Tuesday, 24 March 2015

The Grand Moofti's (East and Central) European Rail Tour 2015

Following from my rail journey from Istanbul to London (via Bucharest, Budapest, Vienna, Munich, Cologne, Bruges) in late 2012, it was time to embark on another epic European land adventure. In 2015, my travels focus on Central and Eastern Europe, including three former Yugoslav republics.

The Sirkeji train station in Istanbul, Turkey. The starting point for Tour Europe 2015.
The 2015 itinerary – at the time of writing I am in Sarajevo – with planned mode of transport between cities is as follows:

Singapore – Istanbul (Turkey). Air.

Istanbul – Sofia (Bulgaria). Combination of bus and train.

Sofia – Belgrade (Serbia). Train.

Belgrade – Sarajevo (Bosnia). Bus.

Sarajevo – Mostar (Bosnia). Bus.

Mostar – Sarajevo (Bosnia). Train.

Sarajevo – Zagreb (Croatia). Train.

Zagreb – Budapest (Hungary). Train.

Budapest – Bratislava (Slovakia). Train.

Bratislava – Prague (Czech Republic). Train.

Prague – Munich (Germany). Train.

Munich – London (England). Train. End of journey.

London – Singapore. Air.

I will pen my thoughts as I go along. Follow my experiences on Twitter (@grandmoofti) and on this blog.

Imran is a Singapore based Tour Guide with a special interest in arts and history. Imran has lived and worked in several countries during his past career as an international banker. He enjoys traveling, specially by train, as a way to feed his curiosity about the world and nurture his interest in photography. Imran can be contacted at imran.ahmed.sg@gmail.com.

Wednesday, 4 March 2015

Pakistan's Peshawar: Gandharan relics, warriors and food all wrapped in Pashtun hospitality!

In only a few days Peshawar and its people have won me over! The City of Flowers history, tradition and warm people have more than compensated for the awful dark skies and rain which welcomed me to the provincial capital earlier this week.

Street side stall holder proudly displays his selection of food. Peshawar's food, especially kababs, is divine 
During the last few years, Peshawar has disappeared from the radar of most travelers, Pakistani and international alike. The Taliban Trail of Terror has replaced the Hippie Trail. Still, in the intervening years the city seems to have lost none of its charm. (I must confess my last visit to Peshawar was at least twenty years ago – so long that I don't even remember the exact year!)

For those interested in history and religion, the Peshawar Museum hosts the world's largest collection of artifacts from the Gandharan civilization, which flourished for almost one thousand years, c. 1500 to 500 BC. Gandhara was an ancient kingdom centered around the regions of modern day Peshawar and the Swat Valley. The Gandhara Kingdom was a center of Buddhism, Hinduism and Greco-Buddhism. Greco-Buddhism is the cultural syncretism between Hellenistic culture and Buddhism, which developed between the 4th century BCE and the 5th century CE.” (Source: Wikipedia)

The entrance to the Peshawar Museum, which houses the world's largest collection of Gandharan artifacts
Other aspects of Peshawar's history can be found in the Storytellers Bazaar or the Qissa Khawani Bazaar. The bazaar dates back at least two thousand years. More recently, in 1930 the Bazaar was the site of a massacre by British colonial authorities of unarmed civilians agitating for independence against British rule.

The imposing Bala Hissar Fort, which sits regally atop a hill, symbolizes the city's strategic and military importance for invaders and defenders as the gateway to India (through the fabled Khyber Pass). It is believed some sort of a fortification has stood on the elevated site since the seventh century. The present structure, used as the Headquarters for the Pakistan's paramilitary Frontier Corps since 1949, was built in the 1830s by the then Sikh rulers of Peshawar.

Peshawar will be done a great injustice if I don't mention the great 'frontier' food found in every nook and cranny of this city. Simply put, anyone leaving Peshawar without trying local barbecue specialties like chapli kababs, seekh kabas or Kabuli pulao cannot claim to have visited Peshawar! Stay away from the fancy restaurants, instead make a beeline for the 'hole in the wall' cafes sprinkled across the city.

Kababs being marinated and barbecued / cooked on coal at a streetside cafe
Perhaps more than the rest of Pakistan, Peshawar has suffered tremendously due to violence perpetrated by Islamic extremists. Nonetheless, Peshawar is a city like no other. A city of warriors, food and people with big hearts. Not surprisingly, despite the recent ravages of terror, the city's soul remains intact. That soul will surely touch any visitor to the ancient Gandharan city of Purushapura (aka Peshawar). 

