Friday, March 31, 2006

Disastrous Dubai

Looking back at my visit to Dubai in the mid-nineties, despite the allure of the nihari breakfasts and paya dinners, a lasting memory is of the immigrant workers labouring in the searing midday heat. The Kafkaesque nature of the situation was apparent (well portrayed in Syriana) so the placidity of the workers surprised me. No longer though. Rory McCarthy (he of kidnapped in Iraq fame) reports growing unrest in the dazzling, flagship emirate.
  • For the first time, years of accumulated frustration and resentment have now boiled over into a series of strikes and demonstrations

  • They began in September when 700 workers blocked a major road, complaining about poor salaries and bad conditions.

  • At least eight other strikes and demonstrations followed at building sites across the emirate, culminating last week in a rare and violent protest at Burj Dubai.

  • In one evening rampage, 2,500 workers downed tools and attacked security staff, broke into offices and smashed computers and files...and caused several hundred thousand pounds' worth of damage. The next day, workers at the site and other labourers working on the international airport went out briefly on strike.
  • Similar protests have sprung up among migrant workers in Qatar, Oman and Kuwait.

  • Workers can complain as individuals, but trade unions and workers' associations are banned, and the country has still not signed important conventions of the International Labour Organisation.
Read the full article here.

Tuesday, March 28, 2006

Film Recommendations

A couple of films I've seen recently which are worth hunting down.

Le Grand Voyage
Dir: Ismael Ferroukhi, France/Morocco 2004, 1 hour 48 mins, with subtitles

Winner of the award for best first film at 2004's Venice Film Festival, this is a road trip with a difference. Reda, a second generation Moroccan living in an anonymous town in the South of France finds himself reluctantly coerced into chauffeuring his elderly father, Majid, to Saudi Arabia so the elderly patriarch can fulfill his obligation of performing the hajj - the pilgrimage to Mecca. The 3,000 mile journey claustrophobically staged in a battered old car enables the disparate pair to acquaint themselves with each other while the constantly shifting backdrop provides a striking metaphor for the dynamics of their relationship. 'It's a carefully considered route with Ferroukhi testing the bonds of the relationship with every twist and turn.' The cinematography is stunning, especially the footage from Mecca itself.

Memorable dialogue:

Reda: Why didn't you fly to Mecca? It's a lot simpler.
The Father: When the waters of the ocean rise to the heavens, they lose their bitterness to become pure again...
Reda: What?
The Father: The ocean waters evaporate as they rise to the clouds. And as they evaporate they become fresh. That's why it's better to go on your pilgrimage on foot than on horseback, better on horseback than by car, better by car than by boat, better by boat than by plane.

Cache (Hidden)
Dir: Michael Haneke, France 2005, 1 hour 57 mins, with subtitles

An engaging thriller; a lucid critique of contemporary French society; a measured study of family life; an example of film as allegory; an exposition of guilt. Cache encapsulates all of the above

"Michael Haneke is a director who has developed and fine-tuned his craft over the past two decades to the point that 'Cache' feels like the purest distillation of his film-making style. Haneke closes with a shot which causes the viewer to re-evaluate everything he has just seen, which throws apart all the pieces of the puzzle you thought you had managed to fit together. 'Cache' is a stunningly clinical and intelligent film which commands the utmost attention throughout and will haunt the viewer's thoughts long after it has finished. It is a masterpiece from one of contemporary cinema's most important figures which plays on our deepest anxieties with devastating potency. For these reasons and more, it is essential viewing." (IMDB)

Views from Al-Khiyam

View from Al-Khiyam Prison, South Lebanon ©Tauseef Mehrali 2003.

Courtyard in Al-Khiyam Prison, South Lebanon ©Tauseef Mehrali 2003.

Sunday, March 26, 2006


Paan plays a key role in the complex web of South-east Asian social etiquette. A polite refusal may prompt much speculation over one's state of health and arouse suspicion, over-induglence may hint at Bombay underground criminal connections and moderation cannot be maintained and is simply not an option.

