Monday, December 31

Jerusalem, Day Six: Farewell

As it was our last morning here, we were left to our own devices with the strict instruction to be back to the hotel by Asr. We took the opportunity to visit both the Tower and Tomb of David, while still being able to offer Zhur and Asr at Al-Aqsa.

But that was really it and as we left for the airport we were treated to a final view of the Old City.

It was finally time to leave, and just like my last visit a decade ago we were treated to some overly attractive airport security before I once again was held for a bit before being allowed into the departure gate area. The trip was a quick one, and perhaps a little inefficient (as was expected in being a part of an organised tour) but it was definitely a more convenient visit than my last.

Sunday, December 30

Jerusalem, Day Five: Mopping Up

As today was our last full day in Jerusalem, we spent it mopping up the remainder of the Old City. Highlights included a quick visit to Mariam's House, the paying of respects to the sahaba's buried along the eastern wall, a quick look at the pigrims at the Western Wall, another visit to the Mosque of Omar and then finally we spent some time in the Church of the Sepulchre.

In the afternoon we spent some time with one of the imams of Al Aqsa where he gave us a quick lecture.

The celebrity didn't stop there: after dinner we were treated to a session with one of the muezzin of Al Aqsa, who recited the quran, some nasheeds and of course the Adhan exclusively for us.

Saturday, December 29

Jerusalem, Day Four: A Road Trip

Today, we hit the road for what was to become a whistlestop trip to see some of the points of interest outside of the Old City.

We started relatively close, passing through the Mount of Olives, and then on to Nabi Musa on the road to Jericho (without actually going to Jericho, which was disappointing).

As before, Hebron was the most striking of the places to visit. Primarily because of the mosque, but also because of the West Bank troubles and politics that it has been the centre of.

The final two places we visited were Halhul, where the Prophet Yusuf was said to have visited for a year and Bethlehem where we visited a busy Manger Square.

Friday, December 28

Jerusalem, Day Three: Jummah

Today was mainly about Jummah. Surprisingly, we didn't need to come as early as we did for the congregation in Makkah or even my previous visit here. For all the increase in tourism, it's possible that the numbers for religious use might be more controlled now.

After Asr we visited Salah ad-Din's house which was a nice surprise and offered a unique view of the Old City from its rooftop.

Maghrib was offered in the Masjid of Umar.

Thursday, December 27

Jerusalem, Day Two: The More Things Change

Fajr at Al Aqsa did indeed bring back the memories.

By its very nature not much has appeared to have changed in the Old City - the contrast is stark when compared with the two other holy cities, which seem to change every 12 months. Today was also spent with us becoming acquainted with the Al-Aqsa complex, including a visit to the Al-Buraq Mosque and the Al-Qibly basement, as well the more obvious Dome of the Rock.

Still, even though the place hasn't changed much geographically or even aesthetically the demographic make up has. And by that I mean there are many more organised tours and tourists and the danger of the place becoming an Instagram destination are already clear - if, of course, it isn't one already.

Wednesday, December 26

Jerusalem, Day One: An Unholy Start

Even though it's been ten years since my last visit to the holy land I thought that trip would work in my favour while passing through Israeli immigration. Ordinarily I wouldn't have been concerned at all, but what with trips to both Iran and Saudi within the last few months I was expecting to be at least flagged. To be fair however I wasn't the only one in the tour group made to wait and if anything I was among those released the quickest so perhaps I did get some "special" treatment after all.

Still, the day had been written off and so we all went to the hotel to settle in. We were at the Holy Land Hotel, which happened to be the same place I stayed in on my last trip. I had a feeling this wouldn't be the last dose of nostalgia I'd receive this trip.

Tuesday, December 18

Film: Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse Click for more info

The most striking thing about Into the Spider-Verse are its visuals. They're great, striking and hit the tone of the film so precisely you'd be forgiven for normalising them by the end of the show. That said, there were a few scenes that jarred for me - mainly ones where deliberate phasing and blurred lines were introduced as style, but I suspect that this was more of a personal irritation than a universal flaw.

In fact the film looked and played so well that it was almost carried by it. The plot was weak, with a fair bit of licence used throughout to keep it going, and character development was pretty cheap too. That said the film never saw the need to apologise for it, instead offering tons of fanservice and fun instead.

So here we have a film that is clearly style over substance, and so a film easily hyped (but equally enjoyed) - but however much this makes it fine for a single viewing, it unfortunately falls quite short of being a definitive Spider-Man film.

