Saturday, March 29

Film: 27 Dresses Click for more info

Yep, yet another romcom seen with a bunch of lads. But that's neither here nor there, as 27 Dresses was entertaining enough to distract me from who I was watching it with. It's all good.

The film itself was standard fare, something to be expected when you start with such an unambitious context. Jane is the classic "always the bridesmaid", eagerly awaiting her own special day - and that's just about it really. The rest of the story revolves around a somewhat inevitable love triangle that such a set up has to have.

It's a shame that there was so little to work with really, considering the efforts put into making it. The totally charming Katherine Heigl did brilliantly as Jane, while the rest of the cast did their part. The film as a whole was adequately put together too, ending up with a fairly good, yet frustrating, watch.

Recommended, but only if you're going to watch it on a date.

We Don't Have To Take Our Clothes Off

Apparently I'm naive in thinking that it's possible for a couple to date for, say, six months and not exchange any kind of bodily fluid. And yes, that includes dry-humping.

Is it honestly that difficult to keep it in your trousers? Does the mere promise of marriage really shatter the defences of those holding out beforehand? Is getting one's jiggy on an inevitable part of being in a relationship, expected by everyone involved in it?

I mean what - isn't holding hands more than enough anymore?

Tch. Please agree with me someone.

Islam and Pluralism

Back in secondary school it wasn't uncommon for those students who were religiously aware to have some pretty deep conversations with like-minded teachers on all topics from current affairs to religious theory. I'm even reminded of a time when the deputy head used my practise of Islam to reprimand me for some action that I don't quite remember the details of: "doesn't your religion teach you better than this?" and the like.

Another example is of the same deputy head declaring that, although she was a Christian, she believed that anyone who performs good deeds during their time on earth would go to heaven. I was 13 or 14 at the time, and mature enough to politely nod while keeping my amusement to myself.

I didn't have a problem with the belief itself - it was a time of irreligiousness and secularity where absolute good existed out of the hands of God, and we were taught to be moral without scripture. Many people were being good for the sake of it, and not just because a priest offered them heaven in return.

It did however go against everything I had considered to be at the core of both Islam and Christianity at that time. From what I understood, mainstream Islam put the exact specification of belief, things like tawheed and taqwa, at its centre; things without which you could never have any religious worth (be that of an Islamic or Christian nature). Being young, I had accepted this as fact although looking back I did have some questions; despite my amusement what my teacher said did sound reasonable after all.

Fifteen years (or half a life) later and I'm still wondering what makes a Muslim a Muslim. Is it the following of a particular set of guidelines and commandments? Is it being universally good, regardless of the outcome or reason? Or is it defined backwards: so those who end up in heaven (intentionally or not) were implicitly Muslim anyway?

I guess what we're really looking for are some kind of minimum requirements, or spirit, distilled from the teachings of Islam. So we have things like a belief in a single God and a last day and absolute moral righteousness, but not necessarily specific practise like daily prayer or fasting. In this way we'd end up with an abstract notion of what a Muslim should be (where Muslim means "someone who pleases God and will go to heaven as a reward"), and suddenly everything becomes much more grey.

Some prominent commentators (including Yusuf Ali, Nurcholish Madjid and Muhammad Rashid Rida) even include religions traditionally considered absolutely polytheist (like the Vedic and some Buddhist teachings) in this abstract definition. Of course we have to be careful here: it's still unclear to me whether we can describe these as being "Islamically valid", that is something which is taken as being correct in the framework of the Quran and Sunnah.

But then consider how the vast majority of us Muslims don't exactly have a correct practise either - do we have no hope either? A part of the Islamic belief is that even deviants can find salvation provided they hold the minimum requirements and that it all lies in the hands of God anyway. If we agree that that is the case, then the implication is that other religions (particularly those seen as "historically" deviant) can as well.

In short, perhaps you may not necessarily have to be Muslim in order to have an Islamic Spirit? I'm reminded of the story of a non-Muslim woman who was granted heaven purely because she treated animals well (citation needed), an example of how one doesn't have to be classically Muslim in order to succeed.

Personally I'm not really totally convinced by all the above, that all practising and moralistic non-Muslims (in the classical sense) will definitely go to Heaven. But I do think that there's now room to say that they won't definitely be damned - a statement that's more accepting (rather than just merely tolerating) and open to other ways of life.

Whatever the exact technical situation is (and we probably won't find out the full answer till it's too late), discourse like the above does lay an (albeit cheesy) path for those of different faiths to live side by side with each other. I don't think there's anything weak or compromising about refusing to condemn others for being wrong, or even taking the stronger stance of thinking there's a possibility that we're all right. It certainly shouldn't detract from any strong faith to consider these possibilities.

Finally, I'm not saying we should accept the arbitrary beliefs of every single person or that absolutely anything goes, but more that the morals and good actions of a person should always count no matter where they might stem from. It's these actions that will serve the global community the best during its time here, rather than the incessant quibbling over details we won't find out till Afterwards anyway. For the missionaries among us I'm also not saying that there isn't a need for preaching or dawah - the above isn't an excuse to quit propagating ideas we genuinely think will put people in a much better position.

So there you have it: my take on pluralism in Islam. I think that it safeguards the basic tenets of the Islamic faith while opening the door for inclusion but, as always, there's still more questions to ask and be answered. Either way, IANAS.

Oh and for those of you with wild imaginations, no, I'm not trying to justify my secret non-Muslim girlfriend either. Tut.

Afrika! Afrika! Click for more info

A free Friday evening and two complimentary tickets didn't really leave me with any other option but to go down to the O2 and check this show out. Think a variety show-cum-circus and you'll be close to imagining how Afrika! Afrika! was.

So tonight I saw basketball tricksters, unicyclists, pole, break and African dancers, acrobats, jugglers, plate spinners and contortionists. Most of the music was live too which was a bonus. I was rarely unimpressed: for me the highlights included the human pyramids and jugglers. Oh, and I couldn't even stop myself from shouting out in shock at what the contortionists were doing.

I'm not too sure what the link between the acts were: some acts were anything but African in nature so if you're expecting some kind of cultural show you may be a bit disappointed. For the rest of you who just want an evening watching loads of different acts, Afrika! may just fulfil your needs.

