Browsing "published work"

Are fashion statements stronger than political statements?

 For as long as I can remember, Maulana Fazlur Rehman is harbouring ambitions of ending up in the PM House. He was one of the candidates back in 2002, then tried his luck again in 2008 and the latest attempt is as recent as the exit of Yousuf Raza Gilani and his Armani suits from the prime ministerial abode. The third time around, too, the Maulana’s effort to weasel his way in was to no avail; he stayed out and somehow Raja Pervaiz Ashraf got in. My sister thinks that Maulana Diesel (as he is affectionately called) is a master politician and the only reason — apart from the fact that his party is nonexistent in two provinces — that he has not been able to make it to his desired destination is his inability to enunciate his political wizardry. I beg to differ; if diction and oratory had been the desired skills then Chaudhry Shujaat would not have made it to the seat of prime minister — even if it was for a few short weeks.
The James Bond-esque shades
The only reason — apart from the clout in that parliament — for Chaudhry Saab’s ascent was his sartorial elegance. While Chaudhry Saab in his crisp shalwar qameez and designer glasses looked quite at home in a cabinet meeting, Maulana Fazlur Rehman, in his orange checkered roomal over his rumpled kurta, could have only looked at home on a dastarkhuwan with sheermal and qorma
Perhaps, if he had been fonder of the diesel of other kind, he would have stood a better chance. It was his sartorial choices — or lack thereof — that sealed his political fate. Pakistan may not be high on international style meter and our fashion weeks do not even get the fraction of buyers that a Milan fashion week gets, but no-one has made it to the top offices in this country after sporting bedraggled shalwar qameez.
The longevity of erstwhile PM Yousuf Raza Gilani at his former position owes a lot to his fashion sense; early on in his position as the head of government, Mr Gilani had learned that no matter how unintelligent he sounds and how he makes a fool of himself — either in the cabinet meetings or during interviews with former journos — a good suit and a shiny new watch can deflect attention from rather serious matters of state. Since then, we have seen Armani suits, Marc Jacobs’ shirts, Rolex watches, impeccably dyed mustache and of course, the occasional Amir Adnan Sherwani. Raja Pervaiz Ashraf, on the other hand, may not survive long. Apart from the very obvious love affair between any PM from PPP and upper judiciary in this country, Raja Saab’s slicked back-do is more appropriate for an Al Capone of Godfather film rather than the Prime Minister’s House. No suit or sherwani can take away that Mafioso look. The moniker his electorate has bestowed up on him — Raja Rental — also deters anyone from taking him seriously.
Perhaps, the only person who thinks that Raja saab is a real prime minister who actually has any control over his government is the chief justice who prompts him to write a letter to random strangers in a country called Switzerland and reopen cases against distinguished people not quite resting in peace. He has not asked the sitting PM to reopen cases against perpetually waiting-to-be PM Nawaz Sharif (is it just me or do other people also feel that Mian saab looks like a vampire at times, always very white and always carnivorous). Two other politicians who owe their popularity to their wardrobe, their sense of style and accessories are Firdous Ashiq Awan and Hina Rabbani Khar. While Hina’s Birkins are easily recognized by most, Firdous’s array of gold bangles is harder to spot, though it is heard that most of her accessories come from the opulent lands of UAE.
If Hina is known to favour Roberto Cavalli shades and the Jimmy Choos that would look great in a Carrie Bradshaw wardrobe, Firdous wins it with her impeccable makeup. It has been pointed out that she does not use any brands other than Bobby Brown and Mac for enhancing her God given beauty. Considering the amount of makeup she uses every day, I have a feeling it would cost the same amount of money it needs to feed an army of a country like Liechtenstein. 

Bobby Brown vs Robert Cavalli
What can and has helped a great deal in the not-so-recent past in the ascent to power is the colour of clothing. If you happen to prefer khaki over all other colours and heads an institution that has over half a million armed men waiting to move against anything and anyone on your orders, chances are that you will at least have a couple of chances to take over the government in your reign. The best thing about this kind of power grab is that you don’t even have to worry about periodic elections and you end up at the top for far longer than any other politico — no matter how many labeled suits he wears. Another thing that aids the men in Khakis to assume and then cling on to the power is their ability to carry big bad boots with their khakis. If khakis maketh the man, then boots are the one that pave the way to the path of power and glory!
Though Khakis have a long established claim to power and glory in this country, the last few years have been instrumental in  bringing another group to the fore — they are ‘The Robed and the Black Coats’. Just because they are endowed with a black robe, they think they can order anyone around — be it an election commissioner or the elected prime minister. They are so high on their robes, imagine how cocky they would have been if they had still been wearing Raj Era wigs. Their conceit would have known no bounds! However, despite their conceit, their self preservation instincts are stronger and they neither issue summons nor do they tell the khakis to write letters to strangers or pay taxes on all the imports for their use.
Originally written for monthly magazine Pique’s August issues
Aug 14, 2012 - published work, women    4 Comments

