07 December, 2014

Car-free Days in Lahore

It has been called one of life’s great freedoms.  I discovered it when I bought a Raleigh and  pedalled off one Sunday morning, the silence broken by a cacophony of bird song and water mills in the distance.  An auburn sunrise never seemed so enchantingly beautiful.  Time seemed to stand still even though the bike computer continued to calculate the cadence, speed and stuff.  By the time I was back home, I was hooked on to a passion that has seen my retirement years reverse into an unbelievable twenty-something feeling, full of youthful liberty of yesteryears.  I have been in Never-Never Land for the last five years!

I had to check out if the sentiment was for real, and there was no better way than to join a weirdly named cycling group called Critical Mass Lahore.  Having received an anonymous invitation via Facebook, a click is all it took to be part of a group that is now a close-knit family of amateur cyclists.  It would be worthwhile digressing a little, and explain to the readers about Critical Mass.

Critical Mass is a world-wide cycling event held on weekends in over 300 cities. It started in San Francisco in 2003 as a protest movement to reclaim the streets by the cyclists, though the participants insisted that the event should be viewed as a ‘spontaneous social gathering’. This stance allowed Critical Mass to defend their legal position for not pre-notifying the municipal and law enforcing authorities, who termed it as an organised protest. For the same legal reasons, the event’s date, time and route, is not publicised in North America and Europe. The cyclists just trickle in small numbers at a predetermined meeting point, and then ride out when reaching a sizeable number or a ‘critical mass’.

In Pakistan, Critical Mass has three chapters, viz Islamabad, Karachi and Lahore, each independent of the others.  The apolitical movement did not have any legal issues to contend with, as the number of cyclists was never large enough to ruffle the traffic, the law enforcers, or the politicos.  Critical Mass Lahore (CML) has, for instance, an average turn-out of 20 participants for a typical Sunday ride.  For the record, the biggest turn-out for a Critical Mass event was in Budapest, where 80,000 participants rode out on 20 April, 2008.

While Critical Mass has no organisational set-up, nor an hierarchy, the three Pakistani chapters do have their respective Facebook pages managed by their administrators. It is here that news and views on cycling are exchanged, and forthcoming events (rides) are posted.  Membership is by request, without any fees or any other pre-requisites to be fulfilled; even bike ownership is not a requirement, and I know one cyclist who has been happily riding on borrowed bikes for a couple of years now!  
Having tried to visit the Inner City a couple of times, I had to give up for a trivial reason – I had nowhere to park the car safely. Not so since I took up cycling. Thanks to our CML rides, we have visited the Wazir Khan Mosque, Wazir Khan Hamaam, Fakir Khana Museum and Sunehri Masjid. We have ridden the narrow alleys, sampled halwa-puri and siri-paye breakfasts, and exchanged early morning greetings – always a hearty khair hovay – with good-humoured locals.
CML rides have taken participants to virtually every locality of Lahore, and each time there has been a sighting of some monument or a historic building that was hitherto unknown to someone.  In Lahore, culture and heritage can be just a few pedals away, so to speak, as we have discovered. While the average distance covered on each ride is about 25-km, CML regularly goes beyond the city limits. Rides to Changa Manga Forest, Ravi Siphon, Wagah and Ganda Singh Border Posts, and even Hiran Minar in Sheikhupura, have featured on CML’s itinerary. These longer rides are, however,  not wholly covered on bicycles; a pick-up truck is usually hired for these, to cover part of the distance.  We have had delightful company on trucks many a time, and have even celebrated a member’s birthday on the motorway, with a lashing wind constantly blowing out the candles.  It is on such occasions that I joyfully discover my senior citizen status mixing quite well with the youngsters’ pranks and tomfoolery.

A keenly awaited annual CML event is the tough 100-km Lahore-Kasur-Lahore ride.  A group of 16-18 participants usually turns up, though half the number complete the full distance.  A lunch break in Kasur’s main bazaar, and a visit to Bulleh Shah’s shrine usually stirs up the locals in surprising ways. I recall the last time when a group of children tried speaking to us ‘foreigners’ in English, only to hear our replies in Urdu with utter disbelief.  It is also not usual for some of the fair-skinned local cyclists to come under special scrutiny at police or military pickets, what with the few foreign tourists being a novelty in the country’s prevailing security situation.
CML rides have served as excellent history and culture field trips, and Lahore continues to throw up an endless mélange of mosques, mausoleums and shrines to be discovered. The convenience of a bicycle in getting through narrow streets, and without any parking issues, makes these trips even more popular. Ride participants have also had the opportunity of taking some spectacular photographs;  the fun of it all has been to post them on social media sites within minutes, providing virtually a live coverage of the event to fascinated friends and relatives. 

Though the CML rides are undertaken at an easy pace due to constraints of vehicular traffic, the distances covered are enough to get the riders panting and sweating. It is no coincidence that all cyclists of the group are absolutely fit, and always in good humour, I may add. 

