Tuesday, 13 December 2011

Building Brand Pakistan - Part 5...another Young Pakistani Girl makes us Proud!

Those who think Pakistan is only about suppressed women behind forced veils, need to look beyond this media created stereo-typical image and understand that 1) veiled women are a minority in the Pakistan of today 2) most veils are not forced but voluntary sprouting more out cultural reasons than religious 3) veils,  hijabs or covering more than a bikini has nothing to do with your ability to succeed academically or professionally. 
A Brilliant young girl Sitara Akbar, who is only 11 years old and a resident of Chiniot (small town, north west of the city of Lahore,  Pakistan), set a world record by passing O-level English, Mathmatics and Science. (as Geo News reported on Sunday, 12 Dec 2011)
This is not the first time that the eleven-year-old girl from Chanab area of Chiniot had dazzled the world with her brilliance. She had passed O-level Chemistry in nine years of age, hitting a record in Pakistan. Sitara then went ahead and succeeded in setting her first world record after passing O-level Biology at the age of 10.
Sitara’s father lamented that she had once been expelled from an elementary school on grounds that she asked many questions in the class.
Great going Sitara!  Keep the questioning mind alive and kicking! That's what Pakistan needs! 
The world record holder was expelled from school "for asking too many questions"

Saturday, 3 December 2011

Building Brand Pakistan - Part 4

Pakistani youth making a difference in their own pockets - every little change adds up to become a revolution...[news posted from CNN]

14-year-old girl wins Pakistan's first peace prize

November 24, 2011|By Nasir Habib, CNN
A female teacher gives a lesson at a girl's school in the main town of Swat valley, Pakistan on August 1, 2009.
An eighth-grade girl was awarded Pakistan's first National Peace Prize Thursday for her online diary reporting on the Taliban's ban on education for girls.
Malala Yousufzai, a resident of Swat Valley in northwest Pakistan -- one of the most conservative regions of the country -- wrote about her frustration with the Taliban's restrictions on female education in her town.
Using the Internet, she reached out to the outside world, taking a stand by writing about her daily battle with extremist militants who used fear and intimidation to force girls to stay at home.

Friday, 2 December 2011

Building Brand Pakistan - Part 3

In an attempt to share what'good' is happening in Pakistan. Peshawar is not the most advanced cities of Pakistan, but this story shows that talent could be hiding in any town, under any circumstances - all you need is the passion and a little bit of encouragement and recognition. I'm so proud to see these two brothers aiming to establish a world record to bring glory to our nation.

We need to share more stories like these - this is the on the ground reality of our country.

You're from the country where they 'cook up their men' !!

I land at JFK airport and my husband and I go to the rent a car section to get ourselves a car for the trip. I hand over my passport to the lady at the counter - seeing my green passport, she jumps up with a laugh and says in her unique nasal afro-american accent...'Oh I love the women in your country, very strong women I must say, you cook up your men if you're not happy with em' and then looking at my husband she says 'You've gotta be careful man, she can be a tough one!'.  I was confused, first trying to translate the accent and then the context of 'cooking and men'! (at first I thought she means we cook food for our men, which we do).  I got her to repeat it for me and then i realised she was talking about the news two days back about this lady in Pakistan who happened to murder her husband and cook his body to hide the meat. She did it to take revenge from him for eyeing her daughter (his step daughter) for an affair while he was already married to the mother. She was so angry she decided to kill him and then cook him up. 
I hadn't seen this news till then, but the way the lady described it, we both had a good laugh about it. Then she looks at my passport and says 'O you've got your husband's name here' and turns to her colleague and says (in her accent again)  'Ya know, in their country marraige is serious business, naught like ours, where ya don know who your husban' is, or who's husban' he might be thamorrow'. I smiled at the fact that an american for once was appreciating the fact that we have our husband's listed on our passport. Usually we pakistani females dread the whole passport changing hassle and this chauvinistic law of having either your father or your husband as part of your identity (as if you, your living breathing meaty self were not enough to prove that you actually exist!). But this lady saw it as a sign of respect, something to go by as a legal and social protection. 

This might not be a very unusual interaction between a customer and a service agent, but post 9/11 any pleasant interaction between a Pakistani and a US citizen is definitely unusual now and I took a sigh of relief that one my first declaration of Pakistani identity in the US land, had something light-hearted to talk around it, rather than the monotonous link of terrorism. 

Friday, 25 November 2011

My experience with Painting...

Coming from a family of artists, I've always dreamt of being one since I was a child. I was above average as a kid in my art skills and managed to win a prize or two in art competitions. However I was more studious and ambitious than artistic I guess and growing up art went from being a passion, to seldom thought of hobby to finally a 'had been hobby'. 

Moving to Toronto and being jobless reminded me of my childhood passion and I decided to take up an oil painting class. During this course, I came across some surprises about myself and about painting that somewhat changed my cherry-eyed image of the subject. I realised, I was a very impatient person and oil painting demanded more than average patience; you've got to wait till layers and layers of paint dry out, so you can apply the new layer. It required attention to detail, another quality I'm happier living without - you need to look the the minute details of lights, shadows and shades to get the 'real look'. It required following rules! Yes, art of all the things, I thought artists were all about breaking rules and being free and crazy but that's definitely not the approach to a good painting. You've got to follow the rules of proportion, of colour mixing of spacing and much more. I realised art is also very technical. But most of all what surprised me is the kind of 'undivided attention' a painting demands. If you really want to paint, you need block yourself out from the rest of the world and life around you, doing it at home doesn't work because the kitchen or the mess in the living room or the emails keep distracting me. Unless I go to my studio, I cannot block myself out to give undivided attention to the painting. Once you're alone with your painting, it is a lot of fun and you can be there for 3 hours, feeling like they were just 3 minutes. 

