RSS Feed

Category Archives: Travel Blogs

I travel not to go anywhere, but to go. I travel for travel’s sake. The great affair is to move. – Robert Louis Stevenson

CULTURE: REUNIFYING RUMI

September 17, 2017
Photos by the writer
Photos by the writer

There are many versions of the legendary first encounter between Maulana Jalaluddin Rumi and his spiritual mentor Shams of Tabriz. Most describe the moment as Rumi, the religious scholar, sitting by a pond, immersed in his scholarly reading, when Shams, a stranger to him, comes by and asks him what he is doing. “You will not understand,” Rumi is reported to have replied, upon which Shams throws all of Rumi’s books in the pond. But the books spring back up dry, defying the laws of physics. At this point, Shams is reported to have said, “But you do not understand.”

This was the moment, then, when Rumi began fathoming Allah not just with the mind but also with the heart. In a world of sharp binaries, Rumi’s admirers seem bent upon separating Rumi the man of knowledge, from Rumi the mystic poet. In reality, the two are not mutually exclusive; in reality, both are the same person.

As I recently travelled by bus in Turkey from Antalya to Konya, the city of the 13th-century Sufi scholar, its unusual and diverse landscape reminded me of his message that is so universally appealing — to the rich and the poor, the pious and the sinner, the scholar and the unlettered. While the pluralism in his message is prominent, one thing becomes clearer than ever when you visit Konya — that Rumi was not just a Sufi, he was also a Muslim scholar, and taking that away from Rumi is telling half the truth.

Maulana Jalaludin Rumi’s Islamic scholarship is often forgotten by those extolling the universality of his message although it is an essential part of his work

Konya has distinct old-world charm. The people are kind and the roses are abundant. But the highlight of a visit to Konya is the Mevlevi Sema, a mystic religious rite practiced by dervishes, who emulate the whirling of Rumi, lost in ecstasy. It is an enchanting experience, the kind that leaves you with goose bumps. In the courtyard of the Mevlâna Museum that houses Rumi’s shrine, a common sight is a teacher with a flowing beard, a rosary in hand and a smile on his lips, sitting under the shade of a tree, surrounded by students learning about Islam. Calligraphy from Quranic verses are put up alongside verses from his extensive, famous poem, Masnavi. The sound of the azaan is loud and clear in Konya. Imprints of traditional Islam in the district where Rumi rests do not seem to disagree with imprints of Sufism.

The exterior view of the Mevlana Museum
The exterior view of the Mevlana Museum

There is an honorary grave of the Poet of the East, Allama Iqbal, near Rumi’s grave. Iqbal is often called a spiritual protégé of Rumi, and is reported to have had a metaphysical experience when he felt Rumi’s presence.

In his book Stray Reflections: The Private Notebook of Muhammad Iqbal, Allama Iqbal observes that “To explain the deepest truths of life in the form of homely parables requires extraordinary genius. Shakespeare, Maulana Rum (Jalaluddin) and Jesus Christ are probably the only illustrations of this rare type of genius.”

The popular interpretation of Rumi does not do justice to where he came from. Rumi is a mystic all right, but he is more than just mystic pulp fiction, and the Masnavi is more than just couplets that can be used to soothe the after-effects of a lovers’ brawl. Yet, few of those smitten by the universality of Rumi’s poetry recognise the visible imprints of verses of the Quran. The popular reductionist approach towards Rumi has reduced his poetry to memes, and selected couplets with aphorisms that are easy to quote.

The Mevlevis greet each other as the Sema begins
The Mevlevis greet each other as the Sema begins

“Modernity has an allergy to religion. They have pushed religion into a private space, saying ‘religion is just between man and God’ and not collective,” says Abbas Husain, educationist and Islamic scholar known for teaching the nuances of Tasawwuf and Ishq. In Husain’s opinion, a fine parallel can be drawn between Rumi and the likes of Socrates and Plato. “The latter two were religious but have been reduced to being just philosophers. Rumi and his poetry have been exoticised, and there has been an erasure of the religious in him.”

There is religion and there is religion, he says, and to Husain, the distinction is clear. “Religion puts before us deeper questions like ‘why are you here’, whereas religion also is focused more on rituals and minor details. We can’t see the wood for the trees,” he says.

The pull of Rumi is that his words are relatable. “He strikes a resonance with the inward level of man in any era,” says Husain. Scholars have pondered on the various meanings of his work since long. “Rumi is not new; he has been around. The first translation of Rumi’s Masnavi came from R.A. Nicholson, between 1925 and 1940.”

A teacher imparts spiritual wisdom to youth, under a tree near Mevlana Rumi’s sarcophagus
A teacher imparts spiritual wisdom to youth, under a tree near Mevlana Rumi’s sarcophagus

But there is no denying that Rumi has been re-popularised. And his fandom is not limited to Muslims, because his message was and is universal. “I love that Rumi sees Divine beauty in all aspects of creation and speaks to people of all cultural tastes and perspectives. I love that he uses bawdy tales in his poetry,” says Laury Silvers, a lecturer at the University of Toronto’s Department for the Study of Religion.

According to Silvers, Rumi explains the most difficult of concepts by translating them into easily understood simpler concepts that help everyone own him. “Early on when Rumi was translated into English, these parts were translated into Latin so that only the most elite, scholarly fellows could enjoy them — exactly the opposite of Rumi’s intention in composing these verses,” she says.

Silvers further explains how these bawdy tales not only bring Divine truths to those who are best reached with rough and tumble talk. “They teach all of us that God is fully present and calling to us in every moment and through all things, not just that which we deem socially acceptable or ‘pretty’.”

A depiction of the members of the Mevlevi order inside the Mevlana Museum
A depiction of the members of the Mevlevi order inside the Mevlana Museum

For some today, their first exposure to Rumi has been through the Turkish writer Elif Shafak’s book Forty Rules of Love. In a sense, Shafak did a service by producing an easy version of the often complex themes of Tasawwuf for her readers. Although Husain sees this as positive, he recommends graduating to books such as Me and Rumi: The Autobiography of Shams-i-Tabrizi by William C. Chittick for those interested in understanding Rumi better.

Whether represented in a complex or an easy manner, Rumi remains the bridge we need today — he bridges the gaps polarisation has created. Those who cling to the more comfortable and less demanding interpretation of the spiritual path of love for God and those who hold on to the path of adherence to Islamic jurisprudence or Sharia as the road to Paradise — both can find something to guide them. In a world torn apart by extremes, Rumi’s message of love of God can be a meeting-point.

“Rumi invites us to become whole,” says Husain. “But to become whole, we would first have to accept that we are incomplete.”

