Sunday, December 11, 2005

Comedy... in the Muslim World? Laughable!

From development-hell.com:

Title: Looking For Comedy in the Muslim World
Director: Albert Brooks

"Albert Brooks may very well be the funniest man alive. All the movies he has written and directed (except maybe “The Muse”) have been unqualified gems. The yuppie couple buying a motor home and dropping out of society in “Lost in America”. His unorthodox vision of the hereafter in “Defending Your Life”. His middle-aged guy moving back in with his mother in, uh, “Mother”. All classics. This is his first new film in 7 years, and like his debut feature “Real Life” has him playing himself as a comedian embarking on an important research study for the government to see what makes the Muslim people laugh. During his trip through India and Pakistan he manages to make a total jackass of himself and practically starts World War III. Just the title alone shows that this is not going to be a typical comedy... you know, typical, like Ben Stiller getting kicked in the balls or something. Early word from sneak peaks say the film is hilarious and possibly the most incendiary comedy since “Dr. Strangelove”. I only hope the Muslim people can take a joke and not get all Salmon Rushdie on poor Albert."

Watch the trailer.

I hope we can take the joke too! The trailer shows sufficient Western humour, but it is, after all, marketed for a Western audience. Considering our history with them, it's gratifying to see they can still make jokes about it; our deviant brothers haven't exactly been at their best behaviour with them, now have they.

There is something about the apparent stringency of our tradition that diffuses into our psyches and pushes us to strive toward an immunity to humour, even if this "severe" tradition doesn't specify it. Being religious seems to intuitively lead to a lack of a sense of humour in some people. "Allah Made Me Funny"-Man Azhar Usman pokes at this point enough, I think.

Did anyone notice he spelt Salman Rushdie as Salmon Rushdie? Heh heh. That's funny.

From Chicken Run:

[Nick and Fetcher, two sneaky, cockney rats are telling Rocky, the American cockerel, about a caper they pulled with a farmer]

Nick: We slipped into the farmer's room, all quiet like.
Fetcher: Like a fish.
Nick: Yeah, and we..."Like a fish"? You stupid Norbert.

It's funny if you've seen Chicken Run. If you haven't, you should!

Saturday, December 03, 2005

The Chronicles of Narnia: At Last!

Well, it's been about a year since my post about the screen adaptation of the Chronicles of Narnia. It's scheduled to be released on the 14th of December, and I'm actually quite excited about it. I'm actually considering going to the theater to watch it.

The books are written in the order of "The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe," "The Horse and His Boy," "Prince Caspian," "The Voyage of the Dawn Treader," "The Silver Chair," and the "Last Battle," as well as a prequel to the entire series, "The Magician's Nephew."

Wikipedia has a comprehensive article regarding the series, criticisms directed toward it, and their corresponding defenses.

I'm a little sad I hadn't read the books earlier, when I was young; I'm quite sure that with a much younger imagination, I would have enjoyed the books much more. I'm also very sure, that with a far less developed perception of Christian mythology, the heavy Christian symbolism wouldn't have ruined the experience for me.

The story revolves around a group of children who travel to a magical land via a portal, a wardrobe. They are referred to as the "sons" and "daughters of Adam" by the inhabitants of the land, and have a riveting adventure rescuing it from a permanent winter enforced by the White Witch of the West. One of the boys fall prey to the villain's wiles, but later realizes his mistake, but cannot be freed without a price. Aslan pays the price of the boy's freedom from the White Witch, and gives himself up to die, only to rise again.

The Christian themes were too much for me, and, it seems, I'm not alone. Some people are also saying that they were quite blaring:

"Is the world created by British author C.S. Lewis a rip-roaring piece of fantasy — or a fairy tale suffused with Christian imagery?

The book has long charmed children of any or no religion. The movie is, in many ways, faithful to the book — and faithful to the faithful — without sounding the horn of religious orthodoxy. Johnson says you will find Christian symbolism in the movie only if you found it in the book. That's fair enough, though you will find it if you look closely enough — or are told to."


This article on USAtoday.com is an interesting read. In any case, I hope the movie does well, so that they can make the sequel. Apparently, the sequel will go straight to "Prince Caspian," since "The Horse and His Boy" deviates from the central storyline of the children from "The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe" somewhat.

For the fun of it, here is the link to the "Book-A-Minute" version of the first Chronicles installment. "Book-A-Minute," by the way, is only fun if you've read the books.

Sunday, October 16, 2005

Rooftop Gardens, Toyota and Japan

This is an interesting article regarding rooftop gardens.

I thought of this last summer when I was at home in Bangladesh. The greenery that is being displaced when a building is being constructed can be easily replaced by shifting that to the roof. Fundamentally, it isn't the same, since the soil underneath is still being robbed of the rainwater it would normally receive, but it would contribute toward cooling the area, and prevent urban heating.

Another interesting article I got off slashdot. Toyota is venturing into biotechnology. The Japanese car maker is apparently researching GM crops and other kinds of plants to help alleviate a possible food and water crisis in Asia.

The Japanese continue to impress me. Not with their mostly awful anime, but through their tech-savvy, environmentally responsible ways. The Japanese People. I salute you.

Monday, September 19, 2005

Bukrah, Insha Allah ([I Will Pay You] Tomorrow, God Willing)

Striking Workers Block Shaikh Zayed Road [gulf-news.com]

Hundreds of construction workers blocked Shaikh Zayed Road in Dubai early Monday morning demanding months of unpaid wages and no clean drinking water, or water in their bathrooms.

A senior administrator in the company, who declined to be named, said the labour camp had clean drinking water. “We will pay May’s salary this week and June’s salary next week. But the workers do have clean water and modern bathrooms.”


At 63 dollars a barrel, I wonder why it's going to take them two weeks to arrange their backpay. Old habits die hard.

Sunday, July 31, 2005

Time Leaps and Us

The path on which we are on, this absolute dependence on science and technology to cure all our ills, divorces us from nature, and enslaves us to the technology that was conceived to liberate us.

Why the US wants to end link between time and sun

Thursday, May 26, 2005

Open Source Film

Open source software is a term used in common parlance nowadays, with the advent of the Linux operating system and the related evangelism citing the imminent death of Microsoft. Although that is yet to be seen (and how much we wish to see it!), the general concepts and ideology of open source seems to be spreading its wings.

In a very peculiar entry on Slashdot, the Open Source geeks' hang-out zone, a group in Amsterdam is getting together an open-source animation, made purely on open-source software. The film itself is to be released under an open license. The link here.

As far as 3D animation goes, I suppose Pixar Animation Studios stands at the forefront of our perception, though they are, in many ways, the epitome of 3D animation creativity. Although they are among the best, they certainly aren't alone. Dreamworks Animation with the Shrek franchise under its belt (and the offshoot Puss In Boots in production) is up there with them. Not to forget the Oscar-winning minds behind Ice Age, Blue Sky Studios.

Something different about Pixar, however, is that their story development process is unique. Script ideas are actually developed and written in-house. Their relationship with Disney, markedly rocky over the past few years, is actually Disney not involved in any of the creativity, but in distribution and casting of voice talent. The Pixar-Disney coalition has been cited as one of the most successful business relationships in cinema history.

Tuesday, May 10, 2005

A Kingdom of Conscience: Movie Review

It is a rarity that sees me at the cinema. I do not easily fork out 7 dollars to watch a movie at the theatre, and so I restrict myself to films that interest me personally. These usually include filming projects I have been tracking from inception to release, and Kingdom of Heaven is one of them.

In this review on IMDb.com, it cites both negative and positive aspects of the reaction of the public. Apparently, a muted hue is being raised by both Muslims and Christians on inaccuracies in the film, and Roger Ebert cites this as a clear sign that Sir Ridley Scott, of Gladiator and Aliens fame, got something right. Although I see no logic in that kind of reasoning, even if it comes from a critic as respected as Mr. Ebert, it is indeed my opinion, that anybody from either the Muslim or Christian camp that cites discrepancies to affect in any significant way their experience of this film, is simply being over-critical.

Orlando Bloom, playing the lead character Balian of Ibelin, is the newest pretty boy in Hollywood. Although I concede that his Elvish charm on Lord of the Rings: Fellowship of the Ring did catch my eyes, it would be unfair to the art of acting to call him a good practitioner of it. He has consistently been the weakest link in all the films he has appeared in, and though I believe he will some day hone his skill to the level of the peers in his film (Jeremy Irons, Brendan Gleeson, Marton Csokas, David Thewlis, and Liam Neeson), he was drowned by their charisma and fluidity.

Forgiveness for Mr. Bloom's rigidity, however, comes from the script. If the script was indeed written for Mr. Bloom, it compensated well for his inadequacies as a thespian. The character design of Balian of Ibelin was of a man of a stoic disposition and intense concision. Therefore, although he has more screen-time than any other of the main characters, he probably has the lowest word-count per sentence, and the highest "gaze-time," time spent just looking at people's faces.

Even rookie actor, Ghassan Massoud, who has very little screen-time as the great Salahuddin Ayyubi, does a better job at the art of acting than Mr. Bloom. In fact, apparently, Mr. Massoud is a scholar! Sheikh Massoud?

