Saturday, April 23, 2016

Home, Pt. 1

In his new book Peninsula, Rehman Rashid started off by hypothesizing that ‘there are two ways to belong to a place: to be born there, and to die there.’

I have been thinking long and hard about this premise, coming as it does at an opportune time when I am exploring, at times questioning my own bearing. Home, in its physical embodiment as well as an emotional experience has always been a subject that fascinates me. Our intense association with places are truly unique; the places we were born in, memories of homelands and cities where we decide to pursue our dreams are all fragments that shape our present identity.

My family moved to Shah Alam 18 years ago following my father’s work transfer. We had never lived outside our hometown of Terengganu previously, so to say that adjusting to life in a new city was tough is an understatement. I imagine it must have been especially hard for my parents, hauling 4 young kids to an unfamiliar territory with different social settings and high cost of living. My sister too found schooling in the city a rough ball game; she would come back home after school crying, begging my parents to get her out of the ordeal.

But the beauty of humans is we are bound to adapt to our surroundings sooner or later. Taking my own family’s case as a sample, 18 years on we could hardly imagine living in anywhere but Shah Alam.

Using Rehman’s notion of home, it is easy then to surmise that home, to me is Terengganu, my hometown, and potentially Shah Alam, where I spend the majority of my time. Where then, does the space in between belong? Surely other temporary abodes, the choices we made before deathbed are worth a mention? If I choose to leave Shah Alam tomorrow, where does the city I spent 18 years in relegate to in the wider spectrum?

I am reminded of the Afghan father character in The Kite Runner, who never seems to belong truly to America despite meeting his Maker there. His birth country of Afghanistan was in full custody of his soul from the minute he left the country down to the moment the soul left his body. Home, in this instance, is part-association of the past, part-aspiration of unknown future (for even if he did get back to Afghanistan, the country may no longer be what he once knew). Our longing for the place we belong, real or imagined is what pushes us, sometimes at the expense of present comfort and ambitions.

So in trying to embrace the dictum of Rehman, I conclude there are rooms for the ties to the past regardless of distance, and also rooms for men with desire to tempt fate and shape their future. The definition of the former is loose; the past is not restricted to birth place but includes family links and identity, odd new surroundings and transitory rest stops. The present is a moving object, such that today’s event will become tomorrow’s past. In a way, home can be anywhere we set our foot in, with perhaps a closer link to a piece of our soul than a piece of soil.

Wednesday, December 30, 2015

2015: Year in Books

So the curtains of 2015 are trickling to a close, which means it is time for a personal reflection of things done well & gone wrong in the past year. Because I have no interest in sharing the highs & lows of my private life, I will instead do a countdown of the year's favourite books.

This has also become a somewhat mandatory effort, because at some point this year I found myself unable to keep track of the books I have read. Not only I had troubles recollecting the contents or key takeaways from some titles, there were times when I was unable to tell if I have read them. Which is a shame, because the whole idea of reading to me is to extract the information & get better courtesy of them. I suppose one cannot escape the slow descent towards forgetfulness with old age.

2015 has by no means been a prolific year for me reading-wise, but the list (in random order) is my best attempt at capturing the year's notable ones (they are the books I read, as opposed to published this year):

1. The Everything Store: Jeff Bezos & the Age of Amazon by Brad Stone

If you love Walter Isaacson's splendid biography of Steve Jobs, chances are you will like this book too. For the uninitiated, Jeff Bezos is the founder & current CEO of Amazon. On the face of it, both him & the late Steve Jobs men strike casual observes as similar - innovative Silicon Valley entrepreneurs who set out to change the world. But while their early history & drive to reach their purpose are mirror-image of each other, the personalities & approach could not be more different. They say character maketh a man, & if that is true close examinations of the 2 men reveal remarkable insights into the contrasting styles that lead to success.

The book chronicles Amazon's stratospheric rise from a basement online bookseller to Bezos' vision of 'The Everything Store'. The chapters are intertwined with Bezos' own personal story, making this part a concise history of the company, part biography of the visionary founder. As you would probably imagine, not all that goes behind the exercise of building an empire is smooth-sailing. Wrong bets, failed negotiations & parting of partners throughout the rise of the company are all captured earnestly by the author. The book also makes no attempt to hide Amazon's much-criticized corporate cultures & Bezos' enigmatic characters, all of which makes for a fascinating read.