Published in Dawn, EOS, September 17th, 2017

https://www.dawn.com/news/1358182

Visiting cemeteries: The living dead

By Farahnaz Zahidi / Photo: Farahnaz Zahidi / Creative: Sanobar Ahmed
Published: May 11, 2014
http://tribune.com.pk/story/705384/visiting-cemeteries-the-living-dead/

montparnasse
The Jewish section of the Montparnasse Cemetery, Paris. PHOTO: FARAHNAZ ZAHIDI

Let’s talk of graves, of worms, and epitaphs;
Make dust our paper and with rainy eyes
Write sorrow on the bosom of the earth,
Let’s choose executors and talk of wills
—William Shakespeare, Richard II

Why do some of us want to go through a whole lot of trouble to visit the remains of people who died long ago? There is this thing about cemeteries. Visiting them is an understated joy, and a neglected part of most touristic and sight-seeing escapades. But once you acquire a taste for listening to the sounds of silence, few wanderings are as rewarding.

Most people who visit cemeteries have one of two common-most responses: they either feel what they call “a sense of peace” or a feeling of morbidity, darkness, depression and melancholy.

grave
The gravestones in the Jewish part of Montparnasse Cemetery emphasise the family name. PHOTO: FARAHNAZ ZAHIDI

But for serious cemetery enthusiasts, it is not much of either. Cemeteries are places resplendent with art, history, symbolism, culture and most importantly spirituality. You can know more about a people by visiting a cemetery then you ever will by going shopping in the same area.

As I became a tombstone tourist as they call it, I learnt terms I never knew earlier. I found out that tomb is a commonly used word, but mausoleum is a building specifically constructed for people considered important. The empty tombs are cenotaphs. A coffin is the (usually) wooden case for keeping a dead body and sarcophagus is a similar case made of stone. A chest or case box or well with remains of the human skeleton is an ossuary. Catacombs are interesting underground cemeteries, interconnected by tunnels. And then there is the necropolis, a place where large numbers have been buried and traces from olden burials still remain.

chowkhandi
The Chowkandi Tombs are a hidden necropolis located 30 kilometres outside of Karachi. PHOTO: FARAHNAZ ZAHIDI

Technology has made life easier for gravers as well as geneaology enthusiasts. Websites like ‘Find A Grave’ and other mapping sites tell us exactly what we are looking for. Yet, you don’t always get personalised experiences on the internet. For that, one must chat with people who share similar interests.

Whenever you visit such a site, observe how visitors quietly exchange glances, trying to assess how the others are reacting. We feel pressured to react in expected ways. But if we let go of that strain and breathe in the experience, cemeteries have a lot to offer.

Sites like the underrated Chowkandi Tombs near Karachi and Makli near Thatta are often neglected. I have been lucky enough to discover the wonders of Pakistan’s culture by delving into them. It is almost like going through an album of photographs of a people or reading biographies. Just look out for the nuances.

The people buried there are inarguably dead, yet their lives are being celebrated. In that sense, cemeteries are very futuristic places. They are an extension of life as it slides into another realm, no matter what belief system you belong to. But few, apart from connoisseurs with a taste for the macabre, have an appreciation of how humans honour their dead. There is an unsaid paranoia when it comes to homes of the deceased. It’s almost as if talking about it will kill us before time. Like a bad omen. We miss out, thus, on so much beauty and a deep study of culture.
And so when you visit a cemetery, tread a little lightly, move a little cautiously. You may be stepping on an entire lifetime if memories, wrapped up and resting underneath your feet.

Each cemetery has its own story to tell and is uniquely beautiful. Out of the ones I visited other than within Pakistan, these three impacted me the most.

Montparnasse cemetery, Paris
The temperature is below freezing. It is my last day in Paris. I am taking a city walk. In my broken French I ask passersby about any nearby cimetière, trying to roll the “r” correctly, making it as guttural as I could.
I’m led to the Montparnasse Cemetery.

For months, I had been planning to visit cemeteries in Paris.
“Hey Florent. I will be traveling to Paris soon. Can you tell me about cemeteries I must visit? I am willing to travel anywhere for that,” I wrote a few months back to a French friend who was guiding me about how to make the most of a visit to Paris.
Paris — of the Eiffel and the Moulin Rouge and the River Seine and the Louvre. I was travelling to a dream destination. Yet, what I wanted to visit most were the repositories of the best of France, now dead, yet alive.

Florent Condé told me about clandestine tours of the Catacombs through hidden entrances into tunnels that through the city. “That’s technically forbidden. I haven’t had the chance yet to do that,” he wrote back, adding tempting names and details of Parisian cemeteries. The fellow taphophile had given me just the info I needed.
Standing in front of the Montparnasse Cemetery, a dream had come true. Shaded by around 1,200 trees such as lime trees, conifers, maple and ash, it is one of the most peaceful parts of Paris. Home to 35,000 plus tombs, some 300,000 people have visited it since it opened its gates in 1824.

Montparnasse is often called the Cemetery of the Intelligentsia and there is a certain energy and vibrance in the quiet there. Understandable, with residents like Jean-Paul Sartre, Samuel Beckett, Sosan Sontag, and a cenotaph of Charles Baudelaire. The Jewish side of the cemetery was a new and impactful experience, with families and clans making up an important part of the design. I brushed the cobwebs off medals of World War I veterans carved onto graves, and saw Brancusi’s statue called ‘El Beso’ or The Kiss, sitting on top of the tomb of Tania Rachevskaia, a Russian anarchist who had committed suicide for love.

Montjuïc Cemetery , Barcelona

It was honestly something I was not prepared for and had not researched in advance. On the drive from the airport to the far-end Poblenou district of Barcelona, there it was, sprawling on the hills, unlike any cemetery I have ever seen. Mediterranean graveyards are different as the dead can be buried in walls many storeys high. The cemetery is like a miniature city, lined by cypress trees and plants and full of architectural and artistic delights.

Opened in 1883, this cemetery has more than one million burials and cremation ashes in 150,000 mausolea, plots and niches.

There are fascinating stories going around about how the cemetery was originally divided into four sections — one each for Catholics, Protestants, non-Christians, and the fourth for aborted feotuses.
Also known as Cementiri del Sud-oest, it is picturesque, with a view of the sea from top of the rocky hills. Interesting residents include Joan Gamper, founder of FC Barcelona, and surrealist maestro Joan Miró, who is buried in a plain, small family vault. Along with renowned personalities, 4,000 victims of the Civil War are also buried here.
montjuic view

The Pyramids, Cairo

For the longest time, I did not know that the pyramids were a kind of graveyard. I visited them when young, but the images and even smell and feel have not left me. Inside, there are passages that are narrow, damp and almost claustrophobic, with warnings for people with lung and heart diseases.

