Knowing your biases

A lesson in critical thinking that I am taught as a potential PhD candidate is to always make an opinion knowing my unique biases. Now this may seem a matter of fact notion but its unbelievable how people take things for granted, at least I have and probably will continue to do so. For instance, its common for me to greet someone by saying ‘Hi’ followed by the conventional ‘How are you’. Now this rather dull sometimes even annoying salutation is very widely used among the people of various  nationalities I’ve had the pleasure to chat with, but among many Hong Kong locals it is not customary. In fact, Hong Kongers find this a personal question to be answered frankly only after the preliminary small talk is over. Can you imagine thinking of how-are-you’s like that?

It gets funnier, in Hong Kong people greet you by asking if you have eaten yet. Yes, there are some combinations for instance they will add lunch or dinner depending on the time of the day but the emphasis is always on food. If you are doubtful about the strangeness of this, imagine yourself in an elevator with a scrawny looking old guy at night as you leave the office. The guy gives you a grin and asks ‘Hello, have you had dinner yet?’ – excuse me? Did you just ask me out for dinner!? I don’t know you man! Alright I may be exaggerating for effect but living in Karachi or even London, nobody ever asked me if I had eaten right of the bat unless they really meant it. Although I must say it’s a different affair if the hot receptionist in the building is asking – it’s an elating feeling until you realise she neither cares if you have eaten nor is interested in dating you. Hong Kongers feel equally perplexed if you ask them ‘How-are-you’ although its strangeness is some what diluted, after all this is a former British colony in East Asia.

It is important to appreciate our differences and the nuances since that gives us a wider perspective and helps us make better choices. For me, knowing that I was brought up in a traditional muslim family in Karachi makes me appreciate the subtleties of a community living in a sometimes violent and mismanaged society. So I am always careful how I phrase ‘patronage’ or ‘connections’ or baradari, which in the West is looked upon unanimously as undermining meritocracy. Not all baradari is bad right? After all in the US people have replaced the term with the ubiquitous ‘references’ and in China they give it an entirely new meaning, Guanxi. But being self-aware of this bias also makes me realise its potential for abuse which otherwise I would have overlooked in the name of ‘getting-business-done-in-Pakistan’; it is no coincidence that developed countries have significantly less corruption than developing ones.

I am in no way implying that any one paradigm or school of thought is correct but the point here is simply to remember your eccentricities. To know why you believe in what you do, to know why you are likely to say something and to know why you recommend a certain course of action. This ontological bearing is not just about having a genuine conversation with others but also about being truthful to your self. As Stuart Hall writes – common sense is the biggest ideology of all.

Biases are great, they gives us character. But know that you have them and always admit them. Always.

Statement of Intent – PhD program at Hong Kong Baptist University

A poignant lesson I learnt in my academic, professional and personal development is that life should not be perceived as a long-term business plan, contrary to what we are dispassionately taught since childhood in Pakistan; prior to my Masters I would never have imagined a career in academia given my temperament but it was a series of anachronistic events that not only invoked in me a dormant passion for the knowledge economy but also convinced me of it’s logic.

I always had a penchant for the untold stories, the underdogs and the way society evolves with progress. So a chance trip to Turkey after saving enough money, to meet a pen pal became a life changing experience in 2011; a festive blend of East meets West, Turkey “opened my eyes,” to the vast similarities among different cultures and human nature in general. It made me understand that people everywhere have the same desires and wants. It also smashed some inaccurately construed perspectives about different cultures I had acquired through popular television.

At that time I was planning to enroll in a postgraduate program in management to complement my exiting faculties – earlier I had planned and secured Rs. 60,00,000 (~ $67,000) for a marketing campaign at Ahmed E.H. Jaffer Foundation’s boarding school of excellence The Hub School, and prior to that given the unprecedented task to revamp the business model for the website Brandsynario.com at Synergy (Pvt.) Ltd, notwithstanding pressure to join the family business full time – but upon my return I decided to pursue a burgeoning interest in journalism. I reckoned that communication sciences would inculcate in me a strong core understanding of reaching the audience; which is far more important for understanding marketing communication, particularly in an evolving pubic sphere in Pakistan where importance of elections, fundamental human rights and free speech have only recently gained traction after media liberalisation.

Thus communication science is a career path I have followed rigorously and whole-heartedly since. 

