Monday, December 10, 2007

Oh Calcutta!

I'm not a Bengli but married to one, so I guess one could call me a naturalised Bong!

However, that still does not explain the pull that I feel for the City of Joy, the city that my husband was born in, the city that I hated the thought of, the city that depressed me when I was asked to move to it, the city that seems to have stood still in time, the city that amazed me with its diversity, the city that welcomes everyone with open arms, the city that does not seek the size of your wallet or the make of your car, the city which celebrates Eid, Christams, Diwali and Puja with equal fervour and enthusiasm, the city that simply requires that you love it and live with it, the city that gives of itself so unstintingly, the city that worms its way into your heart and remains with you even when you move away, and the city that I made so many friends in a very short period and for which I wept when we moved away....

Not that this has anything to do with Cairo, but in many senses, I feel that Cairo is a little like Calcutta and the Egyptians to a large extent like Calcuttans...that would probably explain my love for Cairo despite what many expats will tell you about Cairo...

I had read this article quite some while ago, and thankfully, a friend forwarded it to me a few days ago...Read it and you will understand why so many people love Calcutta, and, to a much smaller extent that may explain why I like Cairo so much...

Oh ! Calcutta....
Vir Sanghvi, the Editorial Director of Hindustan Times on Calcutta :

Most modern Indian cities strive to rise above ethnicity. Tell anybody who lives in Bombay that he lives in a Maharashtrian city and (unless of course, you are speaking to Bal Thackeray) he will take immediate offence. We are cosmopolitan, he will say indigenously. Tell a Delhiwalla that his is a Punjabi city (which, in many ways, it is) and he will respond with much self-righteous nonsense about being the nation's capital, about the international composition of the city's elite etc. And tell a Bangalorean that he lives in a Kannadiga city and you'll get lots of techno-gaff about the internet revolution and about how Bangalore is even more cosmopolitan than Bombay.

But, the only way to understand what Calcutta is about is to recognize that the city is essentially Bengali. What's more, no Bengali minds you saying that. Rather, he is proud of the fact. Calcutta's strengths and weaknesses mirror those of the Bengali character. It has the drawbacks: the sudden passions, the cheerful chaos, the utter contemptfor mere commerce, the fiery response to the smallest provocation. And it has the strengths (actually, I think of the drawbacks as strengths in their own way). Calcutta embodies the Bengali love of culture; the triumph of intellectualism over greed; the complete transparency of all emotions, the disdain with which hypocrisy and insincerity are treated; the warmth of genuine humanity; and the supremacy of emotion over all other aspects of human existence.

That's why Calcutta is not for everyone. You want your cities clean and green; stick to Delhi. You want your cities, rich and impersonal;go to Bombay. You want them high-tech and full of draught beer;Bangalore's your place. But if you want a city with a soul: come to Calcutta.

When I look back on the years I've spent in Calcutta - and I come back so many times each year that I often feel I've never been away - Idon't remember the things that people remember about cities. When Ithink of London, I think of the vast open spaces of Hyde Park . When Ithink of New York , I think of the frenzy of Times Square. When I think of Tokyo, I think of the bright lights of Shinjiku. And when Ithink of Paris, I think of the Champs Elysee. But when I think of Calcutta, I never think of any one place. I don't focus on the greenery of the maidan, the beauty of the Victoria Memorial, the bustle of Burra Bazar or the splendour of the new Howrah 'Bridge'. I think of people. Because, finally, a city is more than bricks and mortars, street lights and tarred roads. A city is the sum of its people. And who can ever forget - or replicate - the people of Calcutta?

When I first came to live here, I was told that the city would grow on me. What nobody told me was that the city would change my life. It was in Calcutta that I learnt about true warmth; about simple human decency; about love and friendship; about emotions and caring; about truth and honesty. I learnt other things too. Coming from Bombay as I did, it was a revelation to live in a city where people judged each other on the things that really mattered; where they recognized that being rich did not make you a better person - in fact, it might have the opposite effect. I learnt also that if life is about more than just money, it is about the things that other cities ignore; about culture, about ideas, about art, and about passion. In Bombay, a man with a relatively low income will salt some of it away for the day when he gets a stock market tip. In Calcutta, a man with exactly the same income will not know the difference between a debenture and a dividend. But he will spend his money on the things that matter. Each morning, he will read at least two newspapers and develop sharply etched views on the state of the world. Each evening, there will be fresh (ideally, fresh-water or river) fish on his table. His children will be encouraged to learn to dance or sing. His family will appreciate the power of poetry. And for him, religion and culture will be in inextricably bound together.

Ah religion! Tell outsiders about the importance of Puja in Calcutta and they'll scoff. Don't be silly, they'll say. Puja is a religious festival. And Bengal has voted for the CPM since 1977. How can godless Bengal be so hung up on a religions festival? I never know how to explain them that to a Bengali, religion consists of much more than shouting Jai Shri Ram or pulling down somebody's mosque. It has little to do with meaningless ritual or sinister political activity.

The essence of Puja is that all the passions of Bengal converge:emotion, culture, the love of life, the warmth of being together, the joy of celebration, the pride in artistic ex-pression and yes, the cult of the goddess.

It may be about religion. But is about much more than just worship. In which other part of India would small, not particularly well-off localities, vie with each other to produce the best pandals? Where else could puja pandals go beyond religion to draw inspiration from everything else? In the years I lived in Calcutta, the pandals featured Amitabh Bachchan, Princes Diana and even Saddam Hussain!Where else would children cry with the sheer emotional power of Dashimi, upset that the Goddess had left their homes? Where else would the whole city gooseflesh when the dhakis first begin to beat their drums? Which other Indian festival - in any part of the country - is so much about food, about going from one roadside stall to another,following your nose as it trails the smells of cooking? To understand Puja, you must understand Calcutta. And to understand Calcutta , you must understand the Bengali. It's not easy.

Certainly, you can't do it till you come and live here, till you let Calcutta suffuse your being, invade your bloodstream and steal your soul. But once you have, you'll love Calcutta forever. Wherever you go, a bit of Calcutta will go with you. I know, because it's happened to me. And every Puja, I am overcome by the magic of Bengal. It's a feeling that'll never go away.

Abou El Seed

45 Road 7
Tel: 2380 50 50

Had freinds visting and they wanted to try out authentic Egyptian cuisine in an authentic Egyptian environment. Since it was their last day in town, decided to take them to Abu el Sid. It's Egyptian cuisine, has an Arabian Nights ambience and was close home!

Luckily I had booked, cos at 10 o'clock the place was buzzing with life. The outside was empty, given that winter had set in, but there were still some intrepid locals, who warmed their hearts and bodies with the ubiquitous shisha while the less adventerous souls like us preferred to troop inside.

When you walk in, its like walking into the sets on 101 Arabian Nights. The walls are done in stucco brown and painted in ochre, rust and dull red. The place is lit up with dull lighting and candles which cast their shadows on the walls making it look even more exotic. This wisps of mul curtains gently fly in the wind. The furniture is very period, rich gold framed sofas and chairs with equally rich (albiet old, worn and a tad dirty), red, brown and gold upholstry. Painted table with inlaid work. Ah, we loved the ambience!!

The food was very authentically Egyptian, the English speaking maitre de assured us. Starters? Of course!. We ordered a Mezze platter with babaghounoush, tahini and a cheese dip, some Kobeba (LE 25 for 4-5 peices) and Falafel (LE 13). The balady bread with the meze was fresh, warm and delicious. Kobeba is a local, exotic, fried meat ball made from cracked wheat and lamb and served with eggplants and sesame paste salad dip. Everyone loved it!

The restaurant serves Mouakhiya or the Egyptian National Dish (or so says the menu) which is essentially a chicken dish with pureed / cooked molakiya along with rice. At LE 48, the portion size is quite large, and, can comfortably feed two after you've been through your starters.

The Fettah (LE 58), which is essentially an Egyptian risotto with meat, yoghurt and tomato sauce, is also very nice. Again, the portion size is good for two, if you've snacked ok.

The Shrimp Tagine (LE60) is fine, not exceptional while the Circasian Chicken in Walnut Sauce (LE 48) is nice.

The vegetarians unfortunately, would have to make do with the Koshary, which by the way, isn't much to write home about, and the lentil soup. The soup was hot, thick and tasty, just what the doctor ordered on a cold winter night!

We had to round off the evening with, but of course, an Om Aly and some shisha! A lovely evening spent with decent food, good friends, interesting conversation, great ambience and a lovely memory of some good times spent in Cairo.

P.S. Just read an interesting history to Abu el Seed... so here goes..

An Egyptian native of Cairo during the Fatimid period, Abou El-Sid cooked happily for friends and neighbours. Many a married man would desert his wife to come spend the evening savouring his irresistible edibles. He knew that the surest way to a man's heart is through his stomach. The women of his neighbourhood cursed him for his dexterity in the kitchen, and it appears that their incessant cussing bore frightful fruit.

A merciless Fatimid sultan whose name will not be recalled now, had heard about Abou El-Sid's talents. He disguised himself as a wandering merchant and called on Abou El-Sid's tavern. The following evening, the sultan masqueraded as a poor man and revisited Abou El-Sid's humble eatery. The sultan was intrigued by the delectable creations of Abou El-Sid. He summoned the cook to his palace and invited him to take charge of the palace cuisine, a dubious honour Abou El-Sid could hardly afford to decline.

Lo and behold, Abou El-Sid grew tired of the endless carousals and binges of the sultan and his greedy courtiers. He longed for the friendliness and sincerity of his humble neighbours. He repeatedly pleaded with the sultan to let him return to his humble abode. The sultan flatly refused and in exasperation banished the frustrated cook to the palace kitchen. Abou El-Sid complained ever more bitterly. By that time, the harem had learnt something of the secrets of Abou El-Sid's culinary talents, so they dispensed with him completely, and he spent the rest of his life in the dungeon. To while away time, Abou El-Sid jotted down recipes of his exceptional cuisine. And those recipes passed down generations are what is served at Abu el Seed...

