Warsaw: An Old City

Names of cities evoke images. These pictures are usually connected with memories. Warsaw had reminded me of the Cold War. For my sister it means Polish dolls that she had played with as a girl. The images can only be replaced by new ones, if you visit a place. So it did in my case. We drove nearly 600 km due east from Berlin to reach Warsaw in about 4 hours. It took Hitler’s armies five weeks to occupy Poland in September 1939 to begin the Second World War. Warsaw is now part of the NATO and the EU. It is also integrated within the Schengen system of open borders but it has not accepted Euro as the common European currency. It still hold on to its Zloty.

Warsaw is an old city that has seen a lot of turbulence in the past. It has been occupied and reoccupied and it has witnessed uprisings and risings against forces of occupation. It gave its name to the military alliance created by the USSR to counter NATO. The USSR imploded last century but Russia is now resurgent and is not happy with either the NATO expansion eastward nor with the deployment of the US missile shield in their country. I saw a small demonstration outside a military HQ against NATO. I also saw a small honor guard marching to the tomb of the unknown soldier. They were not goosestepping!

The most famous Pole of modern times has undoubtedly been Pope John Paul II. The first non-Italian to occupy the highest seat in Roman Catholic Christendom.  The other person grabbing headlines during the end of the Cold War was Lech Walesa, the port worker in port city of Gdansk. Poland unlike many other European countries has not been a colonial power. Its coastline is too small in comparison but it has produced many men and women of knowledge.  Copernicus, the astrologist that first came to the conclusion that all the planets revolve around the sun in our universe was a Pole. Also Marie or Maria Curie who discovered the elements Polonium (named after her native Poland) and Radium; and the phenomenon of radioactivity was a Pole. Curie was the first woman and indeed the first scientist to have been twice awarded a Nobel Prize in two different subjects. A small statue overlooking the banks of the River Vistula. Across the Vistula is the famous zoo that is the centerpiece of the recently released movie The Zookeeper’s Wife.

While in Warsaw, it is a must to see the old city with its amazing square and churches and spires. Despite the fact that Poland during the Cold War was a part of the religion-less system, it now appears to be a deeply religious society. Religious symbols are everywhere. One interesting piece of information that I found towards one end of the square was the pictorial history of the Poles, who went to Manchuria towards the beginning of the twentieth century to establish factories, businesses and yes spread religion.

If you are in Poland, you must sample their dumplings or pierogi. You can ask for one with vegetable filling. If you are on a budget, you can survive by taking your meals at a milk bar or bar mleczny. Food is relatively inexpensive in Poland and so is petrol but if you’re travelling on the main road be advised that you’d be frequently required to pay toll. The public toilets are neat and well maintained but people do not speak English and you rarely find any instruction or information in any language other than Polish. Incidentally the Polish language does not sound remotely close to either to English or German.

If you enjoy travelling do visit Warsaw or other places in Poland like Krakow.marie curie

 

 

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Portugal

There is a distinct possibility that I might have been writing this blog in Portuguese instead of English. That is if the Portuguese had not restricted themselves to their coastal holdings in Cochin and Goa and had decided to move inland. They had ‘discovered’ India before the English. Vasco de Gama set sail for India in 1497. This was even before the Moghuls arrived in the subcontinent. Remember Babar, the first Moghul defeated Sultan Ibraheem Lodhi in the battle of Panipat in 1526. Fortunately or unfortunately the Portuguese decided to build their colonial empire in South America and where they successfully destroyed the ancient civilization of the indigenous people with the Spanish conquistadors and replaced it with their religion and culture. The English did much the same in our parts of the world. Portugal held on to its colony in Goa till 1960, when they were forcibly evicted by the Indians. This long toehold in India allowed the Portuguese to leave their mark in the shape of their brand of cuisine, names and their particular form of Roman Catholicism. Cyril Almeida, the journalist better known for the infamous Dawn leaks carries a Portuguese name.

There were a number of reasons to visit Portugal besides being the birthplace of Vasco de Gama. It is also the native country of António Manuel de Oliveira Guterres, the new UN Secretary General and I believe that my second term roommate Christopher Khalid Saleem was also a Goan Christian. Army was not Christopher’s calling and had decided to call quits. So he did against his mother’s wishes and went back to Karachi. Once he sent me a box full of old books purchased from the thriving old book bazaar in Karachi but thereafter we moved on our separate paths and there has been no contact ever since.

