Tag Archives: Muslim

A Room with a View (Guest Post)

The following is a guest post from Martin of the S&M Motel.  Thank-you Martin!  This is Martin’s second guest post on DreamBigLiveBoldly.com.  If you’d like to be a guest contributor, please contact me.

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There’s a niche in the corner of King Charles’ palace in Alhambra, Spain, where you can look across an 800 year old building void, through some Moorish lattice work, into another world.

Alhambra, (Arabic meaning ‘The Red’) sits on a hilltop overlooking modern Granada in south-eastern Spain. This famous city fortress palace has a thought provoking history.

In 312 AD Emperor Constantine legalised Christianity throughout the Roman Empire (i.e. most of present day Europe). By 390 AD Christianity was the only religion permitted in the empire. However, the 1000 year old empire could no longer sustain itself against external attack and internal decay.  In 476 the last Roman emperor sold his title and moved to his retirement home in what is now Split in Croatia.

The collapse of the Roman Empire left much of Western Europe without education, civil construction projects, employment, economic activity, law enforcement and, crucially, defence against attack.

One hundred years later, the tide of Islam that had been sweeping through northern Africa crossed the straits of Gibraltar into a vulnerable Spain. The invaders were ‘Moors’, relatively recently converted Muslim tribes from north Africa . They quickly occupied virtually all of Spain and stayed in charge for 700 years.

Alhambra architecture reflected in rectangular pool

In about 1250 the Moors began to build the fabulous fortified palace, Alhambra. For 200 years the palace grew in splendour; every inch of the staterooms, private apartments and bathing complexes was decorated with intricate carving, ceramics or gold leaf. Water features were installed everywhere. The latest technology was utilized to provide stunning pools, decorative fountains and cascades woven into stairs and walkways.

Mosaic of coloured tiles separated by white bands with small starsAn important aspect of Islamic art is its abstract nature. Muslims avoid images of people in order to avoid creating ‘graven images’ which are forbidden by their religion. As a result, abstract patterns using bold colours and shapes decorate the walls, ceilings and floors of Alhambra. These striking and original ceramics have inspired artists down through the centuries.

The period of Muslim rule in Spain is known for tolerance and cooperation between the three religions (Islam, Judaism and Christianity). However, outside of Spain, the Christian world was not terribly happy with this state of affairs, and began to re-take Spain for their own faith.  Alhambra fell to Christian forces in 1492, ending Islamic rule over Spain.

The Catholics were now in charge at Alhambra.  The first thing the Catholic King (Charles the 5th) did was to build himself a palace within the existing complex.

Did Charles have his palace sympathetically placed among the Moorish architecture? Was he magnanimous in victory? Did he want to leave the previous palace complete for future generations to admire and learn from? Not really. He built his new palace right across the old one cutting off an entire wing, leaving just the façade of the south wing standing beside the central pool of the old Moorish palace.

In 1922 the artist M C Esher visited Alhambra and, like others before him, was inspired by the Moorish abstract ceramics. Escher’s art explores the space between objects. Characteristically he would fill a space between repeated images to form another series of repeated images, challenging the viewer with a choice of which series of objects to focus on.

Escher abstract with grey, white, and black repeated images

A sample of Escher's work

The viewer has to decide what to look at, the primary objects or the space in between which holds a significance of its own.

Today there is an exhibition of Esher’s work installed in King Charles’ palace. In the corner of the exhibition is a niche for those inquisitive enough to duck through its darkened entrance. In the far end of the niche is a window with a view into the building void between King Charles’ palace and the rear of the surviving south façade of the old palace. Through the lattice work in the façade can be seen the sunlit grandeur of the surviving Moorish architecture.

Looking across the void prompts thoughts of the time and space between the Christian and Muslim worlds, between medieval and modern Europe — thoughts of history, power and politics. It’s an interesting place to sit.  I’d recommend it.

Happy New Year!

S&M

Jammu and Kashmir

After some great machinations in Shimla, we finally agreed on our approach to head further north.

India’s northernmost state ‘Jammu and Kashmir’ extends north from the rest of the country into a volatile region bordered by Pakistan to the West and Tibet (part of China) to the North. This state is composed of three separate regions – Hindu Jammu, Muslim Kashmir, and Buddhist Ladakh. Many people in the Kashmir region are seeking independence from India. The Pakistan government, also Muslim, supports this to free their Muslim brethren from Hindu oppression and presumably so that an independent Kashmir would be free to join Pakistan. The border between India and Pakistan has been in dispute since the two countries received independence from Britain and were partitioned. In fact, it isn’t even referred to as a ‘border’, but a ‘line of control’, based on who currently controls which parts of the disputed territory. There has been constant bickering and battling between the two countries for the past 50 years.

