Friday, February 29

Morocco-Andalucia, Day Three: Jummah and Gardens

Another Friday, and again today was all about Jummah prayer. We remained in Marrakech for the whole day in order to attend the prayer at Koutoubia Mosque.

But before that, we spent some time window shopping in Djemaa el Fna. My brother needed to buy some souvenirs and the like for colleagues back home and it turned out that he's a bit of a tease - he got prices down pretty well only to not actually buy anything; I suspect that bargaining and haggling is a bit of a sport for him.

Jummah prayer was interesting since it was the first time I had joined one with such a Sufi vibe. We got the pretty early and found ourselves in the middle of a group Zikr, or remembrance session. There was group recitals, chanting and a fair amount of movement (although nothing more than just rocking on the spot); I tried to join in as much as I was able to but the Quranic script and pronunciation used in Morocco made this quite difficult. I also noticed that they had three adhans (call to prayer) for Jummah, but apart from that the rest was what I was used to.

The bus back to the hotel was amusing. In my solitude (the others had gone to get lunch from McDonald's) I took the opportunity to people-watch. I overheard a couple of European tourists trying to figure out when to get off for the same hotel I was heading to. I offered my assistance and we struck up a conversation. During this I was complimented many times about my standard of English and how accessible I was being - it all became a bit too much for me so I explained how I was British, of a Pakistani background and how I was as out of place in Morocco as they were. It's funny how you can be seen in the eyes of others, although I can't really talk: I thought that they were both French.

Morocco women are a mixed bunch, both in terms of attractiveness and style. Some are hot, some are not. Some are very western, others cover up and wear the hijab and most are somewhere in between. But there also seems to be a lot of French tourists in Marrakech and unfortunately it was them who took the crown for hotness from the natives: tons of natural beauty? Yes please.

After lunch we visited Jardin Minara, one of the town parks. It wasn't as grand as had been made out although the large square pool in the middle was strikingly peaceful. The garden itself was a nice enough place to hang out; we bumped into some local youths singing, dancing, clapping and playing music in a style possibly influenced by their distance to Spain. I could have watched them for hours if I was by myself.

The rest of the evening was spent in the hotel, chilling out. After dinner the five adult members of my immediate family sat down and thoroughly enjoyed some lovely games of cards, something I can't remember the last time doing. It's not something we'd do back home that often (if at all) and another indication of how different this holiday was compared to my usual trips away.

Thursday, February 28

Morocco-Andalucia, Day Two: The Atlas Mountains

Since there's so little to do in Marrakech, it made sense to make it the base or launching pad into exploring some of the towns and cities close by. Today we hired a minibus and ventured into The High Atlas.

We stuck to the tourist trail of Ourika Valley and did everything the guidebook suggested we should. This included stopping by a Genuine Berber's House™ for tea. Still, despite my cynicism I have to admit that it was interesting to meet some of the more native people of the area - those Berbers I had met in Marrakech were pretty much Arab in all but name (the majority seem to be Arab-French speaking Muslims), and I sometimes found it difficult to figure out the origin of someone without speaking to them directly.

The end point of the drive was Setti Fatma, a small village at the bottom of a well trodden hike deeper into the mountains. Apparently there are some spectacular views and waterfalls to be seen a few hours into the mountains, but due to time and who we were with (both my nephews and niece were in tow) we didn't go that far in. We managed to catch a smaller waterfall though.

We made it back to the hotel by 5pm, where we again played a bit of pre-dinner football (both real and on a PS2 someone had brought along). After dinner, however, we decided to hit Djemaa el Fna again, this time to check it out at night.

The square had transformed into a bustling playground of musicians and street performers, each clambering to gain the attention (and wallets) of passer bys. To be honest I wasn't too impressed and they weren't a patch on the stuff you see on the streets of London or elsewhere. I was especially unimpressed when they started charging us for taking random pictures. Still, it was interesting to see the contrast of the square between night and day.

In terms of money, negotiations, finance and payment, it's clear that most Arab countries seem to share a common heritage. Morocco is much cheaper than Jerusalem, of course, but we still get offered "Muslim" prices that are anything but. If I was a sensitive kinda chap I'd have been offended. Instead, since I wasn't in the market to actually buy anything I just got my own back by ignoring potential sellers in my contempt.

The night was tailed off by another enjoyable game of poker - and not only because I had jumped from last position yesterday to first today.

So, we're still having a good time in Marrakech. Not bad considering I've never spent as much time in a hotel as I have this trip.

Wednesday, February 27

Morocco-Andalucia, Day One: Breakfast In Marrakech

Whoever's idea it was to fly at such an hour was either a sadist or crazy fool. I mean the 6am part is decent enough, but it only becomes apparent how early you have to leave to catch the flight in time the night before. Needless to say I didn't get much sleep last night - we were out of the house by 2:30am. Apparently there was an earthquake this morning too which I totally missed.

The funny thing is that I wasn't even going to come on this trip. I'm not sure why - it was a family holiday and I was certainly invited. It just took a potential rishta of all people to get me to reverse my initial declination and book my ticket. In fact, I had booked before the dates for Jerusalem were even set, so at one point it was my only holiday this winter.

The original plan, the one which my family will stick to, was to stay in Marrakech for seven nights. I was to do the same but changed my mind after realising that a) Marrakech for seven nights was not something I could remain sane for b) I always had the romantic dream of doing Andalucia and Morocco in one go and c) I didn't really have a job or anything to rush home back for. The idea was so blindingly obvious that I felt stupid for not having thought of it initially. The single from Granada cost another forty quid or so and I'll be throwing away my return flight from Marrakech.

We were in our hotel by 10am. Just like that morning in Jerusalem, we managed to get our hotels mercifully early: we all hit the sack and slept till midday. Lunch was provided by McDonald's - a novelty for some of us seeing how they don't usually serve halal meat back in the UK.

The group then split up. A couple of us went to Djemaa el Fna, a kind of central town square a bus ride away. The place was full of souqs and snake charmers, a typical sight during the day. Weather wise we were comfortable although could feel the heat building up as the minutes ticked on.

