Nicholson’s Obelisk – Decolonising Our Heritage

My heart alway used to sink at the sight of Nicholsons Obelisk, towering high atop Margalla pass near Taxila on the left flank of GT Road, as one travels from Rawalpindi towards Peshawar. It bode that my boarding school, Cadet College HasanAbdal, was only a 30 mins drive away and I would have to part ways with my parents who would accompany me and my brother on the drive back to our college after vacations. I remember asking my father on one of our drives back if he knew what that monument was. He had remarked that it was a monument named after a British General Nicholson. My father himself being an alumni of the same college had frequented that road many a times.

I knew very little who Brigadier General John Nicholson was at the time, but assumed he must have been a very distinguished and remarkable man to have a towering monument in his remembrance. It wasn’t until recently that I read about his moveable column, a tactical military formation, he led at the uprising of 1857 to crush the rebellion against the British rule, the atrocities he committed and his extremely prejudiced, racist hatred directed towards the people of the Indian subcontinent and the Afghans alike, that I realised how important it is for us to recognise this British era monument as the very embodiment of our colonial subjugation. William Dalrymple in his book ‘The Last Mughal’ recounts that by the time the uprising starts against the British in Meerut in 1857, Nicholson had already developed a very strong hatred for the locals

Nicholson loathed India with a passion (‘I dislike India and its inhabitants more every day’) and regarded only the Afghans as worse (‘the most vicious and bloodthirsty race in existence’). These views he had already formed before he was captured during the disaster of the 1842 Afghan War. By the time he was released, only to discover the his younger brothers dead body, with his genitalia cut off and stuffed in his mouth, his feeling about Afghans – and indeed Indians and Muslims of any nationality – were confirmed: he felt he said, merely ‘an intense feeling of hatred. Only his wish to spread the Christian Empire of the British in this heathen wilderness kept him in the East.

[Allen, Soldier Sahibs p.55,62 cited Dalrymple, The Last Mughal p.197]

When Sir John Lawrence, the Chief Commissioner of the Punjab at the time, gave Nicholson a mixed-race Anglo-Indian subordinate, Nicholson felt insulted and humiliated as he wrote to his friend Herbert Edwardes, the Commissioner of Peshawar

Nicholsons response was to threaten to murder Lawrence, or, as he put it, ‘commit justifiable homicide…Individuals have their rights as well as nations’ as he wrote to Edwardes

[Oriental and India Office Collections, letter from Nicholson to Edwardes datelined Peshawar 23 April 1857 cited Dalrymple, The Last Mughal, p.200]

Perhaps the Brigadier General did attract some unsuspecting admirers amongst the locals during his time and was called “Nikul Seyn”, possibly as a mark of respect as the local norms dictated at the time. Nonetheless, Charles Griffiths suggests in his account on the Siege of Delhi 1857, that the word Seyn (Saeen) in Nicholson’s case implied more than that

Many stories are told of his prowess and skill, and he ingratiated himself so strongly amongst a certain race that he received his apotheosis at their hands, and years afterwards was, and perhaps to this day is, worshipped by these rude mountaineers under the title of “Nikul Seyn”.

[Griffith, The Narrative of the Siege of Delhi with an account of mutiny at Ferozepore in 1857, p.119-20] 

However others do contest this as a Victorian myth. The young Lieutenant Edward Ommaney who accompanied Bahadur Shah Zafar to exile in Rangoon was ‘one of the few who remained immune to the hero worship of this great imperial psychopath’ and was shocked by Nicholsons absurd viciousness directed not only towards the ‘mutineers’ (from his perspective) but also towards the unfortunate cook boys as Dalrymple recounts in his book 

He shows himself off to be a great brute,’ Ommaney wrote in his diary on 21st July. ‘For instance he thrashed a cook boy, for getting in his way in the line of the march (he has a regular man, very muscular to perform this duty). The boy complained, he was brought up again, and died from the effects of the 2nd thrashing.’

[Diaries of Col. E. L. Ommaney, entry for 21 Jul 1857 cited Dalrymple, The Last Mughal p.307]

In another incident he hung all the regimental cooks. As the officers in the mess waited for their dinner, Nicholson walked into the mess tent and announced 

‘I’m sorry gentlemen to have kept you waiting for your dinner, but I have been hanging your cooks’. According to Nicholson he had discovered through his spies that the regimental cooks has just laced the officers soup with aconite. He first invited the cooks to taste the soup, then, when they refused, force-fed it to a monkey. The monkey expired within a few seconds. Within minutes, as one of the officers present put it, ‘our regimental cooks were ornamenting a neighbouring tree’.

[Dalrymple, The Last Mughal, p201 cited Wilberforce, An Unrecorded Chapter Of the Indian Mutiny p.88-9]

History of the subcontinent has other much more infamous generals who were off course celebrated by the British as saviours of the Raj. With the recent centenary of the massacre at Amritsar, everyone in India is already familiar with General Reginald Dryer, who on 13th April 1919 led and ordered his soldiers to open fire on some 20,000 people including women and children who had gathered at the Jallianwala Bagh, mostly to celebrate the Sikh festival of Baisakhi. Off course there is no official British apology still for that atrocity!

In Oxford in 2015/16 there was a campaign albeit unsuccessful to remove the statue of Cecil Rhodes – through his will Rhodes scholarship is administered, and whose imperialist legacy the protesting students did not want to be celebrated.

Although I support the preservation of Nicholsons Obelisk as a part of our colonial heritage, what I contest is the narrative that is built around it. For example, the news report published in Dawn on 9th October 2016, about the first ever archeological survey conducted in the federal capital, concludes with a remark about Nicholson, ‘His life and career became a source of inspiration for a generation of British youth seeking adventure in emerging colonies, especially the Indian subcontinent.’ A lot more needs to be added to it as to what he was for the locals and how prejudiced and despicable his views and actions were! The British wanted to pay homage to Nicholson’s imperial achievements for the colonial empire. To us it should serve as a reckoning of our past. It is imperative for us to know the man for what he was, as opposed to what the East India Company and the colonial empire wanted to remember him as. 