The overwhelmingly male story of Pakistan

The story of Pakistan is overwhelmingly male. Whether we discuss politics, economics, history, literature or entertainment, we tell the stories of men and we tell them with a dominant male perspective. Take Independence Day celebrations in the media for instance; there are stories of valour of our soldiers, fighter pilots are glamorized, farmers are shown driving a tractor tilling the land, male welders are working on a construction sites and boys playing cricket in the grounds of Minar-e-Pakistan. If we are lucky there are a couple of mentions of women; usually an elderly maternal type is shown who is praying either for the country or its soldiers defending the borders or perhaps a teacher or nurse.
If such a representation is to be believed, then a very small percentage of our population is female and this is the country of men. Those who do get the representation are the chador clad virtuous women who either pray for the men who are out living their lives or are in care giving roles, the rest do not count.
The concept of chardeewari and women staying inside is a very urban middle class notion and a considerably small percentage of our population falls under this category. The fact that our national narrative is designed accordingly and has no place for women who do not cement the patriarchal notion that only a woman who is covered in a chador is virtuous and worthy of respect and can be the face of a Pakistani woman is mind boggling. A visit to any village in most parts of the country would discredit this notion. Women work in their homes, outside their homes, they work long hours in the barns and the farms and contribute significantly to the economy. Their contributions may not formally be acknowledged in the GDP but their productivity is part of the society and economy.
The popular model of women that gets space in the national narrative is not only misogynist — showing women in supporting roles only, as if they are not capable of living a full life — but is also very classist. Most women cannot afford to stay at home and thus must work — at times, harder and for longer hours than men, in order to make ends meet. If the chador clad stay-at-home woman is peddled as a socially desirable model that receives representation in the national narrative, then the country is doing utmost injustice to the majority of women who cannot afford this way of life.
What about the contributions of urban women who do not abide by the chador and char deewari philosophy? Should they be excluded from the national narrative because they do not conform to the popular idea of what is considered appropriate for women? They live and work in Pakistan, contribute to the economy, pay taxes and are waiting for the day when they, too, will get their rightful space in the national narrative, right beside the soldier, the doctor and the farmer — and not in the role of a caregiver. By default, women are caregivers; if she is a mother, then she is the primary caregiver. However, defining her by just that one aspect of her life and ignoring others is tantamount to making her half a person.
This Independence Day, let’s pledge to make an effort to provide space to everyone who is a part of this country and have them become a part of the national narrative. That is the only way forward. The women are half of the story of this country, let the other half be heard.

Originally written for The Express Tribune

Ladies of iftaar, Imran Khan and vampires

A man who was bitten by a radioactive spider once said, “With great power comes great responsibility.” Similarly, ever year, with Ramazan come hordes of iftaar invitations. Now iftaar parties are not regular get-togethers where people eat and gossip to their heart’s desires. The iftaar invitations come with a hint of holiness that surrounds everything in Ramazan; men and women segregate because they want to offer Maghrib prayers and somehow stay segregated, which usually results in some very interesting and at times entertaining conversation.
Like every other time of the year, ladies talk about things that are discussed in the popular media. This year, they talked about the color palette of Aamir Liaquat’s kurta collection and his cooking abilities – the opinion of the ladies of iftaar was divided on his godliness and piety but they all agreed that the man can cook. One even made her husband watch the cooking segment, hoping he would take the hint. (He didn’t.)

Aamir Liaquat, running away with someone’s child

Quite a few discussed their annual Ramazan Umrah stories from the years past and those who were going for Umrah this year discussed their hotels and their proximity to Haram, flight details and shopping options, as many are coming back via Abu Dhabi or Dubai and plan to pick up a Sabyasachi sari and Dorothy Perkins heels for Eid.
Another topic that was heatedly discussed among the ladies was whether Shaukat Khanam still is a viable option for zakaat donations. The unanimous verdict was that a man as handsome as Imran Khan and one who can speak such perfect English just cannot be bad; it followed (logically, you understand) that Khwaja Asif was the devil’s spawn for trying to besmirch the good name of the good-looking Khan, and Shuakat Khanum stayed a viable zakaat option.
Imran Khan the eternal ladies man

Actually Imran Khan is a favourite topic of conversation among the ladies of iftaar. They discuss his wardrobe, his children, his political options and aspirations, his house and of course his love life. One lady was actually praying at iftaar time that her clan elders should decide to support a PTI candidate. When asked why she wanted this to happen, she said she wants Imran Khan to become the Prime Minister. Her argument was that the only two good looking men (Imran Khan and Shah Mehmood Qureshi) in their fifties are in PTI and if PTI is voted into the assembly, the ladies will get to see them more often on TV. I wanted to point out that Imran Khan is turning sixty later this year but decided not to burst the lady’s bubble. I wonder how the Sharif brothers will respond to this kind of public opinion if it becomes widespread. They may not be as genetically gifted as Khan or Qureshi, but they should get full marks for making an effort and going through the painful process of hair transplants to make themselves attractive to the voting ladies.

If the mommies discussed good-looking men when they were away from the daddies for Maghrib prayers, the preteens were just as vocal in expressing their adoration for the leading men from The Hunger Games and Twilight series. I would not have believed it if I had not witnessed a 12-year old asking her cousin, a dentistry student, to make her fake fangs because she too wants to look like Edward Cullen. When I said that she would also require copious amounts of deathly white powder to look like him (much to my shame, I know exactly who Edward Cullen is, but then I have taught teenage girls in the past so that should explain it), she giggled and said that she only wanted his fangs. The dentistry student just rolled her eyes and confided in me that many young girls and boys who come to the clinic where she is interning ask for little disposable fangs as a compensation for going through painful dental procedures.

