A sweet, welcoming and noisy people, but one also endowed with a certain shyness, fruit of its Portuguese/African mix. In this city of so much talk, a constant sea-breeze blows where time has never acquired the speed of the large urban centres. The topography is privileged: nestled between the ocean and the hillside, the city splits into the Upper and Lower Cities, both facing seaward. In this work, Jorge Amado sketches a guide to the streets and mysteries of São Salvador da Bahia de Todos os Santos - the city of Bahia, “black par excellence” -, founded in 1549. The author describes the poor and upper-class neighbourhoods, the fairs and markets, the city’s countless hills and streets, and the surrounding beaches of Itapuã, Amaralina, Pituba and Farol da Barra. More than just a map of place, the book also chronicles the customs of the Bahian population, speaking on a range of features, such as the churches, the macumba rituals and the candomblé terreiros (ritual sites), the typical foods, the cleaning of Nosso Senhor do Bonfim church, and the worship of Iemanjá, always highlighting the miscegenation of the people and the contradictions in their at once libertine and conservative spirit. Contrary to the historical and interpretive effort to understand Salvador, Jorge Amado accentuates the mystery that imbues the city. Where does it come from? Nobody knows. Is it from the pounding drums of candomblé? The slender fishing boats in the quays? From the churches? The market? Baixa dos Sapateiros? The author’s advice is that we not even try to decipher the city’s secrets, as they pervade the body, soul and the very heart of the people of Bahia.
Illustration by Carlos Bastos
Written in 1944, this portrait of the city of Salvador was published the following year. Though the author revised and updated the book over time, the bulk of the text did not change substantially from edition to edition, particularly because “Bahia has not changed in its fundaments, in its antique beauty and its problems”, in the words of Jorge Amado himself. A hymn of praise to the city of Bahia, the book nonetheless avoids the gloss of the tourist guide. Though it exalts the beauties and qualities of the Bahia capital, it does not shrink from its mysteries and pain. Jorge Amado recalls that the city’s streets still bear the marks of slavery and that chronic health and housing issues continue to affect the poorer segments of the population. At the beginning and the close of the book, the author addresses an imaginary female reader, who he invites to see the city first-hand, in both its qualities and its dramas. The same procedure toward the reader was used in two other works from this period: The ABC of Castro Alves and The Knight of Hope. Echoes of the author’s political activities can also be felt in the text, as in the year of its publication Jorge Amado was elected federal deputy for the Brazilian Communist party. The book retains the spirit of the historical moment in which it was written, with references to the Second World War and to the global geopolitical panorama. For Jorge Amado, this gives the book the flavor of the “historical document”; a description of life in a Brazilian city during the war against Nazi-fascism.
Mystery trickles across the city like oil; sticky, everyone feels it. Where does it come from? Nobody knows for sure. Is it from the pounding drums of candomblé on voodoo nights? From the spells cast by milkmen and bakers on their morning rounds through the streets? From the slender fishing boats in the market quays? From the Captains of the Sand, adventurers of eleven years of age? Is it from the countless churches? The tiles, the storeyed houses, the smiley Negroes, the poor dressed in multi-colour? Whence this mystery that surrounds and haunts the city of Bahia? She’s been called the “Black Rome”; “Mother of all the cities of Brazil”, Portuguese or African, steeped in history, legendary, maternal and priceless. She is, like the legend of Yemanja, the Black goddess of the sea, a target for our Oedipus complex. The Baianos love her like a mother and a lover, with a tenderness somewhere between the filial and the sensual. Here are the great Catholic churches and basilica, but also the macumba ritual sites, the heart of the Black Brazilian’s fetishistic cult.