The Egyptians in the world's 50 Richest Arab 2007

An interesting article from the Egyptian Chronicles.....

Ladies and gentlemen I present to you the official Richest Egyptians in the country and in the Arab world

The Egyptians in the world's 50 Richest Arab 2007

Of course the majority of the world's 50 Richest Arab in year 2007 are mostly from the Gulf , and surely Prince Al-Walid Ibn Talaal is on the top of the list , it is logic

The richest men in Egypt officially are :

1-The Sawiris Family in rank number 10 , estimated fortune is $ 6.2 billion , they moved two 2 ranks from last year , they were the 12th now they are from the top ten

2- Mohammed Shafik Gabr in rank number 30 , estimated fortune is $2.2 Billion , a new entry, well this is a surprise because this man what he did with Emar company he seemed to be a crook !! Here is his company's official website

3- Fayez Sarofim in rank number 42, estimated fortune is $ 1.5 billion , a new entry and I do not know him , it is first time I hear or read about him, already his business is abroad in the United States at Taxes not in Egypt. Here is his company's official website

4- Ahmed Ezz in rank number 47 , estimated fortune is $ 1 Billion , a new entry , it is big surprsie because I thought that Ezz is actually richer than Sawiris , at least this what I thought, may be he is richer unofficially , well his new bride seems to be a lucky charm he is now from the top 50 rich Arabs !! Here is his company's official website again

5- Hisham Talaat Mustafa in rank number 49, estimated fortune is $ 800 million , a new entry ,well it is not surprise because this man caused a problem in money liquidity because of his construction projects of fancy cities and buildings , his wealth exceeded after entering the stock market . Here is his company's official website

Here are the top 5

For the Sawiris family it is not a new thing , they were always there and they are moving towards the top

Yet for the rest they are new comers to the rest

For Gaber and Ezz well search for illegal operations whether from monopoly.. etc ,also search for influence , because from the policy committee ,yes NDPians ,close friends to the President's sons
Where are the President's sons ?? man I know that they are very very rich , may be they are among the unofficial richest Arabs in the world , secret accounts and so on

Still reading the list you will be surprised that the new comers this year are from countries you do not imagine that there are billionaires in it with that size

I do not mean the two Palestinian billionaires because for sure they are operating their empires outside Palestine but I mean countries like Syria and Iraq , yes Iraq

There are 3 billionaires from Iraq and all are working in the construction field , well it is their golden opportunity with all that damage in the country !!

3 billionaires from Syria ,2 of them are working in the construction field , it seems that it is the most profitable business in the Arab world now

You know I do not mean anything but most of those people really deserve to be in this list but some of them do not deserve to be in the list at all because they will be compared with people who really worked hard and honestly and to be frank I mean Ahmed Ezz , at least Gaber got some origin but Ahmed Ezz is a man who is building an Empire over the expense a whole country ,it is enough to know that the current crisis in the property market from a huge price increase ,he is the one behind it due to the increase in the steel price which he monopolized

Here is the complete list from Arabian

Saturday, November 17, 2007

An Egyptain wedding

One of boys who works for my husband was getting married and invited us to the wedding reception. I was quite excited. I would get to see an Egyptian wedding!

An Egyptian wedding held great attraction for me, not just from a curiosity perspective but also from a desire to see how similar it was to Indian weddings. I keep saying that Egyptians are emotionally very similar to Indians, so wanted to see whether the similarility extended to wedding as well cos weddings, after all, are very emotional affairs!

In India, weddings are a gala affair with festivities stretching many days. There is a lot of singing and dancing and its also an occassion for families to come together and re-aquaint themselves with hitherto forgetten realtives.

The wedding reception was in the posh neighbourhood of Heliopolis at a place which my driver assured me was very "exespensive" . We stepped into the wedding hall and were hit in the solar plexus by some really really loud music.

There was a big stage on one side of a huge hall, a better part of which was occupied by heavy duty sound systems and musicians playing all sorts of music instruments. There was a professional singer who was belting out what appeared to be traditional wedding songs as there was a lot of laughther and clapping accompanying his words. The bride and bridegroom were in the centre of the crowd, dancing and clearly enjoying themselves.

On enquiring, I was told that the actual wedding consists of signing of a contract between the bride and the bridegroom which spells out the terms of their mariage and their responsibilities. This is signed in the presence of a cleric and is called a " ". Subsequent to that, the wedding is celebrated by a reception (dependent on the economic situation of the wedding couple)

Certain aspects of Egyptian weddings in urban cities are like weddings anywhere else in the the world. The influence of Christiany of the nature of the celebrations is very obvious.

The bride wears a bridal dress and the groom wears a black suit or a tuxedo. The ceremony starts with a car parade. The wedding car (as prestigious as possible) is decorated with flowers and ribbons. Cars of both families move together in a noisy parade of continuous sounding of car horns to a wedding hall, most often in a hotel. The honking is to announce that there is a wedding taking place.

When the bride and groom reach the hotel they are received by a “Zaffa”. The Zaffa is another human parade of belly dancers and drummers surrounding the bride and groom, singing happy songs. The bride and groom will occasionally join in the dancing but the main aim is to walk as slowly as possible to the wedding hall. Some Zaffa’s will last an hour!

When the bride and groom finally reach the their destination in the hall they sit in the “Kosha”. The Kosha usually consists of two comfortable seats in front of the guests where the bride and groom reign as though king and queen. As soon as the bride and groom are seated in the Kosha a rose sherbet drink is passed to the guests and all drink to their health.

Then the bride and groom will switch rings from right index fingers to left index finger. This is probably an old Christian tradition but it is done whether the couple is Moslem or Christian.

With this ritual, the festivities begin. The bride and groom have the first dance after which the other wedding guests join in.

Unfortunately, we missed all of this, cos we were at an reception, celebrating an Indian festival. We caught the festivities, a little after they had begun.

I was amazed at the variety of entertainment. There were belly dancers, some African dancers, stilt walkers dancing and jumping around, tanoura dancers etc. The singer handed the mike to the bride who sang a wedding song where she expresses her love for her new bridegroom. I thought that was really cute! This was followed by the groom doing a tribal dance with one of the African dancers, spear in hand. Everyone sang a song with the groom playing the tambourine and the girl dancing to his tune..

Then the African dancers created two human trains - one male, led by the groom, and another female, led by the bride. They circled all around the reception hall, inviting everyone to join the train and the wedding couple's happiness.

The one thing that struck me that everyone around was having great fun. The women were dressed to kill with fabulous head scarves in myriad colours, shapes and styles. Clearly, a lot of time and effort was spent in deciding what to wear at the reception (sound familiar eh?)

The bride and bridegroom then went and sat at the Kosha and people queued up to wish them and get their photographs taken. After this, the buffet was opened.

Before I knew, it was close to 2 o'clock at night and it was time to go home. Well, it was time for us to go home, the Egyptians were going to be partying till 4 or 5 in the morning. The one thing that struk me was that everyone, including the bride and the bridegroom were having great fun, it would be a day that the wedding couple would really remember for the rest of their lives!

I was so glad that I came and was a part of these festivities. One of the advantages of being a mobile expat is that you get to witness so may different cultures, and experinences and have the privelege of imbibing some of them. So we have decided that while our son will have a traditional Indian wedding, we must make sure that the wedding reception is Egyptian style!!

Friday, October 12, 2007

Judging genocide - Strained relations between America & Turkey

“THE Mohammedans in their fanaticism seemed determined not only to exterminate the Christian population but to remove all traces of their religion and…civilisation.” So wrote an American consul in Turkey, in 1915, about an incipient campaign by Ottoman Turkey against its Armenian population. Today, Turkey explains the killings of huge numbers of Armenians—as many as 1.5m died—as an unpleasant by-product of the first world war’s viciousness, in which Turks suffered too. But Armenians have long campaigned for recognition of what they say was genocide.

On Wednesday October 10th America’s Congress stepped closer to endorsing the latter view. The foreign-affairs committee of the House of Representatives passed a bill stating that “the Armenian Genocide was conceived and carried out by the Ottoman Empire from 1915 to 1923.” The bill has enough co-sponsors that it seems likely to pass the full House. The speaker, Nancy Pelosi, has a large number of Armenians in her home district and has promised the measure a vote on the floor. As a foretaste of the trouble this could stir up in Turkey, the country’s president, Abdullah Gul, immediately condemned the passage of the bill. He called it “unacceptable” and accused American politicians of being willing to cause “big problems for small domestic political games”.

Turkey is enormously important to American military efforts in the Middle East. So leading American politicians past and present have lined up to oppose the resolution. President George Bush has said historians, not legislators, should decide the matter. Turkey has hired Dick Gephardt, a former leader of the Democrats in the House, to lobby against the bill. All eight living former secretaries of state, from Henry Kissinger to Madeleine Albright, who lost three grandparents in the Nazi Holocaust, oppose the bill. So does Condoleezza Rice, who holds the post now. Jane Harman, a powerful and hawkish Democrat, initially co-sponsored the measure. But last week she urged its withdrawal. A trip to Turkey, where she met the prime minister and the Armenian Orthodox patriarch, changed her mind.

Ms Harman echoed an argument that others have made against the resolution: that Turkey itself is tiptoeing towards normal relations with neighbouring Armenia. The resolution could throw that process off course. But in other ways Turkey has not helped its own case: its criminal code has been used against writers within the country who dare to mention genocide.