But they lead to huge halls that have the feel of being a nexus between life and after-life which is what the ancient Egyptians believed in. They said goodbye to the deceased making sure he or she had enough provisions to lead them through. The mummies, decorated multi-layered coffins, representational art-like individual portraits of the deceased, canopic jars with the organs, aesthetic objects like jewellery and clothes and even incense was made available. The tombs were constructed as places that would be conducive to the re-birth.

pyramids
The head of the Sphinx with the pyramid of Menkaure in the background. PHOTO: WIKIMEDIA COMMONS

In a weird way, thus, the pyramids symbolise continuity and hope. They tell you that this is not it. From the outside, the grandeur is legend. Even the chipped off nose of the majestic Sphinx does not make it less royal.

all pyramids
There are three main Pyramids in Giza, which draw attention to the Giza necropolis, reserved for the royalty and elite, as long ago as the end of third millennium BCE. Three pharaohs rested here, turn by turn — Khufu, Khafre and Menkaure. In adjacent smaller pyramids and cemetery were the Queens and members of royalty. The pyramid of Khufu is the largest, and is one of the last remaining of the seven wonders of the ancient world.
But where are the men who built the pyramids buried? I may never have an answer to that.

Farahnaz Zahidi heads the Features desk at The Express Tribune.
She tweets @FarahnazZahidi
Published in The Express Tribune, Sunday Magazine, May 11th, 2014.

Ramazan diaries – From Makkah and Medinah

By Farahnaz Zahidi Published: July 31, 2013

The millions are just tiny specks of people trying to get closer to the Ka’aba. PHOTO: REUTERS

Sitting in a lounge for the privileged, waiting to board a flight to Dubai and then another from there to Jeddah, I find myself texting away. I have a million things on my mind. I have a life.

Four hours later…

I’m at the Dubai airport, about to board a flight to Jeddah; the only words on my lips are:

Labbaik Allahumma Labbaik

(I am here, my Allah (SWT). I am present.)

Prior to my flight, concerned friends had been warning me about a viral infection that is widespread in Makkah, and the unbelievable rush in Ramazan especially due to the underway expansion of the Masjid-ul-Haram.

“You should not have gone in Ramazan.”

I am going anyway. It is my ‘calling’. I have been called, right? He who has called me will manage.

A seven-day detox:

Paradigm shift within hours, change of heart within minutes, priorities falling into place within seconds – this is precisely what a visit to Makkah and Madina does to you.

Here I am, one amongst millions. It’s suddenly clear. I may be important in my comfort zone but here, I am just one of them. And the millions, from a bird’s eye view, are just tiny specks of black and white, men in white and women mostly in black, all scurrying to get closer to the Ka’aba.

When the props fall off and masks wear off, I have nothing to hide behind. I am as real as it gets. In hordes of people and thousands of heads, I am only searching for my family. Perspective becomes clearer.

I go around in a pair of chappals (slippers) that I wouldn’t even dare to wear at a grocery market in Karachi. I have no access to the internet, which means I have no way of succumbing to moments of vain indulgences where I tweet about my achievements. Most of my suitcase remains packed as is. I learn to survive on basics.

My DSLR camera rests in the hotel room. I’m lapping up images through the lens of my eyes and heart. And these images are not Photoshopped, nor Lighthoused. This is hardcore spirituality – a reconnection of souls with their Creator.

Each step of this ‘ritual’ as we like to call it has been carefully designed to help us grow and cleanse to the fullest.

Yet, they say ‘I believe in spiritual but not rituals’? Nothing makes the spirit evolve and soar like these rituals. They were designed by the One who created the souls, right?

I can feel my system being flushed out of anger, resentment, pride and negativity, if any. I am also not taking as many medicines as I usually do, apart from the occasional Panadol. Food is simpler. Walks are more. Squatting in the courtyard of the Grand Mosque with my family and extended family, life is beautiful – simpler. I am happy.

The funeral prayer:

A unique act of worship that women don’t get the opportunity to do usually is praying the namaz-e-janaza (funeral prayer). In Makkah and Madina, after each namaz, it would be called out:

“As-salaat ‘ala al-amwaat-i yarhamukumAllah”

(Prayer for that the dead [so that] Allah’s (SWT) mercy be upon you).

I selfishly join in. When my time comes, I want that many prayers for me.

Makkah the powerful; Medinah the soothing:

Makkah is intense, and comes on strong. Its landscape is dry; its people are strong and goodhearted but tough. How did my beloved Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) manage to plant faith and compassion in the hearts of Makkah’s people? I wonder. But it was this very toughness that enabled the people of Makkah to give the sacrifices they did and endure oppression and migration.

Medinah will always have oasis in sight. Promising date palms give away the hospitality of the people of this city from a distance. The land of the Ansaar (the helpers). Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) chose to be here till his last day.

En route to Madina, the farms and farms of camels are a lovely sight – camels of all colours – fawn, brown, dark brown, white. Much like the diversity of people we meet in Makkah and Madina, they are all different, yet the same.

The clock tower makes me sad:

I am here after eight years. Taken aback by the sight of the humongous high rise structure in front of the first gate to the Ka’aba, this is my first meeting with the Makkah clock tower and the adjoining towering hotels. It looms higher than any of the minarets of the Haram. With millions of pilgrims visiting all year round, it is understandable that Makkah will need high-rise hotels. But so high and jarringly juxtaposed opposite the Haram? I cringe inside.

Without judging those who can afford and stay in these elite hotels just next to the Haram, the “towers” make me sad on another level too. Now, only the rich can afford to live right next to Haram. The poorer you are the farther you stay, the tougher it is for you to commute to the Masjid.

I prefer the earlier more eclectic mix of hotels all around the mosque, allowing both rich and poor to live close to it for the days they are there.

Photo: Farahnaz Zahidi

Afternoon siestas:

Makkah’s relentless summer heat is at its peak in the afternoon. If you’re fasting, the body’s reservoir of energy that we get from food is depleting, and a sluggish wave of drowsiness engulfs you. You lie down on the carpets or on the marble floor of the Haram, depending on where you get place, and doze off with your eyes fixed on the Ka’aba. Bliss!

The world’s best “all-you-can-eat”:

Iftar in both the holy mosques of Makkah and Madina is a unique and beautiful experience. I am at the receiving end of charity. It is something I will probably never get to experience in my homeland. Around Asar namaz, one sees people competing with each other and talking to the organisers to allow them to distribute Iftar in a certain part of the mosque.

At Maghrib time beautiful children appear from nowhere, distributing a variety of dates, laban (butter milk), zamzam water, and traditional Arabic kahwa, delicately scented and instantly refreshing.

Boxes of traditional Arabic saffron-treated rice and roasted whole chicken, with dates and small packs of juice are the popular menu in Masjid-e-Nabawi. The hospitality of the people of Medinah is not overrated. No one goes hungry.

Photo: Farahnaz Zahidi

That moment

We all have our special moments. This time, I had my moment at Masjid-e-Nabawi on our last evening in Medinah. I had gone to pray at the Riazul Jannah (the place the Prophet (pbuh) called one of the gardens of paradise) and to offer Salam to my beloved Prophet (pbuh). It hit me where I was in that moment…and that I was going back home soon.

But there is so much I am taking back with me. When life pulls me down, I know now, more than ever, Who is there by my side, watching out for me – none other than my Allah, my Creator.

