developmentaliste

A thinker, dreamer, idealist, ardent observer and traveller

Category: Social observations

Dreams of Adventure and the Future

The future is a fascinating notion. It can be anything and everything you want it to be. A favourite childhood pastime was walking with my father, hand in hand, eating a stick ice cream and chatting away about what I would do when I grew up.

One day, I had just been introduced to the wonders of the Porche sports car by my friend’s little brother. My father agreed it was a very nice, but an extremely expensive car. A few days later he showed me the Porche on television, saying “remember the car you spoke about? That’s a Porche”.

I was in total awe of its sleek, curvey design. It was a small and cute car with so much personality, and it just zoomed off into the distance. This was my dream car. This was going to be the car I would drive around when I became an adult and started earning my own money. For a while many of our sessions would involve talking about the beauty of the Porche. One day I think my father felt I was ready for a change of topic and said:

“…my little girl, it’s good you know what you want when you grow up, but you must know that you have to work very hard before you can buy it”.

“I will save up for it”, I said.

“Even if you save up, you still have to work hard to earn the money to buy it. In order to get the job you need to earn that amount of money, to allow you to save up to buy a Porche, you need to work very hard. You need to be a good student in school and you’re not doing a good job at that yet, so how will you ever be able to earn the money to save? Dreams are all very good, but you need to work hard at achieving them.”

In reality, dreams are not fixed. They keep changing, evolving and improving. The dreams of a teenager will always be different from those of an adult with more life experience. For many years I felt like the same person, never changing my outlook, always pursuing the same goals, thinking that just a little more patience would eventually get me where I wanted to be. From chasing those dreams like a mad woman, I eventually realised that sometimes tenacity is wasted agony and time. You are actually allowing yourself to wither away. Life is too precious a gift to waste on self pity and wailing over shattered dreams. In these cases, while it is easier said than done, you have to figure out a way to light up the darkness. Dreaming about a better future helps, but sometimes you need to change your visions and paths.

Hence, some people volunteer, they start learning a new skill. They find other ways to meet people and make new friends. When I was getting interviews only to be told they decided to recruit someone internally or the post was cancelled, I decided to treat them as interesting conversations with people I would never get to talk to otherwise. Gradually I realised that if I can advice people on how to get the communication started with the challenging communities concerned, I should be able to figure out a way to develop my own strategies on topics I found interesting. When I started to research on different issues, my creative flow guided me into  different directions. There is much to learn and do.

The thing is, the small steps matter. Even if the adventure turns out different from what you imagined, the trip is still important. I thought I would experience beautiful nature and see fascinating wildlife. Well I did, but instead of ostriches, lions, tigers, elephans, rhinos, hippos, colourful birds and mungooses, blue feet penguins and massive sea tortoises in their natural habitat, I got to see people resembling animals.

They literally personified scorpions, lizards, snakes, rats, mice of various species. Not to mention buffaloes, flea and rabies infected stray cats and dogs. Heck their idiosyncrasies even made seeing a horned snake in Dubai Zoo, for the first time in my life, an amusing experience. Compared to the animal like people I had experienced, the horned snake was rather cute. When I saw it in its chamber in a dopey state I remember thinking “ Hah! Even the the Devil’s  best friend couldn’t escape Hell”. When I told people about it, they thought I was crazy. One even said “you must have felt at home at the Zoo”. Not one of those animal resembling persons were like a cute squirrel, beautiful peacock, colorful parrot or a majestic lion. Yet, all those experiences are priceless, because life is a roller coaster ride in the rain. You just have to know you will get drenched, so you better dress up accordingly.

Finally, one can dream and work towards the future you want. The way life operates, you usually have to make several detours. You can only try your best, every time. There are no shortcuts, and the safari you always dreamt of experiencing may not be as glamourous as you imagined. Similarly, no matter how hard you try, that Porche might never be yours either. However, if you have a driver’s licence you can at least  visit an authorised dealer and take it for a test drive, which is an experience in itself. Nonetheless, you have to admit that life is a blessing because as human being we have the freedom to think and imagine a better world. Some are lucky to actually be able to make a difference. So make use of the present to create the future you want. As mentioned above, it’s easier said than done, but you will be rich in experiences.

Forgiveness and such things…

The ability to forgive is divine. It requires a massive heart with the capacity of a bottomless ocean of generosity. We all make mistakes, we all wish we had chosen or acted differently. We are human after all and we all move within grey zones. What is wrong by others might be right by you and vice versa. I think there is a limit to the damage you can cause others, as well as a cutoff point to the times you can forgive people for their transgressions.

In many instances time heals everything. You come to understand how events come together for the best. In those cases when time passes and the healing process is still ongoing, forgiving becomes an excuse for others to find new ways to damage, hurt and insult you. In these instances, the proverbial turning the other cheek becomes an excuse to slap your face red to their hearts content and a source of entertainment. These instances show that forgiveness is not always the answer, unless it means leaving in order to let go.

There are so many phrases concerning forgiveness. Such as:

“whatever people do, be willing to forgive”.

“Forgive those who wronged you”.

“Forgive, but do not forget”.

The spiritually inclined say the forgiveness is for you not them. When you forgive you let go of the burden of the pain they caused you. I tried to follow the goodwill intended by these saying, but instead of feeling better, I always felt like I was allowing people to walk all over me.

Being human, sometimes an apology is insufficient. I have come across people who willingly apologise, and once granted forgiveness will just find another way to cause your ire and make you look like a fool, yet again. Nevertheless, sometimes forgiveness is the only way to cut your losses and move on. This is because you need to take personal responsibility for allowing yourself, in good faith I must say, to end up on the cross roads to nowhere and walking into whatever closed street life can throw at you. When you tend to end up back at that onerous cross road, you might as well change your outlook and deal with things as best as you can. Hence, forgiveness never granted me peace of mind. Closing the door shut usually did.

