A thinker, dreamer, idealist, ardent observer and traveller

Category: Travels

Culinary Journeys

I love juicy fruits. Sometimes I do not feel like drinking plain water. Having squashes during winter seems a bit strange to me. I tried drinking fruit flavoured green teas. Unfortunately, the artifical essences overpower the bits of fruit that are the namesake of the products. One of the pleasures of travelling is that you get introduced to new ways of consuming fruits. In this case fruit teas, which you can easily make at home. When I went to Colombia once, I was introduced to a burst of flavours dreams are made of.


Bright lights of Cartagena

When I was in Columbia, one of the interesting experiences was drinking fruit teas. I even got to taste a pumpkin spice latté type drink. Made with wholesome ingredients, devoid of artificial flavourings. Discovering that one could create a hot drink with pumpkin pulp flavoured with cinnamon and a touch of nutmeg was a completely new experience and emphasised the connection between food and culture.

I am aware that different geographical regions have their own cuisines. They may use similar spices in different ways. The cooking methods may even be similar, such as in the South East/East Asian stir fries. There are multinational variations of the patty-puff that South Asians know as the samosa, the Arabs know as sambusek, Indonesians and Malaysians call curry puff. In other words the same thing, different pronounciations, if not interpretations. Similarly, what the Indians call aloo tikki, the Pakistanis call aloo ka cutlet, or the English call potato cutlet. Hence while food and drinks have a way of bringing people together, they are also ways to get an insight into cultural relationships with ingredients.

Colombia is a beautiful country. Apart from the natural beauty, I was introduced to an entirely new world of anti-oxidant rich fruits and foods. My fruit obsession was catered to. I became acquainted with different varieties of passion fruits. I was only aware of the tiny wrinkled dark purple version. The yellow version is called grenadilla. It is not wrinkled and compared to the purple version, significantly bigger. The other version is greenish/ greenish yellow and called maracuja, which is usually used to make fruit tea due to its slightly bitter taste. It is also used as an alternative to lemon juice in culinary dishes.

Another interesting fruit I tried was chontaduro, also known as palm peach. It is a very fleshy, but slightly dry fruit and rich in Vitamin A. It is sold as a street food. You can choose to either have it drizzled with honey, salt or just plain. From my experience it really beats any kind of cravings you might have for sweet or salty snacks.


When I went to Cartagena, I tried another fruit called Sapote. In Colombia they have black sapote and South American Sapote. I tried the South American Sapote. This is an interesting fruit. It has brown skin, a little less hairy than a kiwi fruit. Or shall I say, more like a shaved kiwi fruit. It is about the size of a cantaloupe melon. While slightly less juicy, it has the same colour on the inside and has a tart sweetness like a mango.

As for delicious food, I feasted on black squid ink risotto and different versions of ceviche to my hearts content. Raw fish pieces, prawns and tiny squids and calamari “cold-processed” in the citric acids of lemon juice have always fascinated me since I was introduced to the concept on a television cooking show. Some ceviche versions are more fruity due to the addition of mango and papaya instead of sliced onions. I even tried a version with maracuja instead of lemon juice which rendered a sweet sourness to the dish. I also indulged in a gold covered chocolate cake and a succulent cheese cake.

gold covered chocolate cake

One thing I like about buying fruit from the street peddlers in Colombia is that they peel and slice it for you on the spot. When you buy it from a stall keeper, the fruits are usually already peeled, so you can walk along eating it with a wooden tooth pick.

Finally, as for snacks, I am familiar with chili flavoured chocolate, which is rather unappealing to my tastebuds. However I sampled chili-mango flavoured ice lollies, which was an interesting combination. Nevertheless that might be because the Pakistani, or shall I say South Asian fruit salad is spicy. The spice mix used, called chaat masala, contains chili, black pepper, cumin and coriander, black salt and dried mango powder, together with the sweetness of the seasonal fruits blend well to create a pleasant sweet sourness. If you like that kind of flavoursome combinations that is.


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.

Theoretical ponderings, fieldwork and election fever

The thing about research and fieldwork is that it is unnecessary to sit in an air-conditioned office somewhere in the F-sector or Diplomatic Enclave in Islamabad to be doing development-anthropology…stuff. All you need is hop into a taxi or take a trip on the public transportation such as vans and buses, and you will experience the colours of society. I chose to conduct fieldwork on the upcoming elections in Pakistan.

In my opinion, the theories of anthropology tend to be out of touch with many things. Still, this field of study through its in-depth studies exposes previously unknown ways of life, knowledge and wisdom. In certain cases the insight of anthropologists contribute to criminal investigations. On a theoretical level, the reason I think all the theories are wobbly is because sometimes when reading all those texts I wonder if the theorists actually know what they are discussing. Society, culture and community are not supposed to be so difficult to describe or identify. Hence just immersing yourself in your surroundings will save you a lot of headache inducing mental acrobatics.

Nowadays in Pakistan, there is election fever. From the media it seems the sitting government hopes the Army will intervene and martial law will become the order of the day. Heaven forbid! In order to gain a better insight I decided to partner up with a key informant. According to the people we spoke with during our adventure, they were fed up with the current set up and wanted change. Some of the transporters, such as taxi drivers and van drivers voted PPP in the previous election and with a few exceptions, most would vote PML-N this time. Moreover, most skilled people such as plumbers, carpenters, masons, interviewed are also saying they will vote for Nawaz Sharif. The same goes for shop and stall keepers such as juice, fried food, fruit and vegetable sellers.

In Islamabad, most of this trader category belongs to the Rawalpindi and Chakwal area. Their argument being that since Nawaz Sharif is an established businessman, he has experience in setting up factories and steel mills so he knows the significance of labour and employment creation. They also said that unlike the PPP who siphon all their wealth to offshore accounts or buy properties abroad, Nawaz Sharif re-invests his looted wealth in the country, despite being corrupt.

However, this is not entirely true. Nawaz has invested a lot of money in businesses and franchises in the UK. According to my information, he settled some 20 families in Essex last time he was deposed from power by Musharraf. These families are running his businesses for him in the UK. Even Rehman Malik, the former interior minister is said to have a few restaurants in Southall, London. Nonetheless, in retrospect, it was during Nawaz’s government Pakistan became a nuclear power and he had the Islamabad Lahore Motorway built, which paved the way for other infrastructural projects, continued during Musharraf’s government.

Moreover, even the professional class in Lahore, such as lawyers and doctors said they would vote for PML-N. This provincial government has increased the wages for doctors, as well as pensions. Money talks, because money enables better comforts, so I can understand their logic.

Another taxi driver gave me an interesting insight into voting decisions within the household. This taxi driver belongs to Chakwal, a town in the Potohar region. His father-in-law is the naib nazim in his area, where the local MP belongs to PML-N. He said all his relatives, as well as his wife would vote for PLM-N so he would have to vote for this party too. His father-in-law is also his paternal uncle. Another reason he is obliged to vote for PML-N is because his brother is the personal assistant of Chaudhry Nisar, who is the former leader of the opposition in the National Assembly.