And other Turkish behaviour has further distanced it from America. Turkey recently signed a deal to develop oil and gas with Iran, and has made overtures to Hamas, which runs part of the Palestinian Authority and continues to refuse to recognise Israel. Such behaviour has cost Turkey some support among Jewish Americans—formerly ardent supporters of Turkey as a moderate Muslim republic that is friendly to Israel. Some even worry that a freshly insulted Turkey will not heed America’s opinion when, for example, it thinks about crossing the border into Iraq to pound Kurdish fighters.

It is hardly surprising that Turkey is feeling put-upon. Last year, France’s National Assembly passed a bill not only declaring that the Armenian massacres constituted genocide, but making it a crime to deny it. Had the bill made it into law this would have resulted in an absurd situation in which Turkish law forbade mention of genocide while French law forbade its denial, all during Turkey’s application to join the European Union. Turks complained that the French bill had less to do with Armenians, and more to do with deterring Turkey’s EU membership. The mood has not improved since. France’s new president, Nicolas Sarkozy, is an outspoken opponent of Turkish membership.

Hurt feelings on both sides are pushing Turkey and the West apart: Turkey feels mistreated, and acts in such a way. But the deal with Iran and its pell-mell pursuit of Kurdish terrorists into Iraq antagonise Americans and Europeans further. At the least, the panicky reaction of the Bush administration over the genocide resolution shows that policymakers realise that they can no longer take Turkey ’s friendship for granted.

Wednesday, October 3, 2007

Asfour Crystal factory

Lots of people had been telling me about Asfour Crystal which is the largest crystal factory in Egypt. Plus I kept seeing their stuff in shops all over.

So last week, decided to go across and see what it was all about. An American friend of mine and I set out, just to check out what was available. Established in 1961, the Asfour factory / showroom is located in Shobra. I believe they sell in many countries across the world.

The products range from jewellery, chatons, 3D laser gifts, figures and a wide range of light fittings and chandeliers! The jewellery is not Swaoroski but some peices are very nice and the jewellery generally reasonable. I picked up a single strand crystal bracelet for my mother-in-law for LE 30 which I thought was pretty good!

The figurines are really very attractive. I fell in love with the hedgehogs that come in 5 different sizes, and 3 frogs on toadstools. My son is crazy about planes, so picked up a lovely 60s aviator plane model.

There are also beautiful models of mosques etc which are priced on the higher side, but worth every penny that you pay for them.

The range of chandeliers is amazing, and, the prices are great.

A half hour to forty five minutes drove from Maadi, the address is


In terms of quality of crystal, please dont expect a Swaoroski but the quality is good, the prices great and the range amazing. So go, treat yourself, dress up the house with gorgeous chandeliers and lights or pamper yourself with a lovely neck piece or just indulge yourself with a cute teddy or fish...

Monday, October 1, 2007

Visitors from Home

With the onset of winter, I am going to have a steady stream of visitors till the end of the year. Actually, quite looking forward to it.. Cairo is such a delughtful place, romantic and mysterious, exotic and maddening...

Now have to sit down and draw up an itenerary for all of them...

Suspect I shall be able to moonlight as a tourist guide at the end of it! Just kidding. Have yet to visit some museums etc which I have kept for just this time...

Sunday, September 23, 2007

Islamist Inertia by Salah Eissa

Since 1979, when the Iranian revolution succeeded in toppling the peacock throne and founding an Islamic republic, "The Islamists are coming!" has been a cry that voiced the hopes of some and the fears of others.

For Islamist groups across the Arab- Islamic map, the Iranian revolution rekindled dreams of a victory of their own, even though these groups still suffered the after effects of successive waves of assault waged against them by Arab nationalist regimes from the early 1950s to the mid- 1970s. Not only did these campaigns throw Islamist groups into organisational disarray, and most of their leaders into prison, they also succeeded in turning the majority of the Arab public against them while luring it to the Arab nationalist model which seemed poised to realise their social and national aspirations.

Nevertheless, in the aftermath of the Arab defeat in the 1967 war, the credibility of the Arab nationalist project waned and its popularity dwindled. By the time of the Iranian revolution, Islamist groups had just begun to emerge from their cocoons and present themselves as the alternative to all preceding national revival projects, as the untried path untainted by disaster and defeat.

Since then, all signs indicated that the Muslim fundamentalist movement was marching relentlessly forward. A military coup paved the way for their seizure of power in Sudan. They were steadily gaining ground in the parliaments in Kuwait, Egypt, Morocco, Jordan and Algeria and, indeed, they won sizeable majorities in legislative elections in Palestine and Turkey. Their mounting popularity across the Arab world was also reflected in their growing, if not controlling, presence in many civil society organisations, notably in the occupational syndicates.

One factor that facilitated this progress was that some governments allied themselves with moderate Islamists in the hope of obstructing the danger of radical fundamentalists that espoused the use of violence. Some political parties and movements also pursued the same tactic, if for different ends, such as to combine forces against a common external enemy (the US and Israel) or against a domestic adversary (dictatorial regimes) or merely to hitch up with the Islamist trend in order to win more votes in the polls.

The West, spearheaded by the US, was alarmed at this development, in spite of the fact that it was instrumental in fostering it. The West had worked assiduously to destroy Arab nationalist governments that were once a bulwark against the fundamentalist tide. It also enlisted Muslim fundamentalists in its fight against communism. This alliance reached its zenith in the war to liberate Afghanistan from Soviet occupation and came to a reverberating close with the events of 11 September 2001.

But is the march of Muslim fundamentalists towards power in the Arab world, whether they succeed by coup or through democratic processes, irreversible? Has the civil state ended as a phase in political evolution and must we ready ourselves for a theocratic state?

The answer to these questions is affirmative if we judge solely by the balance of power between Muslim fundamentalists and other political forces. But it quickly moves to the negative once we take a closer look at the contradictions within the greater Islamist movement itself and unearth a number of weak points that could hamper its progress and perhaps thwart its goals entirely.

The problem with the Muslim fundamentalist project is that it is founded upon the utopian dream of reviving the Islamic state as it existed in its golden era. What is conspicuously lacking in the discourse of proponents of this project is a clear conception of the material means needed to resuscitate that past so many centuries after its death and to revive all the attendant circumstances that had enabled that state to flourish.

True, the ability of abstractions to tickle the deep religious grain of the Muslim people is a major reason for the widespread popularity of the fundamentalist project. However, when forced to come down to earth and deal with the difficulties that obstruct its path, or with the brass tacks of rule as dictated by balances of power and the various demands of reality, the project runs out of steam.

The fact is that the fundamentalist project has an Achilles heel. It posits a dream of reviving the glory of the Islamic empire but ignores the fact that what enabled that empire to flourish was its openness to other cultures and civilisations. This applies to Muslim jurists and theologians, as long as the doors to dialogue and the exercise of reason in light of the changes and challenges of contemporary reality remained open, furnishing a constant source of inspiration and renovation.

Conversely, the decline of Islamic civilisation began when the door leading to the application of reason and independent thought was slammed shut. If their aim is to revive our ancient glory, proponents of the fundamentalist project should first strive to breach the gap between the 4th century in the Islamic calendar, when the door to ijtihad was closed, and the present, so as to be able to formulate a philosophy that suits the times in which we live.

But this seems unlikely. Islamist fundamentalist groups, which have concentrated virtually all their efforts on recruitment and consolidating forces, fear the open door from which the winds of independent thought might shake their unity of rank. Thus, their members have been left to create the contours of the fundamentalist dream on the basis of ancient works of jurisprudence. As a result, they have become even more rigid than their leaders and have come to form a powerful pressure group within the movement that not only hampers their leaderships' ability to proclaim fresh ideas but also restricts their leaderships' manoeuvrability, which is one of the essential prerequisites for any drive to attain a dream. What remains, then, is the vast ability to cause problems, bring down disaster on others and generally obstruct progress and development.

The danger, therefore, is not so much that "The Islamists are coming," but that they still have the power to obstruct progress towards democracy in Muslim countries.

* The writer is editor-in-chief of Al-Qahira weekly newspaper

Sharm & Luxor go WiFi

A USAID-funded project to promote connectivity in Egypt, has built municipal wireless broadband networks in Luxor and Naama Bay in Sharm El Sheikh.

The While in Egypt Stay Connected (WIESC) project is working with the Egyptian Ministry of Communications and Information Technology to expand internet connectivity among Egyptian tourist cities, complementing the growth of Egypt’s dynamic technology sector.

“We’re very excited to announce that our WiFi networks are up and running in these key Egyptian cities, allowing everyone the opportunity to experience the reliability and speed of the network.,“ said USAID marketing advisor Nihal Soliman.

“The WIESC project has succeeded in helping Luxor and Sharm el Sheikh join the growing ranks of wireless city networks such as Philadelphia, Taiwan and London.”

Luxor, Egypt’s ancient city of magnificent historical monuments, has stepped into the online world. Visitors to this top tourist destination are now able to surf the Internet, upload pictures and chat with online using WiFi technology from virtually anywhere in the city.

As Egypt’s premiere Red Sea resort city, Sharm El Sheikh is capitalising on the WiFi expansion too. Conference participants and beach-goers alike can enjoy fast Internet access from the boardroom to the beach and everywhere in between.

With wireless access at cafes, fast food restaurants, airports, and in large-scale wireless areas in Luxor and Naama Bay, visitors are able to stay connected to their family, friends and colleagues while in Egypt, said Soliman.

-TradeArabia News Service

Saturday, August 25, 2007

The Suez Canal

While chatting over lunch at Bua Khao, we suddenly decided that it was as good a day as any to go see the Suez Canal. The driver was there, till now it had been a relaxed lazy Saturday, the ideal day to do the trip. My driver, Mahmood, was ever willing to drive out to see Egypt. We were, very excited - we were going to see history. The Canal that changed the way cargo was shipped to India and that played such an important role in the World Wars.

