Today’s dreams depend on tomorrow’s media

[Originally published on the Global Media Forum website, under the Youth Newsroom section in August of 2014]

Media’s role in driving development stressed at Bali Global Media Forum opening

With a strike of the Balinese gong, Indonesia’s Minister of Communication and Information Technologies Titaful Sembiring officially opened this morning’s Global Media Forum — a traditional opening for a three-day discussion on the role that the fast-changing media landscape will play in our collective future.

The forum aims to contribute to the ongoing international debate about the importance of media and information and communication technologies for peace and sustainable development. With its overarching theme of “The Role of Media in Realizing the Future We Want For All”, the forum will focus on the many ways media benefits development with the ultimate aim of including media as a standalone component of the Post-2015 Development Agenda.

In his opening remarks, Mr. Hubert Gijzen, Director and Representative of the UNESCO Jakarta Office, spoke of the widening gulf between societies that are resource-rich and those struggling with shortages. “The world we are living in today is alarmingly out of balance. This relates to the severe imbalance between people and planet Earth, as reflected in the concept of sustainable development. Equally worrisome is the serious imbalance among people.”

The media is crucial to meeting these challenges, said Mr Gijzen, as a lynchpin for intercultural dialogue, protection and promotion of human rights as well as upholding the values of sustainable development. However, he said that this viewpoint was not shared by all and when it comes to setting priorities to guide global development over the next 15 years, media may be left out unless those that recognize its value are vocal.

“It is not a given that full recognition of the media’s relevance will be captured in the final post-2015 Development Agenda. Therefore this forum will continue the discussions that started during the World Press Freedom Day Conference organized by UNESCO in Paris in May 2014.”

Arief Rachman, Executive Chairman of the Indonesian National Commission for UNESCO, put in perspective the role that media has played as a catalyst for unity and harmony in his country. “There are more than 17000 Islands in Indonesia, 783 languages and 5 major religions. We all still live peacefully. You know why? Media!”

Closing the ceremony, the Minister of Communication and Information Technologies spoke of the quintessential requirement of Indonesians to share information and knowledge, stating that “in Indonesia, we are drowning in information and therefore the people need to be made literate and empowered to access information so they can lead lives with sense of adequacy and decency.”

The country recently went to the polls to elect its new president in an emotionally charged election. “Indonesia, like the UN, now has a post transitional development agenda to complete. We are grateful that in our country, our media and the voice of the people have never been marginalized,” he said. “In fact, the media and the people now are in the driver’s seats of nation building.”

The contribution described by the Minister is one that the media can make in societies in which they are allowed to operate unhindered; and if the goal of this forum is realized, this could become a norm.

Written by – Rehmatullah Sheikh

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Carrying Eid from Middle East to Oxford of the East

Eid Food

[This article first appeared in Beyond The Underpass on September 25 2015]

Festivals are sewn in the fabric of our culture and religion. We celebrate them with the same community and at times even use it to bridge understanding between different ones. When moving places, we observe them either with a strong familiarity of the past, or sometimes with a hope to salvage whatever little remains of it.

To me, celebrating Eid in Dubai had a touch of placid monotony. I didn’t necessarily enjoy it as much as be content with it. The mandatory day off, exquisite sprawling mosques, people joining congregation prayers in large numbers, the quaint scent of freshly pressed traditional garments, and Biryani and sevaiya carefully crafted by the tireless hands of mother made Eid familiar and added to a reservoir of memory. It was something I would certainly long for after moving to Pune in India for my Undergraduate studies.

Some things were clearly amiss with my initial experience of Eid in India. There was little of the inexplicable peace of Ramadan that preceded Eid al Fitr (feast of breaking of the fast), and discussions of the Hajj pilgrimage that counted down to Eid Al Adha (the feast of sacrifice) were few. Our University followed a holiday printed on pre-decided calendars, completely missing the quintessential thrill of moon-sighting and last minute cliff hangers on whether or not Eid would be the next day. I remember writing an exam just an hour after the Eid prayer once. It was one of the toughest exams I had taken; after all it isn’t easy to be writing an Economics paper knowing that the opportunity cost of this moment would be a delicious feast with succulent meat and sugary treats. I tried to be content with what I had, an attitude not very different from that in Dubai.

By the end of third year, what lacked in Eid was filled with what I had never experienced from the comforts of Dubai. Never in my life did I find an audience more eager to know about my festivals than friends at college. Perhaps my cross-geography and cultural experience helped me with answers to thoughts that would otherwise be suspended in an air of misunderstandings and controversies. Attending classes during Eid meant that greetings were exchanged in person and not from couches over text messages. Moreover, festive meals were special with friends who may not have shared my faith, but were all united by the love for Biryani.

