The Book of Names
The Book of Names is a special, ongoing quest. It is a collection of people - their names, languages, cultures, countries, hopes, dreams, values, and all they hold dear. At last count, 133 people from 77 countries, identifying as members of 105 distinct cultural, ethnic, religious or other kinds of groups, had signed it in 77 written languages. People from all walks of life and all around the world have written everything from the profane to the profound in The Book, and in this gallery you can see and get to know more about some of them. Many remain unphotographed, and many of the photos I have taken were before I began to improve my photography, but they are still special enough to include here. In the future, I hope my photos will begin to do these wonderful people more justice...
Jherez and Brandon
Jherez and Brandon are from St. Kitts and Nevis, and St. Vincent and the Grenadines, tiny island countries in the Caribbean. I met them in a Cajun (New Orleans) restaurant run by a non-Cajun American in Hsinchu Taiwan. They're standing next to a wall painting of a tribal tattoo by a Paiwan Polynesian tribesman from Taiwan. That's the world we live in today!
St. Kitts and St. Vincent Creole
Each of the islands in the Caribbean has its own creole, and they share a sort of pan-creole language between them.
Order of Guardians
Deep in the heart of Egypt's Sinai Peninsula, Suleiman and the Bedouin Jebeliya tribe are the inheritors of a sacred and ancient charge from the Byzantine Emperor Justinian: Protect St. Katherine's Monastery. The tribe's most ancient ancestors were a garrison of imperial, Christian soldiers he sent for that purpose and, though their descendants later converted to Islam, they never forgot their duty to protect the monks of the Holy Mountain.
Many centuries passed, kings and empires rose and fell, and the fortunes of each group ebbed and flowed as more than fifteen hundred years slipped by. At some times the Bedouin protected the monks and at others the monks aided them in need.
Bedouin and North Korean Signatures
Suleiman's signature (top) and a North Korean signature from the 2010 Shanghai World Expo (bottom).
Vietnamese Sapodilla Fruit Merchant
The merchants at the border crossing wore nón lá (leaf hats) and used baskets like these. Ancient traditions that are as cheap, practical and as easy to make as ever, they are still a very common sight in all but the most developed metropolises of East Asia.
Vietnamese Sapodilla Fruit Merchant
Chinese visitors to the border haggle for Vietnamese wares. The Vietnamese merchants were allowed to cross into Chinese territory on a daily basis to sell wares and goods of all kinds.
Vietnamese Fruit Seller A P1150854-01_wm
This Vietnamese woman stoops in the shade for her daily market time, selling sapodillas to Chinese and other visitors. Nowhere in the world have I experienced anything else like this fruit!
China-Vietnam Border Sapodilla Fruit
The Sapodilla fruit itself was as sweet and sticky as honey. Warm to the point of being nearly hot and nearly bursting with juicy nectar, they melted in my mouth like some juicy kind of cotton candy. Even after traveling the world and living abroad for more than a decade, I've never experienced anything like it either before or since!
Vietnamese Signature, Book of Names
Aftery trying a sapodilla - and and quickly deciding that one would simply never be enough - I bought a whole bag full. After that, I asked the woman to sign the Book.
Temple Keeper, Wat Chediluang
We met this temple keeper at Wat Bubparam in Chiang Mai, Thailand while looking for someone who could speak and write in Lana, the language of the ancient Northern kingdom of what is now Thailand. He shared his experiences as temple keeper, the different kinds of visitors to the temple, and Lana history and culture. Though he signed the book in his native Thai, he was able to help us along on our quest, sending us to a Buddhist university where we could possibly find Lana speakers...
Thai and Lana Languages
The Thai script (above) is from the temple keeper - though I've removed his actual signature. It's an unfortunate necessity that I have to do this with some images here in order to respect the privacy of those who sign the Book. The script below is the rare Lana language that I went on this special quest to find. To learn more about it, read on in the next few pictures!
Signing in Lana
After a long and surprisingly difficult search, we finally met this monk who was able to write in Lana, the language of the ancient kingdom that now makes up much of Northern Thailand. Though not a native speaker, he was glad to share what he knew of the language before our time in Chiang Mai ran out. Perhaps someday I will meet a native speaker, but the fact that others are stepping in to help keep this language alive is encouraging in a world where so many languages are slipping away forever.
A Monk Signs the Book
A Buddhist monk in Wat Chediluang (Chediluang Temple) in Chiang Mai, Thailand looks on as his friend signs the Book of Names. With better English skills than his friend in red, the monk in orange and I were able to have a lively and fun conversation about life, religion and perhaps most importantly of all, sports cars.
