Monday, June 23, 2008

Milky Mughal

Last weekend I was regaled with an apt anecdote about the blindness to reality that can arise from an inflated sense of self-importance and the individual onus of social responsibility. The two protagonists in the tale were the Mughal emperor Akbar and his Grand Vizier, the Rajput, Birbal.

One day, at the peak of Akbar's majesty and grandeur he commented to Birbal on how much his subjects loved him. Birbal expressed respectful doubt on his master's supposition but Akbar's view was unswayed. Akbar eventually decided to settle the mock debate by confirming his impression of the people's adoration for him.

"I shall demonstrate the people's love for me to you Birbal!" exclaimed the emperor. "The people will answer the emperor's call. The emperor would like some...milk."

So an order was decreed that the head of every village in India was officially summoned to gift some milk from their livestock to the emperor. A huge tank was erected in front of Akbar's pavillion to act as a receptacle for the milk.

Soon, village chiefs began to arrive with buckets in hand and scaled the ladder to deposit their villages' contributions to the emperor's milk plea.

Once all the villages had paid their dues, Birbal turned to Akbar and said, "your majesty, the time has come to sample your citizen's generosity". Akbar turned the tap to the tank and nothing but water flowed forth.

Each of the village heads had assumed that if they were to substitute water for milk it would not be detectable amidst the copious milk others would offer. Unfortunately they all thought this way. Akbar was humbled, Birbal was vindicated.

Sunday, June 22, 2008

Gandhi 'near a dustbin'

One of today's Pendennis pieces caught my eye:

A bad Indian takeaway

London's waxwork tourist attraction Madame Tussauds might have declined to include the Prime Minister, but it's more sensitive when it comes to Gandhi. On a recent visit, the President of India's National Council for Civic Liberties noted that Gandhi was on the second floor 'near a dustbin' rather than in the world leaders' gallery on the floor below and complained of 'insulting treatment'. When I called, a Tussauds spokesman insisted that Gandhi is now back downstairs. 'There was maintenance work going on and it was a temporary move but Gandhi could have been more sensitively repositioned,' he says. Meanwhile, a surprise new addition to Tussauds is to be announced, with sources hinting it could be David Cameron.

Saturday, June 21, 2008

Milad in the Souq

al-Souq al-Hamdiyyah, Damascus, Syria ©Tauseef Mehrali 2008

Posted by Picasa

Dimashq al-Qadeem

Dimashq al-Qadeem, Damascus, Syria ©Tauseef Mehrali 2008

Posted by Picasa

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

A Tate Coincidence

As part of the gruelling, evidence-based, intense training to make me into a(n even) better doctor, my tutorial group went to...the Tate Britain this afternoon!

For the cynical amongst you, it may not have been particularly gruelling or intense but the visit was evidence-based...sort of.

By strange coincidence whilst on the Victoria lie down to Pimlico, the book I've been reading, Iqbal Ahmed's Sorrows of the Moon, concluded with a passing reference to the Tate.

I visited the Tate Britain a few years after my arrival in Hampstead. When I saw the dreadful landscapes painted by John Constable, it reminded me of the middle-class women in Hampstead who raved about these paintings. I could not accept Forster's description of Hampstead as 'a thoughtful little suburb of London'. It had been painful for me to live in this neighbourhood. Its landscape, like the paintings of Constable, was very gloomy. It was an area where people apologized often but showed little kindness to others.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Heliotyping Cairo

Fortunately for us mere amateurs, Heliotype's photographic odyssey through Cairo continues here.

Persian Travelogue

I stumbled across a real gem recently: a semi-fictional travelogue compiled by 'Major P M Sykes CGM - His Brittanic Majesty's Consul-General and agent to the government of India in Khorasan - Royal Gold Medalist of the Royal Geographical Society - Author of 'Ten Thousand Miles in Persia'' at the turn of the 20th century.

This is a slightly fictionalized account of life in Persia (Iran) in the 19th century, capped off by a perilous pilgrimage to the Shiite holy city of Meshed (Mashhad), in the foothills of the mountains that run up to the Zoroastrian Olympus, Damavand. The book is a rare collaboration between a turn of the 20th century English and Persian author. The narrative method presages the classic Oscar Lewis ethnographies of poor Mexican families. In both cases, a straightforward account would have been dangerous because of the repressive nature of the society being studied. This is, on one level, an orientalist conceit of an Englishman writing the life story of a (semi-fictional) Persian from the point of view of a Persian. However, Sykes manages to pull off this literary feat convincingly, even for readers at this later date. He also uses the opportunity as a perfect Swiftian setup to gently satire European civilization, which adds an entire ironic layer to the read.