Pune gave me a glimpse of imagery that Eid’s essence stands for – a sense of communal affinity, little children dotting the streets with new wears and toys, and vendors selling perfume and kohl in little glass bottles. People of all ages and occupations thronged to the mosques and made-do with the little space available for synchronised prayers The inviting aroma of seekh kebabs on an open furnace immersed with the fragrance of perfume, giving you the best of both worlds. Quite a contrast to the casual urbanness and glitz of Dubai, Pune’s humble demonstration of a religious festival reminded me that Eid is not necessarily where the heart is, but where people co-exist and celebrate the little joys of life, where smiles and giggles are not entrapped in concrete walls, and where there’s a little lesson taught in harmony and joy.

This time when I removed my traditional garment for morning prayers in Dubai, I remembered it was the same as I had worn for my last Eid in Pune. Verily, lifestyles and our space of existence may change, but festivals are sewn in the fabric of culture, religion, and fond memories.

Adding Fuel To UAE’s Rising Costs? – An Expat View

[This article first appeared in Arabian Gazette on August 1 2015]

As new fuel prices in the UAE take effect from today, the expat view on rising costs resurfaces with a fresh context

UAE Fuel price rise adds to cost of living

This post first appeared as my article for Arabian Gazette. Click here for the original version

The United Arab Emirates recently lifted fuel subsidies, thereby deregulating its price and pegging them to the global level. Owing to the country’s cautious approach towards limited resources and its federal budget, the revision in policy has won the backing of credit rating agencies for the environment and economy alike. The revision in fuel prices will take effect from today at pumps across the UAE.

RELATED: Finally, UAE to end fuel subsidies

The low and controlled UAE fuel price had made us expats, especially Non-Resident Indians, the centre of jokes such as “you own an oil well in the backyard, don’t you?” Compared to my fellow countrymen who switch the ignition off at traffic lights and take to the streets at marginal increase in fuel price, we lead a cushioned life insulated from the vagaries of a bustling economy and a ‘full tank with fuller purse’. Or did we?

As an Indian growing up in the UAE with stories of struggle and dreams – some fulfilled and others falling short – this discourse is for the modestly salaried expat – a term I often use to depict a large, if not the largest portion of the 80% non-citizen population of the country fondly called home.

RELATED: UAE Fuel Subsidy Reform gets a thumbs up from Moody’s

Offsetting low fuel price

To argue that expats have reaped riches through controlled petrol prices is an extremely simplified one. In a YouGov survey conducted for The National newspaper in early 2015, around half of expats considered leaving the UAE due to high living costs.

According to the research –

When asked if they would consider moving away from the UAE because of the cost of living, 17 per cent said definitely yes while a further 33 percent said probably yes. Only 21 percent said no, while the rest were unsure.

According to the research manager  –

The majority of expatriates consider money and saving for the future as an important factor in moving to UAE. But the rising costs of living are increasingly holding them back from safeguarding the financial security they have been looking for, which makes moving out of the UAE a serious alternative.

Relief from paying extra for the fuel never obviated the stress caused by exorbitant amounts paid for house rent, utility bills and school fees, and the better part of a modestly salaried expat’s life is a testament to this.

Eking out a living vs living a life

“The cost of living in the area is increasing drastically which isn’t helpful at all.  Life’s becoming quite tough in the UAE generally … people are just surviving these days”

This was the response of a British expat to Gulf News on fuel deregulation. In the life of expats, some of the grave and at times humorous family ‘strategies’ feature a regular stream of cost-saving instructions from parents and similar talks from relatives in gatherings. In the metro rides too, conversations between my countrymen often drift into morose discussions of struggling with a low paying job and the ever-rising expenses. Reflecting on our lives in this country that has otherwise been a splendid host makes me question: have we really succeeded in living a life, or are we just eking out an existence? In a bid to prepare for the next bill, have we settled with mediocrity and the mundane instead of striving for a more fulfilling experience?

To their credit, the financial acumen of the expat generation that first set foot in the UAE laid the foundations for the ones to come. The country’s rapid advancement brought with it new opportunities for the expats, who – instead of splurging on short-lived pleasures – shared the fruits with their people here and back home. Their decision to stay on and serve the country without a real stake provided us with a safe environment – something our home-country provides in little supply. Though navigating through the deeper questions of identity and excellence is an individual challenge – and that deserves a commentary of its own – the opportunity cost paid by the community to live here is little if anything at all.

Counting the real cost

The cost of fuel subsidies does not just dent the federal budgets, but also contributes to negative externalities in the economy and the environment. Ms. Pranita Lele, a teacher of Economics and a resident of UAE for 12 years, says that all good economic policies are never populist policies.