If you thought vampires were only popular among preteens, you are mistaken. During one of the iftaar parties, I sat down with two ladies after the Maghrib prayers. One even had prayer beads in her hands but both were very busy debating who is the hottest vampire on TV, whether it is Damon Salvatore or Eric Northman. Apparently they are both bad boy vampires from two different TV series (I was told one show cannot have more than one hot blue-eyed super sexy vampire) fighting for the affections of human girls. When they could not settle on who the hottest vampire is, they turned to me to cast the deciding vote. Even though I watch a lot of trash TV, I draw the line at vampire and werewolf shows, so I couldn’t help them (I googled them later of course). Discussing hotness of vampires on a prayer mat after maghrib was something I never thought I would witness but I guess life surprises you in strangest ways, especially during Ramazans. 

Ian Somerhalder as Damon Salvatore & Alexander Skarsgard as Eric Northman

First published in The Friday Times
Aug 7, 2012 - published work, women    4 Comments

Gender-neutral Pakistan, a distant dream

Earlier this year, I conducted part of a gender sensitization workshop organized for government officials. I had the most diversified group because it had representation from all across Pakistan. We had people from the big cities as well as smaller towns and villages such as Khoshab, Noshki, Dadu, Dera Ismail Khan and Ghotki. 
During a session on gender and leadership, I asked everyone to name a leader they like and admire. It could be a community leader, a politician or a sportsman.  I asked them to name a person who is alive (otherwise I would have gotten Iqbal and Jinnah as most admired leaders), brought changes in his/her community, challenges the status quo and has managed to inspire at least one person. All 25 participants came up with a man’s name including the usual suspects such as Imran Khan and Shahbaz Shareef to some really off beat choices such as Mushahid Hussain Syed (seriously!) 
We discussed each and every name and why they admire them and people came up with some really odd reasons. One guy, who quite obviously has worked with Mushahid Hussain Syed in the past, liked him because of his English language skills and his ties and the guy from Dadu thought President Zaradari was the best leader to have graced this land because of his policy of reconciliation. 

I asked the participants if they had any female leaders around them and the only leader they could think of was Speaker National Assembly Dr Fehmida Mirza. When I asked them why they thought she was a leader and what kind of changes had she brought, either in her community or workplace, they could not think of any reason other than stating her office and the fact that she is the first female speaker.

I then decided to throw in a couple of names, who I thought would generate debate about types of leadership roles. I suggested Bilquis Edhi, the woman, who started the first adoption service in Pakistan and gave home to thousands of unwanted babies. I then took the name of Mukhtaran Mai, a gang-rape victim, who challenged every patriarchal and misogynist person, the system and law of the land, opened up the first ever girls school in her village and has been battling the perpetrators of her crime for over a decade.

Participants grudgingly agreed that Bilquis Edhi is a leader but also mentioned that she could not have done it all had she not been married to the most dedicated and well-known social worker of the country. The reaction on Mukhtaran Mai was anything but civil. With the sole exception of two women, everyone said that she is not a leader despite evidence to the contrary. She was called everything from a gold-digger to a publicity whore to just plain old whore and a bad example for other women. When asked to give reasons for their repugnance, they failed to come up with a solid reason other than her bringing shame to Pakistan in the international community.

The reaction of the participants was reflective of the society we live in. People are threatened by a woman who is not even a direct threat to them and is only challenging misogynist laws and the system by asking for a fair trial. She and all the other women stand no hope of living in a more gender-friendly society, which will remain a distant dream for a very long time. All gender sensitisation workshops will fail if we do not make serious effort to radically alter the stereotype images of women and girls in our textbooks, popular media and homes. Presenting an alternative, more gender-neutral environment is our only hope of providing a safer society to our daughters.

 First published in The Express Tribune.

City of whirling dervishes

I first heard about Konya from Rumi’s poetry during my teenage. I read about it a bit more when I visited Tabriz as an adult and developed a fascination for Shams Tabriz and his relationship with Rumi.
So, when my friend suggested we go to Konya during our Turkey sojourn, I said why not and we ended up in the city of whirling dervishes.  There are many stories surrounding the birth of the city. According to a Roman myth, when Perseus killed a dragon that had been wreaking havoc in the nearby area, the people set up a stone obelisk with an icon of Perseus engraved in it, which gave the city its name Iconium or Ikonyum. 
The Muslim myth is about two dervishes who were teleporting from far away. During their flight over Anatolia region, one of them asked the other, “Shall I land?” (“Konayim mi?”). The other responded, “Sure, land” (“Kon ya!”) They landed, found the city and that is how it got its name — Konya.
The archeological reality predates both the myths. The ruins of Catal Huyuk show that the region was inhabited as early as Neolithic Period — around 7000 BC making it one of the oldest sites in the world. 
Konya was the last stop on our itinerary. We took an overnight bus from Kushadasi to Konya and were pleasantly surprised on arrival — after the mind-numbing heat of Istanbul, Seljuk, Izmir and Kushadasi, Konya at the altitude of over 1000 meters above the sea level was pleasant. 
It is quite different from the other Turkish cities we had seen and the Islamic identity of its people is more visible here. Women are seen in more conservative clothing, there are mosques and public wuzu (ablution) places everywhere. The pace of life is much slower and one gets the feeling of being in a different country — perhaps also in a different era. 

