travel writing

  • My conversion to the joy of the beach holiday: so this is what relaxing is all about

    This is my weekly newspaper column published in The National today. It’s no secret that I’m just back from my travels to Singapore and Langkawi!

    Book in hand, legs outstretched, feet perched on a small stool, I’m sitting on a balcony overlooking a white sandy beach. The sea is clear, with the gentlest of waves slowly bringing the tide in. The sun is bright and golden hot, its fierce edge softened by a light tropical breeze and a glass of the freshest juice beside me.

    It was not a kind of heaven that I had ever imagined for myself.

    Squashed in between travelling for work, and immersing myself in the vibrant city-state of Singapore, a couple of days at a beach resort had been almost an afterthought, booked only hours before departing from London.

    I chose the Malaysian archipelago of Langkawi mainly because the flights fitted into my schedule. I hadn’t researched the hotel, but took second-hand advice from someone who had stayed there. It was, in short, not the kind of holiday planning that fits my usual meticulous and detailed holiday regime.

    Boarding the flight for Langkawi, I flung myself onto the airplane with a gusto that only the overworked and under-rested can muster. Asleep with exhaustion before the flight had even taken off, my eyes opened as we glided into a lush green island.

    A little later, I walked into the hotel lobby and gazed over the resting guests through the far window that framed the sea into the horizon. I was smitten.

    I’ve seen beaches and coastlines before, so this in itself was not new. I had always pitied those who wasted away their days lying still by a square of water, sleeping extravagantly while their skins burnt under the sun. I had always been puzzled as to why someone would travel far away from home, only to lie down and do nothing for several days, on one chair. In my view, holidays were to be savoured to the fullest by seeing everything, talking to everyone, visiting every sight, and enjoying every cuisine. Sleeping was dispensable. I considered going on holiday just to lie down or sit still to be a debilitating malady.

    As I swam in the infinity pool, its waters blurring into the distance and turning into the sea and then the horizon, I reflected on how my search for calmness had replaced the craving I had once felt to dispel quietude and embrace loud and vibrant travel experiences.

    No doubt age is a factor, as is the increased intensity of work and family life, in yearning for rest and pure pleasure. I have less inclination or energy to be constantly rushing from tourist trail to tourist trail. I’ve escaped from a seven-day-a-week schedule, to realise that there is nothing lovelier than feeling sun and breeze and hearing the rustle of trees.

    However, I still couldn’t lie down on a recliner by a pool for a whole day, just lying or sleeping. I need interesting and unusual activities in which to engage. I need to know that I did something new on my holiday. I need to create a bank of sustainable and substantial memories that will survive me into my older years.

    And I still doubt I could spend a full week in only one resort. After just two days I was itching to see what the island had to offer.

    And I know that this is the quiet period at the beach. If the resort was swarming, my holiday paradise would quickly turn nightmarish. After all, no Eden can withstand endless people with no attractions.

    Given my caveats for earthly paradise, I’m already planning my next visit.

    I declare myself a convert to the beach holiday.

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  • Travelogue to Sharjah Book Fair and the UAE

    Arriving very early in the morning at Dubai airport, I was welcomed by my hosts in the UAE – the Sharjah International Book Fair – whose representative made me feel like a film star. I was greeted by one of those cute little golf carts that whizzes round airports making an annoying beeping noise (annoying for everyone else, as it says ‘look at me – you have to walk, I’m driving!) to a little lounge where we waited for our paperwork to be done. A gentleman in pristine white dishdasha emerged from the door carrying a bouquet of flowers to welcome me to Sharjah. Julia Roberts step aside! Very curiously, each rose was stamped with the book fair brand.

    The Sharjah International Book Fair (or check out the blog here) is in its 29th year, and so is not some ‘new’ cultural bandwagon. Instead, it provides a valuable forum for the reading public, who attend in their hundreds of thousands. In fact, in the first weekend alone, 100,000 visitors were recorded, and 500,000 were estimated for the entire ten day event. Sales topped Dhs.133 million (probably in excess of £25m). In fact, book shopping is so prolific that visitors use a shopping trolley to wheel around their purchases. See this photo taken by the lovely Lisa Dempster who was also attending the fair as a speaker, from Australia.