Commenting on the new policy –

There will certainly be an effect on the budget but the impact can be controlled wisely.  Subsidies are never a long run solution for any good economy.  Petrol subsidies had to be removed sometime or the other, so this decision is not shocking at all. There will be long-term positive environmental impact and sustainable development is of paramount importance. Scarce resources have to be protected.

Mohit Purswani, a recent Engineering undergraduate whose father started off as a textile worker in Dubai in 1990, is already preparing to factor in budget tweaks in his first ever job. He sees in the new policy two opportunities that should drive the efforts of the government and its subjects –

I take public transport to work and I wouldn’t say it’s adequately prepared for the potential increase in commuters, especially during peak hours and in areas like Al Nahda where roads are clogged severely. Increased use of metro combined with efficient bus routes should play a key role in the post-deregulation times. One may also have fuel economy as one of their checkboxes when buying a car, which wasn’t of much importance in the UAE so far.
With this in mind, a nuanced criticism of this policy will be traversing a difficult path considering that benefits outweigh costs. A worthy attempt to tackle costs strongly in the UAE lies in a sector that pays immediate dividends and cannot be short-changed or substituted to cut corners.

Education – fuel for the mind

report by Emirates 24|7  shows that UAE is the most expensive for high school.

If we split it country-wise, private schools in the UAE are most expensive, with fees ranging from an average of $6,000 [Dh22,038] for Indian schools to $13,797 [Dh50,676] for British schools.

Previous studies highlight that most parents are unhappy about the fees that schools charge and some maintain that it is becoming difficult for them to keep up with the annual fee hikes.

Tagged with extra tuition fees, cost of books and other co-curricular activities, a child’s time in school alone chips off the elusive savings in large chunks.

Khalid Al Ameri, an Emirati social columnist and commentator, wrote this passionate piece on supporting the interests of the country for a better cause at some cost of our own. Just a day later, he authored a strongly worded article rightly questioning the motives of private educators in the country.

Schools owners and business leaders might think it is simply parents complaining and being tight on their expenses, but in reality it is the children who pay the ultimate price. They either have to settle for a sub par education, parents who are constantly stressed with ever growing costs that are yet to see a limit, or even being home schooled and never getting to experience life as a real student, making lifelong friends, supporting their school’s sports team, and being part of a wider community.

Exploitative practises in the education & knowledge sector can unite people of all spending power. Higher fuel costs may keep some cars off the road for the better, but higher tuition fees keep students off quality education – and that’s a grim thought to deal with. As expats grappling with the challenge of rising costs, our objections can be directed towards that which blatantly flouts moral fairness in transactions.

Education remains crucial for a healthy society and does not take a backseat in priority, be it that of the hosts or the home country. Urgency requires that stronger regulation for curtailing school fees be implemented so that it helps parents decide which school & curriculum the child will be a part of. Finally, an easier and economical access to good education is not an exclusive issue, but one that resonates with the local hosts and will garner their support too.

In the light of new developments, it’s possible that more expats may sweat it out in public transport to accommodate the valid needs of the host country. But in an effort to reap business rewards, let schools not forget that the ones who readily paid with sweat for the country may not always afford to pay with money.

World’s Oldest Qur’an – A Symbol of Modern Endeavour

This blog first appeared as my article in Arabian Gazette on July 26, 2015. Click here for the original version

The discovery of oldest Qur’an fragment in Birmingham is a moment of excitement and reflection for the modern Muslim world.

Oldest Quran revealed

The discovered fragment of Qur’an carries parts of three chapters

For the world’s 1.6 billion Muslims, Qur’an provides a rich experience of devotion and knowledge that has transcended languages & cultures. Touted as the world’s most memorized book, the Qur’an decks the homes of faithful, often closely combined with its exegesis authored by scholars who spent a lifetime understanding the nuances of what is believed to be the divine speech. A refuge of sorts for the believer, a comprehensive understanding of the book allows for the book to pour in wisdom at every pit-stop of the journey called life.

[pullquote]The leaves of parchment have been carbon-dated back 1,500 years – a time period that makes the object of discovery contemporaneous with Prophet Muhammed (PBUH)[/pullquote]

Much of the West’s interaction with the Qur’an is marked more by its content than the book itself. Speaking on the 9/11 attack, Hamza Yusuf – described by the New Yorker Magazine as most influential Islamic scholar in the Western world – said, “Islam was hijacked on that plane as an innocent victim.” The spate of attacks undertaken in the guise of Islamic legitimacy has stirred up a wave of tirade against the role of the holy book.

The majority moderate Muslims’ close-knit relationship with the book has been a fertile ground for condemnable acts that riled up emotions.  Perhaps the most infamous of them being a failed attempt by Pastor Terry Jones to incinerate the revered book.