"What is paan?" I hear you cry. I'll allow Salvatore DeTraglia of Taxicab Confessions to answer:

As the ultimate post-meal chaser, many dabhas offer (and some will even make to order) sweet paan. Sweet paan is made by layering (with a spoon, pen or any other readily available utensil) lime paste, gulkand (crushed rose petals in sugar syrup), chopped betel nuts, cardamom and anise seeds, crystallized sugar, cloves and shredded coconut on a fresh betel leaf. The leaf is then tightly folded into a plump triangular package, popped into the mouth and chewed whole. The sensation is unique to anything that western taste buds are likely to have experienced. It is a juicy explosion of layer upon layer of distinct, intense and contrasting flavors and textures—sweet, savory, moist, dry, soft, crunchy, smooth, rough, cool, hot. Sweet paan is the ultimate embodiment of a "love it or hate it" food experience.

Sensory attributes aside, sweet paan has a practical function. Its ingredients are ingeniously engineered to cleanse the palate, freshen breath and aid digestion after a rich, heady meal. But be careful to specify sweet paan when ordering, because paan comes in a tobacco-filled version as well. Although the tobacco paan will also certainly "cleanse" the palate and neutralize the spice residue from one's breath, its properties as a digestif leave something to be desired.
The combinations and permutations are endless: Calcutta leaves, Banarsi leaves, Maggai leaves, sweet, savoury, tobacco etc etc. Check out Benjamin Feen's step-by-step photographic guide on preparing a paan.

However, (ab)use of the areca nut (a common ingredient in paan) is associated with oral cancer amongst other serious risks, as reported in the British Medical Journal:

Areca nut is the seed of the fruit of the oriental palm, Areca catechu. It is the basic ingredient of a variety of widely used chewed products. Thin slices of the nut, either natural or processed, may be mixed with a variety of substances including slaked lime (calcium hydroxide) and spices such as cardamom, coconut, and saffron. Most significantly, they may be mixed with tobacco products or wrapped in the leaf of the piper betel plant. Hence the more common name betel nut. Areca nut is used by an estimated 200-400 million people, mainly IndoAsians and Chinese. It is used by men and women. In some societies the latter predominate. All age groups and social classes use the product. Areca nut has a long history of use and is deeply ingrained in many sociocultural and religious activities.

Of particular interest in the United Kingdom, and perhaps other developed countries, is that use of areca nut continues and is often enhanced following migration. Thus British Asians have brought the use of areca from India (some via East Africa), Pakistan, Bangladesh, and other countries in the region and its use is thus firmly culturally bound. From the medical point of view, the most important consideration is the relation between areca nut use and the development of mouth cancer (oral squamous cell carcinoma) and its precursors leukoplakia and submucous fibrosis.

Historically a betel quid (paan) was often formulated to an individual's wishes but in the United Kingdom and other countries readymade packets of these products are now available as a proprietary mixture known as paan masala. There is increasing evidence that areca products induce a true dependency syndrome. A recent study of Gujarati areca users in north west London assessed their degree of dependency as equivalent to that of cocaine users especially if there is tobacco in the paan masala. Patients describe typical dependency symptoms, with difficulty in abstaining, withdrawal symptoms including headache and sweating, and need for a morning paan to relieve these symptoms. Individuals report queuing outside the paan shops waiting for them to open and continuing sequential use, analogous to chain smoking.
My encounter with authentic paan-making is encapsulated in this photograph from a trip to Delhi in 2003. I literally almost stumbled over this chap in the chaos of Old Delhi. He was selling leaves to paan makers. It was only as I left that I realised his prosthetic leg was tucked neatly behind him so as not to encroach on his shop floor!

The One-Legged Paan Seller, Old Delhi, India ©Tauseef Mehrali 2003

Saturday, March 25, 2006

The Ginger Beard Man

A friend recently brought the National Beard Registry to my attention. The Registry's founding aim is 'to encourage men in all walks of life, from every continent, to resist conformity, corporate culture, and androgyny by embracing the beautiful, unique and utterly personal habit of growing a full beard.'

There's even a World Beard and Moustache Championship!