Published at : http://blogs.tribune.com.pk/story/18359/ramazan-in-makkah-reconnecting-with-my-merciful-creator/

Barcelona: Where Gaudi meets Gujranwala

Published: April 14, 2013

Farahnaz Zahidi discovers that you can order a cup of tea here in Punjabi and still have a very Spanish experience.

I have arrived in Barcelona: el corazón del Mediterráneo. Spain, the land with Andalusia in the south, of AlHambra where La Ghalib ilAllah (there is no conqueror but Allah) remains inscribed at every turn of the head, centuries after the worldly conquerors have left. The dark lure of Gaudi beckons, truck art pales in comparison. It will be 10 days of hearing nothing but the seductive lisp of the Catalan ‘c’ and its rolling honeyed vowels. I am soaking it all up, taking my first walk down the tree-lined Rambla del Poblenou…

“Baji jee, Pakistan toun aaye o tussi? Koi chaa shaa?”   

The all-too familiar invitation came from a 23-year-old Salman aka Sunny. He stood outside his dhaaba-sized restaurant whose signboard was in Spanish but also carried the telltale ‘halal’ stamp in Arabic. In a corner a man stood in front of a gambling slot machine. A couple by the window pored over the menu while sipping their glasses of house wine. People queued up for the €5 meals of falafel, samosa and doner kebab takeaways.

And so, I accepted Sunny’s offer for tea and with it an invitation to enter the world of Pakcelona as the Pakistanis of Barcelona fondly refer to it.

06

According to estimates, there are at least 35,000 Pakistanis in this city, one of the highest numbers in any European city, barring those in the UK. It is a proletarian existence. They own or work in butcher shops, convenience stores, the small pay phone locutorios, Internet cafes and restaurants. Some have taken up the latest business of selling beer from street stalls. Pakistani labourers sweat on Spanish construction sites. A majority of them hail from Punjab, mostly Gujranwala and Gujrat, Jhelum.

Understandably, Punjabi is the most common first language spoken among them. That is the language Sunny speaks, although Spanish is his first. “Kaisee gal karday o tusee?” he says as he dismisses my offer to pay for the many postprandial coffees at his establishment. Pakistan toun mehman aaye o, coffee de paisey chaddo!” And in the same breath he will turn to a customer who has walked through the door: “Hola. ¿Cómo estás? ¿Qué te gustaría?” Hey there, how are you? What do you fancy having to eat?

Sunny came to Barcelona when he was barely five years old. His first crush, his first day at school, his first scraped knee, all happened on its streets. “I visit Pakistan every couple of years to meet my daadi,” he explains. “But I crave coming back when I am [there]. Barcelona set hai jee.” A football match flickers across the huge TV in a corner. Sunny is, naturally, cheering for Barça.

03

Life is good and is getting better. Sunny’s father owns a chain of restaurants today. But when he arrived 18 years ago he was empty handed. The initial sleep-deprived years were an obstacle course of odd jobs, dodging immigration laws and the law enforcers. He couldn’t go back home to see the family till he got the work permit. “Abbaji has worked hard at making us comfortable,” admits Sunny.

Pakistanis began settling in Spain, mainly in Barcelona, in the 1970s, but a greater influx was seen after 2000. In a post 9/11 world, unskilled labour found it harder to immigrate to the US. Spain, however, had no such qualms. Relaxed immigration laws strengthened the gravitational pull.

04

“The laws are not so strict,” says Ikram, 27, who came here on a tourist visa two years ago, and never went back. “Usually within three years or so one can get a work permit.” And then he grins. “Even if they put us behind bars, it will be for a few days and then we are out.” He has found a job serving food in a more upscale restaurant right across the Sagrada Família church, Antoni Gaudí’s unfinished masterpiece.

On the surface, Barcelona may seem like an unusual choice for a Pakistani from Jhelum or say Gujrat. But 35-year-old Sajid has an explanation that is simple, elegant and evidence of Barcelona’s multicultural tolerance: “Moderate weather. Greater acceptability among the friendly locals… Barcelona is the best! Nowhere [else] have I been so comfortable.” He should know after having looked for jobs in Italy and other European countries. Today he works as a helper at Sunny’s restaurant and even sleeps there at night, a discomfort he gladly suffers as he dreams of a bigger future that is just within his reach. He earns about 600 euros a month. “Convert that into rupees,” he challenges with pride. It comes to about Rs90,000 which is roughly what an entry-level MBA is paid in a bank in Karachi.

05

Half of the money is sent back to Pakistan and now that Sajid has acquired a Cuenta Ajena or work permit there are plans to bring his wife and children over as soon as he can save up for a small home. “Ab Pakistan mein kya rakha hai jee?” What is left in Pakistan?

Thus, for many workers who would never earn as much back home, Pakistan may not seem as attractive in the long run now. But this does not always mean that moving to other countries comes without its challenges. While there may not be much anti-Muslim or anti-Pakistan bias in Barcelona, sometimes events can alter the landscape. For example, the immigrants went through a bit of a rough spot in 2008 with arrests of 12 Pakistanis on suspicion of planning terrorist attacks on the Barcelona subway station. It is perhaps testament to the immigrant’s resilience that while the Pakistani community was a bit frazzled temporarily, it sprung back to claim its space eventually.

While I saw many Pakistani men working in Barcelona, Pakistani women were not a visible part of Spain’s workforce. There were none in areas that make Barcelona what it is — its centres of art and history. I looked around for them as I stepped out of the spectacular Casa Llotja de Mar, a 14th century Gothic building which used to be the city’s stock exchange till the 20th century. I didn’t see any at the 16th century fort Castell de Montjuïc, a popular spot for families on weekends. The few I did catch were at the Maremagnum shopping mall, moving around only in close groups, doing exactly what I was doing there – searching for good deals.

Pakcelona may prosper as migrant communities can and do financially. Indeed some traditional values adjust to accommodate economics which Sunny sheepishly calls “compromise”. For example, he sells liquor and bacon along with the halal food. But his 18-year-old sister is not allowed to leave the house unchaperoned. “We may have moved to Barcelona,” he says, “But we have not forgotten our religious and traditional values.” It appears that the community has unspoken rules that limit complete assimilation. These rules apply much more strictly to the womenfolk. But when it comes to marriage, men have to adhere to certain rules too. While Sunny may date local senoritas, he is quite sure he will marry a Pakistani girl. “Shaadi mazaaq naheen hai jee,” he says. Marriage isn’t a joke. “It should be a girl who can adjust with my family. A goree couldn’t.”

Names have been changed on request of those interviewed.