SEE ALSO: Redefining the Fourth Estate –Snapchat’s #Mecca_Live

A leaf from history

The pages of the world’s oldest Qur’an recently discovered in Birmingham is a gratifying victory at best, and at the least, a consolation from the grim challenges of integration and other dire events for Muslims in the West.

The leaves of parchment have been carbon-dated back 1,500 years – a time period that makes the object of discovery contemporaneous with Prophet Muhammed (PBUH) – the living medium through whom the divine revelation reached the scribes and tribes at large.

“The person who actually wrote it could well have known the Prophet Muhammad. He would have seen him probably, he would maybe have heard him preach. He may have known him personally – and that really is quite a thought to conjure with.” – David Thomas, Professor of Christianity and Islam at Birmingham University.

On the question of how the historic folios emerged from here, Dr. Yasir Qadhi, a prominent Islamic cleric in America and professor at the Religious Studies Department of Rhodes College, had the following to say on his Facebook page

A fundamental tenet of Islam is the belief in its flawless preservation, and to the effect means that the devotional dimension of this find would remain largely unmoved. What breathes soul into the discovery is its context – incidentally a Qur’anic reality that eludes those who use the very same verses for sinister gains.

A symbol of modern endeavour

Two news-grabbing events collided with the discovery – David Cameron’s controversial Anti-Extremism Bill and a shooting range declared as ‘Muslim-free zone’ by a Florida gun-shop owner. While the first is considered as knee-jerk measures that risk disenfranchising Muslims further away from the social fabric, the latter casts a shadow of suspicion due to the misgivings of an isolated incident. Both cases hold a mirror to the challenges faced by Muslims in the West, and their continous struggle to reconcile their religious identity with secular beliefs.

In the discovery is a lesson for those who have debated the relevance of Islam in today’s age. Just like the fragments stood the test of time, Muslims are expected to inspire resillience against weathering challenges like the ones mentioned above. While the scholars of tomorrow are trained in the confines of a seminary in the Arab World, opportunities for engagment arise out of a University in UK. Our obsession with that which is literal and neglect of wisdom has taken conversation away from the divine speech to prime-time debates.

Taha - 2

In light of current challenges, this verse from Surah-Taha, Chapter 20, scribed on the parchment deserves reflection

The Hijazi script inked in the parchment is a reminder of the magnificence and beauty ingrained in the literary representation of Islam. It begs a reflection on the current state of the Islamic world – divine wisdom written and preserved for posterity is short-changed and perverted by agents of violence.

Like the fragments in the observatory room which represent the complete book, the diverse Muslim communities should aim to confidently represent what the faith ultimately stands for and unites us with. Just as any text scripted from ill-conceived fringes of the faith cannot pass as divine word, intolerance developed outside the folds of peace should not pass as being Muslim.

A thousand years from now, pages from another chapter of the Qur’an may emerge at a centre of learning. Reaffirming the authenticity, the question will not revolve around the text, but rather the spirit of the book observed by Muslims.

And it isn’t the historic, but Muslims in modern times that will have to be prepared with a response.

Redefining the Fourth Estate –Snapchat’s #Mecca_Live

This blog first appeared as my article in Arabian Gazette on July 21, 2015. Click here for the original version

Photo – Caren Firouz/Reuters

Photo – Caren Firouz/Reuters

To take a photograph is to participate in another person’s (or thing’s) mortality, vulnerability, mutability. Precisely by slicing out this moment and freezing it, all photographs testify to time’s relentless melt – Susan Sontag

On the 13th of July 2015, a sizeable chunk of the globe’s youth population, marked at more than a 100 million, witnessed live scenes from a part of the world that is also the birthplace of a popular yet widely misunderstood religion – Mecca (or Makkah) in Saudi Arabia. The date coincided with the 27th night of Ramadan – the most blessed night in the Islamic tradition, and a time where Muslims try and spend the bulk of the night in prayer and supplication. On this night, a staggering 2 million people were estimated to have been at the Grand Mosque, and they were joined by a proliferating Snapchat community through the media platform’s ‘Live Stories’ feature.

According to Snapchat’s website –

“Live Stories are a curated stream of user submitted Snaps from various locations and events. Users who have their location services on at the same event location will be given the option to contribute Snaps to the Live Story. The end result is a Story told from a community perspective with lots of different points view”

The Live Story from Mecca – couched in #Mecca_Live – did not just create points of view, but also broke existing ones. Pilgrimages to the heart of Saudi Arabia – the country home to Mecca – have exponentially risen in statistical feat over the years, often warranting massive expansion work to accommodate the numbers. What it was unable to capture so far for the global audience was the individual relationship of pilgrims with the place and the stories that a moment at Mecca can weave. Coming at the back of some controversy hours prior to #Mecca_Live went viral, this movement rose as the Muslim world’s rare opportunity to steal the narrative from mainstream media’s violence & extremism show-reel, and tell the story of a religion little understood through the lens of people who lived the faith on the most auspicious night.

