08 November, 2015

To the Head and Heart of Istanbul

After you have seen all of Istanbul, there is still more to see. To make sense of that seemingly contradictory proposition, I had left Galata Tower and Taksim Square for the last on my itinerary. After three consecutive years of visits that had covered miles of wandering in the streets of the city, I wanted to see more. What better way than rounding off the series with a bird’s eye view that captures much of history and geography, and then to feel the pulse of a city that beckons you to visit yet one more time.
Fatih, Yusuf and Tugrul, three eager young Turkish Air Force Academy cadets, part of a group detailed to look after the visiting delegates, joined me for a weekend jaunt to see the city’s remarkable history come alive in an incredible panorama.  After waiting in line for the steeply-priced tickets at the base of Galata Tower for about twenty minutes, we decided to forego the lift and use the spiral stairway, huffing and puffing our way 150 feet up to the observation deck. The sooner we reached the café on the uppermost floor, we were utterly surprised by a little five-year old girl who was following us up the stairs. She was beaming delightfully for having accomplished what the hardened military men plodding ahead of her had done with so much effort.
Galata is a former Genoese quarter of old Istanbul (Constantinople) across the Golden Horn waterway. This neighbourhood was actually a walled Genoese enclave within Constantinople, having been ‘granted’ to the powerful Republic of Genoa by the Byzantine Emperor in 1267.  The enclave was fortified by a now non-existent citadel, and the landmark Christ Tower (as it was then known), was built in 1348 to reflect the influence of the Genoese in the Byzantine capital.

In the midst of plagues, earthquakes and fires, the tower had stood witness to the sorrows and the sufferings of humanity. It was no wonder that it got converted into a fire look-out after yet another devastating firestorm swept the city at the beginning of the 18th century. Now, happy times were here, it seemed, going by the merry hordes of tourists whose waiting lines could be seen snaking far into the streets below. To us, it was an observation tower that  brought into view the shimmering waters of the Bosporus, the seraglios and palaces of the Sultans, the slender minarets of exquisite mosques, and the terra-cotta tiled rooftops harking back to the Mediterranean cities that were once part of the Ottoman Empire. 

The tower also found use as a prison during the reign of Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent (1520-66). It was put to more productive use as an observatory by the royal astronomer Takki-uddin Effendi towards the end of the sixteenth century. The observatory was helpful in scheduling royal events in accordance with favourable astrological conditions, as well as visual moon-sighting for Islamic festivals without any fuss.
Fatih, Tugrul and Yusuf, who had not yet started their flying training, brought up the subject of how much fun it would be to jump off the tower in a hang glider. I was not sure if they were hinting at the legend of their very own Turkish birdman, but I knew that every tower had a tale or two about intrepid characters who had broken more than a limb trying out man’s eternal dream to take to the skies.
Being a flier myself, I took delight in relating the story of the ‘man with a thousand skills’, Hezarfen Ahmet Chelebi who had flown across the Bosporus on eagle’s wings glued together, turning him into a birdman.  After nine short trial runs, he fearlessly jumped from the tower as the Ottoman Sultan Murad Khan was watching from his nearby mansion, sometime in 1632. Landing in Uskadar after a three-kilometre ‘trans-continental’ flight without as much as a scratch, he was feted with a sackful of gold coins by the Sultan. To his discomfiture, Chelebi was soon to learn that he had been sent into exile by the capricious Sultan for his ‘ability of doing anything he wishes’. Perhaps, the farsighted Sultan was scared by the thought of Chelebi flying into his palace grounds, and overthrowing him in a first-ever regime change through air power alone! The story of Chelebi’s feat has great currency in Turkey, I was told by the cadets. After all, Istanbul’s third airport is named after Hezarfen for good reason.
If Galata Tower looks like the crowned head of Istanbul, Taksim Square feels like its throbbing heart.  The artery connecting the two is the famous Istiklal Avenue, largely a pedestrian-only street, except for the historic tram that runs up and down its one-and-a-half kilometre length. We decided to walk along the avenue lined with trendy boutiques, cafés and pubs, cinemas and theatres, and many churches, mosques and synagogues. Every once in a while a tram would slowly rumble past, with a ringing bell warning pedestrians to keep clear.  I had seen similar trams in Karachi of the sixties, but sadly, none could be kept operational as traffic increased enormously, while no one had the good sense to limit a few roads to pedestrians and heritage trams. 