Friday, December 14

Food: RockIt Click for more info

I first got to try RockIt a few weeks ago as part of a social event. The hosts had booked the whole place and although there were serious flaws in the experience (not least how they had to serve food till 10pm to handle the numbers), the actual steaks we received were actually really good. Since I was there under a special context (and paid a discounted rate for the food) I decided not to review the place until I attended as a private diner.

Unfortunately the first observation was with the price. At over £25 for a steak we soon realised that the place was out of our budget (although it now made sense to me why the food was so good during my last visit). We each then opted for the Wagyu Burger, which at £10 sounded like a bit of a bargain. For starters we got a mixture of chicken wings.

The food was disappointing, with the wings coming cold - not just "not warm" but actually cold to the touch which was disturbing. The burger was also not the best, with the patty tasting like something from a supermarket frozen section rather than anything that could be considered gourmet.

The price came to around £20 per head which was just about what I was willing to pay, but really the main takeaway here was to not consider the place for a future visit. On the plus note, the restrooms were quite novel so there was that.

Tuesday, December 11

Film: Creed II Click for more info

After the decent romp that was Creed, I was expecting a sold entry in the latest of the new-slash-continuing series of boxing movies. I mean hey: they even brought out Drago again which was either the work of a genius or a really lazy storyteller.

Alas Creed II fails in basic role as a boxing movie. There's a few reasons why this was the case, but for me there just wasn't enough agency offered. If you're going to make the protagonist such a weak and shallow character you need to at least make sure the boxing action is great. Creed II just wasn't good enough.

Friday, December 7

Film: Die Hard Click for more info

Hopefully it goes without saying that Die Hard (and Die Hard 2) are timeless classics. This could be taken somewhat literally too - I was mildly amused by how much airplanes and airports haven't changed since the late 80s for instance. But aesthetics aside, Die Hard is one of those movies that managed to capture a certain purity of entertainment that really doesn't age over time.

I'm glad that I go to see it on the big screen (which of course is why I get to write about it now), but I did wonder at the end whether it actually benefited from the cinema experience or not. I'm certain I had the same joy in watching as I do when I watch it in the comfort of my own home - maybe a bit more due to the Christmas nostalgia factor.

In some ways that makes this easy then - Die Hard is still an excellent romp that you should watch (or rewatch) - and better still you can get to do that in the comfort of your own home. Recommended.

Tuesday, December 4

Film: Ralph Breaks the Internet Click for more info

There's a scene in Ralph 2 which satirises exactly how volatile the Internet can be. For me this was mindblowingly meta - it's only now that CGI feature animations can be made and amended so quickly that makes such a film like Ralph possible. Take the depiction of the simple Google logo for instance: it's material and fresh and more current than the length of the film's production; there was also an updating of one of the princesses in that scene after commentary of whitewashing was made. But aside from aesthetics it's the cleverness and keeping with the trends that is the real genius here. Ralph 2 is as relevant as it could have been. Well, for now anyway.

So it's clever, it's witty and it's cute. However it's not without its flaws either. A weak and rushed third act undermines the rest of the film, while a potentially dodgy moral message teeters swamps out any other lessons that might have been learned from the film.

Ralph 2 is a great, if not forgettable, ride and a worthy entrant in the list of Disney animations. And of course those unmissable moments of genius are enough to justify the entry price alone.

Monday, December 3

Umrah 2019, Day Fourteen: Signs

In what seemed like an apt sign telling me to go home, I got asked for ID by who appeared to be immigration control on the way back from my farewell tawaf. Another first for me, and I don't know whether to be flattered or insulted by the approach.

And just like that another Umrah trip comes to an end.

Sunday, December 2

Umrah 2019, Day Thirteen: A Ziyarat After All

We spent our last night in Makkah (and Saudi) doing a ziyarat of sorts - to the local shops. Still, this did mean getting to see the less developed areas of Makkah and it served as poignant reminder of what the Haram zone used to look like before the rapid and fancy development took place. Just imagine: we used to rent rooms of private residences that used to be across the road from the holiest site in Islam. It's hard to imagine that now.

Saturday, December 1

Umrah 2019, Day Twelve: Timekeeping

Because this is me, I was keeping a fairly accurate record of how long certain rituals were taking me to complete. So in the interests of accurate record keeping, here are my highs and lows for completing a tawaf.

The fastest took 15 minutes, performed at around 915am.

The slowest took 49 minutes, and was a stroll between Maghrib and Esha on the first floor.

Just for comparison in the "good old days" a tawaf took a matter of minutes to complete. We're talking 4-5 minutes. Therefore multiple consecutive tawafs were not unheard of.