This long-out-of-print (and quite rare) book is a delightful read, particularly for connoisseurs of travelogues. The Shiite, Sufi, Islamic, and Persian lore and legends which are described here will be of great interest to folklorists. The photographs and other illustrations will be of use to graphic designers, anthropologists and historians. This is obviously a primary source on the architecture of the Mashhad pilgrimage site. Largely unknown to outsiders, this complex has some very spectacular (and gorgeous) structures. Most of all, this book is an eye-opener for westerners interested in the deep culture and history of Iran.
Read more here.

Sunday, June 15, 2008

Shooting the Messenger

Just watched the most hard-hitting documentary I've seen in recent times courtesy of Aljazeera English's presence on Youtube.

The documentary looks at the incredible bravery of journalists on the ground in the world's hot-spots striving to bring images to our screens. It also explores the trend that it is becoming increasingly difficult and dangerous to report from frontlines as the press no longer enjoys the immunity it once did. Apparently the conflict in the Balkans marked a turning point with the active targeting of journalists. Reporting from Iraq, Zimbabwe, Sri Lanka and Palestine are all explored.

More than 100 journalists and cameramen have died in action in the last 18 months!

Part 1 Part 2 Part 3 Part 4

Saturday, June 14, 2008

Old Damascus meets the New

Old meets New, Damascus, Syria ©Tauseef Mehrali 2008

Posted by Picasa

Thursday, June 12, 2008

Definitely indefinite

In Arabic, nouns are presumed to be indefinite until made otherwise (usually with the addition of the prefix 'al' 'ad-dukhool al-alif wa al-lam').

In Farsi, nouns are presumed to be definite until made otherwise (usually with the addition of the suffix -y).

Tube Piercings

Whilst riding the tube back home the other day I witnessed perhaps the most surreal of my underground journeys to date. Imagine a relatively packed Northern line train between Chalk Farm and Camden Town stations. To the left of me were sat two drunk middle-aged women (MAW) who, speaking in tandem, were trying to verbally restrain their even more inebriated friend sat opposite them. Directly in front of me was sat a rotund American man (AM) with a camera dangling from a lanyard around his neck. He was smiling inanely. To his left was a gentleman (GM) in a beige linen suit, holding a well-thumbed (bordering on brittle) paperback book in one hand, sharing the same hand with an arm of his spectacles which he twiddled endlessly. The seat to my right was free. The train stopped at Camden Town.

As soon as we were moving again I noticed that the dynamic inside the carriage had palpably changed. I looked up from my own book and noticed the most drunk of the women dropping her oversized aviator sunglasses to fix a gaze on my new next-door neighbour and subsequently point him out to her not-drunk-enough-to-not-be-embarassed colleagues. Everyone else was intently staring at the chap sat next to me (CSNTM). I glanced at him almost out of obligation and noticed he was sporting an incredible array of facial jewellery with almost every pore skewered by some form of metallic contraption. His mohican hairstyle and tartan clothing didn't help him blend in.

AM: (Looking at CSNTM.) Do you mind if I take of a photo of you sir?
CSNTM: (In an unexpectedly soft, almost inaudible voice) Erm...well...if you have to, but it's been a busy day...
AM: No, no. I don't have to. It's just're worth taking a photo of.

(CSNTM's not impressed but too polite to refuse this intrusion. In the meantime, GM interrupts)

GM: (In a crisp home counties accent) Now hold on a moment. (Looking towards CSNTM) You're a work of art! You're expressing yourself through what you've done to yourself. You're an artist! He (pointing to AM) wants to appreciate your work. Let him photograph!
CSNTM: Well...I am an artist. Oh, ok then.

Amidst the resultant surrendering of the usual tube protocol of not making eye-contact or conversation with anyone whatsoever, the carriage inhabitants dissolved into several streams of chatter. The far-from-sober women revealed they were returning from a wake, AM was on his way to a musical, GM returned to his book and CSNTM brought a welcome reprieve from the cocoons we inhabit on the undergound.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Latte Artisan



Latte Artisan, Home, London ©Tauseef Mehrali 2008

Posted by Picasa

A principle of psychology?

Whenever two people meet, there are really six people present. There is each man as he sees himself, each man as the other person sees him, and each man as he really is.
William James, The Principles of Psychology (1890)

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

I like farsi

Learning farsi is such a refreshing break from the rigidity that gives Arabic its appeal but renders it incredibly demanding.

Take this construct for example:

chashm = eye(ball)
khanah = house, residence, dwelling

Therefore, chashmkhanah = eyesocket.


Persecuting the Baha'is

I felt compelled to comment on Bahar Tahzib's article at comment is free.
SharifL - veiled beneath your rant lies something of interest: the Muslim perspective of the Other. As a Muslim (and admittedly unable, and unwilling, to represent all my co-religionists) I disagree with you imputing intolerance of other creeds to the Islamic world-view. Islam regards previous monotheistic religions as part of a progressive 'roll-out' of the Divine message by God, culminating in Islam.