2. Why Nations Fail by Daron Acemoğlu & James A. Robinson

Why Nations Fail explores the age-old question that has bugged historians, social scientists, economists & their ilks for centuries - why do some societies advance more than others? Present-day instances (South vs. North Koreas, US vs. Mexico, etc.) along with snippets of history (colonialism in Africa, rise of Japan, etc.) are compiled to make for convincing case studies. Using the conclusion derived from these studies, the book also makes an attempt to predict the way some of the world's biggest nations are going.

In terms of historical & factual accuracy, this books admittedly is not perfect. It has a tendency to dismiss well-established theories from researchers of the same subject, while some historical accounts used to support the premise were inaccurate. Interestingly the authors' effort at simplicity in presenting the arguments is also what makes it a page-turner in a mould few other books on social sciences I encountered achieved.

3. Tenggelamnya Kapal van der Wijck by Hamka

Boy meets girl, they fall in love. Girl then meets a more handsome, richer boy & has a change in heart. The premise of this classic from Hamka is a cliché to most, but do not let that discourage you. To me there are 2 aspects of the book that makes this such a wonderful read; criticisms of the society through storytelling & the use of alluring Bahasa Melayu.

Selain dikenali sebagai seorang penulis, perlu diingat Hamka juga adalah seorang ulama. Tenggelamnya Kapal van der Wijck boleh dilihat sebagai usaha dakwah secara halus melalui cerita cinta dua anak muda. Susur galur cerita adalah berkisarkan kehidupan masyarakat Minang penuh tradisi yang tak lapuk dek hujan, tak lekang dek panas. Dalam usaha mempertahankan tradisi nenek moyang, tentu sekali ada golongan kurang beruntung nasib yang dipinggirkan hingga terpaksa makan hati berulam jantung, membawa diri ke tanah lain. Melalui konflik watak-watak utama, Hamka secara sinis memberi kritikan kepada masyarakat tempatan yang sering mementingkan darjat & kedudukan sambil meminggirkan nilai-nilai seperti budi pekerti & kesetiaan.

Jalan cerita digarap dengan penggunaan bahasa yang begitu halus, sekaligus memberi kepuasan kepada jiwa yang jarang sekali terhibur dengan kualiti penulisan terbitan tempatan. Dakwah Hamka bahawa setiap jiwa yang hidup pasti ada ketentuan daripada Tuhan tidak lepas daripada pandangan & begitu menginsafkan. 

4. The Disappearing Spoon & Other True Tales of Madness, Love & the History of the World from the Periodic Table of the Elements by Sam Kean

For the sake of brevity, let us first agree to call this book The Disappearing Spoon.

As the title suggests, this history-cum-scientific book explores the incredible (at times tragic) stories behind each element in the Periodic Table. The tales shine some light on important characters who contributed to the discovery & subsequent development of individual chemical elements, with frequent twists & conflicts that promise to be both entertaining & informational. Sam Kean's style of storytelling reminds me a lot of Bill Bryson's, with obvious reference to The Short History of Nearly Everything.

Chapters are short & arranged, not surprisingly according to their groupings in the Periodic Table, making this an easy read. This also has an advantage of allowing chapters jumping, as one group in periodic table has little relations to others as you might recall from your secondary school chemistry lesson. In a perfect world, The Disappearing Spoon would be a useful reference tool for chemistry teachers all around the world in an effort to draw interest to the subject. But even if you are no fan of chemistry, The Disappearing Spoon is a book steeped in enlightening stories with plenty of relevance to day-to-day living.

5. The Corpse Exhibition & Other Stories of Iraq by Hassan Blasim

Do you have a tragic personal story? Now try to recount that story in your head. "That's a story? If I told my story to a rock, it would break its heart."

In what must have been one of the most memorable lines I ever encountered in literature, Hassan Blasim quashed your definition of tragic & brought our attention to the collective plight of the long-suffering Iraqis trapped between violent past & uncertain future.

