Saturday, April 30

Food: Sultan Click for more info

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

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

Friday, April 29

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

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

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

Sunday, April 24


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

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

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

Saturday, April 23

More Banning

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

  • Ban all children under 5

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

Makkah: Come For The Prayer, Stay For The Food

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

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

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

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

Crowd Control

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

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

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

Tawaf Tales

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

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

Breakfast Tips

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

Friday, April 22

Food: Fardoos

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

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

Working Women

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

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

My Secret Shame

I actually like the clock tower.

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

Thursday, April 21

Infiltrating The Third Expansion

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

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

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

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

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

Zamzam: Miracle or Something Else?

The thing is that there's just way too much of it. Between the haramain and the volumes shipped out, I just find it incredible that so much volume can be extracted on a daily basis. I mean hey, either it's all fake or it's a miracle eh?

Wednesday, April 20

Tip of the Day

Wear socks. I know it sounds crazy and it's definitely counter-intuitive, but it's a sure fine top tip.

You will wreck your feet otherwise.

Something New

In an outstanding example of how you see something new every day, today was a first for me. I mean despite my "observations" I do believe that the haram belongs to all of us, and I do feel I'm less sensitive than most to some of the behaviours seen here.

But nevertheless seeing a woman breastfeeding today did stop me in my tracks. Thankfully I resisted the double take. I don't even know if such an act is legal in the haram, but needless to say I jogged on anyway.

The Cave of Hira

I've had the good fortune to have visited the Cave of Hira a few times in the past. I remember it being quite the adventure, a fairly decent hike up a mountain to the inconspicuous space where The Prophet used to meditate and received his first revelation.

As expected, it's changed quite a bit now. The most striking is that we now have concrete steps heading all the way to the top of the mountain - something which makes the whole thing more accessible while also detracting from the sanctity of the place accordingly. The obvious correlation is that the place is much busier now. What hasn't changed I remember very clearly - the little shacks and drinks stalls at the peak always made me smile.

Approaches have adapted too: whereas before people may have visited for academic reasons, it now has become a place of worship for many, with some even going as far as to offer two units of prayer in the cave (qiblah direction notwithstanding). I imagine it not taking long for the authorities to clamp down on this by cordoning off the whole mountain. People are indeed why we can't have good things, but I suppose I should feel lucky to have seen it at all.

Oh and in other news, I dropped my phone at the cave's entrance.

Tuesday, April 19

Optimising The Haram

Or for my hipster readers: "Hacking the Kaaba".

The trick is to avoid the sheep and not be a passive pilgrim. A simple example of this is to pick the higher floors for salah - if a view is what you're after you're much more likely to have a good one from up there.

Secondly realise that the tawaf has plenty of short cuts and can be seen as being on a bit of a bell curve. Going in deep will slow down your pace but also reduce the distance travelled by a far large amount. Alternatively you can go wide and breeze around a longer track. It was the latter strategy that brought my tawaf down to 19 mins from the 35 yesterday.

This isn't about being clever, but about quality and opportunity. The easier and faster these things become, the more you can do them. I expect to get in at least a couple of tawafs a day now.

Ban This Now

Here's my list of things to ban from the Haram (I may settle with just the mataf):

  1. Smartphones. This one is probably (hopefully?) obvious.
  2. Prayer books. First because they're impractical and stop people from looking where they're supposed to, ie where they are going. And secondly because sometimes scripture defeats the point of why you're even there.
  3. Groups larger than four. Crowds of this nature need to be fluid, not lumpy.
And people thought wahabism was extreme. Give me control of this place and I'll sort it right out.

Monday, April 18

The Great Unwashed

Now look, I know I can be a both bit of an elitist and anti-elitist sometimes. But that doesn't mean any observation of the masses can be totally rejected outright.

For instance I'm amazed at the behaviour of some of the pilgrims here. Breakfast is a sight to behold - I don't mind stockpiling as long as stuff is eaten, but it rarely is (and based on my conversations with some of the staff there is zero inclination to address this behaviour).

And the treatment of people is, for want of a more fitting word, pretty dire. I'm not just talking about mataf violence, but even simple manners towards people on the street or in service leaves much to be desired.

Muslims should really know better, but ironically I suspect this is the issue; once you've seen yourself as a member of a special club a sense of entitlement and immunity against any wrongdoing is pretty difficult to avoid.

Deceptively Busy

Our fear of heavy rush and busyness turned out to be pretty unfounded. We managed to find a decent, less travelled spot with a good view. That alone is a bit of a win since over half of every floor (including the roof) here has a wall that blocks any view of the mataf.

We came super early today but I feel we have room to optimise our timings.

The Kaaba Paradox

If any one thing demonstrates the dissonance amongst Muslims, it's the Kaaba.