Mecca in Snapchat pictures – a compilation of the #Mecca_Live Story

The background story – what made #Mecca_Live click

  • Media’s manufactured consent

We have stories that define our lives, and then stories that define story-telling. The mainstream media with its political and editorial baggage has often been vehemently criticized for portraying Islam in a grim light. Though sometimes valid news, the majority of its airtime and newspaper space consists of covering violent acts with marked enthusiasm and profiling self-professed ‘Islamic’ terrorists. This in turn has bred a strong aversion amidst the majority moderate Muslims and deep cynicism of their agenda. It’s common to spot ‘what media won’t tell you’ posts that celebrate the many moments of glory for the faith of over 1.6 billion.

  • A window for the youth

The generation of yesteryears risk bringing their preconceived prejudices to organised religion. The young, on the other hand, are open to sharing and embracing new ideologies, even as they form their own independent ones. Across all platforms, Snapchat has the highest active users who belong to the quintessential Generation Y – making it a luring channel for brand communication and media houses alike.

Snapchat has the highest users in Age 18-24 category

Snapchat has the highest users in Age 18-24 category (Source: netimperative.com)

What is an elderly’s morning with The New York Time’s editorial section is another lad’s Snapchat session the whole day in real time. The editorial pages of a paper are what the government, PR machinery and advertisers want it to be while Snapchat is what people want it to produce. The result is greater response to snaps and a willingness to share amongst the community.

The reactions to #Mecca_Live quickly leapt up in popularity as much as the hashtag –

  • Mecca makes for great pictures

Religions and rituals provide great photo & video opportunities. Some of India’s greatest photographers would have in their portfolio a moment captured from one of many public festivals of the country. Being a communal religion, Islam’s imagery evokes large gatherings and synchronisation of much of its rituals. In a world of individual selfies and single-frame sunsets, pictures and short-format videos of all imaginable races and nationalities gathered in prayer and the circumambulation around the Ka’aba – believed to have been built by Abraham and his son Ishmael – is a scintillating treat for the eyes.

Mecca Collage

Mecca Collage 2

Everybody loves stories

Especially when you have 2 million people playing protagonists to it. Controversies, conspiracy and ominous facts presented by mainstream media breeds more of the three things mentioned. Islam has been riddled with challenges and controversies over one’s outfit to a Muslim’s relation with violence in the world. In such times, showing the human side of the wider picture and a wider picture of the human side is not just pleasing to the eyes, but also intriguing to the mind. The fact that Mecca is restricted to people of a faith also adds to its interest & intrigue. Stories like these convey greatness in ordinary lives opposed to the sensation of a few incidences. They are the conjunctions at a time rife with interrogatory exclamations and question marks.

Snapchat’s Live Story captured little moments from Mecca that contributed to one grand moment of truth that escapes the usual narrative – unity. The compelling images lived through the lens of smartphones allowed the viewer to interpret what leads to that moment on camera, and what follows after the video stops.

And for once, this interpretation was not led by the suggestive powers and motives of the ‘Fourth Estate’.

 

 

 

Beyond Biryani – Humbling moments in Ramadan

Ramadan in India (Source: Arabian Gazette)

Ramadan in India (Source: Arabian Gazette)

This blog first appeared as my article in Arabian Gazette on July 16, 2015. Click here for the original version

Blessed are the people fasting in Dubai, and a special blessing is for the ones who spend Ramadan with family. It’s as if even the watch observes the holy month, the hours and minutes synchronized to reach the phase of dusk quicker than on regular months.

The Ramadan in the year 2011 was my first in India, without parents, and without a lot other things that otherwise made Ramadan “complete” in my regular Dubai life. The watch was not just going to adhere to a new time zone, it would cover a different experience from dawn to dusk – one that I would miss later.

While I was going to experience first of many things in India, my first Iftar at a mosque in Pune (a city where I received my undergraduate studies and a lot more), provides an endearing reflection on the holy month. Walking through unkempt bushes and an expansive area turned into a landfill for trash, I reached a building that could be passed on as a decrepit villa maintained with middle-class earnings. I was ushered to the floor above – I never wondered if Biryani tasted better on higher altitudes.

For starters, the mosque was a blatant contradiction to my idea of a prayer place I had grown accustomed to – big, spacious, endowed with cushioning carpet, even state-of-the-art and an endless flow of delicious food for Iftar. I compared mosques in Dubai and ranked them on where you got the best Biryani.