After a couple of hours we walked to the nearby Koutoubia Mosque. This was an amazingly charming and rustic mosque, one in an original structure far older than any I may have been to before (barring Al-Aqsa, but this was a local mosque) and in a style of an age gone by - like for example the shared pool in which we were to perform out wudhu/ablutions. It was a brilliant feeling washing in defiance of the hot weather - although I did take a bit of care not to swallow any of the water.

Due to the manner in which we had arrived, we we ready to head back to the hotel pretty early - and it wasn't a problem staying in once we got there. We each had a kip for a couple of hours, after which we played a quick game of football until it was time for dinner (the hotel provided half-board). After that we settled down to play some poker till late, using toothpicks and garden shingle as makeshift chips.

Although it may be a bit too early to say, as nice as Marrakech is I do think that its totally devoid of anything to do. In the few unstructured hours we had wandering around, we had pretty much covered all of the main bits of interest in the town itself. Don't get me wrong; I have no doubt that it'll be great to chill out with the family (there are over twenty of us here related in some fashion or another, mainly via the marriage of my brother and sister in law) and Marrakech is absolutely perfect for that. I just feel a bit vindicated in my decision to move on come Friday.

Speaking of family, I can't remember the last time I was abroad under these conditions (well, where we weren't in Pakistan anyway). It's definitely not something I'm used to and it's nice to have a different vibe (including the impromptu football matches and poker games) to that when travelling with friends, no matter how close they happen to be - it seems to be much more relaxed, welcoming and chilled out; there's no kitty here, that's for sure. It's just the ticket after some of the stress I experienced in Jerusalem.

Pictures of my whole time in Marrakech can be found here.

Tuesday, February 26

Coming And Going

And so I'm finally back from The Holy Land. I'm happy to say that I've returned relatively unscathed; it feels like I've been away for ages but I guess that just confirms that the trip was busy, stressful but totally, totally worth it.

Actually I feel like I need another holiday just to recover! Lucky that, eh?

Monday, February 25

Transjordan, Day Eleven: Coming Home

Since our transfer to the airport wasn't till 11:30, a couple of us decided to mop up the remaining sights in The Old City. The main highlight was the room of the Last Supper (which had since been turned into and out of a mosque), but we checked out King David's tomb directly underneath the room too. Unfortunately the Islamic Museum situated in the Al-Aqsa complex was closed.

But, at last, it was finally time to go home. Although on paper we didn't expect any hassles getting out of the country we played it safe and arrived at the airport over three hours before our scheduled departure. And assuming that the security we went through wasn't merely designed to soak up all the spare time we had provided, we were lucky to have come to the airport early.

The first check was expected and on entry to the airport itself. We were used to being stopped in our taxi by now and took it in our stride. What happened next was a surprise though; even before checking in we had to have all our luggage scanned, opened and searched, as well as ourselves manually body searched.

The most interesting part of this phase were the people. It's totally unfortunate to say this, but 90% of the Israelis we had met on this trip either had their guns or their suspicions pointed at us. This check was the first time we had met any Israelis who appeared to be normal, off-the-street types. They were friendly, conversant, open and made jokes both between themselves and with us (although unlike a certain male travelling companion of mine I resisted flirting back with some of the more prettier baggage guards). It made me regret that I hadn't put in more of an effort to meet more of the same during my stay here.

After we had checked in we were VIP'd straight to passport control, which was handy (we were used to being publicly singled out by then so there wasn't much embarrassment). It wasn't over yet though - once again passport control had our passports taken away and we were asked to sit and wait, this time for around 30 minutes.

We were told that our hand luggage required checking. This was a much more through check - they unpacked and went through everything, this time without a scan to guide their meticulous search. Amusingly my hand luggage purely consisted of dirty underwear and socks accumulated over the last ten days and it gave me great pleasure to see them wade through it all. Still, in retrospect I should have had everything checked in when I had the chance - there certainly wasn't any need for me to have my camera on me at least.

The second body search was also more thorough than before. For the first time this visit I had to remove my outer clothing too, presumably due to the metal zipper I had (the previous searches had seen me with plastic button ups). Ironically I even got an apology from the guy doing the pat down - and that after he brought up the fact that I had already been searched with his supervisor. He probably didn't realise how much I had appreciated the gesture.

Meanwhile my companions were getting increasingly frustrated by our treatment. I secretly hoped no one would blow a gasket.

It was obvious that the objective of our treatment had changed. We weren't asked at all about what we had done or who we had met or what kind of Muslims we were. They just wanted to make sure we had nothing that would cause a problem on the flight, and once I had become assured of this I knew it would have just been a matter of time before we were let go. We made it to our departure gate 30 minutes before it was due to open.

Nevertheless, I was still fully on guard till we reached Zurich, and only really totally relaxed once we had landed at London City. Now usually I'm glad to be home from any kind of time abroad, but this time I was especially so. There was just a noticeable sense of relief, pride and freedom - it was liberating to not be asked about our movements or intentions. That really is something we all might take a bit too much for granted; and yet its only now I realise exactly how important it is for the UK not to head in that direction too.

Sunday, February 24

Transjordan, Day Ten: Heading North

Today was a bit of a waste really. It was mainly spent in the north, the main attraction being Nazareth, a two and a half hour drive away.

The action actually started on the drive up. On leaving the West Bank (the quickest way to Nazareth was via the Palestinian territory) where we were usually waved across after a brief passport check, we now had them taken away, were asked to leave the vehicle, empty our pockets and be scanned after which we were sat in isolation for a few minutes. And all of this under the supervision of armed guards.

It was a horrible, demeaning experience and in some ways worse than the Allenby crossing back in, if only because we couldn't figure out what we had done to trigger this behaviour. Needless to say, it had totally spoiled the mood for the day and possibly even for the rest of the holiday - we all wanted to just go home after that point. If the intention of those hassling us was to make us feel unwelcome then they had totally and utterly succeeded.

Nazareth didn't appear to be that special. We visited the location where Mary was told she would become pregnant with Isa/Jesus (now a pretty impressive church) and prayed in a nearby mosque, one that we were told was shrinking year on year due to some obnoxious policies created by the local authorities.

After Nazareth, we headed toward the Sea of Galilee proper. There were a few sites to see, including the prophet's old town, now only ruins, where he had performed one of many miracles. We also stopped for lunch, some extremely expensive fish which was nice but a total rip off. Amusingly our driver didn't have to pay for his meal - obviously some form of commission for bringing us there in the first place.