One of the objectives of CML is to support gender equality in outdoor activities like cycling. On this account, CML has done reasonably well, with about a quarter of the participants on every ride being girls. They have managed to talk their parents out of any apprehensions, learnt to negotiate through atrocious traffic, and also know how to deal with the stares of an awe-struck public in a completely nonchalant manner.  So far there have been no issues, and the group looks like an extended family wheeling around on jazzy bikes! Breaking with the stereotype cyclist does raise a few eyebrows, however, for Lahorites are used to seeing no more than the malis or chowkidars hunched over their beat-up roadsters.

Aneeqa Ali, who has been cycling with CML for almost four years, finds her cycling experience thrilling. “It has been an amazing experience pedaling on the streets of Lahore with a diverse group of people, who come together from different parts of the city, and different walks of life. CML is not just a platform for promoting cycling, but it also provides a wonderful opportunity for making new friends and sharing amazing experiences with them.”

Aneeqa thinks that riding in a group is quite safe, but that still doesn't help in getting rid of the stares. “I guess sometimes these stares are just out of curiosity, and very few times even appreciation. Riding in a group helps avoid any difficulties, but for a girl/woman to ride a bike alone on these streets can pose big problems, and I have had some bad experiences a few times. But that does not make me lose hope, and I am still determined to fight against the odds; with time I have even gotten better at tackling such situations.”

Environmental and social issues have been prime concerns that led Rafay Alam (an environmentalist himself) to organise Critical Mass in Lahore. He is of the opinion that, Lahore has sprawled on the back of cheap agricultural land and automobile financing, and has been designed for the benefit of car owners. Public transport, cyclists and pedestrians – the majority of commuting Lahore – find their city no less than dangerous to traverse. This development elitism fosters social and sexual discrimination. We have become a society that finds it perfectly acceptable that half of its population –  women, children, senior citizens and the physically handicapped – are effectively removed from social and economic interaction.  Critical Mass Lahore, for me, was an answer to these issues.”

Rafay would like to see the city of Lahore formally accept the vision of CML. “It would be a dream come true if the city of Lahore took the first step that so many other cities have taken, to safer streets and more equitable and sustainable cities: A car free day. I would appeal to the city of Lahore to consider closing a major artery one Sunday morning a month, from 6 am to noon, to allow pedestrians and cyclists to ‘reclaim’ their city. Shops and khokhas along the artery could support local businesses and recreation activity.”

Whether Rafay’s idea of closing a major road to vehicular traffic one Sunday a month gets a nod or not, his vision of CML is, happily, here to stay.  

© KAISER TUFAIL. This is an open-access article published under the terms and conditions of the Creative Commons Attribution Licence, which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original author and source are credited.

This article was published in the daily newspaper The News International on 7 December 2014.

22 September, 2014

In the Heart of Germany

Located on the border of former East Germany, Geisa was once the western-most town of the former Warsaw Pact countries.  Today, it lies in the central German State of Thuringia, a forested region with shallow hills, undulating meadows and several gushing rivers.  In the days of the Cold War, these terrain features could ostensibly stop or slow down any possible Soviet armour advance towards Frankfurt and beyond.  Only the Fulda Gap allowed a free run to the Soviets, with the result that its defences figured predominantly in NATO war plans. A study tour of the Gap was, thus, central to prudent defence planning in the South Asian context, as the US Naval Post-graduate School’s brief for us stated.  That is how five of us former armed forces officers ended up for a week-long jaunt in the heart of Germany, last March. 

Arrival and pick-up at Frankfurt airport was flawless, as was the drive to the hotel on the no-speed-limit autobahn (motorway).  I noticed that the neatness all around was, in no less measure, due to the absence of ugly billboards that have blighted the skylines in our own cities.  An oddity compared to many other European cities, Frankfurt’s high-rise glass and concrete buildings were visible on the skyline from afar. With over 200 international and national banks, as well as one of the world’s largest stock exchanges, Frankfurt is indeed well-structured to be Europe’s largest financial centre. 
While checking in at Le Méridien Park Hotel, I was surprised by a classic blonde German-looking bellhop, for he was actually an Afghan who had stayed as a refugee in Peshawar for many years.  Umar, who could speak fluent German as well as Urdu, turned out to be a handy guide during the stay at the hotel.  After the domestics were done I hastened to the city centre, for it was a Sunday and it would be fun to watch the weekend revellers, as Umar suggested. While walking down the streets, I was pleased to know that Germans continue to put up with my namesake, for quite a few roads, plazas and apartment blocks carry that name. Wilhelm-I was proclaimed the Kaiser (emperor) when Germany was first unified into an integrated nation state in 1871.  He is one of the few old-time leaders whose name lives on in the city, despite zealous renaming of streets and squares in post-war Germany.
As soon as I stepped out of the hotel, I was overwhelmed by the grandeur of the nearby 126-year old Frankfurt Central Station.  Why, I sadly rued, could we not similarly preserve the splendour of our own 154-year old Lahore Railway Station and its environs, now a messy reflection of its former colonial glory? Walking on Münchener Street, which starts from the station, one could be excused for thinking that this was somewhere in the Middle East; almost every shop sells either Turkish or Arab food and groceries.   