I remember reading somewhere that Suez Canal accounted for 8% for the world shipping traffic, and, as far as Egypt was concerned, it contributes over a billiob dolars in revenue - nothing to be sneezed at!

The idea of a canal linking the Mediterranean to the Red Sea dates back to ancient times. Unlike the modern Canal, earlier ones linked the Red Sea to the Nile, therefore forcing the ships to sail along the River on their journey from Europe to India.

It has been suggested that the first Canal was dug during the reign of Tuthmosis III, although more solid evidence credits the Pharaoh Necho (Sixth Century BC) for the attempt. During the Persian invasion of Egypt, King Darius I ordered the Canal completed.

The Red Sea Canal, consisted of two parts: the first linking the Gulf of Suez to the Great Bitter Lake, and the second connecting the Lake to one of the Nile branches in the Delta. The canal remained in good condition during the Ptolemaic era, but fell into disrepair afterwards.

It was re-dug during the rule of the Roman Emperor Trajan, and later the Arab ruler Amr Ibn-Al-Aas. Over the years, it fell again into disrepair, and was completely abandoned upon the discovery of the trade route around Africa.

It was Napoleon's engineers who, around 1800 AD, revived the idea of a shorter trade route to India via a Suez Canal. However, the calculation carried out by the French engineers showed a difference in level of 10 meters between both seas. If constructed under such circumstances, a large land area would be flooded. Later, the calculations showed to be wrong, and the final attempt to dig the Canal was undertaken by former French Consul in Cairo and famous Canal digger Ferdinand de Lesseps. He was granted a "firman" or decree by the khedive Said of Egypt to run the Canal for 99 years after completion.

In 1859, Egyptian workers started working on the construction of the Canal in conditions described by historians as slave labor, and the project was completed around 1867. On November 17, 1869, the Canal was officially inaugurated by Khedive Ismail in an extravagant and lavish ceremony. French, British, Russian, and other Royalty were invited for the inauguration which coincided with the re-planning of Cairo. A highway was constructed linking Cairo to the new city of Ismailia, an Opera House was built, and Verdi was commissioned to compose his famous opera, "Aida" for the opening ceremony. Ironically, Verdi did not complete the work in time and "Aida" premiered at the Cairo Opera a year later.

The Suez Canal emerged on the political scene in 1956, during the Suez crisis. It was in July of that years the Egyptian president Nasser, at age 38, announced the nationalization of the Canal at Mansheya Square in Alexandria in front of a cheering crowd. His decision was in response to the British, French, and American refusal for a loan aimed at building the Aswan High Dam. The revenue from the Canal, he argued, would help finance the High Dam project.

The announcement triggered a swift reaction by Great Britain, France, and Israel, who all invaded Egypt less than two months later. Their action would be condemned by the International community, and Nasser would eventually claim victorious.

In 1967, the Canal was closed at the wake of the Six-Day War, when Israel occupied the Sinai Peninsula, causing the Canal to act as a buffer zone between the fighting forces. The Egyptians reclaimed the Canal upon the 1973 Arab-Israeli War, and the re-opening ceremony took place in 1975. Since then, the Canal, which stretches 167 kms across the Egyptian desert, has been widened twice.

It took us around one and a half hours to reach the Canal but it was well worth the effort. Watching the huge cargo ships slowly sail by, I marvelled yet again at man's ingenuity and his ability to think and be creative and find an alterative when he's compelled to..

Friday, August 24, 2007

Muslim & Jews

Israel, America and the Muslim world: Eric Walberg takes a hard look at the reasons behind the crisis, arguing from the viewpoint of the history of religion, while Youssef Rakha plays the devil's -- Enlightenment -- advocate. They argue against contemporary Jews and Muslims, respectively, but end up reaching the same conclusion

Critiques of Israel as the cause of the Middle East crisis and of the Jewish lobby propping it up and censoring debate are now a dime a dozen. In "The closing of the Jewish mind" (Al-Ahram Weekly 1/8/7), for example, Egyptian-US intellectual Issa Khalaf points to the "profound indifference of the American Zionists, the Dershowitz-like triumphalism, Jewish political tribalism whose roots extend deep into the past", but can only suggest that Zionist Jews and Israelis should "refrain from killing". As the Arabic saying goes, the dogs bark but the caravan moves on. Extremist Zionist rabbis continue to "visit" Al-Aqsa Mosque, hoping to provoke war and the destruction of one of Islam's most sacred sites, preaching hatred of Muslims and the non-Jewish world; and all we can say is "Please refrain from killing"?!

It has long been fashionable in popular discourse to criticise Islam as reactionary and the supposed source of terrorism through its doctrine of Jihad. What's left of Christianity -- gay ministers or Rapture-ready millenniarists -- is mostly the object of disdain and the butt of off-colour jokes. Yes, Islam has been unique in holding to its traditions, established 15 centuries ago and still vibrant, despite the incessant pressures of modern society. It rejected the transformation in thinking that led to the Western explosion of technology that led, in turn, to capitalism and imperialism, and is roundly dismissed as having "missed the boat" as a result. Now the countries to which the Muslim world has given way are subjecting it to incessant lectures from all sides to hurry up and become "liberal democratic states" and "join the West"...

The third pillar

Muslims' monotheistic siblings, Christians and Jews, embraced the great adventure of liberal secularism, in the process creating a dunya -- the lower, worldly realm, in contrast to the higher hereafter, of incredible material wealth and secularising life in what is now called the "Judeo-Christian tradition". Most odd, considering the millennia of animosity between the two faiths. Pope John Paul II merely acceded to the obvious when he recognised Israel, despite the clear contradiction this entails with Christian theology; he went so far as to call Christianity merely "a new branch from the common root".

Indeed, today, Christmas carols and Hannukah candles live in harmony as quaint rituals, giving some colour to the West's secular wasteland. But while Islam and Christianity are frequently subjected to scathing criticism, what is "beyond the pale" is to dare to criticise this other pillar of the monotheistic trilogy, Judaism. Criticise the implicit racism behind the notion of the "Chosen People", the overt imperialism behind its embodiment in the Zionist project (a land without a people for a people without a land), and you're hoisted on the petard of anti-Semitism. Go further, and argue that the invasion of Iraq and the plans for such in Iran have the fingerprints of Greater Israel on them ("from the Nile to the Euphrates" and "divide and conquer"), and you're dismissed as a neo-Nazi. But with 90 per cent of these ornery, conservative Muslims around the world believing just that, along with increasing numbers of otherwise sane Westerners, little Hans's finger in the dyke is just not doing the trick anymore. And with extremist rabbis plotting to destroy Al-Aqsa Mosque and declare all-out war against the goyim, it's high time for a critique of Judaism and its embodiments in the world today.

Let me suggest a few vital elements of such a critique, starting with the notion of anti-Semitism, the big gun in the Jewish arsenal, and Zionism, the political movement inspired by Judaism. It is fashionable to refer to "the long history of European anti-Semitism" in any discourse about the Jews. Semitism, according to the 1977 Shorter Oxford English Dictionary, was first coined in 1885 to mean "Jewish ideas or influence in politics or society", which was growing by leaps and bounds by the mid-19th century as restrictions on Jews fell away. Anti-Semitism referred to an aversion to this development, which was soon embodied by Herzl's vision of a Jewish homeland in Palestine, called Zionism.

Nationalism was in vogue in Europe at this time; however, unlike Norwegian or Czech nationalism, the Jewish form of nationalism -- Zionism is, like its infamous German counterpart, not just a celebration of folk customs and history, but a doctrine of race; and it is no surprise that as Europe became more secular and opened itself to the Jews, this racist strain in Jewish thought provoked a negative reaction. After the creation of Israel, anti-Semitism came more and more to be defined as "opposition to Zionism; sympathy with opponents of state of Israel" (Webster's Third New International Dictionary). Israeli historian Israel Shahak argues that modern anti-Semitism is based on the "modern myth of the Jewish 'race' -- of outwardly hidden but supposedly dominant characteristics of 'the Jews', independent of history, of social role, of anything". But so were Zionism and Nazism!

The plot thickens: according to Shahak, "historically, Zionism is both a reaction to anti-Semitism and a conservative alliance with it". This pact with the devil -- Zionism using anti-Semitism to justify and assist the creation of a Jewish state -- eventually led to Zionists actually abetting Hitler in his desire to expel all Jews from Europe, since the Zionists very much wanted all Jews to move to Palestine. The term becomes a farce when applied to Arabs, who are the real Semites and are the very real victims of racism today. It is well known that Muslims and Jews lived in harmony for their entire history until the rise of Zionism. We may hear disparaging remarks about Jews by violently oppressed Palestinians, just as disparaging remarks can be heard about the Americans in Iraq. In neither case do these remarks constitute racism. In Black Spark, White Fire, Richard Poe identifies racism as a discourse of power: "Racial prejudice is a natural by-product of military dominance. It is one of the ways conquerors express their contempt for the conquered."

So the real situation is the opposite of what is touted by Israel and its friends. Frustrated, powerless anti-Zionists let off steam by spray-painting swastikas on synagogues or blowing themselves up, not a pretty thing. But the real racism is by the militarily dominant Jews of Israel and America -- the Zionists, the causus racismi. The Zionists manage to have their cake and eat it -- use "anti-Semitism" to attack their enemies and promote the continual expansion of a religious, imperialist state. And so far, the world has let them get away with it.