Women in scarves, a sight more common in Konya
 The biggest reason for visiting Konya was to pay tribute to Rumi and attend the weekly Sama that is performed every Saturday in Konya in what can be called the world’s biggest whirling dervish hall.
We had been told by our travel agent that visitors must buy a 50 Turkish Lira ticket to attend the festival. After reaching the venue, Mevlâna Cultural Centre, we spent the entire day in anxiety, wondering how we will get the tickets or how much will it cost — but to our surprise there was no entry ticket and whosoever goes in first gets the front seat. 
The ceremony started with recitation of the Quranic verses and durood and then moved on to excerpts from Rumi’s masnavis on which the dervishes whirled. In the jam-packed hall, there were people from all the continents. It started slowly but it later picked up the pace and kept the audience captivated.  It was only when the music stopped that we realised a good 90-minutes had passed. 
The origin of Sama is credited to Maulana Rumi, who one day heard the hammering of the gold beater working in the local market and heard the zikr (Zikr of the Almighty) and kalma in the hammering of the people beating the gold. So spellbound in happiness was Maulana Rumi that he just stretched out both of his arms and started spinning in a circle and that is how the practice of Sama and the Mevlevi order were born. 
The annual Urs of Maulana Rumi, or Mevlana Festival as the Turkish people like to call it, falls in December. It runs for two weeks and ends on December 17, Rumi’s death anniversary. Those who want to attend it need to make plans much earlier as more than a million people visit Konya during the festival fortnight. They also need to be prepared for very cold winters and snowfall during that period. 
The weekly Sama ceremony in Konya
Before we attended the ceremony, we spent the day visiting the beautiful Seljuq era mosques and Maualna Rumi’s shrine. Rumi’s Shrine is distinctive with the rose gardens surrounding it and the turquoise minaret atop the mausoleum. I was quite surprised to see a ticket booth at the entrance of the shrine as shrines are considered holy places that are open to all, but found that after the fall of the Ottoman Empire, the Turkish government turned mausoleum and the dargah, where dervish disciples used to live, into a museum. It is now called Mevlana Museum, hence the entry ticket. 
The main hall of the tomb with graves of Maulana Rumi, his father, his son and many other contemporary dervishes is a majestic building with high ceilings, silver calligraphy and beautiful wood carving. There is a smaller Tilavet Room next to the main hall that is home to some of the most beautiful, rare and precious examples of Quranic Ottoman calligraphy. It is said that Koran was continuously recited and chanted in the tilavat room before the shrine was turned into a museum.

Rumi’s shrine

The dervishes chambers are turned into museum, and house some of the rarest specimens of Mevlevi order. Some of the rooms display clothes and musical instruments that are used in performance of a Sama such as the mevlana dress, the cymbal, the tambourine, small hand operated drums, the rebab, and the flute, played once by Maulana Rumi himself. Then there were beautiful lamps, reading and writing desks, Maulana Rumi’s dervish clothes, and two specimens of masnavis written by Rumi. 
Besides Rumi, pilgrims to Konya also get to visit the shrine of Shams Tabriz, the shrine of Sadreduddin Konevi and the shrine of Yusuf Atesh-Baz Vali. I was quite surprised to see Shams Tabriz’s tomb inside the shrine because I have seen his tomb in Tabriz (Iran). I later found out that Shams Tabriz has multiple tombs in Tabriz, Konya, Nigde, Hoy and Multan. The one in Konya is called Shams’ post.

A model of what a dervish’s room looked like
 Food, like the rest of Turkey mostly consists of salads and meat. The local specialty of Konya is tanduri mutton and iskandar kebabs. Both dishes are served on the bed of local naans. Konya is also quite famous for Turkey’s carpet trade and locally made carpets and rugs can be purchased at much cheaper prices than in Istanbul.
Local delicacy – Iskandar Kebab

As we had to head back home the very next day, we caught an early morning flight out of Konya and could not see the ruins of the Catal Huyuk which I do regret. After all one does not get to be in the vicinity of places that are about 9000 years old. Those visiting Konya should mark at least half a day to visit the ancient ruins.