A Moment of Connection
These two teenage friends laughed and joked as the one in red signed the book. With their minds more focused on college studies than meditation, and keeping up Facebook pages filled with pictures of race cars and sporty motorcycles, meeting these two once again reminded me how talking face to face with people who seem so different from you makes them suddenly feel much less like two-dimensional curiosities on the other side of a lens or screen and much more, well, human.
Making a Lion Dance Mask
This man, a traditional artisan in 台灣鹿港 (Taiwan's Lukang), makes a living making traditional Chinese lion dance masks. Having taken up his father's trade, he's spent most of his life making and collecting them. He's an incredibly friendly, welcoming and amazing man! With one look, he can tell you which region of China, Taiwan or one of the many Chinatowns a mask is from - and often even which master made it.
Lion Mask and Sword
Each different mask in this master's shop has its own special style and meaning. Square ones are Hakka - unless they're not, which of course is quite obvious to him. A particular color combination, a pattern, a shape, the look in its eyes, the way its ears are oriented... everything is a clue to the origin and meaning of a mask. Like a wizard reading some indecipherable ancient tome, one look at a mask is all he needs to reveal the untold secrets of the unique history and story of each one.
The Lion Mask Maker Signs the Book
The mask maker was happy to sign the book of names, and I was truly glad to welcome him into the ever-growing community of people who make it up. His art, his story, the tradition he helps keep alive - they all meant something special. But perhaps the fact that he, like so many amazing people I've met, was in the end just a man doing what he loves and wanting to share it with others was the most personally meaningful aspect of it for me.
Lukang Lion Mask Maker's Mark
In addition to his signature, he added his chop stamp to the book. For me, this was special because, instead of the traditional red that is still used all over the Chinese world for this signature-like ritual, he used blue. Of course, this could have been because it was a shop stamp and not a personal stamp, but it still made me think about how wonderful it is that even something as simple as different color meanings can say unique and special things about people and cultures around the world.
Musician, Merchant, Amazing Man
This man from 中國雲南 (Yunnan Province, China) belongs to one of the many minority cultures that make Southwest China such a unique and special place. Artist, musician, souvenir salesman and lover of life, he laughed, joked and spread joy through the playful, unique and exotic music of his flute. Like children following the Pied Piper, we felt as if we were being swept further and further into some far away, magical land with each beautiful note.
Flute Player in 中國雲南 (Yunnan, China)
When he heard about the Book, he was excited to sign. It seemed to me that he felt some sort of connection with the idea of sharing his story and his joy with people from around the world. Despite all the years that have passed since that encounter, it still seems fresh in my memory, and always makes my hear smile... so now I hope to share that same feeling with you.
Flute Man Signature
Though I've obscured part of the actual signature in this photo, you can still see the beauty - and joy - in what the man with the flute wrote here.
🏮 鹿港傳統燈籠師傅Traditional lantern maker
Reputed to be among the best in Taiwan, this lantern maker in Lukang (Lugang, pronounced Loo Gahng), continues the tradition of his ancestors in the shop where his now retired father looks on, reading newspapers and watching the temple processions pass by in the street.
🏮燈籠師傅簽字 Signed by the Lantern Maker
The lantern maker seals the Book of Names with his shop's chop. Instead of the traditional red ink and unadorned characters, he has elected for blue ink and a stamp with his shop's emblem - a Chinese lantern. His characters are large, bold and clear, as they must be to be seen and read clearly on a lantern hung well above head level.
🏮馬年愉快！ Happy Year of the Horse!
This master craftsman, whose trade is so intricately intertwined with both script and art, writes the Chinese character 馬 (horse) to commemorate the beginning of the Year of the Horse. As I watch, the artistic muse takes control and this stylized modern version of an ancient pictogram seems to take flesh before my eyes, ever more alive, seeming as if it could leap from the page at any second. What a wonderful way to commemorate the beginning of the Year of the Horse!
🏮馬年愉快！ Happy Year of the Horse!
🏮寺廟燈籠 Temple Lantern
Wet paint continues to bring this beautiful lantern, commissioned by a temple, to life before my eyes. Struck by its beauty and seemingly in luck because of the Chinese New Year mood, I somehow manage to prevail upon the lantern master to let me buy it instead.
From friendly Afghanistan
The man who signed this at the Afghan pavilion at the Shanghai World Expo in 2010 was extremely friendly. He loved his country very much and stamped the book three times - a nice touch, in addition to his, and his several companions', elegant handwriting.