Still, everyone kept telling me that I should have an open heart and forgive others no matter what. They also told me to stop acting like a scorned, angry, bitter woman, who was incapable of dealing with the past, let alone focusing on the future. Undoubtedly the future is paramount, and to make the future you want, you have to make the most of your present.

So, in relation with the forgiveness agenda, I started searching for a bullet proof reason why forgiveness was crucial, even if it made me feel angrier at myself. It is a constant struggle to turn that anger into a driving force to pursue creative endeavours. Yet, I believed I had to make a better effort finding the light at the end of the dark, narrow, humid, vermin infested tunnel.

It was during spontaneous study of the Holy Quran that I found the answers to my quest. To my big surprise I was exonerated from the burden of forgiving when I read Surah Tawbah, which I thought would be about ghosts and other invisible spiritual beings. It felt so good to be vindicated. Moreover, I have always believed that when life throws bitter gourds at you, which is probably the least palatable vegetable you can think of, religious texts usually have an answer to your most troublesome concerns. I am far from the ideal Muslim believer, but my heart sang when I read these verses:

78. Know they not that Allah doth know their secret (thought) And their secret counsel
And that Allah knoweth well
All things unseen?

79. Those who slander such of the Believers as give themselves Freely to (deeds of) charity,
as well as such as can find
Nothing to give except
the fruits of their labor
And throw ridicule on them:
And they shall have a grievous penalty.

80. Whether thou ask
For their forgiveness,
Or not (their sin is unforgiveable):
If thou ask seventy times
For their forgiveness, Allah
Will not forgive them:
Because they have rejected Allah and his Messenger; and
Allah guideth not those who are perversely rebellious.

Yusuf Ali, Abdullah (2001) Surah Tawbah in The Meaning of the Holy Quran; (amana publications: Beltsville, Maryland, USA)

 

On an ending note, if you have the strength to do so, always forgive. Sometimes you have to be selective in who you grant forgiveness to. In certain cases it is better to sanitise the negative elements from your surroundings. In other instances, you should show patience because when the other party is making a consistent effort to stay in your life, their efforts should be appreciated. In my opinion it is reassuring to know I have the freedom of choice in these matters.

Farewell to the Past, Greetings to the Future

Life is a colourful maze and the people you interact with can turn navigating the twisted alleys into a fascinating tapestry of colours, shapes, fragrances and repugnant odours. I am finally able to close some very unfulfilling chapters in my life and look towards the future with renewed enthusiasm. I have tried to write something for several months. Considering this is the last day of 2015, it is time to finish the passing year with a few thoughts before I embark on new adventures in 2016 and beyond.

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I realised my mistake within 3 months after moving to Pakistan, but I also accepted that mistakes are part of life. Moreover, being adult means taking responsibility for your decisions.There is a likelihood that even  if had I chosen Denmark, the dream career would elude me. There is a chance the rebellious Muslim in me would erupt. Consequently, I like most ethnic minority Muslims, born and bred in Denmark, would had remained in the “us versus them” bubble of Islamophobia, xenophobia, racism, and 3rd class citizen frame of mind. I would naturally had drifted in that direction, even though the Danes I interacted with would always say  “…but you have to understand we are not talking about you. You are like us.” Yet I was not like them and I had too many unanswered questions about what it actually meant to be Pakistani and Muslim.

The reality is that since I left Denmark, the debates have hardly changed. The same issues are researched and discussed. The same complaints I used to make as a teenager, are still voiced by the professionally educated ethnic minorities. The only difference is that now they are included in the research statistics and hence given due consideration in national policy making. This sort of inclusion is what my parents always argued for when they were discussing social issues with their friends. Through numbers one can see how much ethnic minority communities actually contribute to society in general through taxes, businesses and hence employment generation. We are just as much a part of society as everyone else.

It was good I chose my roots over comforts, but it has been a long journey to finally accept this reality. I know Pakistani society, like it is my own. I know the Muslim world is as hypocritical, judgemental and prejudiced as everywhere else. Moreover, I have come to appreciate the inherent altruism, however faulty, of a democratic political system and the range of opportunities it offers. There is no such thing as a perfect world, a perfect country or a perfect society. It is up to the individual to learn to navigate the social conventions of society. Since I left an advanced society to carve my own path, and as I refused to act like a Roman in Rome; it was out of the question to join the rat race due to peer pressure, from people who thought they could take me for a ride.

Instead I went the other way, I wrapped myself up, like an old woman from a rural village. Albeit with a better fashion sense. I have proved that independence is a frame of mind. I proved that I was more Pakistani than the Pakistanis themselves, despite my heavily accented and gender confused Urdu. I have proved that you can still be spiritual and religious simultaneously, without being old fashioned or boring. I simply refused to lose sight of the things that mattered to me, such as family, respect, and professionalism.  While simultaneously, trying to get along with people you are mentally and socially incompatible with, due to their arrogance and misplaced sense of entitlement. Instead of letting such idiosyncrasies affect you, just stay focused on the end goal  and never shy away from aiming at perfection.

Choosing Pakistan and the Muslim world taught me the best life lessons. From my mistakes I learnt to grab every opportunity, however small, like my life depended  on it. Do as much as you possibly can within the time you are given. This is because sometimes in life you only get one chance. When that chance is gone, you will always wish you had done more, or appreciated it better. This is a pointless feeling to burden yourself with, and no matter what people say, you will always regret the stupid things you do. Furthermore, you tend to find yourself making up for those mistakes later.

I also realize that when my community complains about racism, Islamophobia, being considered 3rd class citizens; however justified they may be, I still think they are much better off in their naturalised home countries, rather than in their countries of origin. In most cases, whatever they have today, they could never had achieved back there. Rather than focusing on the difficulties, be more appreciative of the opportunities you have in the Western world.

I saw my parents work hard while providing for my siblings and I. They were able to give us the best upbringing possible in safe and secure surroundings. However, they were also given the best by their parents in Pakistan, so they had a good idea of what to aim for. Therefore, never lose sight of the good in your life, however insignificant it might seem. Furthermore, greediness is just as bad as ungratefulness. Hence, life will only be as good as you make it.