    My invitation to speak at the Book Fair was from Sheikha Bodour, CEO and Founder of Kalimat Publishing House, President of Emirates Publishers Association, Bookworm and Mother of 3. (and daughter of the Ruler of Sharjah – but a feisty firebrand in her own right). Along with inviting me to the book fair itself (I love speaking at book fairs – wonderful places to share ideas and engage with readers), she was kind enough to make time to meet me for a coffee during the fair despite her hectic schedule. I found her extremely personable, creative and visionary. (and no, I’m not sucking up – she really was). I think her leadership in the Fair’s activities will bear great fruit. You can follow her on Twitter. She even signed a copy of her new children’s book for my niece, a colourful and quirky book on girls dressing up with the hijabs from their big sisters and mum’s collection. (and apparently to be published in French. Hurrah!)

    The highlight of the visit – and of course it’s main purpose – was to speak to the audience about Love in a Headscarf. It was an excellent opportunity to hear how the themes of love, marriage, identity and self-definition are dealt with in a part of the world which still has a strong

    Speaking at Sharjah Book Fair (copyright spirit21)

    heritage of community and tribal culture in its recent past. The audience was fabulous, sharing their intimate personal stories of love and marriage. One young Emirati woman told of how she had tried to blog about similar issues but was advised by relatives to stop writing for fear of her reputation. Another lady spoke of her worries of finding a spouse for her child given that she was not a native of the Emirates and did not have a network of contacts. One gentleman (yes! there were men there too – fabulous!) spoke of how parents must set an example in their household to train their sons in particular in how to be good husbands and fathers.  The session was moderated by the fabulous Mujeeb Rahman, aka Jaihoon. His latest book is a travelogue across India comprised entirely of the tweets he sent during the trip. On his site you’ll find some photos of the author session. You can also read some of the other responses to the Author Session here and here. (google translate them!) An extra thanks also to Rupert Bumfrey and his magnificent work for the book fair on Twitter and the Blogosphere, and for his part in my involvement in the fair.

    Whilst I was attending the Sharjah International Book Fair, I was fortunate enough to engage in some interviews. There were some fascinating conversations and I’m always intrigued by how journalists in different countries pick out different aspects of my stories.

    I think my favourite interview was with Husam Miro of Al Khaleej. It felt more like a philosophical dialogue than a media story. I only wish we had a first language in common so that I could have turned the tables and interviewed him. As I expressed my intrigue and growing fascination with the UAE he asked “have you been introduced to any intellectuals?”. It was an unexpected but very insightful question given the curiosity that I had expressed. And one that no-one before or since had thought to throw my way. (see my article here before my visit to the UAE, asking what secrets people could tell me about the country. I think he had seen it.)

    Here is the article as it was published in Al Khaleej.

    Meanwhile, the British Embassy in Dubai invited me to a round table with other arty and cultural types to talk about my experiences as a blogger, writer and erstwhile public figure. Somehow after two glasses of coke and a bowl of peanuts, they managed to persuade me to record this cheesy video about my visit to the UAE and the Sharjah Book Fair.

    The evening was a real joy as I got to speak in detail about my experiences, my book and to hear intimate and very insightful comments from the attendees. Among them was Hind Mezaina who writes the thought-provoking and inspiring Culturist Blog, as was Mishal Al Gergawi, who is an Emirati columnist who says it how it is. And Isobel Aboulhoul who co-founded the successful bookshop chain Magrudy’s and who is the festival director of the Emirates Airline Festival of Literature, which has very rapidly become a feature of the international literary calendar.  I got a verbal invitation from her to speak at the Festival (Isobel – I will be following that up!), but more than that it was fascinating to hear her own tales of travelling and living in the Gulf. She arrived in 1969 before the UAE even existed – an intriguing story indeed.

    And before anyone pipes up in the comments – yes, there is a British Embassy in Abu Dhabi (the capital of the UAE), but in some turn of fate when the Trucial States gained independence from the UK it seems a British Embassy was also retained in Dubai, rather than turning into a Consulate. Go figure. But then I like these historical but somehow pointless quirks.