The taxi driver said that families have split up due to election votes. One of his friends was married to the local MP’s daughter, when he chose to vote for another party instead of for his father-in-law, his wife took their children and left her husband. The father- in- law did not even bother returning his daughter to her family to prevent a divorce. I would take this story with a pinch of salt and yet I am unable to rule out the veracity of this story entirely. This story illustrates that if it is not the local feudal landlord who decides who the villagers and peasants vote for, it is the family, irrespective of who the individual wants to vote for.

I always thought votes were secret. Unless the names are printed on the voting ballot in Pakistan that is, or the votes are checked before being passed forward to the counting authority. Either way, in such a scenario, these conditions prevent free and fair elections and the development of a democratic mindset.

When asked about Imran Khan, a juice and fried food seller mentioned he is inexperienced in running a country. Others when probed said “actually no one guides us on whom to vote for so we are just following the trend within our community. By the juice stall, a lecturer in management said he would vote for Imran Khan because there is a need for change. A plumber said that Imran Khan is inexperienced and he is not even married. My key informant pointed out that he was married once, but got divorced very publicly. The plumber replied:

“well he doesn’t have a wife, as the leader of a country that doesn’t look good.”

My key informant said:

“well, neither does Zardari. His wife won the election for him, but got assassinated, for him to take over the reigns of government.”

Nevertheless, the younger generation of students and professionals is trending towards Imran Khan and his party, despite his inexperience. However, the question remains is will they actually vote PTI or follow the orders of their parents and other allegiances?

Anyone interviewed were not enthusiastic about the cleric Dr Tahir ul-Qadri, even some of the more religious minded respondents said he was a trouble maker. What surprised me was that the more religious taxi drivers wearing a green or white turban or prayer caps, were more inclined towards the more moderate political candidates, as opposed to the more openly religious such as Maulana Fazl-ur-Rehman.

Many mentioned they would vote for a certain candidate because of his moderate views. Moreover another taxi driver said this particular candidate is also a very good person. This respondent said the politician belongs to his area and every time someone passes away or there is a calamity, this politician will participate in the funerals and will empathize with them during their loss.

“It means a lot for us poor people that someone like him is willing to sit with us and pray with us. The other party politicians will just say a lot of things, take our votes and we will never hear from them again, but this politician will participate in our difficulties.”

These responses show that even the more religious social segment are not interested in an Islamist state-government, or a state run by some loose cannon Taliban elements. Pakistan despite being an Islamic Republic is far too moderate to allow the conservative forces to take the reigns of government. Besides, even the more religious social segments do not trust clerics who are politicians, calling them turncoats, liars and frauds. None of them trusted the cleric Dr Tahir ul-Qadri, or even Maulana Fazl-ur-Rehman as politicians.

“Once such people join politics they become of the world and they lose sight of their spiritual role.”

In conclusion, election in Pakistan has the potential to engender positive change. Nevertheless, according to the media and conversations with the general public, governments are not elected, they are selected. Even if people vote for PTI or another party, most likely it will be old faces changing chairs. The question is, with the world watching, and the Pakistani context of government formation and governance, how can elections even be free and fair in such a toxic environment? Yet, a democratic setup is preferable to a military dictatorship, however democratically inclined it may appear.

Israel/Palestine Jerusalem

I never understood the Israel/Palestine conflict. I never understood why people who once upon a time lived together can suddenly turn against each other. Many things about this conflict and its history are not written in books or taught in schools, not because it is a big conspiratorial secret, or a Pandora’s box. Rather, it is about the complexities of human minds and hearts. Many things about this conflict have to be observed and experienced.

Every Muslim is very sore about the Israel/Palestine conflict, and rightly so. Bait ul Muqaddas is the first qiblah. Muslims used to bow in prayer facing the Temple of the Dome. It is from here Prophet Muhammad went to Heaven to meet the Almighty. It is a beautiful mosque. Equally beautiful is the Al  Aqsa Mosque, which was originally built by Salah-uddin. I can see where the Ottomans got their inspirations from when building their amazing mosques. Although I have only been to Istanbul I can say they are all so beautiful it is difficult to pick a favourite. I don’t remember which mosque our tour guide said that the marbles you see on the walls represent the devil and they are of the same marble which is in the Al Aqsa mosque in Palestine. I didn’t know the Al Aqsa mosque and Bait ul Muqaddas were different, but now I do.

The Al-Aqsa compound where both the Al-Aqsa mosque and Temple of the Dome Mosque are located is a serene place, the Temple of the Dome Mosque is on a hill, where you can get a good view of the surrounding areas. You can see church tops and the Jewish quarters. There are olive trees, children having classes and minarets. In the morning the classrooms are filled with children getting lessons. During their recesses the boys play football. There is harmony between people and their surroundings, and the setting is absolutely beautiful. I felt so lucky to be there.

The Qiblah/ direction of the Muslim prayer was changed to the Kaabah in Mecca to avoid confusion with Judaism and to create distinction between the two religions. The Prophet Muhammad was told by the Almighty during Salaat to change the direction. Hence, the mosque with 2 qiblahs in Medina. Now that I have seen both the qiblahs, I have greater appreciation and understanding of the story of the changed prayer directions.

These pilgrimages are important to develop a connection between faith and practice and the significance of acknowledging other belief systems, even if you disagree politically. Islam developed from Judaism and Christianity and share the same messengers. We all share the messages of Abraham, Isaac, Moses, Jesus, Noah, Joseph, Zachariah, Solomon, David and many more, but as mentioned in an earlier entry, the 3 faiths have different interpretation of events.

Having heard so much about the Wailing Wall, watched documentaries about it and seen it in the news, I was not to refuse the opportunity to see it myself. My friend who had been there recently told me about the traditions when approaching the wall which appealed to the anthropologist in me, so I was well prepared to embark on a new cultural and religious experience.

When we asked about the Wailing Wall the guards said you mean the Wall of Barak? When we described it, they called it the Wall of Barak. It is located in the western quarters of the old city. After the passing the security we were told not to take any pictures, although people were taking snaps with their mobile phones. The men have to wear the yamura, and if you don’t have one you are supplied a white nylon/polyester one. After passing security, you enter a big compound and at the end of the compound, towards the Temple of the Dome Mosque is the Wailing Wall. I expected there would be more people and I didn’t know it was divided between male and female section until I saw it. I had my piece of paper with my wishes written on it. I walked towards the wall slowly, found a crevice to put my piece of paper into, touched the wall with my right hand and was just grateful for the experience and walked slowly backwards, one step at a time.

In the women’s section some where by the wall, reading the Torah, others sitting on chairs by the wall. A few were sitting reading the Torah, facing the wall by the partition between the male and female section. I had always thought women were not allowed near the Wailing Wall. But as mentioned above, many things have to be seen and experienced to be understood in their actual context. As I was leaving the female part of the area there is a water fountain, some Jewish girls and ladies were filling their thermos or water can with this water. I washed my hands and moistened my face with it. The fountain/watertap remined me of Ab-e-Zam Zam. I wish I had asked the ladies if the water had any religious significance or it was there for convenience.