Then there's the devastating socio-economic critique of Judaism by Marx, who saw by the 1840s that the Jewish god was really money. The Jews were the traditional usurers and this had become the touchstone of Judaism over the past 2,000 years. Marx's Das Kapital begins with "making money out of money", with usury as the zenith of obfuscation -- a gold coin just sitting there magically reproducing itself. Beats the hell out of the Golden Calf. "Money is the essence of man's life and work which have become alienated from him: this alien monster rules him and he worships it." Who can deny that we all worship money today? A Jew himself, Marx renounced this negative heritage and called for assimilation (and revolution, to be sure).

Add to this economic role the power-behind-the-throne aspect of Jews, who have throughout history surrounded princes and even sheikhs as advisers or -- surprise -- moneylenders, trading with both sides during the many European wars and marrying into royal families. It should therefore come as no surprise if a Jewish agenda creeps into the plans of Christian or secular imperialists, more so today after the spectacular success of Jews in the past two centuries. Just look at the roster of Clinton's and Bush's advisers. Who says politics and religion no longer mix?

Does pointing all this out make me an anti-Semite? I grew up with and cherish my many Jewish mentors, continue to enjoy the best of Jewish-inspired Western culture (Hollywood in the earlier days) and have Jewish friends, albeit anti-Zionist ones. I am often taken for a Jew, suggesting that either Western culture is indeed Jewish in its essence or that unbeknownst to me, my ancestors were Jewish and just decided to assimilate. I really don't care. My only answer to the shrill yapping of name-callers is "sticks and stones..." The world is in permanent crisis and we have the duty in the media to explore why. After all, in Western terms, nothing is sacred anymore, (oh yes, I forgot about money).

Yet we still haven't addressed the possibility that there is a problem inherent in the religion itself, contrary to the soothing words of JPII. The True Torah Jews or Neturei Karta reject Zionism and call for dismantling the state of Israel. They even sent a delegation to the recent notorious anti-Zionist conference in Tehran. But they are a tiny sect which is disowned by mainstream Jews. Their version of Judaism is probably closest to the original Judaism and seems quite harmless. But take a glance at Old Testament texts such as Joshua or Numbers for blood, gore and racism. Yahweh regularly helps the Jews massacre their enemies, including women and children, though occasionally turning his considerable wrath against the Jews themselves for straying.

This is hardly the New Testament or Quran's God of compassion. Then there's the Babylonian Talmud, which boasts of murdering Jesus, who is roundly insulted in the worst possible language and where goyim, especially Christians, are dismissed as less than human. And Jewish holidays, apart from the wonderful Day of Atonement, all seem to focus on massacres of Jewish enemies -- Purim, Hannukah, even Passover. Could this have to do with the frightful remorselessness which Israelis show in their daily murdering of Palestinians?

Islam came into being as a corrective to the followers of Abraham, Moses and Jesus, whose words -- if you are a believer, the word of God -- were distorted by their followers, resulting in the racist, genocidal bits of the OT, and the exalting of Jesus as the son of God in the NT. This is made crystal clear in such verses of the Quran as 2:79: Then woe to those who write the Book with their own hands and then say, 'this is from Allah', to purchase with it a little price!"

Whether or not you are Muslim (though it is much easier for a Muslim to understand this vital point), the usurous system of capitalism is anathema to strict monotheism, be it the original Judaism, Christianity or Islam, and the refusal by the Muslim world to join in is really the defining moment in this comparison of the three pillars. That is why the Muslim world is being pressured -- at gunpoint -- today to throw in the towel, dump its spiritual core and wallow in the riches that capitalism is so adept at providing.

That is why it is suffering so terribly, ruled by corrupted governments who have thrown or would very much like to throw in the towel, and colonised by first the British, French and now the Israelis. This critique has a religious perspective, though the plight of the Muslims and their "Judeo-Christian" persecutors can be convincingly explained from a more secular standpoint.

It barely scratches the surface but from a political standpoint, it should be clear by now that such a critique, whether religious or secular, is an essential part of the explanation of what is happening in the Middle East and even the world today. Arguably far more important than the critique of, say, US Zionist Christians, who may look threatening but are really just an effect of Jewish cultural hegemony, or a supposedly anachronistic Islam, which despite the currently fashionable propaganda, hasn't been spread by force of arms for 500 years and has really been inward-looking for close to a thousand.

Is there light at the end of the tunnel? We can address the issue of the compatibility of capitalism and monotheism elsewhere. But, yes. It is when Jews accept that they are no better than the rest of humanity, just as the tragedy of the 20th century forced their many enemies to accept them as equals. And what that means for the Middle East is a one-state solution, the land of Canaan or Palestine (sorry, "Israel" has too much baggage), where the indigenous people have full rights, and the millions of immigrants -- secular or religious -- must adjust their lives to make peace with the natives.

Pluralistic creed

Is Judaism why Palestinians are oppressed and the West so insensitive to Muslims? Is it a world or a European problem? One may distinguish between Islam on the one hand and Christianity and Judaism on the other by referring to the Muslims' early rejection of the line of development that led to secular liberalism. Let it be clear at the outset that this writer is no admirer of the latter brand of thought, which being wholly materialistic has profoundly reduced human prospects. Obsession with matter as opposed to mind, and indeed Descartes's seminal distinction between the two as metaphysical substances, not only breaks with the deeper meaning of monotheism -- which is that all is One -- but results in both the dog-eat-dog world in which we live today (and in said world, by the same token, it is the Muslim dog that is more frequently being eaten by the Western, Judaeo-Christian or secular one) and the erosion of any collective or constructive sense of meaning or purpose. This, in favour of categories like "health", "living standards", "human rights", indeed "environmental awareness" -- all of which do little more in practice than perpetuate the materialistic status quo, suggesting to humanity at large that it has been and is all we really have.

Still, in approaching the distinction between Islam and the Western world two points should be made prior to any argument. First, while the theological basis of Islam really was established a little over 15 centuries ago, its traditions -- up to and including the manner in which scripture was interpreted, the law applied and the very nature of what it means to be Muslim -- has very definitely altered over time. To say that, in opposing secular liberalism today, Islam is holding to its traditions is in effect to reduce a glorious, multi-faceted and, most importantly, pluralistic civilisation to the abstract Five Pillars (often interpreted in a literalist or reductionist way). In this context it is important to underline the fact that, even prior to the emergence of the first dynasty, Bani Umaya, disputes over power were rampant within the Muslim world, and they encompassed not only questions of governance and economy but also, and significantly for this argument, questions of legality, all of which were theologically rooted. Wildly disparate political systems and ways of life -- the Ismaili Fatimids and the Wahhabi Saudis, for example -- were periodically accommodated within Muslim theology, and they all upheld some version of the Five Pillars. Such is the flexibility of Islam that it is compatible with a whole range of world views, up to and including present-day secularism.

From its emergence in the seventh century until the 16th, Islam was -- far more than an airtight theological system or creed -- a multi-ethnic civilisation and a mode of uniting rather than dividing human endeavour.

Until the European Renaissance, followed briefly by the Enlightenment -- from which secular liberalism is directly derived -- Islam embodied an empire or a series of empires which enjoyed both a technological and intellectual edge over its political rivals in the world at large and as such was able to spread its language and world view. This in turn contributed to both the Renaissance and Enlightenment, giving present-day Muslims every right to claim these two roots of present-day "Western" civilisation as their own; historically, they belong as much to Muslims -- Berbers, Turks, Persians, Frankish converts of every stripe, tax- paying People of the Book as well as Arabs -- as to Europeans. What Islam did not do was incorporate Thomism or Baconian rationalism -- though it did boast a rationalist tradition of its own, embodied most famously in Ibn Rushd, without whose contribution Descartes's work would arguably have been impossible.

Had it maintained its edge after doing so, perhaps the world would have ended up a significantly better place. As it is -- and following the complete collapse of communism -- what we have is secular liberalism, Muslims and non-Muslims alike. And the Muslims' contemporary tensions with that are categorically not the result of intellectual or theological difference but rather, among other things, of Muslim failure to engage with the flowering of civilisation in Europe, however inferior that civilisation is compared to the potential contained within Islam itself -- something no doubt aided and abetted by the Franks who ousted them from Spain and proceeded to subjugate and colonise them, resulting in isolationism, dependence on derivation rather than innovation and a dogged refusal on the part of the Muslim world to change with the times.

In its capacity as a civilisation, Islam no doubt had advantages over Catholicism -- witness the Inquisition; Zionism, which is racist in essence; and capitalism-consumerism -- the ugly face of secularism. All three may be readily if rather ahistorically identified with Judaism or rather the Judeo-Christian tradition. But this is not to say that (a) Islam remained the same, easily definable over the centuries or that (b) it can, in the present-day world, be so clearly distinguished from the Judaeo- Christian-secular civilisation under which everyone, Muslims and non- Muslims, lives. This is of course a contentious point, and one that would require volumes of argument to prove or disprove. A core awareness of fate, ghayb (the unknown) and akherah (the opposite of dunya ) may continue to characterise the Muslim as opposed to the Western mind, but in many, indeed most cases, such awareness readily reduces to empty rituals, quasi-fascist superstitions comparable to the aforementioned categories of "health" and "rights" or else, more recently, identity politics.

Ask a born-and-bread Arab Muslim: our people -- and the interpretation of the faith they have consistently espoused since the 16th century, firmly excluding even the mildest attempt at reform or renovation of thought -- are often no less materialistic, and just as spiritually hollow than their Western counterparts. Indeed there are millions of Muslims who, literally upholding the Five Pillars on the surface, feel perfectly within their rights to amass fortunes within the usury-oriented global banking system, to practise preferential treatment whether to non-Muslims or Muslims of a different class, language or nationality, to wage war on their enemies and rivals or to revel in the genocide of their enemies -- often identified as infidels to justify it.