Thursday, March 27

Film: The Spiderwick Chronicles Click for more info

I actually had a pang of regret when the opening credits rolled for this film. Why was I here watching yet another CGI laden fantasy LOTR/Harry Potter wannabe? It wouldn't be anything but shallow and disappointing. If I wasn't nodding off to sleep for the first five minutes I probably would have gotten up and watched another film.

I'm glad I didn't though. It didn't take long to warm up to Spiderwick and before I knew it I was being sucked into a universe of goblins and fairies - just like the three children of the movie were.

The main asset of the film was its simplicity. With such a straightforward and easy going plot, a throwback to the good-versus-bad all good stories once had, everything else just fell into place; both the direction and acting were made to look easy. It's perfectly weighted too; at just over 90 minutes it gets the pace just right and I didn't really have a chance to get bored.

Anyway it's probably obvious that I liked this film. With so little to complain about I can't but recommend Spiderwick.

The Hidden Costs of Searching

I've recently been requested to write a biodata for myself. For those who don't know, a biodata is a document listing your personal details, professional background, interests and sometimes even your own basic requirements for a partner. This is then passed around in the community and used, hopefully, to find a match. Think of it as a curriculum vitae for a marriage instead of a job. Or a pimp sheet. Whatever.

Anyway, I've done all the easy parts: name, education, something about what I do (or at least what I used to do) and am struggling with the others. Can I list blogging as an interest? Uh. And do I actually have any requirements that are defined enough to be written down? This is definitely not an easy task, especially when I'm also being nagged to do it.

In the meantime I have friends (all already hooked up, naturally) having a go at me for not being a paid member of, something which would allow me to contact other members instead of resting on my laurels and waiting for them to contact me. The reasoning is sound of course: the fiver or whatever is a small price to pay for a potential lifetime of happiness. The trivial means totally justifies the end. And then some.

But it's not about the money - heck the same friends have offered to pay for me so I wouldn't be out of pocket myself. But what all these people don't realise is that each of these things - signing up for websites, writing biodata, going to matrimonial events and even meeting potential rishtas through family all have an emotional cost involved.

As each activity chips away at the plan, image or dream you had of how it was all supposed to have happened you start to ask why it's you who have to jump through these hoops when others had made it look so easy, and even more dangerously question whether it's all worth it or not. Okay, so you don't quite feel like a failure or anything, but it's hardly self-validating either.

I never understood how people could "give up" on the whole looking for a partner thing, since I didn't really get this concept of this emotional cost before experiencing it myself. But now, with all the finger pointing, advice (however well intended) and pushiness I suddenly find myself wanting to pack in the whole thing too.

This is obviously an irrational response and hardly helpful in the grand scheme of things, but for me I think it's especially sad since after two years or so of looking I can hardly complain about my experiences as much as others have. In some ways it's much worse than that; I just seem to be becoming bored of the whole thing.

We Now Return To Our Regular Programming

Thank you for your patience.

Feel free to have a read of my travel log anyway. Or not, as the case may be for many of you.

Wednesday, March 26

Book: Leo the African, Amin Maalouf Click for more info

A friend lent me this book on hearing about the journey I was to make across Morocco and Andalucia. You see, a big part of the book covers the exile of our protagonist, Hasan as-Wazzan, from Granada to Fes.

So yes, although I did the same journey in reverse, it did add masses of value reading it as I did. Visiting the Medersa Bou Inania, Kairaouine Mosque and Alhambra were all a bit like coming home and it was interesting to see whether reality matched what my mind had conjured up from Maalouf's writing.

The book itself is based on the real life story of Hasan (later known as the Leo of the title), a 15th century traveller, diplomat and thinker as he moved across both African and European continents; I only shared half his journey as he continued to Cairo and ended up in Rome. Deeply, yet simply, written the book is accessible and before you realise it you're sucked into a world containing an Islamic Spain, warring kings and emperors, popes and sultans and wives and slaves. It's worth bearing in mind that I read an English translation of the original's Arabic, although this works well for the book, adding to its poetic appeal.

It does all end abruptly, although since it's based on true events it's probably left to the reader to follow the conclusion via a history book or something. Either way it's a cracking read while it lasts, even if you don't happen to be travelling at the time.

One To Watch: The Apprentice Click for more info

The Apprentice, 9pm Tonight, BBC One

Yep, it's back. The show that really should have grown old and tired two seasons ago is carrying on pretty strong - I'm even almost excited about seeing the new candidates this evening. And of course this season is of particular interest to me.

Looking at the list of hopefuls I can't really see any potential stars - they seem to be breaking tradition in there being no Asian wide boys this time around. Since Tre pretty much carried the last season I'm wondering how gripping this one will be, but we'll see. Having said that it probably goes without saying that I'll be following Sara very closely. Ahem.

Tuesday, March 25

New Music

Fascination - Alphabeat

Poppy and even cute ditty that I can't help bopping to. I clearly need to keep off the Smash Hits.

Sunday, March 23

Film: Race Click for more info

On paper this should have been a pile of poop. I mean it's called "Race" for heaven's sake! Personally I went in expecting another Dus or Dhoom, you know, something with all the glitter but not much gold. Not that I mind all that really: I was actually looking forward to a Saturday night of shallow plots and eye candy.

But Race provided a bit more than that. I mean I would still class it in the same genre, but somehow the makers of this film managed to slip in a half decent story, some above average acting and so many laughs you begin to think you're actually watching a comedy. And I think it's this that makes the film so enjoyable: how it manages to keep you on your toes, wondering where the heck it's going to go next.

So yes, even if you are just looking for shallow plots and eye candy (and there's plenty of that in here; I've even started to like Katrina Kaif now) then Race will deliver in spades. Just don't be surprised if you get slightly more than what you were expecting.

Saturday, March 22

Zahera And Fuzail

To date, Zahera still remains the only friend I met on-line that I've willingly introduced to friends and family. Sure, there's been numerous other cases of cross-pollination of my respective friends (and I'm all up for that), but these have usually occurred online, as asides of other business or on professional levels. Zahera on the other hand is unique in having met my parents, my uni and local mates and has even gone under the critical and unforgiving (read: peetaking) eye of my volunteer friends.

But so what? Well, apart from providing me with a long and convoluted intro to this, my wedding tribute to her, I guess the point is that it's difficult to be ashamed of a friendship with a person like Zahera.