To learn more in this field I pursued a master’s program in Journalism and Media Communication at the University of Hertfordshire in Hatfield, United Kingdom. Participation in the event coverage of the first St Albans Film Festival, internship at the Eastern Eye – Britain’s foremost weekly for South Asian community in Central London – and the MA thesis on Pakistani media made me cognizant of the peculiarities of South Asians all over the world and the dearth of available literature in the field. 

My dissertation and successive PhD proposal are the two most cherished culminations of my master’s program. The dissertation report for which I spent my entire nine day holiday in Pakistan conducting elite interviews, reaching out to friends at Interflow Communication and Nielsen Saudi Arabia among other venues, taught me the intricacies of conducting rigorous research. It compelled me to dig deeper, read more and collaborate more.

My lucky break came when Professor Anatol Lieven at King’s College agreed to see me last November to offer his critique of my master’s thesis. My ambitions in academia gathered momentum from then onwards. Anatol was kind enough to introduce me to Professor Mathew McCartney at Oxford University who upon my insistence has agreed to co-supervise a doctoral program subject to enrollment at the School of Interdisciplinary Studies. However the strongest support for my PhD proposal came from Professor Daya Thussu at University of Westminster, Professor Pradeep Chhibber at University of California, Berkley and Professor Colin Sparks at your esteemed institution.

Upon my return from UK, I made a tough call to put on hold a lucrative position at an advertising firm to develop my proposal further. It was self-learning in its essence, a trait picked from the excellent faculty at Hertfordshire. Now that I apply for funding while I work at The News International (Jang Group) and prepare to teach media theory at SZABIST this fall, I know that every decision I take must bring me a step closer to a doctoral program.

If given the choice between research work purely in United States and United Kingdom or, partly in Hong Kong and United States, I would chose the later without hesitation; since media systems are inextricably linked with the political identity of a country it makes sense for Pakistani academics to study communication systems in countries such as China, Brazil, Poland, South Africa and India. Pure liberal democratic templates adopted from mature democracies are bound to fail in the global south. There is credibility in my statement; of the five telecommunication companies – the only industry where private foreign investment is officially allowed – operating in Pakistan, four are owned by investors in Russia, Middle East and China. It is highly likely that in future developments in the media industry of Pakistan, such nations will play an important role. The need of the hours thus is to study best practices in both schools of thought and that is why a dual degree program offered at HKBU is of intense interest for me.

My decision to apply for a PhD program was not an epiphany neither was it something I always knew I would take since childhood but something I have actualized over the years. It has been a journey of self-discovery and my four years of experience within the industry, in Karachi and London, puts me in a unique position to undertake this research. I sincerely hope that the admission’s committee will consider my application strongly.

 


I wrote this statement somewhere last summer to contest for a very eclectic and experimental four-year PhD program based across continents in Hong Kong, China and the United kingdom. And much to my bewilderment I was accepted for a full-funded position in Communication Studies in this incredible part of the world! Perhaps my statement will serve as a rough guide or even inspire fellow Pakistanis to dream big, cash in on their strengths and develop the foresight to traverse where others hesitate. I consider myself very very lucky.

 

The Rise of the Global South

The emergence of the Global South has become an increasingly popular colloquialism within the academic community. It refers to most of the countries of Africa, Central and Latin America and Asia as opposed to the Global North which makes up the developed part of North America, Europe and East Asia.

The term, traditionally synonymous with the third world now represents countries that have experienced rapid economic growth in the past three decades, even during times of recession. At present, if we consider an obvious indicator of growth – that South-South economic cooperation now exceeds South-North cooperation by $2.2 trillion i.e. over one quarter of global trade- and by UNDP 2013 estimates that 80% of the world’s middle class will be living in developing countries – it can be assured that the South will have a tremendous impact in reshaping international political and economic systems.

The launch of the New Development Bank (NDB) last month by Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa collectively known as the BRICS nations is one such impact. The move is being looked upon as a practical measure to counter shortcomings of existing world development institutions – specifically the World Bank and the IMF –  which through their prejudice for the US and European national interests and harsh constitutionalities have always been a bone of contention for emerging economies.  

But the bank is a small chapter in a wider debate surrounding shifts in the global balance of power. This shift is not simply the result of better policies on infrastructure development, research investment and trade; it marks a broader ideological evolution in the world’s understanding of such systems by learning from South-South direct intellectual and cultural dialogue which was tradtionally always contextualized through the West.  