I carry with me hard earned and valuable lessons. No prior life experience, relationships, academic or professional accomplishments can prepare you for the harsh realities of adulthood. Nevertheless, your common sense and instincts can guide you, but you also need to believe things will work out eventually. It is easier said than done, but sometimes this is the only way forward. Moreover, you have to believe in your own strengths because no one else will.

When I talked to one of my lawyer  acquaintances in Pakistan about my broken dreams and subsequent disappointments, he said “who cares about broken dreams?” Then he looked at me intently and said “build bigger and better dreams. Just know you will do better than before.”

While looking forward to the future with enthusiasm about the adventures in store for me, I can finally close some difficult chapters and move on with my life without a sense of indescribable loss. Finally, to you my Dear reader, I wish you a very Happy 2016. May it be blessed with happiness, prosperity and success.

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Faith & Belief

People of faith, whatever they believe in, and whichever religion they follow, often go through life experiencing existential crises. Their relationship to faith has its own cycles of ebbs and flows. This does not mean they stop believing. They have to find other ways to continue their relationship and connect with the Divine. For Muslims, Ramadan is the month to renew your relationship with the Almighty.

My mother gradually introduced me to fasting. It started with the infant “birdie” fast which would be 1 day during the weekends. Usually I would have breakfasts in the morning and be allowed to drink liquid and then eat properly later in the evening. I kept my first proper fast when I was in 5th grade and it was always a weekend event. When I started at the International School in Copenhagen I had Pakistani school fellows. When I found out that they were all fasting, it just became a normal thing to do. During Ramadan, my fellow Pakistani school fellows and I would have a little communion with each other everyday during the month, and enquire about each other’s fast.

Just for your information, Danes are a very peculiar nation. If they like you, they will never make an issue of your ethnicity or religion affiliations, but accept these colourful aspects as part of your identity. If, for some reason they dislike you, even if they adore, admire and respect your family; you are pretty much on your on your own. Nevertheless, just like in the Muslim world they dislike educated women- at least in my experience- similarly even racists can have a strong sense of humanity and empathy. When I joined my graduating class in high school, Ramadan would be one source of many stimulating conversations.

In Ramadan, you come to understand that eating is an unconscious act. It is a force of nature. During one of my first proper fast, my mother and I went to the post office. By the cash counter were big charity jars of old fashioned boiled candies. I asked my mom to buy me a candy, and I would pack it in a tissue and keep it in my pocket. She was sure I would forget and just eat it, and I ascertained her I would remember. As soon as I got the candy out of the jar, I forgot I was fasting and without thinking put the candy in my mouth. Initially my mom just gave me her incredulously nasty look as if saying:

“I can’t believe what you just did!”

She kept staring at me and when she had finished her transaction I said:

“ what are you looking at me for? You’re staring at me as if I’ve done something wrong.”

Adding a few parental abusive insults she said

“ ….because you have done something wrong! You Devil’s fiend, you made an intention to fast this morning, and just now, you assured me you wouldn’t eat that candy and yet you did…I’m so disappointed in you.”

Immediately I spat out the candy, apologising profusely. Nevertheless, my mother kept claiming I did it on purpose and I was the Devil’s creation and would roast in Hell for this transgression, never to be forgiven.

Even though I grew up seeing my parents practicing Islam, I always considered it such a chore because there were all these strict rules and regulations to follow. It is especially unnerving when everyone around you are celebrating something as colourful as Easter, Christmas, New Year, and eating pork, or cakes, pastries or other delicacies made with lard or pork gelatine. Not to mention adhering to socially constructed, hypocritical, gendered behaviours, which have nothing to do with religion, but only require common sense, a lot of communication and mutual trust. Yet, my parents have always been very particular about illustrating to us what being a practicing Muslim implies. It is a constant struggle and a difficult road to navigate. Yet, there is much solace in making the effort.

The hypocrisy is just something you have to accept as given. Everyone will judge the woman harsher than the man because she is the root of the family. Even if a man has children born out of wedlock with other women, since he is a man, he is only answerable to the Almighty. Nevertheless, in the Koran, both are equally punished for their sins.

The man will get whipped with 80 leather lashes, and the woman gets stoned to death. When discussing technicalities, people say it is discrimination that while adulterous women get stoned to death, men only get punished with 80 leather lashes. In reality, being pelted with stones makes death more immediate than by leather whipping. Yet, how many men have survived 80 leather lashes? Nevertheless, societies are made by people, and the written word is open to interpretation, however flawed.

Hence, while one parent was always the ‘going by the book’ type, emphasising that some things will always be old fashioned and never change, irrespective of current practices and fashions. The other was the hippie type, with a peace, love and harmony mindset. By hippie type, I mean someone who is sufficiently open minded to understand that defying convention is about breaking sterotypes, without losing a sense of your identity, values and principles. Thus, while following rules and being responsible, you should also be a part of the society you live in. In other words, it is easy to go into extremes, whether in the liberal or the fanatic sense.

Nevertheless, the best way is always to take the middle path, but you need experience to understand how to manage this. In other words, many things you will only understand with the passage of time, when you have gathered a fair amount of life experiences. Luckily, both parents always understood the significance of following the rules of life responsibly. Together they understood the significance of exploiting your limits within certain boundaries. Hence, rather than forcing religion upon us, they illustrated what Islam really is about, and how to try to be a practicing Muslim. Even if these things make little sense while growing up in non- Muslim surroundings, as you grow older, you develop your own relationship to faith and religion. Morever, all those rules and regulations actually start to make sense. In a way, it is just like paying your taxes and being a responsible citizen. It is hard work, requires dedication, persistence, and constant swallowing of your ego, even when at times it seems nonsensical.

