Friday, 24 of October of 2014

Category » travel

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.


Edgware Road, Global Icon

This is my weekly newspaper column published in Abu Dhabi for The National.

Edgware Road greets you first with its fragrance. The sweet mellow caramel scent wafts gently along the street, invisibly kissing your clothes, and claiming you long after you return home.

Its every paving stone seemingly filled with shisha smokers, Edgware Road runs between Marble Arch and the Marylebone flyover in central London. Some call it Little Beirut or Little Cairo. Once it may have needed these namesakes as reminders of home for the Arab migrants who came to London as early as the 19th century as a result of increased trade with the Ottoman Empire; or the Egyptians in the 1950s, the Lebanese during the civil war, or the Iranians and Algerians after periods of unrest. Whether it is the mix of nationalities and cultures, the British setting or some other factor, Edgware no longer needs an alter ego. It stands as a global icon.

As a Londoner, I visit Edgware Road regularly. The area is always busy, from the Odeon Cinema where Edgware Road meets the arch, past the various sonorously named Ranouches, Marouches and Fattoushes. The eateries, which are part of such large chains as Costa Coffee, Caffe Nero and McDonald’s, feel different here than elsewhere. Veiled female customers chide children. “Mohammed!” “Fatima!” They stop running around. With customers spilling onto the streets until late in the night, it seems even Middle Eastern opening hours prevail. Some of the little shwarma outlets open their doors only as evening starts to set in, as their trade is most ebullient once the young men and women swarm along the road at night, chatting, eyeing, laughing, smoking, sipping.

Outside the summer months, these pavements and restaurants are populated by young hip things, usually Muslim, coming for a halal night out. They race their cars in the frosty November air for Eid al Adha, the men sporting Indian sherwanis and interspersing Arabic street slang in their conversations, the women in colourful Indian clothes, their veils tossed fashionably over their hair. On the weekends, Muslims congregate for shai bi na’na and a shared puff of the scented smoke.

This is the time of year when Edgware bursts into activity as visitors from the Gulf migrate to the fashionable London district to escape the summer heat. As dusk falls, women in achingly glamorous abayas glide along the road, the smell of bukhoor trailing them. Young men gesticulate as they speak on their mobiles arranging the evening’s activities with friends. Fathers march forward furiously, wives and offspring in their wake.

Londoners watch as Edgware Road is taken over, and we, its main actors for most of the year, are overlooked. Are we invisible to the visitors, we wonder? Spend a little time to get to know the local culture and people, we cry.

One of the great charms of Edgware Road is the variety of cultures, languages and ethnicities that populate it. Once, it may have been Little Arabia, but today if you cast your gaze around any cafe you will observe faces, clothing and dialects from as far as China, through Somalia and Sudan, across the Middle East, to North Africa, Europe and the Americas. Edgware Road may have its roots in another world, but now it has its own persona.

I say to those visiting: take a moment to look at its history, its present and its people today. Edgware Road’s microculture hints at an intriguing global multicultural future for the Arab and Muslim worlds.


My search for the secrets of the UAEs beating heart

This is my weekly column for The National UAE.

The mere mention of the name “United Arab Emirates” is enough to conjure passionate responses. Even among those who have not visited it, their opinions tend to be polarised between venomous distaste or alluring admiration. And yet their zeal – whichever opinion they opt for – is almost entirely based on what they believe the emirate of Dubai to be.

But of course as you, my intelligent, well-versed readers will know, Dubai is only one of the seven emirates that form the United Arab Emirates.

When it comes to the UAE, I must confess that I fall into the category of Allured Admirer. So when I received an invitation to speak at the Sharjah International Book Fair, which takes place this week, it was impossible for me to refuse.

Over the years, I’ve been to Dubai for short stopovers, marvelling at the growth of the city’s buildings, its energy and its importance  and of course its traffic. Despite the proximity to Sharjah, I’ve not yet been to this neighbouring emirate. But I’m excited. And intrigued.