The look and feel of this great Muslim hero and legend was extremely well-executed. The rugged Arab handsomeness shines through Mr. Massoud's general stature. His facial and bodily build is of what I perceive as a classical Yemenite Arab, (not dissimilar to Osama bin Laden, who is in fact Yemeni): wiry, a long, thin face, a complete lack of cheek tissue, a very Semitic, aquiline nose, intense dark eyes, and a beard greying majestically at the edges. However, we will recall, this is the nitpicking section, and I am not done yet: Salahuddin Ayyubi was a Kurd!

It is in Mr. Scott's good fortune that the vast majority of people are not familiar with Kurds, because if they were, I assume they would be aware that Kurds are not too distant from Arabs in appearance and stature. Therefore, this is not an issue of much significance to grapple with.

Salahuddin Ayyubi's sister, whose appearance in the film is both sudden and fleeting, was, I must admit, very impressive. Surprisingly portrayed by Puerto Rican Giannina Facio, her likeness was that of a romantic and classically beautiful Arab woman. Dark eyes to drown in, and the hawkish features that gives Arab women a certain aura of rugged, untamed earthliness, as opposed to the palpably angelic grace of European women.

Hollywood's record in portraying the Muslim prayer has not been a good one. From Antonio Banderas's awkward genuflections in The Thirteenth Warrior, to the fleeting view of debasing, repetitive earth-kissing in the Animatrix, it has consistently been done by people who find the entire concept alien to the very core, clumsily bolted on as a token to an ethnic minority than anything else.

Although the editing of the film dictated the most "dramatic" portions of the Muslim prayer were shown (the prostration and bowing), it was done well. There was no reason for it not to be, since Moroccan soldiers were recruited as extras for the film. I was disappointed, however, because I thought from the trailer, they would feature the Prayer of Fear, a system of prayer employed by the Muslims to fulfill the duty of the five daily prayers even under the risk of attack. Its organized elegance has been one I have secretly wished for a very long time to be portrayed on-screen.

In addition, it is noted in one scene that Muslims were praying in congregation during the Adhaan, or the call to prayer, an oddity to most Muslims. I forgive wholeheartedly, however, because the Adhaan and prostration are both very "dramatic," and the post-production team just couldn't help but couple them.

When I saw the trailer, I thought it was going to be one that glorified knights, and was somewhat disgruntled. The knights of the Crusades were not consistent in their chivalry, and are known to be infamously inhumane to many of their extra-faith victims. However, the movie does not glorify knights, and in fact belittles the majority of those who call themselves knights, for which I am grateful.

The script focuses on men of moderation: King Baldwin, Balian of Ibelin, his father Godfrey and his friend Hospitaler, Tiberias, Salahuddin Ayyubi and his assistant Naser. Contrasted to them are warmongers, Guy de Lusignan, Reynald de Chatillon, and Khaled Nabawy of the Muslim camp.

If I counted the number of jabs at Christian extremism to the number of jabs at Muslim extremism, the former would outnumber the latter in the ratio of (all of the jabs at Christian extremism) to 1. That's right, there was only one jab at Muslim extremism in the entire film that I noticed, primarily because Muslims had less screen-time.

The Arabic dialogue was in classical Arabic, and I actually understood a great deal of it, which was very gratifying.

In the end, it was a very good film, and I respect Mr. Scott for his efforts. He executed this touchy topic adeptly and admirably, and for that, he deserves our praise and appreciation as Muslims. The amount of respect shown toward Muslims borders on romanticism, and considering Hollywood's long-standing record at insensitivity and ineptitude at handling this significant minority, I am honored by his efforts.

Update: Seems some people are happy.

Sunday, May 08, 2005

South Asia: The Politics of Partition

An overdue look at a Gulf News Opinion piece on South Asian trade politics. The article dates back to March 2005, but the basic points remain valid, since the issues go as far back as 1947. Some fascinating realities to be garnered from this article.

Intensified pipeline diplomacy between India and its neighbours promises to transform the geopolitics of the subcontinent.

The single biggest consequence of this pipeline diplomacy could be an end to the economic partition of the subcontinent, a little over 57 years ago. Until 1947, the subcontinent was a single economic space.


Indeed, opponents of the partition have cited this very fact as a potential problem. The restriction on distribution of resources puts a strain on populations. A flood that ravages one part of the country could formerly be compensated by produce from another, but now, borders and deeply ingrained political savagery block such efforts.

Bangladesh is a classic victim of such a problem. Global warming is causing rising sea levels (a currently observed phenomenon in Bangladesh) and people will soon have to relocate to higher land. But the border with India, which surrounds Bangladesh to the East, North and West (the Bay of Bengal to the South), limits all that. If global warming is even half the reality that scientists predict, either we will have to go the Netherlands way, or we will have to invade India.

As the logic of globalisation sweeps across south Asia, Pakistan and Bangladesh could eventually become land bridges between the subcontinent and the regions beyond.


The logic of globalisation does compensate for the movement of capital. But people are left out to dry. Capitalism's most fundamental problem.

The region, however, continues to mature. In fifty years, the government's of South Asia will be more organised, separated by about 5 generations from the traumatic partition and the antagonistic baggage inherited thereof, and people will finally be able to talk issues.

Wednesday, May 04, 2005

The Apple of My Eye

I use an Apple Macintosh computer for my personal uses. When the choice came to me at the laptop fair as a dazed freshman in late July 2003, that one issue for me had no contention. I didn't go to the HP stall, the IBM stall or considered for even the briefest moment, any Windows-based notebook. I made a beeline for the Apple stall.

Five minutes of conversation with a very good salesman, and he finally figured out I had been reading the Apple website for the past year and knew more Apple propaganda than even he did. "You know your stuff, man," he said and handed me the form.

Two years later, I am a proud owner of my laptop, a series infamous for logic board errors, but which has served me reasonably well, Masha Allah.

However, the Cult of the Mac is no myth. Mac loyalists clump together like bacteria in a bad broth culture, Steve Jobs their Luke Skywalker, and Bill Gates their Darth Vader. Communalism rears its ugly head in a new form of tribalism. Groping and grasping in the dark, in a globalized world bereft of identity, these people worship their new heroes with unstinted loyalty.

But when it comes down to it all, I have discovered that Apple computer, though technically superior, is headed by a man I just don't like. Steve Jobs's ego is probably one of the largest objects known to man, second to perhaps Tom Cruise's. This article excerpts a little bit of an interview with him on the release of his new operating system, OS X 10.4 Tiger.

Apple co-founder and Chief Executive Steve Jobs has long said that Windows, which runs on nine out of 10 PCs worldwide, has copied Apple.

"They're shamelessly trying to follow us," Jobs said at Apple's annual stockholder meeting two weeks ago, noting that Longhorn has yet to appear. "They can't even copy fast."


Very brave for a man whose company recovered from virtual bankruptcy in 1997. Of course, Apple's recovery from its crisis in 1997 (helped to great effect by Microsoft who owns half the company, ironically) has been consistently called the biggest industry turnaround of a tech-company in history, something that might have something to do with Jobs's attitude.

Bill Gates, software architect, richest man in the world, gracious benefactor and general nice guy, had this to say about Apple's release:

On positive coverage of rival Apple's new Mac OS X Tiger operating system, which has features Microsoft won't have until 2006 in the next Windows: "Because they're the super-small-market share guy, they get all these statements about them. But I actually thought that was great -- there it was, the general press writing about operating systems."


This article is another example of the bully being bullied. The biggest guy is always a target, and Bill Gates takes a lot of flack for it. Oft-times, rightfully so.

But in the end, Bill Gates is a nicer guy than Steve Jobs. But I need a product that works, not a nice guy. And so, I'm typing this blog entry with the Apple of my eye.

Wednesday, April 27, 2005

"The Return of Saladin"?

They say even a drowning man will clutch at a straw. Will the honour and bravery of Saladin bring back our honour? Bring back a hero of the old world, so we can embrace the new one?

Seems a contradiction. History teaches us many things about who and what we are. But it cannot plot our course for the future. Is mass-market reserruction of an age-old hero going to solve our problems? The solutions to our problems today must come from within, not from without. Saladin's perspective and insight came from within. As must a contemporary leader's, should a child borne by one of our Great Family ever bear such qualities.

Farish Noor from the Daily Times in Pakistan calls for a Return of Saladin through the new Iraqi president, Jalal Talabaani. A misleading title to a good argument.

One thing that we must have learned in our time here, it is that there is no return. Be it a gap of a moment or a thousand years, one moment lost is one lost to eternity. Where we were a second ago, we will never be again. There is no such thing as habit. That is the beauty of mortality and time: there is never a return.

But what any wise leader can do (and has done), is internalize the lessons of history and apply them in their modern contexts. As eras and ages and seconds and flashes differ from moment to moment, so does political intrigue. And therein lies the hallmark of a true leader and a scholar of decisions: the insight to look at actions and their ramifications through "the lens of eternity." That is the heirloom of the Righteous Caliphs.

Of course, nothing is ever so simple. The problems facing Iraq are many. We live in interesting times, and we pay for them with the lives of our brothers.

Tuesday, April 26, 2005

Over and Above

Yet another opinion piece on Gulf News on the ineptitude of Arab politics. I am no longer impressed; these articles are just fluff to fill up the pages. Written by armchair politicists in universities, read by armchair politicists at the dinner table.

This persistence on vagueness on what exactly the problem is with the Arab world and its leaders bothers me. Everything is broad and sweeping. A shout into a crowd, drowned by every member of the crowd thinking it was addressed to the person beside them. No responsibility. Convenient vagueness. For to speak in specifics is to enrage the incompetent. And the best fighters know, it is more dangerous to combat an inexperienced adversary than a veteran, since fools are unpredictable.