As I stepped back from the Wailing Wall, I had a good look of the compound. It was very different from the Al-Aqsa compound where you have a good view of everything in the surrounding area. From the Wailing Wall compound you can see the golden dome of the Temple of the Rock Mosque clearly from all directions, and one of the minarets of the citadel, which you had to take a good look to notice. In the background are constructions. I don’t know if they are residential blocks or special wings with balconies, built from donations from prominent Jewish families to expand capacity for religious study. The names of the families are written on the walls.

From the Wailing Wall, we left the citadel of Al-Quds. It’s a beautiful place. I loved the narrow, stone paved alleys. It was like time travelling back to a bygone era. I wish I had more time to explore the western part of the citadel, which is the area around the Wailing Wall. Al-Aqsa is in the eastern part. There were plenty of fruit and vegetable stalls in and around the citadel.

Now I can better understand why most Palestinians and Arabs tend to be fruit and vegetable sellers in Denmark. It’s an extention of what they used to do in their places of origin. Some are taxi drivers also. So, really, they are very similar to the Pakistani migrants who they are so very fond of looking down upon in the Middle East. However, I was very surprised by the warm reception we got in Jerusalem by the Palestinian Arabs. Wherever we went they would ask where from, are you Muslim? When we said  yes,  we’re from Pakistan, everyone would put their hand on their heart and say welcome, Ahlan wa sahlan. However when these same people go to other countries in the Middle East, they forget their natural friendliness.

As I was walking in the Al-Aqsa compound after Asr prayer I saw a lady sitting on a bench and I asked if she spoke English, which she luckily did. She asked me the common question where from. I said Pakistan, she was very happy and shook my hand with great warmth. She told me she is Palestinian from Jerusalem. I asked her if she had Israeli passport, because I thought that those with Israeli passport are the only ones allowed to enter and leave the occupied territories. She told me she had Israeli ID. “I’m from Jerusalem and everyone from here has Israeli ID which is blue.” She showed me her photo ID which was in a blue plastic cover with the Israeli stamp on it.

She told me there are 3 kinds of ID for Palestinian Arabs. Those living in Jerusalem have a blue ID. There is an orange and a green ID for the other occupied territories. I guess, the green is for the West Bank and the orange for the Gaza Strip. I didn’t want to ask her any political questions because I don’t carry the world on my shoulders and those issues are for the politicians and international people to deal with. Moreover, I couldn’t really believe I was actually in the hub of civilizational clashes. Everything seemed so surreal. I realized even if people are suffering and being killed unnecessarily because of misrepresented sense of rights of belonging vs a conqueror’s rights of belonging and use vs a denial of the basic human right to national self-determination because of misplaced trust in the general community, there is so much about this issue I’m ignorant of. As a professional I was lucky to live and work in a place simultaneously to get a local perspective. As an external observer I can say fencing off entire regions from the rest of the country is nonsensical even from a security perspective.

There are so many facets of this conflict I disagree with. My support is with the Palestinians, but I can only rely on hearsay and what is reported in the media. If I have to go from personal experience with Arabs, with very few exceptions, I with regret and sadness say that if the Israeli/Zionists are bad, the other side is just as bad. They just mismanaged their opportunities, and I can’t help but respect the Jewish community for their commitment, unity and drive to succeed at any level. If going by the novels of Leon Uris, the Jewish settlers turned a swamp into  an orchard. Their unity also shows that with much support anything is possible. Yet, whatever atrocities allegedly committed to the Palestinian Arabs is unjustified. I can only blame the Arab community for failing the Palestinians

As mentioned above, I had no idea Bethlehem was in the West Bank. So much for my geographical knowledge! We wanted to make the most of our trip and since we had paid our respects to Al-Aqsa and the Wailing Wall, the Church of Nativity was next on our list. To my horror and dismay it turned out that the checkpoint the taxi driver told us about was THAT wall. It is an absolute monstrosity! Worming itself around the border between Jerusalem and the West Bank like a massive python snake. I remember watching a news section on tourists in Israel and the impact of the wall on them. One of the tourist was very agitated when she said “I know there are people on the other side, but I can’t see them.”

I can understand the Chinese building the Great Wall, and maybe the other wall serves the same purpose, to contain the enemy. I can even understand the need for security against frustrated Muslims. However, it’s not only Muslims who live in the West Bank and Gaza, Christians live there too, so why fence them off to the other side, what did they do to deserve this isolation? During my interview before being issued a visa to enter Israel, I was asked if I was going to enter the occupied territories. I was surprised the officer used the term occupied territories, but I had no idea Bethlehem was in the West Bank. Considering it is the birthplace of Jesus, and the Church of Nativity is just as significant as the other places, it never occurred to me it would be fenced off from the other historical/religious sites. I’m glad I didn’t know. When she asked me if I’m politically active or an activist, I uttered the first thing that came to my mind, “ no, I’m not Arab, I just want to visit the historical sites”.

I was warned that upon entering the country there would be a lot of questioning, but that’s standard procedure and they need to do that because of security concerns, but otherwise there is nothing to worry about. I expected more annoying behavior on their behalf, but they were actually quite friendly. Jewish people are known for their politeness. It’s a tiny country with a massive voice and influence and in a strange way I felt lucky to be there.

The Church of Nativity is beautiful. In my mind a Danish hymn about the birth of Jesus was playing in my head, and I was smiling to myself that I was actually in the birthplace of Jesus as per Christian belief. In Islam he was born under a tree. The place were Jesus was born was in the basement of the Church and there was a long queue. And as by following the traditions of the Wailing Wall, I touched the spot where Jesus was born.

I think it important to pay homage to these special places and thereby pay respect and acknowledge the Prophets. Hiking Mount Sinai and walking up the Steps of Repentance, soaking in the atmosphere and the experience of being in Al-Aqsa, touching the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem and visiting the Church of Nativity in Bethlehem, enabled me to understand what the Quran means by the words that Islam is a gift to Mankind, it has been perfected. Prophet Muhammad is the last messenger and the Muslim community must protect and preserve this gift. However, this is in connection with Islam and Muslims. Generally speaking, religion/faith is a gift to Mankind, it doesn’t matter what you believe in because that is the individual’s personal business.

Nevertheless, it is difficult to be a person of faith and practice a religion in the midst of all the confusion of interpretation, not to mention the obscenity of mistaking cultural practices for religious practices, or, the fixation on honour and shame, purity and impurity in a modern day context. In the daily day of living an entire cultural system, which religion is, it is easy to lose sight of the actual teachings and become dogmatic, or go to the other extreme of liberated irresponsibility and alternatively shun religion altogether. Whatever you end up believing or rejecting is a personal issue, but respecting others irrespective of what they practice or are in terms of race/ethnicity is important for the sake of humanity. Nevertheless, land has always been a contentious issue of control, and Jerusalem is sacred for for both Jews and Muslims, albeit for different reasons.

