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.

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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.

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 –

pablo (3)

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 –

pablo (5)

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.

Indian Education System’s New Minority – Boys

The recent declaration of 10th & 12 Central Board of Secondary Education (CBSE) results brought with it many things – adulation, celebration, and a phenomena I’ve been noticing since years before it was my turn to take these exams: girls outperforming boys.

There’s another observation – students have been doing exceedingly well….in pushing the cut-off rates for undergraduate universities higher. As scores across the board jump several points, it nudges forward the minimum percentage score that qualifies one for a prestigious university seat in India. Take this bizarre event in 2011, for instance, when the first cut-off list for some Delhi University (DU) colleges didn’t have a qualifying percentage,  rather it was a benchmark that Indian parents compare their children with – 100%.

This situation got many people worried, including those who trembled at the thought of not getting a college seat while warming the political one.

The Test Today

A combination of both observations stated above presents a queer situation today. Results being lopsided in favour of girls and the overall scores being on the higher side has not just pushed the cut-off rates, the rates are split at different levels for boys and girls. For a B.Com course in Christ University, the cutoffs are 87% for boys and 91% for girls for Karnataka students. Being from a state outside Karnataka comes with a premium, with cut-offs at 93% and 96% for boys and girls. In both cases, girls are winning…and losing at the same time.

It’s possible that this situation is not new, but I would certainly not have come across this cocktail observation without this post from teacher of Economics at my alma mater, and in many ways a mentor –

Pranita

Market Forces At Play

Ms. Pranita’s objection is fair, and we’ll return shortly to understand her strong views. The reason for the different cut-off points, on the other hand, can be discerned from an area this teacher excels in – Economics.  It is indeed the high scores and limited University seats that have created this acute condition. There’s a visible inflationary trend in marks – commensurate with a demand for good university education, but not enough intake capacity at the universities. The marks push the demand for the admission seats, whereby the supplier (read university) demands a higher percentage (read price) for the same. Since girls score higher than boys, the board has set a stricter limit for girls which, as we can observe above, is a good 3-4 percentage points higher.

(Sometimes the capacity limits are flouted. Over-capacity forces teachers to improvise, for instance by holding lectures in auditoriums & seminar halls, leading to stress on resources and infrastructure. )

This trend begs a question- are the rising scores a result a hard-work endured by students, or is it the CBSE boards’ testament to grant a better sense of achievement amongst the youth? Either way, what would frustrate an educationist like Ms. Pranita is not this dichotomy as much as the discriminatory limits for girls & boys. If these marks are the sole measurement for admission, why should there be a differential whereby boys are cushioned against an unfavourable result? In Ms. Pranita’s own probing words –

Why abolish merit-based admission policy (with the discriminatory cut-off levels)? Every year, the competition is getting tougher for the girls .. fault lies with the system which has not provided enough capacity.

Indeed, the fault does lie with the system, and the tougher competition for girls she talks of transcends mere numbers. A girl’s road to higher education in India is rife with potholes of prejudiced challenges – right from money, societal pressure, “belated” marriage concerns and many others that boys are seldom subject to. The last thing we need is limiting more girls from entering higher education because, well, they’re just too good. Girls don’t need this compliment (if I can dare speak for them, that is). They’re flattered, but no thanks.

Going The Minority Way

This situation has given rise to Indian education system’s latest minority in the form of boys. The issue of minorities in education brings the imagery of heated debates around “unfair advantages” associated with quotas. Indeed, we wouldn’t want the young men of our country to tread the way of a marginalised community that needs a helping hand. Their very access to a classroom, teachers and the exam room is an endowment that should be exploited to their advantage. For girls, basic access to education is far from an endowment, it’s an arduous journey in which they seem to be giving the boys a run for their dowry…err…I mean money. If anyone, it would be the girls who’d deserve a special treatment to salvage society’s timeless flagrant traditions & practices. But while girls are obviating the need for any ‘special treatment’ that comes with its own set of counter-productive results, the present normal is best shaped by championing equality.

Remarks For The Education Board

If the selection is rigorously merit-based, then let the selected be cream of the crop irrespective of their gender. If the diligence of a 96%er girl comes to fruition, the 95%er should not be denied the same fate merely to fill in more masculinity in the classroom. A level playing field would mean that boys are not just pitted against their laziness, distractions and lack of concern for academic excellence, but against the consistent lead of girls too.

