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The Silk Road: From Afghanistan to Brazil

It’s 9pm local time in Brazil. I’ve just touched down in Salvador, Bahia. That’s Salvador - the city and first capital of Brazil, not to be confused with El Salvador in Central America. It’s situated nearly 5000 miles from London, 4 hours behind British Summer Time, and it’s winter here. I’m on a family holiday with my Brazilian wife, Rose, and our seventeen-year-old daughter, Zahrah. 

I open my suitcase and take out something special I had brought from London: a beautiful silk scarf. The scarf designer, Somayia Khan, is of Afghan origin. Her family fled to Saudi Arabia when the Taliban first came to power in the early 90s, and she was born there. 

She was forced to marry as a teenager. She later then escaped an abusive marriage to live in London, where she began studying fashion. I’ve been shooting a documentary about her since we met at London Fashion Week in 2021, where she had her first show. I offered to take her scarf on my journey to Brazil. I’m interested in seeing if I can find a connection between Brazil and Somayia’s silk scarf. 

The Bahia women seem to be nearly always smiling; they dress with elegance and style, and whilst they have a gentle and kind outward persona, they are also not afraid to speak their minds and are very strong-willed. 

Taking the photos with the scarf will serve as a useful distraction whilst I am away from work and home, trying to forget everyday life back in the UK. Sometimes difficult, though, as regular news notifications keep flashing up on my phone - including one today that tells me that the Taliban are taking even more rights and freedoms away from women in Afghanistan. 

We wake up early and head to the Pelourinho in the historic centre of Salvador. A UNESCO World Heritage Site, we pass the place, which was once a slave market and whipping post for slaves, located directly next to ornate, flamboyant Baroque churches full of extravagant gold decor. Before heading for lunch, we pass the site where Michael Jackson filmed his music video for “They Don’t Care About Us,” directed by Spike Lee. 

Left: The Pelourinho in Salvador, Bahia

Right: Anton Califano in the Pelourinho in Salvador, Bahia

Night falls, and my wife insists we eat Acarajé, a typical Salvadorian street food before we leave Salvador. It is a type of bean cake fried in palm oil, with delicious spices & prawns inside. The recipe was originally brought to Brazil by enslaved Yoruba people from West Africa. It is sold almost entirely by women, easily recognisable by their all-white cotton dresses, headscarves, and caps. They first appeared in Bahia selling Acarajé in the 19th century when earnings from the sale of Acarajé were used to buy the freedom of enslaved family members. 

Left: Mural of "Baianas de Acarajé - the Acacajé street sellers

Right: An Acarajé dish

Before I am ready to take my first picture with Somy’s silk scarf, we head inland to the family farm in Itapitanga, which is about a 6-hour drive from Salvador. The final 2 hours of the journey are up a precarious sand and mud farm track, which does its best to destroy any vehicle trying to make the journey. 

We head by horseback up into the hills. I take my first photo with my wife in front of the waterfall known affectionately in the family as the ‘bica’ or coffee fountain. 

Rose wearing Somy's scarf at The Bica ("Coffee Fountain")

Rose says, “I love the scarf because it’s elegant and protects you from the sun and the wind.” 

The State of Bahia is a lush, green, fertile tropical agricultural land - nature really goes wild here! It almost seems like on a daily basis I am introduced to a new fruit...graviola, caju, cajá, pequi, jabuticaba, pinha, jaca, siriguela, acerola, mangaba just to name a few! 

Then there is cocoa (cacau in Portuguese), which, despite me always thinking it was a bean, is actually a delicious fruit that can be processed into chocolate. 

This part of Bahia used to be the centre of the chocolate universe. In the early 1900s, Bahia was the world’s largest cocoa producer. One of Brazil’s most respected authors, Jorge Amado, wrote a book called “Cocoa”, a social realist story about a group of cacau workers who develop an increasing class consciousness. Brazil’s culture and history are so interesting partly because it seems to be one where the colonised and coloniser, oppressor and oppressed are intertwined. 

Valmir raking the dried cocoa beans

Sidcley, my wife’s nephew and a history teacher, plucks a fresh orange from the tree and hands it to me. I peel it instantly, and it’s so juicy. He then climbs the tree, pulls down a few coconuts, and cuts one open. We drink the refreshing coconut water together. I thank Sidcley and express how amazing it is to “taste the real Brazil.” 

Left: Sidcley plucking a fresh orange from the tree

Right: Anton standing on Barcaça

He quickly corrects me, saying that “oranges were brought here from India” and “so were coconuts.” “Sugar cane is from India... Oh, and bananas are from Asia, too.” 

I spend a moment thinking about other ‘typically’ Brazilian produce. “Coffee?” I say, thinking it clearly must be Brazilian. “It’s from North Africa,” he says. 

Later, I also find out that much of the grass covering the hills was not native either, and it was a seeded Indian species of grass. 

Our next stop is the city of Porto Seguro, literally ‘Safe Port” in Portuguese - where the Portuguese first set foot in The Americas in the year 1500. Rumour has it that they believed they had arrived in India.

Rose, my wife, outside the old jail, Porto Seguro historic centre.

Our daughter Zahrah, with a “Brazilian” coconut. Zahrah said “Wearing the scarf made me feel connected to women across the world.”

Kadja, my stepdaughter, in Porto Seguro, Bahia. Kadja says “the scarf embodies freedom & sisterhood.”

Later the same day, at a family barbecue, I find myself talking to a Brazilian family member, and we got to talking about family ancestry. He tells me that his great-grandparents were Lebanese. I do a quick Google search and find out that from the late 1870s onwards, the silk trade — the most common export of the predominantly Christian regions of Mount Lebanon — collapsed as European consumers took advantage of cheaper transport to buy Chinese and other East Asian goods instead. The price of silk spiraled downward to nearly half its value in the 1890s. Nearly half of Mount Lebanon’s population is believed to have emigrated, and many Lebanese ended up here in Brazil. In fact, the population of Lebanese Brazilians outnumber the population of Lebanon. 

Family friend Edilca - from Sao Paulo. Edilca says “The scarf is very comfortable to wear.”

We head to Caraíva, a natural paradise said to be the oldest community village in Brazil and now a luxury travel destination with beautiful beachside hotels and little boutiques selling designer brands. It’s also where women & children from the Pataxó indigenous tribe can be found selling hand-made indigenous jewelry on the beach to tourists. 

I take a wander around Caraíva with Sidcley’s wife, Seilma, and daughter, Isabele, and take a few more photos. 

Seilma, and daughter, Isabele

As Seilma puts the scarf on Isabele so she can model for the photos, I recall what Somayia said to me once in an interview I filmed with her. She said that having grown up in Saudi Arabia, by law, she had to be covered in public and that when she came to London and removed her head scarf, it felt like a true moment of freedom. It makes me momentarily reflect on what it must be like to be forced to wear something by the State rather than through individual choice. 

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1 comentário

17 de jan.

Fascinating account of your trip Anton! We are so much more connected to each other than we might first think. We're all family. I look forward to more reports about the beautiful scarf.

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