects that can be captured and how you do so, rather than a 'natural' one with an eye for an image able to capture the beauty or emotion of fleeting moment.

Throughout the foreword we have to struggle not only with concepts which are alien to us, but with their renditions into Arabic (and often Turkish as well). In places this is essential, especially where the concepts cannot be translated literally, but at times it becomes a burden with ideas being translated almost for the sake of it. It's true that there will be subtleties of meaning lost in the translation... but for we non-Arabic-scholars, who could not even begin to accurately pronounce the words without much help and certainly have no basis upon which to interpret them nor in what follows any means to explore them, those subtleties will remain lost.

It is not easy reading. This is a shame... because buried in the quotations and name-dropping and academic display there are ideas intrinsic to the culture which I would not have associated with Islam such as the duty to 'abstain from evil before performing pious works' - echoes of the Hippocratic oath and the first tenet of Wicce: first: do no harm. Even the notion in some quarters that the cost of the Hajj might be better devoted to assisting the poor.

He describes in great depth the performance of the zikr but there is no exploration of what its performance means to those taking part. The whole is an intellectual exercise, without managing to convey the significance.


This is primarily a photographic work so any criticism of the words should take second place to the value of the images. Sadly, I cannot say that the work is redeemed by them.

Biegman has clearly been allowed privileged access to what one assumes is normally a private ritual. He has had to work in low light and apparently cramped quarters. He has been successful in capturing the frenetic movement that is fundamental to zikr - the dance, the singing, the drumming, the moments of rapture but in doing so has left few images clear enough to truly capture the thoughts behind the faces. Interestingly, the ones which stand out are those of the young boys who do not hide their curiosity and awe. There is an innocent wonder in the youngest eyes, already lost to the youths a few years later.

The work is entirely black and white - half of the images taken with a Leica R3 camera, the remainder with a Nikon D70 digital camera - for those to whom such details matter.

In view of the subtitle I had anticipated insights into the wider community - indeed I anticipated a sense of the community, which is almost totally missing. Not absolutely totally... if you look closely, you can see the bottled water or plastic carrier bags of goods laid against the Saints' tombs to absorb the blessings emanating from them; the patterned knitted sweater that the Baba wears beneath his uniform is an almost stereotypical East European accoutrement. The absence of women from all but two of the pictures reinforces the machismo of the rhythmic dance and drum beats which culminate in self piercing of the flesh.

The expressions on the faces of those women who do appear are intriguing. In one they crowd upon the balcony to watch a new Sheikh perform the ritual with the kind of expressions you might find at a concert. One concentrates on the sounds, eyes closed against the distractions, another smiles and claps, others simply watch unreading and unreadable. A more intimate shot shows a Roma couple. The man is making a pledge at the bomb of Haznadar Baba, reciting the words given him by the current Baba, while his young wife looks on with something bordering on disbelief.

These two shots do give us one further insight however - this is not the Islam of the Hijab or the Burkha. The women wear western clothes and are universally bare-headed.

Overall, while accepting that the work has some merit, as a portrait of a community I feel it fails.

Photographic books are time-consuming to create and expensive to produce but even acknowledging that I cannot help but add that quoted price of £65 for this slim volume is somewhat optimistic.

For the specialists only I fear.

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the Author said:

I was thankful for this review which, even though the reviewer declares herself to be deeply disappointed with my book God's Lovers', does notice quite a number of new and interesting elements in it.

If her disappointment has to do with the subtitle, I agree that it would have been more exact to speak of "Sufi Rituals" instead of A Sufi Community in Macedonia. In fact, until the publisher decided to publish the book in this way, God's Lovers was meant to be one of the chapters of a book that appeared two years later with the title Living Sufism, Rituals in the Middle East and the Balkans.

Not that there was much more to be said about this Sufi community than described in the book; the communal aspect was very much concentrated on the ritual, the worship of the local saint Haznadar Baba, and on each member's relationship with their sheikh, Erol Baba. These aspects are covered by the book. The dervishes would bring their young sons to the zikr sessions but not their wives, and outside the sessions there was no communal life.

This said, I much profited from some of Mrs Mason's criticism in preparing Living Sufism. Especially, I realized that I was using a lot of redundant Arabic and Turkish terminology that was bound to irritate the general reader for whom the book was meant. So I thoroughly cleaned up the introduction of the new book, and the comments I have received so far seem to indicate that I was successful in producing a readable text. Moreover, but this was already my intention, I included an extraordinary in-depth interview with a rural Egyptian sheikh, who explains in very simple language the hows and whys of the zikr ritual, and the emotions and feelings it produces in the participants.

As to the price of God's Lovers, I agree that it is exorbitant. Living Sufism, which deals with rituals in five countries in double the number of photos contained in God's Lovers, full colour at that, comes at a fraction of what the buyer of God's Lovers was supposed to spend. The price was the publisher's decision, not mine.

Sincerely, Nicolaas Biegman.