Thursday, August 11

Food: Antepliler Doner Click for more info

There's only so much you can do with a doner, so the only real way it can ever be good is if the meat is. Antepliler Doner (across the road to Antepliler proper) gets the basics right, with its beef and lamb doner meat hitting just the right balance between processed and textured.

But Antepliler gets points for presenting the doner well too; I went for the Iskender, where the sauce and yoghurt were very welcome additions. Otherwise Antepliler was fairly standard stuff, with the decor and service all lending themselves to an upper end take away vibe - the only real issue here was with the price: paying more than a tenner for any kebab is a little bit insane. It's on that basis alone that Antepliler missing out on a recommendation, but it's definitely worth celebrating, I dunno, a lottery win at.

Tuesday, August 9

Film: Star Trek Beyond Click for more info

After my disappointment with the last instalment of Trek, I'm pleased to say that with Beyond the franchise is back on form.

Beyond is essentially a long episode of Star Trek, and brings in all the various parts that made the show so great. It had a good plot, some decent enough action and a walloping of humanity in the way the characters were made to demonstrate comradeship.

There are complaints however; some of the effects were very rough around the edges and characters didn't quite develop as much as they should have done. Beyond is no epic for sure, but it does deliver on what Star Trek has always promised and for that reason it gets a hearty recommendation from me.

Book: The Girl Who Wouldn't Die, Marnie Richies Click for more info

First of all, some disclosure: reading this book was a mistake. By this I don't mean that I regret it. I mean that I thought it was another book, one that had been recommended and become a bit of a talking point in some circles recently. The fact that they both sharing two words says more about me than the books themselves, and I put my hands up to the mistake.

That said, The Girl Who Wouldn't Die really was a dire read. So much so that I do regret having read it. In fact I dislike the book so much that it makes me angry just writing about it.

It managed the unholy trio of being badly written, having some magnificently unlikable and shallow characters and of having a plot that makes you wonder what the agent who commissioned the book was on to have passed it. Honestly I don't think I've read anything this bad since Twilight - I'd even say that Twilight was better.

Anyway, I write this review purely for completion - please do not read this book. Read The Girl On The Train instead... that's what I'm going to do.

Friday, August 5

So Much Werewolf

Two and a half weeks is a long time and amongst the many things I brought with me to entertain myself and others were a couple of table top games. The two I chose were picked due to both their compact size and compact play times, but both were social games - which is effectively a polite way of saying they involve a lot of interaction, talking and, perhaps by implication, lying and bluffing.

I wasn't sure if either would be taken up by the locals but both turned out to be pretty solid hits. I don't have an exact play count, but each game of Werewolf would take around 8 minutes, while each game of Avalon around 20... and we must have played for over 20 hours in total over the two weeks we played. The worst (best?) session was the one where we went to sleep just as dawn was breaking (and yes, embarrassingly we cut Fajr pretty close).

It was a great way to bond and end each day and wreck our sleeping patterns, and a lot of fun was had - the kind you can only really find while on a family holiday. So no, it doesn't happen enough... but it has convinced me to make more of an effort in organising specific games nights.

Tuesday, August 2

Film: Finding Dory Click for more info

It was always difficult to imagine what, if anything, Dory could add to the adventure that Nemo had oh so long ago (2003 if you were wondering). After all, there's only so many ways that a fish can get lost really.

But originality isn't necessarily the first thing one goes to watch a Disney-Pixar for, and in that sense Dory is a solid enough of watch. It's funny, touching and entertaining and worth anyone's hard earned.

It's just not as good as Nemo was. But that's okay, it gets a recommendation anyway.

Saturday, July 30

Thunderbolts and Lightning

It's rained almost every day since we returned from Jasper.

But it hasn't just been normal rain. The day would usually begin with sunshine and temperatures that would hit 25C and sometimes more. But then for 30-60 minutes each afternoon the heavens would open up, presenting some of the most heavy stormy weather I've seen over an extended period of time. We're talking multiple booms of thunder, sheet lightning, running water and constant flooding. It was pretty biblical at times, yet wonderful to witness.