Monday, April 18, 2005

Neil Gaiman on Creative Writing

A very nice, down-to-earth lowdown on what it takes to be a creative write from author Neil Gaiman.

Being a writer is a very peculiar sort of a job: it's always you versus a blank sheet of paper (or a blank screen) and quite often the blank piece of paper wins. It has no job security of any kind, and depends mostly on whether or not you can, like Scheherazade, tell the stories each night that'll keep you alive until tomorrow. There are undoubtedly hundreds of easier, less stressful, more straightforward jobs in the world.


No glammer, no glitz. Nice, earthly advice.

Another nice piece on the fourteen steps to get your manuscript accepted. Written by an editor of a slush-publisher. An entertaining read, if nothing else!

Friday, April 15, 2005

Brave Editorial in Gulf News

Well, the Editorials in Gulf News are certainly getting brasher.

UNDP’s Arab Human Development Report identifies serious political failings

Rights: denied. Freedoms: denied. Good governance: denied. People's aspirations: denied. The Arab world lives in a "black hole" where "nothing moves and nothing escapes". All matters are static. Nothing changes and nothing advances. This is the stark but accurate state of affairs in the Arab world as reported in the third part of the Arab Human Development Report, released by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) [...]


Brave indeed. But yes, (cleverly?) hidden in a sweeping indictment of one and all. Specifics: denied. Why? Because if Specifics: granted, then Residence Visa: Denied.

Reminds me of Moammar Gaddafi's recent lecture to the Arab League (and this very interesting article I dug up from Google).It's one step forward. At least they're cussing each other up now. Now, just another few centuries till they turn their eyes one hundred and eighty degrees, and look at something of comparable filth.

The Reading Factor

Everything we make reflects the essences with which we ourselves are made. The Internet seems such, with both our darkest and most illuminated aspects streaked across it, the complexity of the human condition sprayed over such a vast entity. I recently stumbled upon a very nice online magazine, Recreation Services.

There is a theory in biology called convergent evolution. That is, a mammal and a bird (sufficiently different organisms, taxonomically for there not to be any striking morphological similarities), evolve similar limb systems for the mechanics needed to navigate in aquatic environments.

Common solutions to common problems always confront us. This nice article from the magazine linked above explains quite nicely how reading to your children can help them.

Most magazines of this breed quote so-called experts and such, who more often than not spend their careers contradicting themself with each new set of data, but I still think there's a lot to learn from them. I can't see how reading to children can be harmful, and there's really nothing to lose, and a whole lot to gain, even if it doesn't suddenly make them geniuses.

I still remember many of my English teachers spending classes reading to us. I can still remember Mr. Keith, a wonderful, tall, black-haired English gentleman reading Roald Dahl's BFG to us. Did it make me a genius? Considering my recent exploits in carving a career for myself in science, I don't think so. But I still thoroughly enjoyed it; enough so to remember it more than 10 years later.

Monday, April 11, 2005

The Holy Doomsday Weapon

This detailed article from ABC News relates the epic struggle facing the latest efforts by Israel and Palestine to begin approaching a resolution to this age-old conflict.

At the center of the drama is the most sensitive and hotly disputed holy site in the Holy Land a hilltop known as the Temple Mount to Jews and Noble Sanctuary to Muslims. It is where the Al Aqsa Mosque compound, including the shrine marking the spot where Muslims believe Mohammed ascended to heaven, is built over the ruins of the biblical Jewish Temples.

Clashes at the site could ignite violence across the region, explaining the presence of 3,000 riot-ready Israeli police around the walled Old City, preparing to confront a handful of demonstrators.

Extremist Jews who make up a new group called "Revava," a biblical word that means 10,000, stated openly that their goal is to storm the sensitive site in July, when thousands of Israeli police and soldiers are in Gaza to evacuate 9,000 settlers forcing Israel's leaders to pull the forces from Gaza, send them to Jerusalem and, in that way, stop the pullout. The Sunday protest, they said, was just a test.


Although 10,000 protesters were promised by Revava, only a few dozen showed up, but if nothing, they demonstrated how easy it would be to disrupt the functioning of the Gaza pullout by diverting troop attention to their agitation.

Outside the Old City walls, hundreds of young Palestinians scuffled with baton-wielding police, who kept them away from the shrine. Two Palestinians were hurt, with one suffering a head injury after being hit by a club. Eventually, the Palestinians knelt in orderly lines on the road ringing to Old City to perform Muslim prayers.

In the West Bank, thousands of Palestinians took to the streets. In Nablus, some 3,000 Palestinians, including dozens of armed men who fired in the air, marched through the streets. In Hebron, about 1,000 Palestinians marched and chanted slogans about protecting the mosque.

Israel has stepped up security in Jerusalem recent days. Security officials say they fear hard-liners will attack the hilltop shrine.

Carmi Gilon, former head of the Shin Bet security service, said that if there is such an attack, Israel would find itself at war with the entire Muslim world.

"Of all the means … of stopping disengagement, no doubt the Temple Mount is the doomsday weapon," he told Israel Radio.


Sad, but true.

Saturday, April 09, 2005

"Arab-League is Long Past its Use-By Date"

Hatred, scorn and disdain for Arab leaders run deep in the communities of the Middle East and North Africa. The first President of the Middle East, Jalal Talabani, of Iraq just got elected in a deeply troubled country, and any political maturity seems a far cry right now. Other Gulf-Arab states stand on the edge of a blade, trying their best to keep the US pleased and pacified, and simultaneously trying to keep their publics subdued despite their outright incompetence.

Every Arab League summit screams out at the top of its lungs at how much of a farce the Pan Arab political situation is. It's as embarrassing as it can ever get, and it seems people are starting to grow weary, with political demonstrations in most parts of the region, and even Saudi Arabia jumping on the bandwagon and holding token municipal elections (registration required to read the article).

Moammar Gaddafi's eccentric exhibitionism doesn't help the Arab League's credibility. In fact, in the most recent summit on the 22nd of March, Gaddafi declared himself a philosopher and proceeded to lecture all the other Arab leaders on wrong social systems. (Gulf News Article)

The sieve tells the needle, "you have a hole in your butt." It must be extremely embarrassing to attend these summits, so perhaps we should congratulate Arab leaders on a remarkable lack of shame.

Meanwhile, their societies are held in the Dark Ages, their armies impotent, and terrorism and extremism consume them like a flesh-eating disease.

The World's Poor and Sustainable Development; Gulf News Article

There's a saying I once read on a pulp internet website. "If you don't have the solutions to the world's problems when you're 20, you don't have a heart. If you have them when you're 30, you don't have a brain."

Experiencing it as I am now, I see that it is very true. Reality breaks a man. A child is separated from the world in its virginity. The union of man and world kills off idealism, ambition and in many cases can leave people disillusioned and confused. Luckily, some people in the world scene have worked their whole lives in some of these common pursuits that we dream about as youngesters.

Mike Moore's article in Gulf News was an interesting read on his take on what could help the world's poor, a subject that touches very close to home for me. In essence, his argument is that governments are key players in ensuring that the poor get empowered, and that the poor are eager, resourceful, intelligent people with great potential as productive citizens and as a business market.

The book he cites is "Fortune at the Bottom of the Pyramid: Eradicating Poverty Through Profits," by C.K. Prahalad. It deals with the issues of sustainable development, a very big issue today, since, apparently, we're using up the world's resources faster than we can replenish them.

Another book on my reading list!

Wednesday, March 30, 2005

"Untitled Short Story," Author's Commentary

First of all, all credit goes to Islamic Voice.com for publishing this story. The original version of the story was extremely well-written, and packed the punches in all the right places, but I've always had a penchant for adaptations. I thought I would adapt this into a story, and thus was born my first short story.

Of course, strictly speaking, by the length of the narrative I constructed, it isn't really a story. The word count is too low and if the story was portrayed in real-time, it would probably span 10 to 15 minutes. With the general guidelines of what sort of narrative density a short story should be, it should be noted that a short story is actually something that can at least be adapted into a 2-hour movie. Several good examples of short stories on the big screen is the award-winning Shawshank Redemption, a short story by Stephen King, and Minority Report, a short story by Philip K. Dick.

Therefore, all apologies for the misnomer. It's up there now, and I don't think it right to change it. "Untitled Short Story" it remains.

The inspiration, like I said, was from Islamic Voice.com, but the drive was actually an external one. Having been involved in the campus magazine for the past 2 years, I was approached by a particularly intelligent young man who wanted to work for me. It being the middle of the semester, and the magazine not recruiting anybody till the next year, I had to turn him down, but I had seen some of his work in a "teen magazine" in Bangladesh, The Daily Star's "Rising Stars" feature. As such, I approached him if I could contribute to the magazine.

Once confirmed that my contributions were welcome, I was adamant that my short stories had to reflect well on the people who were reading them. I had realized early on that it was a "teen magazine," and having read several thousands words of drivel passing off as "stories" in the Rising Stars, I wanted to make my mark by having a story rich in not only language and narrative, but in a message, a hidden ideal that I might brush off on the unwary reader. I had read everything from SWAT-team sieges of banks to the most awfully mass-produced, tacky, tasteless romantic literature on that magazine, and I wanted to offer something different.