This explosive work of fiction assembles short stories focusing on the Iraq war from the Iraqi perspective. Some words of caution, in case that is not quite clear already - there are bodies & blood everywhere, with smell of death in the air so this will not count as an easy read. When not shedding lights directly on the toil of war, the author gives us a peek at the seemingly normal routine of the fictional locals e.g. a street sweeper, a knife seller, but the twist is what appears as normal to these people are in truth far from so upon closer look, because lives, perspectives & behaviours are forever altered when all you see around you are grim pictures.

Bonus: A Malaysian Journey by Rehman Rashid

This year was my second time reading A Malaysian Journey, hence its exclusion from the main list.

The setting was the early 1990s, Malaysia was (& still is) a young country brimming with promise & the author, Rehman Rashid was back in the country after a long hiatus. In his attempt to understand the country better, Rehman embarked on a journey across all states to meet & explore the lives of the locals. Sounds romantic eh? The book unfurls promisingly with tales from Rehman's train journey from Thailand to the northernmost state of Perlis, which brought a hint of Robert Kaplan's romanticism. As Rehman made his way across the country, he traced family ties, met random strangers & reconnects with old peers, all while trying to understand the state of the nation & its future. 

There is also plenty of history for the readers - from Merdeka days right up to the Mahathirism era - as places like Taiping & Cameron Highlands were harked back to their bygone days. They say history always finds a way to repeat itself, & true to this as I ponder the lessons from the past on offer, I could not help but draw parallels to present-day situations. Rehman wrote without any fear or agenda, & while the ramblings may strike some as controversial, they also offer rare insights from one of the most genuine minds we ever had in journalism. Sadly, A Malaysian Journey was to be his first & last book.

The book probably makes the top 5 in the local authors category in my personal list. If you appreciate a trip down the history lane or you are a romantic nationalist like me, A Malaysian Journey is sure to give you a memorable journey.

Thursday, December 04, 2014

Dear Shahanaaz

Dear Shahanaaz,

I have wanted to pen this letter since August but somehow I was not able to find your email address. By sheer coincidence I stumbled upon your FB profile the other day & decided that this letter would finally find its rightful recipient. 

I am working with an oil company & was recently relocated to Iraq. It is a country that has always fascinated me, I knew since university days that my career choice would potentially take me here somehow & to say that I was glad when I finally landed the opportunity is an understatement. I wanted to learn more about the country before the relocation when I made my way to a local library in July & discovered, much to my delight, your book about your foray into the country circa US invasion in 2003.

Now to backtrack a little bit & put things in context – I was a mere schoolboy in 2003 at a boarding school with little connection & even less interests on the goings-on outside world.  In recent years, I have been trying to act like a responsible global citizen & catch up on all these historical events that I missed & found the cyclical tragedies in the Middle East to hold my interest.

Your book, written a whole decade ago now, offered great insights into the life of everyday local Iraqis who suffered greatly at the hands of factions hungry for power. I revelled in the works of war correspondents like Robert Fisk & Åsne Seierstad & while it is not a fair comparison, it is heartening to know that we too have our brave, single-minded journalists in our mix who are willing to go extra distance to be the first-hand witness of history & bring the stories home. Similarly I revelled in your descriptions of the Firdaus Square of Baghdad, the flowing Tigris, your encounter with roadside fish sellers on your drive down south & the depressing ruins of the once-mighty Babylon. Oftentimes we chased for the next big news, the latest scandals but it is the ground work & perspective of people like you that are priceless & ought to be celebrated. While I have so far not been able to visit the above places during my stint here because of the tight security measures, meeting & working with the Iraqis – most of whom have had first-hand experiences of the country’s turbulent years – has been an eye-opening experience, one that I am sure you of all people can relate to.

I look forward to reading more of your enlightening piece. Have a good day ahead & cheers!


Saturday, November 08, 2014

Iran – Travel in the Misunderstood Country

“Are you not afraid of being caught in a bomb attack?”

Sometime before my trip to Iran I casually asked a friend if he was interested in tagging along and received this immediate, half-joking response. Not an encouraging one as you can see, but in one short reply he summed up the public perception towards the country.