Friendly to the point of being annoying, I was always confident that she'd make the effort to get along with anyone I knew, regardless of their background. Whether it was out of respect for me or just because she's one of those mythically genuinely nice people we sometimes hear about didn't matter; I wanted as many people to know that she was a friend because, well, perhaps it would reflect on me as a person too.

In fact, if there's one criticism I have to make it's that she, ironically, makes friends a little too easily. Zahera is one who wears her heart a bit too openly on her sleeve, although I'm sure she'd say it's paid off more often than not. In any case she had people like me to warn her off the bad guys.

It's also blummin' difficult to remain annoyed at Zahera. Believe me, I've tried (I've already gotten over the fact that today's wedding was strictly segregated and that I only got to see her for a total of four minutes). On the flip side it's also difficult to annoy her back, she forgives easily when you do and doesn't hold a grudge so there's some balance there.

Only having met him today, I'm a bit embarrassed to say that I don't really know Fuzail that well. First impressions were good though: he's tall (at least 7ft, I'd say), funny and has friendliness that almost matches that of his suitor. And of course he has cracking taste in women.

In any case I'm sure I'll get to know Fuzail better in the course of time - it's doubtful that a couple like this will fall into reclusion like how newly-weds often do. It's a bit of a sting that they'll both be moving to his homeland of South Africa, but then at least I have people there to visit now.

Friday, March 21

New Music

American Boy Feat. Kanye West - Estelle

Super smooth British American collaboration. At first this sounded a bit like a cash in, but I soon came to realise how well and uniquely these two work together.

Rockstar - Nickelback

I'm still trying to figure out exactly how sarcastic this tune is. Whatever, I'm sure it's probably not as "real" as it makes itself out to be. A great anthem nonetheless.

Tuesday, March 18

Film: 10,000 B.C. Click for more info

I'm pretty sure they got the date wrong on this one. I mean for a start did they really speak English way back then? Anyway I guess as long as you accept that the premise of this film, that it's set 12,000 years ago, is nothing but a gimmick (or marketing peeing contest: "first hero" my bum) you might find yourself vaguely enjoying it.

Well, if you can get past the first hour or so of dross that is. There's not much substance till the final set piece I'm afraid, and even then it's arguable whether it's worth waiting for.

In the meantime you're presented with some adequate acting, struggling to be seen past some poor direction and a lifeless plot. It's really not good enough for the modern epic 10,000 BC tries desperately to be.

I can't recommend it really. Perhaps a DVD rental would suffice; but only if you skip straight to the ending, that is.

Monday, March 17

Little Mosque Click for more info

Awesome, awesome, awesome. If you don't know what I'm talking about, Season Two of the CBC's Little Mosque on the Prairie has just finished. And it was absolutely awesome.

For those of you yet to check it out, please do. Apart from being the only telly we as a family can watch, it's also genuinely funny, insightful and, well, real. And for those of you who aren't Muslim, don't worry - I reckon that the show is accessible enough to be entertaining to everyone whatever your background; the show, plots, characters and laughs work on so many global levels. In fact, I'm astonished that this hasn't been nabbed by the BBC yet.

Anyway, as you can probably tell I'm a big fan so I'll leave it there. Give it a go.

Saturday, March 15

Food: Flaneur Food Hall & Restaurant Click for more info

The gimmick here is clearly the surroundings in which you eat - more top end grocer than restaurant, you can't help but feel that the food bit is just an example of what to do with the stuff being sold there.

It's not of course, but that's irrelevant since the food is so good. The now inevitable Top Table set menu is pretty flexible, allowing a range of options suitable for most diets; I took the cheese and vegetable filo pastry for starters, the salmon for main and chocolate cake for dessert and all were top notch. For those who drink, the set menu price includes a glass of something I didn't quite catch the name of.

Service was good too - friendly and quick. In fact there wasn't much that can be knocked about Flaneur; however at thirty quid per head (mainly due to some very pricey drinks) you certainly have to pay for the experience.

Friday, March 14

Film: Diary Of The Dead Click for more info

On paper the idea is sound. Take the raw and real feel of films such as Blair Witch or Cloverfield, but use zombies as the bad guys instead. As far as I know it's not been done before and so should have been a no brainer in pulling off.

Except that Romero didn't think that was enough. Instead, he develops the idea further, making the actual filming (by film students of all people) the point of the movie and not just the style. The difference is pretty huge as our attention is constantly brought back to the fact that there's someone actually stupid enough to be filming while being attacked by the undead.

On the one hand this gets boring - you never quite become as engrossed as you do during the other examples of this type of film and the fact that the end product has been edited and given a voice-over and soundtrack made me think that they just shouldn't have bothered with the whole home video scenario. On the other you can't help but join in and yell at the guy to put his camera down (something you realise that you don't actually want to happen unless you're into early credits).

Gimmicks aside we are left with something half decent. The acting is shoddy and anything but convincing, and but there are some scary and funny bits in true Romero fashion. Otherwise I can't say that the punt actually paid off - I would have much preferred just another bog standard zombie movie myself.

A Jumble Of Jummahs

Last week, I was in a little mosque in Cordoba for Jummah prayer.

The week before, I was present in Marrakech's Koutoubia Mosque for the Friday sermon.

And the week before that, I was in the Al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem for the khutba.

Three separate mosques in three separate countries, each with their own special historical significance. I wonder whether I'll ever have the opportunity to do anything like that again...

Thursday, March 13

Film: Vantage Point Click for more info

On the surface, Vantage Point is an ambitious movie. It attempts to tell its story by giving it from multiple viewpoints, the idea being that each iteration gives you more and more of the complete picture. Not an easy task, and if I'm completely honest the film doesn't quite manage to pull it off.

Nevertheless, Vantage Point isn't actually that bad. It has enough action to keep the attention of even the most easily distracted member of the audience and doesn't even try to pretend that its anything more complicated than it is, apart from throwing in a couple of irrelevant twists at the end.

As long as you can ignore the fact that you are actually watching the same twenty minute film six or seven times in a row, it's easy enough to enjoy Vantage Point. Sure, the acting is shabby, and the production values poor, but the film is worth watching for the novelty factor alone. Just don't go in expecting anything too sophisticated.