In conclusion, Jerusalem belongs to both Jews and Muslims. As for the borders of pre-197 to be restored I support it, but find illogical. If some sort of co-sharing agreement can be reached the way it is currently, but with the Palestinean Arabs getting a bigger financial share and administrative influence than currently, that might be a more workable solution. If Jerusalem can become a present day Switzerland where both Muslims and Jews have equal say, maybe then it might be easier to pave the way for a Palestinean state.

Mount Sinai, Jebel Musa….Go tell it to the mountain….

I crave spiritual experiences. There is something about pilgrimages. They give you a rush of joy and a sense of emptiness once they are over. Pilgrimages are spiritual tourism. As a continuation of my Umrah, I was hoping to eventually hike Mount Sinai, which is where according to Christianity the Ten Commandments were revealed to Moses. In Islam, this is where Moses used to pray, where he brought the Jews after saving them from the Pharaoh. It is the place where Moses’s Prophethood was revealed to him. Having seen all the major pharonic sites in Egypt, hiking Mount Sinai was just as important an adventure. It would be like a second Umrah.

Sinai is a strategically important area in North Africa and Middle East. It borders both the Suez Canal and Israel. The Suez Canal is a military area so it’s not a place to go for picnic, however on the road to Sharm el Sheikh, you can see the oil rigs and tankers along the shore of the Gulf of Suez. They are massive. Until this trip I had never seen an oil rig and the neighbouring residential containers in real life. Egypt reclaimed the Sinai Peninsula on 6th October 1973 from Israel. Land and ports are always contentious issues of conflict in geopolitical affairs.

However, if I have to go by the international media with what is happening in the Palestinian territories, and even if the Egyptian Army is allegedly receiving the most US support, as a Muslim, I’m glad the Sinai Peninsula geographically belongs to Egypt. If the Israelis can fence off a nation from the rest of the country for security purposes, imagine what they could do to the Muslim world regarding international shipping and trade. However, there is a likelihood it would not come to this, considering the Middle East, particularly, the GCC countries, Iraq and Iran are the biggest oil producing and exporting countries. Moreover, oil is shipped to other parts of the world by sea. Hence, allegedly no matter how threatened a country may be by its neighbours, money and natural resources make the world go around. Furthermore, just like land, oil and any other kind of fossil fuel are equally contentious. Nonetheless, it is a scary scenario, so good on the Egyptian army for winning back the Sinai Peninsula.

On my travels around Egypt I would always visit the souvenir shops in the hotels I stayed in. They usually stocked gifts made elsewhere, China in particular. Alabaster items such as decorative tea sets were usually made in Pakistan. I guess they forgot to remove the ‘Made in’ sticker. I even found it strange that considering they call themselves an Arab republic, in some shops in Aswan they sold African wooden masks and statues. The only African looking people are the Nubians. In modern, recent times I guess most of them migrated from Sudan at some point. They consider themselves Arab as opposed to African. I suppose the masks and statues are a Nubian thing.

In one shop the shopkeepers were actually interesting to talk to. I pointed out that the souvenirs, except the gemstones, none were made in Egypt and they got slightly taken aback and asked me to tell them how I knew they weren’t Egyptian. My love for handicraft and community trade is such that I make it a point to explore the quality of local produce wherever I go, but considering the company, I thought it inappropriate to divulge my trade secrets. In this shop they had staff from different parts of Egypt, one of them was from Sinai. His colleagues joked that he ‘s not Egyptian, he’s Israeli, he’s Jew, he will cheat you so don’t buy anything from him. Straightforward as I am, I blurted, how can he be Israeli if he’s from Sinai? Isn’t Sinai in Egypt? As for him being Jew, there are many Jews in Muslim countries, so you shouldn’t say that, it’s Haraam. Obviously, the conversation was jovial. The guy wasn’t Jew, but belonged to the Sinai area.

In Islamic discourse it is unclear whether present day Mount Sinai/Jebel Musa is where Moses was informed of his Prophethood and all the other events associated with this mountain. One discussion I read mentions that in Arabic mountain is jebel and there is no mention of this in the Quran. The area mentioned in the Quran is tur and there is vegetation in that particular area. The tip of the Sinai Peninsula is called Tur Sinai. It is a lovely sandy area.

Mount Sinai itself is not barren, there is a little vegetation, some herbs and shrubs scattered around the cliffs/rocks as you ascend it. There is wild life also besides birds. Just before the place where the Steps of Redemption begins, we had to walk through an alley shaft type area which was quite nice because the sun was not shining directly on this particular spot, it was windy and it was like natural air conditioning. As we were walking through this shaft a robin was tripping towards us, as if it was walking in its own world. It came quite close and from its body language it seemed as if it was stunned to see us so it flew away. Many of the birds have created nests in the holes and crevices of the rock walls. There are lizards as well. These ones are greyish and change colors matching the hills.

When I used to go to field visits in the rural areas of Pakistan I used to see the same kind of lizards crawling out from the fields onto the mud walls of the houses. I’m not fond of lizards, but these are actually quite beautiful because they have different colors, as opposed to the tiny ones you find in the houses in the cities which are pale and sickly looking. We also saw dragonflies. The hike from Saint Catherine Monastery to the Steps of Redemption is at least an hour and a half, so the shaft like path with natural air-conditioning was a good resting place before actually going up the steps to get to the top.

It was on the way to the top, up the Steps of Redemption I saw the lizards, the shrubs, herbal vegetation. It was easy going up the steps. Normally, it’s harder to climb, walk up a hill than it is to walk down. I kept thinking if this is easy, it must be an easy jog coming down and I started looking forward to the trip down to Saint Catherine’s Monastery. Perhaps it was the spiritual experience associated with hiking Mount Sinai that fooled me into thinking would be an easy climb, because the few times I climbed the stairs in the London underground I was completely knackered by the end of it and vowed never again, no matter how great the need for exercise!

I kept having the lyrics of the Bob Marley song in my head, go tell it to the mountain. Like in the song, I was hiking to the top to go tell it to the mountain and make the Almighty listen to me the way he listened to Moses. Albeit he being a Prophet and I a mere mortal, obviously our standings in the eyes of the Almighty Benevolent and Beneficent Lord are incomparable.  What was in my power was to wish that by hiking Jebel Musa/ Mount Sinai to get to Musa’s Musalla, the Almighty would listen to my prayers and wishes the same way he listened to Moses whenever he needed guidance. This is because being human is practically impossible when you are living in a position of weakness and perceived as a bird of prey. This is not victimhood, this is acknowledging your weaknesses, keeping in mind your strengths, pursuing whatever opportunities there are, and facing your threats, or shall we say fears?