I imagine Sharjah to be the genteel, cultured, picturesque older sister of Dubai. Or perhaps an aunt, or grandmother with the wisdom of age and the insight of family, history and culture. I envisage her to be a woman in whose trail is the fragrance of springtime, and whose elegant abaya floats gracefully on a wave of heritage and modernity, as she walks besides her brothers Dubai and Abu Dhabi.

Of course, its reputation as a place of culture and museums away from the commercial bustle of Dubai is what gives it this branding. And this is cemented by the fact that my first visit to Sharjah will be to speak at a book fair of 28 years’ standing, and where, as an author, I will get to interact with a reading public. This, of course, is one of the greatest joys for a writer.

The two emirates that I am more familiar with – Abu Dhabi and Dubai – intrigue me. They are mysteries to be solved, and whose palpating spirit must surely be hidden beneath their shared reputations for shopping, finance and skyscrapers.

I’ve also been investigating the lesser-known siblings of Ajman, Fujairah, Ras Al Khaimah and Umm al Qaiwain. Will they reveal themselves to me, or must I find tactics to seduce them into unveiling their geographic, cultural and scenic treasures?

I’ve been scouring the information available to me, trying to find the hidden beauties and cultures of the UAE. But, surprisingly, this is extremely challenging. Whenever I ask locals what there is to do they say: “Shop! And then shop some more!” And all the internet offers are saccharine lists of the “Top 10″ places to visit, eat or shop.

Instead, I’m searching for the secrets that will help me locate the throbbing heart of these emirates.

As I write these words, staring out of the rain-flecked window of my home in the damp, cold autumn of London, it is hard to know whether these visions and wishes are of a romantic writer or of someone aching to travel away from the coming, grey cloudy gloom of Britain’s wet winter.

Perhaps the answer is simpler than that. Perhaps the UAE will live up to this reverie.

Ask me again after I’ve returned from the Sharjah International Book Fair and my travels in the UAE, and I will share these secrets with you.


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.


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


Spirit21 in 2008 – a year in review

We are nearing the end of the year, and it is the traditional time to look back and see how we fared over the last twelve months. In particular, it’s been a year since I won Best Blog and Best Female Blog at the Brass Crescent Awards. Much to my excitement I’ve been nominated again. It’s not the only recognition the blog has received. I won Best Non-Fiction Writer at the glamorous Muslim Writers Awards, and was named an ‘influential blog’ by the BBC.

Shari’ah was big news this year. The Archbishop of Canterbury made some comments about Shari’ah courts which created a national controversy, and which reverberated round the world. I tried to get underneath the dense text with a detailed analysis of his speech. I mentioned a few other words too to highlight that we need to have a conversation about real meaning, not just tabloid screaming. (I used words like Shariah, fatwa, hijab, apostasy, niqab, cousin-marriage, Imam, Muslim women. I think some readers had anxiety attacks after that.) Separately, the Lord Chief Justice re-ignited the debate started by the Archbishop, and I commented that we had a significant problem with the S-Word.

I spent a lot of time writing about Muslim women, and declared that it was Time for a Womelution. It is time for things to change, and I kept up the pace demanding “Let Muslim Women Speak” both here at Spirit21 and at the Guardian. It seems that everyone out there is happy to tell Muslim women what they should think and say, but won’t let them say it for themselves. It wasn’t the only thing that made me cross. I was riled by the book Jewel of Medina, written by an American author about Ai’shah the wife of the Prophet. It wasn’t about blasphemy or censorship that the author annoyed me, but rather at her delivery of a sex-obsessed Mills and Boon frippery, about a woman and a period of history that was crying out for a high calibre text. What a wasted opportunity. I read the book and wrote a review for the BBC. It was painful. Watch paint dry, I advised readers, it is more fascinating than the book.