For some it is simply a pile of man made bricks, continually maintained with hard work - albeit a symbol for something much bigger. It's aim is to unite and inspire.

For others it's a miraculous shrine, almost idol like, and is to be adored, rubbed and wept upon - just by being in its presence is one closer to god.

For others still, it's the background for a selfie due for some heavy duty WhatsApp sharing action.

Many paths of Islam or what?

An Ever Evolving Haram

Makkah has changed loads over the years. The pace of change is both speedy yet agonising: the clock tower was being built two trips ago now, and although the extension I first saw being constructed in my last trip appears to be finished I reckon there's a good year or two left before it's completely done.

Back in the Haram main we saw that the mataf has been (impossibly) extended, with the various floors of the doughnut shaped masjid now unrecognisable and routes throughout ever shifting.

The saddest part is that our spot for a decade, on the first floor just outside staircase 28, has gone now. This may seem inconsequential (it is) but it's more a sure sign that nothing really stays the same, even the most strongest of religious based symbols.


Today we finally reclaimed our deferred Umrah. Most of the day was taken up travelling to Makkah, even though we felt we left as early as we could. We actually made it to the Haram a little before Esha, but various roadblocks and policemen made it impossible for us to reach our hotel in time to attend the jamat.

The Umrah itself wasn't the least painless, but went relatively well with only the tawaf being pretty slow due to ongoing construction work. This will probably be our only Umrah this trip (despite becoming popular in recent times we don't entertain the position of Masjid Ayesha as a meeqat, nor feel a compulsion to rack up the Umrahs), and so it does feel like a bit of a burden has been lifted.

Regarding the visiting Madinah vs Makkah first, I think I prefer our old way of doing things.

Saturday, April 16

The Pervasiveness of Technology

Yes yes, technology is great. Its democratising, it grants those usually unable to do so the ability to communicate. It brings people together. Yada yada yada.

I do pray that eventually some kind of maturity will kick in and pilgrims will all leave their mobile phones Skypes and WhatsApps in the hotel room. The most high tech thing I have on me during jamaat visits in my trusty F-91W.

Oh actually no, perhaps it's actually my room key.

Weighing Scales

Another new observation: kids making money by offering to weigh you on their scales. I'm not sure I quite get it, but after watching them for five minutes they appeared to have good enough trade.


If there's one piece of advice that I can pass on to those unfamiliar with the two holy cities, it's not to be too hung up on the rituals. This is impossible advice to take of course, since religion is like that, especially if its a first or second visit.

Instead one should learn how to offer the janazah salaat since you'll be needing to do that almost 5 times a day.

Processes Do Work

Many criticise the Saudi authorities for being too heavy handed and directing when it comes to individual worship in the two holy cities. This of course is unfair: when dealing with the many people, the wishes of every individual can't be respected.

Personally I quite appreciate the processes - both because they are as a result of optimisation (read: justice), but also because it allows those who are willing to understand the process to take advantage. For example, although my father and I queued this morning for the Riadhul Jannah, once we got our turn we really did enjoy it to our fill. And once we understood the pattern of exit and entry phases for the shrine of the Prophet we were able to pay salutations to him at our leisure - a tip would be to avoid placing yourself along the barrier (as you'll quickly be rushed onward), but to simply stand a few feet across it in peace for pretty much as long as you want.

Unlike our experience during the free for all earlier this week, this was an absolute joy.

Friday, April 15

The Cure For Insanity

Today I figured out what I think is the only way I will be able to accept the incessant need for the unwashed masses to take photos of everything (either with or without themselves in the frame). Yes, that's right - photobombing is now officially a thing here in Madinah.

I figure I'll either annoy a lot of people or make a lot of new, but transient, friends. Either way it's the only thing keeping me sane while surrounded by such point-missing behaviour.

Buffet Breakfast: Jahil Defined

Hotel buffet breakfast really is an indictment on Islamic Society and culture. I won't be doing anyone favours (not least myself) by delving too deeply into the observations, but it really does demonstrate how little hope there is for us as an Ummah.

See also: filling up empty bottles with Zamzam.

The irony of course is how otherwise we all take care of our images. No one is dressed poorly, and everyone has the right jewellery and shiny phone. Well, except maybe for yours truly who as usual is dressed as a tramp... but the cognitive dissonance demonstrated by hotel staff after I speak to them is totally worth it.

The Valley of Jinn

So here's something I've not done before: visited the nearby Valley of Jinn.

Now I'm not sure of the significance of such an area, but on the way we did come across some "magnetic" hills that made our neutrally geared car roll UP THE HILL. Needless to say it was all a little silly if not a bit amusing (did I mention that we visited after Fajr?).

The actual valley was very... rocky. Erm. And yeh, that was about it really.

