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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 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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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
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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.
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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.

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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.

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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.
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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
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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.
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Originally written for The Friday Times, this is the longer version.
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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. 
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 
Jul 3, 2012 - Tapas, travel    7 Comments

Three meals in Abu Dhabi


Pakistanis love their food, we know it, we cook it, we eat it –we eat a lot of it, and we love to talk about it. However, most Pakistanis eat their own kind of food and do not want to experiment much with different cuisines. Despite being a paindu Pakistani, I love food in all forms and from all over the world – though I too draw a line and don’t eat things like frogs and alligators – in fact no travel experience is complete without trying local foods. Abu Dhabi was a little different because finding authentic Arabic places to eat was not too easy for a new person, but as an alternative, the city offered amazing international choices that can rival any cosmopolitan city of the world. 
I was lucky in a way that the hotel I stayed in – Traders Hotel – offered great variety in the breakfast menu. Though they served South Asian and continental breakfast in all its glory, I was looking for authentic Arabian breakfast and upon consultation with the restaurant manager, decided to go for Labneh which is yougurt like soft cheese balls covered with herbs and olive oil. I also had flat bread with Za’atar which is a dried blend of various herbs such as oregano, basil, thyme, sumac with sesame seeds and olive oil. For a person who normally starts her day with a bowl of muesli, the Arabian breakfast was an explosion of taste. Both the things tasted great, however, I would recommend Za’atar for a mid day meal rather than breakfast but then again, I am not really a morning person and enjoy my food better when I am fully awake. Labneh, on the other hand, was great way to kick start a busy day.
If you happen to be or live in Abu Dhabi, I recommend that you should try out the lunch buffet at Sofra Restaurant in Shangri-La Qaryat Al Beri. If a restaurant is packed for lunch on a weekday at 1.00 pm, it generally means that the food would be great. What I was not expecting was the sheer variety of food they had on offer; from a full mezze spread to a variety of salads to sushi for starters to Continental, Mediterranean and South Asian sections for the main course. The sweet dish section was so great that I decided to skip the main course and only had starters and two sweet dishes as I could not choose one. If a person with no particular fondness for sweet dishes went bat shit crazy in that restaurant, imagine what would happen to a person who actually has a sweet tooth! I predict food coma :).

The appetizers at Sofra
meetha heaven!
But the best food experience of my stay in Abu Dhabi was at the Tapas bar, Amodar in Park Rotana. The spread was amazing with everything from seaweed wrapped smoked salmon to deep fried calamari to poached prawns, to wafer thin strips of beef to batter fried anchovies, meatballs and amazing variety of cheese with thick chunks of doughy German bread. The service was great and our Spanish waiter not only explained the food to us but also shared a little bit of history of it and the background of the chef who designed the menu. Being a foodie and a food critic, Kiran asked a lot of questions about the food which brought out the two chefs from their kitchen. What happened next was magical. First they prepared an amazing entrée where they made balls of cucumber juice by putting them in calcium water and then serving them with oyster leaves, seaweed and salt water foam to give the dish its oysterish sea like feel; needless to say it was delicious and getting is made right in front of us was quite an experience. You can taste everything, from the cucumber ball to oyster leaves to seaweed separately in your mouth. With us gushing over their skill, the chefs decided to show off some more and made a sorbet for us with liquid nitrogen. They mixed an assortment of juices and drinks, added liquid nitrogen and whisked the mixture in the bowl with fog emanating from it and then served us those little sorbet balls on frozen dishes. It would not be putting it mildly if I say that it was one of my most cherished food experiences ever – anywhere in the world. Not only did we enjoy excellent food, we also learned a great deal about the cooking techniques. The way the chefs attended to us and made things for us made us feel like royalty. I personally felt like one of the judges in the masterchef kitchen. What a wonderful experience it was! I suggest that if you happen to be in Abu Dhabi, do drop by at the Tapas Bar in Park Rotana, I guarantee that you will not regret it. 

Varieties of salmon

Discussing food, loving food

 

making cucumber balls

Scooping them out of calcium water

 

Sorbet making with liquid nitrogen


The trip to Abu Dhabi was part of  LivEY experience.For those who want to try their luck traveling the world with Etihad Airways, they should check out the LivEY facebook page, who knows, you could be part of the next group to a new destination.