Back to Portugal, our daughter, who had traveled to Portugal and written a travelogue that was widely read and appreciated had booked us in the Belem House in Lisbon, a bread and breakfast joint owned by Mavilde, a sixty five year old pensioner. The landlady and her husband Julio, a retired economist were on hand to receive us. Both spoke good English and explained to us the various facilities that their House had to offer. It was a good place. Two rooms, a lounge, kitchen and bathroom. The kitchen had modern gadgets and was stocked with the minimum essential groceries. The place was well located in the district of Belem and was near a number of places such as the monastery, the monument of discovery and the Belem Tower.  The River Tagus is just a walk away.  A ferry ride on a moonlit night was magical to say the least. The other rides to remember in Lisbon was on the iconic number 28 tram that chugs up through the narrow alleyways to the Castelo Sao Jorge. The return journey to Belem on a tuk tuk was also fun. The rickshaw driver, a man with a pony tail claimed that the ride was funny but safe.

We went to Sintra by taxi that cost us 25 Euros. The hill town was shrouded in early morning mist that gives it a magical touch. The mist was not a onetime phenomenon but happens every day and is marketed in the postcards showing the mist clad Pinela Palace. The most exotic sight in Sintra is the Moor’s castle high up on the mountain. A bus ride through narrow roads gives you a chance to visit four historic sites in the small but extremely pretty city. Portugal was part of the Iberian empire that was ruled by the Arabs for 800 years.   The kingdom of Granada fell in 1492. All the Muslims were converted to Christianity and officially none remained after 1501. It was around the time that the Portuguese had landed in India.

Porto in the north was also on our itinerary. It is famous for the Port wine but for me personally it was the Livraria Lehlo that was fascinating. This library is small when compared to Saeed Book Bank in Islamabad but is known for its exquisite woodwork. It is also the place, where JK Rowling sat and wrote the first Harry Potter novel. She taught in the Porto University next door. The students still wear capes that was the uniform that Rowling gave to the students of Hogwarts.

Portugal has been part of the EU since 1975 but now has an ailing economy but suffice is to say it has thriving tourism.FB-Sintra-Castle-of-the-Moors-Sintra-Portugal


Victoria Park by night

A half-moon hung low in the sky casting a diffused light on the victory monument on the hill in Victoria Park. The environment was surreal as people barely visible in the low light cast semi shadows in the semi darkness that covered the steps surrounding the Gothic800px-Berlin-Kreuzberg_Postkarte_079 structure. In the pleasant summer evening a number of people were lying or sitting hidden from public-gaze gazing out at the sprawling city of Berlin. In the distance the TV tower, the monument that the East Germans had erected to celebrate their technology, emerged from the darkness as a symbol of a bygone era.

In this twilight zone, when everything was not clearly visible, the monument to victory stood out pointing to the sky. The cast iron monument of 1821 was dedicated by King Fredrick William III of Prussia to the liberation wars fought at the end of the War of the Sixth Coalition against France in the course of the Napoleonic Wars. It provides an excellent viewpoint over much of the central and southern portions of the city. In summer an artificial waterfall originates at the foot of the monument and continues down the hillside to the intersection of Großbeerenstraße and Kreuzbergstraße. A historic wine-growing area, today the park is neighboring two small vineyards, one in the northeast founded in 1968 and owned by the Senate of Berlin and cultivated by the adjacent market garden, the other one established in summer 2006 within the Victoria Quarter on the southern slope of the Kreuzberg Hill.

The waterfall was given a trial run for the first time on 14 October 1893. Gas motors in a neighboring machine house (now the venue hall of the restaurant in the Villa Kreuzberg, the former engineer’s home, an ensemble built 1892–1893) pumped up the water. Since summer 1894 13,000 L (2,900 imp gal) per minute are cascading the 24 m (79 ft) down to the small lower pond. Between 1898 and the First World War the waterfall was electrically illuminated at night shining in light resembling Bengal fire. However, the operation of the waterfall was interrupted between 1914 and 1935, and again 1938 and 1961. On the occasion of the festive days firemen re-flooded the idle waterfall for one day on 19 August 1955 by pumping the water uphill with their firefighting devices replacing the war-ravaged pump house.

Since 1949 the annual late summer funfare Kreuzberger Festliche Tage (Kreuzberg festive days, founded as Kreuzberg-Festwoche, i.e. Kreuzberg festival week) is held in the park, accompanied by more events also in other locations. In August 1953 a memorial stone was added in honor of the victims of the communist suppression of the Uprising of 1953 in East Germany. In November 1958 the smashed southern edge of the socket octagon was reconstructed again.

Today the Victoria Park on a warm autumn night reminds you of the ghosts of the past.