We passed by Tiberius, where we saw what was left of Salah ad-Din's citadel, and then stopped off at the Jordan River baptism site where a whole party were getting baptised. I'm slightly ashamed to say that I was mesmerised by the whole thing. It was a pretty amazing thing to witness.

We were back in Jerusalem by 5pm. In terms of value, today wasn't great. Since transport was so expensive and the North was so far away, we ended up with not much to show for the driving hours spent. I'd take it back if I could and would recommend that others don't bother at all.

In the evening we had finally met the head imam of Al-Aqsa. I had heard loads about the guy and was afraid I wouldn't get the chance to see him at all after learning he had been out of the country since Hajj, a few months back. Luckily he had returned the weekend we were leaving and I made sure I gained an audience with him. He's a very nice guy, English speaking and charismatic - clearly popular with the congregation if the hassle I had getting to him was anything to go by. I must admit that he may have been possibly and ever so slightly eccentric though.

Otherwise we were taking it easy this evening. Tonight was to be our last in Jerusalem.

Saturday, February 23

Transjordan, Day Nine: The Dead Sea

Today we focussed on the Dead Sea and its surroundings. First up was Masada, a collection of Roman palaces situated atop a table top hill. The story behind the ruins goes something along the lines of rebel Jews committing mass suicide in order to escape some besieging Romans. Masada wasn't as amazing as we were expecting it to be. I'd even go as far as to say it wasn't unmissable.

We then took some time out on the shore of the Dead Sea. Now this was a bit of a contraversial move - some Muslims believe that the Dead Sea was the site of the prophet Lot's wicked (literally) hang outs of Sodom and Gomorrah and so a cursed land that was to be avoided at costs. Don't even ask about using Dead Sea beauty products. Anyway, it was fun watching people float and all.

Lunch was had in the 10,000 year old town of Jericho, allegedly the world's oldest. For some reason, of all the Biblical sites I had planned to see I had imagined Jericho to be the most fairytale like. It turned out to be just another West Bank town in the end, not that that was disappointing or anything. We visited the Monastery of Temptation, where Jesus was said to have fasted for forty days and nights as well as the Zacchaeus tree.

We also spent some time looking for and visiting the orphanage that was mentioned by our friend yesterday. We also spoke to the proprietors of the hostel for disabled kids next door, again chatting about the lives the Palestinians were leading. To be frank, I was amazed that some people had the gumption to start up these projects under such circumstances - I probably couldn't myself even in the relative comfort of the UK.

On the way home we visited Nabi Musa, one of the alleged burial places of the Prophet Moses. Of all the various graves and tombs we met, it only really struck me then how close to religious history we were. It really was a surreal revelation, if only because it had taken me over a week to realise it.

Friday, February 22

Transjordan, Day Eight: Jummah and Ramallah

Friday and today was all about Jummah prayer. Our Friday prayer was especially important today - the may have been the only time ever in our lives that we'd get to perform it at Al-Aqsa so it was a big deal. We thought that we'd have a tough time getting in, and that was certainly the case a few years back when you'd have trouble getting in if you were under the age of forty. It's pretty easy now though, ever since they stopped letting residents of the West Bank in at all. An ironic and unfortunate benefit for us.

Between Jummah and Asr (afternoon) prayer we took the opportunity to wander around the old city again. Our main purpose was to visit someone we had been told to see about distributing the charity money we had each been entrusted with by friends and family from back home. He told us of his work and about an orphanage being built in Jericho; the whole thing seemed genuine enough and we figured we'd visit the place tomorrow if we had time.

Asr marked our fifth prayer in a row at the holy mosque. Apparently this is a good thing to have accomplished and we were quite lucky to have completed it considering our busy schedule.

Once that had been done with, we still had the rest of the afternoon left in which to do something - and since the weekend was booked with tours and things it seemed like the perfect time in which to pay a friend of mine a visit in Ramallah. We got there the old fashioned way: by figuring out which bus to take and getting there on our own. It was fun not having a driver taking us to where we wanted for once. We met up with my former Arabic teacher pretty easily.

In Arafat's old neighbourhood and the Palastinian Authority's capital we were treated to a brief political tour of the Presidential Compound, the place where Arafat was holed up for a while (and was eventually buried). After that, we relaxed with some Sahlab (a kind of sweet milky drink exclusive to Ramallah) and dinner where my friend and I managed a long and overdue catching up.

As I've previously said, it's always valuable to have the insight of a native while you're travelling; however it was also simultaneously good to see my friend in her home town. She told us more about the life of an everyday Palestinian - how each and every one of them are under some form of control and repression. There's no free movement here for these guys; they can't even leave their own towns without prior permission.

Even for a bystander like me it's very frustrating to see it all happen live and in front of you and as cliched as it sounds you don't really get the same impression while watching it on the television. As my friend put it, this and the control of supplies and basic amenities was seen as a type of "administrative genocide", a term that unfortunately fits a bit too well.

Since it was late, we had to take a cab back to the checkpoint instead of a bus directly to Jerusalem. This meant that we had to cross the checkpoint by foot which was quite the experience in itself. We got through pretty easily, just flashing our passports at what looked like mere children having a laugh manning the place, only to see a Palestinian male being turned away as we carried on with our journey.

After getting off the bus early we managed to lose our way to the hotel. The power cutting out while we were figuring out where we were didn't really help either.

Thursday, February 21

Transjordan, Day Seven: Away In A Manger

After yesterday's stress we were glad to finally be back on the regular tourist trail.

The first stop for today was Bethlehem, birthplace of the prophet Jesus. It was a bit surreal being in Manger Square - the first time I had seen the place was when it hit the news way back in 2002 and realised that some things from Christmas carols still existed today; we were even shown the bullet holes from that siege too. We checked out the actual Church of the Nativity too as well as the miraculous Milky Grotto.

On the way to our next stop we were also given the chance to check out the security fence up close. More of a concrete barrier, this is used to separate the West Bank from the rest of Israel, supposedly to keep the bad people on the one side of it. Don't be mistaken by the temporary look of it - it's definitely been built to last and when I first saw it I suddenly realised the clear and obvious significance of this and other similar structures like the wall in Berlin. The most interesting thing about the wall was its decoration: it had some of the most amusing, intelligent and insightful graffiti I've ever seen.