    Perhaps the most challenging and inspiring of the book-related activities I engaged in were a series of visits to schools and universities which cater specifically to young Emirati women. In Abu Dhabi I visited Shohoub School and talked to the 16 year olds. The school was hidden away from the main road, but once inside there is a lively bubbly atmosphere. Although the girls wear the abaya and shela (cloak and scarf) to attend school, once inside they remove both of these since it is an all female environment. They listened wide eyed as I discussed how answering the question ‘Who am I?’ is a critical one to determining one’s place in the world and how to react to it.

    A second session was at Zayed University in Abu Dhabi, which is another one of these marvellous Gulf universities. Both in the UAE and in Qatar I have seen such places of higher education springing up, offering the best of facilities. I had been invited by the bubbly media committee and was installed in the main lecture theatre. Similar themes of identity came up, but of course the usually undiscussed subjects of love and marriage – topics which I brought to the fore of the discussion – were busily debated.

    And then, it was off to Dubai Women’s College, who managed to pack out their main lecture theatre to the brim with young women, who were interested in the same subjects again. My thanks to all the organisers. It’s a real treat to get immediate interaction with Emiratis, particularly young women who are busy setting themselves on the path to create a better future for themselves and their country.  I predict a bright future.

    As a change from talking directly to readers, I co-hosted the morning show on Dubai Eye Radio with the very charming and talented Jessica Swann. The two hour phone in show picked up on Love in a Headscarf and talked about arranged and love marriages. The texts and calls came in relentlessly and varied from the downright romantic, to the shocking and gobsmacking. Read about it here in my weekly column. (Love and it’s seeming double standards)

    I begin my article: “It’s fine for me to have a ‘love marriage’,” the male caller to the radio show said, “but I won’t accept anything other than an arranged marriage for my sister.” Do have a read, it was quite an incredible show. Alternatively, you can listen to the podcast here.

    With all that book-related activity going on, you’d be forgiven for thinking I didn’t get a chance to travel around the UAE. And you might even think there isn’t much to see in the UAE. You’d be wrong on both counts. In fact, I barely got to see much of the country at all, given how many places there are to visit.

    Ajman, UAE, copyright spirit21

    One afternoon I popped up to the postcard-pretty Ajman, and watched the gorgeous waves crashing onto the deserted white sandy beaches. ‘Idyllic’ is the only word that came to mind – and only 15 minutes from Sharjah.

    Dubai offered a host of marvels – of which many indeed were shopping-related, but many others (of which I only got a brief taste), were not. Of course there were the two amazing malls – Mall of the Emirates (which is the location of Ski Dubai!) and Dubai Mall (home of the world’s tallest building the Burj Khalifa, and also home to the remarkably delightful Fountain), both of which were epic in size. With the number of luxury and designer outlets present, I did begin to wonder why Emiratis come to London to do their shopping – everything is available right here with the benefit of a swanky setting and air-conditioning.

    I must admit to my embarrassment, my favourite mall of the ones I visited was Al-Wafi, which is constructed in the style of Ancient Egypt, with huge columns and sphinxes outside, and hieroglyphics. It stands next to the Raffles Hotel which is built in the shape of a pyramid. However, downstairs it has a remarkable ‘souq’ area, which is built in a surprisingly convincingtraditional souq style, and has the most amazing shops with absolutely stunning abayas. I will be saving my pennies up so that if I get a chance to return I can purchase one of these remarkable creations. That Emiratis think nothing of spending £500 upwards on an abaya for day to day wearing (and that they always look so glamorous) is no unending source of mystery for me.

    Best of all in Dubai was visiting old Dubai and observing the cargo port, the workers crossing the creek around which Dubai was originally built and observing the abra stations – the places where the dhows dock at regular intervals along

    Abra Station, Dubai, copyright spirit21

    the creek to form the water transport network. As a luxury I hired an abra for an hour at sunset to travel along the creek and see old Dubai in the falling light. At sunset the adhan echoed in stereo – literally – as it was called from mosques on both sides. The old area of Bastakiyya lit up with its golden lights, and men sat beneath the bridges to fish during the perfect early evening air. This was the magic of Dubai.