First published in The News on Sunday
Jul 30, 2012 - published work, religion    4 Comments

This Ramazan everyone is a beggar

Religion dominates airwaves all year round in Pakistan. If it is not programs of religious variety offering religious advice on food, matrimony and Halal banking, then someone would be offering Istekhara services to those who seek divine guidance. If it is not the theological debates, then it would be programs targeting women telling them how to be good Muslim wives and daughters, tv serials telling women how to be submissive and regressive in name of religion, morning show hosts censoriously telling young men and women not to venture into parks and indulge in un-Islamic acts of sitting on the benches. If this is how things go all year around, the religiosity of the TV content goes up considerably during Ramazan. 
The TV channels with more moolah put up huge sets, get hoards of people to come in, and cram in everything in those few hours: real life tragedies, sob stories, hyper religiosity, overt piety, a lot of charity, a bit of drama with a dash of emotions and tears, cooking shows, many give aways and gifts for the audience present in the studios and the audience glued to their TV sets in their homes, naats and religious sermons and last but not the least would be the transmission show hosts’ claims of grandiosity that they cook the best kebabs, give away most money to the needy on their show, get the best ratings and convert, or revert if you prefer that, people of other faiths to Islam – live on TV. It is reality TV with a hint of religion to make it palatable for most.
All that is fine because it is TV and at the end of the day, it’s a business and everyone wants to make some money. What gets my goat is that they are perpetuating a culture where people think asking others for money or begging is fine. In one example, a man who earns Rs8,000 per month came in and asked for half a million rupees to pay for his wife’s medical bills. One of his excuses was that he has four kids that he cannot afford to feed. The wife probably fell ill by bearing children after children when she was obviously physically weak and anemic. The host’s reaction was not only to sympathise with him but to urge his viewers to donate money to him. I, on the other hand, wanted the host to ask this man why he procreated four times when he knew he was earning just Rs. 8,000 a month. Was he expecting a miracle or did he think his financial conditions would change all of a sudden?
By offering him and the likes of him the money, aren’t TV channel being irresponsible and giving the message that it is ok to not plan your life or be responsible for your choices, we will guilt others with more money into giving it you. Lines like “Yeh bachi namaz parhtee hai, iskay ilaaj ke liye paisay dain” are also discriminatory. If a person is regular with his namaz, he or she deserves a greater chunk of the charity than the heathen who do not pray 5 times a day, no matter how grave their need is. Financial assistance is fine but it would be better if it comes with a bit counseling about family planning and life choices. 
Instead of urging people to give away for charity, why don’t we urge the audience to give decent wages to the people who work for them so they do not need to be supplanted with charity? If you really want to make a lasting more dignified difference, how about vowing to pay decent wages to everyone who works for you –at your workplace, at your home and around you – and getting others around you to do the same. 
Originally written for The Express Tribune, this is the longer version. 

Though this is a serious piece but if you want to be entertained by the sheer stupidity of my countrymen, please go to the ET website and read comments.
Jul 27, 2012 - published work, travel, Turkey    8 Comments

Tourism of another kind

Alain de Botton writes about the relationship between the anticipation of travel and its reality in his book ‘The Art of Travel’. Before traveling to a place, most people think about the amazing places they would visit, the exotic food they would eat and interesting people they would meet. The reality could be different; they may not get to visit the places they planned, the food may be disappointing and the people, not very exciting. On the other hand, the reality could be everything they desired but it is always laced with the reality that is not anticipated, like braving long lines at the immigration counter at the airport, haggling with cab drivers in a language they don’t know and their inability to do something as simple as reading a road sign and the subsequent frustration over it.
Before my vacations earlier this month, my level of anticipation was high. I planned a visit to a country that I have always wanted to see – Turkey. I read books about the country; travelogues, stories about the history of the land, influences of Roman and Greek mythology on Turkish architecture, and something as touching as the ode that Nobel laureate Orhan Pamuk wrote for his beloved city Istanbul. To say that I was high on anticipation would be putting it mildly. I was anticipating a visit to the Topkapi Palace which would transport me back to medieval times in Istanbul; I would spend afternoons on the beach in Izmir; I would be enthralled by the Sama ceremony of whirling dervishes in Konya; and I was so looking forward to drinking Turkish tea on a balcony one evening overlooking the Bosphorus. The reality was different. Topkapi was so overcrowded that I was literally jostled from one room to another; Izmir was struck out of the itinerary because of a shortage of funds; and the Sama ceremony turned out to be a lot less spiritual and more concert-like than I would have liked. I also ended up drinking Turkish tea not in a balcony overlooking the Bosphorus but in a police station in Istanbul.
Everyone who has ever been to Turkey has regaled me with tales of how Turkish people love Pakistanis and how it is the last place in the world where we are still respected/loved. I lost that illusion a few minutes after I entered Ataturk Airport. The Turkish embassy in Islamabad assured me that I will get a visa on arrival if I have a US, British or Schengen visa stamped on my passport, so the first thing I needed to do in Turkey was buy a visa. The sign told me that I will have to go to Immigration Counter No 2 to get my passport stamped (they have a separate counter for people from Pakistan, India, Iraq and South Africa). I looked for it but the trail of arrows kind of died in the middle of a long corridor, so I came back and asked the help desk. A man here told me that Counter 2 is closed so I need to go to the counter where everyone else is getting their visas. There was a crazy long line at that counter and when after 20 minutes I managed to speak to the visa officer, he told me to go find Counter 2 again. (This man was not authorized to give a visa to a Pakistani.) I asked several people but everyone spun a new tale about visas for Pakistanis. I saw a desi-looking family walking to the same long corridor where the trail of arrows ended and decided to follow them. It turned out that one had to keep going even when the trail of arrows ended to get to the desired counter. When I got there, I saw a few people gathered around a closed counter and some Turkish immigration officials on the other side chatting with each other. I went up to them and asked if the counter was closed. I was told that the counter was indeed closed. I then told them there must be some mistake because I was specifically sent to this counter to get my visa because I am traveling on a Pakistani passport. One of the immigration officials almost snapped my head off for not telling him earlier that I am Pakistani. I wanted to tell him that I was at the counter for only 30 seconds but refrained from pointing it out. I just wanted to leave the airport as soon as I could. I was then given a piece of paper and was sent to another counter to pay for the visa. I came back with the receipt and gave them the passport and then waited patiently for one of the immigration officials to deign to pick up my passport and stamp my visa and entry into their country. I waited, along with that desi-looking family – they were Indians from Delhi – for the officials to finish their tea. After what seemed like an eternity, one of them took pity on us and gave us our passports back, stamped. In the meantime, I cussed up a storm in Urdu/Hindi with the eldest daughter of the family from Delhi about the sterling work ethics of the Turkish Immigration officers at Counter 2.
Meeting a friend who was joining me all the way from Canada and getting a tram to our hotel in Sultanahmet went smoothly. Another friend joined us from Amsterdam later that night. We had dinner and made plans for a blitzkrieg tourism-filled weekend. We started the day with a visit to the Blue Mosque which is every bit as majestic as I anticipated it to be. The difference from the anticipation was the rush of people who wanted to get their pictures taken with every calligraphic inscription and every bulb in the numerous chandeliers.