We made a stop at the refugee camp at Dheisheh. Although it wasn't quite made up of the banks of tents I had pictured in my head, it was teeming with the misfortune of its residents. We got to speak to two separate families - my Arabic was still not up to scratch so it would have been even more difficult without the help of our driver. We got a good idea of their lives though, and how they are just forced to get by in a situation getting worse as their usual sources of funding become more and more restricted. We were shocked to discover that there were eleven thousand people living in the camp, which offered an area of around one square kilometre. I'm still not sure how that is possible.

We tried to visit a local school but were turned away by the Palestinian head teacher; we needed official permission from the UNRWA and her hands were tied by this shoddy case of bureaucracy. I began to understand that it isn't the violence or a lack of finances that was causing the most problems, but the lack of freedom to do basic things like move or think.

Our final stop was in Hebron, location of the Mosque of Ibrahim, site of where the prophet used to live and is said to be buried alongside his wife Sarah and descendants Issac and Jacob and their respective wives. We were told about the massacre in 1994 when 29 members of the local Muslim community were shot dead while praying in the mosque; since that time the site has been split into two with the other half acting as a synagogue. Security was also tight, with us all requiring two scans before being allowed in.

After some market shopping in Hebron we headed back to Jerusalem in order to catch the evening and night prayers.

Wednesday, February 20

Transjordan, Day Six: Interrogations

We made it to the border relatively early and had crossed Allenby by 9:30am. The plan was to get back into Israel after a maximum of four hours or so and salvage the day to do some sightseeing. Looking back we were cocky in thinking this.

As usual, we were first separated from the other travellers. Our passports were immediately taken from us, while I was taken aside (but within eye shot of my friends) by what I can only describe as a hot lady to be informally questioned. These were the same questions about who I was, what I did in London and why I was visiting Israel. Since we had had loads of practise at this it was all pretty straightforward. Still, at least my questioner was pretty this time (and it has been suggested that this in itself is a tactic. Sounds good to me).

After that everything else was new. We waited a while and then were each taken separately to be body searched in private. This involved a removal of shoes, belts and, for one of the girls, outer clothing. Everything was checked thoroughly: collars, sleeves and pockets were not left untouched. The whole deal was uncomfortable (perhaps more so for the others in my group), but since I've been searched before I wasn't too shaken. I concluded that the land border had to have a higher level of security than that at Tel Aviv.

After another long wait, two of us got taken away to be questioned, separately. Although this was now in a dedicated room, the questions were again of a preliminary and informal nature. The guy doing the asking was clearly a subordinate and still in training; I picked up on all of his obvious and blatant cues as he faked his curiosity, interest and surprise in what I had to say.

Some examples of what I was asked were how, as Muslims, we could travel in a mixed group and why, as Muslims, we wanted to visit the Biblical sites in Israel. If we were anywhere else I would have had a bit of fun with the guy (and I was already struggling to answer these questions without sarcasm), but as it stood I decided to play it safe. Without giving myself too much credit, I think that I handled him better than he had handled me, although the Israeli SIM card in my phone did attract more attention than I would have liked it to.

After our longest wait, of around two hours or so, I and the same friend were approached again. This time, however, we had different things to do: she was asked to witness a major bag search which consisted of everything being checked - seams, clothing and every scrap of paper was put into a blue evidence box to be returned later after a more private scrutinising. In the meantime, I was trying to figure out why I had been singled out for yet more questioning.

It's probably not appropriate to recount what then happened to us on this blog but I've written a (private) account if anyone is interested in the details.

We were out by 6:30pm, over eight hours later. A well deserved and expensive dinner later and we decided to hit the sack. Although the whole day had been wasted, we were glad to be continuing our journey once more.

I'm not sure why we had been treated as we were (I, perhaps naively, refuse to believe it was just our British Pakistani Muslim credentials), and to be honest I don't really care. I do think that we finally got back in because of our respective professional backgrounds, that we were a mixed group and that we had some luggage and returning flights from Israel, and not because we were liked. It was a terrifying and difficult ordeal and although a part of me appreciates the experience, I wouldn't wish it on anyone else.

Tuesday, February 19

Transjordan, Day Five: Petra

The thing about sleeping in the desert is that it's not that difficult waking up at 6:30am. Sleeping on a cold hard floor is enough to make you want to get out of bed as soon as possible, but hearing weird strange noises in the middle of the night kinda helped too. It turned out that they were made by wild cats which is fair enough I guess; I just wished my fellow travellers had answered me when I asked/screamed what the hell was going on. It really was proper Blair Witch stuff. Overall though, I'm glad we camped for the night. It was a good experience and I'd totally do it again.

After breakfast, we headed off to Petra. This was the main reason we even came to Jordan and we wanted to maximise our time there. There was a lot of walking and hiking involved; overall we spent a good five hours gasping over the Treasury, Monastery and various Royal Tombs - it was a wonderful experience to see these things live (I was humming the Indiana Jones soundtrack for most of the day). There's no point in me describing what I saw, so just make sure you check out the pics.

After we were done with Petra we begun our journey back to Amman. The bad weather was still chasing us and we were lucky to escape the area before Petra hit; roads were being closed off as we were driving and it could have been a long afternoon if we had been caught up in them. As it stood we managed to get back to Jordan's capital by around 7:30pm.

Since it was still early, a friend suggested that we checked out a local hammam. We called Pasha's, apparently Amman's best only to be told that they were fully booked for that evening. Refusing to take no for an answer and relying totally on the luck we had already received this holiday we decided to show up in person anyway - a good thing since we were able to get in after all. Well those of us with Y chromosomes anyway. We tried not to feel too bad for the ladies.

The treatment consisted of a very hot sauna (my first), a very hot jacuzzi, a full body scrub down (from which a scary amount of dirt was removed), a massage and a facial (uh, by mistake of course. Ahem). The main point for me was the massage and although I've had better (especially in Bali) it was a nice way to cap off a long and tiring day.