Monday, March 10

All Travelled Out

So, after six countries, five languages, six flights, seven border crossings (including three interrogations), eleven hotel rooms, 900 rental car kilometres, the superb company of 29 friends or family (both old and brand new) and 1213 pictures I've returned from my travels to a stormy, yet very much homely London.

The measly twenty three days I've been away really does feel like months. Whether the weather picks up or not, I don't think I'll be leaving home at all for a while!

It goes without saying that I'll write as much as possible about my trip so stay tuned for updates if you're interested. In the meantime, for those of you who can't wait, I'll be uploading those piccies to my Picasa soon.

Sunday, March 9

Morocco-Andalucia, Day Twelve: Coming Home

Since we were all still whacked from yesterday's queueing up, we agreed on allowing ourselves a lazy start this morning. We were supposed to meet at 10am for breakfast, but it turned out that the Spanish are even more lazy (something to do with an election that day) and didn't open up their cafes till 11. We managed to finally leave our hotels at around 11:30.

The plan was to hang out in Granada during daylight for once, finally splitting up with the girls who would catch their bus, with us guys going on to check out the mosque and Sierra Nevada before catching our flight to London. On reaching the town centre however we found it to be totally and utterly dead with not much to do. We then decided to head off to Sierra Nevada together instead.

Sierra Nevada was pretty awesome. The views were amazing and for me the mountain driving tremendously fun - even though the diesel was a struggle to put up with. After an hour or so driving we ended up in a ski resort that was still in season where we played in the snow for a bit. It was all very similar to what I saw during my trip to Geneva but this time in the south of Spain. Very odd that.

After lunch on the mountain we headed back to Granada where we dropped off the girls at the bus stop. After saying our goodbyes we finally headed off, sad that we were back down to three from the seven yesterday.

We continued with our original itinerary and searched out the mosque. It took us a while, ironic since it was just next door to a popular Alhambra viewing point. We offered our Zhur and Asr and then looked for some food for the flight back. We managed to get a final kebab, even though it meant pooling all of the money we had together to do so, the one final lucky break for the trip which seemed to have been full of them.

The rest of the day was just getting back. After around 900km of driving (map here), the Spanish chapter of my trip was finally coming to an end. Looking back, I've done a lot over the last twelve or so days - and an incredible amount if you also consider Jerusalem and Jordan too. I've seen so many different things, met so many different people and had so many different experiences I don't think I've ever had a more complete time away from home.

The past three weeks really do feel like three months, and although I'm glad to be back without any further holidays planned I think I'm going to miss the freedom of being able to do what I did. One thing is for certain though: I'm definitely glad I don't have to go back to work quite yet!

Saturday, March 8

Morocco-Andalucia, Day Eleven: An Early Alhambra

Today was all about The Alhambra.

We managed to get out of bed at around 6:15am, planning to get to the ticket office for 7. For once we did even better than that and were there twenty minutes early, a bonus of having our hotel opposite the place I guess. Amazingly enough we weren't even the first ones there; an American couple had made it there around ten minutes before we did and the queue was constantly growing every few minutes. It was good to know that we weren't the only desperate/stupid ones in Granada this morning.

It was all in good fun though, as we struck up a friendship with the Americans and the two Spanish speaking girls (Colombian and half-Argentinian respectively) behind us. I guess it takes something like queueing up for tickets at an insane hour to form such a close relationship in such a short amount of time but in my opinion this alone made the whole getting up early worth it - especially after we were told that there were actually two thousand tickets available for sale. Whoever told us thirteen deserves to be slapped a few times.

The Alhambra itself was as amazing as expected. Well kinda anyway. The main attraction is the time-restricted Nazrid Palace and we spent a good hour in there marvelling at the architecture and history. If I'm totally honest I was slightly underwhelmed, possibly because the place had been so hyped up but mainly since I had seen much it before during my tour of Morocco and the rest of Andalucia. In fact, rather than being something unique and special, The Alhambra acted as the last chapter in a book of Islamic architecture and history that had begun eleven days ago.

After a leisurely breakfast with our new friends we checked out the rest of the Alhambra (including the Alcazaba and Generalife gardens) just as our allotted time was up. We then went our separate ways, planning on meeting up later on that evening. I headed straight back to the hotel, hoping to catch up on some shower, teeth brushing and sleep before the events of the afternoon.

After our rest, the five of us staying around The Alhambra drove down to Granada Town Centre to doss for a bit before a Flamenco show we had booked. Driving down I realised how smaller Spanish roads are compared to those elsewhere. Driving on the right is difficult enough but I seemed to fare better in Australia and Austria where the roads seem to be wider. There have been an embarrassing number of wing mirrors clipped between the two of us driving.

Most of our time was spent just having a wander around the streets of Granada, just soaking in the atmosphere. I began appreciating the company of Spanish speaking friends; it's funny how less stressful the little things become once you have access to the language. The most impressive thing we saw was easily the Capilla Real, a huge, sprawling mausoleum toward the centre of town. We even found ourselves crashing a wedding ceremony in the catedral next door which was fun if a bit voyeuristic.

After meeting with the American contingent of our group we were picked up for the Flamenco show. Although I wasn't sure exactly how authentic the whole deal was (or perhaps I was just expecting more of a cave than what we got) I had bags of fun watching the moody dancers do their thing. There may even be evidence floating around of me having joined in, but if there was I wouldn't advertise it or anything.

We decided not to take up the offer of a lift back to the hotel, instead choosing to walk through the Albayzin, or Arab quarter, instead. We eventually ended up at Kasbah for coffees, crepes and shishas, lamenting the fact that this would be the last time all seven of us would be together. That's pretty amusing seeing how we had only known each other for a few hours.

There's not much doubt that the day had been made by the friends we made this morning - as excellent as the day's activities were in their own right, it would all have been so different without them. All the more reason I'm a bit miffed that it's happening now - tomorrow being the day my friends and I head back to London.

Friday, March 7

Morocco-Andalucia, Day Ten: Deliberate Distractions

This morning we went to what was described to us as an Islamic History Museum hosted at the Torre de la Calahorra. We went under the advice of our friend from last night since it wasn't to be found in any guidebook or anything. This wasn't too surprising once we got it: to be frank it was a bit of a Muslim, One-Love, Peace and Harmony puff-piece than museum. That's not to say that it wasn't interesting; it's definitely worth a visit and I heartily recommend it.