First of all, all the bombings that you may have heard about almost certainly took place in Iraq, which despite being Iran’s neighbour could not have been more different historically, culturally and in terms of political stability. Iran has been a peaceful country since the Iran-Iraq War in 1980s, and visiting the country is no different than visiting any other places that you may have in your agenda.

Why Iran?

Concern about the bombings aside, the average response I received when people learnt about my trip is why Iran, with the tone ranging from curiosity to bafflement. Admittedly, as exemplified by the above narration involving my friend, Iran is a country the rest of the world knows little about and certainly not on average travellers’ top destination list. What little we gather is normally not the rosiest of pictures, which is understandable because chances are the only brush with the country we have is through Ben Affleck’s Argo or the daily news propaganda fed by the Western media. Driven by the country’s mystic and personal quest for a unique travel experience, I did some research and soon realized that there are ordinary people behind the news headline, a red carpet into the country calling for travellers to make a beeline.  Instantaneously an interest began to form, the question of ‘Why Iran?’ changed to ‘Why not Iran?’ and I made up my mind that this is a place I just had to see to believe.

School girls in Tehran. No, they don't get bombed on the way to school.

So why not Iran? This is a country with civilization spanning thousands of years & boasting the great Persian Empire that at its height stretched from present Greece to India. The history & culture alone are a great selling point to any outsiders. In modern times, the Western economic sanctions imposed on the country shield the population from external influences and give birth to self-sustainable generations. The Islamic republic in short is a microcosm of a cruel social experiment; put 80 million people in a glass house, away from Western contacts and see whether they make or break. Fast-forward 30+ years later and you get Iran as it stands today; drenched from the experience but yet proud to be still standing.

Still not sold? Thanks to the good bilateral relationship between Iran & our country, Malaysians enjoy free visa-on-arrival for stay less than 15 days (visitors from most foreign countries on the other hand would have to fork out EUR 50-90 for the same visa). In addition, your trip does not have to cost a fortune; daily expenses including food, transport & hotel are generally on par with what you pay in KL.  

Itinerary – Where & How

It’s important to first and foremost reset our mind and recognize that Iran, despite the seemingly conservative population and decades of Western sanctions are in fact a modern country with admirable amenities especially that concern foreign travellers. Tehran, for example is a concoction of progressive and unprejudiced society (where ladies inner wear are sold in the open at the bazaar, for instance) with excellent metro network.

As with any other countries, you have the option of DIY or going with city/inter-city tours arranged by travel agencies. I chose the former, partly because I found the option doable from my research and also to save a bit of money.

A normal tourist route involves a trek along the southern part of the country, covering cities of Tehran, Kashan, Isfahan, Yazd and Shiraz. Tehran is the capital and Iran’s largest city, followed by Mashhad which is located north-east, near to neighbouring Turkmenistan but out of the way of the abovementioned route. Kashan and Yazd are small desert towns, traditionally the stopovers between Tehran-Isfahan and Isfahan-Shiraz respectively though they boast their own unique signatures and attractions. If you’re short of time, you may want to skip Kashan and Yazd and focus on the big three – Tehran, Isfahan and Shiraz.

All these cities are well-connected locally and regionally via land transports and international airports. Being the republic’s capital, Tehran is naturally a modern city with bustling traffic and great energy. The fast-paced lifestyle, epitomized by the throng of locals at the bazaar engaged in what seemed like an endless bout of speed walking can be pretty overwhelming – you would either grow to love it or you would want to pack your bag immediately and leave the city (which was what I did). Thankfully, Isfahan and its picturesque attractions offer a refreshing sight.  Amongst the three, Isfahan is perhaps the gem and certainly my favourite – their star attraction of Naqsh-e Jahan Square combined with glitzy bazaar and friendly people are not to be missed. Lastly, Shiraz prides herself as the birthplace of famous Persian poets and is also a short drive away from the historical Persepolis and Necropolis, important landmarks of the former Persian Empire.