With no more than 6-7 large plates shared by men engrossed in supplication, the volunteers at the mosque hustled in and out of the room to fill the plates with snacks and fruits. The plate displayed an exciting array of colours, but colours don’t bring taste after all. I darted my eyes on other plates around, wondering if mine went biryani-less because I didn’t make it on time. Where was the real stuff?! There wasn’t any – looked like everyone was united before God, just before breaking the fast, even in the content of their plates.

As the call for breaking the fast went off, the men first ensured that the dates were equally divided amongst all and then tucked into their plates. The food received their reverence as they carefully peeled the fruits and ate it down to the seeds. The few fried snacks (pakoras) dotted the plate like rare stars in the solar system, spotted by all but touched only to be distributed equally. The plate was cleared of any edible residue – from stray fruit pieces to tiny bits of the crust of snacks that barely carry any flavour.

In stark contrast to my “regular” Iftar in Dubai, the whole eating session spanned barely for 5 minutes. No second servings, no passing around of the extra meat, drinks reserved to just water in a canister rather than a portfolio of water, juice, laban and Rooh Afza in sealed packaging as collectables for home.

Failing to satiate my gastronomical calling, i.e. Biryani, made me realise that the “real stuff” lay not in that which wasn’t in front of me, rather in what was happening around me at the moment. It was in the sharing of what was available and not in the hoarding of what was not. In less than 5 minutes, the men around the plate had fulfilled some of the prophetic traditions – eating from what’s near and ensuring that the neighbour has eaten as much as they did. While many of us in Dubai blatantly go against the spirit of Islam by wasting food, that mosque with few facilities managed food supply efficiently.

It’s worth taking a step back and evaluating how mosques work in India. Most, if not all, depend on philanthropic handouts and donations (through Sadaqah and Zakat) from the public to sponsor activities such as Iftar meals. It wouldn’t be difficult to guess that mosques have their challenges prioritising areas of expense and sponsoring meals only if the donations stream in at a healthy rate.

The holy month of Ramadan spans a mere 30 days, but its wisdom is timeless. There’s much to learn from it and its blessings are open to all. I for once want to learn the simplicity of a fruit amidst the sophistication of Biryani.

The Closet Eater – On Ramadan Rules for Non-Muslims

I once heard the story of an Imam who was invited for lunch by a Non-Muslim. The Imam accepted the offer and gorged on the feast which included a stream of savoury & confectionary delights. While he was washing down the cake with water, it struck him – he had forgotten that it was the month of Ramadan and he was fasting. Had the feast invalidated the fast? The resounding opinion is a “no.”

This story is often used to explain that fasting is not about merely abstaining from food and drink. In a state of forgetfulness, your spiritual commitment to fast takes precedence over even large quantities of food consumed. In Islamic countries populated with an expatriate mix, the central message of Ramadan – i.e. the spiritual and not gastronomical – should form the centre of all cultural education.

At times, our over-reliance on protectionist rules tends to nudge the discussion in the wrong direction. Some strict rules governing conduct in Ramadan – undoubtedly to protect sentiments and make fasting convenient – may lead many to believe that not eating & drinking is the be all and end all of the holy month. Rather than being a month of reflection for people of all faiths, we risk making the Non-Muslims anxious over their eating habits.

The 'other side' of Ramadan. It's common to find make-shift veil arrangements to separate eating areas during the holy month

The ‘other side’ of Ramadan – it is common to find make-shift veil arrangements to separate eating areas during the holy month

A less pampered Ramadan is important as people observing the fast become more mobile than ever – traveling on business trips or residing in a non-Islamic country for other, long-term purposes like education. We may not always have the luxury of people, encouraged by the law or without it, covering their sandwich for the fear of offending us. At some point in our lives, fasting may span more than 18 hours in a country where our friends & colleagues would be discussing where to have their 4th meal of the day.

Moreover, attempts at ‘avoiding offence’ sometimes offend our intellect. I spotted this at a local McDonald’s outlet, and I doubt if I would have really taken note of this little eatery had it not been for this clumsy barrier. I don’t know how it benefits my state of fasting, if anything, it makes me chuckle.

IMG_20150629_151817

IMG_20150629_151804

You also hear of the odd instance when someone’s upset with the spirit of Ramadan not being observed, as this letter to the 7Days newspaper suggests. The letter shows that the conception of Ramadan is ill-understood by some and restricted to the physical manifestations of food and water. Threads that discuss the “Do’s & Dont’s in Ramadan” are usually lopsided towards the cautionary don’ts. Instead of people inquiring about the month and asking questions that can be retained a lifetime, people are busy making sure you’re taste-buds are not tempted before dusk…for 30 days.