My heart still sinks at the sight of this obelisk though, despite the approach to my alma mater now bringing back many a fond memories. Globally, in academia there is a strong student led movement taking place across universities about decolonising the curriculum.  It is all the more important for us in Pakistan to decolonise our educational system as well. We ought to be taught more openly and critically about our colonial history in our schools and colleges. So no unsuspecting youth is misled by any monument of the colonial era and takes a villain for a hero.

(An edited version of this article appeared in Dawn)


The road to Bayt al-Maqdis (Jerusalem)

“It is impossible to know Jerusalem without some respect for religion” wrote Simon Sebag Montefiore, author of a book on Jerusalem and I couldn’t agree more.

Stones and buildings are found all over the world but only a few places evoke a sense of spiritual connection, beyond the grasp of our sensory faculties, which is felt and recognised only by our inner beings. Jerusalem is a city whose past, present and future is embedded in religious tradition. Wandering through the streets of Jerusalem, you see and you hear but you also experience a strange sense of connection – knowing that these are the same streets where the Prophets, their Companions, the Saints, the Sufis, the Mystics and the Wanderers wandered. Almost 700 years ago Ibn Battutah wandered through the streets of Jerusalem, and armed with his Rihlah, I set out rediscovering the Holy precincts of Al Quds.

In 1326 when Ibn Battuta visited the lands of Palestine he seems to have been able to cross through Qatya to Ghazza without any hindrance, perhaps it was his uncanny knack to solicit favours from the rulers of the lands he travelled through (?)Or perhaps after the fall of Acre in 1261AD Muslims could travel without difficulty. Nevertheless in our times it is an impossible journey to enter Ghazza. Unless you know your underground tunnels of course! (like Banksy); Ghazza in recent times has been in-humanely and indiscriminately blockaded and bombed by Israel and has been described widely as an open air prison.

From Ghazza he went on to visit Al-Khalil (Hebron), Bayt Lahm (Bethlehem) and al-Quds (Jerusalem) amongst a few other cities in Palestine. For my part I had two options, either to catch a plane to Tel Aviv or go via one of the three land crossing between Palestine and Jordan (all of them controlled by Israel). I chose the latter.

It is not uncommon for Israel border security to ask for access to one’s personal email and social media accounts especially those whom they think don’t while away their evenings watching Fox News. In fact the British FCO website has the following remark in their “Entry Requirements” section for Israel

“Israeli security officials have on occasion requested access to travellers’ personal e-mail accounts or other social media accounts as a condition of entry.”

This tied up with the reports I heard from travellers I had met along the way who had already been to Palestine and Israel. The likelihood that I’d be questioned at length and my email and social media activity scrutinized, being a single male Muslim traveller of Pakistani origin, increased exponentially.

I went about clearing my inbox and un-subscribing from Palestine Solidarity Campaign email list. A quick follow-up search of the term “Palestine” in my Inbox yielded countless more emails than I had previously imagined, including correspondence with my local MP – which I did not wish to part with. Nor did I want to expend a lot of time and energy archiving and moving them elsewhere. I decided to leave it at that, declining to give them access to my Gmail or Facebook if it came to it. Knowing fully well that it meant I could be denied entry (an inevitable outcome I suppose if they went through the correspondence with my MP).

Me and Adrian, a Swiss national, I meet at the hostel in Amman decide to share a cab to King Hussein Bridge – the only crossing Palestinians can use to move back and forth between West Bank and Jordan (also called East Bank – taking their names after the two banks of River Jordan). I had been told that this crossing was the most rigidly scrutinized but doubling back to Aqaba to cross through Eilat would have meant a long detour to reach Jerusalem. I decide to take my chances.

The taxi ride takes an hour. After dropping our bags on the conveyor belt for scanning we proceed to what is the first of many passport checking counters. We both hand our passports. Inspecting mine, without a word the young looking border agent (interestingly the first line of counters including a few lethal looking guns are all manned by young female border agents that all appear to be in teens or early twenties) stamps a sticker on the back of mine which has four English numerals and four in Hebrew. She circles three out of the four in Hebrew and one in English, while Adrian’s has a lone circle. I know from here on our journeys will follow a separate course. At the next counter I am ushered to a waiting area while Adrian eases past emerging a few mins later with his visa. We decide to meet later in Jerusalem, if I eventually get through!

A female border agent approaches beckoning me to follow her. She takes me to a quiet corner and proceeds to casually ask me a couple of questions, some of them outright ridiculous. “Why aren’t you married?” I can think of a number of responses which will deny me entry straightaway but I politely reply “Haven’t met the right person yet”, “Who gave you the money to travel?” “Are you carrying any weapons?” Seriously? I think “I have a Swiss army knife in my backpack” I retort in interest of full disclosure. “Will I be able to find your employer if I Google them” Sure go ahead. After a few questions about my dual citizenship and Pakistani passport that is still in my back pack she says, “Welcome to Israel!” (Err no Palestine is where I’m going) that wasn’t so bad I thought – hardly trailing 30 minutes behind a Swiss national.

At the next counter where I expect the visa to be handed over I am told to wait and fill out a form that pretty much asks for all my family details. This time a middle aged guy with thick glasses wearing plain clothes approaches and causally takes me to the side. He seems to be in contention for the ‘most ridiculous questions’ prize, and armed with his own set fires away, “you look tired, are you fasting?” “Why aren’t you fasting?” “Do you usually fast ?”, “Do you pray?”, “Where do you offer your Friday prayers ?”, “Why are you travelling alone?” questions me at length about the details on the form, my family and my travel plans all the while annotating the form with remarks and notes in Hebrew that I cannot decipher. He jots down all the numbers I’ve held in the last few weeks of travelling through Morocco, Tunisia, Egypt and Jordan. “Do you know any Palestinians?” “No” I reply. “Do you know any Israelis?” I had met two un-apologetically bigoted Israelis over the course of the past few weeks I had been travelling, including a Tunisian (born and raised) girl who felt she had more right to Palestine and the territories than the non-Jews who were born and raised there and whose families had been living there for centuries, “No I don’t”. He takes the form and his notes and tells me to wait.

While I wait there is a little commotion in the other corner. An elderly American woman is hysterical. I ask the guy who seems to be part of the same group as to why they are being held up. “I’m (an American) married to an Palestinian American. It is my first trip along with my sister to Ramallah where my wife’s family hails from and my sister has just been granted a visa while they have denied me entry. My mother in-law is over there protesting the decision. Why am I denied entry? Coz I’m the one married to a Palestinian American!”