Heading towards the Innenstadt (Inner City), I decided to first walk along the green belt that forms its perimeter.  Cyclists could be seen pedalling in specially marked cycle lanes.  Sunday was also a day for showing off their exotic cars, and many a nutty motorist raced past in his roaring convertible or coupe.  A stroll on Goethe Street was eye-dazzling, as it has some of the most prestigious fashion shops in the world, and caters to the rich and the famous.  Being neither, I strode off to the commoners’ city square marked by the Hauptwache (Guard House), once a prison and now simply denoting the city centre.  A prominent landmark of the Innenstadt is the baroque St Catherine’s Church, the largest Lutheran church in Frankfurt, which stands in the midst of many modern buildings. Like all European inner cities, the square was awash with holiday gaiety and liveliness.  Street musicians heartily played trumpets and accordions for bystanders. A curious contraption seen in the square was the Velotaxi, a three-wheeled cycle rickshaw cocooned in a light aerodynamic shell.  It was meant for tourists and could be taken into pedestrian-only zones without any hassle. 

Near the Hauptwache is the famous MyZeil shopping mall, a modern glass-panelled structure with its trademark vortice-like hollow on the façade, that almost seems to suck one in.  The mall houses over a hundred stores, besides play areas, atriums and restaurants.  It marks the beginning of the Zeil, Germany’s most crowded, pedestrian-only shopping street, that has famous retail stores selling items twice as expensive. 
On my way back to the hotel, I was suddenly accosted by two Turkish-looking men who claimed to be plainclothed police undercover agents.  They promptly displayed their ID cards which seemed too blurred to be read without glasses. In a bit of a tizzy, I asked them what they wanted. On being unable to produce my passport, which I wasn’t carrying, they asked me if I had cash on me. Ah, so this was my first-ever mugging, I realised!  When I told them, with some derring-do, that I was a military man, they asked if I had any ID.  On being shown one, they immediately apologised, and said that drug peddlers usually had hordes of cash on them, which is what they were checking for.  They told me that Taunus Street on which we were standing, was the seediest one in Frankfurt, and that it was surprising that I was walking about merrily in such a hazardous locale. One of them volunteered to escort me to the hotel, which was not too far off.  When I thanked him in Turkish – having a 20-word vocabulary – he was momentarily not sure if I was an illegal immigrant, but finally replied back in good humour, saving me yet another interrogation! 

Next morning, the bus for Geisa arrived outside the hotel exactly five minutes before departure time, reminding us of our precise military time-keeping of yesteryears. Since public transport is quite efficient in Frankfurt, the traffic on the city roads was not congested and we were soon on the autobahn. The beautiful views of rolling hills and lush cultivated lands was often broken by patches of dense forests. Soon after getting off the autobahn, we passed by Wasserkuppe, a small mountain in whose shadow, glider pilots have flown for over a century.  Lately, paragliding has also become popular as the thermals in the woodless valleys offer excellent soaring possibilities.
When we reached Geisa, we were not expecting it to be a town as small as it was, with a population of less than 2,800.  It is a quaint little settlement with small terracotta-roofed houses, and neat cobblestone streets. The town was heavily fenced and garrisoned when it was part of East Germany. Now, Geisa is one of many small towns preferred by Germans, who want to be away from the hectic life of big cities to which they commute only for work.  We were struck by the serenity of  Geisa’s city centre with its old market place, town hall and dainty flower shops. Geisa seemed quite religious in its outlook if one were to go by its 14 churches, one for every 200 inhabitants. In fact, we could see church spires in small towns all through our trip, though that is not necessarily an indicator of godliness in today’s Germany, or most of Europe, for that matter.
We were lodged in what was once an eighteenth century castle, with its prison right across the castle courtyard. The castle overlooked a mysterious wooded stretch which hid the ruins of the town’s thousand-year old settlement of Gongolfiberg, as a later walk in the woods revealed.  The renovated castle building is the seat of Point Alpha Foundation which holds memorial conferences and organises tours to the Point Alpha Museum and memorial, a short distance form Geisa. Point Alpha, once manned by the US forces, was the NATO counterpart of Geisa, just as Wagah is to Attari in our context. We visited the museum, which has dioramas of life in former East Germany under a stifling communist dictatorship; it has many murals and photographs of people who managed to cross the heavily guarded border and escaped into West Germany. 