And if it’s important to state it bluntly – nope, nobody in the state of fasting would keel over and die if he/she spotted someone eating or drinking. (Unless I saw you eating vanilla ice-cream, in which case It’ll be difficult to recover from the shock at your choice of flavour.)

This month for us is a battle against the fleeting temptations of our body. It’s a month to recognize that while others are being asked to abstain from eating in front of us, we binge-eat our hearts out without caring for the unfortunate who’s life is stuck in the darkness of dusk. (Sometimes, we eat our way to the hospital!) It’s a call to hear the grumbling of our stomach and feed the hungry of this world, and try to introduce at least a glimmer of dawn in their lives. It’s not a month of McDonald’s as much as McCare & McEmpathy.

What encouraged me to write this article is a recent conversation with a (Non-Muslim) friend. He told me that Ramadan sometimes taxed his mind & body more than the regular months, especially because he delayed refreshing himself with water till he reached home after the long commute in his car. When I offered my commiserations, he brushed it away saying that not eating in front of us was the least he could offer as a respect to the spirit of Ramadan. With such high morals, I’m sure this friend, even without the enforcement of rules, would display the best manners to respect our holy month.

However, I also understand the the role of some measured stern policies when required. Perhaps maybe, just maybe, a monetary penalty may rectify a deliberate & persistent behaviour that flouts the norms and harmony of a culture.

In my humble opinion, it’s time we fasting Muslims reclaimed the true spirit of Ramadan and diverted the attention of our beloved Non-Muslim friends towards that which increases their respect for the religion. It’s time we spoke less of staying away from waffles and instead explained the wisdom behind the waffle-less hours. Gentle reminders to uphold the spirit and abide by the unwritten rules of good manners can ensure that people follow the spirit of the law instead of fretting over its letter.

Dubai in particular and the United Arab Emirates as a whole boasts a splendid array of cultures and mindsets. The month of Ramadan provides the best opportunity to sensitize Non-Muslims about the religion. With the ‘us vs them’ narrative besetting the region, UAE harbours a sense of harmonious belonging to a home and people that exhibit a healthy diversity.

It could also be the country where a Non-Muslim’s depth of understanding Ramadan rivals his/her Muslim counterparts, provided the understanding comes through gradual interaction and not enforced laws.

4 weird things that (apparently) invalidate the fast

Spending 3 important years of my life as a student in India gave me a new perspective on practicing my religion. There’s much that fills me with pride, and things that I believe are flash points for a burgeoning Muslim population in India.

While lies in the middle of the spectrum is humour. Many Muslims – and non-Muslims who have inquired about the traditions and rituals of Ramadan – gave away an innocent and naive understanding of the holy month. While I’m unaware of other societies harbouring similar beliefs, I rely on the consistency of my personal experience to cite India as a place where these things abound. It’s weird, but it’s hilarious!

Here are the top 4 (wrong) rulings that apparently invalidate your fast.

4 – pablo (2)

I know what you’re thinking. You’re trying to recollect all the moments you spent time with someone who was fasting, hoping he/she hadn’t followed this. I empathize with the intention here, but as long as you’re not deliberately trying to sneak in a few drops of water in, a cold shower is just that – refreshing!

3 –

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As a school kid, I saw a friend getting furious at other classmates spraying deodorant all over (yea, we got excited at the smallest things) citing that its fragrance would break his fast. This really infuriated me as it developed a wrong perception of Ramadan and ran this (mis)conception through a religious scholar. He confirmed that ‘smelling’ anything doesn’t affect the fast. I took a whiff of the ittar that the Imam was sporting[PS – Ramadan etiquette requires one to abstain from pronounced extravagance, like dousing oneself perfume and giving everyone a headache.]

2 –

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In an auto-rickshaw ride to the campus, my conversation with the driver drifted into Ramadan that had arrived the same week. The paraphernalia (spot for everything green and shiny) clearly suggested that he should ideally have been fasting. Explaining his reason of abstinence, he said, “Humare dhande mei gaali galoch bahut hoti hai. Toh Roza rakhne ka faayda nahi.” [In our line of business, using abusives and foul language is very common. Keeping the fast is of no use]

Quite funny, because fasting is about self-restraint and developing new habits. While using foul language is against the spirit of Ramadan, a religiously (punnn…) foul-mouthed person can use this month to overcome the hardness of his tongue.

1 – pablo (6)

This takes the cake (after Iftar). At first, I would be dumbstruck at the notion, after about 5 people asked me about this, I realised naivete related to Ramadan is viral. Saliva is a natural formation that lubricates the throat. And thanks to this, it actually allows us to complete our fast without invoking a Thar Desert feeling in our throat. I wonder if there’s anyone who reconciles fasting with this almost impossible requirement.