After our session we joined the girls in the cafe at Wild Jordan. This place is of not mainly for the views it offers - the high position and glass walls allow you to see a lot of Amman. Unfortunately it was closing up and so we moved to another recommendation amusingly called Books@cafe. This was a much trendier place, reasonably priced and more studenty than Wild Jordan and we ended up staying there till closing again just chilling, dossing and watching the world go by.

Excellent stuff, and a perfect end to our time in Jordan. Today was definitely the best of a brilliant past couple of days; I've had a wonderful time in Jordan and am regretful that we're going to leave tomorrow - I guess that just means that I have to come back, possibly along with my own Jordanian contacts.

For now we needed to hit the sack and get some rest for our return to Jerusalem.

Monday, February 18

Transjordan, Day Four: The King's Highway

For our remaining time in Jordan we had decided to hire a driver for a pretty decent 100 JD a day. To make the most of this resource we made an early start this morning and were out by 6am.

The driver himself was an interesting guy. Palestinian in origin, he recounted to us how he had swum across the Jordan river in 1967 after his army orders had changed from fight to flee. With a wry smile he described it as the "Six Hour War".

Our first stop was at Mount Nebu, the place from which the Prophet Moses was said to have been told by God to look over the Promised Land. We kind of managed to see Jerusalem, a good 42km away although we may have been totally mistaken too. Hmm.

After that we stopped off at Madaba, the mosaic capital of Jordan. We didn't actually request this stop (it was another stitch up) but since everyone made use of the opportunity to see mosaics being made and to buy gifts we weren't too upset.

Further South and we took some time marvelling at the Mujib Valley, a place offering some fantastic views if not much else. this was followed by a distant viewing of the crusader castle at Karak and the tombs of some Sahaba (Companions of the Prophet) at Mazar, martyrs from the famous battle of Mu'tah also nearby.

Throughout the journey we were treated to some more stunning views of Jordanian land. We were lucky actually - we had been told it would snow all over Jordan during our time there but we had yet to see any ourselves; although apparently the white stuff had fallen in Amman as we left. It was around 14 degrees where we were though.

We eventually made it to Wadi Rum, where we were to spend the night. As part of the lodging fee we were given a ride in a pick up truck across the desert, stopping off at a rock bridge, a huge sand dune and a gorge. Pictures of all three can be found here.

After dark, the rest of the evening was spent chilling out in a Bedouin tent. I'm not sure how genuine the whole set up was (our host was on his mobile for a lot of the time), but it was nice if a bit chilly. The stars were in full view, and it was good to finally be able to relax around a fire, playing cards with our co-campers with live music playing in the background.

Sunday, February 17

Transjordan, Day Three: Crossing To Amman

We left early for the King Hussein/Allenby Bridge and managed to arrive there in good time, at around 10:30am. The crossing itself took longer than our entry into Israel did; not as much questioning this time but in its place a whole bunch of waiting instead. Thankfully we avoided all stamps associated with the crossing; although people often worry about Israeli entry and exit stamps they often forget that a Jordanian entry stamp marked "King Hussein" is just as damning.

We entered Amman proper at around 2pm. According to my trusted Lonely Planet (and I've found these to be increasingly invaluable wherever I travel) all sites and things were due to close at 4pm during the off-peak season we were in. Still there wasn't much to do in Amman sightseeing-wise and we only had to choose between the Roman Theatre and Citadel. We chose the latter which turned out to be a fairly good pick being an ancient site situated atop one of Amman's tallest hills.

After a Burger King dinner we offered Maghrib at the King Abdullah Mosque. It was after that that we were picked up by a fellow traveller's Jordanian uni mate. Local friends always seem to make a trip for me and this time was no different; we were taken to Mecca Mall where the boys hung out in a cafe while the women shopped, chatting and watching the people go by.

Which I guess brings me neatly to Jordanian women. I preferred them to those I saw west of the River Jordan, even though the likelihood was that they were Palestinian (since they make up 60 percent of Jordan's population). It could have merely been the western style they demonstrated, and in fact I did feel like I was walking through an affluent district of Pakistan at times.

Despite the lack of time spent being an actual tourist in Amman, I really enjoyed my time here today, much more than I did in Jerusalem anyway. There are good people here with whom you know where you stand, and it's easy to be confident and self assured in this place. I'm really looking forward to the rest of my time in Jordan.

Pictures from my time in Amman can be found here.

Saturday, February 16

Transjordan, Day Two: The Holy Land

We actually landed at around 4:30am.

Entry into Israel was relatively painless. Judging by what we had been told, we were expecting to be held at the airport for a good five or six hours; we played a little sweepstake to guess the actual time and I was surprised when my pick of three hours won.

There were actually three phases to the interrogation process. We were immediately stopped and briefly questioned when disembarking the plane, just after getting off the skybridge. That was just the beginning though - border control kept us waiting the longest and asked the most questions. These were simple things regarding our families, origins, lives and careers and we got to keep our phones and wallets on our persons. The third and final phase was having our luggage scanned, but not opened.

We had been expecting much, much worse and were thankful it didn't go further. In fact we may have even gotten a bit cocky. After getting our pieces of paper stamped with Israeli entry (leaving your passports "clean" is very important if you wish to use them to travel to certain other countries - like Pakistan for example), we were free to leave and go about our business.

We arrived at the hotel proper at around 9am. Thankfully our rooms were ready and we were able to get a couple of hours kip before heading out for Zhur or midday prayer at Masjid Al-Aqsa.

On entry to the Al-Aqsa complex we were questioned by uniformed Israelis. We were asked for identification (you should always have your passport with you in Israel) and then asked about our origins. We were then required to prove our faith: be it by reciting a chapter of the Quran, or demonstrating our Islamic knowledge ("how many prayers are there in a day?"). We all passed easily but the experience was strange anyhow and just felt like yet more artificial control over movement and access. Within the gate's complex, Arab security asked us the same, if not in as much detail.

We had made it. Here was our first clear view of the Dome of the Rock and, behind it, the Masjid. For me, I had finally done the hat-trick of the three holiest sites in the religion of Islam, the other two being relatively easy to access by Muslims. However as glad and flattered as I was to witness it, I couldn't help but notice how different Al-Aqsa was to the first two. In short, it's no way as grand or indeed "awesome" as the mosques in Makkah or Madina, and it was quite upsetting to see how much it relied on its adherents for funding. Such a concept doesn't exist in Saudi Arabia.