As a Muslim I am still developing my relationship with my own faith. Yet I fail to fathom the types who say they are spiritual, but not religious. Spirituality is at the very heart of religious practice. It is how you “feel” religion. The Sufis were not just a bunch of wandering, dancing and whirling gypsies. They were religious scholars, who had studied at esteemed centres of learning for several years in many different countries, such as Turkey, Iran, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Syria, Samarkand, Palestine and present day Pakistan, among many places. Yet many seem to overlook this essential fact.

pryer rug

A sufi is a scholarly practicing Muslim, who is  qualified to answer all the existential questions of the believer and help them become better Muslims and human beings. It is not just someone who believes in love thy neighbour as yourself, or believes that through love you shall find the answer to human salvation, without establishing regular prayers or reading the Quran and the saying of the Prophet (pbuh). The same goes for whirling and chanting the Almighty’s blessed names, as if they are some sort of de-stressing meditation method. Yet, these are all part of the worship, with the chanting following the actual prayer. Nevertheless, the sufi method, which includes the chanting, whirling, poetry and music, is how people can feel connected to, and manifest devotion to the divine. However they do not replace the obligatory prayer. Moreover, they are great communal exercises for people wishing to develop greater spiritual awareness.

As for my own circular and twisted journey, I am a mere mortal sinner with a faulty practice. I think each to their own belief. How people chose to practice their faith is a personal matter. In my experience, the so-called “liberal” elements have judged me far more harshly than I would ever judge anyone. Thus, if they do not like to be judged they should not judge others either. It goes both ways. In this connection, religion is an amazing black box system. This is because it allows you to just accept the unanswerables as mysteries of life. The answer will either come to you eventually, or it is never meant to be unravelled.

Education, Knowledge, Learning

Ever since I was a tiny totty, potty, snotty, little thing, it was always implied that books, more than anything, were like diamonds and pearls. They were the keepers of the mysteries of life, your guardian angels, protectors and best friends. Only through books and the written word, can you digest the lessons of life and be taken seriously in the world. Only an education will save you from the dismality of adulthood. Life experience teach you survival skills and the ability to apply knowledge of various forms. They do not replace technical skills. Wisdom does not require an education. Still, in my experience, I am yet to find anyone who would seek legal representation from someone who is not a qualified lawyer. The same goes for an engineer or school teacher.

As soon as I started working I was told to work smart not hard. To this day I fail to understand what that means. Unless that is, you have to make stodgy old men feel young again, massage fragile egos, dumb yourself down and violate whatever sense of integrity you have; just so you can earn a living, generate experiences and realise your dreams. I believe knowledge and education contribute to a better world for everyone. More than a stepping stone and a means to an end, education broadens the mind, teaches you how to think, and aim at becoming a better person. Luckily, I have always been surrounded by overachievers. Whether friends or family, they all illustrated how far hard work, focus, dedication, discipline, honesty, humility and humbleness can take you.

One day, during my school holidays I was bored out of my mind and there was nothing interesting to watch on the television. It was a bright, sunny, summer day and my best friend was away on holiday with her family. I had no one to play with. During one of my whining session I was going on about how bored I was. My mom told me to keep quiet and stop whining

“…I’m bored, you say? What kind of thing is that to say?! Go out in the garden and find something to do….I’m bored hmph!”

My brother, the quick-witted overachiever said”

“Bored? ….only boring people are bored, so that means you’re boring, otherwise you wouldn’t be bored,”

and walked away to dissect some bumblebee, butterfly, or garden furniture because he wanted to explore its construction.

This left my Dad and sister. My sister just listened. When my dad asked why I was bored, I told him I wanted many friends because when my best friend was away on holiday I had no one to play with. At first my father just smiled and listened to my whining and then he said:

“You want friends? I will introduce you to some friends.”

He gently grabbed me by the shoulder and led me towards our bookshelf and said:

“here, these are your friends.”

I looked at the books and then at him in disbelief and uttered contemptuously:

“books?! What fun can I have with books?! They’re not humans, they are not even my age.”

Swallowing his amusement my dad, with a conspiratorial twinkle in his eyes said:

“yes books… but these are not just words written on paper, these are the best of friends you could ever have. You make books your best friends, you will never need the company of people until your friend returns from holiday. Books can take you to unknown places you never knew existed. You can explore the world through books.”

He then handed me the Pearl by John Steinbeck and told me to read it. Considering Steinbeck’s love for words and intricate descriptions, it is a relatively child friendly story.

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Dictionaries save you from misunderstanding contexts and meanings. I never really bothered with them. I used to have a very lackadaisical attitude to education. I have come to understand that knowledge acquisition is a matter of life and death. In this case, if you snooze, you lose. Hence, during my first year at university, my brother asked:

“what do you do if you don’t understand anything?”

“ask the lecturer to explain?”

“…Well that too, but what else? It’s really easy, just look around and you will know what I’m referring to. It’s in this room, right in front of you.”

When he understood it was unclear to me, he said:

“use the dictionary”

“dictionary? … isn’t that for stupid people?”

“Yes, dictionary, …and no, people who use dictionaries are not stupid. It is stupid not to use a dictionary. Trust me on this, you can’t know the meaning of every word. Sometimes one word comes up all the time and if you don’t know what it means you won’t understand what you’re reading. If you don’t understand what you’re reading, you will most definitely fail.”

In retrospect, I didn’t understand a word of what I studied, but in this case, failure was not an option. Well it never is. Even if nothing materializes, at least you know you tried your best. I never got a 2:1, or a glamorous career in international development. Yet, my undergraduate degree is my most cherished possession. It gave me the skills to think independently, outside the box and enabled me to face the world confidently. Moreover, it forced me to respect myself in an otherwise disrespectful environment. It was an all-inclusive ticket to explore different countries and organisational environments.

Interestingly, whether university educated or not, all previous bosses and supervisors considered university education irrelevant. Coming from people with Masters or M.Phil from good universities is rather twisted. Yet, according to them, irrespective of their educational attainments, what matters is experience. As I lacked the latter I was unsuitable for employment. Which is ironic since they were very happy to take my work and ideas, practically for free, before telling me I was a waste of space.