As such, true to the Hollywood spirit, I proceeded to tear apart the characters in the story skeleton I took from Islamic Voice.com. Everything would be different, save the main story, and the message intended in the original. Firstly, I changed the setting from the Masjid Al Haraam in Makkah, to a local mosque in some other country, so readers can relate more immediately. Secondly, I changed the African sister to a little girl, to represent innocence. Thirdly, I changed the main character who was a rich Saudi in the original story, to a bleeding-heart fool with a decent head on his shoulders, named Fareed. Fourthly, lastly and most importantly, I changed the beggar, from a run-of-the-mill beggar to an introspective, slightly exaggerated old sap.

The extremity of the character of the beggar was pointed out to me by a friend, but I have to maintain that stories, at times, tend to have exaggerated characters. The storyteller does this on purpose, to get a point across. Subtlety is an important thing, but even a sledgehammer is a useful tool at times.

It was a tremendous experience crafting all these elements into a story. It is indeed most surprising, that a lot of the creativity involved in such work comes spontaneously, almost out of the blue, as if my hand were forced. As my first story, I had a good deal of fun writing it, and even more fun reading it afterward. Many of the changes, for example, the little girl, were spontaneous. Many others, for example Fareed's unwillingness to pay, but his inner desire to, was not, and it had to be beaten into shape at the smithy.

So as it evolved, and I added a few more elements here, some thoughts to the self there, subtleties in Fareed's unwillingness to pay with his stiff jaw and terse reply, subtely acknowledging his desire to give in to the emotions this beggar is inciting, things started working more and more, the tones began to resonate, and constructively interfere.

Then, after I had finished my final draft, I let it sit for a few days, and then read it again another day. I noted things I had not noticed before. For example, Fareed, the emotional sap he is, is a direct reflection of me. He also happens to be the only person in the story with a name. None of the other characters have any, and the only person that I can relate to most personally, is the only person with a name. A subconscious stroking of the ego, perhaps. Then I noticed, for all the love that went behind constructing Fareed, the true main character of the story is actually the unnamed little girl, because it is in the actions of the girl that the message of the story lies! What that message is, of course, I'll leave it to the reader to think about, because that's where the real fun lies.

Then I realized, perhaps the subtelties I note in many authors isn't something that they consciously put into their stories, but something that their subconscious puts into the narrative, without their necessarily knowing it. Perhaps the way we think and the way we look at the world affects us at every level, even when we are moulding a story to make it work with an audience. Maybe hidden messages we try to reveal in our stories, be they short stories on a blog, or ghost stories by a campfire, or small anecdotes of what happened to you at the immigration office, is a reflection of our own larger perceptions of the world around us.

Although the story was very nice, it wasn't mine. As far as the messages are concerned, although they may be practical and noble and praiseworthy, I didn't explicitly put all those messages into the story; some of them just found their way there. As far as the telling of the story goes, I'm a little disappointed by it, and I think it could use a rewrite. I will, however, not indulge, and leave it as it is, in all its imperfection. As such, all good in that story didn't really come from me, and all bad did.

Monday, March 21, 2005

Gulf Terror Wave Spreads

Before it was Saudi Arabia. Then it was Kuwait. Now it's Qatar. And the ripples spread.

Bob Newman, director of international security and counter-terrorism services with GeoScope Group, told AFP that the terrorism threat confronted mostly Saudi Arabia, followed by Kuwait and then Qatar.

The UAE government "has been very discreet in its counter-terrorism fight," said Newman.


Who's next? Could be you. Could be me.

Sunday, March 20, 2005

Global Warming

After reading at least 2 entries in Google News Sci/Tech section about new reports on global warming almost everyday, I suppose it was about time the Daily Star finally caught up. In this rather well-written report, Md. Asadullah Khan of BUET puts it very aptly:

"Sooner or later, the Earth's human inhabitants so used to adapting the environment to suit their needs will be forced to adapt themselves to the environment's demands."


As more reports come out, it seems that global warming is no longer an academic issue as some people will have you believe. Whether or not there is any warming isn't academic; the real issue is how much. If I may quote the halfwits in Washington and Downing Street on this, "It's not a question of whether we will attack Iraq, it's a question of when." The same goes for global warming now: "It's not a question of whether there is global warming, it's a question of when we will begin to feel its effects full-swing."

Of course, Bangladesh is on the frontlines on this one as well. We will be the first to go, and we have already begun feeling the effects of global warming.

"The water in most of the ponds in villages of Satkhira, Bagerhat, Khulna, and Barisal has turned into saline, while tubewells now fail to yield drinkable water. The saline water has affected cultivation of vegetables, crops, and sweet-water fish. [...] Traditional sweet-water fish are almost extinct due to inundation and saline intrusion in local ponds and wet lands."


This, of course, doesn't mean we're the only one facing the music. Heat waves in Europe are killing people, the United States is experiencing record numbers of twisters, flooding in New Zealand (if you've seen the making-of documentaries of Lord of the Rings) and Europe. It's everywhere, and there seems to be no escaping it.

In any case. Whether the halfwits realise this or not, all the reports share one thing in common now: global warming is inevitable now, even if we stop dead in our tracks tomorrow. But everyone knows we won't.

Thursday, March 17, 2005

What a Coincidence

Sidi Faraz Rabbani, in his blog Seeker's Digest posted up the link on Stephen King's writing advice today, the one I blogged about last month! Nice.

Monday, March 14, 2005

Underaged Camel Jockeys

UAE bans camel jockeys under 16 years of age, 14/2/2005

The hideous affair of the use of underaged, foreign children in the terribly dangerous sport of camel racing has finally been addressed by the apparently reforming UAE government, that's putting a lid, bit by bit, on the gross human rights violations that go on within its borders.

Stories of such a trade have been disseminating in the unofficial media for a long time. Even when I was young, we would hear of stories of young children, usually from Bangladesh, dying in camel races by falling off their animals. Apparently, Bangladeshi children make better jockeys because of their light, malnourished physiques and tendency toward short statures.

I have clear memories of such stories in the middle of the 90s. 10 years. As helpless observers of the policies of the UAE, having been viciously subject to them myself not too long ago, all I can say is, better late than never.

Saturday, March 05, 2005

The Old Souq

The Old Souq in Abu Dhabi was a place we visited often. In fact, as I type this, I can still smell the small walkways and paths between the shops in the Old Souq. It was a smell of plastic packaging material mixed with that of sunflower seeds, nuts and roasted chicken and lamb from the shawarma stalls. The tiles of the floor were coated with a dark layer of black grit, now chemically united with the brick itself by the pressure of countless shoes of young and old.

Young and old. That was a thing to notice about the Old Souq. It was usually a family gathering, contrasted from the bachelors selling their wares, and the most common sight there would be a woman, clad in a dark-coloured jilbab and a contrasting white scarf walking, her husband pushing a troller with a baby in it. Every once in a while a couple came with a troller with a year-old baby in it being pushed by the father, a baby in the arms of the mother and a 4-year-old toddler trying to keep up.

The shawarmas from the Old Souq were the best I've ever had anywhere. I've had them from Al Ibrahimi Restaurant, the kind Pakistani establishment near Madinat Zayed, I've had them from the school canteen, I've had them from Marroush in Hamdan, from everywhere. Nothing compares to those from the Old Souq. They came with some special vegetables and pickles which I think were not available anywhere else, or were hand-made by some old man who had been doing it his whole life, probably.

Most of the sellers were Irani. Short, stocky men with hairy chests and bushy moustaches, shouting an entire conversation across the central square, bargaining, yelling "do riyal, do riyal, do riyal," meaning "2 riyals," too used to trading in Saudi Arabia that they didn't bother with the currency change from Riyal to Dirham between the Kingdom and the Emirates. Some were skinny, small, dark Indian men, clad in the classic post-colonialist, watered down English-ware, the dark trousers and plain-coloured full-sleeved shirt, untucked, sleeves rolled up to the forearms. They would speed up and down the paths, going from store to store, or sit on a stool, one leg propped up on an object, sipping their tea, trying their best to reel in any human that came within 20 feet of their store.

Loud, tacky, Chinese toys would render the "Lambada" or "It's a Small World" in some mass-produced digital synthesizer, and planes hanging from neon signboards would spin round and round, spilling colors and sounds, attracting the attention of children. Yells of crying children, held on a parent's hip, reaching out to a toy that the parent is trying very hard to bargain over carry across the central square. The parent, distressed by the fact that the shopkeeper obviously perceives the leverage he has in the fact that his child would be in hysterics for the rest of the evening without this toy, tries his best to get a good deal on it, pulling every trick in the bargaining hat to get a deal which he knows will be exorbitantly profitable to the seller.

Pathaans would sit idly, in the typical wooden shoe shops decorated floor to ceiling with classic Afghan sandles, laces for qameezes and an assortment of kufis, prayer beads and branches of Neem tree used as miswak, a Prophetic tradition of impeccable mouth care. Dressed in a grimy grey shalwar qameez and a majestic but girtty white turban with a long tail, stroking their beards, squatting in their little store, they would argue over one thing or another with a friend in the rough, craggy Pushto that they spoke, occassionally reaching over and pushing his friend in jest, cracking jokes, speaking of things unintelligible, completely ignoring customers who idly fingered their wares before moving on.