Thursday, April 14

A Random But Predictable Bumping

For the last five trips or so to the Holy Cities, I've always bumped into friends whose visits I had no prior knowledge of. It's gotten to the point where I'm no longer surprised to recognise them, and even expect it to happen.

Today my father and I bumped into a fellow attendee of our local mosque back in London. Despite not being surprised, it was nice to see a familiar face and have someone to share the excitement and memories with.

Madinah Reminiscing

I recently wrote about how blessed I feel at having had the opportunity to visit these places of worship previously. That I first came over three decades ago is also a blessing, if only because I remember a time when access was total, security was low and crowds were non existent.

Two examples come to mind: for congregational prayers, we would be able to head to the mosque on hearing the adhaan, and getting the 3rd or perhaps the 4th row doing so. Coming ten minutes earlier would have gotten us a place on the first row. Now, if you come 20 mins before hand you might get a place in the first extension courtyard - you wouldn't even be allowed any further since the classic mosque space would have been fenced off by that time.

The second example is regarding paying salutations to the Prophet. We used to be able to casually do this as a family - and in family I'm including my mother. Now ladies will not be allowed less than 15 metres and a corner from the shrine, and that only during two phases in the day. And even if we leave aside the access for ladies, as a man it's not much easier: we tried visiting after Asr and it was a big mistake and almost pointless. Even if you manage to ignore those taking photos, the behaviour of the masses is just insane - if I'm feeling particularly uncharitable I would describe it as just jahilness. This isn't even a numbers thing really - Madinah is pretty dead on the whole outside the mosque. No, this is about behaviour and approach, things which seem to no longer have a place in these modern times.


I'm sure I'll be noticing more as my trip unfolds but the changes I've noticed here in Madinah after one day are already quite visible.

People are younger for a start, smaller, shorter. Photos have been taken for a few years now, but now we see video chats and live direct broadcasts of supplications to friends and families - the only redeeming feature is that most seem to own phones other than the Apple default. Silver linings eh?

There are also more people sleeping in the mosque - I can only think this is because they are living further and further away from the shrine and so it makes little sense to return to hotels between prayers.

An Old Hand

Quite embarrassingly I seem to have lost count of how many times I've visited Saudi for Umrah. I can definitely identify 6 trips (excluding hajj), but I suspect the number is actually 7, possibly 8. Whatever the actual number, it is definitely a blessing to have had the chance to go, even more so since such a young age (my first trip was when I was five or so).

As a result the cities are very familiar to us. I wouldn't call us pros, but we certainly have less of a hassle of a time while offering our pilgrimages. The geography is well known despite the ever accelerating change, and we can expertly navigate the two centres both physically and spiritually (ie we know where the nearest KFC is).

We also are more secure in our expressing of our feelings of being here. This means we don't need to take selfies every two minutes, and don't need to participate on the typical ziyarat tours others feel compelled to.

On the other hand, I suspect we have a reduced sense of awe, zeal and euphoria too - it's not as exciting for us as it clearly is for most of the people here (who would have come for the first and possibly last time in their lives).

On balance I prefer being a veteran - as I said, it's a blessing and I feel my relationship with Makkah and Madinah is quite mature now.

There's Always One

I really don't think my pessimism when faced by a group of Muslims is some kind of manifestation of self-hate. I've just seen our ability to fail at community and social etiquette so often that it's just safer to manage my expectations before they're proven correct. The higher the number of Muslims in one place, the higher the chance of being let down.

Today's demonstration was our plane having to re park and have police come on board, all because some douche in two white cloths didn't want to turn his phone off during taxi. All in all, our flight left an hour later than it should have. The great thing was that the festival nature due to us heading toward the holy land was more than enough to make us laugh about the whole thing. And for my family in particular, it made the otherwise four hour layover in Jeddah one hour shorter.

But yes still, Muslims innit?

Wednesday, April 13

A New Approach

The traditional Shaikh way of doing this trip would always be to travel to Makkah first. I guess it's the normal approach for a family who likes to get the hard work out of the way first - Makkah is seen by many as the crowded, busy, intense phase of any visit to the two cities, while in contrast Madinah is peaceful and easy going. I'm not sure where we got the idea of trying Madinah first but here we are travelling directly there.

The benefits have already materialised: the main one being not having to don an ihram on the plane. The stress saving alone might be worth the change.

Otherwise the trip will be a vanilla ten day tour, split between the two great cities in order to offer a Jummah in each. As is becoming our preference, we stuck to the part-DIY approach, where we research and book our own hotels directly. Not only does this allow us to exercise more choice in accommodation, it's also cheaper and allows us to have a direct relationship with our hosts. There'll be no nightmare room changes for us this way.