And, gathering hasanat (good deeds which are counted in points, with bonuses, in ways disturbingly reminiscent of university credits or indeed bank accounts), they are convinced that they will go straight to heaven: a lugubriously material heaven, incidentally, as described in the Quran and Hadith, down to rivers of (prohibited) wine and beautiful virgin maidens or indeed boys -- a very far cry from the paradise of the Sufis, for example, which embodies nothing more than union with the One. Muslims with access to it have embraced world-destroying technology just as readily than said technology's Western inventors; through the ages they have fought just as ferociously, notably even among themselves.

Secondly, to argue against secular democracy in this way sounds disturbingly like promoting Islamic theocracy, a discussion of which may well be beneficial but is somewhat off point here. The fact that the world moved away from theocracy towards one modification or another of the political system applied in Greek city states is something to which Islam has very little to say now. Had the Umayids of Spain or the Ottomans in Central Asia and the Middle East sustained a position of economic-material or intellectual-scientific prominence in the face of their European rivals, whether or not such prominence resulted in the same problems as those of Western technology, for example, the course of history may indeed have changed, and perhaps some of the qualities that had made Islam appealing in the first place would have survived in a more effective way, resulting in a picture different from and very possibly better than the one we are left with today. But this is not to say that the Muslim equivalent of evangelising or the literal application of Muslim law so many centuries later could make up a viable alternative to secular democracy. Indeed the possibility of a Muslim renaissance rests on the willingness of Muslims to claim, accept and eventually alter the highest that has been achieved in human civilisation at any given time, however much one or more Muslim individuals may be disgusted with the content or implications of that civilisation, not on their apparently eccentric insistence on aspects of their own difference, many of which are recent political inventions rather than reflections of their distinction from others.

Perhaps the monotheistic peoples are more alike than present-day tensions suggest, but one striking difference between the Muslim period of empire and the imperialism of the post-Reformation Judeo-Christian world is that the latter incorporated a notion of racial difference, presupposing the superiority of the colonising race over the natives. This facilitated, indeed legitimised genocide, whether of the natives in America, the Jews in Germany or the Palestinians -- the former was entirely free of any form of racism; even preferential treatment was never on the cards except in matters relating to the divine message, which was embracing enough to make room for everyone, unlike Catholicism or the notion of a chosen people. Whether we attribute this to something specific about Islam or not, this is a vital difference when we look at the Western imperial project as embodied in Israel.

In this context it is well to remember that Enlightenment was as much about undoing the damage of racism as separating religion from politics. Enlightenment was also about imperialism, alas. But in being an anachronism of the imperialist project, Israel also betrays that side of the Enlightenment to which Islam contributed most positively: the inclusive, Nature-bound, non-racist world view later subverted by the imperialists. (Recall Ben Gurion: "I'm an atheist but God gave us this land!") Irrespective of the aforementioned difference between Muslim empire and Judaeo-Christian-secular imperialism, however, the answer to the Middle East conflict cannot be sought in a space corrupted with racism. Certainly, the answer to the Palestinian problem is not in yet another nationalist Arab autocracy- theocracy operating "independently" from within Israel. The one-state solution, however farfetched in practical terms at the moment, is inevitable in the long term, irrespective of the balance of power within that state and even despite the best efforts of the Zionists opposed to it. Plans for a Greater Israel notwithstanding, it is simply not true that Muslims command no power in the world today; and for Muslims (the Arabs, the Turks, though increasingly not the Persians), the tendency to sit back and say "Please refrain from killing!" is no longer viable.

It is well to remember that under the Umayids in Spain, for example, Jews were highly assimilated into society in the best sense of the word: as philosophers, mathematicians, translators and physicians; until the mid-20th century, indeed, Jews had continued to be an active, integrated part of Muslim societies and indeed the West; it was imperialism -- the Zionist project -- that pushed them out, not the Old Testament or secularism.

Perhaps focussing on the political-economic dynamics that have given rise to the present situation will be more effective in countering American foreign policy -- the most horrific extension of Europe's abortive imperial project of the 19th century, both Christian and Jewish -- than reviewing the history of religion as such. In either case it is time for Muslims to re- engage with the pluralism on which Islam thrives and speak out against racism.

© Copyright Al-Ahram Weekly. All rights reserved

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

The Indians are here!

Have a dinner at home tomorrow so had trouped off to Carrefour to buy some stuff..

To my surprise I saw lots of shelves lined with Indian pickles, curry pastes, chutneys etc.. These are Pataks and Sherwoods of London. Yum, that one thing less to cart from back home..

I am convinced that by the time we leave Cairo, there would be shops / retailers selling Indian spices, dals, ready mixes et al..

..... and the Egyptians are about to get a taste of spicy Indian food!

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Buying alcohol in Egypt

After lugging two bottles of whiskey from home, I have rather belatedly realised that foreigners can buy alcohol in Egypt. Not the ones available in Drinkies all over the city, but the good stuff like Black Label, Chivas Regal etc..

While walking through City Stars in Heliopolis, I have often noticed the Egypt Air Duty Free but have never been motivated to go in. This time, since I had time to spare, I walked in to browse. Shelves after shelves lined with alcohol, chocolates, toys, crystal, bags etc..

On enquiring if I could buy, I was asked if I had a passport which I promptly furnished. Mmm, maalish, too late. It appears that I am entitled to buy 3 bottles of alcohol within 48 hours of ariving in Egypt, from overseas, and I must pay in USD / Euro (essentialy foreign exchange). The only catch to this wonderful arrangement is that I can only do this 4 times a year, and in case you wonder how you can beat that, you cant! They stamp your passport.

But the bright side is that this is not limited to foreign residents but also to visitors. So the next time, you have vistors from overseas, you can drag them to the nearest duty free and pick up 3 bottles of alcohol on their passport!

You can also buy a large pack of imported cigarettes, toys, chocolates etc.

In case City Stars is dificult to access, they also have two shops in Maadi, which are not as well stocked as City Stars but you can get some stuff. The helpful gentleman behind the counter also told me that they have shops at Cairo International Arrival Hall 3 (this I have seen), Luxor Airport's new terminal, Borg Al-Arab Arrival Hall and the Red Sea marina resort at El-Gouna.

So for all the followers of Omar Khayyam, there's help at hand...

Alcohol in Cairo

Lugged two bottles of whiskey from India only to find that you can buy alcohol at the Egypt Air Duty Free! Had gone to City Stars and saw this huge Egypt Air outlet.

On enquiring was told that foreigners can buy 3 bottles of alcohol against their passport on entery into Egypt. There is a catch though, this can be done only 4 times a year!

Of course, one has to pay in USD.

Sunday, August 19, 2007

Back to school

Cairo American College (CAC) re-opened for the new school year today. My son started his scool year in a new grade.

CAC has a practice of shuffling the kids around as they move up to a new grade. I guess it great training for an expat child who has to keep moving every few years - gets them used to adjusting to new people and environments very quickly.

Luckily for my son, he's got four of his class mates with him, so he's thrilled! School was bustling with activity with children and parents swarming all over the place.. you could feel the excitement of a new year in the air!

Thursday, August 16, 2007

Alex - the Pearl of the Mediterranean

Am very excited. We are on our way to Alexandria (or Alex as everyone calls it) - the famous city of the ancient lighthouse! Read up a bit on Alex...

The second largest city in Egypt, Alexandria, known as "The Pearl of the Mediterranean", has an atmosphere that is more Mediterranean than Middle Eastern ; its ambience and cultural heritage distance it from the rest of the country although it is actually only 225 km. from Cairo.

Founded by Alexander the Great in 331 BC, Alexandria became the capital of Graeco-Roman Egypt, its status as a beacon of culture symbolized by Pharos, the legendary lighthouse that was one of the Seven Wonders of the World. The city, immortalizing Alexander's name, quickly flourished into a prominent cutural, intellectual, political, and economic metropolis, the remains of which are still evident to this day.

The setting for the stormy relationship between Cleopatra and Mark Antony, Alexandria was also the center of learning in the ancient world. But ancient Alexandria declined, and when Napoleon landed, he found a sparsely populated fishing village.

From the 19th century Alexandria took a new role, as a focus for Egypt's commercial and maritime expansion. This Alexandria has been immortalized by writers such as E-M- Forster and Cavafy. Generations of immigrants from Greece, Italy and the Levant settled here and made the city synonymous with commerce, cosmopolitanism and bohemian culture.

More on the history of Alex as I catch up on it...

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Its good to be back home

Flew in early this morning, completely sleep deprived and hungry. I hate travelling flights that leave in the middle of the night - while they get you to your destination early, they mess with your body clock.

Having said that, its good to be back home! Now for a hearty breakfast and a long, satisfying snooze and then I am ready to handle the world!

We'll barely get time to unpack and then its off to Alex for a long weekend just before the school re-opens...

Monday, July 2, 2007

Weather's improved

Thank goodness, the heat wave is over!

The sun's still hot but not as killing as before.. Now I can troup to the Khan to buy stuff to take back home!

Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Bad tooth solves mystery of Egypt's Pharaoh queen

Middle East Times: June 27, 2007

Archaeologists hailed one of the most important finds in Egyptian history Wednesday after a tooth identified the 3,500-year-old mummy of Queen Hatshepsut, the most powerful female Pharaoh.

Billed as the most significant find since the discovery of King Tutankhamen's tomb in 1922, Egyptian antiquities chief Zahi Hawass made the announcement to a packed press conference in Cairo. He said that one of two mummies found in a tomb in the Valley of the Kings in Luxor about a century ago had been identified as Hatshepsut, the greatest woman monarch of the ancient world.