Published in The Express Tribune, Sunday Magazine, April 14th, 2013.

 http://tribune.com.pk/story/533649/travelogue-where-gaudi-meets-gujranwala/

Indonesia – The smiling Face of Islam

Indonesia – The smiling Face of Islam

A photo feature published in dawn.com
Indonesia – the archipelago with more than 17000 islands, 33 provinces, over 238 million people (it is the world’s fourth most populous nation) and some 300 ethnic groups. It has the world’s largest Muslim population among all countries of the world. But that is not what amazing about Indonesia. What is most amazing is that in spite of so much diversity, the people of this country have managed to become a model of the maxim “unity in diversity”. So smoothly and peacefully have they learnt to co-exist that it one is filled with both envy and awe. Indonesia is modern, developed and in synch with the modern world, yet it has not let go of it’s distinct cultural roots. As for how they practice Islam, it is interesting to note that they are completely unapologetic about practicing their faith, proudly. Yet, in the true spirit of Islam, they represent a model of good ethics, moral and social values, and they do all of this smilingly. Here are a few glimpses of Indonesia, taken whilst shuttling between Jakarta, Surabaya and the breath-taking Bali.

 Farahnaz Zahidi Moazzam is a freelance writer, activist and blogger who blogs at https://chaaidaani.wordpress.com/ and shares her photography at  http://www.flickr.com/photos/farahnaz_zahidi/ 

Breathe in Bali

Breathe in Bali
An island where your inner
pace slows down and peace trickles in
By Farahnaz Zahidi Moazzam

From the moment I found out that I would be travelling to Indonesia for a journalism fellowship, I knew that work and pleasure had to be combined. Anticipation of a visit to Bali Dwipa Jaya (‘Glorious Bali Island’ in Kawi language) started to build up. I googled it. I asked friends who had been to Bali. I saw images of spectacular beaches and intricate art — things that define Bali.

But nothing had prepared me for the experience Bali was.

Pleasure is quite an insipid word to describe Bali, really.

The flight from Jakarta to Bali, close to two hours in duration, reminded me of the flight from Islamabad to Skardu because of the breathtaking scenic views one could see from the window. But here, it was not glaciers. It was volcanoes. Beautiful, high, majestic. Gaping craters with very obvious molten matter inside. Mostly quiet but not inactive. A silent, mysterious, potential danger, yet beautiful.

At Denpasar International Airport, the first whiff of Bali touches you as you see a sparkling ocean on both sides of the runway as you touch down. You step out of the flight without a fancy airconditioned jet bridge. This is not the Jakarta Airport — big, high-tech, contemporary and modern. Bali’s airport is a bit rustic. A bit run-down in a charming way. More character and less material investment. It sets the pace for Bali.

Everyone you will bump into has left behind a lot of baggage — the fast-pace of the city, some troubles and woes, the pressures of society and peers, the stress of staying on top of the game, some unfinished business, a rattled relationship. You and everyone else has left behind all of that and is in Bali for some rejuvenation, some detox, some refreshment, a little escape that gives you enough energy to go back and say to life: “In your face, because I’ve just been to Bali”.

One of Indonesia’s 33 provinces, Bali is one of the country’s 6000 inhabited islands. Yet, none of the archipelago’s 17500 (estimated) islands has gained the romantic popularity Bali has. One of the world’s top-most tourist destinations, it attracts not hundreds or thousands but millions of foreign tourists each year. Many things make it worthy of this.

Scenic, green, full of beaches and volcanoes and rice-terracing areas and temples. And people with very distinct unique faces. A photography buff, Bali had me clicking non-stop.

Amiable, friendly locals are a huge reason, who are very used to tourists and therefore they are social, not camera-shy and willing to become your guides. It is besides the point that they have also learnt to charge for their friendliness. Caretakers in a temple I visited next to Ubud charmed us without either party understanding each other’s language. They garlanded us, smiled their ways into our hearts, but also at the end made it clear that in life, everything has a price! You will find a certain street-smart third-world sensibility in Bali. But somehow, unless you get conned, it is not very offensive due to the general feel-good nature of the island.

Perhaps the biggest magnet Bali has is its heavenly beaches and wicked surf. You know that when you see the conveyor belts where you claim your baggage full of surfboards avid surfers have carried back from home. Seeing those waves in action is believing! Reports of ten foot plus swells attract surfers. Combine that with pristine beaches, coral reefs and every water sport in the world. Bali is unomissible. While most wave hunters go to the Kuta beach area to witness the surfs and indulge in water sports, Kuta’s crowded popularity may be a slight put off. Thus, me and my daughter ended up in a pristine, quiet part of Bali called Serangan to have some water fun. It was not just the parasailing, jet skiing and other sports that we enjoyed in Serangan.

Also known as the Turtle Area, Serangan has a pretty beach. But to me, the moments I sat there on the beach staring quietly at Mount Agung in the distance was one of the most powerful moments. Mount Agung, the stratovolcano, is the highest point on the island. It last erupted in 1963 and is still active.

The Balinese market Bali well, and so an unexplainable thrill accompanies the lunches or dinners you can have close to volcanoes.

Talking of rush versus serenity, crowd versus relative solitude and a slower pace versus a faster one, I preferred the latter of all of the above three, and chose a quieter area on the recommendation of some of my Indonesian friends. Sanur was my pick, which I never regretted. A mature beach town, it is a slightly upscale resort area, lined with darling little villas besides hotels and resorts. Besides a great beach, spas, cycling and motor biking rentals, it was the nightlife of Sanur that was a pleasant surprise. Not discotheques but in European essence a lot of Continental eateries and cafes, with live music in almost all of them. Shops line Sanur, full of local handicrafts like batik, woodwork, sculptures, metalwork and souvenirs that are must-haves like my daughter’s straw hat or my own “I Love Bali” tee and flip-flops.

But for me, the pièce de résistance was Ubud. My friend from Cambodia had coaxed me into promising to myself that I would travel to Ubud. “You will thank me, Farahnaz,” she had said. As she reads this, I want her to know I cannot thank her enough. While it was already on my list thanks to the book “Eat, Pray, Love” (don’t care much for the movie) as the “Love” part of the book is based in Ubud, it surpassed expectations. Situated at the north of Denpasar, this is the island’s cultural centre where you can see the strongest artistic influence of the 92.9 per cent Balinese Hindu population of Bali.

The drive to Ubud should be relished bit by bit, because on way you will find real Bali!

Silver and gold jewellery smiths and factories, small and big batik making concerns, art galleries by the hundreds, all on way. But it is the handmade stone-carvings on houses and temples that take your breath away. Labours of painstaking love, it seems that for hours you walk or drive through an art museum, with every local Balinese a curator who knows not just the art but the history behind each piece.