Several days were spent in the fields around Fulda Gap, poring over military terrain maps.  It was not an unusual sight to see groups of students and even senior citizens busy in similar study trips, though their interests seemed more aligned with Nature than the military.  The Rhon Biosphere Reserve, of which Geisa and Fulda are a part, is among the biggest natural parks and recreation landscapes of Central Europe. Its basalt plateaus, moors, forests and streams are popular amongst hikers as well as bikers, who use specially designated trails. There was no garbage to be seen anywhere, no billboards, and no unsightly messages scrawled on rocks, as is the case in our mountainous areas.  The Chitral Gol National Park and Karakoram National Park could qualify as Biosphere Reserves (a title granted by UNESCO for keeping Nature ‘intact’) but sadly, our people have neither the learning nor the interest in preventing harm to the environment.
Our visit to Geisa came to an end with a series of briefings in the castle’s modern conference room.  While we had learnt about NATO defences against a sudden Soviet-led attack, the trip was also an excellent sampling of a fast-paced Frankfurt and a laid back Geisa, with unspoilt Nature seamlessly connecting the two. 
A return to Frankfurt was rounded off with a farewell dinner at a remarkable restaurant, a short distance from our hotel. It was the Druckwasserwerk Restaurant, which was once an old water pumping station, at the edge of Main River.  With its cavernous interior, vaulted ceiling and dimmed lighting, it beckons the honeymooning couples, as much as the golden agers like us. After a sumptuous dinner, we walked back along the Main, and parted on a unanimous note that few things could be more salubrious than a trip into the heart of Germany.

© KAISER TUFAIL. This is an open-access article published under the terms and conditions of the Creative Commons Attribution Licence, which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original author and source are credited.

This article was published in the daily newspaper The News International on 21 September 2014.

17 August, 2014

The Changing Kalash

Having been reading about the fascinating Kalash people for over three decades, I finally got a chance to visit some of their villages in the Bumborat Valley this past June.  The visit, short as it was, focused on the transformation that has taken place in the Kalash lifestyles over the years.  My guide was a worldly-wise Mir Azam, a fair blue-eyed Kalash, who worked in a Chitral hotel that I was staying in. His utterly polite and cheerful demeanour seemed to indicate that he was at peace with the world, quite like his Kalash folk, as I was to discover soon.

Detouring off the Chitral-Dir road at Ayun, we constantly struggled over the rock-strewn and potholed track, with Bumborat Gol (river) gushing in full fury alongside. It was a wonder that our driver did not flinch once while negotiating the perilous bends and precipitous climbs, as he drove an ill-suited Toyota station wagon. Approaching the first village of Anish, I was surprised to see a bevy of young Kalash girls in traditional dresses, but with their faces covered in chadars. What had led to this new-found modesty? Mir Azam explained that times had changed, pointing to a nearby madrassah and a mosque. He said that some Kalash girls prefer to cover their faces when passing through the main bazaar, though no such restraints apply in the villages.  He explained that over the years, many Kalash had converted to Islam of their own choice, and local lifestyles had been influenced to some extent.  There was no friction over such matters, however, as the Muslim converts and the Kalash were all related, and a live-and-let-live attitude prevailed.

At the next village of Brun, we came across a beautifully constructed multi-purpose building which serves as a primary school, a dispensary and an ethnographic museum. It has been funded by a Greek NGO which, obviously not well-versed in genetics, has associated the supposed stay-behinds of Alexander’s army with the ancestors of the Kalash. The school had a sizeable strength of neat little children in their traditional attire, and everything about the premises was trim and orderly.  I was just in time to take pictures of shy giggling children as they left school at pack-up. The educational standards have improved tremendously, and a sizeable number of the Kalash children are finishing high school, I was told.

Mir Azam was eager to take me to his home in the village of Karakal, located a short distance away at the south-western end of Bumborat Valley.  We drove down to a dead end and walked to Mir Azam’s two-room house on the first floor. The houses abutting the hillsides are stacked in such a way that the roof of the lower house serves as the terrace of the upper one.  The lady of the house was unwell and would be back from the community quarantine after five days, Mir Azam explained without much ado. His brother-in-law, a shepherd, along with his wife, were the other occupants of the room which had four charpoys in the corners, the arrangement almost mocking at the urbanites’ concept of privacy. The room also served as a winter kitchen with a central hearth, and an adjacent room housed the dry rations.  Mir Azam’s delightful son, a four-year old named Wazir-e-Azam amused us with his antics. His elder brothers are Mughal-e-Azam and Sikandar-e-Azam, the latter studying in Class 10 at the English-medium Langland School in Chitral.  I was to meet Sikandar later in Chitral, and was able to extract a promise from him that he would strive to be the first Kalash officer in the armed forces or the civil services. 

Mir Azam then took me to the house of his cousin, a person of sufficient means with a modern house. I was told that he hosted General Musharraf for tea at his home during the latter’s visit to Karakal village. Musharraf is fondly remembered for a grant that helped repair the derelict village community centre, the Jestak-An, where funerals and annual festivals are held. We visited the Jestak-An, an unlit hall with a central hearth for lighting a fire.  Cooking of sacrificed goats, and burning of aromatic juniper sprigs are essential to the festivities that take place here. The big door of the Jestak-An, flanked by a pair of carved ram’s heads, was the only remarkable item and its interwoven swirling patterns carved in walnut wood bespoke of superb craftsmanship.   

Sadly, Kalash woodwork is a lost art now, as cheaper machine-crafted doors and other wares are easily available.  Similarly, intricately carved wooden coffins – which were once left out in the open in a cemetery – along with wooden totems and effigies of the deceased, have all gone into disuse, as burials in the ground are getting popular.  The cost of wood as well as the workmanship has simply become unaffordable.  The only wooden item left on a gravesite is an upturned charpoy on which the deceased was brought for interment.