Jammu and Kashmir has pretty much been off limits to travelers for the past 20 years due to open or clandestine (i.e. terrorist) warfare in the region. The border between India and Pakistan is porous due to the nomadic people who traverse the high mountain passes. The quality of relations between India and Pakistan changes like the seasons, and security in the region changes like the weather. As we considered going to Kashmir, we monitored the situation closely, reviewing national and regional newspapers on the Internet.

In the past there have been attacks on the public and tourists including bombing of public places, trains, buses, etc. In the week prior to our departure, there were daily incidents between rebels and Indian police and military. The rebel strategy seems to currently be focused on agencies of the Indian government, rather than the public or tourists, but this can change quickly, and there is always a risk of getting caught in the cross-fire.

Indian newspapers are obsessed with the acrimonious relationship between the two countries. They report the daily events of border ‘skirmishes’ (i.e. battles), terrorist attacks, and body counts. The Canadian government has recommended a total travel ban for this region. Unfortunately, the Great Himalayan Circuit of Northern India circles through Jammu, Kashmir, and Ladakh. Skipping Kashmir necessitates either retracing difficult mountainous terrain (days of travel on bad buses) or resorting to expensive and difficult-to-book flights.

For this reason and that fact that it contains some of the most spectacular landscapes on the planet, some travelers choose to brave the Kashmir region. After much debate, we decided to skip the majority of Jammu and Kashmir (the western side of the state), and instead fly from Jammu’s southernmost city (also called Jammu) to the city of Leh, located in the far north of Ladakh, which makes up the eastern side of the state. Leh is the capital of Ladakh, which is relatively untouched by the violence in Jammu and Kashmir. From here, we could travel south by bus, avoiding most of the hot areas.

To get from Shimla to Jammu, we took a five hour bus ride down the twisting mountain roads to the city of Chandigarh, where we’d been for a day the previous week. For some reason, Indian people seem susceptible to car sickness, and the bus stopped frequently when people walked forward with clear plastic bags of vomit to through out the door.

In Chandigarh, we managed to find a night bus to Jammu, that would arrive a few hours before our flight departed, avoiding the need to spend any more time in Jammu than necessary. We booked a sleeper compartment, which is a small box for two people installed above the seats. The sleeper is equipped with two vertical bars at about chest and knee position to prevent us from rolling off as the bus rocks and rolls, a lovely vinyl sleeping surface, and a curtain to provide some limited privacy. The bus was air-conditioned, with small circular ducts like the ones on airplanes, and which dripped water onto Patrick throughout the night.

The bus dropped us off in Jammu just after dawn, at the side of a road nothing like a bus station. We caught an auto-rickshaw to the airport, which looked nothing like an airport. From the road, all that was visible was high cement walls and gates, crash barriers, spike belts, police, and guns. Seated in front of this fortress, were four young women from Israel, who were scheduled to take the same flight, departing at 9:20 AM. It was currently 6:00 AM, and the airport apparently didn’t open until 8:00 AM. So we sat outside like ducks (sitting ducks, get it?) for two hours.

When we were finally let in, we went through the most rigourous airport security that we’ve experienced. Before boarding the plane, our bags were x-rayed and sealed, we went through three metal detectors, and we were each physically searched four times. No cabin baggage was permitted, and we had to identify our bags immediately before boarding the plane, so that only the bags of those boarding made it onto the plane.

Thankfully, the flight to Leh was uneventful. The landing was exciting as the plane circled close to the mountains to lose the altitude necessary to drop into the airstrip. After a short bus ride to the terminal, we filled out foreigner registration forms (necessary all over India), and received an exception from the Swine Flu screening process due to the fact we’ve been in India for over six weeks.

