Friday, April 25

Because We're Crappy

Even if it does mean blowing my own trumpet I do see myself as the (if not, one of the) original proponent of seeing women in a hijab as human. But just to reiterate the more subtle point of that post, I wasn't excusing egregious behaviour but more arguing that the standards to which any person is measured should depend on more the specific attribute of whether a woman happens to have her hair covered or not.

I mean hey, it's not like I'm particularly modest or well behaved myself. A case in point: I love music way more than I should and I still have N.E.R.D.'s Lapdance on my track list and loved Robin Thicke's Blurred Lines (and not just because of that video). Both tracks happen to feature Pharrell Williams, someone who won't need any further introduction if you happen to be in that most wonderful and cherished of demographics - a Muslim on the Internet - right now.

But seriously, I'm really not sure what's the worst thing about this whole Hashtag Happy Muslims topic (and no, you won't find any links to the video here) that's keeping everyone so busy on Twitter and Facebook right now. The video itself was bad enough but at least that just made the makers of it look like fools, however the following halal vs haraam debate, although inevitable, made common folk like us really look dim and shallow. That debate was such a pointless distraction that I wonder if it was actually deliberate and strategic - perhaps it came for free with whatever paint-by-numbers media consultant was hired to advise on the video?

I can't write such strong words without actually explaining why the video really was such an awful thing, not just for Muslims, but for the universe as a whole:

  1. The insecurity and irony of it all. Just like their rich and religious counterparts, truly happy people really don't need to shout it out.
  2. And even if you did want to tell people how happy you were, creating videos backed by chart hits just smacks of tacky overcompensation. Happy people generally do not suck up either.
  3. It's inconsistent. If any of these guys and gals danced at a non-segregated (I'm pushing things, I know, but baby steps eh?) Muslim wedding, then maybe I'd give them a round of applause. If they instead made an exception for some media exercise, then no, sorry, you're fired.
  4. It should have at least tried to plausibly deny its political agenda loading. Even worse, the people behind the video seemed ready to fall on their swords and defend themselves before they had even published it. But hey, martyrdom is our thing I suppose.
  5. The only thing worse than the professional management of an idea is when that professional management tries to dress things up as a grass roots enterprise. At least be subtle about the spin - although admittedly this is harder to do when your KPIs are measured in "number of retweets and likes". But hey look - rock star imams, yay!
  6. The Internet sucks, and anything that relies solely on in will remain virtual and always lack credibility.
  7. For heavens sake stop making Islam a brand. I have no intention of buying your blummin' t-shirt.
  8. And finally, it's a bit outdated. There's a reason why we don't see happy happy joy joy United Colours of Benetton and Gap ads any more: they're lame.

There's more here on Fug's blog. And hey: all of the above is invalid and void if, as I'm still hoping it will be, the video turns out to be a massive joke and example of some genius satire.

You see, here's the thing. This isn't about religion or Being a Muslim™, but about our shocking level of creativity, depth and critical thought, the lack of which we so desperately seem to want to hang on to. The dumbing down and common denominating of such a rich way of life is disappointing at best, and it seems the only way we can think of making it accessible is by creating some kind of Islam-by-numbers, easy listening variant that also happens be easy on the eye.

The consequences of this are both internal and external. Bandwagon jumping is obvious to all but those doing the jumping and as we continue to dumb ourselves down and volunteer for these self inflicted lobotomies, we push others away. On the other hand, the self harm comes in the form of us normalising our ever increasing shallowness. It's just so immature and not only unhealthy for us, but unattractive for those we may want to collaborate and work with.

The real shame is that we were doing pretty well for a bit. Outlandish are an excellent example of a truly creative and spiritual venture (although it doesn't count if you only liked Aicha because: OMG hijab). Real grass root initiatives like those from Imran JK (<3) and the much loved Rebel Muzik did more for us than this video ever will. But things seemed to have stagnated over the past decade as things like the GPU become the main event of the calendar with which we're all associated. Because, well, Islam innit.

The real measure of maturity, confidence and security of us as Muslims will come when we don't see these kind of stunts any more - when we'll be provoking instead of responding, actively pushing forward with society instead of actively defending ourselves against it. Will it come soon? Who knows, but I certainly hope so.

Tuesday, April 15

Film: The Raid 2 Click for more info

By what I assumed was design, the first Raid was a clinically pure and focussed beat em up action flick - that actually what made it great. As such, I had a feeling that the 2.5 hour runtime of its sequel would be a pivotal factor in it repeating that success: either the makers had managed to create 150 minutes of unadulterated bone crunching violence, or they had succumbed to the criticisms of the previous movie and decided to add irrelevances like "plot" and "characterisation".

And it turns out it was the latter, and unfortunately the film does indeed suffer for it. Granted a lot of that disappointment stems from wanting more of the amazing same that was delivered before, but even if we rebase our expectations and consider this a film in its own right, it does somewhat fall short of being the balanced film of action and depth that it strives to be. The plot is longwinded and, well, boring, with characters being manufactured out of nowhere just to progress it. It all makes for a film that doesn't seem to recognise it's own worth.