I just had my last class yesterday and I learnt a good deal about art theory, different artists, different techniques of painting. I liked the pallet knife technique the most; I think I like this technique because it is more forgiving, you can mix colours and give a rough touch which still looks interesting and neat in its own way. It saves you picking different size brushes or cleaning your brushes again and again when you switch from one colour to another. Guess I'm a short-cut artist. No wonder I was always more drawn towards abstract painting. 

P.S: Yes, those are from my course work, attempts of re-producing Van Gogh and Tom Thompson. Glad they are not alive to see these! 

Monday, 26 September 2011

Toronto Diaries: An Organic Experience!

I happened to visit the Whole Foods grocery outlet for the first time yesterday. I did expect it to have a good range of organic and wholesome food offerings, but what came to me as a 'marketer's delight' was the way Whole Foods has built it's entire shopping experience around its core proposition of 'health via organic living'. 

First of all the grocery store has a very neat, clean and up-class environment to it (as you can see in the picture, it looks more like a cafe than a grocery store). You know that feeling you have when you think of your grocery list? Well you enter this store and you forget that dull feeling, in fact you will feel like you do when you're shopping for your favourite shoes or clothes - that's how pleasant the outlay and environment is. 

You think its a grocery store, but it's more than that. They also have hand made organic material gift section, natural ingredient cosmetics and more than that, they have a health bar - which includes an amazing Salad bar and an international cuisine bar. On the salad bar the board says 'Your Healthy Living Starts Here' 
On Saturday's the store invites you for their 'all you can eat healthy breakfast' - so you can make your Weekend grocery shopping trip a family breakfast time too! Something quite valuable to the busy working lifestyle here. It's also a great way to make your customers more 'organic loyal' by offering opportunities for them to taste and enjoy healthy eating. 

The store has an amazingly aesthetic display for each food section, be it cheese, bakery or sea food! They also have free sampling of their latest bakery or cuisine recipes. 

Another small but impressive difference was that all price tags were 'electronic'. How smart is that! Canadians would know how often stores have deals and sales on here - imagine how much paper and printing is wasted in changing prices over and over again! This is a truly  a 'green' initiative. As I said, I get excited by such things also as a marketer, because I can imagine how easily a brand could keep a check on their displayed prices at Whole Foods using their electronic pricing. I've seen the examples where brands lose out on sales because of mis-pricing by the merchandiser and it only gets detected after the loss has materialised - how often can you go to a store to physically check on each and every price in the aisle? 

When we talk about next generation shopper experience, Whole Foods is definitely one of the retailers bringing a step change! They stand for 'organic' in each and every way they sell their merchandise. Organic food is usually considered expensive to buy but if it is offered wrapped in a value added experience, I can imagine a lot of people feeling happier to invest in healthier food! 

Next weekend if you feel like breakfasting out of home and also have a boring grocery list - Whole Foods is your destination! 

Sunday, 25 September 2011

Toronto Diaries - Home Shopping

If you're new to Toronto and looking around for some good ideas for home shoppping, well here's a tip list from my very fresh and recent experience: 

1. The main places for furniture shopping are IKEA, Leons, Bricks and Ashleys. IKEA is perceived to be cheaper and good for quick and practical home set ups, but beware - IKEA with its flimsy finish and quality is usually more pricey than Leons and Bricks - we experienced this mainly when comparing beds and dining tables.

So if you have kids, go ahead with ikea furniture for their bedrooms but for your lounge and master bedrooms, it might be a better idea to check out Leons, Bricks etc. Ashleys is really good too but on the pricier side.

Leons and Bricks seem to have either the same or extremely similar suppliers, because you find the same designs in both places. Leons offers free home delivery  for any thing over USD400 whereas Bricks charges about USD 50 for delivery, no matter how expensive. They usually have great deals on in some seasons so its a good idea to only buy during deals - its definitely worth the wait. If you however you buy something off deal and its put on deal within 30 days of your purchase, you can claim for a refund of the extra amount and they will cater to it.  For that you need to keep an eye on their prices even after you've bought your furniture!

2. So once you're done with the big furniture, you're probably thinking curtains and blinds now. This is a tough one,especially if you've seen better things back home (and especially if your home was Pakistan or India, where beautiful and customised curtains are made at amazingly low prices as compared to the dollar prices you see here). So my first suggestion is, if you can get your drapes made custom made back home (incase you have an excellent cousin, sister or friend who can do that for you and ship them across, or you happen to be going back for a holiday soon - that should be your first option). Because good drapes are found few here. The ones that are even close to good are extremely expensive.

If however you just need very plain, no frills, simple drapes - I'd suggest you get them at Walmart (starting at 20 dollars). If you'd like to get slightly classier ones, then you can get them at Home Outfitters or Sears(starting at 40 dollars) 
If you're going for blinds, then IKEA or Blinds to go - are good options. Blinds are relatively easier to find and cheaper than curtains.

3. Ok drapes done too. What's next? I guess Kitchen and Crockery. Here you won't have trouble looking for options, starting at Walmart and going up to the classiest stores - you'll find good crockery and cooking ware, all price ranges and qualities. My favourite are:

 - Corelle
 - Benix 
 - Home Outfitters

4. Ok done with all the necessary stuff? Now comes the fun part - Home Decor.  Here again you'll find many options but what you must check on your shopping trip are:

- Home Sense
- Home Outfitters
- Pier One (on the expensive side)
- Bouclair (on the expensive side)
- Do NOT shop at IKEA for decor before checking the above out, chances are you're going to regret!

5. Now you're wondering, that's a bunch load of places to visit. So let me give you some good news. There is an outlet store area where you can find almost all of the above stores. This shoppers' heaven is called 'HeartLand' - your ultimate destination for cheaper prices on ALL brands - home or clothing or accessories.