More on Ladakh in our next installment…

Observations about India

  • Men where pants here, regardless of the temperature. Usually only boys (and tourists) wear shorts. Indian women typically wear a sari (a single piece of cloth that is wrapped without pins or buttons) or a salwar kameez (a long shirt and trouser combination). Younger people prefer jeans, despite the fact they must be baking in the heat.
  • India is a very religious/holy place. 82% of the people are Hindu and 12% Muslim. Christians and Sikhs are about 2% each. Like most of the world, religious has been a major source of conflict in India for over 1000 years.
  • Family is extremely important in India. Marriage and children are almost essential. Most marriages are arranged, but love marriages are becoming more common in urban areas. Divorce is rare, but its incidence is growing in urban areas.
  • Like in Africa, Diet Coke costs more here than regular Coke. Why would someone pay more for less?
  • It is common for men to show their friendship by holding hands. The other day on the train one man was sleeping with his head on his friend’s lap (not that there’s anything wrong with that).
  • About three weeks ago, the Supreme Court of India struck down the law (inherited from the British) making homosexuality between men illegal. Homosexuality between women was never illegal.
  • Cows are considered holy to Hindus, and so they are allowed to wander the streets aimlessly, causing a major hazard to navigation. Needless to say, it is impossible to get a steak here. The cows tend to hang out near Hindu temples where they get fed. At night, they rummage through garbage piles looking for food. Not a very graceful existence for a holy animal.
  • The caste system, though weakening, still has a major influence in India, especially in rural areas. In Hindu society, the caste you are born into (dictated by your parents’ caste), largely determines both your career and who you can marry. There are four main castes – Brahmin (priests and teachers), Kshatriya (warriors), Vaishya (merchants), and Shudra (labourers), with thousands of sub-casts. Beneath all of these castes are the Dalits (former known as ‘The Untouchables’) who perform undesirable tasks such as street sweeping and toilet cleaning.
  • Showing affection (e.g. kissing) in public is not acceptable. Men hold hands more commonly than men and women.
  • It is rude to touch a person on the head, or face the soles of one’s feet towards them.
  • The right hand is used for eating, and the left for unclean tasks such as removing one’s shoes, using the toilet, etc. This is a challenge for Diane who is left-handed. It is considered polite to wash ones hands both before and after a meal. Almost all restaurants have sinks outside the restrooms for this purpose.
  • The official currency of India is the Rupee (Rp). There are approximately 40 Rp to one Canadian dollar.
  • Things are generally inexpensive here. Our hotel rooms typically cost $10 – $17 a night. Breakfast is typically $3 and dinner $10 – $12 (including beer), and that’s for both of us. A bus trip of 5-7 hours typically costs $4. This is very welcome given that Africa was more expensive than planned.
  • Our hotel rooms almost always have an attached bathroom. Usually one of the toilet or shower doesn’t work properly. Sometimes the rooms have a TV, which almost certainly has bad reception. If we ask, they will usually include a top sheet and towels (sometimes only one). They’ll only include toilet paper about half of the time. Imagine bargaining for toilet paper!
  • There are about eight different classes on the trains here. Second Class, the cheapest, seems to be a free-for-all, with as many people sitting and standing in the available space as possible. In Sleeper Class we receive a reserved bunk with six bunks to a ‘compartment’ and two more across the passageway (compartment is in parentheses because it’s misleading to call it that given that it has no wall or door separating it from the passageway). For considerably more money, one can travel in an air-conditioned car, with AC1, AC2, and AC3 Classes having two, four, and six bunks per compartment (these ones have doors, but they don’t lock).
  • Child labour, AIDS, and poverty are all major issues here. An estimated 350 million Indians (the population of the United States) live below the poverty line, a division which is so low that it is similar to the Canadian poverty line in name only.
  • Indians love the game of cricket. It seems to be the only sport on television, other than American wrestling (which isn’t really a sport at all). Male cricket players are worshipped, and make big money in advertisements.
  • Environmental issues are very serious in India. Most of the cities and much of the countryside are polluted. Air pollution, water pollution, deforestation, and disposable waste are big problems. India’s most famous river, the Ganges, which is holy to Hindus, is toxic, which fecal colliform counts thousands of times the safe limit.
  • Indians do seem to care about environmental issues when it affects their pocketbook. Motorcycle and auto-rickshaw drivers often coast down hill to save fuel. Hotel rooms with air conditioners installed have two different prices – one if you use the AC, and the other without. Most hotel rooms have switches outside the door that allow the staff to turn off all power to the room when you exit it.
  • Indian food is delicious. It can be spicy, but we have found that this has been pretty rare. We’re going to start asking for them to make it hotter.
  • Indian tea (called ‘chai’) is drunk with milk, sugar, and sometimes other spices (cinnamon, cardamom, etc.) It often costs a bit more to get just black tea. Coffee, like in Africa, is normally instant. There are no Starbucks, but there is a chain called ‘Café Coffee Day’ in the larger cities.