    By contrast were the two most epic sights of Abu Dhabi – the Emirates palace hotel which is absolutely enormous. And has this legendary gold vending machine. Not sure what to get friends and family? Running out of time to go shopping? Insert $500 and give them their own gold coin or bar.

    And on the outskirts of Abu Dhabi is the new Shaikh Zayed mosque. I wasn’t expecting to like it when I arrived, not being very partial to large mosques that are built too far away for daily usage, but the architecture and the decoration is exquisite, and quite unlike anything else I’ve seen – fair more organic and lyrical. And the mosque is staffed in a very friendly and gentle manner – unlike my usual experiences of being shouted at for being a woman trying to enter a mosque.

    Shaikh Zayed Mosque, Abu Dhabi, copyright spirit21

    My final day was another complete change – this time driving through the glorious deep grey Hajar mountains that form the spine of the eastern flank of the UAE. On the other side is a separate part of Sharjah, and also an enclave of Oman. The eastern coast is much quieter and less developed than the rest of the UAE, and so is more relaxing and has the rugged natural beauty that

    Hajar Mountains, UAE, copyright spirit21

    contrast with the frenetic metropolis of Dubai. The drive along the coast encompassed Dibba, Khor Fakkan and Kalba, all seemingly untouched in their coastal beauty.

    So many things were left unseen. Yas Island (with the F1 track, and Ferrari World), several art galleries, the burgeoning arts scene in Dubai, Jumeira Beach (observed only from afar), several older mosques, a dhow cruise along the coast, a foray into Oman, a visit to the Liwa Oasis… the list goes on.

    Despite staying for several days, I felt that I had only just caught a peek of UAE life. If anyone tells you that all there is to the UAE is shopping – don’t believe them. There’s plenty more beneath the surface.

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  • Moments in New York

    I’m in New York city at the moment, taking a few days of sightseeing before attending the next conference of Muslim Leaders of Tomorrow. I’m on Day 2, and so far I don’t feel like I’ve quite managed to tap into the rhythm of the city yet, but have been observing moments and experiences. I like the cosmopolitan nature of the city so far – nothing is quite what it seems, nothing appears to have a place, and yet everything has jostled into position and asserted its right to be here.

    Take the visit to the Museum of Modern Art, where one of my favourite exhibits was the Huggable Atomic Mushroom Cloud which made me chuckle with its explanation of “we can embrace our fears, literally”.
    This morning’s visit to the Statue of Liberty revealed this gem: at the unveiling of the statue (for liberty, obviously) the suffragettes hired a boat to keep campaigning for the vote for women, and also protested that almost all the official invitees were men. Oh, the delicious irony that liberty is represented by a woman.
    Delicious “stir-brewed” coffee in Greenwich village sitting opposte a preppy twentysomething new york woman crocheting a shawl for herself, explaining her penchant for older men.
    Mother and two sons on the Ellis Island ferry: older son punches younger son viciously and then turns to mother: “I beat him because he’s got no respect.” Mother turns to protesting younger son: “Shut the **** up”.
    Resisting the urge on the subway to experience a marriage proposal (re: Coming to America), or to save the train from oblivion and come screeching to the surface as the tracks end (re: Speed), or ensconce in the cloakroom (re: The pursuit of happyness).
    John D. Rockefeller Jr invests during the Great Depression in creating the almost wildly outrageous Rockefeller Centre (note: English spelling of ‘centre’), creating 75,000 jobs at a time of huge unemployment. A visionary to learn from today?
    Back to the Museum of Modern Art, I ask the guide for directions, which he does not communicate clearly. I ask again, and in what appears to be typical new york style, he slows down to stupid-speed and explains child-like (with physical demonstration) the difference between turning right and turning left. Laugh or cry?
    In London it is sunny and 18 degrees. In NY it is raining and 7 degrees. Irony. Or just annoying.
    Tomorrow, the Guggenheim and Central Park.

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  • Turkey’s Bridge that should bind us together

    I travelled to Turkey and found myself asking, is this country really the bridge between civilisations, and do we need a bridge anyway?