We passed by the Church of St Anthony, the largest Roman Catholic church of Istanbul.  That one of its preachers rose to be a Pope (Pope XXIII, 1958-63) came as a surprise to me.  He was fondly called the ‘Turkish Pope’ for his fluency in Turkish, though his association with Turkey came about only when he was Vatican’s ambassador to the country.
It was pack-up time at the prestigious Galatasaray High School, and suddenly Istiklal Avenue was swamped with children. Founded in 1453, it is Turkey’s oldest high school, and entrance is restricted to the best of the best; this was evident by the well-groomed and disciplined students, even when out of sight of their hard taskmasters.
Our walk terminated at Taksim Square, the central point of the city, and the hub of its transportation system. Taksim or ‘division’ is named after the water distributory system of the late Ottoman era. Today, the square houses the famous Republic Monument crafted by the Italian sculptor Pietro Canonica in 1928. It portrays Kemal Ataturk and other founders of modern Turkey in heroic poses. Statues, as most people might know, are not at all kosher in secular Turkey.
The square was encircled with the Turkish flags called al-bairak (the red banner), giving the whole area a festive air, even though it was no national day. Display of al-bairak is a national fad indulged in with a passion by the Turks.  During political rallies, mass meetings of activists, and Republic Day celebrations, the square is awash with national flags and banners of all kinds.  There have been some violent protests in recent times, but we were lucky to find a placid environment to relax after a hectic day. The cleanliness of the area was as much a reflection of the efficient municipality, as the discipline and fastidious nature of the Turkish people at large.
The three cadets were very pleased that I had thoroughly taken to the city in which their Academy was located. They were also excited to have visited Chelebi’s launch pad that had him soaring, and they looked forward to be up in the air one day, soon.  I assured them that it would be a good pretext for me to be in Istanbul once again to watch them soar high. From Galata to Uskadar next 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 8 Nov, 2015.

20 September, 2015

Kuala Lumpur Without Hassle

As the airplane set up on the final approach for landing at Kuala Lumpur International Airport, a vast jungle of palm oil plantations came into view. The loquacious passenger sitting next to me told me about Malaysia’s position as the world’s largest exporter of the culinary commodity. When I added that Malaysia was also the number one producer of tin, he smiled and proclaimed with great pride that Malaysia will soon be number one in many other fields too. “You will see for yourself in Kuala Lumpur,” as he hurriedly crossed his heart in Christian prayer, just before landing. He was of Chinese origin, and though his community mostly practised Eastern religions, his family had been converted by missionaries, he told me.  Sensing my somewhat curious demeanour, he assured me that there was no problem in his country as far as religious diversity was concerned. Then, in an almost uncomfortable whisper, he said that sometimes racial issues do crop up, because, “we Chinese work harder and others get jealous”.  On my assurance that I was not one of the ‘others’ – for there are many South Asian settlers in Malaysia – he was much relieved, for he seemed to have realised his imprudence. 

After prompt completion of arrival formalities at the very modern and impressive airport terminal, I was driven 50-km away to my downtown Shangri-La Hotel, by a most courteous taxi driver.  The modern high-rise buildings with Oriental motifs were a welcome departure from the commonplace concrete and glass structures. One could, however, also note that Kuala Lumpur was driven by the universal corporate insatiability, and it would only be a matter of time before it got stuck in the mires of modernism like other ‘global cities’.

In-processing at the hotel was very swift and professional, as would be expected in a city much frequented by tourists.  Namaste-like salutations, with  palms touching together, were common as in much of Far East.  I was in Kuala Lumpur as part of a group participating in a South Asian Security Conference. Expecting to be mostly stuck in the conference rooms, I decided to go sightseeing while I was free and the weather was good. The sooner I had stepped out of the hotel, a cloudburst opened up a heavy downpour, and drenched me as I huddled under a covered bus stop. The spell of thunder and rain lasted just fifteen minutes, and the sun was out soon again in a peek-a-boo monsoon game.

Walking on Jalan Ampang (Ampang Road), I was quick to spot the Pakistan flag flying on a splendid little colonial building, complete with a terra-cotta tiled sloping roof and a turreted cupola. It was the Pakistan High Commission, undoubtedly an architectural gem amidst some tall hotel buildings. We were later hosted by the High Commissioner, H E Syed Hassan Raza, whose encyclopaedic knowledge about any subject, included a complete history of the High Commission building, as well his own residence.

Walking further, the iconic Petronas Towers came into view. I carefully framed the famous building with some palm boughs in the foreground, and tried a ‘selfie’ which had more of my face than desired. I requested two passers-by if they could help with the picture. They were smartly dressed and looked like Iranians but they communicated in what sounded like Pashto. On inquiry they surprised me in chaste English that they were Pakistanis, which immediately resulted in warm handshakes and small talk by the roadside. I was even more surprised when they told me that they were ordinary labourers, for I had taken them to be university students. They resignedly told me that it was ‘kismet’ that brought them to Kuala Lumpur, but they were happy as things were much better than in the Gulf, where one of them had done some drudgery for an year.  True to their Pathan credo, they insisted that it was respect that mattered not ‘paisas’.