A quick search on Wikipedia provided the following follicular gems:

Ancient Egyptians associated facial hair with mourning. With the exception of a pencil-thin moustache or goatees, they generally found beards unattractive.

The nations in the east generally treated their beards with great care and veneration, and the punishment for licentiousness and adultery was to have the beard of the offending parties publicly cut off. They had such a sacred regard for the preservation of their beards that a man might pledge it for the payment of a debt.

The Persians are fond of long beards. We read in Olearius' Travels of a king of Persia who had commanded his steward's head to be cut off, and on its being brought to him, he remarked, "what a pity it was, that a man possessing such fine mustachios, should have been executed," but added he, "Ah! it was your own fault."
Apparently, the following styles are officially recognised beard-forms:

  • Full - downward flowing beard with either styled or integrated moustache
  • Chinstrap - a beard with long side burns then comes forward and end under the chin resembling a chinstrap, hence the name.
  • Goatee - a beard formed by a tuft of hair on the chin, in some cases resembling that of a billy goat
  • Garibaldi - wide, full beard with rounded bottom and integrated moustache
  • Royale (or impĂ©riale) - is a tuft of hair under the lower lip. This is also known as a "soul patch" or "flavor saver"
  • Stubble - a very short beard of only one to a few days growth
  • Van Dyck - a goatee accompanied by a moustache
  • Verdi - short beard with rounded bottom and slightly shaven cheeks with prominent moustache
Reminds me of an episode of the topical BBC quiz 'Have I Got News For You' where Paul Merton was asked to provide a caption for an image depicting a rather traditional looking Muslim gentleman with a violent magma-orange henna-dyed beard sporting a Jinnah cap standing at a bar.

The caption: "Barman! I ordered a ginger beer!"

Tuesday, March 21, 2006

My Weekend

I've been politely requested to ensure the blog is updated on a more regular basis. The lack of an online presence has not been a convoluted ploy to create the facade of being busy but the direct result of actually being busy. Now that things have settled down, can breathe again.

I spent last weekend on-call at night on the neonatal unit. This involves keeping an eye on the tiny pocket-sized babies on the intensive care unit ensuring they're not misbehaving and the unpredictable element of attending deliveries on the labour ward. Being part of such a personal moment of peoples' lives still strikes me as somewhat surreal and as with most tasks it doesn't take long to find the harmonic frequency that you resonate along and go through the motions.

I was jilted from this steady state over the weekend though when requested to carry out a task not usually part of the paediatrician's armoury: a mother asked me to recite the adhan for her baby boy. This entails reciting the Muslim call to prayer near the infant's ear with a view to introducing it to the core tenets of the faith. The recitation, at risk of sounding morbid, takes on a more symbolic role though and can leave you feeling quite humbled - Muslim tradition dictates that a newborn child has the adhan recited to it whereas the prayer for the deceased is not accompanied by a call; philosophers have surmised that the adhan recited to the baby is in fact the call to its funeral prayer, alluding to the brevity of life.

All this heavy stuff got me thinking about a book I reviewed a while ago and haven't returned to since - When You Hear Hoofbeats, Think of a Zebra by Shems Friedlander.

His extensive travels combined with a profound understanding of the spiritual dimension of Islam render him a most able guide towards the elusive domain of self-knowledge. A noble and essential goal, for Imam Ali has said “Whosoever knows himself knows his Lord.”

The title of the book neatly encapsulates its aims; our total immersion in the dunya has conditioned us to imagine horses when thinking of hoofbeats. Friedlander’s objective is to encourage the reader to see things in a different manner – akin to lateral thinking, but exercising the heart and not the mind. To achieve this, Friedlander punctuates his readable text with stories. Daniel Goleman, one of the key proponents of EQ (emotional quotient), says of stories, they ‘have a unique power, an ability to make their points without marshalling the mental resistance that more sharply reasoned rational appeals often raise. Knowledge is best transmitted through rational means, speaking directly to the mind. But wisdom strikes to the heart when it is carried in a tale.’ The late Idries Shah was instrumental in introducing this predominantly Eastern art form to the Western audience via the ‘exploits of the incomparable Mulla Nasruddin’.