Call me Bwana

call_me_bwanaRemember the movie Call me Bwana from the 1960s. It was a crazy mad cap adventure of Bob Hope masquerading as the great white hunter. NASA falls for Hope’s pretenses and recruits him to find a lost spacecraft in Africa before hostile forces could lay hands on it. Bwana in Swahili means master. It has its roots in Arabic word Abu’na (our master). The whites were Bwanas – the masters in Africa. In many ways they still are. Their legacy and influence is still very strong and visible. Take for instance the drive from Nairobi to Lake Naivasha. You drive on the left hand side on the narrow single road and all the signs that you find along the way are in English. You would find nary any sign in a local language and the odd one out in Swahili is written in English script. I could detect only three such signs in the two hour ride. One was for a brand of chapatti. Another showcased a trakta (tractor) and another was a campaign poster extolling the virtues of a candidate for the local elections. It was quite evident that the white masters have totally suppressed the African languages. The villages are shanty towns with small churches dotting the landscape. The Africans still believe in voodoo and black magic and other indigenous beliefs but subscribe largely to the white man’s faith. There is no wild life visible. Most of it is now restricted to safari parks and resorts. Most that you see in the countryside are cows, sheep, hens and ducks. You can also see donkeys grazing or pulling heavily laden carts. I’m told the Chinese are importing these animals for purposes other than as beasts of burden. So I suppose we are not alone in earning from this asinine business practice. Sacks of khat, a mildly narcotic weed, line the road to be exported to countries like Somalia. The Somalis are addicted to this niswar like intoxicant. Our famous addiction is the Kenyan tea. A substantial amount of our foreign exchange is spent on importing tea from Kenya. Tea was bequeathed to us by our colonial masters the way they gave opium to the Chinese.

In the 1950s and the 1960s as the age of colonialism was ending and countries in Asia and Africa were gaining their freedoms. There was a great deal of hope. Julius Nyerere, Kenneth Kuanda and Jomo Kenyatta were being hailed as the new breed of African leaders set to lead their nations to a journey of prosperity. The great African dream did not materialize the way it was expected to unfold. Africa is still mired in poverty and is being thoroughly manipulated by former colonial masters. Resource cursed countries like the Democratic Republic of Congo and Sierra Leone of the “blood diamond” fame are experiencing civil wars, internal disturbances and bloodshed. Africa is hopelessly divided along the linguistic lines bequeathed by the colonial masters. Francophone and English speaking Africa look at each other with suspicion and hatred. Arbitrary lines drawn in the sand cut across ethnic and tribal lines creating wars which have no end in sight. Smaller colonial powers like Belgians exercise great influence over former colonies like Congo. Contemporary Africa has the largest number of conflict zones.

While individual Europeans own large plantations and their governments are indulging in a new kind of land grab in Africa. They are not only obtaining licenses for large blocks to prospect for oil but are also buying huge swathes of land to grow agricultural produce for their own national food security.  Ironically food for the Africans is in short supply and many African countries are experiencing famine. The Bwana in Africa is perpetuating a new age of colonialism.


Blue Danube

Danube is not blue; it is muddy brown because it makes a long journey passing through nearly ten European countries before falling into the Black Sea. It is only shorter than the Volga. Originating in Germany it was once upon a time the border of the Roman Empire.

Blue Danube is a famous waltz composed by the Austrian composer Johann Strauss in 1866. Commonly known as Blue Danube in English, the original title in German is An der schönen blauen Donau or By the Beautiful Blue Danube. I first read about Blue Danube in one of the books written by Shafeeq-ur-Rahman, the quintessential author of the timeless age of youth, laughter and romance.

Danube famously flows through Budapest (pronounced Boodah Pesht) the capital city of Hungary, dividing it into two parts. Buda is the hilly part and Pest (pronounced Pesht) is the one on the plains. Part of this fairy tale city’s mystique comes from the River Danube. You will most likely find a hotel room in Pest. If you can afford, you can select one like the Grand Budapest Hotel. I’m sure you’ve seen the very entertaining movie by the same name. If you haven’t I would highly recommend that you see it. From experience I can tell you that Budapest offers many affordable places to stay and food on a good budget. You should if you want to sample the cuisine of the city, try the goulash. I must confess I found it a bland watery version of our aloo gosht. If you don’t want to be adventurous, you have wide choice of doner kebabs with beef fillings. I cannot vouch that they serve halal meat but some vendors claim to do so. Hungarian is a difficult language but people are friendly and often try to give directions in English.