"The discovery of the Hatshepsut mummy is one of the most important finds in the history of Egypt," the antiquities chief said. "I'm sure that this mummy will help us to shed light on this mystery and on the mysterious nature of her death."

Hatshepsut ruled for 21 years from 1479 to 1458 BC, declaring herself Pharaoh after the death of her husband-brother Tuthmosis II.

The fabled queen, known for sporting a false beard and dressing like a man, was identified thanks to a broken tooth following examinations of four mummies from the New Kingdom using the latest forensic technology.

Hawass said that the mummy identified as Hatshepsut was of a "fat woman in her 50s who probably died of cancer."

In 1903, archaeologist Howard Carter - who later made history with his discovery of Tutankhamen - found two sarcophagi in tomb 60 in the Theban necropolis, the Valley of the Kings in Luxor.

One apparently contained the mummy of Hatshepsut's wet nurse, Sitre-In, and the other of an unknown female.

Later in 1920, he found the magnificent funerary temple of Deir Al Bahari, which Hatshepsut had built for herself at Luxor. Mysteriously, two sarcophagi found in the temple were empty.

That is where the search for Hatshepsut had ended until the US-based Discovery Channel asked Hawass to take another look.

The mummies from tomb 60 were brought to Cairo for the first time and Hawass used CT scans to produce detailed 3D images that linked physical traits of the unidentified mummy to those of Hatshepsut's heirs.

But the definitive proof, according to Hawass, was found in an ancient box inscribed with the female Pharaoh's name that was discovered in 1881 at the famous Deir Al Bahari temple, scene of a bloody massacre of tourists in 1997.

Inside the box were organs from the mummy and a tooth. Examined for its possible connection to a missing molar in the unidentified mummy from tomb 60, analysts found that it was a near-perfect match.

"Not only was the fat lady from KV-60 missing a tooth but the hole left behind and the type of tooth that was missing were an exact match for the loose one in the box," Hawass said. He said that the find could help to explain the mystery of Hatshepsut's disappearance from the ancient record after her death and the empty sarcophagi in her burial temple.

"Her reign during the 18th dynasty of ancient Egypt was a prosperous one, yet mysteriously she was erased from Egyptian history," he said.

American Egyptologist Elizabeth Thomas had first suggested years ago that the second mummy in tomb 60 belonged to Hatshepsut, because her hand was resting on her chest in a position reserved for monarchs.

Discovery said that a team of archaeologists would now carry out DNA testing on the mummy to confirm her identity.

Hatshepsut, daughter of Pharaoh Tuthmosis I who ruled from 1504 to 1484 BC, ruled before later female Pharaohs Nefertiti and Cleopatra. After the death of her husband-brother Tuthmosis II, she reigned as regent for his son by a concubine, Tuthmosis III.

Hatshepsut soon declared herself Pharaoh, donning royal headdress and a false beard. Her rule is seen as a time of stability and prosperity for Egypt. But records of her reign suddenly end after her death. Her monuments were demolished by her jealous successor, Tuthmosis III, and her mummy was thought to have been lost forever

Thursday, June 14, 2007


I have just returned from Turkey, and, thught it was a good example of a predominantly Islamic nation trying to ensure that its Islamic nature does not overide every other aspect of its existence.
Yes, its important to allow people religious freedom, but how can a simple thing like wearing a headscarf define a religion? It's easy for people to talk about women choosing to wear the headscarf voluntarily, but if you are brought up in an environment where its ingrained in you from childhood that its a woman's duty to cover herself, where is the freedom to make a choice? An indoctrinated choice can hardly be called a choice! Plus I think one needs to review the context, the environment and the exigencies of the times in which Mohamad laid down the rules regarding modesty for women.
What Turkey is doing is creating an open environment for women and trying to ensure that there is equality for women. Are there issues relating to Kurds? Yes, there are, but I don't think Turkey has ever claimed to be Utopia. Do they need to work on it? Yes, they do, but that does not take away from what ever they have achieved.
In any society, radical change is never peaceful, and, perhaps that would also be Turkey's fate. If through its turmoil, its able to emerge as a secular state, it may well become a role model for other Islamic states. Practicising Islam does not neceessarily mean that a state has to lose its secular nature

Sunday, June 10, 2007


While on the Bosphorus Cruise, the Guide had pointed out an area called Ortakoy, which is the place that locals frequent. The restaurants, the guide said, served the best fish in town, and, were open till very late at night.

So leaving our son with my mother-in-law, my husband and I set off for dinner at Ortakoy. The cab drops you off on the main road from where you walk down quaint cobbled streets lined with stalls selling everything from junk jewellery to Turkish evil eyes, from fired tiles to beautiful Turkish figurines, from gorgeous ceramics to cat sketches! (What is about cats in this part of the world? Even back home in Egypt people are obsessed with cats!)

Located on the European Bosphorus shore, Ortakoy, {literally "the village in the middle" (orta}) is a really cool place with lots shops, open air cafés (very Parisian), restaurants, and, tons of arty crowd along with youngsters, with an occasional young Turk revving past in his fancy motorbike.

As I discovered later, the stalls lining the streets are an impromptu street market on Sundays by artists displaying their wares for sale. Prices are a little lower than Grand Bazaar and the artists are usually not given in to bargaining. There are two permanent shops that sell the most gorgeous blue / aqua green Turkish pottery that I have seen. The pieces are unique, different from the run of the mill stuff that you’ll find in Grand Bazaar, and expensive, but worth every penny you spend. And, there is this lovely shop selling copies of old photographs / lithos of Istanbul, copies of Ottoman edicts and official decrees, and, hold your breath, copies of the posters advertising the Orient Express! The last I just had to buy!

Hubby and I walked to the end of the area where a natural jetty is home to number of tourists and Turks out with the family. A group of youngsters sat in one corner under a tree singing songs and strumming a guitar. I was really tempted to join, but satisfied myself by listening to them. Bunch of young friends, sipping coffee, singing, laughing at a shared joke – ah, how I yearn for the uncomplicated life when you are young!

The most beautiful part of being at Ortakoy is that you are right at the edge of the Bosphorus. You can hear the waves as they crash against the shore, and, feel the breeze as it caresses your skin.

As we walked back towards the restaurants, I noticed a beautiful mosque on my left. This is Büyük Mecidiye Camii (Grand Imperial Mosque of Sultan Abdülmecid), usually called simply the Ortaköy Camii. Other than its beautiful architecture, what is really tantalizing is that its almost in the water on the Bosphorus shore.

Right next to the mosque was a lady, making something, which resembled Indian roomali rotis. On the table were jars with assorted fillings – mushrooms, penayir (yes, like the Indian paneer), cheese, mashed potatoes, beef, mutton etc. As she expertly tossed and rolled out the rotis, I was intrigued enough to try one. The dish, the lady explained, was called “Queslame” and was a local Turkish roll. Could I get a vegetarian one? Of course! Decided to go the whole hog and pointed to everything vegetarian that I could find – penayir, potatoes, cheese and mushrooms.

She essentially rolled out the dough into a really large roti / pancake and then added all the stuffing. Folded it over to form a square and then cooked it on a pan. Once cooked, rolled it in a paper and handed it to me. Yum! It was delicious, albeit a little dry.

Numerous restaurants line Ortakoy, selling everything from Lebanese to Chinese to Continental cuisine.

Verdict: To sit in the evening breeze, next to the Bosphorus, and, have your dinner makes Ortakoy a not-to-miss experience. I’m defiantly going to be back!

Turkish Hamam

The hotel that we were staying in offered complimentary Turkish Bath for guests. I guess all hotels in Turkey would offer a Turkish bath experience – I’d be surprised, nay, shocked if they did not! Had been telling my husband that we should go and experience a Turkish Bath while we were in Istanbul – it would be sacriliege not to!

Our guide on an earlier tour had explained that Islam’s emphasis on personal cleanliness was responsible for construction of hundreds of hamams all over Turkey, and, especially Istanbul. Men and women have different hamams or different bathing hours in the same hamam. While some public hamams are clean, he recommened that we use our hotel one (if the hotel was a reputed, neat and clean one) to avoid any chance of any infection!

So while everyone slept in the afternoon, I ventured down to the floor that housed the Turkish bath.

I was ushered into the ladies cloakroom to change, and, offered a cloth (pestemal) to wrap around me. I politely declined, indicating that I preferred my one-piece swimwear. How would I get cleaned, asked the hamamn attendant, despairingly shaking her head. I’m quite clean actually, thank you, this was just for the experience! Shaking her head at this strange foreigner, she lead me to the steam room, where I sweated for about 15mins.

After this, she lead me to the main hamam area which is a big room, really, really sweltry with a round marbled podium in the centre. All along the walls, there were quaint brass baisins with taps above (one for hot and the other for cold water) and a brass bowl to scoop the water.

It appeared I had a choice, explained the attendant. I could either soap myself or she would do it for me. Basically, the attendant would rub you all over with a coarse cloth called kese to clean you of all your dirt. Then she would lather you with soap suds, and, then wash you. After this was done, for a fee, you can get a massage, where they make you lie down on the marble podium in the centre. I had seen tons of these photographs when looking up Turkish baths. Now I knew better!

I opted to bathe myself. After being steamed for 15 mins, the cool water felt heavenly against my skin, and, I must admit that I felt really clean.

Verdict: A Turkish bath is a must do, not just for the resultant cleanliness, but jst for the experience!

American Indian?

Very amused. I’ve had at least three people asking me if I was from the US?

Shucks, don’t tell me I’ve acquired an accent!

I, sometimes, make fun of people who travel overseas for a couple of months, and, acquire an accent. Omigosh, I’m becoming one of them!

Shall very carefully watch how I speak over the next few days!!

