ISLAM IN AFRICA: A Journey to Touba, Senegal
The photographs included in this exhibition were selected from a larger body of work that explores the annual Islamic pilgrimage 'Le Grand Magal de Touba', located in central Senegal, West Africa. Katzenstein was originally introduced to the Magal through a short segment of the documentary series The Africans that aired on public television in 1986. He learned that for three days each year Mouride (a Sufi brotherhood based in Senegal) pilgrims from all over Senegal and the world congregate in the sacred city of Touba to commemorate the exile imposed by the French colonists on Cheikh Amadou Bamba, also known as Serigne Touba, the founder of the brotherhood. During the Magal the population of Touba increases from approximately 900,000 to over 4,000,000.
Katzenstein's project began in New York City in 1987, where he met and photographed the life and rituals of local Senegalese street vendors. Later in that same year he traveled to Touba during the time of the Magal and stayed with families of the young men he had befriended in New York. The trip was very successful, but he had remained an outsider in Touba and yearned to have more access to the inner workings of the Mouride brotherhood.
Fast-forward 16 years to 2003. In October of that year Katzenstein was introduced to Cheikh Fara Gaye at a prayer for peace event in New York City (he is a Mouride disciple from Senegal who is now living in Philadelphia). In the aftermath of the events of September 11th there were a lot of misunderstandings about Islam in general, and Katzenstein was searching for a way to explore different facets of the religion in a positive way. He approached Cheikh Fara Gaye that evening with the proposition of traveling together to the next Magal in the spring of 2004, and to his surprised his invitation was accepted. Katzenstein's goal was to delve deeper into rituals of the holy city of Touba with Cheikh Fara Gaye's help and guidance, and to explore the positive aspects of Islam. It was to be a remarkable journey for both of them, and the photographs presented here are a testament to their successful collaboration.
The exhibition takes us on that journey. We begin with the physical journey from Dakar to Touba. This four-hour trip by car expands to up to 15 hours immediately preceding and during the time of the Magal. Vehicles cram all the roads leading to the sacred city, causing gridlock and accidents, but the excitement and joy of the pilgrims never seem to diminish. Many travel to Touba by train. The local station, which is tranquil during the rest of the year, teems with arriving visitors, and often scores of young boys wait anxiously for the next influx of pilgrims.
The Mouride spirit is evident everywhere throughout the sacred city as pilgrims visit sacred sites where Cheikh Amadou Bamba once roamed. The Baye Fall serve the community by publicly displaying their love for Allah, and they also take on the roll of overseeing traffic control throughout the city. Poetry, song, and ecstatic moments abound. Markets spring up on every thoroughfare, selling a wide variety of items both religious and nonreligious. Visits to the compounds of Cheikhs and Marabouts take up much of the pilgrims' schedule. The Magal is a time of great joy for all who participate.