Walnut and mulberry trees are in abundance in Bumborat Valley, as are apricot and apple trees. Grape vines readily clamber up every wall, pillar and trellis.  Mulberry and grape have other bacchanalian uses too, as I was soon to discover. Mir Azam suggested that we walk to his friend’s house in Brun village, to which I readily agreed, as I would be able get a closer look at yet another Kalash household.  As we entered Qamra Khan’s house, the salutation involving shaking of hands and then kissing them, males and females alike, came as a bit of a surprise.  Austere as the house was, the amiability of the occupants was overwhelming.  As we settled down, Mir Azam was served a heady mulberry drink called tara, while I settled for plain spring water.  Qamra Khan had been one of the few Kalash men who had served as a soldier in the Army and his home exuded discipline and orderliness. A father of four girls and a boy, he was doing his best to educate them properly. Two of his younger children, a boy and a girl, wanted to be pilots. One of his daughters had converted to Islam and had married a man who worked in a travel agency in Peshawar.  Qamra told me that with a high school education, young boys and girls did not want to work as shepherds or small-time farmers anymore, and would rather move out.  He was glad that his married daughter was happy, though her conversion caused some dismay at first.   

When I asked Qamra if marrying off the remaining daughters was a responsibility of some kind, he told me that fortunately, boys and girls find mates of their own choice, and parents have little say in the matter in present times.  Mir Azam, high-spirited by now, added that during the upcoming Uchao autumn harvest festival on 22 August, many eligible young couples would be tying the knot during the dance and drink revelry. Diana, Qamra Khan’s eldest daughter, who was within earshot, was quite delighted at this prompt and hastened with another peg of tara for uncle Mir Azam.

As lunch time neared, we begged leave, though Qamra Khan’s family insisted that we eat with them.  On promises of another visit with my wife in the near future, we were let off.  In a moving gesture, the lady of the house presented me with a hand-woven sash, signifying that I was now a member of their household. Mir Azam explained that hand woven articles had a special value nowadays, as these had been replaced by cheap machine woven pieces.  Mass-produced women’s robes (sanguch) and men’s caps (pakol) are now available in the local bazaar. Hand-crafted silver jewellery, much prized in bygone days, is also a rarity as silversmiths, like woodworkers and weavers, are a vanishing breed.

As we walked to the nearby Alexander Point Restaurant for lunch, I was reminded how important it was to dig deep into the ancestry of Kalash, and dispel the persistent Greek connection in the process.  I could relate the Kalash to some specific geographical locales on the basis of genetic hotspots that I had studied, having a keen amateur interest in genetics.

Many studies have revealed that 75% of Kalash women belong to European DNA haplogroups (unique groups) and 25% belong to Mid-Eastern/Caucasus ones. Interestingly, the males belong to a more assorted grouping, including South Asian (45%), Mid-Eastern/Caucasus (30%) and European (25%).  Quite obviously, outside males – including South Asians, in recent times – have shown conjugal interest in these women of European origin, as the male DNA studies clearly show.  None of the genetic studies have found a Greek strain, particularly amongst the males, who are purported to be the descendants of Alexander’s army or the later Greek satraps that held sway in Balkh (Bactria) between 255-168 BC.
A tantalising clue lies in the Kalash female mitochondrial DNA lineages, of which the Haplogroup U4 is the ‘flagship’ group, with a high incidence of 34% amongst Kalash women. This group is presently found in the faraway Baltic and Scandinavian countries, as well as nearer to us, amongst the West Siberian peoples north of Kazakhstan. In particular, the Khanty-Mansi people in the Russian autonomous republic of that name, have a high incidence of U4 amongst their females.  An even more intriguing happenchance is the persisting tradition of wooden totems and effigies made by the Kalash, which are quite similar to those made by the Khanty-Mansi people . I am inclined to believe that the Kalash originated in the northern reaches of Central Asia, and moved south, possibly fearing the Hun, Parthian and Saka hordes that swept into today’s Iran, Afghanistan and Northern India around two millenia ago.  Most of these marauders found their calling in subjugating, and then mixing with the local populace; others like the unassuming Kalash, found the prospects of farming in remote water-fed valleys blissful enough for a sedentary life that also helped preserve their unique culture and beliefs. Only religious persecution in Afghanistan in the late 19th  century drove the Kalash into out-of-sight valleys, in what is now Chitral District.

While the genetic imprint shall stay forever etched in the genes of the Kalash, their culture and traditions are fast changing.  A subsistence economy based on farming and animal husbandry is not durable enough to sustain the demands of  material culture they see around them. Almost 10-15% households have satellite TV, and the buzz is that there exists a magical world filled with every amenity, beyond their valleys.  Educated children are unwilling to continue the grind of the village life, simple and idyllic as it might be. Lastly, the inroads made by Muslims, both converts and outside settlers, are influencing the local mores and customs, and there is a clear change in the free-wheeling ways of the Kalash.  My estimate is that within about two to three decades, Kalash culture would just be a page in history.  It is nothing to rue about: that is how history charts its way through the maze of time.
© KAISER TUFAIL. This is an open-access article published under the terms and conditions of the Creative Commons Attribution Licence, which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original author and source are credited.