Misir Carsisi

After a trip to Kapili Carsisi decided we must pay a visit to Misr Carsisi, not just to see what the market is like, but because it’s the Egyptian market! Egyptian comes from the association with Spices. In ancient times, spices from Egypt used to be brought and sold here. Hence, Misr Carsisi is also known as the Spice Bazaar.

Decided to take the tram from Sultanahmet to Eminonu. Walked out from the subway, past Yeni Cami towards Misr Carsisi. One of the locals told me that Yeni meant new! New? A hundred of years old mosque! What a delightful paradox!

Walked to a brown and beige stone building which displays a sign in brass proclaiming it to be Misr Carsisi. The one thing that struck me, I was suddenly seeing women wearing headscarves! Was it just co-incidence that I found women in headscarves near an Egyptian market?

Walked through the market – a bit of a disappointment. I guess I was expecting shop after shop displaying mounds of aromatic spices. I had visions of browsing, weighing buying pure, fresh smelling spices. Well, there are shops selling spices, but nothing close to the Carsisi of my imagination.

Was most amused while browsing through some shops selling what they called Indian curry powder and Indian saffron, which by the way, looked like nothing back home!

There are a number of shops selling touristy trinkets as well, and, a shop selling the most beautiful embroidered Turkish towels. Now I’ve grown up hearing about the fabulous Turkish towels, so succumbed to the temptation, and, bought two gorgeous fluffy towels. I’m still admiring them in their pretty packs, haven’t had the heart to open them!!

Verdict: You may want to visit Misr Carsisi to tick the box, but if you don’t, you wont miss too much.

Saturday, June 9, 2007




Around 1490 BC the Egyptian Pharaoh Thutmose III erected two obelisks before the Karnak temple in Luxor to commemorate the victories of his forces in Mesopotamia. The obelisks were made of rare pink granite.

In the 4th century AD, an unknown Roman emperor who wanted to accomplish something impressive that would create excitement among his people had the colossal obelisk brought to Istanbul.

For years it was left lying in a corner of the Hippodrome. In 390, during the reign of Theodosius I, it was erected with great difficulty by Proclus, a city administrator. It is the oldest monument in the city and has always been considered magical.

The obelisk rests on four bronze blocks on a Roman base decorated with reliefs. These depict the emperor, his children and other prominent personalities watching the races from the imperial box, as well as the spectators, musicians, dancers and chariot races. The obelisk measures 25.60 m including the base.


Built of roughly cut stones, this imitation obelisk stands at the southern side of the Hippodrome. Its exact date of construction is unknown. It is named after the Emperor Constantine Porphyroenitus who had it repaired in the 10th century. Its bronze plates decorated with golden lettering were plundered by the Fourth Crusaders.


This is one of the oldest monuments in Istanbul. The heads of the three intertwined serpents used to form the legs of a gold cauldron. The thirty-one Greek cities, which defeated the Persians in 5th century, BC melted the bronze items they had captured to create this unique monument. The 8-meter high column originally stood before the Temple of Apollo in Delphi. It was brought to Istanbul in 324 by Constantine and erected in the middle of the Hippodrome. The heads of the serpents, intact until 1700, disappeared at that time. One of the missing heads was later found and it is now on display at the Archeological Museum.


The octagonal, domed fountain at the entrance to the Hippodrome was a present from the German Emperor Wilhelm II to Sultan Abdulhamid II and the city of Istanbul. It was built in Germany and installed in Istanbul in 1898. Built in a neo-Byzantine style, the fountain is decorated with gold mosaics inside. It is a beautiful fountain, but does not blend well with the ancient monuments in the vicinity.

The Blue Mosque

Decided to take a half day tour of Sultanahmet, which included the Hippodrome, the Obelisk, the famous Blue Mosque, and, the equally imposing Haga Sophiya (for reasons that would only be understood by a Bengali, the latter elicited many giggles from my 6 year old!).

The Blue Mosque is one of the most prominent, and, famous, landmarks of Istanbul, and, is very impressive with its beautiful domes, semi domes, courtyards and six minarets. Sultan Ahmet I built the mosque. He ordered Architect Mehmed Aga to build a mosque that would parallel the Haga Sophia - it took around 7 years to build it!

I never realized till I got back that in the construction of the blue Mosque, Mehmet Aga, paid tribute to his colleagues Anthemius of Tralles and Isidorus of Miletus, architects of neighboring Ayasofya (Hagia Sophia), who designed their masterwork a thousand years before Mehmet Aga was born.

The two great buildings, Ayasofya and the Blue Mosque, stand beside one another on the Hippodrome, separated only by a small park. They are both entered from the same direction. In one, the visitor's eye is lifted heavenward inside, in the other, on the outside: master architects conversing across a millennium.

Traditionally, mosques built by Sultans had 4 minarets, and those built by others would have only two, thereby clearly distinguishing mosques built by Sultans / Kings from those built by other noblemen.

As per an anecdote, the 6 minarets of the Blue Mosque were a result of a linguistic misunderstanding! According to it, Sultan Ahmet I wanted to have minarets made of gold which is "altin" in Turkish. The architect misunderstood him as "alti" which means "six" . Luckily for the architect, the Sultant liked the 6 minarets and his head was spared. Prior to that time, no sultan had a mosque with 6 minarets.

As you enter, in the courtyard, there are some fountains which are for people who are going to pray in the mosque. In Islam, prior to praying, one must wash his/her face, arms, neck and feet as well as mouth and nose. This is a basic cleaning, which on the flip side, renders many a public bathroom unusable!

The marble courtyard’s marble comes from the Island of Marmara (the Turkish word for marble ,"Mermer" comes from Marmara).

Upon entering the mosque, one’s head is to be covered, and, the shoes must be taken off and put into plastic bags which one carries in one’s hands. I was amazed to notice that no one forces foreigners to cover their head, though you can buy blue head scarves outside the entrance for 10 TYL. The Turks appear to have great belief in the ability of human beings to pay respect where it is due, and, it’s a belief that’s well placed – you can hear faint murmurs as the guides talk, but no one runs around, screams or makes a nuisance of themselves, unlike in the Valley of the Kings back home.

Upon the entrance to the mosque, one should pay attention to the gate. The gate is a typical Seljuk- Turkish wooden work with a geometrical design in its center. The star symbolizes the Turkish Generation and very typical of early 11-12th C Turkish Art.

As you enter, you look up in awe at the massive interior of the mosque with its chandeliers and blue tiles. The tiles, our guide explained, are all 17th century beautiful Iznik tiles which give the mosque its name.

The mosque is all carpeted with prayer rugs because people touch their forehead on the ground. The carpet is designed as multiple small rectangles adjacent to each other. Each rectangle indicates a place for one individual to pray.

Our guide told us that the mosque has 260 windows through which the light sparkles into the mosque. The windows have centuries old stained glass, which diffuses the light as it comes in, and, creates a mellow halo effect.

The pulpit from which the Imam speaks is made of marble. The guide mentioned that every Friday, when the Imam climbs the pulpit for prayers, he never climbs right to the top as a mark of respect to Prophet Mohammed. Everybody turns his or her face to the south when praying, because Mecca( Saudi Arabia) is located in South. At the rear end of the Mosque is a prayer area for women shielded by an intricately worked mashrabeya partition. Some of our co-passengers on the tour, who were Muslims, knelt down to pray.

Friday, June 8, 2007

A trip down history lane!

A city which is 3000 years old, the fascination for Istanbul stems from its place in history, and, of course, the Bosphorus. A city that started its existence as a nondescript fishing village, underwent several changes into Byzantium, then Constantinople, to finally metamorphasize into Istanbul. A city that was witness to the fortunes of three great empires, and straddles two continents, Istanbul came to be known as the “Paris of the East”, and, to reaffirm this, the first great international luxury express train ever run – the Orient Express (of Agatha Christie fame) – connected Istanbul with Paris.

The history of Istanbul is rich and full of interesting tales.

Its rumoured that Byzas, a Megarian colonist (from the Doric colony of Megara in Ancient Greece), before leaving Greece, asked the oracle at Delphi where he should establish his new colony to which the oracle replied “ opposite the blind”. Sailing up the Bosphorus, Byzas noticed the settlement on the Asian shore at Chalcedon. Looking to the left they saw the natural harbour of the Golden Horn on the European shore, they wondered if the people at Chalcedon were blind not to have settled on the European side. So they set up their new city Byzantium “opposite the blind”!

Byzantium submitted to Rome and fought Rome’s battles for many years till it was won by Septimius Severus who razed it to the ground and rebuilt it as Augusta Antonina.

In 324 AD, Constantine won control over this city, declared it to be the “New Rome” or Constantinople. For the next many decades, Constantinople would be the centre of their empire.
Finally, in what is referred to as the “Fall of Constantinople” or the “Conquest of Istanbul” (depending on the perspective – Western or Muslim), Mehmet II, the young Ottoman Sultan, conquered what would become Istanbul. After conquering the Golden Horn, Mehmet’s forces were being frustrated by the large city walls. It is said that a Hungarian cannon manufacturer called Urban offered to build the most enormous cannon ever built to tear down the city walls. It appears that Urban decided to go to Mehmet after discovering that the existing Byzantine emperor had no money to pay him!

Mehmet’s entry into Istanbul on the evening of 29th May is celebrated every year. Those parts of the city that did not resist his troops were spared and their Churches guaranteed. Those that resisted were sacked, and their churches turned into mosques. Sancta Sophia (now known as Hague Sophia), then the biggest and most magnificent Church of the Christian world, was immediately converted to a mosque.

It is said that with the growth of the Ottoman Empire, Istanbul became a melting pot of different cultures. On its streets, people spoke Turkish, Greek, Armenian, Russian Arabic, Romanian, Italian, French, German, English etc. Sounds completely like exotica!