If the Blue Mosque met my expectations, Ayasofia far exceeded them. So steeped in the history is the place and so different it is from everything I have seen until now that I couldn’t help being mesmerized by it all. Where else would you get to see Quranic inscriptions side by side with mosaic paintings of the Virgin Mary and Archangel?


Where calligraphy of the word Allah coexist with a mosaic painting of Archangel: the main hall in Aya Sofia

Bascilla Cistern, a Bosphorus cruise and a day at Topkapi rounded up our weekend. After a long day in Topkapi, we came out and sat on one of the benches in the courtyard between Ayasofia and the Blue Mosque. My friend needed help in looking for a key in her bag so I put my bag under my left leg and the 60 seconds I spent in looking for a key in her backpack, someone came and stole my bag from under my leg! Yes, there I was, in Istanbul… with no money, no credit or debit card, no passport, no cell phone and no proof of identification, it was like I didn’t exist any longer. After the initial panic, I went to the tourism police office where a gentleman who could speak English refused to believe me; he actually had the audacity to treat me as a criminal and asked me repeatedly if I am sure that I have not forgotten my bag somewhere and am now crying that it was stolen. The policeman was rude, misogynist and quite adept at blaming the victim – just like the policemen back home. After a big hassle, I got the address of a nearby police station where I could file an official report. The policemen at the station desk knew rudimentary English and told us to wait. While waiting he asked us where we were from and when we said we were from Pakistan, he sang JeevayPakistan and said he was doing it to cheer me up. I was looking at him in a state of shock. Never in my wildest imagination had I ever thought that one day, every penny I had on me would be stolen in a foreign land and I will have to hear an impromptu rendition of Jeevay Pakistan in a police station. Truth is certainly stranger than fiction.


Some of them very farigh Turkish policemen.
And, as if that was not enough, random policemen would come, talk to the guy at the desk, look at me, nod their heads, smile, laugh and then leave. Freaked out as I was, I just stood up and asked him why no one was filing a report on my behalf and why everyone was coming and looking at me like a circus animal. I was told that they were waiting for an official translator to sign off the report and that I looked like some Turkish singer who apparently was only popular with the policemen (nobody told me anywhere else in Turkey that I look like a pop singer) and that is why they all wanted to see me. One of the over-eager policeman even shook hands with me as if I was the local celebrity. So flabbergasted was I with this turn of events that I actually complied. This is something I would never have anticipated before I embarked upon my travels.


The next day was spent at the embassy getting a new passport made. They charged me 168 dollars – which is kind of ironic because I was robbed of every single penny and had to borrow money from friends for everything. I later learned that the embassies are supposed to help such victims and have a special fund with which they pay for your passport and stuff. I don’t know if it is true or not, but I am still grateful to the embassy staff for being courteous and making me a replacement passport the very same day.

Apparently this chori chakari is so commonplace in Istanbul that the embassy folks were not in the least bit surprised when I went to get my passport made and regaled them with my sob story. The fellow there asked me – very calmly – if it happened at Taksim Square or Sultanahmet. When I told him that it happened at Sultanahmet, he wisely nodded his head and said that that’s where most of the passports of Pakistanis were snatched. They get around 5-6 stolen passport cases every week. The day I got my passport made, there were three other Pakistani guys who were mugged in the alleys next to Istaklal Street.
If you think it was not shocking enough, on my way back to Pakistan, I learned that I cannot get through the regular immigration counter. They have a separate immigration desk at Ata Turk Airport for people whose passports have either been stolen or lost! You need to show them a copy of your police report; your newly minted very expensive passport, they write the date of your entry on your boarding, stamps the exit on your passport and viola, you are free to go back home. A special desk for people with stolen/new passports! How bizarre is that?
The usual crime scene: the tram that travels from Taksim Square through the length of Istaklal Street
If anyone had told me before I embarked upon the journey that I will end up spending a day at the Pakistani Embassy in Istanbul and would be shaking hands with over-eager Turkish policemen who thought I was a celebrity lookalike, I would have laughed out at the ludicrousness of it all.
Originally written for The Friday Times, this is the longer version.
PS: Special shout out to Saima and Karan for bearing with a very gloomy and morose me in Turkey.
PPS: Sorry for not warning you earlier, this is a rather long rant. 

