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Book Review: Hidden Islam


Book Review Hidden Islam By Nicolo Degiorgis Reviewed by Colin Pantall There are millions of Hindus, Christians and Buddhists working in Saudi Arabia, but not one recognised church, temple or chapel to accommodate their beliefs. You can’t send a card at Christmas, or light a candle at Diwali in public. You’re allowed to have your beliefs, under sufferance, but in no way are you allowed to express them.

Hidden Islam. By Nicolo Degiorgis.
Rorhof, 2014.
 
Hidden Islam
Reviewed by Colin Pantall

Hidden Islam
By Nicolo Degiorgis
Rorhof, 2014. 90 pp., 132 black & white illustrations, 6¼x9½". 


There are millions of Hindus, Christians and Buddhists working in Saudi Arabia, but not one recognised church, temple or chapel to accommodate their beliefs. You can’t send a card at Christmas, or light a candle at Diwali in public. You’re allowed to have your beliefs, under sufferance, but in no way are you allowed to express them.

It’s simply terrible and it’s all enshrined in repressive laws that Saudi largesse has spread around the Muslim world with very visible effects. How different that is to the situation in Western Europe (where I live). Here we are free to believe whatever we wish. We are free in how, why and where we worship.

Or are we? This is from the introduction to Nicolo DeGiorgis’ new book, Hidden Islam: "In Italy, the right to worship, without discrimination, is enshrined within the constitution," reads the text (by Martin Parr). But then it continues; "There are 1.35 million Muslims in Italy and yet only eight official mosques in the whole country. Despite being the second largest religion after Catholicism, Islam is still not formally recognised by the state."

There may only be eight official mosques (including one in Rome built with Saudi money) but there are hundreds of unofficial mosques, mosques that are hidden away behind anonymous facades, that have no domes or minarets to offend Catholic sensibilities and are to all intents and purposes invisible. That’s why the book is called Hidden Islam.

Hidden Islam. By Nicolo Degiorgis. Rorhof, 2014.
Hidden Islam. By Nicolo Degiorgis. Rorhof, 2014.

It took Degiorgis five years to make the pictures in the book, negotiating access to these unofficial mosques and photographing them during Friday prayers. He photographed them both from the inside and the outside and then integrated these elements into the page design.

It’s a beautiful design. It starts on the outside with the dust jacket; it’s decorated with a map of North East Italy that shows the region Degiorgis photographed and connects to Degiorgis’s background and sense of being an outsider. “I live in South Tyrol,” he says, “a German speaking province in Italy. Since I was born I was confronted with minority and identity issues. I grew up bilingual, speaking Italian at home and German outside so my family has an immigrant background. So that connection to minorities and immigrants comes probably from there.”

Hidden Islam. By Nicolo Degiorgis. Rorhof, 2014.

So you open the book and it is divided into 8 categories; Warehouse, Shop, Supermarket, Apartment, Stadium, Gym, Garage and Disco. And then you get the pictures of exteriors of these places. They are small, inconsequential pictures that join up to give a sense of places of worship that are both hidden and temporary. They are black and white and have strong diagonal dynamics; despite their anonymity, on one day of the week at least, everything converges here.

These exteriors are visible when you flip through the book. If you want to see the second half of the book, the colour pictures of people at prayer, you have to turn the pages to open the gatefold. This makes you work to see the pictures and gives the sense of opening those exterior doors, of peeking in to see this Hidden Islam. The sequencing is such that the narrative of these roughly follows the sequencing of the rituals of prayer, starting with the washing of feet and ending with an empty corridor.

Hidden Islam. By Nicolo Degiorgis. Rorhof, 2014.

Most of the pictures are of people at prayer in interiors and exteriors of every shape and form. Some are stadiums that are hired by the hour; you can feel that the next day a basketball game will be played there, some are of apartments that are filled to all four walls. Sometimes people are praying outside in car parks, in back yards; wherever there is space they have not been moved on from.

The dynamic is such that you end up flicking from the inside picture to the outside trying to match up the locations. However, not all the interior shots do match up with the exterior; an anomaly that goes against the tight typological format of the book. But in some ways, that anomaly fits with the overall theme of the book; which is how people, beliefs and lifestyles are forced to squeeze into places where they are not entirely welcome. As with everything in Hidden Islam, there is a rationale for even the anomalies.

Hidden Islam. By Nicolo Degiorgis. Rorhof, 2014.

Hidden Islam was self-published and is being marketed directly by Degiorgis’s own publishing company, Rorhof Books. It was the hit of the recent Photobook Bristol in June and is continuing to get attention at the European summer festivals. And for good reason. Hidden Islam is a beautifully realised book that deals with a sensitive topic in a sensitive manner. It’s multi-layered (even the title has multiple interpretations) but with a humanist element; Degiorgis believes that it is necessary for migrant communities to be visible, that nations need to recognise that their identity is tied in to a migration and change. With Hidden Islam he is making a hidden world visible and revealing something about both these immigrants' world and his own Italian community. It might not always be comfortable, but it is essential.—COLIN PANTALL


COLIN PANTALL is a UK-based writer and photographer. He is a contributing writer for the British Journal of Photography and a Senior Lecturer in Photography at the University of Wales, Newport. http://colinpantall.blogspot.com

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