Budapest by all accounts is a wonderful city with an eclectic mix of history and culture. It has many historical monuments, natural thermal baths, exciting cultural activity and a very vibrant musical scene. It’s without doubt one of Europe’s most delightful and enjoyable cities. Due to its scenic setting and its architecture it is nicknamed Paris of the East. In 1987 Budapest was added to the UNESCO World heritage UNESCO World Heritage List for the cultural and architectural significance of the Banks of the Danube, the Buda Castle Quarter and Andrássy Avenue.

Budapest has one of the most elaborate traffic systems in Europe. Its underground boasts of being one of the oldest in Europe. We bought a three day travel pass and we could travel in the bus, train, metro, tram and boat. This was cheaper than the hop on hop off tickets being sold to the tourists. A boat trip took us to the island in the Danube, where we were entertained to a show of musical fountains dancing on the tunes of some good music. We also experienced music and dance in front of the art museum located in the royal palace and fort. The palace is beautifully maintained and during the Ottoman reign it also had a mosque. The natural baths in the city also owe their existence to the tradition of the Turkish hamams. One of the most exquisite views that one can get is from the funicular that moves up and down the hill to the palace by means of cables, pulleys and levers. Another place to view the city especially at night is from one of the bridges. The most famous bridge is of course the old suspension or chain bridge. The boat and barge traffic moving up and down the river provides a very nice view. At night it is an out of the world experience as you view buildings like the parliament house, the royal palace, the churches and temples and the old citadel brilliantly lit up and giving a dreamlike substance to the city.

The city is so full of places to visit and few days that we had planned were not enough. Some of the must see places are the old Basilica (also experience it by night), the Hero’s square and the House of Terror documenting the resistance of the people against the Soviet invasion in 1956 and the subsequent communist rule. You may also like to visit the Central European University in the heart of the city if you can squeeze out some time.

 


Pakistani Street Vendors on Alexanderplatz

Alexanderplatz in the heart of Berlin is a very happening place. On a warm summer day it is thronged by dozens of tourists out to enjoy the square abuzz with a lot of bohemian music and art activity. Artists with chalk or coal are drawing masterpieces that may last only so long as the next rain or cleaning up by the municipal authorities. Budding musicians are playing conventional instruments or just creating music by banging at pots and pans. Punks with needles piercing their lips and nose and hair garishly colored laze around, while lovers cling to each other in varying degrees of passion. Shirtless men with tattoos and pet dogs on the leash have cardboard signs declaring that they are shelterless and would you please kindly spare a penny, so that they can no doubt meet their quota of booze. Kiosks sell ice cream, while men carrying trays around their waist do brisk business selling cheaply priced wurst. Among this riot of color, song and music, you can see vendors selling peak caps, leather tank men caps, fur hats and gas masks belonging to the Soviet and East German armies. The newness of the caps is a fair indicator that these are not relics of a bygone era but newly made to attract the fancy of the tourist or the curious collector. By their appearance, the men selling the trinkets of the communist era seem to be from South Asian descent.

I walk up to one of them to find who he is. Ali can be between somewhere between mid-thirties to early forties. He is dressed smartly and is wearing sandals. We make small talk. How is business doing? Not bad given that there is an economic crisis. He can’t really complain and can make upto a thousand euros but then how much is enough? He wonders philosophically. He has been in the business for the past 5 years. Previously the Germans would buy stuff from him but now it is mostly tourists looking for souvenirs or students wanting a fancy headgear for a party. On a good day he can sell upto ten caps and knows how to get their price worth. He is from Mundi Bahauddin in the Punjab and so are all the other ‘colleagues’ of his on the square. They come from Gujranwala, Rawalpindi and even one from Bhai Phero. He has been in Germany for seven years. He is married to a cousin, who has been in Germany before. One can only make out that he got his legal status by marrying her. He has children and they visit Pakistan every year. You can’t say anything to the children in this country because they can call the police and they can take them away and put them in the custody of the government. This is not his only grouse. People in Germany consider Pakistan very poorly. They even rank them below the Afghans. What a shame, after all we brought the Berlin Wall down. This place that is humming with activity wouldn’t have been there, if it hadn’t been for us. Our leaders are bad. They cannot stand up for their people and make a case for them. The Afghans are also an ungrateful lot. We did so much for them and now they speak ill of us. Isn’t this a case of the pot calling the kettle? Yes, the Germans are very hardworking people. They are very well organized. They can do their work quickly. They only keep the minimum staff to get their work done. They work for five days and for the remaining two days they party. But you work seven days? Our case is different, he says with a twinkle in his eyes. Of course you can take a photograph of my caps but please keep me out of the frame. Would I like a cup of coffee? No thanks I say. He smiles broadly and I move on wishing him and my other countrymen working on Alexanderplatz well.