We made it to the top some 3 hours later. It was nice. Mission accomplished. Beautiful scenery. There is a small church which was locked by the time we got there, We saw the priest and some nuns at a resting place on our way up. There were blankets and sitting areas after every 30 minutes. People come here to view the sunrise with their tour guides, but not many make it to the top, which I think is a waste of money if you’re not going all the way. However, it could be the construction adjacent to the church, on the other side of the hilltop is a mosque. On Wikipedia it say it’s a mosque, but it didn’t have any features to indicate it as such, unless they had turned it into a prayer room facility for Muslim hikers.

On this trip, I completed my list of everything there is to see in Egypt. Like Pakistan, it is an interesting place for someone dabbling with social sciences.

Poverty indicators vs gender issues

The usual poverty indicators are GNP/GDP per capita, maternal and infant mortality, and literacy rates, give a general view of the state of a country. Discussions in meetings especially concerning the viability of education projects for girls, often mentioned the availability of toilets. Or at the most basic, a functional latrine or a hole in the ground, serving the same purpose, had to be present in the building where the education project was to be implemented, which was usually a room in a house. At least this was one of the primary criteria in Pakistan.

Generally, in development discourse, poverty indicators only give a quantitative idea of the state of affairs. However, experience suggest that just because the indicators show depressing figures, the reality on the ground may be different. Likewise if the indicators show impressive figures, the reality is far more depressing. Hence the need for alternative measures. The UNDP Human Development Index discussed in the annual Human Development Report introduces each year a new indicator. These alternative measures later contributed to the Millennium Development Goals. The HDI was the brainchild of Dr Mahbul-ul Haq, a Pakistani. Other indices include The Economist’s Big Mac index- how much a Big Mac costs in local currency, the purchasing power parity (PPP), how much you can buy for 1US$ in local currency.

In connection with the above, there are many other ways to measure the extent of poverty, poor planning and gender awareness or shall we say consideration. One measure I suggest and which has been discussed in various context when I was working in Pakistan, whether it was board meetings, quarterly general meetings, working group meetings or field observations, was toilets. It is a unit we all need access to, men and women alike. Ironically, my observations tell me that in some places women do not need toilets as much as men do and therefore there is no need to maintain them as much. Or maybe, it’s the same condition in the men’s room, I certainly hope so, otherwise this is a serious issue of male domination and the often dismissed ranting of female suppression. Moreover, this illustrate that for some reason or another, women have no need to relieve themselves as much as men do, unless they are small children. Yet, are even children not entitled to unblocked lavatories, if not clean?

When I used to travel to Pakistan on summer holidays as a child, we used to travel to and fro Islamabad- Lahore. Apart from the social and natural observation one gets to do, there is one thing which stands very clear in my mind and that is the state of public toilets on train stations and coach stops. They may be in a primitive state with either a latrine or a hole in the ground to serve the purpose, with a tap and a plastic teapot, a wash basin and no soap. They didn’t smell very nice, but were relatively functional. In some places you have the choice of using a latrine or an English toilet, but even today, they are not blocked and regularly cleaned during the day. I’m not saying you don’t have instances of stinking toilets, or other unpleasantries, such as overflooded floors, discarded used nappies left in a corner, or unflushed latrines, however, generally they are safe to use. In Pakistan, if nothing else, there is a general acceptance that everyone needs to use a toilet and even if there are not many female passengers or travelers, there are still toilet facilities for them. Even if they smell of humidity and mold, or weird detergents.

I have travelled quite extensively in Egypt. I was lucky to travel by air, road and by ship. The latter was an eye opening experience. It often happens on road stops, or even in Cairo that you have to pay 1 L.E to use the toilet. Even if there is no toilet paper or soap, I can tolerate it because common sense would tell you to always keep some tissue, a toilet roll and some soap or handwash gel with you, if not hand sanitizer. What I can’t tolerate is a blocked toilet intended for women, which hasn’t been cleaned for ages and is still being used, I presume by a desparate male toilet user.. Amongst the dysfunctional ones, at least the flush was working and the toilet was not blocked into obliteration, so I would say they were functional. It could be because they were superjet or minibus stations and few women will be coming to those on a regular basis.

What really terrorized me was the boat trip to Aqaba, Jordan from Nuweiba, Egypt. It is a 4 hours trip. On the ship there are 4 toilets, 2 male and 2 female, 2 on each deck. One of both the male and female toilets has a shower facility as well.

A ship which sails to and fro Nuweiba- Aqaba, although most of the passenger are male, there are female passengers, usually travelling with their families or husbands. To my horror and dismay the female toilets were a nightmare. They were all English toilets, they had Muslim showers for abdominal washing. If they were not blocked due to faulty flushes, it was because no one had bothered flushing. It could be people in their homes have latrines and the flush system is different that is, they flush with a pot of water instead of the flush system. There could be several reasons for this. Some of the toilets were unstable so I didn’t even dare to sit on them due to goodness knows what kind of possible bacterial transmission. I’m not being unrealistically patriotic, but I have never encountered such a toilet situation in all of Pakistan. So much for calling Pakistanis miskeen and wondering if they are Muslims.

My first reaction to this toilet situation was to escape and try to sneak into a male toilet. Woe onto me for even trying this. Nearby all the male toilets, men were sitting and playing cards, chit-chatting or smoking strong cigarettes and everyone adamantly pointed their index finger at me, wriggling no-no-no….Haram! So I decided to complain at the information desk. I asked him how many ladies toilets were on the ship. He said, 2. `I asked again, are you sure? He said yes. I told him ,well `I have walked all around the ship, in one all the toilets are blocked, and the other one is locked. He said ‘ok ok’. He called on someone and ordered him to check out the ladies rooms, and told another guy to take me to the other toilet on the upper deck, the locked toilet with the shower facility. Although the toilets were not blocked, they were rattling. I wonder how does anyone sit on such toilets? The ones which weren’t rattling, their Muslim shower facility didn’t work, so it was a matter of going here and there to relieve oneself and using the Muslim shower. I remember checking whether something had been done about my complaint on my return trip to Nuweiba from Aqaba. Obviously not.

Arriving in Aqaba port was an interesting diversion. In the arrival lounge we only saw men, although there were many families on the ship. It could be those people needed visa on arrival. Maybe the families would get out after the trucks and the other passengers as they were in their cars. It was interesting to see how the port authority personnel treated the passengers like nursery children. Once visa was stamped, the travellers would be gathered together as if in a circle, made to sit down and have their names called one by one. Another observation was that the port authority had retina scans. Something which they don’t have at airports, there they have webcams. I didn’t notice the retina scans, I just thought they were outdated cameras. It was observed this shows how differently people who travel by boat are treated compared to those who travel by air. In my opinion, people travel as they can afford. Maybe they don’t need to travel by air. Alternatively the airports could be too far so taking the car on the ship saves a lot of hassle. One major point of convenience however was that everyone we asked for information spoke English, so it was unnecessary to adopt inventive communication methods and get by with the Arabic we knew. Moreover, they didn’t pretend they were unable understand to us.