This article was published in the daily newspaper The News International on 17 August 2014, under the title A Page in History.

19 May, 2014

Allure of the Bosphorus

The Turkish Air Force had showcased itself splendidly during the International Symposium on Air Warfare, held at the Air War College in Istanbul this April. With over 200 delegates from 60 countries to take care of, Turkish hospitality was at its legendary best, and it was no wonder that the participants found the event to be an unqualified success. The hectic days in the huge War College auditorium – one of the most impressive I have seen – were quite thoughtfully rounded off with a gala dinner by the Bosphorus waterside.  A nippy drizzle added to the allure of the shimmering waters, as we munched on appetisers at a swank restaurant next to the Fatih Sultan Mehmet Bridge – commonly called the Second Bridge – on the Bosphorus. (Interestingly, the restaurant is run by Yildiz Technical University and the profits are used to administer scholarships to needy students).  The meal was a multi-menu, multi-course affair, low on fats but with enough harm for those with a sweet tooth, as the Turkish lokum and baklava can be taken in heaps, unabashedly.  Chai – always without milk – served from huge brass samovars by traditionally-dressed waiters, completed the Ottoman gastronomy fest by the Bosphorus. All that remained was a cruise down the strait, but we had to wait till next morning, for the Turkish Air Force had planned a deluxe tour for us.
As I peeped out of my window at daybreak, I saw a huge pleasure craft anchored by the quayside of our beachfront hotel.  Thinking that some visiting Arab sheikhs were ready to launch off on one of their pleasure jaunts, it took me a while to note that the cruiser was surrounded by military police and coast guards; the likely passengers were, hence, none but us!  It was not long before we were ushered on to the triple-decker cruise craft by smart Turkish Air Force escort officers. The weather was partly cloudy, which was just as well to keep the reflected sunrays from discomforting us during the planned three-hour cruise.
The Bosphorus is a 31-km long channel that connects the Black Sea to the north with Turkey’s inland Sea of Marmara to the south; the latter is in turn connected to the Mediterranean through the Dardanelles Strait. The Bosphorus forms the boundary between Europe and Asia, while also cleaving Istanbul into European and Asian parts.  As we started the tour, huge tankers could be seen plying through the Bosphorus, which at one place narrows to a mere 700 metres and involves rather acute turns to navigate.  During winter fog, navigation through the channel can be extremely risky.  The Bosphorus has been notorious for accidents which have included vessels running aground, collisions with other vessels, spillage of petrochemicals and even the drowning of a consignment of 21,000 ill-fated sheep into its waters.  Thank goodness, we didn’t have to be bothered about any mishap  as our senses were too overwhelmed by the allure of the scenic Bosphorus.  
Our tour started from Istanbul’s Sariyer locale towards the Black Sea, in a northerly direction.  The population started to thin out beyond Sariyer and half an hour later, we were at the fringes of the vast Black Sea that has lately been in the news due to the Crimean crisis.  After notching up an ‘I was there’ claim, we turned around and hugged the western bank, alongside the famous waterfront properties. Known as yalli, they belong to the rich and the famous. We were told that the average price of the yalli alongside the Bosphorus runs into millions of liras, and one of them fetched the fourth highest price ever for a waterfront villa, anywhere.
On the way south, we went past the Fatih Sultan Mehmet Bridge, in whose vicinity we had dined the previous night. Half a kilometre from the bridge is the Rumeli Hisari, a fortress built by Sultan Mehmet in 1452, shortly before his conquest of the Byzantine capital Constantinople (Istanbul of today).  An earlier attempt by his predecessor to capture the capital had been stymied, due to a blockade of the Bosphorus by the Byzantine fleet.  In the event, the fortress garrison proved useful in warding off any maritime threat, and Sultan Mehmet was successful in bringing down the Byzantine Empire after all.  The Rumeli Hisari and the modern bridge evoked recollections of our Attock Fort and the adjacent bridge over Kabul River, though the similarities did not go much beyond the placid riverine scenery against a hilly backdrop.
As we approached the Bosphorus Bridge (or the First Bridge, as it is commonly known), I started to look out for the beautiful Grand Mejidiye Mosque at Ortakoy, a locale quite popular with the tourists. The Neo-Baroque style mosque completed in 1856, had been under repair for the last several years. During my previous visit three months earlier, I had heard that it would be inaugurated in April after renovation was complete. Unfortunately work was still continuing, and scaffolding obscured what might have been a most mesmerising sight of the waterfront mosque, that is best viewed from a boat in the Bosphorus.
Sultan Abdul Mejid-I, we are told, was not too pleased to learn that European palaces were far grander than Topkapi, where previous Ottoman Sultans had resided for four centuries.  Lacking style and luxury, Topkapi was to be abandoned in favour of a new palace along the Bosphorus. Completed in 1856, the Dolmabache Palace was a huge drain on the Ottoman economy, what with 35 tonnes of gold and the richest furnishings, carpets and chandeliers lavishing its interior. I had been awed by the interior of the palace during an earlier visit, but what was left to savour was its magnificent view from the Bosphorus. This time around, we cruised past the vast palace, imagining the Sultans and their harem populace cavorting in an earthly garden of Eden. Alas, the construction of the magnificent palace had contributed to the weakening of the Ottoman treasury; the opulent lifestyle and luxury of the court could last a mere 68 years before the Empire disintegrated in 1924.  Today the showpiece of the decaying Empire is a major tourist attraction both from within, and from the banks of the Bosphorus.  
Still within sight of Dolmabache Palace, we felt quite like the Sultans as our pleasure craft was being outridden by Coast Guards speedboats that were ensuring a security cordon all around.  It was past mid-day and lunch was announced.  With a rich and lavish menu to choose from, we sampled a bit of every offering from the Turkish cuisine.  A hearty fill was good fuel topping too, for we had another four hours to walk through Istanbul’s historic quarters, once ashore.  Our boat zigzagged the final lap, going past a legendary lighthouse known as the Maiden’s Tower.  Sited on an islet, it is purported to have been an ancient Customs tower later converted into an observation post by Fatih Sultan Mehmet following the siege of Constantinople. It was reconstructed after a fire had gutted the older structure. Today it serves as a lighthouse as well as a popular café, and private boats make regular trips for an evening soiree.  I thought it was a good idea to disembark there for a cup of coffee, but with no private boat to wait on me, I joined the rest of the crowd for the trip that remained to be covered on foot.
The Bosphorus cruise ended at an exclusive pier just next to Topkapi Palace, from where we disembarked and walked across for a guided tour of the palace.  After doing Topkapi, we moved on to Hagia Sofia, the grand Eastern Orthodox cathedral commissioned by the Byzantine Emperor Justinian and completed in 537. The third ‘must-see’ site was the nearby Sultan Ahmet Mosque (also known as Blue Mosque) completed in 1616. We could see the mosque rather briefly, for the caretaker took his time to give us a historical rundown, along with a takeaway sermon. We learnt of an interesting snippet, that the five daily calls to prayer are chanted in five different tonal variants, so as to keep the faithful attracted to the religious duty. The caretaker claimed that the congregations had grown ever since this new innovation had been incorporated!
A full day it was, but the trip was most enjoyable as most of the sites that I had seen earlier from inside, had now been viewed from the shimmering waters of the Bosphorus. If a traveller has just one day to spare in Istanbul, a cruise on the Bosphorus, followed by a visit to the three grand structures in the historical quarter, is highly recommended for capturing the essence of Istanbul.