In a recent Time Magazine editorial Wall Street’s Values Are Strangling American Business, Rana Foroohar talks about how in highly globalized capitalistic markets, such as the US, the need to please the shareholders outweigh the needs of long term sustainable growth of companies. This result in markets influencing businesses more than vice versa; against what capitalist system originally sought to achieve. The financial crisis of 2007-2008 thus has increased the grasp of finance on corporate America.

Faroohar goes further by citing a McKinsey Global Institute report, that by 2025, 7 out of 10 largest global firms will be from emerging economies. Moreover, they will primarily be family owned!

Although the significance of the Global South gets lost in our World’s multipolar political rehtoric in the public sphere, the knowledge economy operates at a scientific level. Thus in conferences and lecture rooms, academics from the Global North are debating on poignant lessons that can be gleaned from researches based on South-South interactions.

For instance, Kanchan Chandra, Professor of Politics at NYU, taking Indian ethnic politics as a case study in her paper Ethnic Party and Democratic Stability, suggests a model that counters conventional wisdom that ethnic divisions destabilize democratic institutions. In fact she proposes ways in which certain dimensions of ethnicism in state institutions can enhance their efficacy for South Asian democracies.      

Similarly, Hearns-Branaman, lecturer at National Institute of Development Administration in Bangkok, on defining the political economy of media of China writes that post-1970s period has seen all Chinese news media become completely financially independent from the government while remaining an integral part of the government and adherence with the Communist Party’s line. This is in stark contrast to the widely held dystopian beliefs about media in China.

Such papers are a miniscule glimpse of the large body of excellent work that is being produced through South-South interactions. More importantly they have even greater significance for developing countries like Pakistan, Indonesia, Chile, Poland and Nigeria where template solutions adopted from mature democracies are deemed to fail; where indegenous solutions along the lines of similar transitioning democracies are more relevant.           

If we take the example of our media industry, it’s not mere coincedence that out of the five telecommunication companies operating in Pakistan – perhaps the only area of the communication industry where private foreign investment is officially allowed – four have investors in Russia, Middle East and China. Furthermore, it is widely believed that the decision for electronic media liberalization was influenced by the vibrant Indian media.

It is highly likely that in future developments in our media industry, such nations will play an important role. It is thus imperative for Pakistani scholars and policy makers to rethink their position in the globalsphere by looking beyond the West. Three of the BRICS economies share our part of the continent and we share borders with two of them. There are fascinating propsects for infrastructure development, trade, cross-cultural dialogue and knowledge transfer usually dominated by a North-South aid paradigm.

However, we must approach the developing world with cautious optimism. Verily, unlike the North the political systems in the South are rather diverse and volatile. But Dr Brilliant Mhlanga, a research fellow at Brown University International Relations Institute, who sees interesting comparisons between the ethnic issues of Pakistan and South Africa says that that itself should be seen as a point of strength than a weakness. If anything, it (NDB) buttresses the view of ‘Unity in Diversity’, as opposed to unity in oneness.

For now we should see the NDB as coming to fruition of ideas whose inception dates back to the Bandung Conference of the 1950s. Perhaps, the non-alignment movement is relavent more than ever now.

175 Lyari youths awarded for honing English skills

Originally appeared on The New International

Sunday, June 29, 2014 Print Edition

By Ayaz Ahmed Siddiqui


The Pakistan American Cultural Centre (PACC) awarded 175 talented male and female youngsters of Lyari, aged between 16 and 25, with graduation certificates on Saturday after their completion of a specially-designed English language programme.

The objective of the six-month merit scholarship, which was organised in collaboration with the Karachi Youth Initiative, was to equip the youths with good communication and leadership skills and enable them to spread the message of peace, love and tolerance, said Madiha Rehman, the director of the programme.

The event began with KYI officials conducting a survey among the graduates to assess the extent of their positive behavioural change.

Bilal Ahmed, one of the graduates, said he was a student at the Benazir Bhutto Shaheed University in Lyari, but lacked presentation skills.

“However because of this course, I can now give a presentation with confidence in my class,” he added.

Ahmed plans to teach students who cannot afford education and wants to become a university lecturer one day.

A PACC faculty member told The News that in similar programme earlier, violent students reluctant to take “orders from female teachers” not only did so within five months of coaching but became more involved in domestic chores at home.

