Prague: A quaint old European city

charles bridgePrag/Prague/Praha is a quaint old European city that can cast a spell on you. Urdu poet laureate Ibne Insha expressed his feeling of Prague enchantment in a poem of his: Ya shab ki siar Praha ho, jahan nazrain their thitki hoon, jahan dil ka kanta atka ho (allowing for a bit of artistic license it can loosely be translated as follows: “The evening walk in Prague can bewitch and captivate you”). Prague is now the capital of the Czech Republic. It has been the part of the Kingdom of Bohemia and the Austro Hungarian empire. In 1918, after the First World War, it became the Republic of Czechoslovakia. It was occupied by Germany during the Second World War and after the War it was in the the Soviet zone of influence. After the fall of Soviet Union, it broke into the Czech and Slovak republic. With its historic castles, churches, well laid out gardens and cobble stoned streets It is now a very sought after touristic destination. The term bohemian lifestyle comes from this place. The alternate life style that it symbolizes is from the Roma, who are said to have come from this place. Although I rather believe in the theory that the dark skinned migrated to Europe from Rajasthan in the hoary past.

It was dark by the time we reached Prague. The June day was hot. Our train from Berlin Hauptbahnhoff had been cancelled, a rare happening in clockwork perfect Germany. So we traveled by Regiojet bus. The travel was uneventful. The bus had good on board entertainment system. In the four hours journey, I saw a movie based on one of favorite TV programs Man from Uncle. The stewardess offered us cappuccino coffee and the good thing was that it was on the house. The internet was working so you can check up on the social media..

The bus stop at eleven was closed and so were the money exchange. The only place open was a convenience store being run by a young Bengali boy. He changed us money at a slightly unfavorable rate of 24 Czech Korunas for one Euros. For further help he asked a to the Sikh boy, who had just entered the store. I forgave him for making money off us because Gagan was really helpful and hailed us an uber taxi. It is going to cost you 177 korunas to your hotel, we were told. The driver wanted us to pay 200 korunas but we stuck our ground and paid according to the meter and won the first round. Tourist advice was that taxi drivers in Czech Republic can be highhanded. The hotel Jeleni Drivus (Jeleni means moat in Czech) was nice and the receptionist Rustam from Kazakhstan was helpful. He gave us two coupons for beer downtown cafe associated with their hotel. We were able to exchange the coupons for two cups of coffee. The first night that we spent was in a room looking out to the tram station just next to the hotel. Brussnice (it sounded like that) was a busy station and the wife had a hard time sleeping. Next day we got the room changed the one overlooking the castle. Better view and better sleep. The breakfast was good and plentiful and was enough for us for daylong tourism.

The Czech language is woefully short of vowels, so it is different to pronounce their words. Prague has a multi ethnic society. Until the Second World War, it had three distinct populations namely the Czech, the Germans and the Jews. Many Jews were sent to their deaths in the anti-Semitic purges made by Hitler. After the War Germans were forcibly evicted from Czechoslovakia. The Jews spoke German and even had their own variant the Yiddish language. One famous German speaking Jew from Prague was Franz Kafka. A troubled man Kafka had an unhappy childhood and youth. Like Urdu short story Manto (another troubled and misunderstood man), Kafka died in his early forties. I confess I’ve always found Kafka difficult to comprehend. Kafkaesque for me  is something dark and foreboding and Freudian. Sigmund Freud as we know was n Austrian Jew known to us for his method of psychoanalysis. There is a figure of Freud hanging from a pole in Prague. A visit to Kafka’s museum was on my bucket list. Kafka museum is one of the many small and large museums that dot Prague. Someone said that Prague has the most museum per square kilometer than any other city. I can’t vouch for the veracity of this statement but Prague is a small city and if you have time, you’ll be able to see most of the museums in the city. The average admission price to these museums is about koruna 290 per adult. Adult citizens (over 65 can claim some rebate) The only other museum that I saw was the museum of communism. Interesting but a canned version of history. A much bigger and grander one is the national museum at the end of the Wenselas square in the newer part of the city.