I’m sure these 4 things are but a mere snapshot of many more misconceptions. What only worries me is that these things can easily become excuses for ignoring the fast.

Have you come across other imaginative reasons that invalidate the fast in your culture? Share it with us in the comments below!

On Muqaddimah and Facebook

Source: Amazon.com

Source: Amazon.com

Facebook is often a slit in the canvas overlooking people we call friends. The intimate association that comes from personal experiences has been dwarfed by fleeting interactions through algorithm-driven posts. This semblance of a connection, however incomplete, gives us the gift of time and convenience. But it is also, in admirable fullness, a platform for sharing ideas.

Mark Zuckerberg recently endorsed the book Muqaddimah as a part of ‘A Year of Books’ – a project that aims at reading and discussing a new book every two weeks. Written by the 14th-century historian Ibn Khaldun, Muqaddimah is a voluminous exposition on the philosophy of history, politics, sociology, economics, theology and other topics that shaped the social environment of its time. Though the subjects covered have today undergone transformations, Muqaddimah is a repository of traditional thought that covers a wide expanse of academic themes.

What’s striking is that despite being a commentary that could be considered a relic from the vantage point of modernity, the founder of a dynamic digital platform finds in it an opportunity for reflecting on our past. In many ways, spending time with Muqaddimah is an antithesis of one’s relationship with Facebook. The laborious efforts expended in reading a treatise are alien in the world of little nuggets of post updates. While each word may be measured to reflect the central idea of the book, our Facebook activities are not bound by the disciplines of vocabulary, often meandering into words and phrases that scream of our affinity with colloquial existence.

Muqaddimah is an exegesis on philosophies unknown to the human mind; the most engaging Facebook posts, on the other hand, are those that are relatable and induce an acknowledgment of familiarity. Muqaddimah decodes the nuances of society, recognizing the underlying forces of politics and culture that guide human disposition. Facebook is best enjoyed as a reflection of human interaction with culture and real-time news on politics. Muqaddimah is a sum total of civilization; Facebook is the little snapshots that drive social interactions over the internet.

Muqaddimah is the result of an author’s mind that has endured the intellectual journey in search for ideologies. Facebook is at times the knee-jerk reactions, and on other pleasant occasions tiny travelogues that banish barriers to information. Muqaddimah is a privilege of those who decipher the erudite narrative; Facebook is a song, the lyrics of which are popular with all. Muqaddimah is an ocean that stands still with the passage of time; Facebook is a stream that grows as strong as it tributaries wish for it be.

Amongst all that is different, there still remains some similarity between the both. Much of ideas that echo from Muqaddimah have been disproven and displaced over the span 700 years. Facebook too is just momentary truths that we wish to share with our immediate world. What we write as an absolute today is nothing more than a transitory moment that holds the promise of change. The people who complete our pictures either disappear completely or are reduced to mere subjects of a customary birthday wish.

Amidst the differences also lies the similarity of being messengers of transformative ideas. While Muqaddimah was confronted with contrarian views leading to new philosophies that live today, users of Facebook are but beings that convey true stories to challenge conventional wisdom.

As Facebook remains a slit that overlooks lives, Muqaddimah is the window with a wider view of our recorded history. What matters in the end is not which of the two provides a better sight, but that both show us things that exist only to change tomorrow.

India’s Biggest Debt: Girl Education

Source: CNN.com

Source: CNN.com

In a country otherwise rife with discrimination and violence against women, and where the most popular currency dealt in is dowry, the CBSE result day is one marked with adulation for the girl student. Their consistent performance is like the greatest retaliation to society. They may have a tough time leaving home after the sun sets, but on every result day, I’m sure boys and their parents stay indoors after dawn staying that they’re celebrating with a house party. The reality is, they’re too shy celebrating their Munnu’s 65% while the Munni 2 roofs away – who was the center of their scorn for not getting married at the belated age of 17, schooled their Munnu with a 94%, in Science…Physics, Chemistry & Biology, while Munnu was happy with Botany without maths. He scored a full 34 marks out 100 in the Botany paper, with some tuition classes of course from the village nearby.

Girl child education is not just important for India, it’s also the only way our country can say sorry. India puts a price on women – 1) the opportunity cost in favours reserved for the boy in the family, and 2) the dowry a girl’s family is expected to pay. Dowry is many times an instant loan a father’s bank account is debited with when a girl is born.

If CBSE marks is your measurement for efficient use of resources, it’s very clear who’s using it optimally. For decades of under-performance of key infrastructure sectos, here’s a human capital that is displaying exemplary performance.

Education is a debt that we’ve withheld from paying back for far too long. Once paid off, assets will be created and liabilities settled. A well educated public is a well ruled one, a learned girl is a better understood one. It’s time India started understanding girls better, one class at a time.