On the bright side the fluff is superfluous to, and not instead of, the real goods so with patience you do eventually get rewarded. The film is much more violent than the first, sometimes in a worse, more cringworthy way, but all that is excused for some amazing set pieces, some of which exceed that we saw before.

But alas the dilution is enough for me to recommend saving this one for a home viewing - who knows, perhaps by then there'll be the 90 minute edit this film really needs to be awesome?

Sunday, April 13

I Once Ran a Marathon

There are pivotal moments in every person's life which are so life changing they end up remembering them every year in the form of anniversaries. The obvious and generic ones are birthdays (which if you think about it might be more special for a parent than for a child) weddings and deaths, but there are many more which although more personal and intimate can be just as potent. The start of a new job maybe, or a season in which a Muslim performed a Hajj - perhaps even a house move. Some dates you just remember.

Today marks ten years[1] since I ran the London Marathon (back in the days when it was a Flora and not Virgin), and I've never understated exactly how much that day (as well as the six or so months leading up to it) had an effect on me. I could say that the lesson was that anything is possible with hard work or something, but I think what I actually learned was that everything in life has a cost, and the more major it is, the higher the cost. In those terms it's a pretty obvious statement to make, but then I guess most life lessons are.

Blogs (well this one for me anyway) are quite handy in that they catch the moment at its most raw; before one has time to process or even misremember it. I regret not having Radio Shak for many pivotal life events, but the two I do the most are the marathon that I ran and the Hajj that I performed. Still, I did manage to get a "one year later" post down, which captured part of what I was feeling at the time. On the other hand a part of me is disappointed with how hard I'm clinging on to the achievement, if only because this essentially implies that the last thing I managed to do of any great value was a decade ago - and that compounded by the fact that I don't really run any more at all.

But lament aside, I am proud of being in that club of people who have managed to run 26 odd miles in one go, and although I'm not quite sure where my medal is the whole day ten years ago does stay with me. Perhaps that's another reason why anniversaries are useful - to both remind us that not only is time always moving, but that it makes space for further achievements too.

[1] Well not exactly - we ran on the 18th of April in 2004.

Sunday, April 6

Sri Lanka, Day Fifteen: The Return

And there we have it, the end of my time in Sri Lanka. Just like the other wedding-cum-holidays I've been on (Australia, South Africa and Mauritius/Madagascar come to mind), this was a pretty complete and epic trip, consisting of friends, family, good times and some amazing travel. The people, food, natural scenery and overall vibe were all top notch and I honestly can't think of any downsides to the place. It would even make for a great honeymoon - it makes a great cultural compliment to a few days of relaxing in The Maldives for instance.

In all honesty Sri Lanka was never on any travel list of mine, and I'm very thankful for not only having a wedding to draw me to the country but also the opportunity of enjoying the place under such a wonderful context. My sadness at leaving is only consoled by a genuine desire to return (although perhaps without a wedding), and I've already begun to strongly recommend the place to everyone I talk to, and if you're reading this I really hope you consider checking it out in the near future.

Saturday, April 5

Sri Lanka, Day Fourteen: The Gap

And so it finally came - the last day of our tour. We decided to take it easy this morning and left the hotel at a relatively leisurely 10am, heading to the last major point on our itinerary, The Ella Gap. On the way we got to see the scenery we missed last night due to the rain and lack of light, but even those amazing views didn't prepare us for Ella - by this point I had given up trying to not be impressed by the things we saw. A small drive into the gap brought us to Ravana falls, which was nice too, but nothing beat sitting at the top of the gap in one of the hotels taking in the view with a milkshake.

Although we were running out of time (Colombo being over four hours drive away) we found it quite difficult to leave the area and managed to fit in both the Diyaluma and Bambarakanda Falls, each which had their own price to pay. Diyaluma was reached via a hour long drive on an under-developed road, which wasn't too fun but did present us with some more amazing views as well as the opportunity to visit some of the more smaller villages in the area.

Bambarakanda Falls required the use of rickshaws to get to a viewing point. In hindsight the whole plan turned out to be a bit of a disaster - further torrential rain, our rickshaw breaking down half way on the 20 minute trip and even leeches all made it a trip to remember - and considering how dry Sri Lanka had been over the recent weeks most of the waterfalls weren't as spectacular as they should have been (although sure, the aforementioned torrential rain did help a little with Bambarakanda).

But we eventually made the decision to make our way back to Colombo, tired, hungry, wet, but totally fulfilled with today and the whole tour. We got back to our hotel pretty late, hunted for dinner and got ready for bed, myself preparing for the flight I had back to London the next day.

All photos from today can be found here.

Friday, April 4

Sri Lanka, Day Thirteen: The World's End

Another unholy start meant we were out of our hotel and on the way to Horton Plains by 5:30 am. The main reason was to catch the trek at its best - visibility decreases as the day goes on - but for us we also wanted to be back in town for Jummah prayers. Early starts aside, the trek itself was worth it, if only to see the impossibly incredible sights from The World's End. I don't think my breath gets taken away too often but the sheer immensity of the gap was pretty gobsmacking. Also on show were waterfalls and other examples of natural beauty, and I strongly recommend anyone who visits Sri Lanka to make time on their schedule to check out the plains. Photos can be found here.