It is my first encounter with a Christian Palestinian family. They have no choice – He has to return to Amman and wait a few days while his wife and her mother and his sister go to Ramallah and gets their marriage registered with Palestinian Authorities who then have to inform the Israeli authorities before it turns up in the border security system. The border agent who seems a little empathetic to their predicament tells them that had he not mentioned that he was was married to a Palestinian he would have been granted entry (like his sister). I always knew marriage came at a hefty price (freedom, opinion, liberty and what not) but marrying a Palestinian has its extra set of challenges!

Christian Palestinians are rarely talked about in the context of the Palestinian conflict, something that propaganda machines wants us to believe has an entirely monolithic identity – Muslim identity, thereby robbing the Palestinians of their ethno-religious diversity. Enforcing the narrative of a conflict between the ‘ever persecuted’ Jew and the ‘ever violent and irrational’ Muslim alone. Something that would easily appeal to the increasingly Islamophobic world of today! Edward Said, one of the  most eloquent proponents of the right of Palestinians, who himself was a Palestinian from a Christian family that was evicted in 1948 could not have said it better when he wrote

‘In 1948, Israel was created as the culmination of a long process initiated in Europe, as an integral aspect of the great age of expanding colonialism. This time it was European Jews, suffering centuries of Christian anti-Semitism that were to climax in the horrendous Nazi slaughters of World War 2, who sought to create a Western colony in the East. Their efforts succeeded, although in the process hardly anyone in the West who supported Zionism as a post-war reconstructive phenomenon noticed that Israel’s birth erupted out of the ruins of Palestinian society.’

He goes on to say:

‘After all, there has been no liberation movement in this or any other century so beset with such immense difficulties as the Palestinian movement. No movement has had to deal with colonizers so morally creditable as the Jews. No movement has had to deal simultaneously with expulsion, dispossession, colonization and a terrifying kind of international illegitimacy.’ Said, E. (1994). The politics of dispossession : The struggle for Palestinian self-determination, 1969-1994 / Edward W. Said. 

Two hours later the guy emerges again, “Can I see your phone”, I think this might be it, he’d want to see my email. “Why?” I respond “I just want to go through the contacts list to confirm you don’t know any Palestinians” I wonder what made him suspect I might. He takes the seat beside me. I key in the pass code and hand him my Iphone. Punching in a few things he turns the phone around and asks me who Zafer is. I have completely forgotten that I had saved Zafers number, a Palestinian travel agent, recommended by Khaled the hostel manager in Amman. He takes a note of his number and disappears once again.

Six hours have now elapsed since I handed my passport at the first counter, minutes later a different person calls out my name and hands me my passport and a separate printed visa card for 3 months.

I grab my back pack, find the first serveese that’s heading to Jerusalem and jump in. Jaffa Gate Hostel is in the Muslim Quarter of the old city run and owned by a Palestinian. Jaffa Gate or Bab al-Khalil (al-Khalil being the Arabic name of Hebron as the tomb of Ibrahim al-Khalil AS is there) is one of the eight gates of Jerusalem. The serveese drops me of at Damascus Gate (Bab al-Amud). There is heavy armed police and military presence there. I’m told a day earlier a Palestinian youth was shot here amidst an altercation with an Israeli soldier.

I reach the Jaffa Gate Hostel just as the Maghreb Azan is being called out. An elderly Asian Christian lady greets me at the reception; she tells me that the owner is away for Maghreb prayers but that she’s manning the desk and the property as any place unattended can technically be taken over by settlers (?!) She comes to Palestine every year for her pilgrimage to the Holy Land and always stays at the Jaffa Gate Hostel.

Dropping my backpack in the dorm I head out to catch my first glimpse of Haram al Sharif. Ibn Battuta thought back then there wasn’t a mosque greater than this on the face of the earth

The Sacred Mosque. This is one of the surprisingly beautiful mosques which excite wonder and admiration. It is said there is not upon the face of the earth a mosque larger than it. Its length from east to west is seven hundred and fifty-two cubits, measuring in royal cubits, and its breadth from south to north four hundred and thirty-five cubits..The entire mosque is an open court, unroofed except for the mosque al-Aqsa; this has the roof of the utmost perfection of architecture and skill in execution, and is embellished with gold and brilliant colors.” Gibb, H., & Hakluyt Society. (1958). The travels of Ibn Baṭṭūṭa, A.D. 1325-1354 / translated with revisions and notes, from the Arabic text, by H.A.R. Gibb. Vol. 1.

The dimension of the mosque is surprisingly accurate as Gibb notes in the explanatory footnote of his translation of the Rihla, one Royal cubit being 26 inches. In our times, however, Haram al-Sharif is not the largest mosque, but it is certainly one of the most revered ones. It was the first time in the past two months of my travels through North Africa and Middle East that I felt a strong feeling of a spiritual connection that is hard to describe but experienced nevertheless.

Rama: A paradise (almost) lost

“They were looking for Shias”, Aisars voice grew sullen “and my cousin happened to be on that bus” he said with a look of sadness in his eyes. Dipping his biscuit in his chai he continued, “but bhai, the situation has improved a lot since Nanga Parbat”, referring to the tragedy back in 2013 when the ‘Killer Mountain’ famous for its notoriously high fatality rate gave its nom de guerre another dimension for altogether different reasons.

A group of foreign climbers were butchered by TTP terrorists (Janud e Hafsa faction) dressed as paramilitary forces in a late night raid at the base camp. A tragedy that could well have been averted had authorities taken notice and decisive action against those responsible for the Shia killings in Chilas leading up to the incident. But alas, in Pakistan the value of a human life is directly correlated with wealth, power and status. Action mostly taken when someone from those ‘that matter’ fall victim to this senseless violence.

Aisar and I are sitting at one of the ubiquitous tent khokhas that have sprawled up all over Rama meadows with the Polo Festival only three days away. The District Government organizing and supporting the event has transported horses and all the paraphernalia but not one garbage dumpster is in sight! As we speak Shabbir, the khokha owner, empties the remaining biscuits in a plate and conveniently chucks the packet behind a boulder. A small pile has gradually accumulated there. Noticing my unamused look he assures me not to worry as this will disappear in a few weeks. Puzzled, I inquire if there is some sort of a cleanup drive by the authorities after the polo festival?