We had a good few hours before Jummah so we grabbed the opportunity to get back to the Fiat garage in order to finally fix that accursed mirror. It was a relief to finally get it sorted - in fact I'm quite proud that we had the initiative and ability to have gotten it done at all under the circumstances.

Jummah was a strange affair. I mean the prayer itself was as normal (well apart from the Spanish khutba) but the mosque itself was not much bigger than a bedroom - I've seen company prayer rooms larger than this place. Oh and just in case anyone is looking for a place in which to pray Jummah as a Muslim in Cordoba then head over to Plaza de Colon and look for the mosque therein.

Before we headed out of Cordoba proper we managed to squeeze in a good 45 minutes in the Medina Azahara, a tenth century Islamic capital a few miles away. It was closing so we didn't get to see it in as much detail as we would have liked, although we had fun playing hide and seek with the guards trying to chuck us out.

It was finally time to leave for Granada. We chose the country road over the motorway even though the latter was supposed to be the faster route. This turned out to be the right decision: not only were the roads more fun and views more interesting but we also ended up making an unscheduled stop.

Around half way on the road to Granada we saw a picturesque town situated on a hilltop, a magnificent castle in the middle. It really was something from a fairytale and there was no way we could carry on without making a quick stop; after all we were over an hour ahead of schedule.

It turned out that the name of the place was Alcaudete. The castle and adjoining church were as impressive close up as they were from afar, but the real treat and deal maker was the young band practising nearby for an Easter performance. We spent a few minutes just chilling and enjoying the music without a care in the world. I think we distracted them more than anything else; I wonder how many Pakistanis they get sitting in on one of their practise sessions.

Getting out was harder than getting in, with some of the narrowest streets I've ever had to drive on. Were talking the scary stuff where you have to fold your mirrors in because the walls either side are the width of your car apart and a wrong turn meant reversing a few minutes because you can't turn around. Still, the whole visit was a wonderful and unique experience, well off the beaten path.

We finally made it to Granada airport, almost an hour late. The hotel was more difficult to find than we thought considering it was placed opposite the Alhumbra itself. After yet another late dinner we hit the sack: tomorrow will need a super early start as we try our luck in the Alhumbra ticket office queue. I'm still worried that we might miss out so I'm doing all I can to avoid the disappointment - even if it means hitting the queue at 6:30am.

Thursday, March 6

Morocco-Andalucia, Day Nine: Mosques, Churches and Stuff In Between

After another inevitable late start we headed off to spend the morning at Cordoba's highlight: the Mezquita.

This is the most famous mosque of all Andalucia at one point; or at least used to be, it now being a cathedral. The transformation into the latter can only be described as blunt - with the mosque's original flat and open structure rudely interrupted by the church slapped right bang in the middle of it. Still at least the rest of the building, including the mehrab, has been preserved for people to check out.

The story goes that the mosque itself was built atop the foundations of a church and so there was a justification in re-appropriating it. Regardless, I had more unexpected feelings of frustration and injustice when wandering around the place, although I'm not what what I wanted instead: it's probably unreasonable to have it turned back into a mosque, although perhaps in some kind of naive and hopeful future it could be used as a shared religious space.

It being a chilly morning, I had my hoodie on. Although I had been previously told about the "special treatment" Muslims visitors receive here I was still a bit taken aback when I was asked to remove it - although others were being asked this also so I'm not sure if there was any prejudice in this particular case (I later saw a teen keep his baseball cap on; I suspected this was an act of rebellion rather than something explicitly permitted).

Less acceptable was the constant tailing by guards. Apparently there's a "problem" with some Muslims reclaiming the mosque and taking a few minutes out to pray. Although I don't see the problem with that in principle, I had no intention of doing the same. I had some fun with the guards anyway.

Before lunch we went to find the Fiat Garage we were given the address of in Seville. Despite my useless Spanish and the dealer's non-existent English, I managed to get a replacement wing mirror on order for tomorrow - never underestimate the power of gesticulation. Although I was smug about getting that far at least I know that I still haven't actually fixed the car yet. I probably won't relax till I do.

After a quick bite we turned to the issue of Jummah. Tomorrow is Friday, and we still had no idea where to pray. Ironically Google didn't help in this case, with all searches returning hundreds of hits for the Mezquita and nothing else. We then turned to friends and family and finally got the number of someone residing in Cordoba - he said that he'd meet us in the afternoon and sort us out. As a final long shot back up plan we also asked the hotel who, surprisingly (for me anyway), told us exactly where to go for prayer.

While waiting for our new friend, we checked out the Alcazar de los Reyes Crisianos. This was a smallish palace, west of the Mezquita, and turned out being a nice reward for all the chores we had done that day. A pretty place with its buildings and gardens reflecting a lot of the local history it was well worth checking out.

We were taken out for the rest of the evening. We discovered Central Cordoba, something we didn't realise had existed (our hotel was opposite the Mezquita so we didn't have to explore much). We were also shown the mosque and treated to halal kebabs (our first meat since arriving in Spain) and tea. It was pleasant being in the company of a local; as well as him being a nice guy it was nice to converse with someone living in the city. It's a fun way to get to know some of the insights, back streets and become part of the story itself.

I realised today how rich the areas I've been travelling are in language. Now I always find language skills very attractive and in theory a girl who was brought up in Morocco and then moved to Andalucia (not an uncommon thing apparently) could potentially know Arabic, French and Spanish. Add to that my Urdu and English and assuming we take some Mandarin classes and as a couple we could talk to the majority of the world. Not bad, eh?

Since we were spending the night in Cordoba we weren't in any rush to move on - this despite having completed most of the sights of the city today. Looking back this is the first time I'll be spending a second night in one place since Marrakech. I think that I quite like that statistic.

I also heard the news about the Jerusalem school shooting and ironically felt vindicated in going when we did.

Wednesday, March 5

Morocco-Andalucia, Day Eight: Savouring Seville

Ah, Seville.

Okay, full disclosure here: I hadn't even heard of the place before a friend mentioned it on hearing I was visiting Andalucia. In fact we probably would have missed it out altogether if my travelling companion hadn't been flying into the place. It just goes to show how jammy I am with these things, since it turned out being a wonderful place to have spent some time in.