Once you reach Ubud, the abundance of European-style cafes remind you of those on the pebbled streets of Paris, for rarely will you find so many of them in one place. Shops of the most attractive rustic and indigenous pieces of art and craft lure you. It is in Ubud that I understood why they call Bali the “Island of Love”. With romance in the air, sit somewhere and sip the world’s most expensive “Kopi Luwak” or Civet Coffee (the beans of which are processed, yes, in the digestive tract of the civet!) and breathe in Bali.

 http://jang.com.pk/thenews/jul2012-weekly/nos-08-07-2012/foo.htm#1

A Morning in Bali

http://www.flickr.com/photos/farahnaz_zahidi/sets/72157630205120868/

It is a clear, bright and sunny morning in Bali. The sky is clearer than I have seen in ages….a crisp blue. I am sitting in the balcony of a resort in Sanur Beach area in Bali. A friendly little bird is chirping away on the palm tree stem….a tree whose leaves touch the railing of my balcony. I am inspired to write, but time is short. Time is always short. Especially in Bali.

The sand under the feet is grainy. The water is inviting.

Me and my daughter have accepted the invitation. We are tanned to a nice honey brown by the time we come out. We forgot the sunblock and forgot that we are Asians and do not need the tan! But the golden ripples, a pristine quiet beach….Worth it.

People are perpetually in a holiday mood…..people from all over the world. It is interesting when THEY look at me interestedly. My looks are unique here I guess. I see no Pakistanis here. They think I am either Arab or Indian. I enjoy observing them. Whether it is the Australian couple on the pool side….the man has thick well-built arms laden with tattoos and the woman is a pretty blond. Or whether its that nimble petite Balinese girl in the balcony opposite me, from house keeping.
Art oozes out from the pores of Bali. Every wall. Every wall hang. Intricate, complicated, magnificent art, sculpted to perfection.
The weather is just about….perfect . The breeze surprises every time. Very few things in life surprise you every time. And Bali breeze does that.
Days can include anything from marveling at nature, having quiet Zen moments on the beach, water sports, cycling around the small but resplendent Sanur village, interacting with the locals, experimenting with truly exotic cuisine or getting a reflexology massage.
But the best part is that in Bali, time slows down. I am enjoying meeting myself again.

Senegal – A wonderful Slice of Africa

See Senegal through these photographs before you read this travel blog:

Of eleven splendid suns
The crashing waves, the birds swimming in the air, humans scurrying around on their daily routines, everybody in their orbits. Tranquil. That’s Senegal
By Farahnaz Zahidi Moazzam

Pakistan has no embassy of Senegal. The visa processing takes months, if at all one gets it, that is. It’s an 11-hour flight from Dubai, that’s how far it is. And I must, must go there for a really important conference. Only, till the last day, I don’t know whether I will get the visa or not. Net search has told me that Senegal is sunny, beachy and hardcore Africa.

On the day I have to fly out, November 25, 2011, I reach Karachi airport with a fuzzy mind owing to the lack of sleep and simply too much going on in life. After a 3-hour layover at Dubai airport, a delightful surprise is in store —I have been upgraded to business class. I see that as a sign that the upcoming trip will be joyous. My seat is sandwiched between two nice gentlemen, one a Senegalese who is the same age as me but respectfully calls me “mama” just like our shopkeepers say baji or aunty. This is my first taste of friendly, amiable Senegalese people.

Senegal is 94 per cent Muslim. This is apparent when I see the tiny Dakar airport, antiquated, over-crowded with people returning home after Haj on packed flights. I hardly spot any computers. Everything is done manually. The visa-on-arrival and the long-awaited arrival of baggage takes hours! Finally out, I have my first chit-chat with the shuttle driver as we drive towards the hotel.

Pretty quaint little buildings, French architectural influences, a winding drive along an upscale road alongside the beach, and I reach the hotel. Ngor is the area, pretty, clean, with very little traffic. The same whiff of moisture-laden air that is typical of beach towns, but thankfully lacking the pollution of Karachi. I am in Dakar, the capital city of Senegal.

I get a room with a view, literally. Most of the hotels in Dakar are situated along the sea. Beautiful, clean beaches with abundant sea shells strewn along, not just in white but in dark ebony colour too.

Dakar is relaxed, as are the people. I can feel my inner pace slow down, a pleasant change after Karachi. The crashing waves, the birds swimming in the air, the breeze ruffling the leaves, humans scurrying around on their daily routines, everybody in their orbits. Tranquil. That’s Senegal.

One of the things you notice instantaneously in Senegal is the size of living beings (yes, I choose my words carefully here). The people are really tall. The birds are really big. Even the insects are bigger than the ones I see at home. And the birds are a treat for bird-watchers. Particularly the Senegal parrot is a sight to behold.

If anyone plans to go to Senegal, it is time they brush up their French, because English is rarely understood or spoken in this purely Francophone part of West Africa. By the end of my 11 days in Senegal, basic French started to make sense to me again, especially when spoken in an African accent. Influences of French remain on every aspect of culture, and continental cuisine is readily available, though local Senegalese food is known for its aromatic delicious flavour. Availability of halaal meat made life easier for me. Baobab is Africa’s popular fruit, and its milky juice is a refreshing welcome drink often served in Senegal. A popular main course specialty is Yassa chicken, which is grilled chicken served with sour spicy onion curry, and either steamed rice or plantains on the side. Seafood was always fresh, simply prepared and often served with assortments of cheese. Thiof fish was a personal favourite, fresh from the ocean, melting in the mouth.

Shopping in Senegal is a joy, simply because it is affordable for Pakistanis. In addition, this is a talented nation when it comes to arts and crafts which reflect their rich culture and many struggles. Street art in Senegal is breathtaking. Vendors on foot with amazing pieces of painting will come knock on your cab’s window. And you will be blown away by the vibrant colours, the finesse and the symbolism in the masterpieces these untrained artists churn out day after day. Craft pieces not to be missed include leather-bound boxes, bead and shell accessories, silver jewellery and baskets made of palm. If in Dakar, do visit the local Sandaga market. The sights, sounds and smells in this place gave me a true taste of Africa. But watch out for con artists and be ready to get followed around by persistent and annoying wannabe “guides”. Bargaining is a must. And make sure you remember the words “non, merci” as the eager sellers can literally harass you and follow you around.

A visit to Senegal is incomplete if you do not visit Goree Island. Reaching the ferry station by cab and then taking a ferry to it is easy. But me and my friend from India, both widely-travelled media persons, got conned into paying a non-existent tourism company for a trip to Goree Island, waited for hours for a bus that never arrived, laughed on our own stupidity, and ended up going to Goree on our own and having an awesome time. So when in the developing world, be a little smart smart!

Situated near Dakar, Goree Island is a quaint little tourism spot now, where old buildings including a slave house have been preserved in original form. It is a UNESCO World Heritage site. Only seeing it can do justice to its beauty. The Portuguese and Dutch architecture and the vibrantly painted small houses with bougainvillea in abundance makes Goree an eerily beautiful place to visit. It seems I was catapulted into the past.

It was a Sunday. The Muslim community of Goree had gathered that day for a congregation of sermons and they recited verses of the Quran and praises of Allah so beautifully in unison that I had a beautiful, spiritual experience, sitting under the trees at sunset. I will never forget that moment.