I was still fascinated by hijab, niqab and modesty and wrote several articles trying to understand the different perceptions of modesty and hijab. Modesty is not a black and white issue got some interesting feedback – some people told me in person that it was the best piece I’ve ever written, others said they didn’t get it at all. I also asked, whose body is it anyway, and wondered why it is considered inflammatory by some for a women to cover her hair or face. I made reference in the former article to the rise of the muhajababe, the fabulously stylish and sometimes skimpily clad be-headscarfed Muslim woman, and posted a cartoon asking, what is the meaning of hijab, and wrote a piece considering, can you dress provocatively and be religious? It should all be based around a woman choosing her clothing for herself, but is it really a free choice, and what exactly is she choosing?

The amazing Muslim women who often are considered oppressed and forgotten inspired me to create The Magic Muslims, ordinary Muslims with Extraordinary superpowers, foremost amongst them being SuperJabi. They also included MagicMullah, HipHopHalalMan and WonderBibi. Watch out for them, there will be more in the coming year!

I was also published in the book Conversations on Religion, alongside other high profile dignitaries in the field of faith (or absence of) such as Richard Dawkins, the Chief Rabbi, AC Grayling and the Archbishop.

On the subject of conversations, I had some amazing dialogues with people in Indonesia and Turkey, where I spent a good amount of time this year. Indonesia prompted me to think of sun, smiles and spirituality, whilst in Turkey I found myself asking, what does a Muslim country look like? Hopefully I made some fans whilst out there too…

My comments about Valentine’s Day being banned generated some interest as i was asking if it was the day or love that was being prohibited; just as exciting was an interview with the charming and sparky Riazat Butt for the Guardian about hajj. They also enjoyed posting a piece exploring our modern ideas about what kind of hero, messiah or mehdi, we are looking for these days. Do we really need one?

Most controversial were two pieces related to what was happening on the political scene. I had people respond to them with enormous prickliness (or excitement, depending) even months later in person, so they’ve hit a chord! I tried to separate out the political agendas that have confused the need for social cohesion with preventing violent extremism, and seems to see Muslims only through the prism of (potential) terrorism. Later in the year the political insinuations that Muslims were not wanted in politics appeared to grow stronger, and I wrote with much passion that it seems that we Muslims were being told that “The only ‘proper’ Muslim is a non-political one.” The article proliferated wildly and despite a certain level of anonymity as a writer, i had people ‘in person’ searching me out to comment on it.

Phew! What a year! And inshallah, 2009 is going to be even more exciting – there are already some fabulous things in the works – watch this space!

(p.s. vote for Spirit21 Best Blog and Best Female blog at the Brass Crescent Awards to show your support!)


The Muslim World is Larger Than We Think

The Muslim world is made up of more than just people from the Middle East and the Subcontinent, and drawing on our wider heritage and perspectives could help us address the pressing questions of Islam and modernity

It would probably come as a surprise to most people to know that the largest ethnic group within the world’s billion or so Muslims, are not in fact, Arab. Nor are they Pakistani, or even Bangladeshi for that matter. Even the entire Muslim populations of Europe and America do not feature at the top of this list, and neither does China.

In Britain, our perceptions of Muslims – and thus of Islam – are shaped by the fact that the media shows us coverage of the Arab world as ‘Islam’ and also because the majority of Muslims in this country are of Pakistani and Bangladeshi origin. The issues and challenges that raise themselves in the Muslim community, and which spill over into the national discourse about Muslims and Islam, therefore naturally stem from our Arabic and Sub-continental-shaped spectacles. Even within the Muslim communities the problems we see and the solutions we propose continually hark back to world-views and religious paradigms based in Arab and Sub-continental perspectives on history and modernity. British Islam tastes of korma curry with a side-serving of hummus. In the global political arena too, the Sub-continent and the Middle East (read ‘Arab’) are also front and centre when it comes to ‘The Muslim World’.

With this restrictive bi-focal approach, we try to address the big questions facing Muslims today. We ask in this context, how do we get to a meaningful understanding of Islam and governance in the modern world order of nation-states? Should we choose to interact (or not) in democratic processes, and if so, what methods should we use? What should our identity and role be in this globalised world? Is there a dichotomy between nation and ummah, and if so, how do we reconcile them?