Prague is a city than can be enjoyed through leisurely strolls. One is bound to come across most of the important landmarks on the must see list. There are many castles and towers but the Prague castle has to be seen to make you genuine tourist. Old steps takes you the Vltvala River and over the 14th century Charles Bridge (German: Karl Bruecke, Czech: Karluv Most). It’s quite a coincidence that Bosnians also call their bridges Most. There is the Stari Most or old bridge in Moststar. The Charles bridge has eleven arches and there is a statue on each abutment. The bridge is a busy place. Trinkets are being sold and artists are making a quick buck drawing caricatures. Some are not willing to work for the koruna. Beggars prostrate themselves with hands folded in supplication. Their caps lying in front of them for alms. Their dogs are also lying with them, sorry for the fate befallen on their masters. Boats full of tourists float past on an idyllic summer day.

Through the winding streets one comes across vendors selling Prague’s trademark Trdelink confectionery with ice cream stuffing. This chimney shaped bakery item came from Hungary via Romania and is now presented as the original cuisine of Prague. There are open air theaters in the evening and lot of cultural activity for those inclined towards such activity. Mozart had quite a following in Prague, when Prague was part of the Austro Hungarian Empire. If you have interest in architecture, you can enjoy the famous barque style of construction. The astronomical clock is quite a sight and is full of tourists, when the clock strikes another hour and all the puppets come twirling out. Prague is also well-known for its puppets. A visit up the Petrin Tower is worth it. It was modelled after the Eifel Tower and was opened to public in 1891. A funicular tram brings you up to the hill. The original funicular had an interesting system of water balancing, in which the wagon on the top was filled with water to drag it down and pull up the wagon at the bottom. Water was released at the bottom, as the wagon on the top was filled with water to repeat he performance. A climb up the tower will again cost you at least three hundred korunas. The exhibition in the basement is for free. Prague has a very elaborate public transport system. The tickets can be bought from kiosks or machines at the bus/tram stops. Some trams have machines installed inside the wagons. Tram 22 takes you past all the historical sites or at least most of them.

We returned to Berlin by train by the fast ICE train. The top speed was 200 km. Our wagon was not hitched to the engine for operational reasons and the lady conductor accommodated us on the seats reserved for the invalid, expectant mothers or the really elderly. We had paid extra money for the seats and I guess we could have saved. The Internet was free and the trip was heavenly. To add more value to to the trip, there was a blonde German Sikh boy on the train with his girlfriend. He obviously didn’t have any reservation and was sitting on the floor next to the door. Gagan at the Prague bus stop had cut his hair. The only religious accouterments was his bangle. The German Sikh had long hair and a turban to cover his ‘kais.’ The bangle with Gurmukhi inscription was adorning his right wrist for good measure. Sat Sri Akal! Back in Berlin, there are more Turks than Germans. World has become a different place. More cosmopolitan and I hope a little more tolerant.

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Pitfalls of the Social Media

There are always two sides of the coin. This is particularly true for technology. There are obvious uses and utilities of the social media. It has to a very large extent empowered the ordinary folks to send their messages across to a very large audience. This liberty in some cases is being used to spread hatred and disinformation.

I have been added by friends, relatives and colleagues to become a member of a number of Whatsapp groups. I thought these sites would provide like minded people to catch up on news about each other and be a support system, when one was down in the dumps or needed genuine help or sincere advice. Unfortunately this is not the case. Most of these places spread negativity at a lightning speed. The rumor mills works effortlessly to spread false information, once a message becomes viral on social media. Many if not most of these messages spread baseless and useless information through unwitting accomplices. The purpose of these messages is mostly to spread hatred and disharmony. Packaged in a subtle and convincing manner, these appeal to political, sectarian and moral senses to those on the social media. When these messages strike the sympathetic chord, sensible people do not even take a nanosecond to pass on second hand information without verifying the veracity or source of these messages. Most of this recycled information has been planted in the first instance with sinister motives and apparently sensible people become part of these campaigns.

I’ve tried my best to leave some of these groups but caring and sometimes concerned friends have very sympathetically added me right back thinking that I had accidentally left and did not do so on purpose. To be frank, I do not have the gumption to tell them real reason for my departure. In a final act of surrender I’ve become a silent spectator of the goings on in the morbid spaces of social media.  The most I do now is to clear chat, as soon as I find the thread become too large for the memory of my smartphone.