We started the day much later than the 8am I had grown accustomed to. I didn't mind much - my early starts had me finishing the sights before lunch so perhaps a lazier pacing would be more suitable anyway.

Our first stop was the Catedral - apparently the largest in the world. It certainly seemed so with its massive floor plan and looming internal expanse. Being built atop the foundations of a mosque, I did feel sad, poignant and even a bit frustrated, but at least there were some reminders of the Islamic heritage around.

The Giralda (or bell tower) for instance had been adapted from the original mosque's minaret and kept much of its flavour; and for some reason it was very familiar to me. This wasn't surprising really: I didn't realise it at the time but I had just unwittingly completed the visitation of the "big three" Almohad towers, the other two sisters being the minaret of the Koutoubia Mosque in Marrakech and the Hassan Tower in Rabat.

Our next big attraction was Alcazar, a fortress-cum-palace built after the Muslims had made their exit from the region. This made it all the more interesting since it had clearly kept some major Islamic influences; I could almost imagine being back in Fes actually. Yet another reminder of what the landscape once looked like.

We aimlessly hung out a lot here in Seville, surfing cafes and people watching. I don't think I've seen as many hot women anywhere let alone over the past few weeks' travels as I have here - it's like they're everywhere we look, and we were both enjoying the vibe tremendously (I had taught my friend The Calling Game just to keep us occupied on the streets). It's funny because I hadn't noticed this during my stay in Barcelona a few years back; it must be an Andalucian thing.

Toward the late afternoon we accidentally crashed the University of Seville. This turned out being one of my favourite parts of the day; it was nice pretending to be both native and a student and mingle with the crowd on a ground level. We weren't even fooling just ourselves, as a (young and female) student approached us and asked us something in a fast and undecipherable Spanish. To be honest we weren't much help.

It was then back to the hotel in order to pick up the car and our luggage. On the way out we managed to get stuck in the elevator which was fun for a while; we even became "oh, those guys" for a while. We made sure we made the most of our four star hotel's facilities as we got the concierge to book us tickets for the Alhambra on Saturday. Surprisingly (for us anyway) there were no tickets available, this a good three days before we needed them. Although I had been told to book I didn't realise we needed to do so with more than a couple of days in hand.

Our only option was to make it to the head of the queue on the day in order to get in on the thirteen tickets they said they'd have available for those who hadn't booked. Thirteen! We decided then to get there for 6am. In some kind of consolation we also got the concierge to find us numbers and addresses for Fiat dealerships in Cordoba and Granada. I still had to fix the car after all.

On the way out of Seville, we stopped off at the Plaza de Espana. The Plaza was a stunning, tranquil place and totally understated if the lack of mention in guides had anything to do with it. A good thing perhaps; part of the charm was the lack of tourists visiting it with us. Blatantly romantic, it was a total waste on the two of us.

But it was finally time to move on to our next destination. We eventually got to Cordoba at around 11pm: another late arrival, another late check-in, another late dinner, and in all likelihood, another late start tomorrow morning.

Tuesday, March 4

Morocco-Andalucia, Day Seven: Burning Boats

After a well deserved late start, I went to investigate ferries to Spain. The intention was to follow in Tariq ibn Ziyad's footsteps and land at Gibraltar (but without the boat burning). Bizarrely, it turns out that ferries to Gib only leave once a week, and that on Fridays, so I decided to get the quickest and cheapest crossing instead, the one to Algeciras via Tarifa.

I met an Iraqi Mancunian on the ferry; he had a holiday home in Tanger and was heading back to the UK via Malaga. The crossing was made much better with the new company, although we had to part ways when we got off the bus at Algerciras.

Still miffed that I hadn't landed at Gib, I went through my options. There was an hourly bus to La Linea on the Gib-Spain border which would have provided me a tight 90 minutes or so on the Rock before having to return to Algeciras in order to set off for Seville. Luckily however I got my rental car early and drove straight there instead.

Forty minutes later and I was back in British territory. Gibraltar is a very strange place. It's like you're in Britain but not quite; all the road signs, buildings and people are clearly British and yet there are small things like having to drive on the right that makes it Not Quite Right. It really is surreal.

All in all I spent a couple of hours in Gib. I offered prayers at the relatively impressive mosque at Europa Point adding yet more feelings of being in some kind of alternate reality, but spent most of my time driving up and down Upper Rock taking in the views, people and monkeys so tame that they approach and play with you.

I quite liked Gib, and being able to spend a good few hours there vindicated the decision to rent a car. More and more, travelling to Europe for me means to rent a car as well, especially when sharing. European roads are so good that there's no hassle learning them and having access to your own transport makes things so much more easy and flexible. My top tip for travelling is to consider renting a car.

The vehicle itself was just a Fiat Punto, but it was better than what I had actually paid for - I've almost always got free upgrades when renting and I never pay for more than the minimum class knowing this. The Punto even had Bluetooth and a USB socket into which I could plug my iPod. On the other hand it was a diesel which didn't help while navigating Gibraltar. I also had a bit of an altercation: between driving on the wrong side of the road and Gibraltar's narrow roads I managed to crack the passenger wing mirror. I'd better get that fixed before I return the car; I'm sure the rental company will make me pay dearly if I don't.

Just as I was hitting the border back into Spain my friend rang to tell me he was about to depart from Stansted. The race was on: I now had to make it to Seville a couple of hours away in order to pick him up. An hour spent crossing the border itself as well as the police check that followed weren't really encouraging, but somehow I managed to make it just in time. It felt like I had been on my own for weeks rather than days so I was really glad for the company.

After a bit of trouble finding the hotel (it's non-central but only a bus ride away) we checked in. The four star was certainly the most impressive place I had stayed in over the past few weeks' travelling and I was glad that I wouldn't be roughing it for once.

Dinner was surprisingly difficult to find - Seville goes to be pretty early it seems. Once again we were saved by the rental car and a after a while driving around we managed to find a pizza place that was still open. I realised that for the first time on my recent travel I had to consider whether my food was halal or not and how I had gotten used to not having to worry about what went into my mouth.

With Morocco a fading memory, I was at last in Spain.