It is amusing how senior management will hire seemingly insignificant people, take their ideas and strategies and take the credit for the nobodies invaluable contribution, which enable the employers to develop their own “Rockstar” status. This could be one of the reasons for the lack of continuity in projects, and might explain the lack of direction every 5-10 years in planning. Still, this discontinuity is what makes international development such a rewarding field. Particularly, due to the constant need for novel, bigger and better thinking and methods. So, in my case, I take the blame for this exploitation because I needed experience about the ways of the world in a professional context. Thus, according to an old AC/DC song “good riddance to bad luck.”

Luckily, I am not the only one with such encounters. However, on behalf of my community of fellow nobodies in international development, I fail to justify such unethical workplace practices, and believe me, it is not for lack of trying. On a positive note, I will say, thank you for the rubbish experiences, the crappy offers, the insignificant or nonexistent remuneration. Not to mention the amazing people I met. Hence, armed with a solid education, in my case it certainly has been my only means of self-defense. Also, I dare say, adulthood makes you master of your own story.

Adulthood requires you to sacrifice family for career prospects and everything it entails. This is how you develop an independent identity. It also one of the reasons you are born into a family. They are supposed to be there for you even after you mess up everything, throw caution to the wind and transgress values and principles. This is how you come to understand their significance. However, those sacrifices should be for something bigger and better than slander, libel and professional dead-ends. This is because in some cases, even if you make those required sacrifices, you still end up with your face down, smudged in cow-dung.

Finally, no one can take your abilities and skills away from you. It is up to the individual to keep finding something to be passionate about, even after the nuclear grenades explode in your face and you have to close another pipe dream. In this connection, education gives you the technical skills to process, synthesise and work with different kinds of materials. Hence, whenever people ridicule educational achievements my mother always says

“…What did they say? …Education is nothing? …Education is everything! …It is the base, the foundation of everything. Without the base or the foundation you can never build anything. Experiences are important to learn how to use knowledge, but how can you construct anything that lasts if you don’t have knowledge? How stupid they are.”

Seasonal Variety

Over the years I have come to appreciate and actually celebrate the coming of winter and autumn as much as spring and summer. Denmark has all 4 seasons, which are beautifully represented through the floral variety in a suburban backyard. Winter was only enjoyable when it snowed and before the snow turned to grey slush. Even if it is minus degrees you never really feel the cold indoors because everywhere is centrally heated. Similarly, Pakistan also has 4 seasons, but winter there is an annoying season for me. The air smells of decomposing rubbish. Due to lack of central heating you need gas heaters and to handle the cold you have to be wrapped up in sweaters and woolen shawls, even indoors.

The only enjoyable part of the winter season in Pakistan, for me, is the seasonal variety in edibles. You can eat dry fruits a plenty, apricots, figs, raisins, mulberries, all kinds of nuts and candies as accompaniment to the latter. It is rather pleasant to have a combination of freshly roasted peanuts with a candy called Rewari, made with raw sugar, clarified butter/Ghee and sesame seeds, with a cup of warm milk or tea and a spoonful of honey.

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The local varieties of carrot and pumpkins are wonderful ingredients in both savoury and sweet dishes because they are juicy, succulent and sweet. Winter is also the season of apples and oranges of different varieties, pomegranate, beetroot, cauliflower, and cabbage.

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In my opinion, Pakistan is the best place for a diet rich in seasonal, and fresh produce. For the foodie in me, there was always room for experimenting with different ingredients and cuisines. Winter was always a favourite season for Chinese dishes. Through cooking I was constantly searching new opportunities to explore Pakistan and its society, like a little child enjoying the frollicking in a playground with swings, slides and climbing castles.

In this connection, I have to say, my parents’ dedication and patriotism is admirable. They always stocked up on rice, pulses, spices, mangoes, sweet meats, dry fruits, decoration pieces and other interesting paraphernalia on our holidays, to ensure their children never lost the taste of Pakistan. However, maybe I took this persistence on belonging and identity too literally. Yet, it was necessary to go to Pakistan to define my own individuality and personal identity. This is because blood will always be thicker than water, but in order to silence the emotional noise of the heart and better listen to the rationality of the mind, you might have to take the long and tortuous road to self-discovery and hence burst that pink bubble of self-delusion that the grass is greener on the other side.

Autumn leaf

In retrospect many people claim the past is truly gone, buried and forgotten. It is also claimed the past makes the present and the present makes your future. In this connection is it even possible to build something out of nothing or sheer ignorance? Hard earned experiences become those tiny drops which eventually form the ocean of your life’s work. I suppose, as long as you just keep on making baby steps towards a distant, hazy goal, you will eventually get there by the time you reach your 60s or 70s. As the adage goes, better late than never. After all, the tortoise won the proverbial race.

In connection with the above, just like the calendar year has different seasons, life has its own cycles of ups, downs and still seasons. They tend to be coloured by joy, laughter, tears and sometimes all of them simultaneously. This is how we grow and heal. We shed old skin, just like plants and trees shed their leaves; grow new ones and bloom as the weather gets warmer.

A year past, passing thoughts and new experiences

 

Mental block is an interesting thing. On the one hand, you are unable to put words down on paper. On the other hand you have all these wormy thoughts and scattered ideas roaming around inside your head, like fish swimming in a pond. It feels like those dot- to-dot drawings, except the image is never completed while trying to connect the points. After my adventures in Pakistan I went searching for other adventures. I found some interesting lectures, conferences and cultural events.

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I received comments about my blog. Some were genuine, constructive comments, such as the necessity of pictures. As for the slightly salty comments I am told I managed to turn a blog into a reality show. Even though I write about people, it is far from a reality show in writing because that would mean I make things up along the way.  My writings may be unfocused in the sense that I keep them varied instead of continuously exploring the same story further. Nonetheless, in my defense I can say that all I do is critically evaluate development conditions and practices as I have observed from the field, across several countries, supported by a lot of reading. I was unaware that my words had such a visual effect, so I guess I should take it as negatively worded compliment. Another follower said I should keep writing irrespective of the negative comments because one can never please everyone. Nevertheless, on a positive note, any private comment is welcome because it means they have taken time out to read my stories. To my few followers, thank you. I really appreciate your interest.