“Andhi Toufan sub kuch apnay saath ura lay jaeey ga” (“The wind and storm will sweep this place clean”),he replies nonchalantly.

His tent is right next to a fast flowing stream that will eventually merge into Astore River. He doesn’t care what the consequences are for those living downstream. As long as nothing remains where his tent is pitched come next year. Sadly this is the attitude shared amongst many others who only come to the Northern Areas for commerce, depicting a complete lack of empathy or understanding of the environment and the eco-system; selfish to say the least. Enjoy, plunder and ‘Allah pay choar do’ (leave it to God) a convenient excuse we have all become so attuned to. The district government on the other hand is preoccupied with putting up banners boasting the names and faces of the district and provincial officials backing the event. Needless to say there is no provision for basic toilet facilities knowing that an entire districts populace will be descending on these beautiful meadows in three days.

Going only by the distance is utterly deceptive in this region. Rama is about 8km from Astore Bazaar and a hike up can be a good five to six hour scramble. I regretted doing just that. Aisar was revving up his bike that had been returned to him by a friend, as I reached Choungrah. Sticking to the oldest trick in my book I inquired about the distance to Rama (secretly hoping for a lift). Shaking his bike to get a feel for how much petrol remained in the tank, while the needle pointed dead straight at Empty.  As if he read my mind, Aisar cheerfully said, “Bhai I can take you as far up as the petrol lasts”, and signalled me to hop on. The sun had already gone down. The Pine, Juniper and Cedar trees cast ghostly shadows that stretch across the landscape in the moonlight. Rama looked beautiful with just enough light to hide the ugly marks made by humans and enhance the beauty of nature.

Rama Lake is still another 2 hrs trek from the meadows. The two guest houses at Rama – PTDC and Forest are both fully booked, as is the case during summers, by government dignitaries (!?). Having left my camping gear in Astore I decide to head back down with Aisar and return to Rama Lake the next day.

The bike refuses to kick start having used up the reserve in the tank.  My head-torch provides us just enough light to dodge the potholes and avoid a tumble off the mountain. We roll downhill back to Choungrah with no petrol and no headlight. 

Aisar insists that I have dinner with his family. All the male members of their family (cousins and uncles) gather at the family home for dinner as is the custom. There baithak (lounge) is large enough to accommodate 25 odd guests. Lamb korma, rice chapatis and raita followed by kheer are delicious yet unmatched by the warmth of the young and generous man that I have only met a couple of hours ago.

The following day I hike to Rama Lake along a narrow and dusty track. The Lake is magnificent. On a clear day you can see Nanga Parbat. In-fact you can trek to the East Side of Nanga Parbat from Rama Lake. Sadly, the entire route to Rama Lake is screaming of deforestation. I see thick and tiny stubs protruding from the ground, reminiscent of mighty greens that thrived there once.

As I stand there admiring the view across the landscape my eyes settle on Nanga Parbat – the second highest mountain in Pakistan, a country with the second largest Shia population in the world, that is failing to protect its natural landscape as much as it is failing to protect the diversity of its religious and ethnic landscape. Perhaps this time we will not wait for a bigger tragedy to jolt our collective conscience into action, and save the meadows from becoming a deforested garbage dump.

(a modified version of this article appeared in Express Tribune)

Border(line) Beauty – Minimarg and Domail

After an hours hike puffing and panting I came to a grinding halt. I had only covered 1.5km distance.  With the sun out in full blazing glory and the treeless plateau of Deosai lending no place to hide, the weight on my back was bearing down hard. It was impossible to keep pace with the occasional cloud that chanced the wide open blue skies providing a fleeting glimpse of a shadow.

At my current pace it would certainly take me another couple of hours to hike up the few kilometres before the descent to Chilam started. I had only recently heard about Minimarg, a scenic town close to the Indian border, and was hoping to catch a ride there the same day. Army had done considerable amount of work to pave the road heading to Minimarg but there were still plenty of dangerous patches yielding to several hundred feet of deadly falls on a miscalculated turn. Night travel was virtually impossible.

For now I had no option but to continue on foot. After another hour of slow and deliberate trek the dirt track yielded to a well tarmacked road and a lone wooden shack turned up with a few kids playing in the adjoining field. Curious, as to who this lonely stranger with a big back pack was they came to investigate. All of them hailed from a village close to Chilam, in the same direction I was headed. After a little rest with no sign of a potential lift I got up to continue. My entourage by now had grown from a solo traveller to a traveller with four young and eager companions.

Asghar Ali, who worked as a librarian in Skardu, had made an early start to visit his family in his hometown of Astore. Instead of choosing the longer but well paved route via Karakoram Highway he had decided to take his Honda 125 on a bumpy but scenic ride cutting across the Deosai Plains.

Upon hearing the sound of a bike in the distance my travel companions made a huge raucous and flagged his bike down from a mile away. Bidding farewell to them I jumped on the bike. In half an hour we were at Chilam ‘Chowki’ (check post). I had requested permission to visit Minimarg prior to leaving Skardu and was hoping that someone had already informed the check post about my arrival.

The sentry came out of the guard room and sizing me up asked a few questions before inquiring,

“App kiss k mehmaan hain?” (Whose guest are you?)

My father happened to know the Commanding Office in the Northern Areas at the time. His name was bound to expedite permits and open gates fast, I thought.

“mein Commander Northern Areas ka mehmaan hoon” (I’m the guest of Commander Northern Areas)

I replied with an air of confidence.

A look of amused disbelief came across his face; he looked me up and down again, and asked me to confirm the name of the Commanding Officer. Sensing that the official was too important to ignore; still my appearance of a travel hardy backpacker made him pause and think, before he finally went back inside the guard room to make inquiries.

It took a while before my credentials were finally verified and I was escorted to a waiting area. My cousin, a Captain in the army, who happened to be posted in Minimarg at the time later informed me with a loud chuckle that the sentry had rang into the Army Camp and his voice laden with doubt inquired,

“Sir yeh aik daaari wala bunda aya hai motor cycle k peechay baith k, or keh raha hai k mein Commander Northern Areas ka mehmaan hoon!!” (Sir, there is a scruffy looking guy who has arrived here on a motor bike, and claims to be the guest of the Commander Northern Areas!)