A master Chinese calligrapher signs the Book in Taiwan.
The Book is Sealed
A traditional Chinese calligrapher seals his addition to the Book of Names with his personal chop.
Beautiful and elegant, Chinese calligraphy has a timelessness that transcends language barriers and reminds, even compels, the viewer to take time out of a busy life for peaceful contemplation.
The world's last pictographic script
The Naxi people of southwestern China's Yunnan Province are the last people in the world still using a script composed entirely of pictographs. Though it is proudly posted on murals, street signs and in other places throughout their small territory, only a handful of people survive who can still write it. Fortunately, I was able to find one of them and, understanding the deeper meaning of the Book, he agreed to write something of deeper significance to him than a hello to a tourist.
I was fortunate enough to encounter an old, Tibetan herder pasturing his animals as I pitched my tent on the shores of the salty Qinghai lake in remote Qinghai Province, China. Once part of Tibet, physically part of the Tibetan plateau and three times the size of France, the nomads who once freely roamed its vast expanse have been forced into one small town, leaving none but endless columns of strangely empty Chinese military trucks to roam endlessly between its countless military bases.
A beautiful, Ukrainian signature
A friend from Haiti signs the Book
Date: 11/30/2014 Place of signing: Hsinchu, Taiwan Nationality and language: Haitian, Kreyòl
Kreyòl (Haitian Creole) is a mixture of French, Spanish and West African languages. While I was in Haiti for a short while and even began learning some of the language, the only two things I remember are "le shapo" (hat) and, "m'ap grangu ampile!" (I am VERY hungry!).
Very Small World
I encountered this man from the small Czech village of Starkov as he rummaged through antiques in Suzhou, China. He assured me I would never meet anyone else from his village of a few hundred people unless I went there in person. Several years later - again in Suzhou - I met another Czech. Upon showing him the Book, he said, "Hey, I live there! That guy is my childhood friend!" Hopefully he kept his promise to tell his friend what had happened!
This man from Chile, who I met in a cafe in China, was traveling the world with a 22-stringed guitar. He introduced himself and told us it was unique to a high and remote, mountain valley which, though only a few tens of kilometers from the capital, is cut off from the world by immense mountains. The guitar and music mixed the original styles of the the early conquistadors and the natives of the valley. It was unlike anything I've heard before or since - melodic, silvery, and truly magical.
A wonderful Tagalog signature
Tagalog, the lingua franca of the Philippines, makes for a beautiful signature even though the printed last name of the man has been removed in this photograph.
Davlat Safarov, Master Calligrapher
Davlat Safarov, a master of Arabic calligraphy, draws out the next section of script to adorn the Hoja Zayniddin Mosque outside the historic Bukhara city walls. The mosque, which sits just outside of the great Arc (citadel) of the city, dates from the 1400's. Davlat is using his mastery of this ancient art to aid in the restoration of this beautiful building, which was badly dilapidated.
Preparing عمر خیام (Omar Khayyam)
Davlat Safarov, Master Calligrapher, prepares a special addition to the Book of Names - one of only two extra pages that have been added to date. This one is a hand drawn and gilded portrait of عمر خیام (Omar Khayyam), a famous Persian poet. عمر خیام (Omar Khayyam) was an astronomer, philosopher, mathematician and poet from Persia. Though he is famed for his work in Algebra, the calligrapher told me about his poetry - which, he said, was mostly about wine and women.
عمر خیام (Omar Khayyam)
A special addition to the Book of Names - one of only two extra pages that have been added to date. This one is a hand drawn and gilded portrait of عمر خیام (Omar Khayyam), a famous Persian poet.
Master calligrapher Davlat Safarov adds a personal touch to the back of a gilded painting of the Uzbek poet, عمر خیام (Omar Khayyam).
A sample of Davlat Safarov's beautiful Arabic Calligraphy.
Davlat signs the Book
Date: 6/30/2014 Place of signing: Bukhara, Uzbekistan Nationality and language: Uzbek, Uzbek
The history of Chinese script
This man, who once taught me Chinese, signed the Book in three Chinese scripts, some stretching back into the mists of ancient Chinese history.
A man I met on a subway in Shanghai turned out to be a Venezuelan artist on the way to his exhibition in Beijing. He sketched this quick portrait of me in the five minutes he had to spare - while the subway train rocked and bumped along - but unfortunately it bears nearly no resemblance to me. As he got off, he jokingly commented that it had turned into a picture of me when I'm old. A fun story, and a great attempt under the circumstances!