Monday, March 3

Morocco-Andalucia, Day Six: Mixed Feelings in Fes

For some reason I was excited about coming to Fes. The rich Islamic heritage that I had heard and read about was compelling to say the least - the book I'm currently reading, Leo the African by Amin Maalouf, has a big chunk set in Fes and I was looking forward to visiting all the historical places described in it.

The highlight for me was easily the Medersa Bou Inania. I took a few minutes just imagining the knowledge that flowed through and study that went on in such a place when it was in full swing. Aesthetically it was a magical place too - it was covered in intricately carved marble and wood. I wondered what it took to keep it in such good condition.

The rest of the morning was spent visiting various other monuments: the buzz around Moulay Idriss's tomb was a bit too surreal for my particular sense of Islam. I was more interested in the various wooden bars laid across the streets leading to the Zaouia as they marked the places where non-Muslims could go no further. I tried checking out one of the leather tanneries Fes was famous for but gave up after being hit by the stench - both the literal and metaphorical as I ignored the shouts of scalping shopkeepers promising me a free look from the back of their shops.

Second to the Medersa in terms of awesomeness was Kairaouine Mosque. Well kept and obviously modernised, it still kept the classic, spiritual, vibe that made it one of the most, if not the most, important mosque in North Africa. All the more depressing that I was asked to make a "personal donation" to one of the mosque's curators just to have a look during non-prayer time. Unfortunately the Medersa al Attatrin next door to the mosque was closed for refurbishment so I wasn't able to catch an aerial view of Kairaouine.

Speaking of getting ripped off, for me Fes had already taken the record as most notorious city in Morocco so far. A minor example of this was how that morning I was sold a six month old bottle of mineral water when there were much newer ones available. This turned out to be a bit of a blessing, as I had to use its contents in order to take an unscheduled dump during the day.

I was also still being offered hotels and food (am I really that obvious a tourist?). I had resorted to my previous plan of pretending to be "bakistani" (with a b); I wasn't sure if it had any affect on the prices I had to pay, but at least I could claim to not speak English. Actually, if I'm honest with myself I don't think I was enjoying my time in old Fes that much either; luckily I was almost done with it anyway.

My final stop was to the Merenid Tombs. The tombs themselves don't really offer much but the views they afford of Fes really were amazing. You could see all of the old city, and I spent more than a few minutes making out the places I had seen that morning.

While I was taking in the view I was approached by a random guy. He managed to strike up a conversation despite my attempts at fobbing him off, thinking he was yet another Fassi eager to extract dhirims from my pocket. It was only after he left that I realised that he was just being friendly and curious - and at any other time I would have welcomed the chat.

As usual I was quick in my sightseeing; it wasn't even time for Zhur prayer yet. It was then that I made the decision to offer the midday prayer in Kairaouine, grab some lunch and then get out of Fes. I didn't even bother wandering around the city while waiting, choosing to hang out in the Kairaouine library to read instead.

Amusingly we prayed at an angle averse to the building itself. It's hard to explain but we were in the row as normal, but then each turned to our left around twenty degrees or so, enough to have a good view of the shoulder of our neighbours. I could only guess that it was due to some kind mistake in the building of the mosque and that the correct Qiblah was established at a later date, but it was funny nonetheless.

A less amusing observation was how most mosques in Morocco seem to turf you out once prayer is over. It's interesting how "commoditised" mosques become in some Muslim countries, where they are just seen as places in which to pray. It's even more depressing considering what this particular place was used for back in the day - if I had been visiting five hundred years ago I'd have been able to use it as a sanctuary as I wanted to today.

After lunch it was finally time to go. I went to the hotel to pick up my bags and settle my bill. Originally we had agreed to 100 dhirims for the night: it was late when I checked in and I was clearly desperate, although I should have realised I was being taken for a ride when I was quoted the price without even being looked in the eye.

However I refused to pay and told the caretaker that I'd been told the rate was 50. Yes it was totally dishonest and wrong both morally and Islamically but after the way I had been treated today I suspected that karma was on my side. Heck, I probably still got ripped off anyway.

It turned out that I had a good three hours before my train was due to depart. A part of me wondered whether I should have spent the night in Fes's Ville Nouvelle, cafe surfing and chatting with the many students that apparently reside there. It would have given Fes a chance to redeem itself as I made use of the parts more accessible to someone like me. But I had such a negative experience of Old Fes that I bought my ticket to Tanger anyway, even though it meant that I would arrive in a place even more notorious than Fes at a much later hour. I really don't get how a work colleague managed to kill a whole two days here.

It turned out that I had made the correct decision. I managed to check into a decent hotel, ignoring yet more unsolicited offers for hotels (all of which seemed to be down some dark ally). And despite the hour I also got to wander around for bit while searching for dinner. Tanger is a pretty happening place at night it seems.

It was while walking around that I finally figured out why I wasn't enjoying the second part of my time in Morocco. Continually looking over my shoulder, hands on my wallet at all times and wondering whether or not I'd get mugged or hassled for money isn't a very nice place to be in mentally.

As the type who comes to a country to meet its people and witness its atmosphere Morocco wasn't really offering much. Furthermore it brought out a horrible side of myself as I attempted to form a defence against it. I had become a more stingy, paranoid, suspicious and even nasty Shak and it was really someone I didn't like being.

It's obviously time for me to leave Morocco.

Sunday, March 2

Morocco-Andalucia, Day Five: At Home In Rabat

I normally try to get breakfast included with my hotel room - as one who brushes their teeth after breakfast it's convenient and efficient that way. For some reason though Moroccan hotels seem to exclude breakfast (if they offer it at all). This was a good thing though since it allowed me to check out Rabat while it was waking up. It's almost surreal watching the empty streets bustle into a working day.

The day was to be spent in Rabat doing the sites. Looking at my various maps, everything seemed to be within walking distance and this turned out to be the case - whether that was due to the city or my being on my own I don't know.

First up was the Citadel of Chellah, toward the south of the city. A magnificent ruin situated just outside the city wall, Chellah had its basis in both Roman and Islamic history, and it was interesting to see the two empires side by side, albeit in ruins. On the way back to Rabat proper I stopped by the Royal Palaces. This wasn't anything too inspiring so I took a few snaps and left for my next destination.