The Government in power is afraid of the propaganda launched on the social media to expose its wrongdoings. In desperation it threatens to prosecute those behind these campaigns under the Prevention of Cyber Crimes Act of 2015. Cyber rights activists have crusaded against the indiscriminate application of these laws and have been to a large extent been able to win some important concessions. Threats of incarceration hasn’t stopped trolling or harassment in cyberspace.

There is a need to sensitize the users of the social media to act as responsible citizens in cyberspace. The state, the people’s representatives. Opinion-makers, the clergy, the role models, teachers and parents all have a role to play. Everyone is a stakeholder. Sometimes the messages being uploaded are striking against the very vitals of the state and our family values and ethics. Rules of the game have to be defined and all concerned must be asked to abide by these. Group admins should not moderate the conversation and under no circumstances be allowed unsubstantiated information to be uploaded on groups that they’re managing.  If they are not careful in their responsibility they’re party to the crime and last but not least they should learn not to add anyone without his or her consent.

We need to act before it is too late!

 


Bank Accounts for Afghan Refugees

Sher Khan (not his real name) is an Afghan, who was born in Pakistan and has known no other country. He is in his late twenties and already has three children. These children are technically Afghans but like their father have never known any other country but Pakistan – the adopted homeland of their grandparents. Sher Khan is an honest and hardworking man and performs his job as a watchman with vigilance and rare commitment. I have found him to be thoroughly dependable and better than those holding genuine Pakistani CNICs. I want to keep him for the long term and would like to deposit his pay check directly into his bank account on a monthly basis. The online payment is hassle free and can save me a lot of botheration. I can’t do it because banks have very strict instructions about not opening accounts for aliens without proper documentation. Sher is registered with NADRA as a refugee and has an alien card. The card expired last year and the renewal is pending because Government is yet to decide how long they would be letting Afghans stay in Pakistan. As per instructions received by the local banks, an Afghan residing in Pakistan should have an Afghan passport and work visa to open an account. Even this is problematic because the account holder has to frequently get the visa renewed to let his account remain valid. A bank account is a good way of keeping track of a monetary trail and brings the grey economy into the fold of the mainstream. Not allowing the Afghans to open a bank account is to encourage them to make financial transactions outside the tax net. This by extension denies the authorities to check the money trail and prevent it being used in any illicit activity. In my opinion the approach of excluding the Afghans from opening bank accounts is extremely counterproductive. They should be allowed to open bank accounts and be made part of the normal economic activity. Most Afghan refugees, like most Pakistanis are honest, hardworking and decent people. They should be integrated and not segregated. Most of us are apprehensive about the perceived harsh immigration policies that become part of the Donald Trump Presidency. The why should we be adopting patently bad policies to marginalize and antagonize Afghan refugees. These people have been in Pakistan for a number of generations now and therefore we must be careful in crafting our Afghan refugee policies. Better sense and prudence should be our leitmotif.


Wollaton Park – the Manor of the Dark Knight

Nottingham is known for Robin Hood and his band of merry men, who lived in the Sherwood Forest and robbed the rich to pay the poor. No one knows if he was a real person or a fictional character but Nottingham proudly uses him as a brand name. Legend has it that he was a heroic outlaw in English folklore, who was a highly skilled archer and swordsman. Traditionally depicted as being dressed in Lincoln green, Robin Hood became a popular folk figure in the late-medieval period, and continues to be widely represented in literature, films and television.  References to Robin Hood are found in the ballads of the fourteenth century.

Another character made Nottingham his abode in the twenty first century. In 2011, key scenes from the Batman movie The Dark Knight Rises were filmed in Wollaton Park. Wollaton Hall was featured as the latest Wayne Manor. Movie was released in 2012. The location was well chosen by Christopher Nolan for the final instalment of his Batman film trilogy, and the sequel to Batman Begins (2005) and The Dark Knight (2008). The film grossed over $1 billion worldwide at the box office, making it the second film in the Batman film series to earn $1 billion. It is currently the 16th highest grossing film of all time, the third-highest-grossing film of 2012, and the fourth-highest-grossing superhero film of all time.