However, the sore point of contention even in the seaport departure lounge was the female toilets. I saw female staff and travellers, so they do need toilets. However the ones available left a lot to be desired. The typical stinking, blocked dump, except here they had latrines. They were blocked, had not been cleaned for a while, and there were old used nappies wrapped up and left there as thank you presents it seemed. From my experience of public female toilets in the Arab world, with exception to the Arab peninsula where toilet quality varies, but are relatively clean and usable. In this connection I must add that the public toilets in the UAE are pristine, depending on the emirate. In Bahrain and Saudi Arabia, toilets are user friendly, but in variable conditions. This could be because they have dedicated staff to ensure toilet hygiene, and may think women have just as much rights in this regard as men, if not in other matters. Or maybe this state of affairs could also illustrate the influence the Western expatriate population has in public affairs on the Arab peninsula. If that’s the case, I’m all for Western guidance.

In connection with the above, all I can say is, quality of toilets says a lot about a society. Especially, the quality of female toilets. To me, it seems as if women have no right to exist, why else would the female toilets be such traumatic places? I have travelled a lot in Pakistan and have a fairly good idea about what goes on where because I take an interest in my surroundings. No matter how isolated or remote a place, I have never seen a toilet in such a mess. Some classfellows at  Quaid-e-Azam University who belong to remote rural areas told me in their communities there is no such thing as a toilet. They have to go relieve themselves in the fields. Yes, Pakistan is a poor country. It is neither the most female friendly country, just think about the men who ruin women’s lives by throwing acid at their faces. Nor is it the most hygienic place. However, toilets whether used regularly or not should be cleaned according to the need, and be regularly checked whether they need cleaning. And despite being the world’s favourite punching bag, I think that Pakistan scores quite good numbers on the toilet usability scale.

This experience made me think that although Arab countries may have good quantitative indicators, they still lack in the quality department. Women are not as empowered, independent and recognized members of society as they seem to be. Unless they are wives and mothers. And in certain departments they are left to their own devices, and just accept things. What I find disturbing though is that the men really don’t care either. On my return trip to Nuweiba, I dared to venture into the toilets again, and to my shock and horror I saw two pre-teenage boys in the ladies! I probably would just had laughed it off, but I was so annoyed that these 2 cheeky boys had infringed female area. I told them ‘hada daurra maya as-sayedaat, mish rajool. Inta rajool, haram, haram, haram! They just replied, that the guy at the information desk had allowed them to use the ladies and ran off. This only confirmed my doubts that men were using female toilets because they can’t be bothered to go elsewhere, especially where women only come occasionally. However this is no justification for not cleaning them properly.

Another reason which opened my eyes to the condition of women in the Arab world, is on the bigger scale of things actually a very small matter, but I am unable not to compare it to the situation of women in Pakistan.  On the way back to Alexandria we were unable to get tickets to the superjet bus. Its is airconditioned with nice spacious seats. We had to take a Hiace van. Apart from us, 3 ladies and a guy, there were 2 other Egyptian ladies. Towards the end of the ride, the airconditioning stopped working and the driver opened the front windows, the male travellers sitting in front of us opened their windows a little. The ladies sitting behind the front seats were both by the windows and none of them opened their windows and none of the men asked them to open their windows either. In Pakistan, no matter how callous men may be, they don’t let a lady sweat unnecessarily. They will tell her to open the windows because it is hot and she shouldn’t be uncomfortable in this heat. Like I mentioned, the events are very small in the greater affairs of gender discrimination and male domination, but it does say a lot about what people think about women and their position in society. As a woman you can’t complain and you have to make do with what you can. This may also reflect the difference between civil society engangement in Pakistn and Egypt, where in the former, NGOs and community based organizations are far more vocal.

In conclusion, indicators are useful measurements to assess poverty. In my opinion, female toilet conditions in developing countries give a realistic insight into how women’s issues and needs are perceived by society. I’m not saying the toilets I have come across in Pakistan, when I was doing fieldwork or in rest areas while travelling the country, were in pristine conditions. Some had spider webs all over, others were just a hole in the ground, or the water tap was running, hence wasting much precious water. There was no door, so anyone could just walk in on you. Nevertheless, I was unaware of the true extent of a toilet nightmare until I experienced the toilets while travelling around Egypt. It should be noted not all toilets in public rest areas were as horrendous as described. However, if there is a toilet space, whether it is used frequently or occasionally, it should be clean and unblocked. What is even more shocking is that compared to Pakistan, Egypt is a rich country with doubled the national income and half the population. Hence, when it comes to toilet hygiene it should do better. Moreover, it is easy to complain about gender discrimination and the need for gender mainstreaming and not be taken seriously. In order not to be mistaken for a rambling feminist who is out of touch with the real world, I decided to assess female toilet conditions as an indicator for gender discrimination.

Eid Mubarik, Eid Saeed, Fitr Saeed. Happy Feasting

I’m back in Cairo, the dusty, messy, tacky, ugly city. During my previous trip the Arab Spring happened. Now, the elections are over and done with, the Muslim Brotherhood is in charge, and I’m back. I have 5 other research topics under my belt and coming here has made me realize how much I have produced, albeit at snail’s pace. I know I worked hard, but somehow it felt as if everything was a wasted exercise I kept doing out of self delusion. Hence the apparent lack of passion and enthusiasm, and constant complaining. I went during the month of Ramadan, and it was nice to cut the fast by some 2 hours. Northern hemisphere summer times are lovely, but when you’re fasting they become a joyful challenge you can either chose to hope you will get rewarded for, or just skip.

The last Friday of the Ramadan is called Jumah-tul-Widah, which means the Friday of farewell/departing. I went for Friday prayers in Al- Azhar Mosque, There was high security in the area, I thought it was a safety control measure to prevent uprisings. Later it turned out that some minister was attending the Friday prayer. It was rumored it was the President himself, but following some online research it was the Minister for Religious Affairs who gave the Friday sermon. It was about the importance of remembering Allah and continue with remembering him after the Ramadan. We should continue worship the Almighty with the same dedication after Ramadan, as we do during this auspicious month.

Towards, the end of the sermon he said something which touched my heart and I found very uncharacteristically Arab. When he mentioned that we must remember the plight of Muslims all over the world he said with particular reference to Pakistan, Kashmir and Palestine. Normally, Arabs never mention Pakistan unless they need them in times of their trouble, when they need follow through on their agendas. Never when Pakistan or Pakistanis need the support of the Arab world or Arabs. Moreover, they never mention Pakistan first, if at all. Another pleasant change was the interest. Normally people would say min wayn….Hindi? or say Hindi? This time they said from where?, Min wayn? And when you say Pakistan and they say with affection, aah Pakistaaan, smile and nod. Some will even speak a few words of Urdu like Kaysey hain, theek hain? At another instance, a fellow with his wife when hearing we are Pakistanis say ahh Pakistaaan, very good friend! And we said …..Since when? And then he just laughed sheepishly and left. This fellow was a junior lecturer at Al-Azhar University. True Pakistan is the real friend of Muslims all over the world, but in reality, no one is a friend of Pakistan, with exception to China.