PS: Most of the photos are taken by Ali Khurshid

Jun 27, 2012 - Samra Muslim, travel    7 Comments

and off we go to Abu Dhabi

For as long as I can remember, there has been one thing that has not changed about me – my desire to travel. I want to see things that others around me don’t get to see, I want to experience life in all its varied shades and I want to meet people from every corner of the world because they reiterate my faith that despite all the differences, we are essentially the same with similar aspirations and ambitions in life, so when I get an opportunity to travel – whether it is to China or Charsadda, Tando Allahyar or Tripoli – I take it and run with it. 
Earlier this year, Samra Muslim from Etihad Airways contacted me about a project where they will take an assortment of people – photographers, lifestyle journalists and a blogger or two – to their headquarters in Abu Dhabi and show them how the airline works and the city that is home to it. As I have never been one to say no to travel (during my younger days, my most cherished wish was to become a travel writer) I thanked her for the opportunity and said yes to it. For some reason or the other the tour got delayed, but when it happened, it was definitely worth the wait. 
The Etihad tour – or LivEY as it is called across the social media platforms – is an experiment where they put together journalists, photographers, bloggers and social media enthusiasts and they experience Etihad hospitality and get to see the city of Abu Dhabi – courtesy Abu Dhabi Tourism Authority. 
So we packed our bags and went to Abu Dhabi last week from Karachi, Lahore and Islamabad. Despite being a seasoned traveler, I checked the time and flight number and printed out my ticket, I was in for a surprise when I got my boarding card and discovered that I have a business class ticket! As I rarely get to travel in business class, I was very happy with this unexpected surprise. Even before I embarked on the journey, I was already in love with the Etihad people in general and Samra Muslim in particular.
It would not be wrong if I say that flying business class in Etihad was quite an experience and I am wondering how will I go back to my old ‘economy class cheapest ticket’ life. It started off with me falling in love with the seats that come with their own foot rests – they can be stretched after taking off for maximum comfort– and discovering the in-seat massager. I couldn’t wait to take off and start the massager – yes, I was that excited about it. The aircraft was a Boeing 777 – beautiful and spacious – and the hospitality was exceptional, but I would like to state that Etihad had perhaps the best coffee that has been offered to me by any airline, as I have traveled in airlines from 4 different continents – North America, Europe, Asia and Africa, I think my recommendation should carry some weight. In addition to the regular cabin crew that took care of the passengers, the first class and business class have a Cabin Manager who not only take care of food but also go and chat with all the passengers about something of their interest which is taking hospitality to another level. On my Abu Dhabi bound flight, I got to chat with Melna – the cabin manager – who came to my seat when I was watching This Means War and we ended up discussing the film and weighed the pros & cons of falling for guys like Tom Hardy and Chris Pine  (come on, no matter what you do and where you are from, girls do discuss romantic comedies and the good looking actors in it, we are programmed that way). We both thought Pine is way cuter but Hardy wins it with his tattoos and British accent.  We also agreed that things like this – two handsome men fighting over a girl – never happen outside cinemas.
Once we landed in Abu Dhabi, I met Samra and the rest of the gang, and after putting our stuff in the hotel, we were taken to Etihad HQ for a tour and a briefing. We were greeted by Calum D. Laming – Head of Guest Experience and Lee Shave – Vice President Guest Experience. Both the gentlemen took us around and showed us what it is like to be part of the Etihad family. I felt like I was back in school and was visiting a place which will help me decide about my career and what I want to do in future(I wanted to become an ice-cream maker after visiting an ice-cream factory – yes, I am that easily impressed), unfortunately I am too old to change professions otherwise I would have totally jumped the ship and tried to inveigle my way into the company.
Here are some shots from the trip.

The simulators where Etihad pilots practice, I so wanted to get in one but they were not free

Calum Laming with the group

The photographs of Etihad graduates – ranging from flight attendants to chefs to food & beverage managers.

The flight attendants during training in an Economy class cabin model

The super private First Class seat

The Business Class

Training Day

For First Class Passengers

For the Business Class

For Economy Class
Training room for emergency situations

And we have a model amongst us!