Imran is a business and management consultant. Through his work at Deodar Advisors and the Deodar Diagnostic, Imran improves profits of businesses operating in Singapore and the region. He can be reached at imran@deodaradvisors.com.

Friday, 20 February 2015

Mohatta Palace Museum: a cultural oasis

Karachi may be Pakistan's largest city and commercial capital but it is a relatively new city. Karachi's newness was underscored at a recent map exhibition titled 'Drawing the Line' at the city's Mohatta Palace Museum.

The exhibition also highlights the continuing impact colonial 'lines' have on today's world. From border disputes to nationalist ethnic movements, 'artificial' frontiers created by colonial bureaucratic cartographers are the bane of many present day disputes. Pakistan, a 'new' nation built on the tenuous premise of a shared religion, itself suffers from many of these 'post-colonial nation building' obstacles.

As Pakistan grapples with varying – often competing - notions of what it means to be an 'Islamic Republic,' indigenous culture and history circumscribes the country's debate about national identity. Museums, as caretakers or even creators of culture, play an instrumental role in these formative discussions.

Karachi's Mohatta Palace Museum provides a welcome voice to the national cultural discussions.

The Mohatta Palace Museum entrance, displaying one of the magnficient gardens around the structure
The museum, owned by the Government of Sindh, is housed in a unique structure constructed in the 1920s as a residence for Shiv Rattan Mohatta, a Hindu businessman from Rajasthan. The architecture of Mohatta Palace contains strong influences from Rajput found in Jaipur, especially in the use of pink Jodhpur stone. Strong Mogul influences are also visible in the building's design.

The building was designed by Agha Ahmed Hussain, believed to be the first Muslim architect in India. Hussain had recently arrived in Karachi from Jaipur to take up the post of Chief Surveyor for the Karachi Municipal Corporation (KMC).

In 1947, Mohatta Palace was acquired by the newly independent state of Pakistan and became the official Ministry of Foreign Affairs building. It remained the Foreign ministry's office until Pakistan's new custom built capital of Islamabad was completed in 1966. Following a brief stay of three years (1964-1967) by Mohtarma Fatima Jinnah, the sister of Pakistan's founder Quaid-e-Azam Mohammad Ali Jinnah, the palace was abandoned and remained in disrepair until 1995.

Friendly peacocks freely roam the museum gardens and grounds. Here one is seen 'speaking' with your blogger!
In 1995 Mohatta Palace was purchased by the Government of Sindh and converted into a museum. Drawing the Line is simply one of the many exhibitions held at the museum during the last two decades.

The Mohatta Palace Museum is a must see for any person interested in Pakistan's culture and history.

Imran is a business and management consultant. Through his work at Deodar Advisors and the Deodar Diagnostic, Imran improves profits of businesses operating in Singapore and the region. He can be reached at imran@deodaradvisors.com.

Monday, 9 February 2015

Exploring Sri Lanka's former war torn areas

Since the Tamil Tigers surrendered and the Sri Lankan war ended, Sri Lanka is a nation on the move. 

On arrival at Colombo, a new airport greets visitors – a facility loaded with tourists and transit passengers, courtesy of the national airline's efforts to turn the country into a regional air hub. Then there's the new (toll) highway from the airport to Colombo city, symbolic of the tremendous improvements in road infrastructure of the last few years.

The tourism industry is also participating in the country's rejuvenation.

During my visit in January 2015, I visited a pristine beach area in the Western Mannar District of Western Sri Lanka. The Indian Ocean coastal district was contested by the Tamil Tigers and the Sri Lankan Army during the country's 26 years long civil war. Due to the conflict, people moved away from vast areas in the country creating 'green zones' into which tropical flora and fauna naturally migrated.

A flowing stream near our guest house - where many locals swam and bathed
I stayed in a 'shack' less than one hundred meters from a spectacular beach. Green jungle surrounded us everywhere. There were few human residents and certainly no tourist hotels in the vicinity.

Each morning I awoke to birds chirping. In the early morning stupor of half sleep, it felt as if the birds were hovering only a few inches away from me. In the nearby jungle were peacocks in the wild and monkeys shaking trees to get at breakfast. 

Apparently, our camp was even visited by a family of wild elephants on the first night. Somehow, I slept through the ruckus created by exploding firecrackers lit to drive the unwanted guests away!