Friday, July 29

Nouman Ali Khan

When we were asked to pray in the parking lot this Jummah, my cousin's first attempt at explanation was that it was the holidays and that we had arrived late. Still, even he suggested that the rush was unprecedented given those circumstances, so we were a little bemused at the crowd at the Markaz Ul Islam today.

It was not until the video feed begun on the projector screen that I realised the real reason for the rush: Nouman Ali Khan was the guest khateeb for today. Obviously the increase in volume in the women's section was the reason the men were pushed out. These rockstar imams eh?

Seriously though, I saw it as a good spot of luck that we had inadvertently found ourselves listening to Ali Khan today. I've never had the opportunity to listen to him[1], but I have heard many good things from those (again, mainly women) who subscribe to his works (both figuratively and literally) so I was interested in checking him out.

But to be honest I was pleasantly surprised at what I heard. Yes, there were platitudes and yes there was a bit of overt feminism, but both were in good measure. The message - which was on self control mainly in the context of interacting with others - was less prescribed than advisory, and was open enough for those listening to build their own paths forward. It was deep and nuanced yet presented well, with humour and clarity, and not the simplistic unilateral messages I've come to expect from the more populist khateebs.

Of course I won't be following him on Twitter quite yet, but as khutbas go this was a good one.

[1] if your reply to that is "check YouTube" then you're misinterpreting my diplomacy.

Monday, July 25

Jasper and Banff

Ah, Jasper. And equally: ah, Banff. I'd like to say that there'll be a time where we won't have to offer pilgrimage to either of the two national parks closest to Edmonton, but I seriously doubt that will happen. And of course I'd certainly miss them if they were omitted. This time we were taken to see both parks, so the whole affair was quite packed.

As implied above most of the places we visited had been seen before, memories (both vague and otherwise) flooding back as early as the parking lot. It's hard to pick the highlights - everything (including the fifth waterfall) is pretty awesome - but the Colombia Ice Field will always be on the list of the most striking of memories. It's busier now, and more expensive.

Another fixed point in our Jasper tours are the Athabasca Falls, if only for the series of walkways that allow you access to explore the views. Lake Louise is the final of the three biggest memories that I hold, and the place was exactly how I remember it. What I don't remember are the bears - we saw both Black and Grizzly, some getting rather close to the car we were spotting them from.

The biggest change was definitely in volume of people. Everywhere was pretty busy and it was a rare occasion where we got to park without waiting. Most striking was the increase of visible Muslims around - where by "visible" I mean "hijabis". The last time we visited I would only see a maximum of two across the whole tour - and I'd be related to both of them. There's also a lot of tourists from further afield, particularly China.

I guess a lot does change over seven years.

Wednesday, July 20

Edmonton Good Times

It's been a whopping seven years since our last visit to Alberta, Canada, a time frame I'm still trying to come to grips with. I'm not sure why it seems like much less - the family I have here are still familiar, the town still the same. And yet there are differences: more babies mostly. Oh and we flew via Reykjavik which was something.

So it's unsurprising how at comfortable and at ease I find myself, and we immediately get on with the whole reason we travel here: to enjoy the company of the family we know and love. I imagine the novelty will be thin on the ground for this trip, but as someone who has long grown bored of exotic travel having something domestic and familial is exactly what makes me so excited about being here.

Friday, July 15

Food: Five Lads Click for more info

Sometimes its the basics that matter. Five Lads has a limited menu both in selection and pricing and so isn't really outstanding in this current sea of gourmet burger joints, but manages to present their food with such excellence and quality that it doesn't really matter. There's a striking feeling of homeliness in the place, a care and attention that only comes from these kind of indie run joints.

If there was one complaint it's on the number of covers; Five Lads may not be the place to go for a quick sit down meal. It's a classic case of being a victim of success really, which is unfortunate as part of the enjoyment of the meal was eating it fresh - take away might not have quite been the same.

Still Five Lads was a decent place and a definite pick for the area. Recommended.

Tuesday, July 12

Film: Ghostbusters Click for more info

Aaaaaaaaaaaah. It was always going to be a risky proposition going to see a remake of Ghostbusters. The fact that it would shatter any cherished childhood memories was a given really, all that remained to be seen was whether we would hate ourselves for even trying.