“We produce certain literature about harmony and tolerance that we disperse among these kids,” said Farhan Iqbal, the communication officer at the KYI. “The PACC teachers are first given training before they can start tutoring.”

As the ceremony unfolded, Rafiq Tabani, the chief guest and president of the PACC governing board, faculty members, parents and the graduates shared their experiences in the programme with impassioned anecdotes and life lessons.

Abu Talib, a parent, while commending the efforts of the PACC and the KYI told the audience that the media portrayed Lyari as if every child was involved in drug abuse and criminal activities. “My town is a place of national football players and boxing champions, I request the citizens of Karachi not to treat us like stepchildren,” said Talib who is a former boxer.

Rafiq Tabani, after distributing the certificates, congratulated the students and said 50 years ago when the PACC had started its mission to teach English to those who could not afford education, the highest number of applicant were from Lyari.

“Although such initiatives are a step forward to increase the productivity of the youth, much remains in terms of the socio-economic uplift of Lyari,” he noted.

Tabani said that while the PACC and the KYI were also working in other areas of Karachi including Korangi, even recruiting locals as its staff, their scope was limited to cultural activities.

Countenance with Caution

Statements from the Council of Islamic Ideology (CII), arguably since its inception, are followed by widespread condemnation by progressive vocal minds in the country. The cause for concern stressed is the perpetual retrograde agenda that religious scholars in the country allegedly posses. However debates that emphasize a holistic approach to analysis attuned with worldly events is surprisingly rare.

Our case in point, the recent announcements by our religious scholars on the incompatibility of Pakistan’s conjugal laws with the Shariah – namely the validity of child marriage and of multiple wives that some might even term polygamy – come at a time when the impasse of the state sponsored talks with the Pakistan Taliban seems to be breaking; perhaps with some wisps of light visible at the end of the tunnel.

To understand this we should take a look at how the Pakistani state has historically dealt with rogue elements and militancy; the emergence and prominence of Sipah-e-Sahaba (SSP) in 1985 as a breakaway group of Jamiat-e-Ulema-e-Islam (JUI) can give us an insight. Although there is no direct evidence of this but the rise of Shia extremist organizations provided an impetus for the support of Sunni militants by the state and Saudia Arabia at the time for fear of increasing Iranian influence in the region.

This militancy that took roots in Southern Punjab, primarily in Jhang, however spread to other areas of the country where Sunni and Shia tensions were latent such as in Peshawar, Quetta and Kurram Agency of FATA encompassing other militants, forming allegiances and increasing its mandate to further target Christians, Ahmedis, Hazaras and other minorities. In short a Hydra headed monster took birth that has many faces each begetting the other, spreading its arcane ideology often violently.

Although the states attempts at controlling this has been effective to an extent one needs to take it with a pinch of salt; in the 90’s several militant leaders such as Maulana Haq Nawaz Jhangvi, Maulana Zia-ur-Rehman Farooqi and Azam Tariq were killed by unidentified gunmen with all signs indicative of Shia terrorist and the Pakistani state. In the words of Anatol lieven in his book Pakistan: A Hard Country (2011)

According to credible reports, Pakistani intelligence responded in typical fashion with a mixture of arrests, extra-judicial executions and attempts to split the militants and draw more moderate Sipah-e-Sahaba members into allegiance to the state.

This brief anecdote on the history of militancy has two very important lessons. Firstly it seems that the present strategy of the state in dealing with the Pakistani Taliban is similar to its dealing with other militants. The twin attacks on 3rd March in Islamabad, when a ceasefire had been agreed with the Taliban, show the rifts emerging within the Taliban camp. Undoubtedly these talks will help the government and the state understand the organizational setup better, gather intelligence and increase the efficacy of counter insurgency in the region.

The announcement made by the CII becomes very timely indeed under these circumstances as the CII is a government institution and any lobbying on its part demonstrates the Pakistani government’s efforts to be privy of religious sentiments of the people. It increases the government’s credibility for genuine dialogue in FATA with ‘moderate militants’. A similar announcement by CII last November by declaring DNA evidence against the defendants of rape cases as un-Islamic shows a similar pattern. These announcements in quick successions by the normally sluggish CII seem unlikely to be a coincidence.