Good Luck Shopping & Settling in :) 

Toronto Diaries - Arts & Culture

I'm going to start a series of posts titled 'Toronto Diaries' which will talk about my experiences in this new city. It seems like 'Google' isn't always a great help when you're searching for the right stuff in a new city. What helps more is word of mouth and that's also hard to find in a city you're new to. 

So I'm hoping information in my posts would help anyone who's new to Toronto (or Mississauga) and for the rest, perhaps you can just enjoy the read !

Well if you're new in Mississauga and do not want to travel to downtown very often for something artsy - whether its an art class, theater show, musical or concerts, one place you'd like to keep a tap on is 'Living Arts Centre'.  Living Arts is conveniently located in the center of the city of Mississauga, very close to the shopping mall 'Square One'   Living Arts is an amazing place where cultural, community and art activities taking place all year round. Currently they are holding a range of workshops and courses including, Theater Classes, Pottery, Hot Glass Sculpting, Wood Sculpting, Oil Painting, Drawing, Dance and Creative Writing. 
They have exclusive studios for each of these courses; the studios are fully equipped with all kinds of tools and machinery required for the craft. Class sizes are usually small (12-15 persons) so individual attention is given to each learner. All class times and fees can be found on their website! I'm attending the oil painting class and loving it so far!  Living Arts also stages musicals, so Mama Mia is coming up in November. Recently they staged an amateur theater, Anarkali - so you can expect ethnic performances as well. Last month one evening was dedicated to Mehdi Hassan, where one of his trained pupils from Pakistan performed Mehdi Hasan's popular ghazal songs. 

Another place you might like to check out for Art courses is Visual Arts Mississauga; they have a similar course offering and slightly less expensive fee structure. 

Monday, 19 September 2011

Morning Shows or Naach Gaana?

Turn on GEO or ARY at 9am in the morning and you see a pastry face woman glad in a perfect wedding attire, dancing, singing and doing crazy things. That's definitely not what I like to wake up to! Many years ago, morning shows used to be informative, decent, inspiring, and an interesting start to your day. Recently however they have become one hour long fillers for lack of quality entertainment. The host is more concerned about what what she thinks, how she looks, how she dances, than about the views of the guest invited to the show. The guest is forced to dance and act crazy like the host on an indian song. After a lot of haahaa, hee hee, hoo hoo - the show ends adding no value to the audience.  

It just leaves me bewildered that Pakistani show presenters have no talent at all - even the singing and dancing is not worth seeing and hearing (I'd rather sing in the bathroom myself than hear them). Is there no criteria for hiring these plastic women? Is there no training provided on what a morning show format should look like? Operah Winfrey has been a legendary talk show host and I hardly saw her getting up to sing and dance on her own show! It was all about the guest, about their life and about experiences. Although that isn't what a morning show can be compared to, but that definitely is the kind of show any talk show in general can be inspired from. Even the Sahir Show (failed imitation of Shahrukh Khan and Koffee with Karan) isn't any different from his sister's (Shaista Wahidi) morning show. I watched the show yesterday and almost half the show time was spent in Sahir trying to show off how well he can sing (which he was quite average at) , when the guest was a well known singer! Imagine that - trying to show off your pathetic singing skills before a professional pop star! The rest of the show was about dancing on a famous Amitabh Bachan song and the little talk on the show was also about 'how many Bollywood stars had the guest met in on his visit to India and what they said to him etc.' - how complexed are we? 

Confessions of a Confused Patriot

Scientists once conducted an experiment: They put a frog in a tub of water that had a burner underneath. Gradually they kept increasing the heat by fraction of a degree everyday. Every day the frog's body adapted to the increased temperature. They still kept on increasing the temperature up to a point where normally a frog would jump out of the water not bearing the heat, but because it was done little by little everyday, the frog did not feel the difference and its body kept adapting.
Then one day the frog died. 
It died because it should have died in the first place. It died because if you had put a frog into this temperature out of fresh air, it would have jumped out in the first place. 
This one did not act immediately, but died eventually - like the people of Pakistan, because the burner was raised so gradually that we learnt to live with burners like bomb blasts like we drink tea everyday."

Since childhood I have been a true patriot, always very passionate about my homeland, its economic and political situation and with undying urge to serve my country. Then something happened - I moved out of Pakistan for work and spent almost 4 years out of the country. Also, I left at a very crucial time, before the fall of the Musharraf military rule, before the Lal Masjid operation, before the Judiciary strike, before the Benazir killing, before Mr. 200% percent (the most hated man in Pakistan right now, Asif Ali Zardari) came to power, before power shutdowns became a nightmare, before the floods happened - I left at a time when Musharraf was still considered to be doing better than most other governments before. I visited often but that did not spoil my cherry-eyed image of my country. It was not until 2011 when I moved back to Pakistan, that I realised how much this country had deteriorated over the past few years. I had heard about it, but I had not believed it until I saw it for myself. The divide in the rich and the poor is at its worse, the common man is at his worst economically, socially and medically. The recent floods have brought so much more contamination to the country, there are more people dying of Dengue right now than of chronic illnesses.  

However, been born in raised in Pakistan, and being from the fortunate 10% who can still manage to afford generators, sweet water tankers and petrol at the sky rocket prices,  I managed to settle back in. But I did forget, although I was lucky enough to provide basic needs and basic entertainment for myself in Pakistan - I could not imagine to feel as liberated, as care free and find opportunities as easily as I could while living abroad. But this part of the equation only hit me when I moved out again (just last month) and came to Toronto. Landing in Toronto, I saw such amazing social infrastructure, offering such easy access to learning, training, entertainment and that too without any security or social threat - that it almost felt like I was breathing again! There are free libraries and community workshops, there is free assistance in language training and job hunting for new immigrants; one can walk out of their home anytime, without having to worry if your clothes look great (referring to the condition of the Pakistani elite right now), or that the neighbour's security guard is going to stare at you as if he had encountered a rare species. 