Built in 1776 by the Dutch, the Slave House at Goree Island is one of several sites on the island where Africans were brought to be loaded onto ships bound for the New World. The owner’s residential quarters were on the upper floor. The lower floor was reserved for the slaves who were weighed, fed and held before departing on the transatlantic journey. The Slave House with its famous “Door of No Return” has been preserved in its original state. Thousands of tourists visit the house each year, and celebrate the freedom of the human species from the clutches of slavery by re-visiting the past.

As part of my work, I had a wonderful chance to visit Thies which is the third largest city in Senegal, and two adjoining villages, as guests of “Tostan”. Tostan means “breakthrough” in the West African language of Wolof, which it certainly is. Tostan is an international non-governmental organisation with operations in over 500 communities across Africa, with a mission to empower African communities to bring about sustainable development and positive social transformation. Molly Melching, Founder of Tostan, made the visit to Senegal all the more meaningful. Her work as a human rights activist has helped almost eradicate the centuries-old custom of Female Genital Cutting (FGC) from Senegal. One of the villages we visited was Keur Siambara. Here we met Village Chief and Imam Demba Diawara, who according to Molly Melching is “a PhD in wisdom”! The one mantra Demba kept repeating that had much to be learnt, especially for activists, was: “Beautify Your Words.” Demba’s wisdom and that of other community members helped Tostan in achieving its aim. This has now led to over 6,200 communities choosing not to cut their daughters. It is entirely possible that Senegal could have ended this practice completely by 2015.

Apart from the learning experience, the hospitality and warmth of rural Senegalese people was a joy. We were welcomed among drum beats, merry dancing, and pretty girls twirling bowls made of gourd, as we were seated under a huge Neem tree. It was so unlike, yet so similar to Pakistan.

Senegal was amazing. I remember most the Belle soirées par la mer à Dakar (the beautiful evenings by the sea in Dakar), and the serenity I witnessed in that country. Eleven splendid suns, beautiful ebony complexions, serene azure waters and a wonderful slice of Africa — Senegal, you will be missed.

My Sojourn to Ethiopia – Day 7

As I sit down to write down my blog for that last, eventful day in Ethiopia, I am getting all “EMO”. Emo, short for emotional, is a term my daughter Iqra has introduced me to, and my friend and mentor Zofeen has labeled me with – an apt label, and one I quite like 🙂. Emo because of nostalgia. I miss those wonderful days. Writing this travelogue makes me re-visit all those days, one at a time.

I started writing this basically for myself, trying to experience an iota of what my favourite travelogue-writers and “earlier” bloggers experienced when they wrote memoirs – writers like the Mughal kings who each wrote a “Tuzk”, like Ghalib whose letters are forever fresh, like our own Mustansar Hussain Tarar whose travelogues have given me the inspiration to travel Pakistan from Karachi to Azad Kashmir by road. And then the women travel writers like Freya Stark and the more recent Elizabeth Gibert who stole my heart with “Eat, Pray, Love”!

I have enjoyed this journey of writing this. Many of you have accompanied me on this journey. Thank you for reading it through, from the beginning till the end, and for the encouragement you have given an amateur traveloguer.

Thanks to Women’s Edition, in a few months, I hope and pray another travel-blog will soon be written by me. Another country. Another experience. InshAllah 🙂.

17th June:

Debbie and Charlotte have warned us the day before that the last day will be back-to-back, full of lots of activities on the agenda. And the day begins with our visit to the office of Pathfinder International, an organization said to be a global leader in reproductive health.

Ethiopia: second largest country in sub-Saharan Africa with a growing population that is currently at 82 million people—more than half of whom are under the age of 25. 84% of Ethiopians live in rural areas where access to modern health care is often limited and harmful traditional practices, such as early marriage and female circumcision, are prevalent. Organizations like Pathfinder are fighting the odds with programs like the Integrated Family Health Program, HIV and AIDS care, Family and Reproductive health support, Fistula repair services, Family Planning services and many others.

So much work being done. But never enough. Work in the development sector always has a catch phrase: It’s never enough, yet you gotta do what you gotta do.

With Dr Adnew as our guide, we head St Paul’s Hospital, to visit the Cervical Cancer Prevention Unit working under Pathfinder. St Pauls is a typical general hospital. People queuing up, waiting for their turn to be seen by the messiahs. Nothing fancy. The typical smell of disinfectants. Clean, surprisingly. An old building. Flooring that has been smoothened out by the thousands of feet that have tread on it, as they entered the premises in search of healing.

Going around in labyrinth like hallways, we reach our destination….a tiny 3 room unit with the simple most equipment, and an old steel bed for patients. A very welcoming and warm-faced woman is there in a white lab coat, waiting for us. Haragewoine Garedew, Senior Nurse Professional, answers our curious and excited questions gently, as we stand around her, 15 of us cramped in a tiny room….a room that smells of disinfectants, is highly non-fancy, and yet to me seemed to be emanating some kind of symbolic light. This is the room where early detection of the earliest signs of cervical cancer of so many women has taken place, and has in turned saved their lives.

Cervical Cancer is one of those rare forms of cancer the cause of which can be contracting (refer to blog about Day 3 on this site). Early detection is key, because by the time the patient starts showing signs, it has already progressed considerably.

Pap Smears can detect it, but Pap Smears are expensive. And people in Ethiopia or Pakistan are generally not only unaware but also poor. At St Paul’s, they are using a far less expensive method to screen women for signs of cervical cancer. The method is one of direct visualization with acetic acid and has gained popularity and proven itself as an adequate alternative to PAP smears in developing countries. In visual inspection with acetic acid (VIA), 5% acetic acid is applied to the cervix with a large cotton swab and left for 30-60 seconds, after which the cervix is visually examined with the naked eye and a lamp. Pre-cancerous lesions, with a higher ratio of intracellular proteins, turn white when combined with acetic acid. Normal cervices without any precancerous lesions, do not change colour. It is low-cost, requires fewer visits to the physician and the efficacy is about 5 years. Women with pre-cancerous lesions are treated with cryotherapy. Women suspected with cervical cancer are referred for advanced care. Haragewoine and her team are performing this test on 10 women or more on an average at this unit in St Paul’s…….Potentially, saving ten lives a day!

My mind, expectedly, applies the knowledge I am gaining to my own country, my home, Pakistan. As it can be sexually transmitted, my observation and gut instinct leads me to the thought that the incidence of Cervical cancer in Pakistan is much more than we like to believe. The taboos linked with screening for STDs (sexually transmitted diseases) and the lack of awareness even among educated, urban women that a simple Pap Smear test can be a life saver….yes, Pakistan needs more awareness on this issue, like most developing countries.

On return from St Paul’s, we join a group of Ethiopian female journalists for a meeting and a lunch. They have what I sense in all African female journalists I have met – an inner strength and an inherent defiance that comes from having fought many battles.