To the sentry it seemed farcical that someone claiming to be the guest of a senior official could be hitch-hiking there. Thankfully my cousin decided to own me up and not sever the family ties for my lack of following the protocol.

So there I was on the road to Minimarg, a beautiful little town nestled between mountains covered in dense green foliage and trees, at an altitude of 2844 meters. Jamal, a local building contractor, had an errand to run there. High on naswar, he seemed like the perfect companion cum driver, one wished, to take them on a ride touching the clouds (literally and metaphorically) on this perilous road with tumultuous turns and deadly falls.

Due to Minimargs’ proximity with the Indian border I had to restrict my camping and trekking ambitions and was forced (read: glad) to swap my tent for a cosy shell proof underground bunker.

Minimarg served as the perfect prelude to the spectacular lakes and roving green mountains of Domail. The fact that both these places are hard to get to, coupled with the special permit requirements meant that they were out of reach of the typical “tourons” (touristic morons who throng to these beautiful places and litter them) and absolutely pristine!

My original plan was to get to Domail on horseback but a scurry to the riding stables in Minimarg proved that the riding skills I had acquired as a toddler needed much more than just a brush up! With my riding hopes dashed, I resorted to my proven and tested method – asking around if someone was heading to Domail. And sure enough a 4×4 was going there the next afternoon.

On the way to Domail camouflaged by trees is the striking little village of Nagai with identical wooden cottages. My tiny GoPro coupled with the rickety 4×4 I had caught a lift on hampered my (otherwise professional!?) ability to capture its splendour, so you have to take my word for it!

The crown jewel of that region however is the beautiful Rainbow Lake that takes on different colors at different times of the day. The water is crystal clear sourced from the streams and springs coursing their way down the mountain. It is one of those lakes that make it hard to resist a plunge especially when you see a wooden ramp leading to what could be the perfect diving platform. The sun will dry you out in no time.. if only protocols did not get in the way! So instead of a dip I hopped onto a raft that took me across the lake to the other side where lunch was already waiting in a picture-perfect wooden hut overlooking the lake. It was delicious and a far cry from the paratha rolls I had been consuming the last few days – rumour has it, that the cook responsible for catering had been personally enlisted by the ‘powers that be’ in that region. A wise choice and one that I fully endorse!

Minimarg and Domail proved to be as ravishing for my visual cortex as they were for my salivary glands. However my wandering spirit felt subdued by the restrictions imposed on venturing off the designated tracks and trails. I was told about a scenic Ansoo (tear) Lake a few hours hike from Domail right on the border (yes there are two Ansoo lakes but most people have only heard about the one in Kaghan). Sadly I was prohibited from trekking there and my spirit shed an ansoo or two. One day I hope as much as anyone else that we (Pakistan and India) can get over our differences and be fully able to explore the beauty of our own as well each other’s countries uninhibitedly.

After three days in Minimarg and Domail I was ready to head to Astore. Filled to its 16 strong capacity, I paid an extra Rs. 100 for the front seat in the local jeep van that left promptly at 9am for Astore and saw Minimarg disappear in the distance.

(a modified version of this article was published in Dawn)

A Night Amidst The Giants of Deosai

I first came across the name “Land of the Giant” in a blog post by Salman Rashid. It had never before occurred to me that Deosai could have anything to do with a Deo (giant). And so I decided to embark on a trip hoping to spot the giant(s) that inhabited this beautiful plateau above 4000 meters.

Stocked with six omlette-paratha rolls I hoped they’d be enough to last me two days camping in Deosai.  I was glad I didn’t need to carry any water as Deosai had ample fresh water springs (though I never imagined a dirty diaper would greet me at a source of one of these; if that wasn’t enough there were still plenty of plastic bottles and wrappers thrown about this beautiful plateau, a very worrying sign as the number of people that frequent Deosai is on the rise, but this is a topic for another post !). My back pack with the tent, sleeping bag, and the little food and gear I was carrying was already a back breaking 25+ kilos and I intended to trek out of Deosai to Chilam, so economizing on weight was crucial.

A college friend posted in Skardu proved an invaluable source and organized a jeep ride to drop me in Deosai. From Skardu to the entrance of the national park took about 1.5 hours. A bored looking wildlife official met us at the gates. After collecting the customary Rs. 40 entrance fee, he handed me a pamphlet which had some useful information about the national park, and let us through.

The doorway into the land of the giant belied the beauty that would be sitting atop higher than the slopes we were gradually climbing. The jeep grunted and groaned as it clambered up the narrow and winding track, wedged between the mountains, following the course of the river that raged below. Once atop the narrow track opened up into a endless expanse of beautiful unhindered green plains, peppered with purple, yellow, blue and white flowers. Fast flowing streams cutting across the landscape with vision only hindered by beautiful snow laden mountains in the backdrop of this plateau.

The first sign of habitation we encountered was a small shackturant (read: khokha) near Deosai Top (also known as Ali Malik Mar) close to which was a Gujjar encampment. And who knows their milk better than a Gujjar? So we decided to settle for some khalis doodh patti and witnessed their butter making skills, using goat skins, first hand. Each summer these Gujjar nomads travel from Punjab to these lush green pastures to fatten their herd. I’m told they have to pay a small fee for each animal they bring to graze (?) Hailing from a Gujjar family myself it was an interesting encounter with my distant kinsfolk that had decided to stick to the trade rather than settle in the cities. For once I was envious of their life style – overwhelmed by the beauty and magnitude of this treeless, never ending, green expanse they had decided to call home for the summers.

An hour later we reached Bara Pani where there was a Wildlife Project encampment. This was one of the places I had in mind to set camp for the night, but it meant that I’d have a very long and arduous trek the next day to reach Chilam . One of the wildlife officials suggested I continue all the way up to Sheosar Lake close to where there was also a bear sanctuary. Could the elusive deo or deos (if there were more than one) of Doesai be the Himalayan “brown bear” that inhabit this region, I thought ?

By the time I reached Sheosar lake it was 4pm. As the sun began to set the few local tourists who had flocked to it earlier slowly disappeared. I quickly ditched the idea of pitching my solo tent by the lake, as the thought of a brown bear ripping it apart snapped me back to reality.