Its sad, and I confess, I am not the frog that was in the pond, I am the frog outside the pond that jumped in, felt the heat and jumped back out again!

As a native, I am still all for doing something to improve the situation for Pakistan, but I don't think I can be happier just living there as a dormant part of the problem.

P.S: While I confess the above, I still stand by the firm belief that Pakistan is a young country with problems of its age and additional problems due to constant international interference and dependence. I still believe that terrorism is not a problem we invented for ourselves but a problem that was shoved onto us for 'someone elses' global agenda (call me a conspiracy theorists but conspiracies are an exaggerated version of some lurking truth underneath). I still believe that media does blow Pakistan out of proportion, not because they show the bomb blasts that rightly take place in the country, but because they fail to show what 'else' (good) happens with our budding youth. (Reference to my earlier post: Re-Launching Brand Pakistan)

The 2996 (more important?) Deaths...

Observing the recent 10 year anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, I felt grieved and saddened for this was perhaps one of the most shocking and heartbreaking global event over the past many decades. At the same time, I also felt deceived and ignored, a lesser human being, a less important race in humanity - because in my country (the much talked about, Pakistan) there are on average 2-3 bomb blasts, drone attacks or target killings every month and the  death toll is in multiples of what was at the twin towers - but no one mourns that. In Africa, more children die of contaminated water than of bomb blasts in my country, but we live with that as a given. In Iraq, Afghanistan and Palestine, foreign military forces are guilty of killing innocent civilians, also in multiples of the number that was killed on 9/11, but no one mourns that. 

Mourning 9/11 is natural, but glorifying it beyond exaggeration and documenting the life histories of those 2996 families as if those were the only families who have had to survive without a father, a brother, a mother or live to see their children die, is almost discriminatory and racists. Yes racist - just like bullying homosexuals is considered so in most parts of United States. Being so sensitive towards 2996 deaths and so insensitive towards the other, greater number and perhaps more devastating deaths, does not sound fair either. Honestly, there are more people fighting for of minority genders and school bullying victims than the deaths of innocent civilians in Middle East, South Asia and Africa.  

I think Americans need to grow out of their self-pity glorification and look around at how privileged they are as compared to the rest of the globe. At least their children get free education, social protection and life long healthcare if they do not have a bread earner in the family. Yes, that's what a starved, abused,  poor orphan on the streets of Afghanistan, Pakistan or Palestine would think! 

Dragons Den for Pakistan?

Recently I've been watching 'Dragons Den' again on TV, a reality show where small and up start entrepreneurs are given the chance to present their business plans to rich investors and raise capital to expand their venture. It reminds me of my MBA days when we used to present academic business plans to our jury and get trashed and grilled on what we thought was a well thought out plan.

I was wondering, and I doubt that we have something like this in Pakistan. We have been very proactive in copying the 'american idol' and 'indian dance divas' which has brought forth a lot of hidden singers / actors and dancers and that might have helped a few fortunate individuals to embark onto a career and support their families but it hardly goes on to help improve lives beyond one family in the short term. Also, not that I am against performing arts (in fact I'm quick a fan), I do think it is important to attract talent towards other fields as well because in the arts and talent industry only a small percentage becomes successful. That's just the nature of the field, most artists only become legends after years and years of consistent hard unpaid work and that doesn't help raise their families or school their children but a small hot-dog stand stand can give you cash starting from the first day. I use the example of a hot-dog stand because given the unemployed numbers in Pakistan, many would even value being able to just do that if they could just raise a little bit of start-up cash and many mobile food shops turn out to become big cafe's in a few years, so there is a good possibility to get bigger with a small business like that. 

The good thing about something like Dragons Den is that it closes the gap between the 'good ideas not so wealthy people have' and the 'capital and experience big investors have' . When an individual gets approved for investment by 'dragons' in this show, he/she is able to start up a business which will usually be scalable across cities or the entire country and that not only makes a living for the entreprenuer but also for all the people employed in the value chain. It bridges the gap of not only capital but also experience, training and mentorship because when a 'dragon' (investor) invests in one of these business ideas, they also hold a stake of the company and agree to provide hands-on guidance to the budding entrepreneur. At times two or more investors join in which brings more capital and experience to the table.

I have followed a few success stories of 'Dragons Den' which have led backyard businesses to reach out across borders! This is indeed very encouraging and perhaps one of the best ways to create jobs in the current post recessionary environment.

Economic Development cannot take place without the flow of cash from the rich to the struggling and the transfer of skills and knowledge to a greater deprived population. If we start Dragons Den in Pakistan, I can imagine philanthropic business tycoons like Razzaq Dawood and Syed Babar Ali also finding a structured channel for boosting social capital and growth for Pakistan in the shorter and longer term, because its not every day that you can build something like LUMS

Tuesday, 6 September 2011

Back to School!

So there is this whole 'back to school' phenomenon here in North America that I'm experiencing for the first time. Everyone's just blabbing about it, from a pencil to a car, everything is on a 'back to school' promotion and deal. I'm reading moms posting messages on facebook about how 'bullying' is uncool and literally every TV commercial talks about back to school. Its not like I haven't seen 'back to school' happening back home, I mean every country has this post summer phase when kids get into new grades with new uniforms, and new books, stationery etc. We have ourselves experienced this excitement too as kids but what makes me smile and kind of laugh time and again is how 'big a deal' it is over here (in a good sense). 