© KAISER TUFAIL. This is an open-access article published under the terms and conditions of the Creative Commons Attribution Licence, which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original author and source are credited.

This article was published in the daily newspaper The News International on 11 May 2014.

10 March, 2014

Istanbul Today

A drive from Istanbul airport to the hotel started with a polite permission by the taxi driver to turn the radio on.  My nod triggered a husky but sonorous voice that streamed out of the speakers, most sensually. “She is Ebru Gundesh. Have you heard her songs before?” the driver asked me in passable English.  Before I could answer him, he lowered the volume in deference to azaan blaring out of loudspeakers from a nearby mosque, and swiped his face with cupped hands while muttering holy verses.  This was quite in contrast to my last visit to Istanbul over a decade ago when, on more than one occasion, even my salaam greetings were answered with raised eyebrows. 

A regional security workshop was to start two days later, so I had time to sample the neighbourhood of Beshiktash district, an upscale area of Istanbul in which our hotel was located.  A walk down the Chiraghaan Street on the western banks of Bosporus took me to Ortakoy, a locale once famous for its cosmopolitan outlook, with Jews, Orthodox Greek Christians and Armenians (all since emigrated), living in harmony with the majority Muslims.  I went past the Ayos Fokas Orthodox Church as well as the Ezt Ahayim Synagogue, which are located not far from the beautiful 19th century baroque Majidiye Mosque, by the coastal pier of Ortakoy.  Despite rain and lashing winds on a cold January morning, tourists had started to congregate at the pier.  Shops serving lokum (a Turkish sweetmeat that is a useful complement to the hellishly bitter kahva), falafels, kebabs and fruit cocktails, were ready for their daily business.  The majestic Bosporus Bridge formed a picture perfect backdrop while the morning fog still hung in the air.
On my way back, I walked past the imposing Chiraghaan Palace, now leased out as a heritage hotel. With plenty of time at hand, I decided to visit the sprawling Yildiz Park, which is very similar to the Shakarparian Park in Islamabad. Except for some anxious moments caused by a pack of stray dogs whose intentions I could not read clearly, the outing in the park was absolutely salubrious.  Like the rest of the city, the park was as clean as it could be; beautifully laid out petunia flower beds caused a delightful riot of colours. The rain had picked up again, so I decided to take a taxi to Nishantashi, a posh street with all the ritzy fashion and glamour shops located there.