I do however feel that Muslims have fundamental difficulties in how to view post-Islamic monotheistic religions, especially those with Islamic undertones, such as the Ahmadi/Qadiyani movement and the Baha'i faith. These faiths challenge one of the pillars of Islamic theology: the finality of Muhammad in God's chain of messengers. As such, they engender huge suspicion.

The Baha'is seems to be victims of circumstance in that major political and social upheavals in Iran coincided with birth of their faith rendering them convenient scapegoats for the upheavals of the 19th century.
Amidst the responses, this caught my eye:
LeoAfricanus. considering the persecution of the Zoroastrians in Iran since the Islamic conquest of Iran, islam can be just as intolerant to pre-islamic religions of the Book. The murder of the Christian Iranian archbishop by the Islamic Republic reinforces the picture.

AIDS in Central Asia

Newsnight ran an incredibly moving piece on the rise and rise of HIV/AIDS in the ex-Soviet republics, focussing on Kyrgyzstan. Despite millions of dollars of funding (probably in the form of the World Bank's notorious structural adjustment loans) rates of infection are soaring in Central Asia.

The piece looked at an alarming cause for the spread of HIV in addition to prostitution and drug use: substandard medical practice such as non-sterile procedures and needless blood transfusions (the blood bank being fuelled by unscreened donors). Children were the victims. The mothers of these accidentally infected children are stigmatised, ostracised and frequently banished from their households.

It's got me dusting off my copy of Malaysian academic, Prof Malik Badri's heavily criticised The Aids Crisis: An Islamic Socio-Cultural Perspective.

Are Horses and Giraffes Halal?

Join the debate of our times over at Ali Eteraz's.

Monday, June 09, 2008

The Moths and the Flame by Farid ud-Din Attar

(Courtesy of the Grand Mufti. Or to be precise, the Grand Mufti's new father-in-law. As in he didn't have one before but now has one, rather than a different one).

Moths gathered in a fluttering throng one night
To learn the truth about the candle light,
And they decided one of them should go
To gather news of the elusive glow.
One flew till in the distance he discerned
A palace window where a candle burned --
And went no nearer: back again he flew
To tell the others what he thought he knew.
The mentor of the moths dismissed his claim,
Remarking: "He knows nothing of the flame."
A moth more eager than the one before
Set out and passed beyond the palace door.
He hovered in the aura of the fire,
A trembling blur of timorous desire,
Then headed back to say how far he'd been,
And how much he had undergone and seen.
The mentor said: "You do not bear the signs
Of one who's fathomed how the candle shines."
Another moth flew out -- his dizzy flight
Turned to an ardent wooing of the light;
He dipped and soared, and in his frenzied trance
Both self and fire were mingled by his dance --
The flame engulfed his wing-tips, body, head,
His being glowed a fierce translucent red;
And when the mentor saw that sudden blaze,
The moth's form lost within the glowing rays,
He said: "He knows, he knows the truth we seek,
That hidden truth of which we cannot speak."
To go beyond all knowledge is to find
That comprehension which eludes the mind,
And you can never gain the longed-for goal
Until you first outsoar both flesh and soul;
But should one part remain, a single hair
Will drag you back and plunge you in despair --
No creature's self can be admitted here,
Where all identity must disappear.

Sunday, June 08, 2008

Haute Hijab

Denmark's state broadcaster pushes the boundaries (and the buttons of its Muslim community) with its headscarf contest.

The 'Imam' Abbas fallacy persists

The BBC inexcusably continues to refer to the brother of Imam Hussein, Abbas ibn Ali, with the prefix Imam. The term is a multivalent one but in the specific context of Shia theology, it is reserved exclusively for the 12 successors of the Prophet. Abbas ibn Ali was, and is, never referred to as imam. The honorific reserved for him tends to be hazrat (a farsi construct).

The Review, reviewed

This week's review has plenty to ponder over. Pankaj Mishra, in his now regular column, raises his bat to 'Joseph O'Neil's beautiful new novel Netherland', set in New York, which 'so skilfully uses cricket's particular morality to dramatise geopolitical as well as interpersonal conflicts'.

Elsewhere Jhumpa Lahiri is accused of failing 'to challenge the inadequacies of this elite America - the latent racism that underpins it - and, as a result, Unaccustomed Earth isn't a truly provocative or innovative American book'. However, the Guardian's editor in the main section lavishes her with praise.

The first volume of Amitav Ghosh's trilogy is set on a ship amidst the Opium Wars of the lat 19th century and discover the uses of a spatula mundani in Tony Horowitz's account of America post-Columbus and pre-Jamestown.

Tuesday, June 03, 2008

Summer Time

It's June. It's raining. Radio 4's trying to convince me that olive trees are growing in the south of England. Whatever.