Although the trek is described as easy you do need to be of a decent level of fitness and surefootedness to get through it unscathed - oh and some sun protection as although the sun isn't particularly bright, it is searing. But complete it we did, although it turned out we should have left a little earlier as the normally 3-4 hour trek turned out to take a little more for our group. Still, a mad rush back to Nuwara Eliya ensured that we made it for Jummah on time, so it all turned out okay.

To treat ourselves we spent the afternoon checking out the Heritance Tea Factory (photos), a boutique hotel situated in the middle of yet more heavenly views. Although we had a lovely time having tea (which means milkshake for me) and cake, it was all too brief and another reminder of just how many shortcuts we were taking timewise during this tour. If only we had another couple of more days or so to plant ourselves in a hotel and relax - it would have been pretty great.

But alas it was time to say farewell to Nuwara Eliya and head to our final destination of Haputale - due to the lateness of travel we were cheated of the views, but what was even worse was the torrential rain that had decided to break during our drive - at time pretty scary. But we eventually made it to our hotel safe, if not a little damp.

Thursday, April 3

Sri Lanka, Day Twelve: The Tea

As we were not planning to stay for more than one night anywhere on this mini tour, early starts were vital to get the most out of the limited time we had. This morning we mopped up the remainder of Kandy, managing to visit both the Sri Dalada Maligawa (The Temple of the Tooth) and Kandy's Botanical Gardens (photos) before lunchtime. Both were pretty interesting and I would say unmissable in Kandy - get the timing right and you might get to see the Bhudda's Tooth enclosure like we did.

Kandy (photos) itself is a very pretty city, nestled in a valley leaving it a very magical and mysterious vibe - almost like it's a secret. I regret not being able to spend more time there actually, but alas we had to leave (oh, but not before visiting a "Gem Museum" - we managed to get away relatively unscathed).

Interestingly when previously asking around about Nuwara Eliya I seemed to get the exact same response from all Sri Lankans: That it's a little England, it's a bit cold, but the views you see on the drive there are pretty amazing. Starting from the last point, the views were pretty stunning, with vast tea fields, rolling mountains and hills and some of the most amazing vistas I've seen anywhere.

It got so much that there came a point where I gave up taking pictures because 1) there was always another similar or better view coming along, 2) pictures really didn't do much justice to what you could see and 3) I wanted to spend as much time experiencing them with my naked eyes than through a camera.

Speaking of tea, we did stop off at a tea factory where we saw how the stuff was produced, as well as given the opportunity to purchase some freshly packed tea.

But we finally arrived late in the afternoon. It turns out that the universal assessment of Nuwara Eliya was based on truth - between the British architecture and climate it really did feel like we were in a quaint little countryside village in England. We even managed to find the time to walk around town - it soon became clear that this was another place I wouldn't have minded spending a couple of nights in instead of just the one we had.

More photos of Nuwara Eliya can be found here.

Wednesday, April 2

Sri Lanka, Day Eleven: The Elephants

Okay so I lied - yesterday wasn't the end per se. Those of us who are still in Sri Lanka began our mini tour of the country this morning and it was in the early hours that we packed into a van to head to Kandy.

On the way we stopped at Pinnawala Elephant Orphanage, exactly what it says it is, and got to see a whole herd of elephants bathing and feeding by the river. Now I've certainly seen elephants before, usually in zoos and the like, but seeing so many of them so... free was quite special. You could almost feel the power these animals had. Going into full tourist mode we paid a few extra rupees in order to feed the animals, which was a surreal experience in itself.

More photos of the elephants at Pinnawala can be found here.

Since we were on an organised tour in Asia, we were fully expecting to be introduced/stitched up by various "cultural" shops along the way. The first of these was a herbal medicine shop where we were given a no obligation tour of a herbal garden and even a free massage before being given the hard sell. Judging by the amount we spent they seemed to have done a really good job (on us). I look forward to using the snake oil we were sold.

We eventually hit Kandy this evening where we caught a somewhat entertaining cultural show full of dance and acrobatics after which we called it a night and headed to our hotel. Oh and if you were looking for a place to stay in Kandy, the Earl's Regency is top notch.

Tuesday, April 1

Sri Lanka, Day Ten: The End

And so this was it: the last day on the wedding itinerary.

After an unholy start of the day in order to catch a dive this morning (which had actually turned out to be one of the best I have been on), the rest of the morning was spent lounging on the beach, dossing, joking and playing beach volley - hanging out for what would probably be the last time under such circumstances. It was nice but poignant - a lot happens in a wedding week to bring people together and it's a bit jarring when you face the reality of having things go back home.

But indeed after lunch back home (by which I mean Colombo) we did head. Our hosts provided us dinner (haleem: amazing) one more time, and then that was it: it was all over.