The second implication of CII announcements in Pakistan must be looked within the context of the rise of the Habermasian public sphere in a ‘South Asia that stands at the crossroads of possibilities fraught with alternative scenarios of a great developmental and democratic ascent’ (Kukreja and Prasad 2008)[1]. The virus of insurgency is a byproduct of democratic transitions in South Asia; the naxalities in India and Nepal and the now defunct Tamil Tigers of Srilanka are prime examples of this issue. In fact the insurgency in India is according to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh the ‘single biggest internal security challenge ever faced by our country (India)[2]’.

It is an escapable reality that Islam is and will always be an integral part of Pakistan’s identity as in many other Muslim countries. The extremist militancy in Pakistan however is an apt representation of the most impoverished areas of our country devoid of infrastructure, health services and food security. The narrative of the CII is but one face of our evolving public sphere that is contested by numerous actors before it reaches a fairly acceptable form. This certainly is the essence of inclusion in governance as is evident by the voices heard in the media against these announcements. For now though, it seems to fit in well in the scheme of affairs that we should countenance albeit with caution.

[1] Kukreja, V & Singh, M.P., (2008) Democracy, Development and Discontent in South Asia, India: SAGE

[2] http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/south_asia/7151552.stm

Alternate Relationships

Growing up we had such mystical illusions about love and sex especially if you were a South Asian. There is this standard model that our parents, forbearers and ancestors have raised us to live by, a code some might say; grow into adolescence where puberty is a topic that men are left to figure out on their own and women are told is a scared biological process that marks their transition into adulthood. In our twenties men are left to conquer the world, make their mark and stand on their own two feet with the added privilege of experimenting, breaking hearts and dealing with their libidos by any means necessary with the understanding that when the time comes the code of their fathers and their fathers before them must be observed by settling down with a mate till death do them part.

Women get a slightly twisted version of the same fate. In their twenties they are meant to concentrate and focus on completing their education, be bastions of chastity and be holier than thou as  they are the pride and honour of the family. They are taught to master their impulse and to conquer their libido for it is forbidden to indulge on those vile carnal desires.

Do we South Asians really know what it feels like to be free? To do what our hearts tell us, to trust in fate and take a leap of faith, to believe in something more profound than what we are taught as children. I don’t know how you will explain this, some may say we are brainwashed, some might say its just a matter of following our traditions while others might argue that its just a matter of listening to alternative opinion or justifying actions by experimenting in adulthood and honoring the code when the time comes to tie the knot.

The questions remains however, how many of us have what it takes to respect our own life choices and go all the way? How many of us want a successful husband with a house and two cars or a beautiful wife in the prime years of her biological clock to achieve happiness? Ok maybe most of us want the latter but is that the only successful path that life has to offer in its quest for culmination?…

AND THEY HAD THESE WONDERFUL CHILDREN WITH WHOM THEY LIVED HAPPILY EVER AFTER …even reading this sounds banal isn’t it?

For me a relationship is something that fulfills a need; it supports us emotionally, physically and serves as a base camp to climb on towards our intended goal. Thus the best relationships are those which have a common agenda and work towards a common life purpose. But once that purpose is achieved what is next? The rational answer would be to move on to the next goal and start afresh. Our South Asian morality dictates however that we must hold fast to those commitments and carve out a way through the challenges. The truth is when we grow up we are foregoing all our rights of choice and personal happiness, those quintessential traits required to explore our truest potential as sentient beings.

Can you imagine what you wanted to be when you were growing up? An Astronaut? (ok that was a bit cliched) but how about an air hostess or a nurse or a veterinarian or even a soldier? I won’t ask about your vocation right now but imagine if you went through all the various financial and familial hurdles in your quest to realize your dreams. Maybe you didn’t become an astronaut but that was probably because you weren’t meant to be one, however you did became an astronomer and discovered the next Earth like planet! Maybe you didn’t become a veterinarian but that was probably because you weren’t smart enough however you did become a wildlife photographer.

The point I’m trying to make is that maybe life is not written. Perhaps there are no paths that you need to follow but ones that you create in your quest to realize who you are. And you do that by never wavering from your desires and having a laser sharp focus. If what I say right now makes sense then its important to understand that relationships should also be dealt with in the same manner as you do your dreams. To talk about divorce or open relationship or a trail separation would be disgustingly simple. But I believe that it is possible to fall in love with someone and wanting to spend the rest of your days with them but at the same time giving priority to your personal development; loving more than one person at the same time. There are varying degrees of feelings and intimacy a person can have for people.