We befriended an English speaking curator of the mosque and without realising it we had suddenly enlisted him to give us a tour of Jerusalem. He showed us around the complex proper, visiting each of the four or so mosques in it. We also wondered around the Old City, including views of the Western Wall and a visit to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. It was interesting seeing the various Christian practices present in the one church; this isn't something you'll see in any one mosque for the Islamic equivalents, that's for sure. We also visited Masjid Umar, the place where the Second Caliph prayed on first entering Jerusalem in preference to the Church he was offered opposite.

Our first taste of getting ripped off was with lunch. Quite naively we ate without asking prices and found ourselves being charged a whopping 80 US Dollars for five people, expensive even by UK standards. We became quite upset with the guide (who took us there), and then even more so when he stitched us up by "introducing" us to a friend in need he had. Quickly learning that this was the way of life here, we quickly got rid of the curator (and if he was expecting anything in return for his services he didn't get it). Still, at least we got an efficient tour out of the situation.

Talking of money, this is the first time I've been on holiday with friends where a "kitty" system is in play. This is where everyone in the group puts money into a single pot, used to pay for shared things like taxis and food. Apparently it's a very typical, fair and popular system but its nevertheless totally new to me. It all makes sense, of course, but that doesn't mean that I don't find it amusing or even a little weird. Maybe I've just been lucky in that money never seemed to have been an issue before - it all usually seemed to have worked itself out during my previous times away with friends. I'm actually interested in how well it works (or not).

After a short break in the hotel, we returned to the mosque for Maghrib or evening prayer. When we had completed that, we walked to the Mount of Olives, checked out the sealed Golden Gate and took in Jerusalem at night.

On reflection I think that Jerusalem is a pretty strange place, mainly due to the historical context it finds itself in. The pluralism is both comforting and disconcerting at the same time, as is the paradoxical situation of a clear peace on the street despite the continual presence of armed Israeli guards. My male colleague and I did discuss whether it was appropriate to check out the local women in such a holy place. I'm not sure we actually came to a conclusion with that particular question but did decide that although there were some hotties the place was generally a mixed bag.

But for now an early night beckons; after a single night in Jerusalem we leave for Jordan tomorrow. This is not as rushed as it sounds since I think we've pretty much seen all there is to see here - it feels like we've been here for days already instead of the hours we really have.

Pictures from my whole time in Jerusalem can be found here.

Friday, February 15

Transjordan, Day One: A Taste Of Things To Come

More than a few people were wondering why we had chosen to fly out from the London's domestic City Airport instead of Heathrow. The official story was that it just made more sense with all of us travelling from that part of town - it would have taken the hour saved on a direct flight to get to West London anyway.

Unofficially though I had a hunch that travelling from the smaller airport would, for some reason, keep us all under the radar. Not that any of us had anything to hide of course, but I had heard enough from previous visitors to Israel to establish a sense of paranoia surrounding the fact that we were four Muslims travelling to the Middle Eastern hot spot. I thought that choosing a quieter route may save us the hassle others found they had before even leaving the country; organising the trip and finding three others to join me on it was difficult enough.

And I think I would have been right if I hadn't been walking to the gate carrying my Israel guidebook for all to see. Before I quite knew what was going on, me and the only other male in the group had been pulled aside, searched and questioned as to why we were going to Israel. Officially it was a customs check so maybe I looked like I was carrying a large amount of cash or something. Uh, yeah.

A taste of things to come maybe? For sure. But a part of me was hoping that we wouldn't get any suspicion thrown at us in our own country at least.

The rest of the night flight was pretty uneventful; the stop over in Zurich was fine and we were all in good spirits for the remainder of the journey - possibly a bit too good considering the interrogations I was expecting on arrival. My grumpy self felt that the others weren't taking the situation as seriously as they should have been doing.

I tried to get some rest: we were due to land in Tel Aviv 3am the next day.

Thursday, February 14

Film: Jumper Click for more info

The one thing that's worse than a bad film is a bad film that had potential. Jumper is such a film; it has a wonderful, brilliant premise involving the ability of a special few to teleport wherever they desire and manages to trash it all so badly that you can't help but be impressed at the failure.

Let's start with the acting. Hayden Christensen is rubbish. He's not just wooden, but damp too. The rest of the cast is okay, with good 'ol Rachel Bilson doing a superb impression of Summer from The OC. Samuel L Jackson is equally passable, but it's Jamie Bell who is the star of the show here.

Now in theory this shouldn't matter seeing how we're all watching an action movie, but since the film decides to allow itself to be so character driven, it's quite fatal in this case. The plot and flow doesn't really work either; the order of events all seem a bit backward and jumbled up and before you know it you're at the end.

But it's the failure to live up to its potential that really makes Jumper a disappointing film. Even without correcting all of the errors above it could have been adequate with just a bit more effort. But as it stands I'm gonna have to refrain from recommending this one I'm afraid.

The Annual Inevitably Cynical "I Hate Valentine's" Post

Yes folks, it's that time of the year again. I was dreading today actually; not just for the usual reasons but more because I didn't think I'd have anything to write about that I haven't already previously. There's only so much hate one can present in an original manner, after all.

Luckily though news broke on the radio this morning about the launch of yet another website aimed at those wussies who lust after other passengers on their daily Tube commute, and who then choose not to do anything about it (not that I have any idea of what is meant by this, of course).

Today's site in particular is called, and claims to be the social network for the London Underground, a death knell if I ever read one (the creators of this site obviously haven't realised that social networking is now officially over). But apart from misguided marketing, they are hardly unique in a place where similar things already exist, and so actually make it more difficult for such people to find each other. Disclaimer: I didn't know about these sites before today. Especially, which I have never visited in my life and will strenuously deny any accusations and reject any evidence of ever having using.

But I digress. There are a few problems with all this.

Firstly, I do wonder what the likelihood is of people actually connecting on such sites. I firmly believe that if a couple of randoms do seriously fancy each other then destiny will put them together in other more direct ways, the implication being that Objects of Desire who ignore you just want to be left alone at 8:30 in the morning. And if they did ignore you on the train, then the chances are that they won't bother looking you up on fifteen different stalker websites as soon as they get to a computer. But hey: perhaps I'm just naive about people being shy or something.