    One of the great cliches about Turkey is that it is the bridge between Europe and the Middle East, the connection between Christendom and Islam. When you stand on the bridge over the Bosphorous, the river that runs through the centre of Istanbul, you feel a profound sense of geographic importance. You are told that on one side is Europe, and on the other you are told is Asia. Cross the bridge, and these oft-repeated words make you feel as though you are stepping across cultural, historic and civilisational tectonic plates. Is this really true, or do we simply think it is the case because the mantra of “the bridge” has been repeated so many times?

    Turkey has a long and ancient history of peoples and empires. In the nearer past, it was taken by Alexander the Great in 334 BC. It fell to Rome in the 1st century BC and remained under Roman rule till Constantinople was named as the capital of the Byzantine Empire in 330 AD.

    In the 7th century, Islam began to rise to the east of Byzantium. The Arabs took Ankara in 654 and by 669 they set siege to Constantinople. It is said that one of the companions of the Prophet, Ayub Ansari, was buried in Constantinople. They brought a new language, a new civilisation and of course a new religion called Islam.

    There was considerable cultural engagement between the Muslims and the Byzantines. The Byzantine emperor Leo adopted the Islamic view that pictures of human beings should be banned. When the Arabs saw the domes on Byzantine churches they adopted them for Islamic architecture of buildings like mosques. The Arabs also translated classical Greek works of science and philosophy into Arabic.

    As the Muslim empire grew and came under the control of the Abbasids centring on Persia, the Turks – who were a nomadic people from Central Asia – had been moving westward and under the Turkish Seljuk clan they took the sultanate in Baghdad. By the 11th century they had taken Anatolia from the Byzantines. In the thirteen century they were overrun by the Mongols, but were united in 1300 by Osman who established the Ottoman dynasty.

    In 1923 the modern secular state of Turkey was founded by Ataturk. Despite the country’s centrality in the Muslim world to this point, and in spite of what is still considered in parts to be a religious people, Ataturk confined religion to the Ministry of Religious Affairs, the mosque and the private domain at home, where it has remained ever since. One of the great ironies of Turkey is that it is a Muslim country that does not permit its women to wear the hijab in an official public space such as a university or in parliament.

    More recently, Turkey applied to join the European Union, and in 2005 began accession talks. This seems to have been met by a mixed reaction both in the EU and in Turkey. With a population of over 70 million, the world’s 17th largest economy and a geographically strategic location, Turkey is asking itself is it Turkey that needs the EU or the EU that needs Turkey? With thorny phrases like “Christian club” being bandied about recklessly, Turkey along with the Muslim world is asking itself whether it is the fact that it is a Muslim country that is creating resistance in some European quarters.

    Given the fluidity of history, culture and trade across the landmass that is modern-day Turkey, it seems strange to think of it as anything but Europe. Visit Istanbul and you certainly feel like you are in a European city. It is quite different from Damascus, Jerusalem, Cairo or Baghdad. Travel west across the country and you feel a change in granularity and perspective as you near the borders of Syria and Iraq, but it is slow and gradual. The attitudes, cultures and peoples change gently rather than with the abruptness of stepping over a bridge. And that seems perfectly natural – why should a country change suddenly in the middle of its territory?

    The same question can be applied to larger areas of geography, history and culture. Why do we think that Europe and European ideals (however you choose to define them) end at a fixed geographic point? This has never been the case previously, and nor should it be. Our European world does not end abruptly with a glass wall hemming us in like the globe that enclosed Truman in The Truman show. Real life doesn’t work like that – it didn’t in the past, and it doesn’t need to in the future. Unless we say it so many times that we start ourselves to believe the corrosive propaganda.

    Ask those who repeat the mantra “the bridge” about how they see that role being carried out, and the answers are tenuous at best. That’s because the very notion of bridge implies separation and division that must be stuck together with a plaster. Our geographic and cultural connections are not like that. There is no chasm that yawns ominously between us like an infernal abyss. They are much more fluid and tightly interconnected. Our architecture, our intellectual roots, our commerce, genetics, and history all overlap and inter-relate. There is no epic gulf that requires spanning physically or metaphorically. It would be better to see Turkey as weaving together the strands of our interconnections. We don’t need to bridge the divide, what we need is to be bound together.