Hassan tower defiantly stands to the east of Rabat. Incomplete but not any less intimidating because of that, the Hassan tower is a lonely structure, clearly missing the mosque it once could have belonged to. Alongside the tower, separated by the courtyard where the mosque once stood was King Mohammed V's mausoleum. Since the whole area was peaceful and quiet I dropped my anchor for a while and caught up with some reading.

For lunch, I headed toward the Old Medina. It was then that I noticed the structure of this and other Moroccan towns I had visited and read about - they almost always had an Old Medina, meticulously preserved as a tribute to the time they came from, surrounded by a "Ville Nouvelle" built up by whatever colonial power was in control at the time (probably the French). It was an obvious mark of a Moroccan city and made orientation much easier once I had realised it.

The main sight of the Old Medina was the Kasbah where I spent a big chunk of time looking over the ocean. After lunch and Zhur prayer, I headed toward the Parc du Triangle de Vue, as much of a central park as you could get in Rabat. Nice and shady it was here that I decided to while way my time waiting for my train to Fes. I didn't think that I needed any more time in Rabat, although I wanted to hang around and soak in a bit more of the atmosphere I seemed to have taken a liking to.

I wasn't alone. There was a lot of people in the park with me, just chilling out and doing nothing. In fact I had spotted this phenomenon all over Rabat - a striking difference to the people of London who always seem to be doing something or going somewhere of importance.

There was also something to be said of the couples I spotted. A lot of them appeared to be mismatched in terms of, well, hotness. This worked both ways with an equal amount of good looking guys and girls hooking up with others at least a few points below them. Either my calibration was off or people here just aren't as shallow when it comes to physical appearance. Good on them if so.

As if they had known how much I rated their rail system last night, my train to Fes was delayed by an hour. This wasn't much of a big deal really - I had set tomorrow as my main day for Fes exploration, but nevertheless I didn't want to enter the town too late, especially after all the tales I heard about being hassled for various commissions.

I arrived at the train station at around 9:30pm, and caught a cab to Bab Boujeloud getting ripped off by an unset meter on the way. This was a minor taste of things to come - by the time I had checked in I had been forcefully approached and followed many times with people offering hotels, food and tourist guides and having the gall to become offended when I ignored them. Bab Boujeloud is the tourist centre of the Old Medina so I shouldn't have been too surprised really.

Since the Old Medina was, well, old, there was little chance of getting anything comfortable. The place I eventually checked into was very basic - my room had a single window and no on-suite - no shower for me tomorrow morning then. I considered spending my second night in Fes else where, probably in the Ville Nouvelle. I planned to get as much out of Fes el Bali (the Old Medina) as possible tomorrow.

Venturing out for dinner brought more hassles - a sharp reminder of the dollar orientated Arab hospitality I had been experiencing since Jerusalem but had forgotten during my time in Marrakech, Casablanca and Rabat. As you can probably tell, I'm not too impressed by Fes so far, but perhaps the day will bring a new, more favourable, opinion?

Saturday, March 1

Morocco-Andalucia, Day Four: As Time Goes By

The original plan was to leave Marrakech yesterday after Jummah, spending the night in Casablanca. The change of plan was due to family wanting to check out Casa too; and so we all set off on the three hour drive to the coastal town together for the day.

Despite being the title and location for one of the biggest films of the forties, Casa itself was pretty underwhelming at first. There just didn't appear that much to see or do here. We started off with the Cathedrale du Sacre Coeur, and left wondering if we had wasted our time coming up.

That was until we saw Mosquee Hassan II.

A part of me wonders if it's ironic marvelling at mosques like that of Hassan II. Truly awesome and definitely impressive, I'd say that Casa is worth a visit just to see it, particularly if you happen to be a Muslim. The sheer scale of the place is amazing and something you only really consider after walking a good five minutes across the expanse that it its courtyard. New, shiny, modern yet classic I'm running out of adjectives trying to describe it. Just go see the pictures already.

After offering Zhur/midday prayer at Hassan II, we ate. Lunch was provided courtesy of Pizza Hut. Interestingly the whole place was served exclusively by women, three of whom were down right pretty; all of a sudden I was even more excited to explore the rest of Morocco. We also noticed another common Moroccan phenomenon: that of relationships involving older men with much younger women. Very bizarre and unsettling... yet comforting at the same time. Cough splutter.

We then headed to Ain Diab a few miles west along the coast. Ever since Australia, I've come to expect a great deal from non-UK beaches and Ain Diab wasn't disappointing. Clean and fine, we spent the rest of the afternoon paddling in the Atlantic and basking in the warm sun, watching the youth of Casa play beach football and volleyball. We all simultaneously wondered what it would be like to live in the vicinity of such a place.

But at last it was time to say goodbye. I was to continue my journey east, to Rabat, while my family was to return to Marrakech. After being dropped off at Casa Port we said our goodbyes and parted ways.

I arrived in Rabat around an hour later. From my journey I concluded that the Moroccan rail system was an order better than that of the UK's: it was more cheap, efficient and comfortable than anything I had used anyway.

After booking into a hotel close to the station, I sought out the Grand Mosque in order to offer my Esha or night prayer. Between that and finding something to eat I quickly got my bearings in Rabat; everything appeared to be within walking distance and the streets seem safe with the people friendly.

After dinner I ended up in the cafe at Hotel Belima, a cup of hot chocolate at my table, partly reading my book and partly watching the people go by. I knew then that I'd enjoy my time in Morocco's capital.

I saw two pretty girls walking by; not a usual sight from what I had noticed walking around Rabat at night. Probably unsurprisingly they were continually being called upon by passing guys and did well to ignore them all - except for a particularly persistent fellow who decided to take the complete ignoring of him as a indication to follow his quarry for a good couple of minutes.

The girls finally broke and had a conversation with their stalker. After a further three or four minutes the guy left, the number of one of the girls in his mobile phone. I was glad to see that the pattern of girls getting hassled, ignoring and then relenting and finally exchanging numbers was an international occurrence. Good stuff.

I whiled the rest of the night reading some more in the central boulevard bit of green in Avenue Mohammed V, thinking about where I was. This was the first time I had been on holiday by myself and I was loving it; it certainly wasn't as scary or boring as I feared it would be.

All that was left to do was to eat at a fancy restaurant on my own and I would have completed the loner hat-trick of holiday, food and cinema.