On the way back I went past the sprawling KL City Park, with its picturesque Lake Symphony beckoning an early morning visit, as the evening weather was getting sultry after the rain shower. The park was a study in harmony and order amongst the human species, with every community intermingling without any fuss.  It was a wonder that no litter, not even a small wrapper, could be seen anywhere. An efficient municipality had ensured that Kuala Lumpur could easily vie for cleanliness with the famously disciplined Singapore.

Having been founded around 1857 as a tin collection and distribution town serving the nearby Ampang tin mines, Kuala Lumpur has rapidly transformed into Malaysia’s economic, business and financial centre. The numerous banks and five-star hotels testify to the international business interests and investments in the country. Kuala Lumpur is also host to many multi-national companies' regional offices, particularly for finance and accounting, and information technology functions.  The modern face of Kuala Lumpur is evident everywhere, but the traditional side thrives in the famous Chinatown on Petaling Street. I decided to take a look at this famous locale, where pirated wares, CDs and DVDs, counterfeit watches (besides the regular authentic stuff) are on offer, and haggling is the norm. The evening crowds and the sultry weather can be a bit suffocating, but nerves never fray as the people, especially shopkeepers, are extremely polite as I found out during my short stroll in the area.

I was looking forward to the Friday prayers, more out of curiosity about the religious mores and behaviour of the Malaysian Muslims. Our group of five Pakistani delegates hired a taxi to the Wilayah Persekutuan Masjid (Federal Territory Mosque). A large multi-storeyed complex, the mosque is surrounded by gardens and small lakes. Though well-embellished in marble and wood carving, the grotesque structure can be heavy on the eyes. The sermon started in a fashion that we in Pakistan are not used to at all. The imam would read out a few sentences from the Quran, which was followed by a slow and clear translation in Malay language. The translation was also displayed on large projection screens inside the spacious mosque. Later, just before the start of prayers, notifications about any funeral prayers and scheduled weddings in the mosque’s community centre were displayed on the large screens. After the prayers, we were introduced to a pleasant custom of handshakes and a short greeting by the adjacent ‘namazis’, as we do annually, only on Eid. We also learnt that other than Juma prayers, many women join in the congregation prayers in the mosque. In fact, a day later, I saw two young women riding a scooter, who parked it outside a mosque and went in for the evening prayer.

Besides mosques, there is a profusion of Buddhist and Hindu temples and some churches too.  In Kuala Lumpur, the Muslim Malays number about 50%, Chinese Buddhists are about 35%, while the remaining Indians and other indigenous people include a smattering of Hindus, Muslims, Christians and Sikhs. I noticed that religious beliefs of all communities are highly respected both at the government and individual level. We happened to be visiting in the midst of the Chinese New Year celebrations, this being the Year of the Goat. All religious communities enjoyed the festivities with relish, as we could see.

Having heard about some famous shopping malls -- which number over seventy huge ones in Kuala Lumpur alone -- a few of us decided to go around the Bukit Bintang (Starhill Walk) area. Some of the famous malls that are located here include the Pavilion KL, Berjaya Times Square, Starhill Gallery and the Sephora Duplex. Perfume-drenched rich Arabs who frequent these malls the most, seemed at home in the chic fashion houses and mouth-watering eateries. The former prime minister Mahathir Muhammad’s own bakery, ‘The Loaf’ is located at the entrance of Pavilion. We were pleased to see our very own ‘Khaadi’ clothing retail store in the upscale Bintang area.

One week in Kuala Lumpur passed by quickly, and at the end of the conference, we had a farewell in the restaurant atop the Kuala Lumpur Tower, commonly called KL Menara. We arrived before sunset to catch an all around view from the highest vantage point in the city. It was amazing to see high-rise buildings all over, with the few empty spaces filled up with public parks. If the slowly rotating restaurant restaurant did not make us dizzy, the gluttonous riot at the dining tables did, and we had to fend our way back to the hotel on wobbly knees.

From a pioneering tin trading town, Kuala Lumpur has transformed itself into a thriving modern city. It seems to be headed in the same capitalist direction like other major Western cities, but with a difference. Races and religions intermingle without any hassle, and Kuala Lumpur, as much of Malaysia, is the perfect example of tolerance and co-existence, something that we in Pakistan would do well to learn more about.


© 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 20 September 2015.