A thinker, dreamer, idealist, ardent observer and traveller

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.


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. However it was mentioned in a conversation that it was 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.



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.

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.

A journey into something

Interfaith projects are always interesting. If an opportunity arises to watch a documentary by a renowned Pakistani anthropologist it would be foolish to dismiss it. It so happened that such an opportunity arose in December last year. I signed up for it, looking forward to an intellectual experience.

The documentary screened was a shortened version of a 90 minutes documentary. It was edited into a 20 minutes video on Muslims and perceptions of Muslims in America. It was an interesting video. I I think they focused more on the image of the victim Muslims who want to be accepted by American society, but are not. As well as how Muslims are apologetic about being Muslims. This was also a comment made in the documentary by Bapsi Sidwa, a Parsi Pakistani author, living in the States.

Maybe Denmark is different from USA, maybe Muslims who are apologetic are not strong enough, or sufficiently educated to explain their faith. I say this because I don’t remember my parents being apologetic about being Muslims. Moreover, I know of an American Muslim of Pakistani origin. During his student days at university he was actively involved with the Islamic Society and promoting awareness about Islam to non-Muslims. He prays 5 times a day, speaks Arabic fluently and has studied at Al-Azhar. Not to mention, he is a very successful corporate lawyer, a partner in one of the top legal firms in the States. He may not have a beard and dress like a cleric, but he is certainly an informed practicing Muslim.

The proud examples shown in the documentary were mostly of converts to Islam. Some were from the media and legal professions. One was also a congressman sworn into Congress with a Quran Jefferson had. The one who worked in media talked about how she felt much safer covered up than she ever did before and how non-Muslims don’t really care about anything other than fame and money. These things you find in the Muslim world too. I went from the Christian world to the Muslim world and I saw more moral filth there than I ever did in Europe. I don’t think you can just generalize about people like that. Yes, ignorance has to be dealt with, and communication is the best way to do so.

In this connection, the documentary is a step in the right direction because it shows the different colours of the Muslim community and the opinions of non-Muslims about Islam. One funny incident was the choice of a town in Alabama called Arab. It’s an all white town, nothing to do with Islam or Muslims. It was supposed to be Arad, but someone got the spelling wrong and never changed it back. Dr. Anthropologist and his research students also conducted a field experiment. One of the girls from his team dressed up in black abaya and scarf and interacted with the community to find out about their opinions on Muslims and Islam. It turned out that since Arab is an all white, Christian town they knew nothing due to lack of exposure. The video also kept mentioning a statue of Jefferson outside a prestigious university. The statue is holding a tablet with different names of God, according to the different religions, including Allah.

It seems the documentary was shortened to leave more time for the Q & A session. The panel lacked enthusiasm. One of the academics on the panel instead of making his introduction mumbled his opinions about the documentary and was very unclear.

The Q & A session was quite interesting. One statement made by a former UN staff in the audience, was that the Quran Jefferson had, was not out of humanitarian spirit but to communicate and deal with Muslim pirates along the coasts of America. He also said that the tablet on the Jefferson statue was meant to illustrate that anyone was welcome to America as long as they lived according to the laws of the land. He also said: “any society is formed by its laws, not by the sentiments of its community. Muslims are known for having strong sentiments, but have little adherence to the law, let alone Shariah law.” They come to the West because they are unable to exist in their countries of origin due to the lack of freedom of expression and movement in those countries. In this connection Muslims are not just demonized in the West, but also in their own countries.

In connection with the above, Dr. Anthropologist replies that his documentary is an effort in challenging intolerance. He raised an interesting point that the struggle must come from within Islam. Muslims in general must continue to fight for the vision of the ideal Islam, which is justice, equality and compassion. However, these are ideals of all the Abrahamic, monotheistic faiths.

To conclude, Dr. Anthropologist also mentioned that “a lack of simple solutions prevent the finding of a common ground between communities of the different faiths”. According to the panel, some interesting avenues for further investigation were raised during the Q& A session, however I wonder if the avenues discussed were the kind Dr. Anthropologist was interested in, because you don’t mention you have to catch the train back to Cambridge. Moreover, showing excerpts from a documentary is different from an actual documentary screening. They ought to include the much talked about scenes with Noam Chomsky, Hamza Yusuf and Jesse Jackson in the screening. It seemed they were not so much interested in screening a documentary, but wanted to create an opportunity to get fresh ideas to continue their projects. Moreover, I think such occasions benefit everyone, the participants as well as the arrangers, because you get to see interesting public figures and they get to have interactive brainstorming sessions with a curious audience.

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.


Reality can make or break you. According to the dictionary definition, “reality is the state of things as they actually exist” (Oxford Dictionary). So realistically speaking, you are only in control of yourself, never the outcomes of your actions and your statements.

Since you can only control yourself, your actions and statements. You can only do what you have to do to get ahead. In some cases you simply have no idea what to do and make an uninformed decision. Throughout life we are told many things which we for some reason either choose to do, or not to do. Many things are just plain common sense to do that is, if you understand what is required. Other things are just plain ego to do or not to do. Basically, your ego is doing the decision making.

As far as decision making is concerned as human beings we are a superior creation. Our brain allows us to think about the why, what, ifs and buts of life, our actions and directions. Our brain enables us to rationalize. Maybe this is where Nietzche’s statement “I think therefore I am” comes from.

Alongside our cranial capacities, we also have free will. We have the choice to do one thing instead of another. Through free will we can either choose to do right or wrong, or nothing at all. I have often heard there is no such thing as black or white, right or wrong. Everything is grey and you just have to do what you have to do to make it work for you. Ethics, morality, conscientiousness, or whatever you may label it, is for people who don’t know how to make things work for them. As they are unable to make anything work for them, like their network or their efforts, it is irrelevant how competent or capable they are because it’s never really about the work, the output and your contributions to an organization. If you’re not liked, you’re simply not good enough. It is in this scenario the grey area comes in. In order to become liked, sacrifices have to be made. However, for some  the sacrifices required to make, were never worth the outcome. Some may have given up on so many opportunities for happiness and enjoyment, and been tempted enough only to be disappointed afterwards that by now they know a bad deal when they see one. Reality teaches you to negotiate for your terms and conditions and to stand up for yourself. Reality requires you to do so.

You should always hope for things to get better and even when they don’t, as long as you have the strength to make the best out of a bad situation, you have still learnt your lesson. This has nothing to do with being negative. Being realistic is not negative, it is seeing things for what they are and hoping for the best outcome while trying your best. It is also about being confident in yourself and your abilities. Being positive and hoping for a good outcome when all you’re getting is abuse, exploitation or rejection in return, is naïve and frankly stupid. It is like trying to read without even knowing the alphabet. In this case it’s better to try out other pastures, grow from your previous lessons and expose yourself to new situations, for better or worse.

Reality teaches you to apply your knowledge. It enables you to experiment with ideas and concepts in the real world. More importantly, it shatters contextual ignorance and the illusion that the grass is greener on the other side. There is simply no room left to make uninformed decisions. It’s in this connection free will is similar to an opt-out clause in a bulletproof contract or abusive situation because you have the choice to stay or leave.

Free will reminds us that things are black and white. Someone told me that those who claim everything is grey do so to justify their negative agendas and lies. Nevertheless, even if everything is grey, because it really is a matter of perspective, free will enables us to make things black and white, depending on what path we choose to go down. Free will reminds us that we do have a choice either to try to make things work for us on an individual level. Or to try and make things right to the benefit of everyone because in the end we are collective beings who need the company of others.

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.