For those who want to try their luck with LivEY, they should check out the LivEY facebook page, who knows, you could be part of the next group.

Dec 17, 2011 - Social Media, Society, travel    5 Comments

Social Seating! Somebody kill me already

Anyone who has had to travel with KLM repeatedly would agree with me on three counts. Firstly, their seats in the economy section are a little too close for comfort. Secondly, their crew wears a hideous blue uniform – your eyes actually hurt if you look at that colour for more than 1 minute and 34 seconds. Lastly, the crew is geriatric enough to make you feel guilty if you ask for a glass of water twice. 
At one point in time, I used to travel to Netherlands pretty frequently, after traveling with them a few times, I decided to change airlines. It’s not like I get a direct flight (Pakistan unfortunately is NOT te choice destination for most Western airline companies) and if I have to change a plane at Doha or Dubai, I might as well fly an airline with better seats and in-flight entertainment program. I am sure there must have been so many other passengers who decided not to travel with KLM for the very same reasons – unless they are masochist who like cramped leg space or midgets – or both.
According to rumors, in order to win those and some other new – read desperate – passengers; KLM is introducing a new service called “Social Seating.” The Dutch airline is developing a service that will allow the travelers to find the most compatible person in the flight to share their journey with, based on their social media profile. What the fuck! I will now have to share my facebook and LinkedIn profile on the counter before I get my boarding pass!!!
Forget catching up on the movies that you have missed in your local cinema and are too lazy to download, forget reading that trashy novel that you wanted to get hold of but did not do so at home because you were too afraid of being judged by your sibling, husband or cook. Forget catching up on the lost sleep on that 7 hour long flight, you will be sitting next to the most compatible person on the plane who probably would want to chat with you about the existentialist angst in Cormac McCarthy’s The Road that you have listed as your favourite book on facebook. Never mind the fact that you probably clicked ‘like’ on it 4 years ago to impress a chick in grad school; social seating would not care for your intellectual pretense, it will punish you for it.
Being an anti social being, I couldn’t care less about social seating. Any airline that wants to win my business needs to provide me with two services and I would be their most loyal customer; more leg space (yes, tall people are obsessed with more leg space) and an assurance that I will never get to sit with parents who travel with crying babies and nosey toddlers they can’t control.

PS: Before anyone goes on to judge me for keeping my distance from messy toddlers, they must read this horror story from hell. 

Jul 23, 2010 - published work, travel    43 Comments

The perils of traveling by yourself

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If you happen to be a single Pakistani woman traveling on your own, chances are you will get asked questions by fellow travelers, random strangers and at times by the flight attendants that may vary from harmless chit chat to something that would rival a Spanish inquisition.

Once I sat next to a guy with the biggest cowboy hat I have ever seen. He started his inquisition with a Namaste, assuming I am an Indian. Such cultural sensitivity from a cowboy was endearing so I smiled and said hello. If I had known that it would unleash a torrent of questions, I would have stayed quiet.

He asked me what part of India I am from and when I told him that I am actually a Pakistani, he was shocked. His first question was, “You are not wearing a veil, and won’t you be persecuted for not wearing one?”

When I tried explaining that Pakistan is a jumble of contrasts and while in some parts of the country, it is but mandatory to cover yourself from top to bottom, I am spared from that in Karachi but that wasn’t enough and he jumped onto the next question. He asked me if I was traveling for the first time, (It was a Manila to Bangkok flight) and when I told him that I have traveled before, he came to the conclusion that I must have an extra ordinarily liberal father. He then asked me what is it that my dad does for a living. When I told him that he works for a bank, he could not believe it. Apparently my fellow Texan traveler thought my father had to be a doctor to allow me to wander off and that bankers cannot be liberal, at least they are not in America.

On a Dubai – London flight, I had the misfortune of sitting next to a sardarni Aunty. Before I could actually buckle up, she fired the first one, “you are traveling alone?”. To my affirmative answer, she asked me why. I stopped trying to find the seat belt (I later found out that she was sitting on my seat belt) and said, “Because I am going back to college.”