Wollaton Park is actually a deer park and home of Wollaton Hall, Nottingham Natural History Museum and Nottingham Industrial Museum in the heart of Nottingham. The Park is enclosed by a red brick wall at the start of the nineteenth century. Originally spread 790 acres (3.2 km2), land sales have reduced the park to 500 acres (2.0 km2). The park is home to a herd of red deer and fallow deer. At most times you can see them sitting in front of the Hall. You can go quite near without offending them. Other wildlife of note at the park includes a large corvid roost made up of rook, jackdaw, and carrion crow. Other notable species present at the site are populations of jay, nuthatch and sparrow hawk. Migrating wildfowl grace the lake in the winter and species of note include gadwall, northern shoveller, Eurasian wigeon and tufted duck. There is a good diversity of fungi present, especially in the winter months, mainly found near the wooded areas and the lake. A walk around the lake is most enjoyable.

In this park, during World War II American troops of the 508th Parachute Infantry Regiment, part of the U.S. 82nd Airborne Division, were billeted here, waiting to be parachuted into Europe, which they did in June 1944. A small plaque commemorates this event.  Subsequently German prisoners of war were billeted here for employment in the locality between 1945 and 1947.

Wollaton Park is often used for events such as cross country races and music festivals. The park is often visited by physical fitness buffs and I saw a military style boot camp in progress, while I was there.


What if the West had lost Cold War?

Berlin has the distinction of being the final battleground of two wars – the Second World War and the Cold War. National Socialism was defeated here in 1945 and communism in 1989. The Berlin Wall has been torn down and the only vestige of the terrible barrier that separated the two German nations is a symbolic line of stones etched on the floor of Berlin. It is discernible at a number of places and is quite visible if you visit Berlin’s iconic landmark, the Brandenberger Tor. As a visitor to reunified Berlin, I often wonder what if the West had lost the Cold War.  Whenever I wonder aloud, I’m told quite authoritatively that it wouldn’t have been possible. The reasons that are quoted are as follows: The communist system was too controlled. People were oppressed and wanted freedom. The capitalist system despite its flaws gives people more choices and a way of life according to one’s own liking. True, but what if the West had lost and the communists would have won? The counter narrative is missing because history is often written by the victors. I was particularly moved, when I saw two monuments each celebrating a different memory, one in Berlin and the other in Budapest. The memorial to the fallen Soviet soldiers of World War II at Treptower in Berlin is massive and is spread over acres of land. It is embellished by statutes and stones carrying patriotic slogans. The memorial to the fallen Hungarian patriots of the 1956 uprising against the Soviet intervention is smaller and is restricted to a house called the House of Terror in Budapest.

The Soviet War Memorial and military cemetery in Berlin’s Treptower Park commemorates 5,000 of the 80,000 Soviet soldiers who fell in the Battle of Berlin in April–May 1945. It was opened on May 8, 1949 and served as the central war memorial of East Germany. Three more Soviet memorials were built in Berlin. One in the Tiergarten memorial became part of West Berlin and the other is in Schönholzer Heide. The focus of the Treptower ensemble is a 12-m tall statue of a Soviet soldier with a sword holding a German child, standing over a broken swastika. It marks the deeds of Sergeant of Guards Nikolai Masalov, who during the final storming of the center of Berlin risked his life under heavy machine-gun fire to rescue a three-year-old German girl whose mother had apparently disappeared.

Before the monument is a central area lined on both sides by 16 stone sarcophagi, one for each of the 16 Soviet Republics with relief carvings of military scenes and quotations from Joseph Stalin, on one side in Russian, on the other side the same text in German: “Now all recognize that the Soviet people with their selfless fight saved the civilization of Europe from fascist thugs. This was a great achievement of the Soviet people to the history of mankind.” At the opposite end of the central area from the statue is a portal consisting of a pair of stylized Soviet flags built of red granite. These are flanked by two statues of kneeling soldiers. Beyond the flag monuments is a further sculpture, along the axis formed by the soldier monument, the main area, and the flags, is another figure, of the Motherland weeping at the loss of her sons. As a poignant reminder of their heroic deeds of their countrymen, the Russian citizens of Berlin still come to lay flowers and burn candles at the main sarcophagus and offer a silent prayer and wonder if the course of history would have been different.