This change in attitude could be of several factors. With the Muslim Brotherhood in charge, it is possible many of the scholars in the party studied or worked in Pakistan. Maybe many of them were given refuge in Pakistan and in that connection gained qualifications and experience which has served them well in other places. There are so many reasons.

Another interesting observation is the variety of greetings expressions within the Muslim world, which also illustrates the diversity within the religion, going beyond the mere practice of Islam as well as the Arabic language. I have only known one expression to mark our 2 main celebrations Eid ul Fitr and Eid ul Adha, which is Eid Mubarik. Coming to Egypt I discovered Eid Saeed, Fitr Saeed, Eid Bekhair. I remember saying Eid Mubarik to a lady coming from outside entering my building, and she replied with Eid Bekhair. In a supermarket in the last few days of the Ramadan, they decorated the store with Eid Saeed. Usually, wherever I have been in the Muslim world, the expression Eid Mubarik is used. Similarly, when I used to live in UAE I encountered the expression Ramadan Kareem, whereas I was used to Ramadan/ Ramzan Mubarik. I never gave much thought to cultural/religious expressions to mark the same thing. In this regard, I must admit the Egyptians are pleasantly advanced in exposing me to this kind of variety.

In conclusion, I observe different things every time I come to Egypt. I particularly, like that people don’t just assume you’re Indian, but now ask where from? And when you say Pakistan they smile warmly, some even place their left hand on their heart and say welcome. Moreover, it is true that Egyptian Arabic is different from the Arabic language in other countries. Eid is an interesting event to discover this variety in expressions.

New York, New York

At long last, I finally got to visit New York, the Big Apple, another world capital. The idea of America, the land of liberty and opportunities is very tantalizing. In movies paupers, ex-convicts, people of tainted characters were given a new leash of life, a new identity.

They became plantation owners, traders, cultivators, in other words, creators of dreams. Manhattan New York is where luxury is a way of life. Madison Avenue, Park Avenue, 5th Avenue, are where the rich and famous live and stay. The Waldorf –Astoria, the Plaza Hotel are all places of rags to riches stories.

It is as if all the wealth of this world is concentrated in Manhattan. Many will probably contradict me and say I’m wrong, and that Dubai is more opulent. Fair enough, it may have high rise buildings, not to mention the world’s tallest building, the Burj Khalifa, the world’s largest dancing fountain, a range of 7* hotels, not to mention the taxfree shopping.

Manhattan is more expensive. Everything is double taxed, the New York state tax and the sales tax. Nevertheless, whereas Dubai has enclaves of opulence usually centered around a luxury hotel, you just need to take a walk around Manhattan to see the wealth.

In conclusion,  Manhattan is well connected. The vicinity operates on a grid system, which is what makes a city great. Once you’re familiar with the area you can’t really get lost because as long as you walk parallel to a building or other landmark you will manage to get to your destination.

Demonstrations, Revolution, Down down Mubarak!

I was in Aswan when the demonstrations took a revolutionary turn in Tahrir Square in Cairo. Luckily I was done with my sightseeing by then, otherwise it would had been a wasted stay as I was not allowed out of the hotel, unless it was to go to the airport. What was supposed to be a 1 day demonstration endorsed by the government, turned into a national protest movement forcing President Mubarak to step down 17 days later, with the Supreme Court suspending the Constitution.

I have never really experienced a crisis situation before, so it was an interesting experience. During the weekend I was in Aswan, there was no internet reception and sms texts showed pending delivery. The day we started our sightseeing we were told that for security reasons we had to register ourselves, and the detail of the taxi we were renting at the local tourist department office. As Abu Simbel is only open in the early morning we had to go the following morning and that we would be going with a convoy of other tourist buses for safety reasons.

Aswan is a very interesting place, it is cleaner, much more relaxed and a lot less dustier than Cairo. Our taxi driver was an interesting character. A short sturdy sporty built Nubian Sudanese, living and working in Egypt owning his own taxi and guest house business. He used to sail the felucca. Now he goes water skiing and wind surfing in Sharm al Sheikh and Hurgada to keep fit. He is married to a German alternative health practitioner. When asked about Mubarak, he was all positive, “Egypt all good, Mubarak all good, everything good, everything muiyya muiyya” with his thumbs up. If you want to marry German, French woman all good, no restriction. From early morning we went to the main sites in Aswan. Edfu, Kom Ombo, and we just managed to sail to an island where the Philae temple is and catch the light and sound show.

On our way back from the light and sound show in Philae Temple towards Aswan Dam there was a road blockage of burning tyres. Being a skilled driver he swiftly turned the car around and took another way in his usual statement: “Egypt all good, Mubarak all good, only stupid people who complain”. That was when we sensed that things were boiling under the surface and people were tense. The next morning, when we were on our way to Abu Simbel temple and were heading out of Aswan, a group of protestors, men dressed in the traditional Egyptian gelabbiya, plastic slippers and the headcloth, some were also in trousers and shirt were protesting with placards and wooden stick in their hands, or their fist raised, albeit peacefully walking along the road. The driver being on the safe side as the typical taxi driver in Egypt didn’t comment much, but did say Mubarak was bad and should leave.

After returning from Abu Simbel and driving along the road to the Aswan Dam, the same place where we saw burning tyres the evening before, one of the lamppost posters of Mubarak was partially burnt. Things were reaching boiling point, but people were quietly getting on with their lives. Saturday morning on the day of return to Cairo CNN international and Al-Jazeera were on everyone’s screen in the hotel, internet was down and we were told it was safer to stay in Aswan till things got calm or leave the country. In the neighborhood opposite our hotel, vigilante groups were protecting their area with sticks and baseball bats. The police were patrolling the area in their huge black tank van. Everything was tense and calm. No one was allowed to leave the hotel unless they were going to the airport. We were receiving reports from Cairo that people had set up vigilante groups in their neighourboods with sticks and clubs. People gathered ammunition in the form of knives, swords, daggers, molotov cocktails in case criminals started raiding their cars. Residential areas had been barricaded off, and curfew was imposed in Cairo. From 8-15 people were free to go out and markets would be open. The banks were all closed.

On Monday when we returned to Cairo, we arrived just after the curfew had been imposed. Cairo had changed from being a vibrant, hustling bustling city where cars, taxis, motorcycles, tuk-tuks, donkey and horse carts amidst people would freely roam, traffic jams would create a life of their own, into a ghost town. Suddenly the army was out on the street side by side with the vigilinates, with army tanks at main junctions. After every 5 mile there would be a security check made by civilians or army personnel. This was the zombie-vampire movie turning into reality. The streets, roundabouts and junctions were empty and dead silent, you could literally hear mice dancing on the streets. The taxi driver took us around Cairo circumventing Tahrir Square which is the heart of Cairo. The area by Hilton Ramses Hotel, by the Nile, neighbouring Tahrir Square was empty. I was consumed by surprise. This is the closest I’ve ever been to revolutionary events.