The realisation that ancient methods of instruction have something concrete to offer the modern world of fuzzy logic is illustrated by a recent paper published in the British Medical Journal, ‘The power of stories over statistics’. The author ponders why stories are so powerful and suggests two reasons: a biologically hardwired predilection of the brain for stories (compared to other forms of input) and the role of the storyteller. How many times have you sat through a lesson or a lecture and emerged with little to show for it? Yet on other occasions either because of a particularly quirky or gifted narrator, or due to the resonance of a particular analogy, the relevant point can be recalled vividly. Goleman sees the methodology as ‘the antidote to what has been called “psychosclerosis”, hardening of the attitudes.’

The book is divided into twelve sections: eleven brief expositions and a ‘gift’ from the author in the form of a letter from Imam Ali to his son extracted from Nahj al-Balagha. Each section presents new concepts but maintains a degree of repetition enabling the reader to constantly revisit the author’s core themes: Allah (swt) and death.

The author urges us to be mindful of Allah (swt) and proposes that the only means to do so is to interrupt the monotony of our lives by introducing adventure. This is not necessarily in the form of jungle-trekking and white-water rafting, but to a much milder degree. Our days can tend towards a repetitiveness which desensitises us to creation. These Groundhog days ensure we lose our connection with our Creator, who manifests Himself through creation. By stepping back and doing things even slightly differently, we can re-establish the ontological chain that connects everything with God, and reawaken ourselves to His presence.

The author tells us of an old dervish he once met in Madinah who told him that ‘life is a gift that consists of three days and two are gone’. It is with such simple yet multivalent anecdotes that Friedlander gives impetus to the text and immediately follows this jolting of the heart with practical measures that can be readily implemented. Thus he moves spirituality from the world of intellectualisation – chin-rubbing and beard-stroking – to the world of pragmatism and action. The work is impregnated with hadith and axioms of scholars, giving the charm a seal of authenticity.

A descendant of the Prophet (saw) is reported to have said ‘Worship is not merely frequent prayers and fasting. True worship is contemplation on Divine matters’. Friedlander appreciates the value of such wisdom and emphasises that ‘action is not just five prayers a day’. However, the author also appreciates that this is easier said than done, especially with the dunya forever presenting new charms to lure people back to their old ways. ‘If we can just say, “I’m turning on the television, and the television is turning me off”, how long will we watch?’ He does not advocate a monastic lifestyle of seclusion, but urges restraint from total detachment from reality. It may surprise you to note that the psychophysiologist Thomas Mulholland has found ‘that after just 30 seconds of watching television the brain begins to produce alpha waves [that] are associated with unfocused, overly receptive states of consciousness… In fact, Mulholland's research implies that watching television is neurologically analogous to staring at a blank wall.’

Perhaps the most engaging aspect of the book is its advice regarding relationships with others, which are classified as private, personal or professional. We all realise that the most important sphere is the private – reserved for those dearest to us, foremost of which is Allah (swt) – yet we spend the most time in the other spheres. Friedlander suggests means of redistributing this subconscious misallocation. Central to the thesis is the need to appreciate creation – including fellow humans – in order to truly love the Creator. Others act as vital mirrors of our own qualities. A notion that culminates in our own souls reflecting the Divine attributes. Key to this is abolition of the ego via the correct use of words. There is a reason ‘why Allah has placed our words in a mouth that imprisons them by rows of teeth, hard teeth that clamp shut. And lips that seal the mouth.’

I found the book enlightening and have since re-read it, a gesture previously reserved for William Dalrymple. Inevitably, a review can serve only to whet the appetite or sour the palate, but as a final note, any book that draws to your attention the fact that the palmar creases on your hands spell 81 and 18 in Arabic numerals, which amount to 99, and yet we continue to perform misdeeds with these same hands is surely worthy of at least a cursory perusal and maybe even of becoming a companion for life.
Night shifts as a tool for introspection - who'd have thought!

Saturday, March 11, 2006