My 'bedroom' at the hut. Note the invaluable mosquito net above my concrete bed.
The entire stay was unrivaled by anything I have experienced hitherto. Though there was one small irritant – or shall I say many small irritants? Mosquitoes! 

I have never genuinely been afraid of dengue fever or malaria … until I reached our 'camp.' With the number of mosquitoes buzzing around, I came to appreciate the power of the small (female?!) disease carrying insects buzzing around like kamikaze fighter aircraft! (Clearly, early explorers of deep, dark tropical jungles in Africa and Asia were crazily brave people, venturing into such zones without mosquito repellent lotion is nothing short of crazy!)

For a city boy more at home inside a subway train than a jungle, Sri Lanka always provides energizing and new experiences (despite the mosquitoes!). Now that peace has taken hold, I anticipate more unique travel adventures in Sri Lanka during the coming years!

Imran is a business and management consultant. Through his work at Deodar Advisors and the Deodar Diagnostic, Imran improves profits of businesses operating in Singapore and the region. Imran has been a regular visitor to Sri Lanka since the 1990s. He can be reached at imran@deodaradvisors.com

Monday, 12 January 2015

Islam’s front line is not in Europe or Ulema: time to catch up with your flock

After the recent spate of attacks by Islamic extremists in Europe many have suggested the international media mans the front line against Jihadist Islamic terrorism. Undoubtedly, the Western media constitutes a prime target for Islamic extremists, especially since the provocative cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed became a rallying cry for opposing sides in the debate. However, the real front line for the war of ideas rests neither in Paris nor the rest of the Western world. The true battleground lies in the conservative Islamic heartlands of countries like Pakistan, Egypt or Turkey.

This is a war for the soul of Islam. A war which will be won not by American or NATO soldiers but by Muslim theologians reinterpreting religious edicts in line with the aspirations of the modern Muslim community. These aspirations do not include killing civilians, denying girls' education, making women sit at home or killing polio vaccinators doing their job.

Similar to their non-Muslim counterparts across the world, most Muslims lead humdrum, boring lives. Muslim adults send children to schools, watch their kids start families, become grandparents and lavish affection on their grandchildren. Muslim adults, too, visit dentists and doctors, socialize with friends, watch television and movies.

Muslim hopes and fears are no different from non-Muslim hopes and fears.

Thus, it was encouraging reading the transcript of Egyptian President Sisi's speech to senior Muslim theologians at Al-Azhar University. The Cairo based university is one of the world's oldest and most respected institutions of Islamic learning.

In the speech, Sisi essentially exhorts the Ulema (qualified Islamic theologians) to play a genuine leadership role by returning Islamic dialogue to the realms of normalcy, especially in so far as Islamic law deals with interactions with non-Muslims. In actuality, theologians are simply being asked to endorse the common sense approach to life already employed by the majority of Muslims around the world.

One must applaud Sisi's efforts to galvanize Islamic clerics in the battle for the Islamic mind. Unfortunately, the influence of ultra-conservative clerics fed by a steady diet of petrodollars by oil rich nations remains powerful. It may take many more Islamic philosophers with the fervent vision of Allama Iqbal before a clear consensus about the Reconstruction of Religious Thought in Islam becomes a reality.

Meanwhile, the ordinary Muslim walking the streets of Karachi - not Cannes - is the one in the firing line for her 'moderate' beliefs. By challenging ideas propagated by Islamic extremists in her daily life, she moves us closer to the final victory against obscurantists currently polluting Islamic beliefs.  
Imran is a business and management consultant. Through his work at Deodar Advisors and the Deodar Diagnostic, Imran improves profits of businesses operating in Singapore and the region. He can be reached at imran@deodaradvisors.com

Monday, 15 December 2014

The Death of the Secular Islamic Polity

The death of secular nationalism across the Islamic world is a painful occurrence. It's not simply the rise of political Islam but also the weakness of secular (left wing?) intellectual thought which adds fuel to the fire. 

Perhaps it was the death of communism which left Muslim nationalists orphans in a world fueled by God-fearing capitalists. Perhaps it was the increasing gap between urbanized, westernized elites and mainstream populations in much of the Muslim world. (It could not have been easy for many Afghanis to accept local women parading around in miniskirts in 1970s Kabul when no more than the eyes of a 'traditional' rural Afghani woman show through her burqa while she is in public!) 