The Aunty was more persistent and asked me again, “but why?” and I decided not to answer that one. Barely two minutes had passed and she got restless again. She asked me if I am married or not. I thought this would be a good opportunity to ask her to let go of my seat belt so I replied, “No, I am not married and would you care to get up a little so that I can retrieve my seat belt.” She got up, not because I asked her to, but because she was shocked that I was an unaccompanied girl, studying abroad who is not even married.

She then asked me with expressions bordering on pity, “You are all by yourself, no friends either.” When I told her that there is absolutely no one I know who is traveling with me she said, “But I am sure someone will pick you up at the airport?” Although no one was coming to pick me up, I said yes, there would be someone who is going to pick me up. I thought that was the end of the conversation, but aunty had other ideas. She pushed her elbow in my ribs and asked me with a wink, “so who is coming to pick you up, a boyfriend or a gora boyfriend?”

Once, I got asked the same set of questions by an aunty from Faisalabad, who then lectured me on the perils of traveling alone and why I should always drag a mehram with me to wherever I go. When I pointed out that I was traveling for work and it would be impossible for me to take anyone with me, she gave me a disapproving look and said, “That is why I am against girls who work. It disrupts the whole system.”

And so the cycle of questions goes on; there can be the standard ‘you are traveling alone? Why? Where are you off to and why are you single – are you even allowed to stay single in Pakistan? What is your caste, where do you work, how much do you earn, and are you allowed to vote?

These type of questions or variations of them are often thrown off one after another but they are each time asked with different expressions and in different tones and accompanied by different gestures, depending up on who is asking them. Is it too much to ask to be left alone by the world and hope to travel in peace for sanity’s sake?

Originally published in Dawn.com
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Feb 14, 2010 - travel    31 Comments

Getting some glove love

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I never knew that a bottle of Tylenol had the power to terrify the living daylights out of you but if they are in a hand sheathed in blue rubber glove along with your passport, even the bravest of all would tremble a little.

I have heard stories about racial profiling before but it was the first time I actually encountered it. I flew in Netherlands last week and suffered one indignity after another at Schiphol airport. I was the only desi person in the non EU passport line. When I presented my passport, the immigration officer asked me to step aside and disappeared with my passport. All other people in the lane were Americans who were breezed through the immigration. After about 15 minutes, the immigration officer returned with my passport and asked me one gallactically stupid question after another. I think there is a universal code that every government will hire the dumbest people to work at the immigration counters. After a while I was so pissed that I told him that I will not respond to any of his inane question because his country’s embassy has cleared my visa, if he has issues he should refuse me entry and inform my hosts that he was unable to do so on whatever grounds and I will take the first flight back. I think he has had his fun with me so he decided to stamp my passport and let me go. He obviously was not threatened by my outburst.

After getting my luggage, I was passing through the green channel thinking that my ordeal was over when a policewoman stopped me and asked me if I had anything to declare. I told her that I had nothing and started dragging my suitcase when she put her hand on my arm and asked to come into an area where there were a few other people – all Asians, from Jordanians to Indonesians to Sri Lankans – standing with the contents of their suit cases wide open sporting harassed looks. She asked me to put my suitcase on the counter and open it. In that split second I realize how humiliating it is for an adult to realize that the other person, especially an authority figure, is not willing to believe his or her word. I opened my suitcase and she wore those dreaded blue gloves and looked through my stuff. Even while she was going through the my luggage I had this look about me which said that you are making me go through this tribulation but I am clean and you are just wasting my time when she got hold of a packet and asked me what is inside. Call me a typical desi paindoo, but I do travel with tea bags if I know that I would be away from home for longer than two weeks. In that pack, I had my tea bags and a bottle of Tylenol, an over the counter painkiller. She asked me to give her my passport and disappeared again with the bottle of Tylenol, teabags and my passport to check if these items are allowed to pass through the customs. I wanted to scream – hello, this is Amsterdam, the weed capitol of the world. People would want to take stuff out of the country, not bring it in by putting it in teabags. She was only gone for 5 minutes and she did apologize for putting me through all the trouble and helped me pack everything back, but the experience was extremely traumatic and those 5 minutes that I waited for my passport were perhaps the longest five minutes of my life.