Our last session together is interesting. We talk excitedly about the upcoming session in the Fall season. Suggestions are taken about which countries would be value-adding experience, and some of these are short-listed. Debbie and Charlotte gently remind us that we have to be “intrepid women” to be able to enjoy Women’s Edition and all it has to offer. We also discuss the work we all plan to do and issues we need to advocate through our writing or any other form of media in the months to come.

Habasha 2000. We are told that this is the name of the traditional restaurant where our farewell dinner will be held. Dressed to kill, all of us start gathering in the hotel lobby. We shriek excitedly upon seeing each other looking nice in formal clothes, and compliment each other. Kounila, Rose, Tetee and Montessori look beautiful in traditional Ethiopian clothes they have bought on their shopping sprees in Addis. We click away endlessly from our cameras, and have to be reminded that we must leave for the restaurant for the grand finale.

The restaurant is indeed a tour into traditional, cultural Ethiopia. The perfect ending. Great company. Amazing food. A cultural show that was a treat. Rich Ethiopian coffee. Laughter. Conversation. Nostalgia. Anticipation for the next conference. Hugs. Good byes. Promises to email each other the photographs, and stay in touch. And hugs and good byes again.

Back in my room, I pack frantically. There is a knock on the door. I know who it is. Shai, all pragmatic and practical on the surface, is already missing Addis, the team and me. We relish our last few cups of tea in Addis Ababa, in the chilly weather on my tenth floor balcony. Once the good bye is over, I am enjoying that last bit of time on my own in Ethiopia. Ethiopia – what a beautiful country. And how much it has taught me. Will I visit it again, ever? I wonder. I hope.

My Sojourn to Ethiopia – Day 6

16th June:

Early morning, after breakfast, we all board the bus and are ready to roll for the day. We have to go to Bioeconomy Africa, we are told. It’s about an hour’s drive and we are moving towards the outskirts of Addis.

On way, I am noticing the scenes whizzing past. A rainy day, slippery muddy roads, slums which have tiny houses with makeshift curtains of old pieces of cloth used as doors for a semblance of privacy and roofs of tin sheets. Men and women, in equal numbers, walking around busily on the streets. And children. So many children! The numbers of abandoned, orphaned and vulnerable children in Ethiopia are alarming. A ticking time-bomb. A by-product of poverty. A collateral damage of what this country has gone through and still is going through. In any catastrophe, sadly, the children are the most vulnerable group and suffer the most, may it be a bad marriage, a drought or a war.

My thoughts come to a halt with the bus. We are in a hilly suburb and the bus is entering a small compound. Happy children chirp around. The energy in any educational institute always energizes me! This is the Yeho Science and Technical Academy. The school is built as a multi-story building. Our conference session is on the 4th, may be 5th floor….I lose count while climbing. The building also serves as the office for Bioeconomy Africa. The vision of this organization is “to see peaceful, green, prosperous and eco-friendly trading African nations.”

As we sit around the conference table, Selamawit introduces herself. Impressive and amiable, she is the Executive Director here. After we are introduced to the many feats of this NGO, our focus for the day is the plight of the fuel-wood carrier women in Ethiopia.

In Addis Ababa, some 60% of the residents live below the poverty line, we are told (and I wonder, inwardly, what would be the statistics for Karachi if we take away the posh localities in which we smugly live, with feelings sometimes bordering on apathy). In Addis alone, there are some 15,000 fuel wood carrier women, ages anywhere between 10 to 60 plus. But their general life expectancy, due to the health hazards of their work, is around 37 years on an average!! That is because they develop spinal complications due to carrying 50 to 60 kg or wood every day. Their day starts at 5 am and includes a lot of trekking, to and from the forest. Often, forest border guards rape them, as they are picking wood without legal permission, and use the rape as a bribe. They may acquire HIV or other STDs. And if they carry their babies along with them in the absence of someone to babysit them, many a times animals in the forest eat the babies alive!

Saddened beyond belief at their plight, we are all a bit gloomy, till we are taken to Bioeconomy Africa’s project where they have helped better the lives of around 450 of such women. The Gurara Women’s Association. Here, we meet many of these women farming vegetables – weeding, ploughing, planting happily. 
They also have some cattle and chickens. They are now able to sustain themselves as well as their families, and are freed from the torturous routine of being a fuel-wood carrier.

With a few others of my group, I talk to Ehet Wolde Mariam, who is the Chairperson for these women, and has been a widow for 14 years. In a black and white dress, Ehet is inspiring! She shares her life’s story – her tumultuous past life as a fuel-wood carrier, her thankfulness at this new and better life and her dreams for her daughters that they may be empowered women with better lives – Ehet shares her past, present and future with us.

This meeting has made us all happier. Once back at the Bioeconomy office, an amazing feast awaits us. But before we enter, in true Ethiopian tradition, we walk over freshly cut fragrant grass that has been laid in our path to welcome us. Once in the dining hall, we are made to smell burning incense, another welcoming gesture. I love the idea! Others in my group have allergies triggered by the fumes.

The traditional coffee ceremony, as is the custom, is preceded by popcorn being passed around. The lunch is sumptuous and has many courses. We eat, talk and enjoy it thoroughly. The lunch ends with the strong, rejuvenating coffee.

Once back in the hotel, we have our session with Charlotte and Debbie, an important “critique” or feedback session in which a chosen sample from the work of each one of us is displayed in front of the entire team for positive criticism, suggestions and encouragement. I personally think it is a brilliant idea. My head is overflowing with ideas of all I want to write about, observing closely the work of my brilliant colleagues. While all year round, we do share our work on an e-group, having the writer or creator of that piece in front of you, explaining the background and willing to take feedback is a different experience – a very value-adding one.

As it is the second last day and we know the last day will be very hectic, we all exchange tiny gift tokens. It is lovely to get gifts from each other’s country – Scarves Kounila got from Cambodia, wooden necklaces Rose got from Nigeria, jewelry boxes Shai got from India, small and cute purses Rina got from Philippines, to name a few. I love the wallets Montessori got from Nepal the best. I give them all Hashmi kajal, a trademark kohl Pakistani women put in their eyes. Girls will be girls, I think to myself, enjoying how they all immediately open their kajal wrappers and start applying it in their eyes with tips from me.

We all know that this is our last chance to shop for souvenirs. Into the bus after a cup of tea we all are. I find the tit bits I need in the first shop only – a few items of silver jewelry and some wooden handicraft pieces. 
After that shop, me, Kounila and Shifa head back to the hotel in a cab. Interestingly, we feel safe in a cab at night in Addis Ababa. Ethiopia, according a latest study by TrustLaw, is not one of the 5 most dangerous countries of the world for women. Afghanistan, Congo, Pakistan, India and Somalia are.

On return, after visiting Kounila’s room for a bit, I head up to mine. That evening, the lashing torrential rain in Addis is a treat for me. I am enjoying it from the balcony, fully aware that I will not enjoy this in Karachi except the July monsoons. The feeling has begin to gnaw at me inside that this amazing week is about to come to an end.