The Strait of Hormuz flows along a coastal indent in the south of Iran. It’s one of the most strategic oil transit chokepoints in the world, with tankers moving millions of barrels of oil between the Persian Gulf and the open seas along its waters every day. The strait has been defined by movement for millennia – before oil, trade vessels sailed through it to India and Africa; humans have moved through the region since at least Paleolithic times.
On the small islands that dot the Strait, including Hormuz, Qeshm and Hengam, ancient movements take centre stage. Here, people believe the winds blown in from faraway lands can possess people and cause them to fall ill. To ward off the winds, a hereditary cult leader holds a ceremony, lighting incense and directing hypnotic drums to draw the winds out of the possessed person.
Photographer Hoda Afshar spent time documenting this extraordinary cultural practice for her new book Speak The Wind, published by Mack. Her images capture the arid landscape, which can reach temperatures of up to 45C. It is largely featureless but for the rich textural detail of cracked mud and sand and the wind-sculpted rock formations. The landscape looks even more otherworldly thanks to the bright, patterned costumes of the ceremony participants, who are masked or wrapped in robes.
“Most extraordinary of all is the person possessed by this spirit-wind, seeking cure, writhing and dancing while covered by a large cloth,” writes anthropologist Michael Taussig in an essay in Speak The Wind. “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.”
Alongside Afshar’s hallucinatory photographs, Speak The Wind includes drawings and short texts from local ceremony participants, describing the intense experience of possession. “One night, when I was asleep, it entered my body,” recalls one unnamed person. “My heart was racing, and my arms and legs were shaking. I couldn’t stop crying. It was after that night that I fell ill, body aches, headaches, it had paralysed me. I could feel it whirling inside my skull. They say it’s in the air, it’s something like smoke. It crawls inside your body, and you have no control over it.”
According to a 1983 study by Iraj Bashiri, the patient is isolated for up to two weeks and massaged with Indian herbs before the exorcism. Sometimes the winds make sacrificial demands, ranging from bamboo sticks to gold jewellery, before they leave a body. When the wind is ready to leave, the patient beats their chest to release it. Spectators know better than to yawn at this moment – all winds are contagious, and the evil wind could easily make them sick, too, if it slipped into their mouths.
Afshar, born in Tehran, was drawn to the parallels between the islands’ history as a point of transit and the spiritual practice that centres on winds arriving from across the region, particularly from Africa. The tradition itself is thought to have come from the Thonga-Bantu cultures of southeast Africa through the Arab slave trade; slavery in Iran was only abolished in 1929.
The African roots of this tradition then merged with Iranian Islamic beliefs and culture and often goes unspoken within the community, in which there remains prejudice against people of African descent. “The winds of history wrote the history of trade between continents, trade in music, raw materials, and slaves, not to mention many of the indefinable sensations that guide us through life,” reflects Taussig. Speak The Wind harnesses this kinetic, imaginative power.
Speak The Wind (2021) by Hoda Afshar, published by Mack, is available now