As it turned out the remake wasn't that bad really. The gender change worked well, as did the modern setting. It was still fun and zany, and the ghosts were able to walk that fine line between scary and amusing.

No, the main issue with the film wasn't the concept or the attempt, but with the film making itself. Ghostbusters was badly edited, the plot underdeveloped and half baked, with the characters not progressing much at all throughout. It's a shame because if these basic fundamentals (which had nothing to do with the concept itself) had had a bit more attention paid to them Ghostbusters could have been really great; even as much as the originals. As it stands it's a little forgettable and unfortunate.

Saturday, July 9

Food: Umami Click for more info

Sometimes you eat in a place that would have been great if not for a pretty major flaw. Umami is the latest place that manages to confound in this way - the Asian fusion menu was pretty outstanding both in choice and quality, while the vibe and decor of the place lent itself to our party of seven or so having a decent enough time. Pricing was midrange and as a result we may have underordered a little.

But the main issue with Umami was with the service. We're not sure if it was a one off, but the kitchen closed at 9:45pm which was pretty incredible. Food took a while to arrive, with us having to ask multiple times for basic things like cutlery.

It was enough to put us off, which was a shame because as I mentioned the food was pretty sublime. As such Umami just falls short of a recommendation for now.

Thursday, June 2

Food: Fatburger Click for more info

The thing is that Fatburger is actually kind of different. It's more basic than some of the usual joints (Stax and Proper being the benchmarks really) with a flat menu and a "pay before you eat" queue at the till. I guess that places it somewhere around the Nando's level of service. You'd think that this would manifest itself in the price, but no - I left Fatburger after having paid a colossal £17.50 for a meal, albeit with a milkshake.

Okay so it's pricey - surely the food justifies the cost? Well no. The meat wasn't actually too bad, but the burger itself was bland; confusingly there were no variants in the menu either. The fries were hard, and possibly stale, while the chicken wings must have come from a really small chicken. All in all it was pretty disappointing really.

So yes different from what I'm used to... but alas not in any positive way. Faced with competition that makes burgers look easy unfortunately Fatburger is one to avoid.

Wednesday, June 1

Book: New Spring, Robert Jordan Click for more info

New Spring is a welcome change to the saga that is A Wheel of Time. It's short, digestible, coherent... and pretty much fixes all the issues I've been having with the current volumes in the main series that I'm reading. It's also a surprise to find what it is about: after being warned that it was full of spoilers for the main timeline I was excited to start it... only to find that a lot of it was pretty redundant. That doesn't make it a bad read - on the contrary in fact since it make it less vital and more of a pleasure. That said, I'm a bit reluctant to say too much in case it does spoil it for anyone reading.

I liked it, and in some ways I'm a little cautious of having to go back to the slog that is the main franchise - and yet it has me eager to continue on that journey. Which is pretty much the whole point of a prequel really, so the job's done here.

Friday, May 27

Food: The Savoy Grill Click for more info

Although this wasn't my first visit to The Savoy it was my first time at The Grill, the smaller of the two headlining restaurants within the hotel proper. I have to say I was slightly disappointed at first glance - the place was cramped, dark and perhaps even a little sleazy... but in hindsight this was only in the context of the particular party of six we arrived in - we're used to more well lit and vibrant places. That said, we quickly adjusted and easily managed to enjoy the lush atmosphere.

We had the pre theatre menu to pick from and although pretty comprehensive overall it didn't leave much option for those on a halal diet - we had to request at least two menu changes to satisfy everyone present. The food itself was good - not great - and as always at these places deceptively small. The service was, again as expected, astonishingly good and perhaps even better than the food.

The final price came to a well measured £33 for two courses and some shared sides. It's not the most memorable figure in terms of value, but not too bad considering the number of times I visit The Savoy. With the right party and context I can imagine the place being pretty fantastic actually.

Thursday, May 26

Film: X-Men: Apocalypse Click for more info

On the one hand, Apocalypse could have been so much worse. The last time we managed to get to X-Men-number-three the series had degenerated into something that almost mocked itself... and thankfully the new teenage version has managed to avoid that particular pitfall.