I had spotted Aslam, a tenturant (read: tent khokha) owners’ tent pitched a few hundred meters away from the lake, and decided to pitch mine there too. Aslam showed me a white flour trail at the back of his mess tent that led up the hill. The culprit, he suggested, could only have been a brown bear with enough strength to move the rocks lining the base of his tent. He wasn’t taking any chances with his supplies tonight and decided to sleep in the mess tent, the theory being if a bear smelled a human inside he’ll go away.I wasn’t sold on the wisdom of his theory considering the countless people who have been mauled by brown bears elsewhere in the world.. Having recently watched “The Revnant”, I’m convinced he’s got it all wrong!

At night fall the stars had the sky completely alit, the moon light illuminated the distant white mountain tops. After a stroll around the lake I settled into my sleeping bag hoping to wake just before sunrise and go searching for the brown bear if it hadn’t already found me by then!

After hardly an hour of sleep I woke up shivering. The temperature had hit sub-zero and my sleeping bag with an extreme rating of -7 C was proving inadequate. A slight headache symptomatic of altitude sickness, which usually hits the hardest at night, had crept in too. I jumped into my base layer, fleece, and woollen socks and snuck back in to the sleeping bag, only to wake up minutes later to the sound of something ruffling outside my tent. The first thought that struck me had my senses fully heightened, ‘Could it be the bear that had ransacked Aslams mess tent last night?’

I wasn’t taking any chances, the vision of a bear paw tearing through my tent lunging for the paratha rolls and catching my limbs as an extra treat was enough for me to grab my jacket head torch and jump into my boots. Sensing the direction which the sounds was coming from, I opened the tents zip on the opposite side and with my light flicked to full beam I jumped out of my tent. Showing the light frantically in all directions I couldn’t spot a thing. Just as I was about to head back to the tent, I noticed a horse grazing at a few meters distance. Feeling relieved and disappointed at the same time I shooed him away and meekly made my way back in. Repeating the same episode twice that night around 2am and 4am, I gave up on the idea of sleep.

The sky was already turning crimson, the sun eager to pierce the early morning sky with its rays. I looked at my map and decided to trek over to the summit of a peak overlooking what was marked as a bear sanctuary. The visibility was good enough to spot a bear from a few hundred meters away, giving me enough of a head start in case I had to make a run for it.

The trek to the summit took longer than I had expected, the clear air and unending expanse of green had deceived me into thinking it was closer than it really was. By now the sun had already burst through the sky. With the temperature shooting up quickly, my hopes of spotting a deo, that I thought to be the brown bear, known to stay in cooler climes, dwindled. Feeling inadequately equipped to spend another night on my own and running low on food, I decided to break camp and trek to Chilam.. Determined to return another day.

(a modified version of this article was published in Dawn)

On Dreams and Reality

Ibn Batuta had initially set out to from his hometown in Morocco to perform the pilgrimage to Mecca but the meanings his dream(s) held for him and his encounters with some of the great sufis of his time exerted a huge influence on his journey and perhaps altered its course in many ways. His encounter with Burhan al-Din Lung (the Lame), whom he met in Alexandria, was the first one of such kind.

One day, when I had entered his room, he said to me:’I see that you are fond of travelling and wandering from land to land.’ ‘Yes,’ I replied, ‘I am fond of it,’ although there had not as yet entered my mind any thought of penetrating to such distant lands as India and China. Then he said: ‘ You must certainly, if God will, visit my brother Farid al-Din in India, and my brother Rukn al-Din Zakariya in Sind, and my brother Burhan al-Din in China, and when you reach them convey to them a greeting from me.’ I was amazed at his prediction, and the idea of going to these countries having been cast into my mind, my wanderings never ceased until I had met these three that he named and conveyed his greeting to them. (The Travels of Ibn Battutah, Macintosh-Smith 2002, 8)

Later, when he goes on to meet Shaykh Abu Abdallah al-Murshidi who was well versed in the science of dreams and their interpretations; Ibn Batuta asks him to interpret a dream.

That night, as I was sleeping on the roof of his cell, I dreamed that I was on the wing of a huge bird which flew with me in the direction of the qiblah, then made towards the Yaman, then eastwards, then went towards the south, and finally made a long flight towards the east, alighted in some dark and greenish country, and left me there.
I was astonished at this dream and said to myself, ‘If the shaykh shows me that he knows of my dream, he is all that they say that he is.’ ..So I related it to him and he said: ‘You shall make the Pilgrimage to Mecca and visit the tomb of the Prophet at al-Madinah, and you shall travel through the lands of al-Yaman and al-Iraq, the land of the Turks, and the land of India. You will stay there a for a long time and you will meet there my brother Dilshad the Indian, who will rescue you from a danger into which you will fall.’ (The Travels of Ibn Battutah, Macintosh-Smith 2002, 12)

Ibn Batuta mentions this dream as a testament to the wisdom of the shaykh who interpreted his dream as well as to convey a sense of the degree of truth that his dream embodied. Needless to say many years later when he travels to India he is saved by Dilshad from a calamity as was predicted.

It is interesting to note that in one of the oldest translations of the book (albeit abridged) that I found, thanks to, the translator, Samuel Lee, in typical Orientalist fashion dismisses off hand the entire tradition of dream interpretation and its significance whatsoever, in his remark in the footnote about the saints who can interpret dreams (awliya al mukashifeen)

Awliya al Mukashifeen – These seem to be nothing more than perpetuators of the ancient practices of divining mentioned so often in the Hebrew Bible. The influence these impostors still possess in the East is very great, as may be collected from the text in this place. (The Travels of Ibn Batuta 1829, Lee Samuel, 9)

Although admittedly there is now no dearth of people both in the East and West who dismiss dreams and their interpretations as complete mumbo jumbo. Nevertheless in the Islamic tradition dreams and their meanings have a strong scriptural (Quranic) and traditional (Prophetic Hadith) basis.

Muhammad Ibn Sirin who lived in the 7/8th century was a very pious and well respected scholar and a sufi (mystic) of his time and wrote one of the first books ever written on dream interpretation called Muntakhab Al-Kalam fi Tafsir Al-Ahlam (The Key Declamation on Dream Interpretation) which is considered by dream interpreters in the Muslim world as a major source of knowledge that enriched the spirit of readers as well as dream interpreters for the past one thousand years. Professor Mahmoud Ayoub adapted his translation Ibn Seerin’s Dictionary of Dreams based on Ibn Sirin’s original work, which is a very interesting and informative read for anyone who is interested in dreams and their significance according to the Islamic inner traditions.