Moreover, my understanding of international politics may be vague, but I am uncomfortable with the image of victimhood portrayed amongst Muslims in the West. Although, in many cases it is justified, I think this also reflects the difficulties associated with living in the global village the world has become. The minority-majority relationship has always been thorny because humanity is complicated. I have also met English people who work in ghetto-like areas inhabited by ethnic minorities and they literally feel like a foreigner in their own country. Looking at it from their perspective it must be a scary scenario, but I’m sure they get exposed to many interesting people and experiences this way that may be unlikely otherwise.

Regarding the events I attended during the past year, I think promoting fair trade is important. I strongly believe that trade is better than aid. Agricultural producers should get a better price for their products. Wherever I travel I always source local produce because I want to get a the taste of the country I am visiting. I also like the thought of supporting that country’s balance of payment. Financial independence paves way for empowerment and emancipation on so many levels. It is related to improved health and education indicators. However, in my opinion, instead of thinking of fair trade as a one-stop solution, it is one out of many approaches to poverty reduction.

I also attended an arts festival. It took place alongside a conference on Islamic Finance. I met someone who explained Islamic finance to me. In a nutshell it is basically investing in businesses that are only halal. This means you cannot invest in tobacco, pork, alchohol or pornography related businesses.

At one of the panel discussions I attended at the conference, one of the presenters mentioned that the biggest challenge continues to be regularization of Islamic finance. The bonds are still area specific and hence not internationally transferable.

Nevertheless, if a financial method is still discussing issues such as how to increase regularization and non–transferability of bonds after more than a decade, it really is not much different from the muddled field of international development where people are still wondering how to decrease maternal and infant mortality rates in for example southern Sudan, just to mention an example. Moreover, this comparison is quite disconcerting, especially considering that the financial sector is supposed to be more structured and experienced with marketization, regularization and transferability issues. Moreover, how different is Islamic finance practices from regular financial practices, apart from following ethical business practices according to religious business principles? When I raised this concern with someone working in the financial sector, I was told that Islamic finance is really just another way of selling financial services. Nonetheless, it is interesting to observe how faith and finance are used to enter other markets in an otherwise faithless environment. Moreover, the range of businesses exhibiting at the conference was quite impressive, ranging from health and bio-tech, food and beverage, education, engineering and financial services.

Another conference I attended was related to Pakistan and the post 2015 Millennium Development Goals Agenda. It targeted the expatriate Pakistani community, or any organization interested in started developing projects in Pakistan and finding new project partners. It was interesting to discover that although Pakistan fulfills all the requirements for debt relief, somehow her debt repayment is not being cancelled. I always thought the fight for debt relief was the most politically impossible campaign, but it was mentioned in a conversation that it is the most successful, at least compared to the other campaigns aimed at poverty eradication.

The organizations from Pakistan were an eclectic mix. I got to see a few NGO heads in person. I had heard about them when I used to work in Pakistan. As for the expatriate Pakistanis presenting at the conference, it was equally eventful to see and hear these people of significance in person. Being familiar with the quality of NGO heads in Pakistan, I think the selection criteria to qualify for participation at this conference must have been quite high because the education level of all the presenters from Pakistan was unquestionable. I am always keen to know what the policymaking/research focus is regarding Pakistan, particularly from a donor perspective. In this connection, I think the conference was ideal.

On a final note, last year, I had the privilege of many fascinating conversations and interesting encounters of the unexpected kind.  At the art festival held together with the Islamic finance conference, a recurring message was that we are all story-tellers, we just need to find our own medium of expression. To illustrate, a poet-artist at one of the panel discussions I attended, emphasized that we need to care more about others and our future.

It is due to lack of caring there are so many failed relationships, suicides and environmental damage. I agree. We need to care more and to take responsibility not just for ourselves, but be responsible towards others too. I asked the poet-artist in connection with what he said:

“people tell me that I should just keep quiet, keep my head down and not carry the world on my shoulders. It would certainly make my life easier, but if you don’t speak out against oppression or stand up for others, then no one else will, and you are the only one who can do this. What do you do in such a scenario?”

He said:

“tell them… You don’t carry the world on your shoulders, but they can walk along with you and you can walk the path together.”

In this connection, I think events related to fair traide, artfests and Islamic finance, post 2015 millennium development goals agenda, food and nutrition, faith and finance all indicate that we should carry more of the world on our shoulders by holding our leaders accountable. The world can only be as good as we make it. Moreover, we can all do the small things such as accepting that some people are different because they have different experiences. It only requires a little bit of common sense.

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Gender talk

All over the world, women are the weaker sex. Even in the West, women have to fight for equal pay, workplace benefits, executive posts and boardroom representation. In the Muslim world, women have God-given rights which due to male insecurities tend to be denied them. Whether in the East or West, women are deliberately made to fight a glass ceiling, or made to exploit their female assets. When everything is ruined in the process, the man will blame it on the woman for being ambitious and exploiting male weaknesses to their advantage and she is consequently punished. Classical literature, fairytales and folklores deal with this aplenty. In cases where the woman is not directly punished, but fate plays Twister, even her cunningness and manipulation is unable to save her divine hanging by the forces of nurture and nature. In all this, Man himself is not blameless.

Over the years I have come across strong women of varying degrees. Successful career women, some educated and successful, others just very experienced and successful. The domestic housewives or working women I have been exposed to in my travels, are mostly very strong dictators, queens within the four walls of their homes. In one instance the sister in laws were controlling their brother’s family, even to the point of making him take his frustrations out on his wife and daughters through physical abuse. The wife was married to him against her wishes. When she told her father, that death was preferred to marrying this fellow, he beat her up with his walking stick and forced her to agree to marry the man.