The second applies to all kinds of manufactured or forced match-ups. I mean, sure, I get that people meet one another in a variety of different ways and places and further that there's an alleged thrill in the chase, but there is a danger of totally missing the point and objectifying your victim when pursuing them in this way. And that's something that can only end in disappointment as they become nothing more than a web profile or email address.

So no, unfortunately I really can't see the use of I think growing a pair is a much purer, correct, fulfilling and advantageous strategy.

As for me and my plans for today, well I think I'll carry on last year's tradition and pay the cinema a visit on my own, again in some wild attempt to justify my bachelorhood. Although since I can now access early afternoon showings, perhaps it's not as much of a statement as I want it to be. Hmm. Perhaps I should, I dunno, travel around on the Tube for the afternoon or something...

New Music

No Good - Kate Voegele

Gah, I'm such a OTH groupie.

Wednesday, February 13

Film: National Treasure: Book of Secrets Click for more info

I thought that the first National Treasure was full of some pretty awesome stuff. Book of Secrets bucks the curse of the sequel and provides more of the same mystery adventure and magic, but with new, global, locations (including London, baby) and characters.

You get value for money too, with almost all of the two hours filled to the brim with action and witty dialogue. All of the cast look like they're enjoying performing as much as we were watching them, although I did think that they had slightly less charm this time around.

All in all though Book of Secrets is a bloody good romp despite its lackings. Recommended.

Monday, February 11

Shak's Choice: Rihanna

Many (girls) say that Rihanna isn't exactly that strikingly pretty. And you know what? I'd probably agree with them. Where I violently differ, however, is on the assertion that she's not hot either:

Whatever abstract quality it is that generates heat, Rihanna certainly has it in spades. Just goes to show: you really don't have to be drop dead gorgeous in order to be physically attractive.

New Music

Work (Freemasons Remix) - Kelly Rowland

And who said that Beyonce was the only Child with talent? This is as good, if not better, than anything the lead can do (even though it took a remix to really make this shine).

To Sir With Love - Tina Arena

I loved Chains, so it's nice to see Tina Arena back on my playlist. It's the same deal here - power ballad love stuff. Probably an acquired taste though.

Elvis Ain't Dead - Scouting for Girls

I originally dismissed Scouting as a two bit Brit-pop outfit, but then I had this stuffed down my throat by morning radio.

Don't Stop The Music - Rihanna

More Rihanna goodness. Quite different from her other entries on my playlist (namely SOS and Unfaithful) she's quickly becoming a neat all rounder. Of course, it helps that she's totally hot too. Which reminds me...

Film: Juno Click for more info

A film about teenage pregnancy eh? How can it be anything but boring? I mean you'll have the whiny girl putting out only to be forced to grow up and handle this new life that has been thrust upon her. Zzz indeed.

Except Juno is already pretty damn smart. Or at the very least she's a smart alec, brilliantly sarcastic and sassy. Whatever the details of her character it does make for different situation, one which the film manages to leverage throughout the 90 minutes or so running time.

Although I'm still not quite sure if its Oscar worthy or not, Ellen Page is a joy to watch as the pregnant teen. She eventually manages to steal the show, an impressive task given the calibre of her co-stars. Needless to say there were few problems with the acting in this film - I would love to have seen some out-takes, since it's obvious they were all having a good time on set.

The plot is just as good, with the story engrossing and conclusive. It's also slightly schizophrenic, morphing from a teen-drama through to coming of age and finally settling on a good ol' love story and it's a testament to the producers that they managed to pull it all off so well.

Still I have to say that I was mildly disappointed given the hype. As independent cinema goes, Juno was nothing particularly special in an ever-expanding crowd of genius movies. That's not to say that it wasn't excellent; it's thoroughly recommended and you should all go watch it, I just hope that the inevitable excellence of Juno isn't an ironic sign of an over-saturated genre or style.

Game: Professor Layton and the Curious Village Click for more info

You know, I never did like those "Brain Training" games as much as the charts did. Now I'm not claiming to be a hard core gamer or anything, but I didn't see the point of it all. There were no goals, no progression and the OCD side of me needed an endgame to aim for. So yes, a quick multiplayer five minutes is all they got from me.

Although Professor Layton is another puzzle game, the fact that it's been wrapped in the narrative of a mystery adventure makes it refreshingly appealing already. But when I actually saw and experienced the game and its presentation, I realised how compelling it actually was.

It's all just so... lovely. From the cut scenes to the voice acting and finally to the puzzles and methods of input themselves, there just doesn't seem to be an end to the loveliness the game exudes. It really is a joy to play.

The irony, of course, is that it probably won't be liked by those who play Brain Training precisely for the reasons I like it so much. That would be a shame if it turned out that way, but since this is actually part of a trilogy I live in the hope that there are two more of these coming out. Totally and utterly recommended.

Sunday, February 10

Film: Definitely, Maybe Click for more info

I wouldn't really describe Definitely, Maybe as a true romcom; it's just not funny enough to grab that title. It is sickly romantic though, so if anything it falls into the straight love story category.

But genre classification aside, Maybe does put on a good show. Ryan Reynolds does well as Will Hayes, a typical everyday political consultant who seems to have way too many women in his life - and yet manages to have bad luck with all anyway. Opposite him, Abigail Breslin (of Little Miss Sunshine fame) plays his questioning young daughter Maya, curious about how her parents met and why they're now getting a divorce. Amongst the three main women in Will's life we have Rachel Weisz and Isla Fisher in roles that seem to fit very well.

So a very character driven film then? Absolutely - there's not much room for convoluted plots and special effects in a film like this. And because the whole thing is set over fifteen years or so, there's a distinct lack of detail as we flitter from one stage of Will's life to the next.

But despite the obvious flaws there's no helping becoming attached to the characters in Definitely, Maybe. Will is as complicated and multifaceted as the three women he is trying to get it on with and we do eventually get a full, yet easy going, idea of what he thinks it is to love another.

Uplifting and sweet, I can't see anything else worth watching for the purposes of fulfilling another year's Valentine's Day so for that reason alone it's recommended. For the rest of us, well it was fun watching this with the guys too. Sigh.