  • Key sources of national pride are: India’s cricket team, the fact that India has atomic weapons, the fact that India is on track to become the world’s most populous nation by 2035, India’s outsourcing and IT industries, India’s size, and India’s rich history (probably in that order).
  • Most people in Indian cities have a mobile phone. In addition to the nice feature of a small light (handy when unlocking hotel room doors at night), a new annoying innovation seems to be the inclusion of a speaker, so that people can play their music out loud rather than using earplugs.
  • People (mainly women and children) ask to have their pictures taken with us, sometimes using their camera or mobile phone, but with ours if they don’t have one.
  • In cities with more tourists (like Mumbai, Jaipur, Agra, and Delhi), we are constantly being bombarded with calls and requests like “Hello, where are you going”, “Hello, rickshaw”, “Hello, come look my shop”. It can become frustrating and draining.
  • Young boys sell food and drinks on the buses. When we stop in smaller towns they seem fascinated by us, and appear confident that we’ll buy their stuff if they just stare at us for another 5 minutes, ask one more time, or rest the bottle on Patrick’s shoulder.
  • It is common to see people begging here. In addition to those with obvious physical challenges (the blind, amputees, etc.), there are also old women and young children. Some are quite insistent. A man got down on his knees and touched both of Patrick’s feet. Another boy was crawling through the train cars wiping the floor with his shirt and then requested that we give him money. Usually the people who are begging target tourists; we have only seen them request money from local people occasionally.
  • People seem to adhere to the concept of a line up (a queue) only loosely. Although they do line up, it is common for people to cut in front, especially at train stations (or anywhere there are a lot of people gathering). Many Indians seem to tolerate this. In a country with over a billion people, the various strategies to get to the head of the line are numerous (e.g. sending one’s wife in, or ‘I just have a question’ or ‘I just need a form’). We’re sure there are many techniques that we don’t realize because we don’t speak Hindi.
  • People seem concerned about cleanliness, but only in the very near vicinity of their home or shop. It is common to sweep one’s stoop, and even the dirt immediately beyond it, but only sufficiently to push the garbage into the street where it falls into line with everyone else’s. There are lovely tourist shops and hotels surrounded by piles of garbage. A common solution to this seems to be to build a wall around the property so the garbage isn’t visible from inside.
  • Most Indians carry a cloth to wipe the sweat off their faces.
  • The streets are filled with all manner of vehicles – trucks and buses, motorcycles and scooters (everywhere you look), auto-rickshaws (three-wheeled vehicles with a one-cylinder engine and room for two passengers, or eight if you want to squeeze in), ox and horse carts, camel carts (in Rajasthan), and wheeled carts and trolleys pulled or pushed by hand. It is treacherous for pedestrians (in our experience, second only to Cairo).
  • Indians love their sweets. There are sweet shops containing all manner of delicious looking sweets, most of which are not that delicious. Like Chinese sweets, they are an acquired taste.
  • There are advertisements everywhere for higher education. Indians place a high value on education for cultural and practical reasons. Our auto-rickshaw driver was proud to tell us the other day that his nineteen year old daughter was studying science.
  • Men often wear bandanas to protect them from the pollution while riding their motorcycles. They fold them into a triangle and wear them in the style of outlaws from the old west. Sometimes they wear them walking the streets, and it seems like they’re gonna to rob the stage.
  • In most places (except Delhi) only the motorcycle driver needs to wear a helmet. Why is the driver’s head more valuable than the passenger’s?
  • Women ride scooters, never motorcycles, because it isn’t possible to wear a dress on a motorcycle. They often wear long gloves, like in the 1950’s. We’re not sure why, but perhaps to protect their skin from the pollution or the sun.
  • Light skin is preferred over dark skin. Most of the Bollywood movie stars look almost white. Many moisturizers contain skin whiteners like citrus, Vitamin C, etc.
  • The alcoholic drink of choice here is scotch (they call it whiskey). Other than in the fancy hotels, you can choose from cheap local varieties or cheap imported brands.
  • People seem quite superstitious here. Part of this is likely due to the many complicated rituals of the Hindu religion, but it shows up in other ways. Astrology is very popular here. A horoscope is done at all major occasions like the birth of the child. An astrologer is consulted before weddings are arranged.
  • Indians frequently exhibit a head wobble. Although it may seem to the untrained eye to be a ‘no’, it often means ‘perhaps’, ‘okay’, or even ‘yes’.
  • India has had difficult relations with Pakistan since they both received independence from the British in 1947. The two countries were partitioned (by the British) along religious lines to create the primarily Muslim Pakistan and the primarily Hindu India. Of course, many people ended up on the side of the border they didn’t want, and even the boundary itself was disputed by the parties. This resulted in years of ethnic violence and mass migrations of people, and set the stage for the ongoing strained relationship and ongoing violence between the countries, both of which are now nuclear powers.