In Islam, no one can force you to marry anyone unwillingly. Unfortunately, many people are, resulting in mismatched couples. This sort of poisonous liaison of fate affects the children, because in the case of the women, they will even use their children as a tool to control the husband. In the case where the wife is the victim of fate, the husband will beat the wife and children for no reason, as mentioned above. The husband will even go to the extent of limiting wife’s and the children’s social interaction with maternal family relatives because he does not feel respected by his in-laws.

These examples serve to illustrate that spousal insecurities are manifested in many ways, but it is important to understand that love and affection is not won through force, cunningness and manipulation. Love cannot be bought, it is won through the heart. How you treat others is very important if you want them to like you, or even want to consider a future with you because no one has any entitlement over another person.

In this case, a mother obviously wants the best for her children, including a suitable spouse. However, just because she won the lottery by getting a prime example of the male species for a husband, who fulfill her rights, looks after her every need. In some cases to the point of doing the household laundry, ironing her and their children’s clothes and polish their shoes, she has no right to expect that she can dominate the ones she wants her children to get married to. Fate plays funny tricks, what goes around comes around, even if redemption happens 20 years later. Therefore, if you want good things to happen to you, you better keep the good acts flowing like a river and count your blessings when happy times finally arrive, because they do. When they do, always remember the unhappy, difficult times, when it seemed like there was no light at the end of the tunnel. Then pat yourself on the back for surviving it respectfully.

In my opinion there is more truth in a horror story, than some cute and funny rom-com. Moreover, some of the lives I have observed over the years, resemble a scary movie or a Greek tragedy more than anything else. When salvation finally does arrive, some people appear to have forgotten their past and joined the bandwagon of ungratefulness, greed and irresponsibility. To lead a successful, content and complete life, requires a lot of hard work, sacrifice and patience. There really are no shortcuts, however at some point in life we all hit rock bottom. People just handle their issues differently, some, by the grace of the Almighty, better than others.

True, women are considered weaker than men. Their share of inheritance is half than the male heir’s, in a courtcase 2 women need to give statement. Nevertheless, they can inherit and own property. Moreover, the husband has no claim on the wife’s income. However, she is entitled to a share of his income to run the household as well as for her own grooming and maintenance. This illustrates that if women have rights, she also has responsibilities towards her husband. She should obey him, spend his money sensibly, be grateful if he is kind, caring, and attentive. Moreover, she should never complain about him or accuse him for no reason. However, it takes a certain sagacity of mind to understand this, which most of the tyrant queens I have observed in the developing world severely lack. It is easy to get emotional about the plight of women around the world, but sometimes I think that the discussion of gender equality overlook the crimes against men. I know of cases where educated men get both physically and psychologically abused by their less educated wives. It appears as if they want to punish the husbands for their own lack of intelligence and common sense.

In the above case, when I discussed female domination and male subjugation with other married men, most say that a woman will only go that far if the husband allows her to cross that limit. To a certain extent they are right, but there are good men out there who don’t believe in beating the wife just to get her to comply, even if she deserves it. There are good men out there who don’t go all Uncle Scrooge, or divorce their wives or take a second or third wife, or mistresses because they can’t stand the sight of the first wife that was chosen for them by their parents. Just because they can, or because they are unable to control their wandering cravings. These men are also good fathers to their children. Such men are true gems. They deserve appreciation and respect. If women are victims of structural inequalities, men are just as vulnerable. This aspect of gender discrimination tends to be overlooked in the gender and development discourse, although it is acknowledged that gender issues include both men and women, but for some reason, the plight of women are more visible.

Nevertheless, when discussing women equality issues with an outspoken journalist, she said:

“men and women are different, just look at our biology, men don’t carry babies, women do. Men can’t feed babies, women do. By virtue of our different biologies, our responsibilities are different. In that case if we demand equality then men will treat us like men, they will stop doing the small things they do, such as opening the doors for us, or stepping aside when a woman passes by and it doesn’t look nice”.

Even in the West, successful families depend on the woman, the mother and wife. I know someone who once saw a high flying PR executive and, director of her own company, iron her husbands shirt, the person I know asked:

“what are you doing ironing your husbands shirts? I thought that’s only something eastern women do”.

The successful, highflying PR executive said:

“look, this has nothing to do with East or West, or being suppressed. This is my duty. My husband only wears shirts ironed by me”.

In conclusion, there is a difference between equality and empowerment. Legal approaches should address women issues, and equality by law is essential. However it is equally important to consider the differences in roles and responsibilities between men and women because in many societies they determine the distribution of influence. Where the rights are clearly stated they should be implemented, because only then can a society be progressive and modern.

Dating Guru

Relationships are one of life’s fickle aspects. Some people just get them, they know what to do to catch and keep a person. Others just wander through life being exposed to the colours and patterns of human characters, but never really catching anything. Another theory is they have no idea what they want, so they are unable to see what is in front of them. Or maybe they just haven’t found the right one which makes their glue stick. There are also those who use long strips of Sello tape because that’s the easiest way to catch flies. Anything is better than nothing, if only for the procreation of the next generation.

I suppose, if you have lived life to the fullest, turned over every stone on your path, been there done that, you might be willing to settle and compromise, if only to grant your parents some peace of mind in their old age. In the case where screwing up and second chances are luxuries you can only dream of, there is nothing like the blessings of unintended consequences.

Sometimes seeking advice from professionals is useful. Dietitians, recruitment consultants, spiritual people, and style advisors and anyone in the wellbeing guidance business can guide you in the right direction. You never know what kind of new perspectives you gain.

One day I thought it was about time I consulted a dating expert. I know such professionals exist because they have authoritative newsletters, tempting you to buy their books. After a bit of googling and checking events I came across a dating guru’s free workshop. I was familiar with the name so I signed up for it, looking forward to an outing where I would acquire some practical insight.

I must admit the dating guru himself is really handsome, and capable of selling a service which just requires a lot of persistence and an openness towards new experiences. I think more than anything, if you are looking for new holiday experiences, spending the kind of money on the retreats arranged by his team, and the follow-up events to practice your new skills, might be worth it. I don’t think the stuff he said was rocket science, but he had good presentation skills. In fact so good, he reminded me of those property dealers in Dubai who set up promotional stalls in malls to attract customers for their upcoming residential projects, which are pre-paid in installments over a couple of years.