On the other had, Apocalypse could also have been so much better. I can see what the makers were trying to do - to link together a series of amazing set pieces while also building up a sizable plot (you know like a real MCU film would attempt to do), but it does fall short on a fair few levels. I could blame the lack of talent in the cast, but I suspect that they didn't really have much to run with in the first place.

But as far as comic book adaptations go X-Men: Apocalypse is okay. You wouldn't be missing much if you chose to save this for the sofa.

Wednesday, May 4

Film: Captain America: Civil War Click for more info

The MCU is a funny beast. Despite the titling, it's now become pretty difficult to isolate any single film as standalone - in my view they should have just stopped messing around and named this film MCU 13. That's not to say the labouring of the MCU is a bad thing; on the contrary really since Civil War really is one of the best film to have come out of the franchise so far. And yes, that includes Assemble.

Despite being the easiest way to explain, it would be unfair to directly compare it to that the lynch pin movie of 2012. CW is mature, grown up, relying less on gimmicks and set pieces. There's more to the film than just the action and fan service. And yes, it does make you think (well, kind of). All of the characters come into their own (another reason why calling this a Captain America film could be seen as odd), and have been given more than enough potential to grow even more.

The downsides include some shoddy filming, especially during the fight scenes. Overall though the movie does get away with it, as it injects the blue, red and gold blurs into your eyeballs.

I won't go on because it'll just end up being gush. Needless to say Civil War is a great film and very much recommended.

Sunday, May 1

Food: Pictures at Dorsett Click for more info

Sometimes I feel like a very lucky chap. Without being too wet, this luck stems from knowing various groups of friends, all of whom are drivers in a particular field. Some know about board games, some about religion, and some in this case for instance, have a knack of finding some amazing places in which to eat.

Pictures is a relatively posh hotel restaurant situated on site at the Dorsett in Shepherd's Bush. It's clean, quiet and classy. The service is as you would expect, the food of a high quality. Granted, the place was empty but for our party of 12, but I put that down to ignorance rather than reputation.

And the best bit? With the assistance of a diners club membership the bill for a wonderful soup and fish mains came to the princely sum of £10. Like I said: amazing.

Saturday, April 30

Food: Sultan Click for more info

Oh man. Yes, another East London grill... one of many situated on Cranbrook Road. Is it different? Well maybe. I would suggest that the spices are spicier perhaps.

Ultimately with such optimised menus the unique selling points come down to a few things - cost, decor, service. Sultan manages an above average mark on all these things and so remains a choice out of many options.

Friday, April 29

Book: The Universe versus Alex Woods, Gavin Extence Click for more info

Alex Woods is a fun book. It's well written (and by that, I mean it's laugh out loud hilarious), the plot is adequate enough and the pacing is just about right to keep the reader engaged. What it lacked is depth. In particular, characterisation. "Formulaic" isn't quite the right word, but the characters as they stood were pretty shallow and one dimensional - there wasn't much development either.

And so the book sits at "fun", which is ultimately a shame because it could have been so much more. In passing (or between two heavier books) however you could do much worse.

Sunday, April 24

Homebound

And just like that, our ten days in the two holy cities come to an end. For many this is a sad time - I can't remember anyone ever not saying that they "wanted to stay forever". I've already written about my relationship with these cities perhaps being a little more academic and comfortable and as such I do feel content and fulfilled with the time I've had here.

It's been a good trip in terms of the ever important worship but also in acclimatising to the continuing ongoing changes Makkah is going through. I feel that my approach and relationship with the haramain evolves each time I visit, and this trip has been no different.

It's also probably due to my relative familiarity with the place that I, Godwilling, feel confident that I'll return. There's really no reason for anyone to ever consider this a once in a lifetime trip... so all that's left to do now is to restart the countdown to the next trip.

Saturday, April 23

More Banning

Suggesting to ban anything will always be controversial, but I'm particularly proud of this one:

  • Ban all children under 5

I'm sorry (well not really) to say that it's pointless and puts the will of one (usually the mum, most certainly not the kid themselves) ahead of a whole congregation. And all for that WhatsApp picture of chookidums in front of the Kaaba in an Ihram. It's a waste of money and experience, so do the right thing... leave your dear little ones at home.