The biggest challenge out of all of these for Muslims, is to find meaningful proposals to create a framework for participation with positivity and integrity in this new world order. Muslims constantly hark back to a ‘better time’ of Islamic empires and Caliphates, which were the spiritual home of Muslims, and for the most part were their physical homes too. However, such an empire, or a universal ‘home’ state no longer exists. In many cases Muslims live as minorities within non-Muslim majority countries. There is no option – and in many cases no desire – to ‘go home’. Muslims should already feel respected and at home, and should not be treated as aliens. In the context of such a relationship, it is timely for Muslims to construct a robust place within the national community that they are part of and establish very clearly the contribution that they will make.

This desperately needed enterprise is being subverted by a small minority who wish to hijack this process of development and change. Their desire is to return to a ‘better time’, and to ‘Islamicise’. But they created these false notions through Arab-Sub-continental lenses. The neo-conservatives who have created their empty identities and standing in opposition to this so-called ‘Islamist’ political ideology also see the world in these two blinkered dimensions.

So here is the surprise. Large swathes of Muslims are asking the above-mentioned first set of positive questions about this new globalised world that we live in. The groundswell is to participate and contribute, to explore traditional notions of Islamic governance and to advance new ideas of engagement and civic participation. By no means are they getting it all right but, as Confucius says, a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.

The most significant and flourishing example of this is Indonesia. This is a country of 221 million people, of which 88% are Muslim. This makes Indonesia the world’s largest Muslim population, a fact unknown and overlooked by most people. The country stretches from Thailand to Australia, punctuated by lush rainforests and epic lively volcanoes. Its spirituality is understated but intricately and gently woven throughout the fabric of society. Mosques are plentiful (as are other places of worship), almost on every street corner, but they are softly tucked in, little oases in the hubbub of day to day life. Scattered liberally amongst the emerald green rice fields are small huts, used to protect workers from the tropical rain storms, and offer an accessible place for prayer.

The country is founded on five principles, the first of which is the ‘belief in the one and only God.’ For a country with an overwhelming Muslim majority, its political principles define it not as Islamic, but as theistic. There is concern to ensure that the huge variety of ethnicities that make up the nation, as well as its six official religions, share a sense of cohesion which is expressed in another of its founding principles: ‘Unity in diversity’. It also envisions a just and civilised humanity, social justice for the whole of Indonesia and finally, and perhaps most significantly democracy guided by the inner wisdom in the unanimity arising out of deliberations amongst representatives. It is this fusion of democracy and faith that makes the physical, spiritual and social landscape of Indonesia so fascinating.

Ten years after the overthrow of a totalitarian government, the country is racing through a reformasi, and asking piercing questions about nationhood and faith. Whilst travelling there, I was constantly surprised by the strength of feeling amongst all the people I met about driving their country forward.

How did the fact that I am both British and Muslim manifest itself, and how did I relate to my nation, I was constantly asked. Instead of simplistic shock at the existence of Muslims in the UK, the Indonesians greeted my fusion of British Islam with thoughtfulness. They reflected on what they could learn from the experience of British Muslims, to create a cohesive nation state that could respect faith, benefit from it, and use it as a force to create unity – a slippery and elusive goal for a country of its huge geography, variation and population. They wanted to learn about how minorities were treated, and apply positive experiences to their own nation.

There was no possible question of not participating in political and civic processes. Faith – whether Muslim or otherwise – was a natural part of civic life. There was no need to make a headline fuss of it. It did not dictate the political agenda. Instead, it offered fresh perspectives on dealing with social, political and economic issues. None of this is to say that Indonesia is not dealing with pockets of extremist activity like we are in the UK. Indonesia has many human rights and security issues of its own to deal with. Despite the challenges it is facing, it was refreshing to be in a Muslim majority country, amongst politically and civically active Muslims, for whom Islam was not the only item on the agenda – if in fact it was on the agenda at all. Creating a society where faith is woven into nationhood, and exists happily under its banner were of greater concern to people on the street.