Well, all this is going to be history very soon. 3rd March was the last day of the Old Souq, as everyone packed their stuff up and made way for the glittering new multibillion-dirham complex that is to be built in its place. Almost as a harbinger of its fall, a fire destroyed a section of the Souq some time in early 2003, and now the final nail has been hammered onto its coffin.

There's something romantic about the past that we grew up in. There's something fundamentally about us, as humans, that resists change. Attending a tutorial a few days ago regarding information that can be gathered from art pieces and the dubiousness of such sources because of artistic embellishment and even more dangerous, omission, it was apparent that landscape painters exhibit this fundamental desire to resist change very poignantly by leaving out modern structures as much as possible in their works.

It is very true, though. I feel that globalization is ruining all sense of originality from the world; cultures are being consumed. Very little is surviving. Maybe many generations from today, people will look back at this era and look at it as one of mass-homogenization.

Friday, March 04, 2005

Disney's "The Hunchback of Notre Dame" Opening Sequence

Most Disney adaptations are eyesores compared to their source materials. Replete with fundamental story differences and childish embellishments, complete with the almost-mandatory comic-relief sidekick, it may have been a good thing they finally dissolved their traditional animation division last year.

However, elements of these adaptations do shine through the commercial money-making machine that Disney animations had become. One such masterpieces was found, I believe, in the opening sequence of "The Hunchback of Notre Dame." I think it has to be one of the most powerful musical introductions I've ever seen on screen, up there with Tim Burton's "The Nightmare Before Christmas".

It's not just the style of the telling of the story in music that I enjoyed very much, but the heavy cultural themes they put in. Traditional choral elements rang heavy through the entire sequence, adulterated to good effect by Hollywood-typecast heavy instruments. What I especially liked was the choral Latin lyrics, whose meaning I discovered only after a brief Google.

Sheikh Hamza Yusuf mentions such a thing about ancient languages, how they ring in the ear and "feel" more powerful than modern languages. I completely agree, and I find such languages as Latin and Hebrew and Classical Arabic absolutely astounding in their beauty and tremendous ability to resonate with the soul, even when one barely understands what it says.

As such, I paste here, what I believe to be among the best opening musical sequences dedicated to storytelling I have ever seen. It would be through great inspiration and talent that any individual can reproduce such an effect on a listener, should one ever wish to embark upon such a task:

Clopin: 
Morning in Paris, the city awakes
To the bells of Notre Dame
The fisherman fishes, the bakerman bakes
To the bells of Notre Dame
To the big bells as loud as the thunder
To the little bells soft as a psalm
And some say the soul of the city's
The toll of the bells
The bells of Notre Dame

Listen, they're beautiful, no?
So many colors of sound, so many changing moods
Because you know, they don't ring all by themselves
- They don't? -
No, silly boy.
Up there, high, high in the dark bell tower
lives the mysterious bell ringer.
Who is this creature - Who? -
What is he? - What? -
How did he come to be there - How? -
Hush, and Clopin will tell you
It is a tale, a tale of a man and a monster.

Dark was the night when our tale was begun
On the docks near Notre Dame

Man #1: 
Shup it up, will you!

Man #2: 
We'll be spotted!

Gypsy: 
Hush, little one.

Clopin: 
Four frightened gypsies slid silently under
The docks near Notre Dame

Man #3: 
Four guilders for safe passage into Paris

Clopin: 
But a trap had been laid for the gypsies
And they gazed up in fear and alarm
At a figure whose clutches
Were iron as much as the bells

Man #4: 
Judge Claude Frollo

Clopin: 
The bells of Notre Dame

Chorus: 
Kyrie Eleison (Latin: Lord have mercy)

Clopin: 
Judge Claude Frollo longed
To purge the world
Of vice and sin

Chorus: 
Kyrie Eleison (Lord have mercy)

Clopin: 
And he saw corruption
Ev'rywhere
Except within

Frollo: 
Bring these gypsy vermin to the palace of justice

Guard: 
You there, what are you hiding?

Frollo: 
Stolen goods, no doubt. Take them from her

Clopin: 
She ran

Chorus: 
Dies irae, dies illa (Day of wrath, that day)
Solvet saeclum in favilla (Shall consume the world in ashes)
Teste David cum sibylla (As prophesied by David and the sibyl)
Quantus tremor est futurus (What trembling is to be)
Quando Judex est venturus (When the Judge is come)

Gypsy: 
Sanctuary, please give us sanctuary

Frollo: 
A baby? A monster!

Archdeacon: 
Stop!

Clopin: 
Cried the Archdeacon

Frollo: 
This is an unholy deamon.
I'm sending it back to hell, where it belongs.

Archdeacon: 
See there the innocent blood you have spilt
On the steps of Notre Dame

Frollo: 
I am guiltless. She ran, I pursued.

Archdeacon: 
Now you would add this child's blood to your guilt
On the steps of Notre Dame

Frollo: 
My conscience is clear

Archdeacon: 
You can lie to yourself and your minions
You can claim that you haven't a qualm
But you never can run from
Nor hide what you've done from the eyes
The very eyes of Notre Dame

Chorus: 
Kyrie Eleison (Lord have mercy)

Clopin: 
And for one time in his live
Of power and control

Chorus: 
Kyrie Eleison (Lord have mercy)

Clopin: 
Frollo felt a twinge of fear
For his immortal soul

Frollo: 
What must I do?

Archdeacon: 
Care for the child, and raise it as your own

Frollo: 
What? I'd be settled with this misshapen ..?
Very well. Let him live with you, in your church.

Archdeacon: 
Live here? Where?

Frollo: 
Anywhere
Just so he's kept locked away
Where no one else can see
The bell tower, perhaps
And who knows, our Lord works in mysterious ways
Even this foul creature may
Yet prove one day to be
Of use to me

Clopin: 
And Frollo gave the child a cruel name
A name that means half-formed, Quasimodo
Now here is a riddle to guess if you can
Sing the bells of Notre Dame
Who is the monster and who is the man?

Clopin and Chorus: 
Sing the bells, bells, bells, bells
Bells, bells, bells, bells
Bells of Notre Dame


A minor note: the voice of the archdeacon is actually David Ogden-Stiers. Don't remember him? Major Charles Emerson Winchester, from M*A*S*H!

Sunday, February 27, 2005

"No!" to the Mechanization of Education

My nostalgia for my old school years runs very deep, reflected very poignantly by a weblog dedicated to that very topic: My Years In Choueifat. Very obvious from the contents of the weblog, my experiences there were rather traumatic. Despite this, our famous regional director, Mr. Germanos (who I renamed in that blog as Mr. Hollandos) insisted that once we went to university, we would be grateful for everything the school did for us.

I've had more than one friend who has done exactly that: they told me that everything the school did for us helped us a lot. Yes, it is true, actually, that I can recall the equation for power as a function of electric current and resistance at will, although I cannot recall to any considerable extent the fundamental concepts of the Michaelis-Menton equation from first-year Biochemistry. However, I still insist, I don't think I have the school to thank for that. No, I wouldn't thank the school at all.

There's something intrinsically learnable, if there is such a word, about a setting where a class of maximum 30 people who all know each other, sit together and put on freeze all social relations and for almost an hour, without talking to each other, sit and listen to someone draw on a blackboard and construct from scratch seminal theories of mathematics, science or whatever topic. Literally, from a blank green board, everything from Einstein's Special Theory of Relativity to allegorical analyses of Shakespeare's Macbeth comes to life.

The traditional blackboard method introduces information from a logical progression. It starts from a clean slate, and progresses as quickly as is needed to teach fundamental topics and advanced constructs in a very effective way. As such, after 2 years of university education, I am sick to death of endless powerpoint slides, ridiculously distracting speaker systems and class sizes of upwards of 350 people.

I say no to powerpoint slides, to microphones and lecture theatres with capacities of anything above 40. This impersonal and dessecated version of teaching and acquiring knowledge and information is destroying what passion there is to be had in such a pursuit. It is to downgrade ourselves from milk and meat, to the mundanity of bread and butter.

I am now moving well into the end of my second year at university, and not only do I not know any of my teachers, I know but a handful of my classmates, and I can barely remember anything I learnt in first year.

The mass-production of university graduates in my field (Life Sciences) at our university (National University of Singapore) is an unfortunate black hole into which I am now irreversibly committed. Increasingly, as time goes by, I find myself growing fonder and fonder of the thought of being under the nose of a cantankerous Chemistry teacher, ready to pounce on my illiterate self like a lioness upon her prey.

In conclusion, this reflects greatly the confusion between means and ends. These technologies are but means to serve the end of education, and there are but many means. To consign oneself without thought or hindsight to any mean is to make it an end. My school was such a one, forcing us to learn kinematics via webcast, from a teacher who was in Dubai, over the internet. I never liked it, and struggled through it, and here I find myself back in the same pit. All over again.

Thursday, February 24, 2005

Stephen King: His Stories, His Success, and His Advice

Stephen King doesn't count among my popularly rated authors. In fact, he's down there with absolutely nobody else, because I enjoy the works of all the other authors I have read (except, perhaps, for Robert Jordan). Reading is more a holistic experience than a linear task. Keeping that in mind, Stephen King's wonderful stories continue to astound me in their genius, and his endings continue to incense me.