Maybe this all seems a bit idealistic heck if it were up to me the world would be full of artisans and scientists. No one would be ordinary. All the constructs that we have created about society as we know it; religion, order, government, politics and financial markets would become defunct. Pedophiles and mass murderers would be in abundance while naked couples would be running around shanty towns chased by bearded men armed to the teeth with AK47s. A dystopian future where the assumption is that man’s soul is always open to corruption. This is most likely to be true I mean without restraint we are more likely to succumb to our most sadistic desires right?

Then what the heck am I talking about when the probability of us screwing things big time if left to our desires is 99%. But just for one second think and imagine that there is a 1% chance that a society where there are only artisans, poets and scientists forms a reality utterly fascinating. A world where there is no meaning of the word crime, disease, fornication and hatred. A world almost mystical where innocence is the most sought for, most commendable most rewarded attribute. Where relationships do not exist as we know it, where the more people you are intimate with the more love you spread and feel good about.

More Interesting Lessons – the Genie way

Now for some good news, I am moving to London in a few days would you believe? That has been my ambition since I landed on this rock, which by the way was exactly an year ago from today. I was a little perturbed last year while moving to Hatfield and you would know what I mean if you party in arguably the world’s greatest city for a few days only to get relocated to its obscure outskirts. Heck I am talking about a transition from the pristine London Underground to cows and green pastures. But as it turns out Hatfield and its adjoining areas aren’t that bad and the general camaraderie sort of rubs on to you when you spend enough time. Needless to say I had an incredible time here many incidents I have talked about already and some that will probably stay confined in my wacky mind.

So in an odd twist of events I find myself relocating by default and by the grace of whoever’s up there even found a place near Central London. These days I am spending quality time visiting various spots around Hertfordshire which hold a certain memory and its all a very nostalgic even melancholic experience. Each memory reminds me of the people I studied, worked, partied, fought and made bonds with, around hundred different nationalities which gave UK its unique character.  But not much time left on the visa and I am under pressure again to make the most of it. This time around I am not afraid. In fact I am almost apathetic to my career but in a good way. Let me explain:

Wonderful! Magnificent! Glorious!… Punctual! Punctual?!

Keeping Your Edge:

I think we as human beings are genetically wired to be impatient. Always shooting for the candy without waiting for the right time and being an urban dweller this wiring is especially poignant. Having spent most of my life so far in two of the biggest most cosmopolitan locations on this planet; Karachi and London this wiring is a particular mess in my chromosomes. However, spending time on my own and working on my dissertation has taught me the virtues of being patient and self-reflective. Number one lesson, nobody knows what they are going to do in the next five years or how they will reach their goals. I really don’t understand why they even teach this concept in business school it’s such a load of hogwash. Reality is you just give in your best shot and hope for the best. Its called keeping your edge or your cool if you are a millennial.

PHENOMENAL COSMIC POWERS! Itty-bitty living space!

Staying Positive and Healthy:

Let me tell you something and this is coming from a guy with an average build and up until a few years ago, a seriously numb outlook on life, exercise, exercise and exercise. I first started working out at the insistence of my then girlfriend and naturally the motivation was to impress her, look more attractive, increase pheromones all that bullshit. As was expected I dropped out within a few months because the motivation was not pure and therefore not strong. The second time I started was because I genuinely felt the need to improve my outlook on life and it worked like a charm. I found some fascinating changes in my life, proper sleeping cycles, bathroom routines, drastic cutting down of nicotine, caffeine and other intoxicants of all shapes and forms. I found myself getting less tired and simply happy. Good things started happening like increased productivity, increased social life etc. This may sound like a big cliche I’m probably only the billionth person on Earth talking about exercise but let me conclude the argument by saying that I always returned to my pessimistic comfort zone everytime I dropped works outs.  Also I had some very interesting and risque times in Hatfield during the months I was working out 😉

If in doubt – Just don’t do it:

At the risk of sounding cocky I want to say that I am smart if only because I think too much. Over thinking has been one of my greatest weaknesses and you know this is the first time ever I am boldly admitting it. Phew a big load of my chest. This problem had been a characteristic of my personality until this year; living alone puts annoying decisions in front of you every day and all you can do is weigh  in the obvious pros and cons. Well I have devised a system where if a decision has to be made I reflect whether I have ‘that lingering doubt’ at the back of my mind. If that doubt is the first thing I associate with a decision and if the feeling lingers after exploring certain obvious alternatives I drop the decision altogether. So far this approach has been working amazingly. I am by no means implying not to take risks. On the contrary this approach not only helps you weed out time wasting opportunities but ensures you jump quickly at the next potential opportunity; when you feel excited about doing something even when in doubt. Only this time around your feeling of elation and wonder is greater than doubt. This my friend is the cue to pounce on it like a wild animal.