Sunday, April 10

Film: Zootropolis Click for more info

The obvious things first: Zootropolis is a solid film. It's fun to watch, the characters are endearing, the plot sophisticated enough for the adults but accessible enough for the kids. The visuals are lovely and overall the film presents a neat little package which really doesn't have much that needs improving upon. You should all go watch it for all the usual reasons you should watch a Disney/Pixar/Dreamworks joint.

Digging a little further however and we find much more; the plot isn't just sophisticated... it's also topical, of substantial depth and full of moral dilemmas and guidance. Compared to the usual lessons presented - you know, that it's okay to grow up, that friendship is great, or that bravery comes from within, etc etc - Zootropolis is almost multidimensional in how it handles issues of prejudice, victimisation and politics of hate.

That alone makes this film more special than its peers. Definitely recommended.

Saturday, April 9

Food: Hoppers Click for more info

I really wanted to hate this place. Any restaurant that makes me queue up automatically gets demoted, although once we actually got in I was less upset - the place is positively tiny. I think there must have been 40 covers maximum, including those squeezed in at the bar and window benches. Okay, so maybe queuing up was necessary. Doubts continued to linger though - despite having visited the place I'm no expert on Sri Lankan cuisine... and at first glance the menu did seem a little ordinary. Dosas are cute, but plentiful here in London, and my immediate thought was "oh man, I hope this isn't just another hipster gimmick joint".

Any remaining fears I had evaporated when the food came. It was good. Really good. We ordered a decent enough spread of mutton rolls, dosas and meat and fish curries (the chicken and lamb here being halal), and everything was spot on. It tasted good, weighed in well, looked great... it was almost as perfect a meal as one could have, which is quite a statement. Everything else fell in line too, with the excellent service and perfect buzz.

And we didn't even have to pay for this quality - £15 ensured that everyone was well fed with a variety of food. Hoppers really is a gem and is very much worth a try (you know, despite the queuing part).

Wednesday, April 6

Book: Crossroads Of Twilight, Robert Jordan Click for more info

The big one-oh (year of release, 2003) and quite frankly I was disappointed. I think this volume was always going to fall short, not least because a large part of it happens simultaneously with book nine which gave the impression that not much plot had progressed by the end of it. Which of course is silly; lots did happen, but I guess someone like me needs things to be overt and explicit to be appreciated. It's hard to write about what was essentially filler, yet I am excited to move on to the next parts; if anything it feels like the middle of the epic is winding up so the promise of a thrilling final few volumes is there - there are only four left; five if you count the prequel which according to the publication order is what I'm to read next.

Sunday, April 3

Dirty Pakistani Lingerie Click for more info

Apparently Aizzah Fatima was so frustrated with the lack of diversity and imagination behind Muslim characters, that she came up with Dirty Pakistani Lingerie, a one woman play apparently about what it's really like to be a Pakistani Muslim Woman these days. It's ironic then that we end up with a bunch of stereotypical stories which demonstrated anything but imagination. So yes, once again we saw the Pakistani (in this particular case - it may have been Bangladeshi elsewhere) women who are surrounded by loser guys. Oh yes, and the ones who are always being rejected on the marriage market due to their ages and skin colour. Oh and let's not forget the ones who have "broken free" and taken charge of their sexuality. Such heroism.

If I'm feeling charitable, I'd say that the play only lacked novelty in a London theatre - angry brown women have had platforms here for the past decade and have used them relentlessly. Maybe this is just fatigue talking. The fact is though that there was nothing really new here and no new ground trodden - perhaps in the USA this stuff still feels fresh.

Aizzah Fatima as an actress was okay, and the production okay. There were some funny moments. But really, for those of you who had missed this (it was only playing the one night in Ilford) you didn't miss much. There was a Q&A with Fatima and her producer after the show but I chose to have Nando's instead - the theme for the evening was the treading on well worn cliches after all.

Saturday, April 2

Virtually Dead Click for more info

I spent this morning training to fight zombies. To be honest I went into the session blind, not knowing anything about what was to happen, except that there would be a virtual reality session with the newly released HTC Vive... which to be honest was the reason we had even booked in the first place.

The morning was actually a mixture of theatre, live action and practical jokes, and overall it was pretty fun. It wasn't the scariest thing in the world, but it had some cool moments... most involving zombies who had escaped confinement.

Despite only having spent a disappointing five minutes or so with the aforementioned virtual reality headset, that also was quite impressive to play with. I was ready to claim it a total failure, but it was responsive and engaging enough to be quite effective, and the addition of dual hand held stick thingies made the whole thing even better (we were shooting virtual zombies in the head). It remains to be seen whether or not it's worth £800 plus a decently spec'd PC of course.

The tour ends on the 3rd of April and looks to be fully booked, but I'm guessing there'll be more of the same popping up in other parts of London, so keep an eye out. For £30 I can think of worse ways of spending a Saturday morning.