His writing style has nothing spectacular in it, he uses common parlance, which is probably a good thing, because he's a bestselling author God knows how many times. It's not usually his writing style that I have a qualm with anyway, despite its mediocrity, but his endings. I've read two of his books: The Stand, Complete and Uncut, and The Eyes of the Dragon. I have also watched three of his stories adapted to movies: The Shining, directed by Stanley Kubrik, The Green Mile, directed by Frank Darabont, and Dreamcatcher, directed by Lawrence Kasdan.

Needless to say his stories are scary, and they are also very nicely developed. The Stand, all 1200 pages of which I read with great ease was a wonderfully gripping novel about a post-apocalyptic Earth (something I had been fanasizing about a lot since childhood), populated by a select but polarised (between good and evil) population that survived a genetically-enhanced disease outbreak by random selection. All the evil people go to the West Coast of the United States, and all the good people go to the East Coast (there's no point moaning about taking the United States to be the centre of the world, he's an American novelist, let's cut him some slack).

The story itself was brilliantly developed, if I may say so myself. In "The Stand," he introduces minor characters halfway through the story for several pages at a time, and then kills them in a most untimely manner, which offers a level of realism and tragedy to the whole post-apocalyptic scenario. He also develops some of the greatest and finest protagonists and anti-heroes I have come across in stories. My one qualm, however, are his endings. He seems insistent on not letting his villains die proper deaths.

Spoilers Ahead. At the end of the Stand, the story effectively ends by one of Randal Flagg's (the villain) own cronies, who happens to be a pyromaniac, blowing him up with a nuclear weapon that Flagg assigns him to find, for the final showdown with the GoodGuys. However, it seemed the ending wasn't sufficient for King, and the story terminates with a scene with Randal Flagg somewhere in the Caribbean or some African island with torn clothes, and black people worshipping him. This ridiculous and anti-climactic ending is consummated, to no good effect, with an illustration.

I figured I would give Stephen King a second chance, and so I read “The Eyes of the Dragon.” Well, what do you know? It's a villain with uncannily the same characteristics as Flagg, and again the villain does not die, but gets recycled into another realm, where the main characters go for a final showdown.

I have been informed by a Stephen King aficionado that apparently, that particular villain appears in several of Stephen King's novels, and that he plays a much grander role than what is implied in the two books of his that I read. I suppose I can respect the concept of having a character that seems to transcend between a modern-era, 20th century novel (The Stand) and a fantasy-style, almost Tolkien-esque prehistoric, mythological setting in the Eyes of the Dragon. However, to add such an ingredient into your storytelling at the expense of the finality a reader is to experience by finishing a book is not very wise.

In addition to not liking the endings of his stories, despite liking their story development, the movies adapted in his name are also sorry excuses for films. Stanley Kubrik's "The Shining" is counted among the top scariest films ever created, but I must absolutely and completely disagree. The film itself is missing something very fundamental: a story. Of course my main beef here is with Stanley Kubrik and not with Stephen King, so I will leave it at that. Dreamcatcher, another film adaptation was also a complete disappointment.

The problem I have with Stephen King is actually his talent. He has an uncanny ability at developing characters that are such marvelous pieces of fiction, you can't help but fall in love with them. The potency of his character design is so strong, I believe it blooms through, even in the sorry excuses for movies that come out in his name, like Dreamcatcher. Here is a movie with a beginning so grand, you expect something you will remember for years. Yet, by the end of the film, you find yourself lamenting the waste of 2 hours of your life to watch a story that has no deeper meaning beyond parasitic aliens killing their human hosts and crawling out of their anal pores. I find that not only unacceptable, but unforgivable!

One adaptation I find very much redeeming to Stephen King is The Green Mile, which I believe is a brilliant and touching movie about a big, seemingly mentally retarded Black slave, accused of raping and murdering two young girls. Although the message he was hitting for is somewhat lost on my Muslim psyche, the movie was well-executed, and it managed to pull the Hollywood trick of making you feel deeply for something that could be seen as somewhat superficial.

A recurring theme I find in Stephen King's books is one of holding secrets within mentally retarded people or children. In "The Shining," it was Danny, the child with his little finger friend who seemed to somehow know his father would go mad and attack him and his mother. In "The Stand," it was Thomas, who is one of the main heroes and one of the few that survive till the end, and he was completely mentally retarded. In "Dreamcatcher," it was Duddits, the one who saves the day by killing the aliens, and in "The Green Mile" it was John Coffey, the imposing gentle giant with a magical ability to heal and read minds. Quite interesting, really, but it gets old.

In any case, regardless of the misgivings I may have with his style of storytelling (and the fact that my familiarity with his works rest on two books and three movie adaptations), he is counted as probably the most successful American author in history. As such, when I came across an article titled "Everything You Need to Know About Writing Successfully: in Ten Minutes," I took notice.

He gives some nice pointers. The fact that his stories don't agree with me should, I guess, in no way interfere with what he perceives to be how he got where he got, since nobody can deny, he's a bestselling author.

As for me, I've given up on reading what Stephen King calls "the literary equivalent of a Big Mac and fries": Stephen King, Tom Clancy, Sidney Sheldon, et alii.

Home Sweet Home

An all-encompassing digital beep woke him. "Cabin crew, landing in five minutes," a muffled voice said incredibly fast. He was surprised he could understand what it said at all.

He looked at his watch: 2.30am. Rather late. Mentally, he corrected himself. No, it's only 12.30am, his watch was fast by exactly 2 hours. Ah, the wonders of the modern age, the world is round, and so it isn't the same time everywhere.

Inwardly, he thanked God for getting him this far. Two days ago, it seemed an utter impossibility that he would be here. A room, worn-in by 4 months of habitation to be packed, a set of muscles atrophied by a month of exams, unfit for physical labor to be used to carry cartons full of books to storage, and a mind ravaged by the stress of studies, to be relaxed by the imminent joy, it seemed an insurmountable task for him to have come this far. It seemed the adrenaline of possibility was made all the more potent by the inherent fear of unfulfilment of expectations harbored for so long.

Slowly, he reached under his seat to find his seat belt, as the Fasten Your Seat Belt sign went up, punctuated by a muffled beep. He looked around him. Everyone seemed tired, yet expectant. He lay back and closed his eyes; this was a cakewalk. He had done it so many times before, it had become a matter of routine.

Yet in all the 4 months between leaving and returning, this moment, as clich├ęd as it had become by repetition over the years, held special meaning. The feeling of anticipation was a special one, and he knew it. He opened his eyes slowly, and turned his head toward the small porthole in the cabin, his head firmly set on the headrest. He looked out at absolute blackness.

The aircraft banked to the right, and a star of artificial lights filled the view of the small porthole. Silently, he praised God, for
teaching man that which he knew not, that they may illuminate the darkness, make day of that which was night. He marveled at what he thought was humanity's greatest accomplishment and possibly its undoing: technology.

His reverie was broken by the anticipation that swelled up within him, fighting for his attention. Now is not the time to admire or introspect, now is the time to palpitate. With all his might, he tried to hold that thought, the anticipation. The expectance of something greater, the desire for something bigger overwhelmed him as he closed back his eyes and shut out the world around him. If he were given a choice to hold a moment, and to be held in that moment for the longest time, he would choose this one. The uncertainty of expectation and possibility, and the certainty of past record and experience bubbled within him, fighting for supremacy.

After what seemed a long while, the plane jumped up and down as she touched her mother's bosom; land at last! He closed his eyes again, as a man looked at him. "Look hard, dear friend," he thought to himself. "Not everyday do you see a man sleep through a landing as rough as today's." The engines went on reverse thrust, and all sense of hearing was bleached with the bass rumble of the mighty engines that propelled this steel beast that carried him across the sea. Mentally he made a note to remember this awful excuse for a pilot for landing so harshly.

A ripple of clicks filled the air as passengers unbuckled their seatbelts, almost in unison. Again, he wondered at the marvels of herd behaviour. Despite his efforts, he could never recall unbuckling his seat belt so noisily or so soon after the engines stopped the unbearable reverse-thrust, yet every time when the plane landed, he heard them. He cleared this thought from his head, inwardly chastising himself on over-analysis of the world.

The airhostess proceeded to recite the instructions pertaining to ticket reconfirmation and the decorum of staying seated until the aircraft came to a complete standstill. First in beautiful Bengali, then in mangled English.

Shortly, he noticed people standing up, retrieving their luggage from the overhead racks. He sat still. From the view outside, the aircraft was still only halfway through taxi. The terminal was a far way off according to his calculations.

A mind-numbing hour went by as he disembarked from the plane, got his passport stamped by manically depressed, disgruntled immigration officers, and retrieved his luggage. Retrieving luggage from this airport was always a charm. Yelps and screams cut through the late night air as corrupt officers told off equally corrupt laborers to go easy on the baggage, and the conveyor belt squeaked its futile squeak, unheard by whatever semblance of maintenance engineers walked the hallowed terminals of this airport.

His heart beat like the drum of a Dragon Boat, rhythmic, intense and unforgiving, as he approached the automatic doors opening up to the humid air of Bangladesh. A whiff of particulates and noxious gases from natural-gas and petrol engines assaulted his olfactory senses as he looked upon a familiar sight: his mother, craning her neck, looking right past him. She was looking for someone plumper, more clean-shaved and with shorter hair. How he loved this part.

His father recognized him, though. Being the engineer he always was, he always anticipated the longer hair and acute weight-loss. Putting the trolley aside, the boy knowingly smiled back at his father, and ambushed his mother with a bearhug before she could properly lay eyes on this sorry excuse for a man she once bore for 9 straight months so many years ago.