I came away thinking that as British Muslims we had many things we could learn from them. Indonesia sits very firmly as part of the Muslim world, and sees itself as a key player amongst Muslim nations. It is attempting to deal with some of the questions that face both Islam and faith in general in this new millennium. And like a child learning to sit up and survey the world around it, their experience can offer Muslims fresh eyes onto our modern day challenges. Muslims speak with pride about sharing the joy and pain of a global ummah. But sometimes we forget that the ummah stretches much further not only in geography, but also much further in culture, politics and creativity than we might think.

This article was published in The Muslim News


Indonesia, the land of sun, smiles and spirituality

Here is a brief account of my recent trip to Indonesia. I’ll be posting a video in the next few days, and then publishing a more formal piece about the visit.

It was a hot sticky evening in Jakarta, and we were about to return to our hotel after an amazing day visiting schools, women’s groups and an Ambassador’s reception. I was being a typical Brit complaining in the face of the torrential rain, imminent flooding and lengthy traffic queues. My Indonesian host on the other hand, smiled gently and serenely: “It will be ok, we’ll be there very soon”. He smiled again, a heartfelt peaceful smile.

You could read his response as the typical Indonesian approach to ‘rubber time’, which allows for timing to be flexible and unstressed. In the face of Mother Nature’s stormy interventions into our plans, living by time elasticity is probably a sensible approach. But I preferred to see it as an example of that other Indonesian trait – a positive smile in the face of adversity. As my host explained, a smile can often ease away immediate problems.

This smile was prevalent wherever I went. People were gentle, hospitable and friendly and had ease and kindness in dealing with people. A smilier bunch of people I’ve never met, it certainly gave me pause for thought.

I began the journey in Jakarta, the financial heart of Indonesia. The country has the largest Muslim population in the world, more populous than the entire Arab nation. The country crams in 221m people of which about 88% are Muslim. It stretches from Aceh in the north which is parallel to Thailand, enveloping Malaysia and Singapore all the way to Papua in the East, and barely within spitting distance from Australia.

About 13 million people reside in the huge sprawling metropolis of Jakarta, a city lit up with bright neon lights by night, and overcast with monstrous smog by day. My lasting memory is of the wide boulevards which criss-cross the city, but which are crammed with standstill traffic for most the day and night. The city has no metro system, and even a trip a few miles away can take a couple of hours.

The city has South East Asia’s largest shopping mall (Mangga Dua), Indonesia’s largest mosque (Masjid Istiqlal) and the largest share of Indonesia’s population and economy. Quietly hidden amongst the skyscrapers are small simple mosques which are woven into the fabric of the city, but which are rarely front and centre. Except on Fridays, when a drum is beaten before the adhaan to announce Juma (Friday prayers), and streams and streams of people pour into and then back out of the mosques. Scooters are the vehicle of choice, filling up the scooter parks next to the mosques.

The mosques have space for women to pray – again a reflection of the relative ease with which women participate in public life. The scholars, politicians and activists which I met dealt with women in a natural, un-contrived manner. The respect was innate and natural. It was a non-issue.

Jakarta is also home to Mini-Indonesia, a drive-thru theme park that is home to traditional houses from around the country, plus a rather spectacular lake that has islands in the shape of the Indonesian archipelago. Built by Suharto’s wife it proved unpopular to start with as many locals were evicted to make way for the enormous site.

Next it was off to Yogyakarta, commonly called Jogja, a much smaller, gentler cultural town. It is home to South East Asia’s largest Hindu temple (Prambanan) and the largest Buddhist temple (Borobudur). The former was built around the 10th century and the latter in the 8th and 9th century, but they were quickly abandoned for unknown reasons. As the guide to the sites said, “These sites are Hindu and Buddhist, but most of the visitors are Muslim. This is Indonesia.” A statement that is the perfect summary of the respectful spirituality of this vast diverse nation.