I have travelled to Netherlands a few times in the past and immigration was always swift and efficient. I don’t know if I should blame the increasing paranoia in Europe against the Muslims for it or crazy people like the good ol’ panty bomber, the Nigerian who attempted to detonate an explosive in his underpants, on Northwest Airlines Flight 253 on Christmas Day from Amsterdam for the special treatment that I got, but I do know that I am not the same person any longer. Once you experience that kind of fear, something inside you dies. Suffering indignity is definitely more harmful than facing a bullet, the harm is more long lasting.

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Dec 15, 2008 - travel    28 Comments

Aesthetically jarring scenery at Islamabad airport

I went to Islamabad earlier this month after a gap of over six months and a lot has changed in those six months.

The first shock I got was the landing announcement. When the stewardess announced that we were landing at the ‘Benazeer Bhutto Shaheed International Airport’ instead of good ol’ Islamabad International Airport, I did wonder for a very brief moment if I am disembarking at the desired airport.

The second shock was more visual and mind numbingly brutal. Islamabad airport now looks more like a venue of lucky Irani circus – complete with pictures of a variety of clowns and a tent – rather than an international airport. Instead of images of elephants, lions and midgets, we get plastered with faces of Bhutto dynasty and of course erstwhile senator, current supremo and all time lothario, Mr. Zaradri.

Dec 2, 2008 - travel    46 Comments

Does it happen outside celluloid?

The first time it happened, I took it in stride. After all, if there are 16 twenty something- college going girls in a room and you announce to them that you are going away for a snow covered weekend to the Scottish highlands, it is but natural that they scream, “How Romantic,” but when normal adult people (men and women both) go gaga over holiday destinations and tell you how incredibly romantic that particular place is, you just look at them in wonder (at least I do) and think if they have lost all their marbles (or if they had any marbles to begin with)?

I remember the first time I went to Paris. I went there on a longish bank holiday weekend (those who live in UK or have lived in UK in the past know how very often you have bank holidays) and was looking forward to doing all touristy things like taking a cruise on River Seine, a walk across Avenue des Champs- Élysées and visiting Louvré Museum and Notré Dam Cathedral. Before I went there, I called my sister who was living in a shit hole called Swindon at that point in time and the minute she heard the word Paris she went into a state unadulterated glee and shrieked, “PARIS!” and went on and on about how romantic the place is and how wonderful it will be for me and maybe I will find someone to fall in love with. A friend back home literally broke down in tears and said that I have to do all things romantic on her account in Paris. I was flabbergasted at that request but I decided not to question that statement at that point. Don’t get me wrong, Paris is ok, in fact it is better than ok. It’s just not what everyone has painted it to be. But then what place turns out like its post card version with a promised dash of romance on the side?

Those of us who grew up on the staple diet of Hindi cinema in the 1990s do harbor similar romantic thoughts about the whole country of Switzerland. I mean Switzerland is a fine country if you appreciate good cheese, good chocolate, sheep, cows and United Nations, but romantic is not a word I would ever use in connection with Switzerland. In any case, if you are a student traveling on a shoestring budget, all romance will fly out of the proverbial window while you are trying to manage expenses in a city like Geneva.

Venice, perhaps, was the biggest let down of all the supposedly romantic cities. I mean everyone I know went bonkers the minute I said the word Venice. It was neither magical nor romantic. It turned out to be smelly, over priced and over crowded, in short, totally oversold to the tourists.

How in the heaven’s name can a place be romantic? A place can be beautiful, aesthetically magical and stupendously out of this world but romantic? Are people supposed to go to these romantic destinations with their loved ones only? What if they are eternally single like me? Are people supposed to fall in love with random strangers in these ‘romantic’ destinations? According to the film industries across the globe, strangers do meet and fall in love in such places, but how many people actually get to live their version of ‘Before Sunrise’ where they seek and find self-fulfillment and self-discovery through a significant other? There is nothing wrong with the idea of finding romance at unexpected places and with unexpected people but why limit that idea to a particular city only? In my opinion, it’s not the place but the people and circumstances that are romantic.

In any case, I want all my readers to answer me honestly if they have fallen in love with someone while traveling/vacationing/holidaying. It does not have to be a so called romantic place, but I would love to know if it happens outside celluloid.

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