She protested, but he refused to let go. He looked up behind his mother where his brother stood, only one of two precious gems for siblings that he had. "Not the whole set tonight," he thought to himself, "but this will have to do…" as he praised God with every drop of his soul. He was home.

Sunday, February 13, 2005

A Cowardly New World

Idex stands for International Defence Exhibition, and the United Arab Emirates hosts one such exhibition every year. This year's exhibition is said to be the largest of its kind in the world, according to this article titled "Idex is 'testimony to our capabilities'" in Gulf News. Capabilities, eh?

Capabilities, perhaps, to organize meetings after major terrorist events and beg the United States not to invade you? To stand around and scratch your beards and say "Hmm, no, don't invade Iraq, it's better if you don't..." and then let them invade anyway? Impressive!

Well, some situations are better understood if one takes into consideration the context. Well, here's the context: Curtain Falls on Shopping Festival. Yup, that sure flashes a floodlight on the issue. Smack on the dot.

Meanwhile, the rest of the world says the Arab and Muslim world lacks leadership, time and time again. It's a hard and fast rule: Muslims are a decapitated community. Refer to Link TV - Who Speaks for Islam? - with Shaykh Hamza Yusuf... - Streams. As this is discussed, editorials couldn't be more insightful!

In the editorial of 13th February, 2005, the editor, while frothing at the mouth praising General Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al Maktoum, says finally and once again a brilliant and prolific Arab leader, spearheading the cause of the moderate world at large, points out what nobody before has known: bringing about a solution to Palestine should put a dent into terrorism. Absolutely mind-boggling.

General Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid is famous (infamous) for hiring dirt-cheap labour from the Indian sub-continent to work on risky projects like his famed Burj Al Arab, the tallest 7-star hotel on the planet (something to boast about for the desert Arab), where worker death tolls were unacceptably high and compensation unacceptably non-existent. Yes, the same General Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid whose legendary "vision" and influence in the UAE Supreme Council oversees systematic discrimination against people of third-world origin for people of first-world origin, regardless of degree or experience ("Forget the Experience. It's the Passport that Counts!").

Monday, January 31, 2005

Untitled Short Story

This short story was adapted from Islamic Voice.com's Children's Page. The original version can be found here under the title "Charity Never Decreases a Person's Wealth."

Fareed stepped out of the mosque and recited the remembrance of departure: "O Lord, I ask You for Your favor, O Lord, guard me from Satan the Outcast," a century and a half-old tradition of the faithful.

As he put on his sandles, he saw a beggar by his car, badgering passers-by. The beggar was bald and sported a lengthy beard. He was clad in haggard and dirty attire, and Fareed wondered for a moment how he could wear such unseemly clothes. From his face, Fareed could tell the man was no more than 40, yet he was hunched over and quivering. "A professional," he thought to himself.

As he approached the car, the beggar intercepted him. "Please, my son. For the sake of God!" the beggar recited with a quivering voice. Fareed walked past without flinching, and the beggar matched him stride for stride despite his hunch and quiver.

Fareed unlocked the car and paused for a moment. As though restraining himself, with a stiff jaw he said the first thing that came into his mind: "God will provide."

On hearing this, the beggar stopped shaking. Fareed got into the car and pulled down the window for a breath of air.

The beggar frowned, his eyes downcast. He spoke softly, almost to himself: "I did not take you as my Provider. I have never denied God..." His voice trailed off.

Fareed looked at the beggar through the windshield as he backed off. The man's quivering had stopped, and from what Fareed could see, his eyes seemed dark, as deep pools of red. Fareed quickly changed gears and drove away.

The beggar stood there, motionless on the sidewalk. For many years he went about his business, but never once did he think of how his actions reflected on himself. He never questioned his faith for he never dug that deep, but upon having to assert his faith in defense, he felt a sickly sense of dishonesty in his soul, as a layer of oil on a clear pool of water. His words of defense came as mere prattling of his tongue; his heart did not resonate, and he felt an aching emptiness within. He realized then, that all his life he had taken as Lord those who were slaves. He could not honestly say that he hadn't denied God.

As the beggar stood there thinking, a little girl, minding her father's biscuit shop by the parking lot saw what happened. Digging into her pocket, she took out a dirham coin and handed it to the beggar as he passed by, walking stiffly. The beggar held the money and paused for a moment. Hints of a smile crossed his face as he put his hand on her head.

"You pay me, yet I did not ask," he said. The little girl smiled up at him. The beggar was too ashamed for prayer, but he cast concern for himself aside for once, and made a most private and hearty supplication for the girl as he turned the corner. It was his sincerest request in years.

As Fareed was about to turn into the main road, he was introspective. "I did not pay the man," he thought to himself, "because he was a professional beggar. He is young, yet he shivers with age. What hypocrisy!" He was trying to reconcile what he thought to be an awful thing to do, to refuse a beggar.

Fareed made it a point never to pay professional beggars, and he maintained this with great difficulty. He was a very sentimental and charitable young man, but he decided not to as a matter of principle, for to patronize their trade is to encourage it, and they are a hindrance and an unseemly sight, feeding on the pity of others.

Despite the cold, hard facts, he could not forget the man's eyes now, and he knew he would have trouble coming to terms with ignoring him like that. "Oh, just this once,"he thought to himself. He parked the car in front of a house by the road, and walked back to the parking lot a short distance away as he pulled out a ten-dirham note from his wallet.

When he got there, the lot was empty. The mosque too was abandoned, for prayer time was over. Soft melodies of recitations of the Qur'an emanated from within the mosque, but from without, it was desolate. His eyes came upon a little girl minding a small biscuit shop on the sidewalk.

Not willing to put the money back in his pocket once he had decided on giving it to charity, he gave the ten-dirham note to the little girl who had just paid the beggar one dirham, and quietly walked away.

Thursday, January 27, 2005

An Encounter with Sheikh Abdul Hakim Murad

The following is a retelling of an incident that happened in Singapore, circa August, 2003.

Everything felt different. The sites and sounds were different. The smells were different. People looked different. They dressed different, they talked different. I had an embarrassing time conversing with them, for their English was mutilated almost to a point of incomprehension.

This was Singapore. Yet among the chaos of contrast and novelty, there were glimmers of familiarity. An extremely helpful Malay Singaporean senior, and some supremely brilliant young Pakistani gentlemen, one of whom was from Sharjah; a common background at last!

So they told me a man came to Singapore. A scholar of particular eminence. It was but the second week of classes, and all the freshmen (except myself) were giddy from orientation and other such activities I chose not to partake in. I had nothing to do and was perfectly healthy, so I was game.

Rashid, a friend of my heart who hailed from Sharjah, gave me his wireless SBS transit card, which I still haven't returned. Him and Babar, a Lahore'i Pakistani senior, an astoundingly hospitable and friendly chap for whom I have only the utmost respect and praises, accompanied me. Rather, I accompanied them. We went, us merry band of Mawzlim fundamentalists to a talk at a place called Darul Arqam, somewhere in the depths of Singapore.

Darul Arqam is a place of shelter and education for Muslim converts in Singapore. It has been praised by Sheikh Nuh Keller himself, as he remarked, to the best of my memory:

"I have the utmost respect for this institution and anyone attached to it, because I can relate personally. When I became a Muslim, there was nothing like this in Los Angeles... and there still isn't."

Steps at the outer entrance lead to a glass door, revealing a grand, wooden entrance hall with a stairway at the centre leading to the second floor. Beyond the stairway were chairs and a projector screen set up at the far end; they had been anticipating a crowd of exceptional numbers. On both sides, fogged glass and wood decorated the walls.

We sat at the bottom of the stairs, us merry band. That lasted for about five minutes when we decided perhaps we could sit on the floor just ahead of the first row, not to disturb anyone else but still garner the best seats in the house. An up-close and impersonal view at a projector screen beaming a saturated, over-contrasted image, with a speaker that shrilled and shrieked.

An emaciated, tall man with a cream-colored shirt confronted us on the projector screen. I was a bit disappointed, since I thought this was going to be a "live" talk. I wanted to see a man, and it seemed I had come all this way to watch television.

He had a small goatee and was wearing a tie, along with a Muslim skull cap. It seemed a rather strange combination at first, but I thought let's give him a listen before judging his sense in fashion.

He spoke with a most refined British accent, but after getting the drift of his talk, his accent was the last thing I could pay attention to.

I have grown weary over the years of frothing-at-the-mouth scholars, their hearts riddled with hatred and bitterness, offering challenges to our "enemies" in all lands across the world, yelling into the microphone as if we were deaf, disrespecting our women and shielding their perversion behind Prophetic candidness by quoting Ahadith pertaining to matters more suited to private discussion, so I wasn't expecting much. I was, at first, reluctant to come at all, but something in me told me that I had nothing to do, so I might as well go.

My heart did not betray me that day. This man in his strange combination of skull cap, goatee and tie began speaking in Arabic. He quoted beautiful verses from the Qur'an, first in Arabic and then their on-the-spot translation. This man was learned; he knew what he was talking about, although he was clearly a white Englishman. But then he spoke Farsi. My ears shot up. He spoke of Mevlana Jalaluddin Rumi as insightful and intelligent. He spoke of love and of unity with the Divine. He spoke of a world I had long since forgotten, a world of both good and evil, but one of beauty and affection, amidst the sorrow and pain.