The only thing that disturbs me though is how back to school advertising from clothing brands focus on the 'cool' or 'uncool' school wear and how they emotionally seduce moms to buy their kids new wardrobes so that they do not face self esteem issues when they go back to school this year. At the same time this part of the world experiences more bullying issues at schools which I think is somewhat also fueled by not having uniforms in school. By not having uniforms you're opening a whole new opportunity of discrimination, finger pointing, prejudice, increased self indulgence and consumerism among kids. Whats even more ironic is that its the public schools which do not have uniforms (most of the private ones do), whereas you have more children from the middle class and immigrant backgrounds studying in public schools. Being an immigrant is in itself sometimes food for bully-ism; so to add to your different colour, you now have your dress sense or money (or the lack of it) add to the diversity overdose in schools. 

As they go to the next grade with perhaps more books and heavier curriculum, the last thing I would want my kid to worry about is his/her clothes and whether or not they look cool enough for school. And it doesn't just stop at clothes you know, its all those accessories that go with it (and for girls the list is never ending). I think when it comes to student life, I like the old school thought from back home in south asia where people think strictly about exams, sports, extra-curricular and activities that add to your character and not more. Our schools did not even allow us to have a different coloured or fancy pony tail, let alone anything else. And I think that really kept us from being distracted by our or other students' appearances.

I think there is at least one element that needs to be removed from this whole 'back to school' phenomenon in the media, and that would be the 'wardrobe'. 

p.s this is what you get when you type 'back to school' on you tube (just notice the order and you'll understand my point). 

Monday, 15 August 2011

A perfect play of spirituality and vacation...

Dua'en boht soch ker aye they
Tere Dareechey per sab bhool gayeen
Duniya ki takleefein leker aye they
Teri chadar ki siyahi mei kho gayeen
Jitni kami thi zindagi mei
ek Teri kami se puree hueen
Barrey josh se ayee thi Tere darr per
Ye jalwa dekh ker behosh huee 
[Fizza, at Kaabah, 24th July 2011]

Ankhon mei ansoo hain pathar
Kitne paani mei hai aimaan aj dekha
Dil mei sakhti hai jese pathar
Kitna ishq e Ilahi hai aj dekha
Rongttey kharey hain jaise mimbar
Tere ghar ki shaan kia hai aj dekha
Dil bekhaufee se hai khaufzada
Momin ka munafiq hona aj dekha
Siyaah to hai ye chadar o aswad
Dil ka siyahh hona magar aj dekha
Tere habib to phirtey hain idhar
Gunahgar ka tawaf magar aj dekha

(fizza , at kaabah, 24 Jul 2011)

Kash mei kuch saal peechey chali jaun
Ek masoom bachi bann ker Tere darr per auun
Gunnah ho mera buss zam zam ka girna
Dua ho meri bus gurriya ka milna

Kash mei Mohammad (SW) ke zamaney mei chali jaun
Jo aye na samajh kuch to Aap (SW) se puchney aun
Gunnah hota mera buss chaadar ka urrna
Dua hoti meri shahadat ka milna

Kash na hota mere dil mei ye bojh
Dhoungee kesey itney gunahon ko soch
Farishta ek hee kaafi tha mere kaandhey per Mola
Duujey per dala meine korey kaghaz ka bojh

[Fizza, 26 July, at Kaabah]

(Beyond the humble attempt of expression above, I have no words to do justice to the spiritual experience of the holy cities and pilgrimage, but a mere factual account is described below)

Its been quite long since I blogged, but better still, I had been traveling so much that I gathered some more substance to blog about. Well, last month I was in Saudi Arabia, for the shorter muslim pilgrimage (Umrah). The pilgrimage takes place in Makkah but once you're in the country, almost every one (muslim) makes it a duo trip to Makkah & Madinah. Madinah is where the last Prophet (Pbuh) spent most of his lifetime post the revelation of the Holy Quran and so his (pbuh) tomb is also in the same city.

It is quite an experience for a believing muslim to visit these sacred cities. We have since childhood read about the stories of the spread of Islam and the sacrifices of early muslims and the followers of our beloved Prohpet (pbuh). One expects and also desires that once you set your eyes on the Kaabaah or the Masjid-e-Nabvi your eyes will burst into uncontrollable, unintentional, spontaneous tears and one would feel that their soul is still alive and in touch with its spiritual self. To me that moment took some time to come, and inititally i was embarrassed and a bit disappointed in myself. But later when I shared my experience with other people, many said that it sometimes takes time in sink in the fact that you are at that holy place. And at other times, some believe, our souls are so soiled with the weight of our daily small and big ill-deeds that it takes time to wash those off and soften our hearts so that we could see from the eye of the soul. I felt, guilty...that I might be from the latter group. 

However, leaving me aside, what I was totally impressed with were the arrangements at both Makkah and Madinah. From my childhood story books I had something very ancient in mind about this whole experience, e.g I had assumed that the walk between Safa and Marwa (the two symbolic hills in Makkah) would be open air, with rocky and sandy land beneath our feet and the scorching sun above our heads - you might say that was very naive and rather stupid of me; I should have at least done that much of research before going. Well to my benefit, I had mustered up a lot of will power to walk these hills in the conditions I had imagined but actually I found that these hill points were now indoors, air-conditioned and all floored with cool marble. Another beautiful technological advancement are the 'umbrellas' and 'sliding Domes' at the Masjid e Nabvi (In Madinah). So when the sun is out, these umbrellas open up wide to include the outer open air area of the mosque under a cool shade so people can pray outdoors as well. Towards sun set, these beautiful umbrellas collapse back. Similarly the beautifully painted, carved Domes that make the roof of the inner mosque are also movable and adjust according to the angle of the sun. 