Here’s the deal, if ya wanna court the little lady, ya gotta be a straight shooter. Do ya got it?

These are some more lessons I want to take with me when I move out. And as again, I am hopeful, naively optimistic, sadly misinformed, but with each passing year I realize I have shed a part of my shell and made another feeble albeit successful attempt to stand on my own. I know I am very close.

Lets listen to something alternative today:

Like a Breath of Fresh Air

I want you all to listen to a track from a movie that is very dear to me; Blade Runner. I have talked about the film time and time again in reviews on this blog. The track is composed by the legendary composer, Vangelis who is accredited with  epic tracks in movies such as Chariots of Fire (click to listen), Alexander  and etc. So without further adieu:

This track seems to blend in well with my state of being today; The weather gods outside are still trying to make up their minds whether to cast yet another forbidding cold spell or give in to the warmth of a long overdue spring. The events of last few months have been quite extraordinary and for the first time I have experienced the full extent of living in the fast lane (as cliched as that may sound). I use to say that I am not doing anything here in the UK that I wasn’t already doing back home. I still say it actually, but being on your own is quite an experience even for people like me who have always considered themselves furiously independent.

Things are different, to say the least. I have felt myself age in the last two months. In a good way of course, I feel wiser, more experienced and more responsible. Life has been particularly good on the social front and I want to talk about one particular event, the 1st St Albans Film Festival.

It all started with a little interest in screen writing that I showed during a meeting with one of my professors. As a result of which I found myself joining a team of fellow students on their way to provide media coverage to this film festival.

Now the town of St Albans is small and has close proximity to Hatfield. It is better developed, has great entertainment and night life. But what I personally love about the place is its architecture, the cathedrals, hand paved roads, history and a rich filming heritage. It is perhaps the most ‘European town’ in the UK I’ve had the pleasure of visiting. Also, it is the home town of Stanley Kubric! enough said?

20130310_164611
Towards the most famous pub in St Albans. Naturally I do not remember the name of the place 😛

The film festival comprised of a series of film screenings, actor workshops and exhibits during the day and social events in the evenings. The events were scattered all around the towns historical sites hence it was quite adventurous sorting out each venue on foot in the rustic ambiance.

I met some really amazing people here. Actors, directors, filmmakers, publicist etc. Self starters all with the common aim to collaborate and create something beautiful. One group of people I made friends with were these Spanish girls who were contesting in the short films category. They turned out to be big fans of Salvador Dali and Stanley Kubric much to my excitement. Honestly I mean how many desi-girls do you meet who share the exact same passions in art, love and politics as you do? We ended up checking out all the events together and became quite chummy. What followed was a crazy hearty evening full of fun, drama, romance and promises to stay in touch.

One of the exhibits was inside a clock tower at the town center. It comprised of a series of human characters dressed up in bizarre medieval fashion all set to complement movie characters from a surreal film screening at another venue. The claustrophobic staircase inside the tower made the whole experience even more bizarre. However on reaching the top we were greeted with an amazing view of the town and a local guide who explained its rich history. For me it was quite liberating walking in to an open space and facing the clouds. I love rooftops and have not been to a single one since I arrived in the UK.

clock tower
The Clocktower – sounds familiar to a Clockwork Orange doesn’t it

This festival was like a breath of fresh air after successfuly surviving the English winter and crappy food. I suppose the end message here besides the razzle dazzle of travel is that to meet more people like yourself you need to dive head first in to the moment. Do not give a rats ass of what others think, within reason of course. At least that’s what works for me. With time you do find exactly what you were searching for, it takes patience yes but above all it requires conviction on your own idyosyncarcies. Not an easy thing to do.

It helps that over here you can meet people that are tailored to your needs, moods, interests and personality. But maybe that principle can be applied everywhere in the world. Maybe one needs to try harder.