The frivolous and the inane

If someone was handing out awards to legislative assemblies for coming up with the most bizarre legislation and the most frivolous debates, chances are that the Punjab Assembly — the largest legislative house of the country — would win. The house has turned into such a joke of late that one wonders about the ability of most of its members to just be rational, let alone their ability to make laws.
Every other day, members of this supposedly august house are reported in the media about their involvement in verbal spats, at times, on the assembly floor, calling each other name that are so impolite that they often need to be taken off the records of assembly proceedings.  From trying to pass legislation against mobile phone packages to legislation encouraging polygamy and shout fests, from calling names to throwing shoes and chairs at people, members of Punjab assembly have indulged in just about everything – at times repeatedly so.
Instead of taking up issues that adversely affect the performance of the province – such as high number of children outside the schools, the recent young doctor’s strike, increasing unemployment in the province or increase in beggary – the members discuss matter that are irrelevant and can no way be passed as matters of government interest or political debate, legislation or attempts at legislation which is their raison d’être. Latest in the long line of inane debates is discussion over Sharmeen Obaid Chinoy’s promise to pay Rs 3 million to acid burn victim Rukhsana. Instead of discussing and strengthening laws on domestic violence, acid throwing and police reforms, they decided to go after the film maker who highlighted this issue through her work. It was quite ironic that the motion to ‘help this poor woman’ was moved by Shaikh Alauddin who is quite well known for his misogynyand has harassed his co workers in assembly on camera.
When the members of the assembly do work on issues of importance, they do not do so with the required diligence and care. According to a PILDAT report, it took the provincial assembly only 21 hours and 56 minutes to pass the annual budget for the fiscal year 2012-13 which was around Rs 782 billion. In comparison budget debate 2011-2012 consumed approximately 39 hours. Hence a decline of55% was witnessed this year in the actual time devoted for Budget debate. They pass multiple bills which had been returned to the assembly secretariat from the governor’s office with objections and reservations, without making any changes in the text or the context of the bills. The provincial law minister disregarded the governor’s reservations by saying that the “governor has hired a team of English-writers, who write the same type of objections on every bill.”
Perhaps, the Darwin Award for the most incredible legislation goes to Punjab Law Minister Rana Sanaullah Khan who moved a motion to remove the ostrich from the bird category and place it in the same category of animals as goats and sheep, in order to meet the increasing demand for meat in the province. One wonders why the poor birds had to be removed from their rightful place in the animal kingdom; if the reason was to encourage people to eat them, they could have done it without the hyperbole of legislation. After all we, as a nation, eat poultry like there is no tomorrow.
Going by the performance of this house, the election commission should be advised to start testing candidates on basic IQ tests before approving their nomination papers for the next elections. Who knows, the next assembly might want to declare elephants as fish.
Originally written for The Express Tribune
Jul 16, 2012 - published work, travel    2 Comments

City of the future

Cities like Lahore or London have history — hundreds of thousands of people have built and shaped those cities over a period of centuries. The people add their lives, bit-by-bit, to the mosaic of the city making it what it is today — good or bad, spacious or cramped — but the city bears the mark of time.

Corniche, situated in the heart of the city 

Some cities do not grow organically; they are painted on a canvas, with planning, precision and a vision, with bold strokes. Hundreds of thousands of people contribute to building and shaping those cities too but they do it according to a map. Everything is shiny and new in these cities and nothing is shinier or newer than Abu Dhabi — in fact, if looked closely, half of its glory is still under construction.

I have visited UAE before but it has always been a 24-hour stopover on my way out and a 38-hour stopover on my way back to meet friends and family; this time around I went on a planned trip to Abu Dhabi and developed an appreciation for things new and glittery and it started even before I stepped foot on the land on their national airline Etihad.

One of the shiniest monuments of Abu Dhabi is the Sheikh Zayed mosque and represents the city to a T. It is flamboyant and flaunts its grandiosity like a badge of honour, complete with its gold-plated Swarovski crystal chandeliers, Christmas-like coloured Murano glass baubles hanging from the same chandeliers and world’s largest hand-knotted carpet, woven in Mashhad by 1200 women who worked for months and made it into nine different pieces for easier transportation.

It was interesting to see that our guide at the mosque was an Arab version of a character from a Dan Brown novel, bringing in ancient symbolism into everything — be it the  design of the marble floor on the entrance foyer or the carvings on the wall which he said was based on what supposedly is the Garden of Eden or the old style Arabic calligraphy with letters without dots (Kufic script), which is interesting because everything about the mosque screams modern, sparkly and new. It is a must visit if you really want to get a feel of the city that is Abu Dhabi. It is also fun to watch Korean men in Arabic dress and Ukrainian women in black Abaya taking pictures of themselves and their surroundings and having fun.