This should have come as no surprise in a country where one of the five principles upon which the state is built is “Unity in diversity.” These five pancacila were the foundation of the new nation that declared its independence from the Dutch in 1945. The country was based on a theistic vision of statehood: belief in the one and only God. It also envisioned a just and civilised humanity, social justice for the whole of Indonesia and finally, and perhaps most significantly democracy guided by the inner wisdom in the unanimity arising out of deliberations amongst representatives.

It is this fusion of democracy and faith that makes the physical, spiritual and social landscape of Indonesia so fascinating. Jogja was a perfect example of this with the ease with the which the locals look after Prambanan and Borobudur. They are horrified at the attempted terrorist attacks aimed at destroying them.

Yogyakarta was heavily affected by an earthquake measuring 6.2 in 2006. Bantul, a small suburb of Jogja was almost entirely destroyed taking a hit of almost two thirds of the 3500 dead. I visited some house rebuilding projects being run by the British NGO Muslim Aid. I spoke to one family that had been housed. The father had been injured by falling debris in the quake and was unable to work to support his four children. Muslim Aid had given them a brick house with three rooms so they could re-build their lives. This was a huge boon to the family whose breadwinner is the mother. She earns their living by peeling garlic cloves by hand, for which she earns about 30 pence per day. Each house costs 4 million rupiah - a mere £240, in order to give a family a home, and allow them to get on with their lives.

I also went to visit House of Lawe, (“Conserving tradition, empowering women”) a local project not far away which gives people the resources to create yarn, fabric and handicrafts to sell in the local community and with which to support themselves. It is the oldest such project in the area, and the day I arrived was the launch of their new women’s handicraft project.

Earthquakes and tsunamis are not the only epic disasters to befall Indonesia. Set in the ‘Ring of fire’, volcanoes are widely prevalent throughout the country. Merapi is Jogja’s own volcano, and it erupted in 2007. Since this was still monsoon season, the path to the volcano was closed due to potential torrential rain and sodden ash in the path. On the way, we chanced upon a missionary church built in one of the poorer villages. It stood in the same style of rectangular thatched building used for mosques, town halls and prayer areas.

Before leaving town, I visited the local shopping mall, another ‘biggest…’, which was jam-packed with the same American brands wherever I turned – Starbucks, McDonalds, Pizza Hut, KFC, Dunkin’ Donuts, Hard Rock Cafe. It was like home away from home (note the irony). What was surprising was that the prices were similar to those in the UK, in a country where poverty runs at approximately 40 per cent.

Next stop was Bali, the Ibiza of Asia. The Ozzies had popped over just as the Brits might have done to the Spanish coast. My base was Legian, just north of the infamous Kuta, made notorious by the Bali bombings of 2002. The public face of Bali was a body shock coming from quiet sleepy Muslim Yogyakarta. Bali is mainly Hindu, although quite different in flavour to Indian Hinduism. It is sprinkled with in-your-face adult entertainment and fast food joints. A gentle walk on the sea front led to a disconcerting number of offers for marijuana from dreadlocked Indonesians.

The spirit of the island changed heading further inland. The landscaped changed from frenetic building work to jaw-dropping green paddy fields with unbelievable curved terraces, with hot steam rising when the rains came pouring down. Hobbits could be seen traversing the greenery. The taxi-driver trailed me through batik shops, art houses, wooden carving joints, furniture shops and silversmiths trying hard to earn commission from any sales I might generate, but the quality was sadly too tourist-y. But then we reached Ubud, the touristic and artistic centre of the island which is replete with expensive shops, and fortunately balanced by a cheap bustling market (bargain hard!). I ventured nervously into Monkey Forest where about a hundred cute little monkeys bounced around chasing after visitors and snatching away any loose items.