Inside both the masjid e Nabvi and the Kaabah, you have air conditioned prayer places. There is an unlimited supply of 'zam zam' , the spring water that is meant to heal any disease or ailment, other than death. But the most amusing of all scenes is the 'cleaning mechanism' at the Kaaba. One, the cleanliness standards are out standing! Very frequent cleaning and very well done; but more interesting is the process. So the cleaning runs like a supply chain process; first a group of uniformed guys enclose an area with the red ribbon, then comes a little car carrying a drum of soapy water and a guy spills that water, then comes an army of men with wipers, wearing socks sliding and skating over the soapy water to spread it across (it almost seems like they are performing some kind of a choreographed exercise!), then the next row of 'men with mops' comes running mopping away every single inch 'squeaky clean'! It is surely a sight to watch! And this is all done bit by bit in every patch of this huge mosque, so that prayers are not disturbed yet all sections of the Kaaba are kept fresh and clean. 

Another noticable experience is the level of tolerance and diversity during and around the pilgrimage. People from all countries, cultures, languages - all gathered and almost greedy to get in first for every act of worship, yet patient, yet considerate of their other muslim brethren. Whenever someone would be praying in a rush area, others would voluntarily build a wall around him/her so that those rushing  in their way do not bump into or hop over the praying person. Yes there are places like the 'Haj re Aswad' (the stone from Heaven) where people would push and pull and knock you off to get in first, but even there I observed that most people were advising others not to hurt each other for a chance of worship, for such an act of worship would have no weight in the eyes of Allah. 

The reason I named this post 'perfect play of spirituality and vacation' is because, this actually was like a vacation - a vacation where you have limited activities to do so you actually rest enough too. We were there for ten days and all we did was eat, sleep, pray - eat, sleep, pray... and the element of praying was so fulfilling to the spirit that it was an enjoyable activity. 

Sunday, 19 June 2011

BOL [Speak Up]

Bol (meaning 'speak up' in Urdu) is the name of the latest Pakistani movie by Shoaib Mansoor, and I've just returned from its premier show. Good Pakistani films come few and far in between but I can safely say that BOL is by far the best, also beating the last super hit and internationally acclaimed "Khuda ke leye" (also by Shoaib Mansoor). I think the movie has been released at a very good time when the nation is truly devastated and shattered in spirit and hope on account of the recent incidents of the PAF base and the Rangers killing. The movie reminds us of the good side to Pakistan: the talent that we have in Pakistan and the potential in our people. 

The movie is a movement in itself - movement of social and religious thought. Amazingly directed, the movie is a great insight into the lower middle class Pakistani culture and social stigmas prevailing at large. From the taboo'd gender (the third sex type), attitude towards birth of the female child, child abuse, chauvinism, prostitution, attitude of Pakistani politicians, to Shi'ite versus Sunni religious issues - the film beautifully portrays and confronts the evils in our minds and our culture. 

I was extremely impressed by the acting talent of Umaima, the main character of the film, playing the eldest of 6 sisters and the driver of positive change for her family, breaking the stereotypical barriers that women face in any developing country. The appearance of Atif Aslam and Mahira seemed to be more of a tool to add colour to the otherwise gloomy and reality based art film. 

The film was liberating and tear-touching. I walked out proud of the cinema knowing that this film was a product of Pakistan, and made by the people of Pakistan, not those who are brought up and trained abroad but those raised, educated and trained within Pakistan. I felt proud that creative heads like Shoaib Mansoor are using their talent to question the status quo, long due to be questioned. I felt proud that they confronted the issues shoved under the carpet and sealed behind silent helpless lips. BOL is an excellent example of how Pakistani films can do wonders if we look inwards towards our strengths and depict our own values and issues than trying to mimic the Bollywood dancing style. BOL is a movie with impact, without indecent  costumes or vulgar dances, yet the film has music and songs to it. 

While most films are just an expression of what state of matters is, BOL is not only that but also a depiction of what we 'could be' if only... we dared to 'speak up' [BOL]. 

Wednesday, 8 June 2011

The joy of relocation

A research study shows that 'moving homes' is listed among the top 5 most stressful experiences in life after divorce, financial stress, death and a couple more. For me however relocation has a different meaning, it is how I identify with my life and myself. Relocation has been part of my life as far back as I can remember - whether it was changing homes in the same city, or moving to another country. So in every couple of years, I start anticipating a move even if I haven't planned one! From packing up carton boxes, clearing out the mess unsorted in months, going home hunting and haggling with property agents to finally unpacking and organising the new home - all are experiences that I have somehow enjoyed immensely in life. Moving is probably my third best adrenaline after traveling and my skydive experience.  
Right now I have seven suitcases lined along my bedroom walls, ranging from empty, to semi, to fully packed. Its time for another move - Yes, I am now - after having lived in Islamabad, Lahore, Karachi, Abu Dhabi, Dubai, and London  (I'm sparing you of the different areas and number of home moves within those cities)  - moving to Toronto.
Every city and every new move has added to who I am as a person, and even more so to my 'effortless learning bank'. What you may learn by roaming about a few hours in a new city, no encyclopedia  and no travel guide can teach you. The insight you develop on people, cultures, diversity of thought, belief and customs cannot be gathered through reading notes on anthropology. Sometimes this insight can scare you - belittle you, make you realise how insignificant you are in this wide world. Sometimes it can shaken up your deepest belief systems. As they say - ignorance is bliss and too much irrelevant information may lead to confusion. So the job as an 'absorber' becomes quite difficult when it comes to deciphering all the input as we walk past so many systematic, cultural, institutional and behavourial changes. But I still find the benefits out weighing any draw backs of moving. 
I am now looking forward to my next move, this time with my companion (this being our first move as a married couple) and I'm more than positive that this move will be more enriching than all past relocations. :) 

Saturday, 28 May 2011

Re-Launch Brand Pakistan - Part II

A few days back I wrote about the stereotype image that Pakistan has fallen victim to and my intention to become part of the mission of 're-branding' Pakistan correctly in the eyes of international media. I have since then been looking at what other people have been doing in this regard. Today on my flight from Karachi to Islamabad, I saw this video and was utterly impressed. This is exactly 'one' of the actions we had in mind to make a step towards this re-branding exercise. 