Female Kabul University students walk around campus in 1970s Afghanistan
To many, left wing nationalists such as Saddam Hussein or Hafez al-Assad were bestial tyrants ready to kill their own people given even the most trivial of excuses. Surely, Iraq and Syria were not model societies. However, neither were their counterpart right wing dictatorships found in many Latin American or developing countries. In many instances, capitalist, US supported strongmen were just as lethal to their own people as Soviet supported leaders. 

Nonetheless, the death of Islamic nationalists did not occur with the passing of these two brutal leaders. It is progressively taking place even as these words are being written.   

Of particular note are the two bastions of secularism found on either pole of the Islamic world: Turkey and Indonesia. Arguably, the two nations tasked with 'protecting' the Western and Eastern most physical and ideological borders of the Islamic world. 

Turkey: the birthplace of the first Muslim Republic in the world. A nation which banned headscarves for women and the fez headgear for men; a nation where one can sit in a bar nursing a glass of wine while watching (and listening) to people praying in a nearby mosque. 

After over a decade of rule by an Islamically inspired political party, today's Turkish state is intent on rolling back Ataturk's secular markers from Turkish society. 

A copy of the first Koran printed in the Turkish language after the formation of the secular Turkish Republic in 1923
And so with Indonesia: the most populous Muslim nation in the world. Hitherto a staunchly secular republic, now a fertile playground for the bearded brigade to attack public art and impose 'Islamic' moral standards at will. 

For Islamic modernists, the importance of secular societies lies in the enabling intellectual environment it fosters. A socially liberating ecosystem permits otherwise pious Muslims to question established archaic conventions, many of which are ripe for modernization. 

Islam is a dynamic belief structure. Hobbling it with strictures and 'out of bound' markers is destined to fail. The depth of Islamic intellectual strength will ultimately overcome these obstacles. The only question remains how many more lives must be lost in defeating the die-hard battling Muslim obscurantists.   
Imran is a business and management consultant. Through his work at Deodar Advisors and the Deodar Diagnostic, Imran improves profits of businesses operating in Singapore and the region. He can be reached at imran@deodaradvisors.com

Tuesday, 25 November 2014

Singapore’s Gillman Barracks: where history meets art

All thriving urban areas require vibrant arts clusters to keep intellectuality creative. Typically, these neighborhoods arise naturally as artists flock towards them. Sometimes, however, a little nudge is required to get the ball rolling. That is the case in Singapore where three government agencies have partnered with the private sector to push for the success of Gillman Barracks (GB) as a contemporary arts cluster.

The entrance to the Gillman Barracks arts cluster. 
The lush green area was the site of a former military camp opened by the colonial authorities in 1936 in preparation for the Pacific War. The fourteen buildings comprising the garrison were taken over by the Singapore Armed Forces in 1971. For some years, Gillman Camp (as it was formerly called) housed the Headquarters, Singapore Combat Engineers (HQ, SCE). In 2010 the site was launched as the Gillman Barracks arts cluster in 2010.

Along with Singapore's iconic Esplanade Theatres on the Bay, which opened in 2002, Gillman Barracks adds a new dimension to the country's arts scene. Given the predominance of performing arts at the Esplanade's theater and concert halls, Gillman Barracks filled a void by providing scope for the growth of Singapore's visual arts scene.

A view of the Esplanade Theatres on the Bay along with the Marina Bay area.
Today, the conserved military barracks buildings house seventeen local and international art galleries, restaurants and the Nanyang Technological University's Centre for Contemporary Art (CCA).

The CCA brings not only an 'academic flair' to the area but, from time to time, also brings internationally acclaimed exhibitions. Most recently, the Guggenheim's 'No Country: Contemporary Art for South and Southeast Asia' (an exhibition for which I was trained by Guggenheim to act as a docent) visited Singapore courtesy of the CCA.

GB's galleries display a diverse range of art styles and pieces in exhibitions which are continuously refreshed. Along with Singapore centric galleries such as Fost and Yeo Workshop there are regional (e.g. Shanghai Art and Equator Art Projects) and international galleries (e.g. Partners & Mucciaccia and Arndt).

To experience a Singapore far from the shopping at Orchard Road or the bars at Clarke Quay, Gillman Barracks is the perfect venue. Art appreciation, history and greenery all blended into one serving!
Imran is a licensed Singapore Tour Guide with a special interest in arts and history. If you wish to arrange customized tours in Singapore, including walking tours of Singapore's arts trails along the Singapore River, Orchard Road, Marina Barrage, etc. please contact Imran at imran.ahmed.sg@gmail.com.