Thursday, February 7

A Fool And Their Money

On the way back from the local supermarket I couldn't help but spend ten minutes in awe watching people play that "find the queen" gambling game. Instead of playing cards, we had three black discs, one of which had a white sticker fixed to the back of it. That was the "queen" to be found in this particular variation.

I dunno. Maybe it's because I watch way too much television or maybe it's because I'm just plain tight, but it was pretty obvious to me (as I'm sure all of you reading) that these things are just big fat cons stacked way in the favour of those running them. It's because of this clarity that the people who interest me the most are those who actually play the game with their Real Cash Money.

Take Ms Smith, the customer I spent those ten minutes watching. I think by the end of the game she had lost a good hundred over five attempts, each time becoming more and more desperate, and so taking bigger and bigger risks, to get all her money back again.

She didn't notice that her co-player, who was winning, appeared to be from the same part of the world as the person running the show. She didn't realise she was being taken for a ride when the conman was showing her where the sticker wasn't. She was a bit too trusting of those in the audience who were taking pre-planned peeks under alleged winning tokens while the conman's back was "innocently" turned. She was too busy getting in to deep and seeing red.

I broke my rule of keeping quiet when she finally took up an offer to play for forty instead of twenty. She ignored me, of course, and went once again to the slaughter; she finally broke down and threatened to call the police, throwing accusations of cheating and collusion (really? No way!) before being calmed down with a refund of twenty quid.

A small consolation seeing what she lost. The worst thing is that I can't seem to find any sympathy for this poor sod who gave away the money she could no way afford, especially when it was for so little.

Wednesday, February 6

Film: Sunday

Sehar Thapar (Ayesha Takia) is a bit forgetful. So much so that she misplaces the whole day after a friend and hers visit to a disco. Add to this a crooked yet endearing cop, a hilarious taxi driver and his best friend and, oh yes, a couple of murders to the mix and you're set up for two and a half hours of thrills and mystery.

And yet there seems to be something missing from this film - perhaps even the plot itself! The film doesn't quite manage to link together its quite good parts, and as a result at times it doesn't quite make sense and at others it seems a bit forced.

Still, Sunday does manage to be entertaining despite the shallowness - possibly even because of it. Genuinely laugh out loud funny throughout, I really do wonder whether this film should have been billed a comedy instead. It's worth watching just for the humour.

Otherwise the production and acting are adequate (although the more I see of Ayesha the more put off I am; but on that note check out her sidekick Anjana Sukhani), with the action and music a bit strange and overcooked. I don't quite recommend you watch Sunday, but if you do, just don't go in expecting anything more than some good old slapstick.

Sunday, February 3

Random Approach

As word of my uselessness flows to the ears of my so-called-friends, the topic of discussion inevitably turns to what I, or indeed any guy, should do in that particular situation. It's an age old question really: how is a guy supposed to approach a random girl in the street/tube/supermarket?

Well in my humble opinion we shouldn't. The reasoning goes that since most girls complain about loser guys hitting on them, then no guys should just in case they offend or freak out their intended target-victims. In short: it's inappropriate. And this is why it's traditionally the girl's job to show an interest in guys first; this is what handkerchiefs were made for after all.

On the other hand, the implication of that if true is that no one actually wants me to pick their stuff up. And since that's a bit too depressing, I'm going to believe that girls are either too shy or just naively think it's a job for the guys.

But wait! It turns out that I'm actually wrong about this whole thing and that girls don't mind a random guy smiling or talking to them after all! This is, however, only valid if the guy in question is good-looking. Unbelievable, eh? Although now that I think about it, perhaps we shouldn't be that surprised at all.

Putting aside for the minute the fact that I was excused to approach girls since I'm apparently handsome enough not to offend (man, I'm so bad at this false modesty lark), there are obvious moral issues with such a social system. Now, I'm not saying that looks don't matter or that we should go against any feelings of natural attraction we might have toward another (and I'm hardly the least shallow guy around). No, it's that I refuse to accept that the opportunities in life of an individual should be determined by how they look.

I mean, look. If we considered approaching a stranger analogous to a, I dunno, job interview, we would never accept a company saying that only good looking people can approach them for work. This is even the case for a modelling agency, who would then be totally within their rights to politely decline any not-so-good-looking candidates. What would not be acceptable is if they were somehow offended or deemed it inappropriate for the poor guy or girl to have tried at all.

And so here it is: no matter how permitted and encouraged I am by my girl mates to approach the random others of their kind, I will continue to refuse to do so until all of my brothers, no matter what their physical qualification, are entitled to do so as well. To do otherwise would be to support an unjust system that propagates a kind of body-fascism that has no place at all in today's free world.

Yes. That's my excuse and I'm sticking to it.

Food: Piya Piya Click for more info

There was little to redeem Piya Piya tonight. The service was bad, the food not particularly fantastic and the price only acceptable after it had been cut in two due to a special offer. We had all decided pretty early on that we'd probably never come back.

I've had worse of course, but I guess the poor quality on show here seemed even more bad due to its contrast with the posh decor. Pass on this one, I think.

Friday, February 1

Game: Super Street Fighter II: The New Challengers (Wii/SNES) Click for more info

My second Wii VC game and one I would never be able to resist buying. Yep, possibly the best version of SF2 that can ever be made available on the VC is here.

Of course I felt the same pang of regret I always do after being tricked by my rose tinted glasses in this way - SD games are so horrible to watch, and the Gamecube pad is terrible to play with too.

But today after ten games (resulting in a draw) of classic match play all has been forgiven. The graphics were quickly forgotten and the pads circumvented by the use of some GC-PS2 adaptors I had lying around.

SF2 is still as ace as it was way back when, a testament to its genius really, and I really could have played for hours longer. Good stuff.

Film: Cloverfield Click for more info

The descriptions of this being Blair Witch meets Godzilla were always going to be inevitable. In this respect, Cloverfield is pretty unoriginal - the terror is implied, the camera shaky and nothing is really explained.

Yet it's still a pretty good film. I was totally sucked in by the format and was as close as to forgetting that I was in a film as is possible. The acting helped, the effects more so, but it was the direction that really gave the film this special kind of believability.

Otherwise, there's not really much more to say. I'd recommended it.

Oh, and as an aside: ain't Friday mid-afternoon cinema goings great?