I remember in my sophomore year at university a friend, who had aced the midterm exams scoring two standard deviations above the mean, entered the class and walked over to where we were seated. He looked a little worried and told us that he had a strange dream the night before.  He saw that he was contesting his “B+” grade that he was awarded in the course even though he was well ahead of the rest of the class up until the finals! Based on the relative grading system it meant that he would really have to under-perform exceptionally compared to the rest of the class in the final exams to end up with a B+ from a projected A+ grade.

No sooner had he finished narrating his dream another friend, in true spirit of friendship, suggested casually that it meant that he would get a B+ and would somehow mess up his final. We joked about it but none of us took it forward a month and he eventually ended up messing his final and landing a B+!

Until then I always thought that it was only folklore that the first interpretation anyone offers for a dream is what really colors the outcome. I remember being told that one should only share their dream with someone they trust. Someone who will avoid callously commenting about it. This was only to be the first of the numerous times I saw dreams manifested in real life.

Interestingly when going through Ibn Sirin’s book I came across a passage on the significance of relating ones dream and to whom it should be related to

God’s Prophet (uwbp) also said: “A dream sits on the wing of a flying bird and will not take effect unless it is related to someone.” Therefore, one should only tell his dream to a trustworthy person, a pious and a knowledgeable person. (Ibn Seerin’s Dictionary of Dreams, pg xxv)

Something similar to this has been reported in the following hadith as well

Waki bin Udus narrated that Abu Razin Al-Uqaili said: Allah’s Messenger (PBUH) said, ‘The believer’s dreams are a portion of the forty six portions of Prophet-hood. And it is on the leg of a bird, as long as it is not spoken of. But when it is spoken of, it drops.’I think he said: And it should not be discussed except with an intelligent one or a beloved one. (Hadith No. 2278, Chapters on Dreams, Jami’ At-Tirmidhi, Vol. 4)



Two and half hours drive from Marrakesh are the Ozoud Waterfalls at a height of 110m

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Marrakesh – The City of Saints

With a swollen ankle, after my attempted sprint down from Mount Toubkal, I was trudging through the old bazaar sipping some fresh orange juice when I saw an arched opening in between two fruit-seller carts. Needing a rest, I figured it might be a masjid and a good place to regain some strength before continuing the walk back to the hostel. Time was also running out for the zuhr (noon) prayer.

A woman at the door of the shrine of Sidi Yousaf Ben Ali. I was told the shrine has been closed to public for some time.

A woman at the door of the shrine of Sidi Yousaf Ben Ali. I was told the shrine has been closed to public for some time.

As I took my shoes off to enter, one of the fruit sellers waved at me saying ‘no tourists!’. I told him I was going inside to pray at which he retorted that it wasn’t a mosque but a Zawiya and I shouldn’t pray there. Over the course of the few days I’d been in Morocco I had been warned at numerous occasions of Zawiya’s and the people who pray there. Their response was always along the same lines whenever I inquired why, ‘people commit shirk (ascribing partners with God) there as they make dua’a (supplicate) to the dead’.

These warning had made me all the more adamant to visit each and every Zawiya I came across to find out if there was any truth in those accusations. As I walked in I saw a few people sitting together. I inquired in my rudimentary Arabic where I could perform the ablution. One of them, Bin Asad a young man, replied in perfect American accent that there was a masjid one block down and that I should do wudu (ablution) there and come back to offer the asr (afternoon) prayer with them. He escorted me to the masjid where I did my ablution and offered my zuhr prayer as well. With my ankle in agony, I wasn’t very keen on going all the way back to the Zawiya but for the fact that I had already agreed to join them for the asr prayer, not to mention my freshly-pressed orange juice was waiting there as I had forgotten it by the shoe stand in the Zawiya (in the summer heat that alone was enough of an incentive to make the walk back)

Koutoubia Masjid

After the asr prayer Bin Ali invited me for tea in the upper section of the Zawiya and I posed the same question to them as to why some people who visit Zawiyas supplicate to the wali (saint) who has passed away instead of supplicating to God directly to fulfill there needs. The main objection of the common folk being that they set up intermediaries between themselves and God by asking the dead wali to supplicate to God on their behalf. Bin Asad’s reply was,

“When most people have a difficulty for example an exam or a job interview they ask their parents and near ones to make dua’a (supplicate to Allah) for their success, similarly people come here and ask the saint to supplicate on their behalf, the only difference being that the saint by virtue of his higher degree of attainment and dedication to God has more efficacy in his supplication. Saints die a bodily death but not a spiritual death and therefore it is no different, only better to ask them rather than asking the common folk i.e one’s parents or relatives for dua’a”

The shrine of Ibn al-Arif

The shrine of Ibn al-Arif

One of the interesting things that Ben Asad’s father mentioned while we were seated there was that a man never visit these places by his own volition, “One is always invited”, he saidAll of a sudden I remembered that Moncef, whom I met in Tangier, and I had felt the same way a few days earlier. On one of our strolls in Tangier we reached the dead end of a narrow street in the old city and were standing there admiring the massive doorway, when it suddenly opened and an old man peered through it and ushered us in.

A little surprised and curious we both followed him inside only to find that it was a masjid and it was time for maghrib prayer. Later on we realized that it was in fact a Zawiya as well. We had both remarked, when we came out, that it felt as if someone had asked that old man to invite us inside. A few weeks after leaving Marrakesh I would meet Sean, an Irish man, in Cairo who was disillusioned by all the religions. He would return to the hostel the following day with a copy of the Quran after a visit to a mosque. Upon my inquiry as to how this sudden change of heart transpired, he would reply to my astonishment “I felt like I was invited there”, having never intended to visit the mosque..