Living the East Meets West Dream

One of the many assignments required of us in my MA program was a feature that had to be of a publishing standard. The intention naturally was to pitch and try to get it published in a commercial UK based publication. My piece was on my experiences in Turkey in the summer of 2011.

I was quite excited when HuffingtonpostUK accepted my pitch and asked for a copy. Although it did not make it to their website I can hold my chest up high knowing they considered my story. Following is my final copy:

 

Setting foot outside my country for the first time to a place as wonderful as Turkey, to meet a girl I have only known through the internet seemed like a great idea when I was planning this vacation five months ago. Now punch-drunk-love for real on a bus to Kuşadası, my mind was exhausted from traveling and the experience of landing in Istanbul Sabiha Gökçen international airport.

After 20 hours of cheap airline food and excitement if you find out from a local travel agent that Bulgarian girls are known to con men to get their money, nobody can blame you for having thoughts of just dropping the façade and going back home.

I had simply taken a leap of faith and set out to find my free spirited friend from Bulgaria, our rendezvous point Istanbul! But now that I had made it to this rock, conquered the finances, navigated through the visa issues unique to Pakistanis, taken leave from work, now what? Will she even come?

I was going to spend four days exploring Kuşadası, an offbeat resort town on the western coast of Turkey before returning to Istanbul to meet her. Why couldn’t I have just gone to Dubai or Bangkok instead? As comical as my predicament sounded, especially being a Pakistani, it seemed too late to turn back now.

 

Kuşadası an offbeat trail

The hotel Asia Apart in Kuşadası didn’t look much and was the cheapest single room I could find on Expedia.com. But to my intense surprise this fact worked out for my benefit, for being small and family-run meant that the patrons were treated warmly as if guests in a household.

While visiting historic sites like Ephesus, St John’s church and St Mary’s shrine in the dry-sunny Mediterranean weather was something I had never done before, enjoying a cold lager by the harbor close to sunset and reflecting on these visits was truly an out of world experience for me (alcohol is prohibited in my country for all practical purposes).

Thus after the hectic events of the past few days it was finally beginning to feel like a vacation.

I have known Gergana for 10 years. We met in an online chat room and continued to stay in touch over emails. Skype came later on. We practically grew up together and even though we haven’t met I knew so much about this person at the other end of the world.

After four days of enjoying a utopian time in a rustic Kuşadası, it was time to return to Istanbul and pick my friend from the bus station.

This was it.

 

Feeling Just Right in Istanbul

Now Istanbul with its unique geography has an exotic aura unlike any other cosmopolitan city center in the world. I remember being nervous waiting in the arrivals section but when our eyes met, the abstract nature of our relationship vanished. We hugged and exchanged formalities, a bit dumbstruck at first that this was finally happening.

After freshening up we had a nice dinner in an upscale restaurant that had a magnificent view; facing the iconic Istanbul skyline, above rows upon rows of city lights, in the distance the two mosques shimmering in their mighty splendor and the Bosphorus strait separating Asia from Europe. Some blessed soul out there was blazing fireworks which were periodically lighting up the night sky next to a full golden moon. I hungrily absorbed every bit of it and realized that our story was turning out to be a blend of ‘East meets West’ in every sense of the term.

She told me she had just two days before returning back to Sofia or before her dad who was already apprehensive about the mysterious Pakistani phone codes in the bills discovered where she had been. Often at times I would guide her about in places we would visit, pay for her bus fare and among other things look after her. There were many amusing similarities between my strange European friend and Pakistani women. Nevertheless our odd combination would often raise eyebrows.

At other times there were small things about her that were both annoying and fascinating; like a strong distaste for throwing cigarette butts on the road or leaving empty bottles behind.

By far our best moment together was walking hand in hand, over the Galata Bridge when the weather was a nice blend of chill and sweat of a sleepy Istanbul summer night. And though our parting was rather prosaic, both of us having accepted the magic of it all lay in the moment, I had an emotional breakdown when I returned home.

An Afterthought

My family has a construction business back home and does rather well. I however have always known that my future lay somewhere else. Taking this vacation gave me the strength to leave it all behind and pursue a career in creative writing.

As for me and Gergana, it does not matter what happens next perhaps we will meet again perhaps we won’t. The important thing is that we shared some incredible moments. Our relationship is pure and free from deceit something only a lucky few get to experience in such a grand fashion.

 

The End