Should this situation warrant a more thorough analysis, which I believe it does, the questions should delve deeper into the very essence of CBSE grading system. Where does the education system go with such arbitrary marking system? Flare points are in the exponential increase in the scores without a proportionate increase in well-resourced institutes. A glut in good scorers and a lack of accommodating institutes is an embarrassment for a country that prides on the Visva-Bharatis of yesteryears and the IITs of today.

The question that should arise after viewing the results, in the minds of boys and girls alike, should not only be “what next?” but also, “how far?”

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#EtisalatChallenge – A Case Study In Poor Foresight

When six heavyweights of the entertainment & sports arena from South-Asia & Middle East are used for a brand campaign, the message is certainly expected to hit home. But in times when the fundamentals of the message are built on loose bolts, even the most trusted faces on television cannot salvage a campaign that backfires.

Etisalat, UAE’s first Telecom company and also the sole operator till 2006, is holding a 360º communication campaign titled ‘#EtisalatChallenge’. The ambassadors of the campaign, most of whose fandom we maybe a part of, challenge the masses at large “to find an offer that Etisalat cannot match or beat.” Before I shed light on the gaping holes, it’s important to list down the celebrities roped in for the campaign –

  1. Gerard Butler – Scottish actor particularly known for his roles in the films P.S. I Love You and How To Train Your Dragon series
  2. Hrithik Roshan – popular Bollywood actor
  3. Atif Aslam – Pakistani singer with a massive fan-base in Dubai
  4. Ahmed Helmy – Egyptian comedian and drama actor
  5. Ali Mabkhout – Emirati footballer who plays for the Al Jazira Club
  6. Lea Salonga – singer and actress from the Philippines
The fault is not in these stars Image source: alexofarabia.com

The fault is not in these stars
Image source: alexofarabia.com

Now for the catch – Etisalat’s challenge has no more than just ONE contender in the country. The telecom industry in the UAE is a duopoly comprising of Etisalat – owned by the UAE Central Government, and Du – jointly owned by Emirates investment Authority, Mubadala Development Company and Emirates Communication & Technology Company.

Personal experience, complaints from friends & family and a cursory glance of their social media page shows that enviable services are not really Etisalat’s forte’. Inflexible and relative expensive calling rates, and a ban on most third-party VoIP services adds to its unpopularity.

Dial 1 to gauge reactions –

When a people that rank first in the world for trust in its government display a marked cynicism towards its Telcos entity, there’s much insight to be mined from humour.  The ground reality of services notwithstanding, #EtisalatChallenge turned Twitter into a breeding ground for some tongue-in-cheek reactions.

Kindly hold the line for conclusions – 

Few countries are as determined to raise service standards like the UAE. The country’s exponential growth in smart-innovation merits, in the least, the bare-minimums expected from a telecom company. With the country’s active propagation of ‘All Things D’, what matters to the tech-savvy customer is a refreshing offer in services and price, not a marketing gimmick. Spending a fortune for marketing campaigns, reigning in faces that are familiar with the consumers and accepting challenges on its offers are usually tactics of a brand with unfettering loyalty. There would not be anyone better than the brand & marketing managers to understand the pulse of the consumers. They hold the keys to identify the leaking taps. Those leaking taps will tell you that a passionate fan-base for the brand is still some rings away.

The #EtisalatChallenge, far from filling gaps, has united people under a common grievance. Instead of introducing plumbers, Etisalat has welcomed architects with a design that customers cared little about. From a purely campaign perspective, the effort comes about as flashy yet unintelligible, engaging yet awkward. The messengers are pleasing to the eye, the message – the soul of the conversation – defeats the intellect.

But here’s the silver lining. UAE is a country the progress of which is faster than our imagination. It’s fixation with improvement and superior services has positioned it alongside tech-advanced and developed countries in the world. Instead of shying away from future campaigns, brands like Etisalat have an opportunity in social media to directly interact with customers and know what clicks with them. Ultimately, the user is a reflection of the brand’s services. It’s only natural that a telecom entity relies on conversation rather than commercials to improve its ratings.

The conclusion part can also be summed up in the following 140 characters –

For another interesting take on the campaign, check out the blog Alex of Arabia, maintained by Alex Malouf – a renowned commentator and collaborator of news on media in the Middle East.

For an Emirati take on this topic, read the views of Khalid Al Ameri – one of my favourite columnists – in his open letter to Etisalat.