When I returned from Cairo, I attended a lunchtime panel discussion on the events in Tahrir Square. One of the panelists, speaking on the economic factors said that despite a decent economic growth rate, there was no trickle down effect. The wealthy got richer and the poor got poorer. Clearly, when there is a discrepancy in the economy, the consequences will be severe.

People in the corporate sector, legal people, investment bankers, found it hard to believe what had happened in Egypt. To them the common Egyptian is too scared and subdued, not to mention…plain stupid to initiate people power at such a scale where a leader is actually dethroned. Besides what was wrong with the leadership? They were getting subsidized bread, rent and petrol, what did they have to complain about? For some strange reason the corporate elite have a problem understanding it’s not all about subsidies when you have no opportunities for better pay, jobs, healthcare and political expression. Moreover, to expect that people will not wait for any opportunity to express themselves and make the most of that moment, shows a total disrespect for people who are less advantaged than them, just because their concerns and issues don’t affect them.

Since the political activities of the Muslim Brotherhood and union activities are banned or limited, there is no public platform through which people, especially workers’ concern can be addressed. What was unique with this demonstration was that it was mainly composed of young people. University educated people, either studying or unemployed and unable to get jobs. It can be suggested they were demonstrating for the right to a future. They all wanted Mubarak to go and elections to be held. Mohammed Elbaradei supported the demonstrations and supported the demand for Mubarak to resign. I read in The Economist once that he would not stand for election in Egypt because he knew there was no way he could ever win with the current political setup. Unless it changed there was no point for him to contest the elections. He has a party which targeted the youth, the university students because they are the future of any country. When the demonstrations progressed, with the President dissolving parliament, and later announcing elections in September, with the blocking of the internet, I was reminded of this article. Mr ElBaradei’s wish came true. The youth, joined by other middle class people, demanded change and the end of the Mubarak regime. People in favour of the regime, the very same corporate high society claimed it was not a local, home grown demonstrations, but influenced by external forces because it was completely out of character of the Egyptian nation. Rather, it is completely unnatural for people not to protest when their right to breathe, to live and exist is continually denied them and still be politically sidelined as if they have no value. It was mentioned by some of the Egyptians I saw that Mubarak was alright till 2005, when he started promoting his son Gamal Mubarak as the next president. The 2005 elections were rigged, it was also during his time Mubarak become more tyrannical.

In connection with the revolution in Egypt, after Mubarak stood down as President, I attended a lunch time panel on what had happened and what will the future hold. One of the panelists, an Egyptian activist, Gigi Ibrahim, said that the Tahrir Square demonstrations were not a one time event, but a culmination of a series of events over several years.

Demonstration culture started with banning the Muslim Brotherhood in the 1990s. In October 2000 the Palestinian revolt happened. This demonstration is significant for youth activism in Egypt because “it involved a new generation of previously non-political youth” ( and subsequently created a revival of Egyptian street activism. Followed by a protest in 30th March 2003 against the invasion of Iraq. In 2005 with the re-election of Mubarak, anti Mubarak wave of protestations started because people were against the election results and the intended hereditary transfer of power from Hosni Mubarak to his son Gamal Mubarak. They did not want the kind of system and paved the way for the Kefaya Movement’s activism.

The Movement itself started in 2004. According to “its origins can be found in earlier strands of political protests beginning ith the solidarity committees throughout Egypt following the start of the second Intifada in Palestine in October 2000.” Structural adjustment programmes brought along increased privatization, and more increasing inflation. In defiance, in spring 2008 university students initiated April 6th Movement , which started as an Egyptian facebook group. It announced and planned a strike on April 6th, 2008 in El-Mohalla El-Kubra which is an industrial area in the city of Cairo.

To conclude, the Revolution was a culmination of several events. People simply had enough and they exploited an opportunity to get their point across. Whatever comes afterwards, people power should never be underestimated.


Egyptian Civilization

Over the past year I have been travelling to Egypt a number of times. Seeing the temples and tombs in Luxor and Aswan, sitting in a felucca crossing the River Nile, riding a hot air balloon over Aswan, exploring the Egyptian Museum in Cairo, seeing the various pyramids in Cairo, I came to realize that the ancient Egyptians were not a secluded society.

On many of the walls in the Habo temple in Luxor, were many wall images of the bull, which is also a very prominent figure in the Indus Valley civilization. Though I’m unable to cipher the hieroglyphs, and most likely my association is out of context, but considering the two civilizations existed around the same time, there must have been some sort of trading relations between them if not a cultural connection. I think this because both civilizations emphasized good craftsmanship. Moreover, when I was in Luxor and in the other temples in Aswan (although the temples there, are post-pharonic) the outer gate of the temples is very similar to the images I have seen of Mohenjo-daro and Harappa which are in Pakistan. Although Mohenjo-daro and Harappa are ancient versions of gated communities with sewerage system, grain storages, residential areas and labour colonies and thus more elaborate than the temples in ancient Egypt.

Luxor temple, Karnak Habo, Ramasseum, which are in Luxor, have labour colonies within the temples, but there are no actual indication of residential uses. The temples have different rooms to worship different deities for performing different sacrifices and to pray for different things, such as food availability, good harvest, good family life and many other things for a good life in the present, as opposed to only focusing on the afterlife which is the most known.

In the Valley of the Kings, I went into the tomb of Tut Ank Amun. I saw his mummified body. He was a child king, only 19 years old when he died. The mummified body was black and bony. It was fascinating to see something this ancient. I kept thinking to myself imagine if this mummy woke up from the dead speaking his ancient language, what stories he would tell and what mysteries would be unraveled. In the Koran it says that the Almighty has left proofs of his wrath for people as a warning to what will happen if they deny his presence and his commands. It is called ibrat. The mummies of the pharonic civilization are one such warning. Instead of worshipping the Almighty, they decided to worship multiple deities. Their King, the Pharoe was believed to be the direct descendent of the God Ra.

In the Egyptian Museum there is a separate section for royal mummies. A couple of Ramses, Hatshepshut’s mummy is there also. According to the inscription she was a very fat lady. Unfortunately you can’t take pictures in the museum. They are in a temperature controlled room. The male mummies have bleached hair and manicured nails. The hands and feet were tiny and fragile. When I saw the tiny hands and feet of the mummies I realized why the gold toe and finger caps in the museum were so skinny. They were made to fit the mummies when they woke up in the afterlife. In the Egyptian Museum you get to see how opulent the ancient Egyptians were and the focus on good craftsmanship was almost religious.

On an end note, I read in the in the National Geographics travel guide on Egypt that the tombs and temples were not created by slave labourers. After being to the sites myself, I find it hard to believe it was a slave society because slaves who are constantly beaten up by their owners cannot produce such work through force. The workers, the masons, carpenters, carvers, painters, smiths who produced the stone art, the jewellery, the pillars, the carvings etc were all professional craftsmen who maybe had an aesthetic connection with their work and reverence for the divine.