I urge all Pakistanis sitting abroad and inside Pakistan to visit Iampak (http://www.iampak.org/about.html) and  not only spread the 'image' but also become 'part of the image' by contributing your proud story of being a Pakistani. 

Believe me, it is 'us' pakistanis on the streets who make the soul of this country and not the few leaders or political/religious groups that mistakenly happen to be the face of the country on mass media. 

I have just come back from a breathtaking trip to the northern areas of Pakistan, "Nathiagali" (which I will also blog about soon) and I also saw some foreigners (seemed European by the accent) bag-packing  up there and I was very pleased that some non-Pakistanis had the courage to come down and discover the beauty and positive truths of Pakistan themselves despite what is projected on media.  

If you are a Pakistani sitting anywhere in the world, doing anything that can help Pakistan break away from its 'Terrorist' image, then please email your profile to  iampak.org@gmail.com  and become part of the 'real story' of Pakistan! 

Tuesday, 24 May 2011

Istanbul: in two half days

Soon after our wedding, my husband had a two week business trip to Toronto. We had planned I'd go visit my family in Dubai during those two weeks and tickets etc. were all sorted out. It was the evening before our flight to Dubai (his connecting to Toronto) and he comes home with three options for me: "my trip is going to be a month long now, so you have 3 options, either you spend a month in Dubai or you spend 2 weeks in Dubai and 2 weeks in Lahore (where my grandparents and two siblings are) or you could accompany me on the business trip." Without much thinking, the newly wed bride plunged at the offer of being with her husband (and I have to admit somewhere deep down the inherent traveler in me was excited about the new destination). Last minute, the only available flight we found for me was with Turkish airlines so we had to travel the long 14 hour journey separately!  (he was already booked on emirates)

The journey had a 7 hour stop over in Istanbul so I decided I would try my best to get a transit visa and get out of the airport. Seven hours of sitting at the airport before and after two long flights would have been a physical and psychological disaster for the adventurer living in me. So I tried and luckily managed to get the transit stamp. Not knowing much about the city and location of the main tourist attractions, I went looking for the tourist helpdesk at the airport. They advised me that I should take a taxi (worth 70 Turkish liras, one way!) and get to the other end of the city which could take an hour. When I asked them what the tube (metro) would take, they said 1.75 Turkish Liras - the decision was simple: I wasn't going to listen to the travel desk anymore. So I got a map of the city from them and went straight in the direction of the subway. The map showed me a picture of the Blue Mosque (built in 1606), one of the most famous tourist attractions of Istanbul . I showed that to the subway staff and asked them what route would take me there.

It was still 6am in the morning when I boarded the tube. I plugged my ipod into my ears and chose a seat next to the window. We quickly came over ground and I could see the suburbs of the city in the dawning light. This was March and still very cold for Turkey so everyone was packed in long coats, gloves, headgears and muflers. Luckily I was dressed for Toronto so I was well equipped for Turkey too.

I managed to change subways correctly and got off at the station closest to the Blue Mosque. On my way, I saw many mosques that looked exactly like the Blue Mosque (that I had seen in pictures) and I wondered if I had already missed it. To add to my confusion, when I stepped out at the correct station, I could see three similar mosques again! It was freezing cold and foggy - I walked along a bit trying to figure out which mosque I should audit first. It was 7am now - streets were still quite deserted. Only one breakfast stall on the pathway was to be seen. I went to him as I was a bit hungry myself and bought myself some traditional turkish cheese filled bread. Nice fellow he was - he noticed I was a tourist and let me pay a discounted rate when I fiddled with my bag looking for more change. Hunger was solved, but it was still too cold, too cold for my apparently very warm clothes. I found a cafe open, perhaps the only cafe open at 7am in the morning  - the Pudding Shop. They had wireless internet and I was carrying my travel buddy - my laptop! So I quickly connected, ordered a latte and spent some time checking emails, updating friends and family etc. By 8am, the chill had worn out and the sun was brighter. I decided it was time to do what I had originally come here to do - look for the Blue mosque! I went into one Mosque, saw all around, inside and outer courtyard - it was beautiful. It looked like the blue mosque, but I wasn't sure if it really was. So I went ahead to the next mosque and there I read a very different name to the mosque outside its gate and came out again looking for "the mosque". So I asked someone on my way, which of the three was actually the Blue Mosque, which I later learnt was also called the "Sultanahmet Camii Mosque". He pointed at the one I had entered first, so although I had seen it, I went inside again to give it the due respect and detailed observation, now that I knew it WAS the blue mosque :). Spent some good time, took a few pictures with the help of friendly looking strangers roaming around willing to patiently click while I posed like a typical tourist. I was satisfied, I had done justice to all the hassle of getting the transit visa and risking my way out of the airport. I walked about but since it was early morning, most shops were closed and I decided to return back to the airport in good time.

I got the same opportunity on my way back from Toronto. This time I made it to the ctiy at around 6pm, much more confident and knowing my way around. It was a perfect time to join the evening rush and glow of the tourist areas. I decided to check out the famous 'Grand Bazaar' this time. This a popular shopping area with traditional turkish shops selling handwoven carpets, bags, clothes, wall hangings and what not. The turkish lights are beautiful - multi-coloured and very delicate in glass and wrought iron. I had some interesting exchanges with the shop keepers - some thought I was Iranian and others Egyptian but whoever I was, it was a way to lure me into buying their prized products. 