Shrine of Sidi Bel Abbas al-Sabti

Shrine of Sidi Bel Abbas al-Sabti

Bin Ali visits Marrakesh every year with his American father for a few months. And it was on one of their usual visit at the Zawiya of Sidi Nadhifi where I met them. He and his father are among the few westerners who come to Marrakesh not for its bazaars, or its proximity to the Sahara and the Atlas Mountains but for the spiritual heritage of this city and to benefit from all that other worldliness that exudes due to the presence of over two hundred saints (awliya – plural of wali) who are buried here. Some people refer to Marrakesh as the city of Sabatou Rijal (the seven men), who were the guiding lights during their times. I was only able to visit the shrines of four of the saints, however those interested in visiting or finding more about them may find this post on Sacred Footsteps helpful.

Sahara Desert

pool overlooking the dunes in the kasbah

pool overlooking the dunes in the kasbah

After a bumpy and sweltering 45 min ride we arrived at the kasbah in Merzougha, Western Sahara around 5pm. The intensity of the sun was now beginning to wane, but it took me a good 30mins to gather the motivation to make the 2 min walk to the nearby pool in the kasbah – if a pool is needed anywhere, it is this place!

Two hours before sunset we set out on the camels for the 1.5 hr journey to the desert camp where we were to spend the night. I mounted Al-Jabal (the Mountain), named so for being the tallest one in the caravan. Camels are amazing beasts but are very lazy; after a lot of moans and groans Al-Jabal finally got up. On the initial stretch  every step Al-Jabal took on the hard dirt road sent me tossing right and left until we hit the sand where he proved his agility and superiroty. The ride was swift and smooth from thereon and one couldnt help but wonder how perfectly crafted this beast was for that terrain. We arrived at the camp just before sunset; and I climbed the nearest dune to watch it, a sight we overlook in our daily lives, but is truly a spectacle in these surroundings untainted by man.

After a hearty meal, some top quality bedouin tea, shesha and music most of the people in the camp retired while me and two sisters I had met in the camp, Anna and Elenya, decided to take up Mstaphas (our guides) offer for a hike to the highest dune around midnight. Having read the account of snakes in the Sahara in Ibn Battutahs travels I was not particularly thrilled about the idea of navigating in the sand barefooted under the moon light:

There are also many snakes in this desert. There was in the caravan a merchant from Tlemcen who had a habit of taking hold of these snakes and playing about with them..One day he put his hand into a lizard’s hole to pull it out and found a snake there instead. He grasped it..but it bit on the index finger of his right hand, giving him severe pain. It was cauterized, but in the evening the pain grew worse, so he cut the throat of a camel and put his hand in its stomach and left it there for the night. The flesh of his finger dropped off and he cut off his finger at the base.

Thinking as a last resort if anything happened there were plenty of camels in our caravan I followed Mstaphas lead. What if the camels were all needed for transportation or one couldn’t slaughter them for some reason, you ask ? Apparently the warm stomach of a chicken does the trick too! If anyone happens to fall victim to a snake bite (God forbid) and try this remedy, do tell.

The view of the desert from the top in the moonlit night was as mesmerizing as it was in the punishing heat of the sun. The only difference was that the hellish heat had subsided and a cool breeze was blowing. The sky was alit showering its light on the dunes below, transforming the desert into a truly heavenly setting.

Back at the camp, I pulled my mattress out in the open and stargazed to sleep.. In the morning we hopped back on the camels to make our way to the kasbah. After two days I’d had enough of the desert heat and spending my last night in the kasbah I headed to Rissani for the 12 hour bus ride to Marrakech.

Fes – Home to The Oldest University in the World

For the longest time I used to think that Al-Azhar University in Cairo was the oldest university in the world.

Dar al-Magana - the Water Clock that used to tell time back in the days.

Dar al-Magana – the Water Clock that used to tell time back in the days.

However in Fes I was to learn that Al-Qaraouiyine (al-Qarawiyyin) University was in fact the oldest. Guiness Book of World Records and UNESCO Wolrd Heritage List both attest this claim.

It was founded in 9th century (859) by Fatima Al-Fihria, a noble woman from al-Kairouan (al-Qayrawan). Later on when I would visit al-Kairouan, now in Tunisia, I would learn that people hold it to be the fourth holiest place in Islam (More on this later).

The plaque outside the university mentions distinguished philosophers like Averroes (Ibn Rushd), historians like Ibn Khaldun, doctors-philisophers like Maimonides, and Sufis and mystics like Abu Madyan and Abd as-Salam ibn Mashish amongst those who studied and taught here.

The only street in Fes where political parties are allowed to display their electoral symbols

The only street in Fes where political parties are allowed to post their electoral symbols

The biggest pedestrianized Medina in the world is also in Fes. An interesting fixture I saw in Fes was the Dar al-Magana (clockhouse) opposite Madrassah Bou Inania. The clockhouse used to consist of 12 windows above 13 carved wooden shafts that would hold brass bowls. One could tell the time by looking at the brass bowls that were filled with water. How the entire mechanism worked was a secret that the mechanic who devised it took to the grave.

On Friday 8th May I did a day trip from Fes to Moulay Idris Zerhoun, which has the Shrine of Moulay Idris – the founding father of the Kingdom of Morocco. He came to Morocco in 789AD bringing Islam to the region. He is revered by all the Moroccans, and is descendant of the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) through his grandson Imam Hasan (RA). 5 kms from Moulay Idris are the ruins of the Roman city of Volubilis which was founded in 3rd century BC.

Fortunately on the hike from Moulay Idris to Volubilis we ran into two archeology students who were staying there for a conference and and gave us a private tour of the site – Thank you Zeineb and Eman!

From Fes I hired a taxi with three other travellers I met to make the 8hr ride to Rissani, a small city in the Eastern part of Morocco close to the ruins of Sijilmasah. Back in the fourteenth century Sijilmasah used to be a thriving town when Ibn Battutah visited it on his way to Mali

Moroccan version of the  Horse Shoe Bend in Arizona

On the road from Fes to Rissani I came across the Moroccan version of the Arizonian Horse Shoe Bend

I first reached the city of the Sijilmasah, a very beautiful city. It has abundant dates of good quality. Here I stayed with the jurist Abu Muhammad al-Bushri, whose brother I had met at Qanjanfu in China.

This beautiful city, now in ruins, is approximately 10 kms from Rissani. We reached Rissani around 3pm and after a quick bite and stocking up on our water supplies we jumped in a 4×4 to make our way to Merzougha inside the Western Sahara

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