 


Canada in Fall

canadian fallCanada in autumn or fall as the North Americans like to call it is a very beautiful place. I spent ten days of October in Mississauga, Toronto and made a number of interesting observations. The leaves had turned yellow and red of the most vibrant hues. It was as if the Almighty Himself had used the most lavish paint strokes to give the entire place a surreal quality. One of the most amazing experiences were walks in the woods, where the country’s national symbol, the maple leaf, strewn in the walkways swished under the feet to break the eerie silence of the canopied woodlands.

Just before I was leaving for Canada, there was a terrorist attack, which had left two soldiers dead. The killers were recent converts to Islam with criminal history. I knew that this would give the press enough ammunition to blast Islam and its adherents. Mercifully, nobody checked me for my Muslim identity or my Pakistani nationality. Instead the lady at the immigration asked me if I had traveled to West Africa and if I had come in contact with anybody suffering from Ebola. I reassured her that it was not the case and she smiled and let me pass.  The national press was not so condescending. A debate raged on whether terrorism should be condemned out rightly or with reservations.  The funeral of the two servicemen, a corporal and a warrant officer was celebrated with a great deal of fanfare and entire pages were devoted to patriotic fervor and the fallen soldiers were lionized as heroes. Another news item that made headlines during this time was about a CBC anchor Jian Ghomeshi, an Iranian, who had sexually abused a number of women apparently against their consent. The publicity given to the errant person was out of proportion to what he deserved. My niece disagreed. Her point of view was that a person exploiting female rights must be thoroughly exposed and criticized. I thought that the sordid details that were being repeated ad nauseum in the news reports could best be avoided. Canadians like most advanced western countries champion human rights. I visited the University of Waterloo to meet a professor, who is the director of the peace and conflict studies. He proudly showed me around and informed me that recently anointed Nobel Laureate Malala’s father Ziauddin Yusofzai had been invited to deliver a lecture in the town hall. Malala has been bestowed the honorary citizenship of Canada and she is a celebrity. “Why don’t you like her?” my North American siblings asked me. “I do but I can’t force the average Pakistani to appreciate her from the West’s point of view” was my feeble response.

While Pakistanis imitate traditional customs in weddings in Canada with full gusto and enthusiasm, the contradictions within the diaspora are enormous. The first generation sits glued to the Pakistani TV channels believing everything been shown by them to garner cheap popularity ratings and feeling both relieved and sorry that the country they had left behind is in such a mess. Their children on the other hand have severed all links with Pakistan. They are not concerned of what happens there. What alarms the parents the most is that the children question the very belief system that they hold dear. They speak think and converse in English like any young Canadian kid. One day the conversation centered round the difference between ‘specially’ and ‘especially.’ On a whim I asked a niece what was the word for it in Urdu. I thought there was a fairly straightforward answer. Pat came the reply, “What do you call a phone in Urdu.” Implying thereby that there was no word for it in Urdu and therefore an English word had to be used. Thereafter this became the standard reply for all inexplicable things #whatdoyoucallaphoneinurdu. Other contradictions were visible in the celebration of Halloween. 21st of October is the annual event, when houses were adorned with scary figures, ghosts, ghouls and pumpkin cutouts are used as jack o’ lanterns. The imam in the Friday sermon declared the event a pagan celebration but this certainly did not deter the Muslim children join with others to dress up in costumes and to ring doorbells of neighbors to ask for candies. The first generation of fresh of the boat (FOB) elders just fretted and recited astaghfar as the kids reveled in Rome as the Romans.

As my ten days came to an end in Canada, I boarded the PIA flight from Toronto to Islamabad for an approximately 14 hours long trans-Atlantic flight back home. I mused at the success of my countrymen, who had made Canada their home. They had indeed found heaven on earth and escaped the dust and flies and rampant corruption of our motherland. They are now the citizens of the first world. They have a passport that can take them anywhere without visa hassles and frustrations of being part of a country that breeds terrorism. Happy for them I struggled with the inflight entertainment system that refused to function and the reading lights that did not turn on, despite repeated effort, I tried to go to sleep and hoped that I would wake up in the proverbial naya Pakistan, one of whose proponents has since returned to Canada to rest and recuperate and enjoy the benefits of a welfare state.

Canada in fall is beautiful and Pakistan in its fall can be precarious for the Pakistanis.