I imagine that Bali was once what Lombok is today which was the next stop – an unspoilt magical island to the east of Bali. Affected heavily by the drop in tourism after all the catastrophic events, Lombok’s fledgling tourist industry took a downturn. As a result, top end hotels are a bargain (book your rooms now! Sadly I get no commission). The sands are soft, the sea is calm and deep blue, the food is tasty and cheap, the people are helpful and friendly. I felt like I was in paradise. Until a trip to Gili Trawangan, part of the Gili Islands. After an hour on a motorised catamaran across perfect inky blue waters, I really did find paradise. Perfect white sand beach. Perfect turquoise sea, perfect gentle breeze. I drank fresh lime soda stretched out on a sun-lounger watching the waves kiss the shore. Did I really have to come home?

Lombok is stunning. The roads wind dramatically along the coastline revealing mile upon mile of idyllic beaches on one side, and lush green palm groves on the other. It is called the Island of a Thousand Mosques, and lives up to its name with tiny mosques dotted subtly throughout the forests, paddy fields and small towns. The countryside is punctuated with small huts to allow for both shelter from the rain, but also for convenient prayer places. And this is the story of Indonesia. It is a country that seems at ease with its faith at a human ordinary people level. It is interwoven into the rhythm of life, not in-your-face.

Only ten years on from the reformasi and the country’s move to democracy, the nation is showing signs of an active civic engagement in democratic process. People are asking questions about nationhood, democracy and faith. I was asked many times – how do you reconcile your faith with being British – by people who were asking how they could create Indonesia into a country that was at ease with all its faiths as well as its nationhood.

Coming from a country where participation in the political process is at an all time low, the Indonesian vigour and enthusiasm at civic engagement was overwhelming. In Britain the shutters have come down on exploring our national identity in an open and progressive manner. In Indonesia I found the opposite – ordinary people, not just politicians – asking questions about the values that bind its people irrespective of faith and ethnicity, and how to deal fairly and intelligently with minorities. They do not have all the answers, and they are certainly far from perfect in many areas. In fact, their record in some areas is poor, and there are many trouble spots the country will have to negotiate through at a political and state level, extremism being at the forefront of everyone’s minds. But whilst extremism dominates the world’s view of Indonesia, at a local people level they want to be known as a people of moderation and peace (check out the video I will be posting soon).

It was exciting to travel in a country of such variety in its people, places, ethnicities and faith that is asking questions of itself and is capable of creating change so rapidly. From the bustle of Jakarta to the serenity of Lombok, and all the places I didn’t even get a chance to visit, Indonesia is a place that should be firmly on everyone’s radar.

Greetings from Indonesia

This is a huge country whose islands play join-the-dots all the way from Singapore to Australia. It contains three of the world’s six largest islands, sits nervously on the ring of fire which makes it prone to volcano eruptions, earthquakes, hurricanes and of course to tsunamis. It is hot, densely populated and in the current rainy season it is very very wet. And it has some of the nicest, politest, mild-mannered people I have ever met. They are constantly smiling, always go out of their way to help and are a gentle considerate people.

The country’s capital is also at a total standstill because of the traffic. Never was a metro system more needed. But it is a country of immense contrasts too – a skyline of skyscrapers in Jakarta, and malls filled with global designer labels jostle with poor housing and workers that live on less than 35GBP per month. The country wears its Islam, its nationhood and its democracy in its heart. I’m constantly asked questions about Britain, the government, and I’m asked to share reflections on being Muslim and British. Only ten years into democracy and reformasi, my first impressions of Indonesia are of a country that is pulsing with faith, politics and nationhood and making great strides to race into the 21st century. My impressions are also of a vast and cultured land with huge variation in countryside, ethnicities and cultures. They also make a fantastic cup of coffee. Java, they call it…


Off to the hajj of the mobile phone world

I’m packing my bags to zip over to Barcelona for a few days to attend 3GSM World Congress, one of the largest trade shows of the mobile industry. It really does feel like hajj – with plenty to learn for the hujjaj (plural of haji – person who goes to hajj). Loads of people from practically everywhere you care to mention, all frenetic in their activities to greet, meet, learn and proliferate. I’ll keep you posted.