    This article was published in The Muslim News

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  • In the Land of the Ayatollahs, Tupac Shakur is King

    If there is one thing that Shahzad Aziz does not want us to forget, it is that people in the Middle East are human beings too. A successful professional, Aziz throws in his job to engage in a once-in-a-lifetime journey through the Middle East, chalking up visas to two thirds of the Axis of Evil on the way. The result is a personal reflection on the reality of the human voices hidden beneath the political rhetoric and media hype about the erroneously named ‘Clash of Civilisations’ and the ‘War on Terror’. He names his book with the curious title In the Land of the Ayatollahs: Tupac Shakur is King. He needs the lengthy title to capture the contradictions and complexities of a region that is caricatured as full of fist-waving mullah’s and miserable oppressed women in long black cloaks.

    The book is part travelogue, part recounting of opinions of the people he meets on his journey, and part analysis of the complexities of the confused relationships between the dominant world powers and the Middle East. It takes time for Aziz to find his rhythm, as he tries to balance the narrative of his own travel experiences, the opinions of those he meets and his deconstruction of a kaleidoscope of issues ranging from the Arab-Israeli conflict to American corporate imperialism.

    The book is a well-articulated example of the range and depth of issues that burn in the hearts of many Muslims. Aziz is fully in his stride as he outlines his own historical analysis of such topics, and his ability to convey his opinions and rationale shines. You may not agree with him, but as a voice reflecting many unheard young British Muslims, his discussions must be taken seriously. Where the book struggles is in conveying the travel experience that the reader longs for. Why does he not meet any Ayatullah’s in Iran despite the name of the book? Why does he not visit the mosque of Sayeda Zainab in Damascus, despite that being one of the great draws of the city?

    Aziz is personable and reflective, and his sheer enthusiasm and dedication to his task will carry you through the book. For Muslims, this book will give voice and clarity to the questions they are asked. For everyone, Aziz offers the chance to create a personal connection to the smells, images and sounds of a world that is full of people just like us.

    Shahzad Aziz talks to Spirit21 about his book, In the Land of the Ayatollahs.

    The travel writing market has an explosion of books. What did you think your book would add to the discussion about the Middle East?
    In the Land of the Ayatollahs is a series of honest reflections written from the viewpoint of a Muslim from the West as he travels to the Muslim heartlands in the East. The ‘journey’ from Tehran to Jerusalem is indeed physical, but also intellectual and personal. Writing in the style of a travelogue, I use my travels as a canvas to explore issues as diverse as globalization and identity, to the War on Terror and of course, the Arab-Israeli conflict.

    You also covered topics like the Salman Rushdie ‘affair’, and the need, or otherwise, for a Reformation in Islam. Why did you think this was relevant to a book about the Middle East?
    One of the central themes of the book is to try to explain why the Muslim world and the Western world can see the same event or issue so differently. In this respect the Salman Rushdie Affair provided me with a really good prism in which to explore this issue. It also allowed me to put forward to the Western reader a critique of the Satanic Verses novel.

    The issue of whether Islam needs to go through a reformation is also very emotive. To some, simply asking the question is offensive and blasphemous. To others, it is the answer to many of the problems within the Muslim world today. During my travels it was a topic that came up over and over again. I knew that if I overlooked such an important topic, then I would compromise the integrity of my project and my intentions in writing this book in the first place.

    What was the thing that most surprised you during your travels?
    Wherever we may live in our global village, the 21st century human being is a multitude of complimentary and contradictory identities – identities that we create and nurture ourselves and others which are imposed upon us, whether we like it or not. To the Arab and Israeli border police I possessed all the hallmarks of a sophisticated jihadist terrorist and therefore needed to be temporarily detained and interrogated, but to the shop sellers in the bazaars and souks of the Middle East, I was a dopey Western tourist, who was there to be fleeced.

    Spirit21’s readers are an adventurous bunch. What one place in the Middle East do you recommend to them as a must-visit?

    Esfahan in Iran is a truly beautiful city, Muslim architecture at its best. Damascus in Syria is also an amazing city. In fact just thinking about it makes me want to go there.

    How do you hope people will be inspired by your book?
    I didn’t set out to inspire people. If there is one point I wish to make, it is to undermine the, ‘them and us’ and ‘with us or against us’, discourses. Thankfully, the world is an infinitely more complex, diverse and sane place than that being advocated.

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