Another example of Abu Dhabi’s modern architecture and cosmopolitanism is Corniche, the stretch of beach that is home to most of the 5-star hotels and eco-friendly beaches and water sport facilities. The skyline is impressive and is lined with one beautiful high-rise after another. The view of the road at night with the lights from the road and the high-rise buildings glittering on the water is beautiful and quite endearing to a city girl like me. A leisurely dinner in one of the open air restaurants is a must during a visit to the capital city.

One of the places that I found most impressive is the under-construction city of Saadiyat. I went there to catch the ‘Cultures of the World’ exhibition, currently on loan from the British museum for the summer at Emirates Palace, a museum and a gallery. The exhibit was impressive and a great way for people who cannot travel to London to see the cultural marvels created throughout the history across the continents. The palace also houses a gallery featuring the past of the emirate and future of Saadiyat cultural city. It will have three museums, Zayed National Museum, the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi and world’s second Louvre museum, along with a performing arts centre and a maritime museum, part of which will be submerged in water. The museums will be opening in 2015, 2016 and 2017 and once they are all operational, these will be the biggest concentration of cultural institutions in such a small place. The model of Guggenheim looked like an architectural wonder of conical and cylindrical shapes — and I for one cannot wait to see it when built. I am definitely coming back, if only to see Guggenheim Abu Dhabi.

If Saadiyat is being developed into the culture capital of the country, Yas Island is designed as the entertainment destination of the region. For a small island off the coast of Abu Dhabi, It boasts activities as impressive Etihad Airways Formula 1 grand prix at Yas Marina circuit, Yas Links, which is one of the top ten new golf courses in the world and regular performances and concerts by all the major entertainers and artists of the world.

So many people I know hopped over to Abu Dhabi last month for the Madonna concert.

Only a short while back, Abu Dhabi was nothing more than a few villages around the random oasis inhabited by the nomadic Arab tribes, it is now one of the fastest growing cities in the world with a truly cosmopolitan mix of people living and working there, calling it home. One must marvel and admire their government and Abu Dhabi Tourism Authority (ADTA) for turning a desert with unfavourable climate into a tourist destination for rich and privileged with a PGA golf tournament in one of the plushest golf courses in the world, a desert rally, a gourmet food festival and an annual Formula 1 grand prix.

Granted they have petro dollars that they can spend, they also have a vision to make things happen. I only wish that we can emulate some of that spirit and make our cities beautiful and centres of culture, art and music — after all we have history on our side.

Originally written for The News on Sunday 

Photos by Ali Khurshid 

An unrealistic code for elections

Pick up any news item these days and there will be a connection with the Supreme Court in one way or the other. The spine recently developed by the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) also owes its existence to a Supreme Court directive, which resulted in a brand new code limiting the election expenses of a candidate to Rs1.5 million. Election candidates were banned from providing transport facilities to voters on election day and were prohibited from using other promotional tools. The sentiment is noble but the implementation of this code of conduct seems impossible for various reasons.
Given the state of inflation and the size of constituencies — particularly, for the National Assembly — the amount of Rs1.5 million is unrealistic. Well-heeled Pakistanis spend more on a valima; expecting candidates to woo around a hundred thousand voters per constituency on that budget would be a tad unreal. In addition, a lot of services during campaigns are provided without any monetary transaction. One supporter gets the banners printed while another provides tents for the jalsa and a third supporter does the catering for the aforementioned jalsa, free of cost. This makes the process of keeping the tabs very difficult.
The ECP also prohibits the political parties from hoisting party flags on public property or at any public place unless granted permission by the local government for a certain fee. Every city is already flooded with political flags of all colours and hues. The residents of Karachi will vouch that they have seen the political flags of all parties inundating their streets, making the street look like it is in a perpetual state of a campaign of some kind or other. The code of conduct is silent on how the ECP will get rid of the flags and whether is has the authority to order local governments to do so. Further, the removal of party flags is contingent upon local governments having the resources to remove them.
Wall chalking as part of an election campaign is also prohibited by the ECP along with the use of loudspeakers, barring election meetings. Again, controlling wall chalking would be a momentous task and the candidates can always say that their supporters and not their campaign teams are behind it.
Further, the ECP also forbids candidates to affix posters, hoardings or banners larger than the prescribed sizes for the campaign. Most urban centres and highways already sport larger than life hoardings of political leaders; the Sharif brothers in Rawalpindi, Lahore and Gujranwala, Asfandyar Wali in Charsadda and Peshawar, Altaf Hussain in Karachi and Hyderabad, Imran Khan in Lahore and Peshawar and the whole Bhutto clan almost everywhere in Pakistan. These hoardings do not ask voters to vote for any particular candidate during the election period. Hence, they are not related to any election campaign. Yet, they propagate the messages of various political parties and can affect the election process. The ECP’s code of conduct does not say anything about these advertisements.
The ECP also banned candidates from providing transport facilities to voters on election day, which, again, is essential for maintaining neutrality. However, it can adversely impact the percentage of voters, who will actually go out and vote. While limiting election expenses is a very commendable step for which ECP should be congratulated, it needs to make the code of conduct more realistic and must also come up with ways to implement it.

First published in The Express Tribune.