The talk ended, and my eyes were radiating with noor, such was the insight he offered. A young man with a thick Singaporean accent went on to mutilate/summarize the talk, and offer people a chance for Q&A.

"Thank you Sheikh Abdul Hakim Murad..."

"What?" I said to myself. "That was Sheikh Abdul Hakim Murad? The Abdul Hakim Murad? They have a videotape of him here?!"

I told Rashid that I knew of this man. I had read his writings for years now. But disctracted, Rashid lead me away. He wanted to get a better view. One of the wooden panels on the walls opened up to a very small hallway with an elevated recording studio, and then what seemed like an auditorium through a door on the right. I thought to myself, "Yet another projector, but they probably had better speakers than we did."

Rashid went in, but I stayed in the small hallway, choosing not to venture into the small auditorium, which sounded like it was packed. Someone asked a question, and Sheikh Murad answered satisfactorily, no doubt. By this point, I had totally forgotten the contents and subject matter of his talk and was trying to come to grips with the fact that the man I had been listening to for the last hour was Sheikh Abdul Hakim Murad, of Cambridge University!

Just as I began to realise what had just happened, I heard Rashid on the loudspeaker. "What?" I told myself. I peered into the auditorium, and there sitting on a table, a bottle of mineral water and a glass in front of him, sat Sheikh Abdul Hakim Murad, in the flesh, Rashid at the microphone, asking a really good question, no doubt.

I wouldn't know, of course, because I immediately withdrew, such was my astonishment. Biting my knuckles and suppressing a great yawp of childish fervor, I focused on coming to grips with the fact that I was almost in the same room with Sheikh Murad. Sheikh Abdul Hakim Murad! I was breathing the same air he was breathing! By God in Heaven, what fate!

Fan-boy excitement coursed through me and I marveled at the experience while trying to come to grips with the facts that confronted me. "So this is what it's like to be in the presence of a celebrity!"

Viciously, I suppressed myself. "What are you doing, you pubescent fool! This is a Sheikh, not a movie star!" I stood there, in the small hallway with the adjacent recording centre, gasping for breath. I dared not look back into that auditorium and feast on the view that would be Sheikh Murad in the flesh. I did so a few times, however, while biting down on my knuckles after I withdrew, to control the fresh flow of energy that coursed through me.

He exited the auditorium into the entrance hall where we watched the video broadcast, and a bunch of Malay youth, trained in the refineries of Sufi reverence, shook and kissed his hand. I stood from a distance, shaking my friend Rashid at regular intervals when the reality of the situation dawned on me anew for the umpteenth time. He irked me to go and meet him, and offer my Salaam. But I did not, for I saw he was surrounded from every direction. I would give this brilliant man some respite from my fan fervor, which might well overwhelm all my senses of propriety should I stand in his presence, or perhaps cause my legs to give way.

Sheikh Abdul Hakim Murad, whose articles I read over and over for their genius, whose URLs I passed to friends and family, whose wisdom and linguistic prowess I couldn't aspire to if I studied ten lifetimes! I was in the same building as him! It took me the entirety of the bus ride back to campus to come to terms with what had just unfolded.

Skull cap, goatee and tie indeed. Sheikh Murad can wear whatever he likes!

Sunday, January 23, 2005

Education in the GCC Region

Most new states come from very humble beginnings, but they usually do have centres of learning that date back to colonial times. Whether good or bad, it does give an institute a foundation to work from, but the Middle East (i.e., GCC states: Bahrain, Kuwait, Qatar, Oman, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates) doesn't seem to have many universities that date back to any time before the 70s.

One look at the Yahoo! Directory for colleges and universities in the GCC reveals a rather emaciated list of universities. All GCC states combined yield 50 entries in the Yahoo! Directory, of which 31 are in the United Arab Emirates. Bangladesh has more entries than Bahrain, Kuwait, Qatar, Oman and Saudi Arabia combined, and Pakistan has more than all of the GCC, source of almost half of the world's oil.

Most research today is pushed forward by funding, and most institutes make their presence felt in the form of publications. Although pioneers of centuries past of most modern sciences, the Arabs have fallen behind miserably when it comes to education and knowledge, there is no question.

The universities that span the Middle East nowadays are not only immature in their age, but the majority that have been established in the past decade are focused almost entirely on the secular science of engineering. Particular attention seems to have been given to petroleum and chemical engineering, their life force, and to computer engineering, the current educational "fad." A fad in which they've also fallen behind, because the "in" thing nowadays is biotechnology. They can't even keep up with fads in the undergraduate scientific community, it seems. Nothing is given, even to the pure sciences! Not to Physics, Mathematics, Chemistry or Biology.

The disturbing trend is that not only are they doing a poor job of studying the sciences, no attention whatsoever is given to philosophy, literature or art. What courses they have in language is for vernacular Arabic to English translation, and not for academic purposes. The hospitability the Arab has been famous for over the ages is now exclusively for the Western passport holder, while his brothers wallow in poverty across Asia, their talents squandered no less than his own oil wealth. Stories remain untold, artists live unappreciated, books lay unread and forgotten, as an entire people, whose contribution was so crucial in the development of the world, remain grossly misunderstood.

They have ignored completely the broader sense of education, and have narrowed it down to a cash-machine; something in which you put money in, and after some time, it spits money back out. Everything has to be profitable in accounting terms, everything worth it's while on the calculator. Their desert frugality seems sorely misplaced.

Of Miracles and Corruption: The Indian Ocean Tsunami

Thanks to brother Pathawi, who offered his editorial insights to refine this article.

The massive tsunami in the Indian Ocean has shaken the world in more than one way. The tremendous loss of human life is literally incomprehensible. It is difficult to come to terms with one death. Extend the grief to ten, the size of a family and some close relatives. Extend it to 175,000, and the imagination is stretched to a point where it throws in the towel. The number no longer registers and media desensitization kicks in.

In these moments of grieving and sadness, shimmers of light shine upon the afflicted and the homeless. The vagaries and pettiness of politics are discarded for a brief moment, and billions in food and aid money has at least averted deaths from starvation.

And from among the rubble, fantastic tales of survival and hope emerge. From children holding on to palm trees to old men lying under rubble for days to be rescued at the eleventh hour. Though it is difficult to find consolation from these stories despite the thousands dead, these tales, marred as they are with tragedy and gloom, offer hope. It is in the apparent randomness and selectivity of fate that veterans of war, and survivors of calamities in the face of insurmountable odds, become superstitious or attribute their survival to higher forces.

But rationalism, although inadequate on its own, aids a lot in gleaning insights into the prevailing human condition during times of disaster. Consider, for example, that although ancient structures such as statues of Buddhas in Sri Lanka and mosques in Aceh remain standing, many modern structures have been swept away. Some here will argue that although some ancient structures remain, many were indeed destroyed, and although some modern structures were razed, many do stand.

That may be true, but one must pose the question: surely no ancient structure can outlast a modern structure in technical proficiency, yet there are cases where the exception in devastation is a single mosque, standing in the midst of rubble and desolation. Something is amiss.

The religious will attribute it to divine origin, and say that God is angry, and though sparing His own houses, has sent down destruction upon the astray, to teach them a lesson. But what does it all mean?

The systematic blasting of coral reefs in the Indian Ocean and the Bay of Bengal did not mitigate in the least the tsunami’s fury. They were effectively dynamited through to allow large ships to pass and allow for the trade of scrap and clothes on which the region survives. Coral reefs, apart from being cradles of life far greater in number than the entire human race combined, have been known to alleviate the effects of tsunamis and tidal waves. The damage of this natural force was further compounded by the destruction of mangroves that used to line the coastlines, now cleared for residential areas bearing the people that so tragically perished.

What is more tragic is that Tsunami Warning Centre in Hawaii could not warn the countries nearest to the tsunami because bureaucracies had not yet established proper protocols for the dissemination of such information. It did, however, warn the Pacific Islands, where disaster warning systems were in place, but those regions were barely affected. Had it been a cyclone instead of a tsunami the protocols were established for Indian Ocean nations to be warned, and a warning would have been sent out. Solely because it was a tsunami, the lines were silent, and the absurdity of bureaucracy bloomed in all its glory that fateful day. If God is truly angry, perhaps we can’t quite blame Him.

The red-tape and corruption in these countries, apart from preventing warnings to come through, also causes structures to be built on flimsy foundations, not in line with proper specifications. Turkey became infamous for this, when in August of 1999 in Izmit, an earthquake killed 17,000 people. Had construction guidelines been followed, many lives would have been saved, but corrupt construction practices killed people in the thousands.

So when statues of Buddha or mosques and temples stay standing, perhaps their builders knew more about their land than we do. Perhaps they didn’t skim off the top in building materials to make a quick buck. And despite two millennia of progress, here we are, numb with grief, mourning the death of so many we can no longer comprehend the loss.

Finally, after the worst tsunami in recorded history (topped not even by the tsunami of 1400 BC that historical texts say killed 100,000), the United Nations is finally putting its foot down on the corrupt, graft-ridden, red tape-laden governments of the Indian Ocean region. A proper warning system should be up and running by June of 2006.

Labels

Blog Archive

About Me

My photo
Singapore
I write essays in my spare time on things that are important to me. The ones that I feel are any good, or make any sense, I put them up here. :)