Makkah: Come For The Prayer, Stay For The Food

I mentioned the other day how I like the Clock Tower precisely because of the glitz it brings to the area. Of course the flip side is that this glitz permeates itself into us, the audience. I've suddenly realised that Makkah is now seen as a resort by many.

Which explains a lot of the issues we see now - the selfies, the self-preoccupation, the behaviour, the videocalls. If you consider something a fairground then it makes sense you'll play in it. Add to that the current obsession with the validation of life by recording it (see here) and you have the typical pilgrim in Makkah.

The irony is that the self control can be seen in the most decadent of places - you won't see photos being taken in a Vegas casino for instance simply because it's not socially acceptable. Neither would you do the same in your local place of worship.

In short: it's a mosque, stupid. Put your phone away.

Crowd Control

Despite initial reactions, crowd control in and around the Haram is actually improving. It can be frustrating as first, the constantly changing routes and variable barriers a little bewildering - with the natural reaction being to just go early and avoid the mess.

But once you understand the reasons and the methods it does make sense. And what more, it enables one to avoid crowds and leave the hotel room later.

Of course it'll be another reason some use to berate the Saudi overlords, but it is clear that the mosque remains comfortable and safe mainly due to the restrictions on entry.

Tawaf Tales

As the trip winds to an end, our thirst to complete tawafs increase. Today was an especially good day for me, having been able to complete three tawafs, the quickest of which was 19 minutes long. So a bit of a win then.

It wasn't completely uneventful either, with us feeling at least two drops of rain (unless it was actually sweat in which case ew). The eternal battle to kiss the black stone was also carrying on as usual, this time with a poor little pretty girl in tears during her own post-aswad attempt. I'm not sure if she actually managed it, but she sure learned that looks and gender don't count for much in the face of religious zeal.

Breakfast Tips

I wrote before how much of an... experience breakfast can be in the haramain. Aside from the usual advice (which more or less reduces to "keep your head and manners even if nobody else does"), I do advise sticking to the prepared scrambled eggs over the custom cooked eggs. It's faster, you get to have as much as you need and you don't have to queue alongside the great unwashed.

Friday, April 22

Food: Fardoos

I have no point of reference, no link and no way of even describing how to get there... but Fardoos near Aziziyah (perhaps) really is the best Pakistani food in Makkah.

The saag was worth the entry price alone. IF you can hunt it down make sure you give it a try.

Working Women

I noticed something today which has always been the case here - there are no women to be seen working. None behind the counters, none leading groups and none in hotels be it in front desk positions or in providing services like housekeeping and the like. I did get a courtesy call to our room to see how we were doing, and that was made by a female and some of the security services in the haram are made up of women (for practical reasons)... but otherwise nothing.

This shouldn't be surprising - the situation here in Saudi is well documented and known. But what I actually found more interesting is how it hadn't been noticed before. I certainly haven't missed it.

My Secret Shame

I actually like the clock tower.

I think it gives a Vegas like feel to the place. I don't think there's anything wrong with that - it's not like it gets in the way of worship or anything. In fact I'd suggest that it's only if you keep a superficial approach to faith that it would ever be a problem.

Thursday, April 21

Infiltrating The Third Expansion

After having discovered that a part (albeit a small part) of the currently under construction third expansion was open to the public I just had to go check it out, camera in hand. Now there's plenty of photos and videos of the current progress online so I won't bore you with how amazing it all looked - I'll leave finding those as an exercise for the reader.

What might be worth writing about is the rest of the extension, otherwise closed off to the public. After accidentally (honest gov) taking an unfinished staircase I found myself wandering throughout the rest of the complex pretty much at my leisure. And I got to say, the place is awe inspiringly huge.

The extension takes a different approach in a few things - more thoroughfares and mezzanines on each of the six floors. Whudu facilities are also dotted around the upper levels, something which will be welcomed I think.

The views from the roof were just as amazing - the height above the Kaaba gives an unparalleled view, although one spoilt by the ongoing construction.

I think I mentioned before how although it seems finished it really isn't - I think there's at least another couple of years, if not three, left before it can be considered done. Maybe I'll get to see the final product on my next visit?