Much of what he says in the workshop is already written in many self-help books. However, hearing the things and illustrated through real life experiences was interesting. Moreover, dating is just another life phase leading to other things and stages. I don’t believe you can skip the learning curve process. Sometimes it takes longer to learn the lessons. Sometimes you just have to accept defeat, only to change your approach and focus. Other times you just have to let go, because even if something is the best, it may not be right for you. However, any relationship requires hard work and dedication to survive. Individuals are chemical beings, they don’t run according to a manual.

Hence, the dating guru commanded to be proactive, confident and strategize. Just like a good massage depends on hitting the right pressure points, similarly, catching a person requires pushing certain pressure points to engender the kind of changes you want in your life. Just keep talking to people.

The person who coordinated the workshop I attended was also one of his former clients. He would often cite her example of how she was having difficulties finding a partner, but after joining the dating guru’s workshop and attending his retreats, less than a year later she was carrying her partner’s child. She was his personal guarantee that his strategies worked with anyone who joined his programme. Moreover, anyone who booked his weekend retreat through the free workshop would get a 20% discount off the original price.

After his presentation, he opened the floor for a Q & A session. I had a question brewing in my mind during his talk and I was interested in his feedback. I told him,

“I come from a very close- knit family background and a very strict way of life. However, people I come across through travels and work find it hard to understand that considering such a strict life I have good interpersonal skills and able to deal with the most annoying and difficult people. In fact, according to them I’m not supposed to have those skills.”

Initially, I guess he had to digest everything I told him. Once he replied he said:

“Oh really? As for your background, it has nothing to do with your background. Maybe you’re not as confident as you think,”

and continued onto other questions. Another tip he gave during the sessions was never to behave in a clingy way. Just show you have other stuff to do besides focusing on him.

I think, in general the free workshop was an interesting outing. It is a good way for him to earn money by offering a discount for women who need new travel experiences. Or it could be another way to meet people in a similar relationship situation as themselves.

The next day I received a follow up call from the dating guru’s team. It was a good 30 minutes conversation, trying to entice me to sign up for the weekend retreat, and enquiring about the quality of the workshop. I thought it was useful and informative and the handouts were great. He did ask whether it was something worth paying for, I thought so, and once my schedule allowed for it I would most definitely join the weekend workshop. This is because you can always improve your social skills.

He was quite persistent. In fact so persistent, that I got a good answer to my question without mentioning it. He said the same issue was raised about people from more conservative backgrounds. He had clients from Dubai and other countries in the Middle East, such as Iran and Turkey. His female client faced the same issues as Westerners, but once they joined his programme they had managed to successfully get marriage proposals and they were happily married. This only proves that it has nothing to do with your cultural background, but your strategy in approaching how to met more men and find a suitable guy. That was a very sellable explanation, except I’d rather spend that amount on an international plane ticket, inclusive hotel stay, than a weekend stay at some luxury country house.

Nevertheless what you think is the best for you, might not be, and what you think is the worst for you, may be the very best…. If only you know. Therefore, in life, choosing rubbish over glitter sometimes teaches you to identify a bad deal better than when you are used to getting the good stuff and suddenly have to accept rubbish as if it is gold. I think these are pretty much the rules of the dating game.

Once you are able to identify a bad deal you should never compromise on your actual worth, but always be the one willing to explore options until the bitter end. If things don’t work out, it was never meant to be and no one can blame you. I think you don’t need a dating guru to tell you all this, you just need faith in yourself. Try to be a nice person that people want to be around. Be persistent and hardworking because money don’t grow on trees. If you still feel the need to consult a dating guru, sign up for a free workshop to get a discount. This is because on a postive note, some might actually benefit from this kind of advice service.

Hello world!

As far back as I can remember, I have been told the pen is a mighty power. The power of the pen is mightier than the sword. If you know how to write well, you can change minds and win over hearts. Having the skill of good expression is different from knowing how to write.

One thing thing I can’t stand is a badly written book, article or other piece of writing, particularly on an interesting topic. It’s an onerous task to read something that is badly written, but you need the information on those pages so you have to go on till the end. The worst part of a badly written book is when it has been well researched, but somehow the author has not managed to convey the connection between his/her expertise into the writing and the text resembles dead wood. I think it’s a waste of paper. On the other hand, sometimes badly written books can compensate  for lack of information on a certain topic. In this case, even a badly written book is an asset. So, it all depends on perspective and the need for information, badly written or not. So always be good at expressing yourself. Or at least try to.

I love detailed descriptions. I love dissecting information and analysis is food for thought to me. I also love observing people, places, art, artifacts, movements and production processes. They are tapestries of life, and in a way our stories are all a patchwork in the making.

Some friends used to tell me that I should write my thoughts and that way share my insights. I know I have always been good at talking. That’s easy to do. You just open your mouth and luckily if something sensible comes out, you’re on the safe side. However being a good talker or conversationalist is something different. Moreover, you should also know when to just keep quiet. Even when you have a right to your opinion, there will always be people who believe you should be silenced at all costs, because your ideas clash with their world views and position in the bigger details of different shades of grey.

Anyhow, about the power of the pen being mighty, several escapades, experiences, and subsequent observations later, I finally managed to create sufficient stories for a blog. They were lying idle on my laptop, always tagging along wherever I went on my travels in this big world. I was never ready to share my stories until now.  I’m sure even once they have all been edited and posted, they will gather dust on the world wide web, until I remember to tell people about them.

All my entries have been written over the years, so they are quite dated. They are reflections on my travels, life experiences, public lectures and people I met when out and about. Sometimes they may be unrealistically optimistic as they were written from a first impression burst of creativity. Whether negative or positive, they’re my observations and understanding of anthropology, development studies, geography and general international affairs.