I thoroughly enjoyed my walk all across the bazaar and infact I walked long enough to get to the Blue Mosque again. Istanbul, rightly known as the city of mosques, has a mosque of equal grandeur at literally every ten steps. The most beautiful part of the evening was the call (azaan) for the maghrib prayer. Suddenly all the mosques started the azaan and the city seemed to have risen above the ground in this beautiful synchornised echo. All the pedestrians and shopkeepers started walking towards their closest mosque (quite a choice they had). I also joined the congregational prayers at one of these mosques. The ladies area was upstairs and I happened to be only one out there but I actually enjoyed the combination of privacy in my area and being part of the group of people praying downstairs. 

Later I grabbed the traditional Turkish 'Donor kebab'  and walked across the colourful bazaar, enjoying the walk in the comfortably cold weather (this time of the day as compared to the chilly early morning on my last transit). 

I happened to engage in conversation with a couple of Turks who were curious where I was from. When I told them I was from Pakistan, to my surprise they were extremely warm and pleasant and said "oh brother country, brother country" in sincere joy! Pakistanis today seldom get that kind of a response towards their identity and so I was touched. One of them who I met outside the mosque asked me if I could teach him names of the 5 prayers in Arabic, since he only knew them in Turkish. That was a pleasant sweet exchange of knowledge and he repeated the five in Arabic to make sure he remembered as I told them. Another two Turks I met in the cafe were discussing the recent upheaval in Middle East and were interested in my views on it. I also met an Afghan/Turk shop keeper who had lived sometime in Pakistan and managed to speak a little bit of Urdu. And so a  truly Turkish evening it was! 

Friday, 20 May 2011

Olive - the LUSH by Pakistan?

I am a big fan of 'naturals', especially when it comes to personal care products. When I first went to London I came across this amazing shop called 'LUSH' and one of their key marketing tool was the 'scent' that traveled from their store to out to the entire shopping street. LUSH (http://www.lush.co.uk/) started as the hand-made natural ingredient soap makers in the UK and now they have expanded to almost 50 countries and across a wide range of personal care products (including cosmetics, deos, shampoos, oils etc). Their colourful and chunky products with the most tempting and mesmerising scents are quite a treat! and you can be sure that's about the most natural you can get when it comes to skin care and beauty products.

My most recent visit to LUSH was in Toronto a couple of months back and I was excited to buy their products after almost 2 years! I got myself a charcoal based face wash (it is known to clean out the deepest dirt from your pores) and a handmade banana based liquid  foundation (and it doesn't look like you've applied make up at all).

But now it seems like I might not have to wait to travel across continents to get my 'naturals' anymore. "Olive" (http://www.olivecosmetics.net/) a similar brand of hand made natural products has just been discovered! It is a local (Pakistani) business, which makes me very proud! And their products look just as amazing as LUSH. On the a left is a picture from an exhibition were Olive launched their range (you can see the similarity to the LUSH display above). In fact they also held a 'talk session' on their products to help their consumers learn more about the ingredients and understand what is it that they apply on their skin or hair. The packaging is also quite trendy and attractive, adding to the temptation from the scents and making them excellent gift items!  

I've been wanting to try Olive products and have just discovered that they are available in Lahore and Karachi at the following outlets:

Karachi: Object (Park Towers), Solo (Clifton)

Lahore: Source, Shop 224, Y Block, DHA (adjacent to Nishat Linen)

I'm definitely visiting their outlet tomorrow! :)

You want to Litter? Fine.

I know that Littering is a much repeated and reinforced topic, but what brings me to re-state the obvious here is my little experience today while I was in the car with my family outside a juice shop near hussain chowk, Gulberg (Lahore).

While waiting for our juice order, the car infront of us just spat out a disposable glass of juice. At that moment I and my family wished someone had done exactly to him what the video up here shows! My aunt almost got out of the car to correct those young teenage lads (as we later saw through the car) but she stopped short realising that they seemed the sort who would react foolishly. So alternatively she requested the juice shop waiter to pick up the litter which he willingly did.

This little incident got me in to thinking about ways to bring about a change in people's very casual attitude towards littering and I started looking into what other developed countries have been doing. During my search I also came across a concerned group of Pakistani's running the campaign called "Don't mess with Karachi" (http://www.deal.com.pk/index.htm), apparently inspired by 'Don't mess with Texas' (http://dontmesswithtexas.org/view-ads/) one of the most impressive anti-litter campaigns (speaking creatively) and I was glad to see that someone somewhere in Pakistan is also trying to bring about this positive change. 

So with out going into much criticism (and assuming that MOST of us do act oblivious and immune to litter once in a while), I thought I'd play my little part in being the change I'd like to see around me. Here's my humble resolution & suggestion list:

Can we please:

1. Never throw litter out of the car, instead carry it home to our bins?

2. Always fold our gums into a paper and then throw them into bins? 

3. Not feel ashamed to point out to others that they've just littered? If difficult to correct them in person, can we instead pick up what we see thrown in front of us? That would certainly cause embarrassment for the litterer! 
4. Not squish our cigarettes on the road or pathway while walking. Neither toss them out of the car? 

I know the list could go on for ever - but if we could just start with those FOUR above and make them second nature to us, I'm sure our cities would be degrees cleaner than they are today. 

And if the Government really does want to make money out of the public, heavy littering fines should be a better way than increasing all kinds of other taxes. At least it will do some good to the country! 

P.S : Littering really is Uncool!