Out of my carefully rehearsed vocabulary of a dozen Turkish words, I chose the right ones to tell the taxi driver of my intended destination.  Somehow, he took me for a local and started off a monologue, which I thought wise to interject with evet (yes) at regular intervals. Reaching Nishantashi Street, the driver asked me where exactly did I wish to go. Having run out of the right words for further instructions, I blurted out tamaam (okay, enough).  A fluke couldn’t have worked better, for he was immensely pleased with his passenger, but my abrupt disclosure about being a Pakistani evoked such amazement that he did the double handshake, and froze in the hands-on-heart act for a while.

Men and women clad mostly in jeans and jackets were to be seen in equal numbers, testifying to a high level of women’s participation in the work force.  I saw a  number of women smoking cigarettes, but this habit could be endemic to the trendy locality.  At most shops, getting by in English was not a problem, unlike a decade ago, when Turkish was the preferred language everywhere. The demands of economic development, including the ability to converse with global business partners, as well as the ability of Turks to compete in the international job markets has led to a premium on learning foreign languages, principally English and German.

With the biological clock skewed, I was up at 5:00 on most mornings. A good way to while away time was to get done with the domestics, and take a walk to the nearby Beshiktash Pier, from where ferries ply to and from Uskadar across the Bosporus.  Old men would be at the pier to feed the gulls just as in movies, or would simply huddle up on the benches watching the fog lift up and reveal the Asian side of the city beyond the waters. By the time I’d walk back to the hotel, the bus stops would be crowded with people ready to start another work day. I saw two parks where open air exercise machines had been installed, and men and women were busy with some morning bending and stretching.
The traffic in Istanbul is quite orderly, helped by an excellent road network all over the city. Discipline on the roads is notable, and is a reflection of the overall discipline one expects in a people who are highly educated. I also wondered if it had anything to do with the men folk having been through compulsory military service.  The Istanbul metro bus, which inspired the one at Lahore, is very popular, with packed Mercedes buses plying all over the city in designated bus lanes. Taxis, mostly Fiat models, are available at reasonable rates, with high-tech digital meters visible in the rear-view mirrors.  European cars are as popular as Japanese models, most being manufactured or assembled locally. Mercifully, motorcycle menace as seen on our roads is almost non-existent in Istanbul; the few that are spotted occasionally belong to courier services or pizza deliverymen, with a lone rider going about his business fully kitted like the Knight Rider of the TV series.
With Istanbul attacting the bulk of Turkey’s 45 million annual tourists, the city gives a festive and cosmopolitan look at all times of the year.  National flags and buntings can be seen displayed on roadsides, shops and apartment blocks on any given day, giving the impression of perpetual national day celebrations.  A good place to sample the nationalistic pride is at the Barbarossa Square, adjacent to Beshiktash Pier and the Naval Museum. The Ottoman Admiral Khairuddin Barbarossa’s statue is flanked by Turkish flags and the square is bedecked with several naval cannon. The nearby Sinan Pasha mosque evokes the grandeur of Ottoman times.  In the evenings, street musicians attract crowds who revel in the glory of their much adored city.

One notes many subtle changes in Istanbul, though much of it remains as it has under a secular dispensation for nine decades – liberal, to the point of being irreverent.  The present Islamic leaning government has been in power in Turkey for 12 years, and has struggled to balance the increasingly materialistic culture of a free market enterprise, with the moderating influence of Islam that stresses a more austere lifestyle.  Ottoman-era mosques that were once locked in the not-too-distant past, have been renovated majorly and are in full service, though seldom overcrowded. Nonetheless, if the high decibel level of azaan and the increasing numbers of women in hijab are any indicators of piety, secularism is facing some challenges in modern day Istanbul.

Cleansing one’s soul and uniting it with Allah is the ultimate aim of sufis, and this spiritual journey is expressed by the well-known dance of the ‘whirling dervishes’. Though the centre of Sufism is at Konya, the dance is performed for the benefit of tourists at major cities, including Istanbul.  One evening, the participants of the workshop decided to attend the sema’a (listening) as it is known.  We took taxis to Sirkeji area of the historical peninsula where the Hodja Pasha Hammam (public bath) is located. The 550-year old Ottoman-era hammam has been restored as a dance theatre, and is quite popular with tourists and locals alike.

The sema’a started with a series of supplications and ‘salutes’ by five dervish dancers, with music and chanting provided by an ensemble of four men, and surprisingly, a woman at the drums. The much awaited whirling started after about fifteen minutes and continued with frequent pauses for salutes. The ceremony was rather slow and repetitive, and to most of us, the only wonder was that the dancers had not lost their spatial orientation after whirling for nearly an hour. The sema’a was rounded off with a most apt verse of the Quran: “The East and the West belong to Allah and wherever you turn, you are faced with Him”. As we were leaving after the performance, we found a crowd ready for the next show – this time, a raunchy belly dance!  The sacred and the profane still seem inseparably intertwined in Istanbul today.
© KAISER TUFAIL. This is an open-access article published under the terms and conditions of the Creative Commons Attribution Licence, which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original author and source are credited.

This article was published in the daily newspaper The News International on 9 Jan 2014, under the title Istanbul Ten Years On.