House of Terror museum located at Andrássy út 60 in Budapest, Hungary contains exhibits related to in 20th century history of the country under the communist regimes. It also serves a memorial to those detained, interrogated, tortured or killed in the building. Built after the collapse of the Soviet Union and opening up of Eastern Europe to capitalist ideology it is meant to castigate communism and fascism and contains material on the nation’s relationships to Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union. On the roadside is a display of the fallen heroes of the 23 October 1956 uprising against the Russian intervention. Imre Nagy, the country’s prime minister’s defiant address in the face of the Soviet takeover is emblazoned in bold letters. The exhibit inside is related to Hungarian organisations such as the fascist Arrow Cross Party and the communist ÁVH (which was similar to the Soviet Union KGB secret police). Part of the exhibition takes visitors to the basement, where they can see examples of the torture chambers. There are of course critics to this exhibition, historians, journalists, and political scientists, who argue that the museum revolves plays too much upon the victim-hood of Hungary under foreign occupation and ignores the contribution of the Hungarians themselves towards the perpetuation of the communist rule.

For someone growing up in the Cold War era and experiencing it first-hand these memorials serve as important reference point and reinforce the question, what if the West had lost the Cold War?

 

 

 

 


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.

 


Why there will be no coup in Pakistan?

We have just witnessed high drama in Turkey. A segment of the military tried to briefly takeover the government but failed to do so. The elected government asked the people to come out on the streets in their favor and the rebellious soldiers fled in the face of street power that they hadn’t reckoned with. Pakistan and Turkey have a common history of coups. In both countries the military considers itself the custodian of the nation’s physical and ideological borders. In both countries the military has the licence to give a course correction, whenever it is felt that the system is going awry. This right – a constitutional one in case of Turkey and legal one under the doctrine of necessity in Pakistan – has produced long periods of military rule. Turkey has been free of martial laws since the end of 1980s, while Pakistan saw off its last military ruler in 2008. Counting out the recent attempt to disrupt democracy, Turkey has made considerable progress as a stable democracy. In Pakistan democratic traditions are still fragile, there is a skewered civil-military relations and each instance of political turbulence makes the rumor mill run amok predicting that a military putsch is around the corner.

I am no sage but in my opinion there is no imminent possibility of any political coup taking place in Pakistan like Turkey. The reason is quite simple. The Army in Pakistan is strong and doesn’t need to remove a weak and pliant civilian government. From experience it has learnt that it is better to pull the strings from behind the curtains instead of being in the front and be cursed by the common man for his daily miseries like power outages and corruption. Each military dictator had to relinquish power in face of popular unrest after having failed to resolve the country’s multifarious problems. After the return to civil rule it has been fairly smooth sailing for the military. The previous civilian government simply did not interfere in their affairs and gave the powerful army chief and the intelligent head extensions in their tenures of service to keep them happy and out of their hair. The present government lost its political clout when it was jolted by street power demonstrations in 2014. Thereafter it ceded so much space that it simply could not recover. Army occupied the vacuum created and the civilian government just did their bidding. The Army chief became extremely popular and the prime minister plagued by financial scandals just took a long leave of absence on medical grounds and nobody missed him for more than a month.

In Turkey as well in Egypt military coups were launched after extensive foreign propaganda against the elected government. In Egypt the government of Muhammad Morsi was kicked out after merely a year in power because his Islamic credentials and method of governance became repugnant for the people and world at large. The Egyptian military gladly rebounded and resumed from where the previous military strong man Hosni Mubarak had left. In case of Turkey, President Erdogan was also becoming increasingly autocratic and there were reports in the international media condemning him for his strong arm tactics against his political opponents. There are also allegations of foreign sponsorship of the coup makers by the reclusive cleric Fethullah Gülen. In case of Pakistan there is a lot of domestic bad press against the current political leadership but neither the international media is hostile nor are there any known foreign sponsors. At most international leadership is dismissive about the present prime minister but there is no suggestion or encouragement of military interference.

So why should the Army to interfere with a political government that hardly poses a threat to it and creates no problems in its working? In any case it has its hands full with Operation Zarb-i-Azab launched over two years ago to root out terrorism in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA). The present Army chief wants to leave behind the successful completion of this counter insurgency campaign as his legacy.  Seen from this perspective, the civilian rule under the watchful gaze of the military is likely to continue in the foreseeable future without recourse to martial law.