Imam Mosque at Naqsh-e Jahan Square, Shiraz

Depending on where you choose to stay, most main attractions in the city are concentrated within good walking distance but if they are a little out of the way, taxi does not charge astronomical rates. For inter-city travels, the most popular mode of transport is the VIP bus, which is economical despite the name. Bus tickets can be reserved through travel agents or if you’re willing to take the risk, head to the bus stations and purchase the tickets for immediate departure as the routes are served by multiple bus companies with excellent frequency. When heading to any destinations on a bus or taxi, it might be a good idea to have them written in Farsi as not everybody can read the Roman alphabets or speak English (though many do).

A little note on currency and prices – the official currency of Iran is Iranian Rial and at the time of writing, 100,000 Rials give you roughly RM10. However because of historical link and the large currency unit, Iranians often express goods and prices in Toman in daily transactions where 1 Toman = 10 Rial. This became a major source of confusion for me in the first few days in the country and if you find yourself in Iran one day, it is best to check with the traders whether the price they quote is in Toman or Rial. For budgeting reference, a comfy single room at a decent 3-star hotel would set you at 800,000-1,000,000 Rials (that’s RM80-100) per night, a meal of rice or kebab and drinks costs around 100,000 Rials and a 15-20 mins taxi ride costs 100,000-150,000 Rials. In addition, Tehran metro only costs 5,000 Rials per ride while inter-city bus travel is pretty affordable at 150,000-200,000 Rials.  

Anti-US Government, iPhone-Loving People?

The hostility between Iran and the Western states can be traced back to the revolution and hostage crisis of 1979, but despite the fierce rhetoric from government heads, here’s an interesting opinion poll results – Iranians are second only to Israelis in a list of Middle Eastern countries most supportive of the US. Now, that is not to say holding favourable opinions of the Westerners are strictly positive traits, but it’s important to recognize that behind the layer of government there are ordinary people who lead normal lives as global moderates. It is fascinating to note that among the interesting characters I encountered during my trip include young Iranians who are passionate defenders of iPhones in Apple vs. Samsung row, listened to Hotel California on the radio and honest citizens who are well informed of failures of the government in performing their roles.

Prior to my trip, one thing I found all travellers to Iran on travel forums can agree upon is that Iranians are one of the friendliest, if not the friendliest people in the world. When you travel at an unfamiliar place, a random hello from a stranger or an invite to their house after a mere 5 minutes’ chat may set an alarm, but in Iran it is a common occurrence and you could just feel the genuine welcome the locals afford to newly-made foreign friends. During my travel in Tehran, a group of school girls at Bam-e Tehran shyly said hello and tried to converse with me using what little English words they could gather before asking me to take their pictures.  Over at Isfahan, I lost count the number of times I got stopped for a little chat with the locals before being invited to their shops or houses for chai while walking around Naqsh-e Jahan Square. Perhaps it is the rarity of encounters with outsiders that bar Iranians from prejudice and make them naive, or perhaps we are the ones naïve to think that distrust for strangers is a norm but whichever it was, the authenticity of their approach was certainly the highlight of my trip. It is not my place to say this but with the ongoing nuclear peace agreement between Iran and the Western world, the rightful lifting of sanction is just a matter of time, and if and when that happens, I hope the influx of outside world will not change the people because they are the country’s soul, their biggest unique asset.

So Long, Persia

I spent 9 days in Iran, covering Tehran, Isfahan, Yazd and Shiraz where I also made a short trip to Persepolis and Necropolis. In between Tehran and Isfahan, I had an unplanned detour to Mashhad where only the kindness of a stranger saved me from getting into further trouble and farther away from my original destinations.

Colourful interior of Nasir Al-Mulk Mosque, Shiraz

If you’re planning to go to Iran, be cautioned that travel information can be hard to come by but travel forums and blogs are reliable resources. Moreover, I found Wikitravel to come pretty handy too, offering concise travel information and hotel recommendation.

Will I go back to Iran? A resounding yes to Isfahan, and I would also like to explore a bit more of Shiraz but I’ll probably give Tehran a skip because I simply could not stand the noise and traffic (though I have strangely grown fond of their skilful taxi drivers). But don’t take my word for it; with Iran, more than any other places you simply have got to see it to appreciate their hidden beauty.

Sunday, August 03, 2014

New Day

I caught a glimpse of a glorious sunrise this morning, its golden hue so gentle & lovely as it spread its warmth & colour across the horizon. My eyes were immediately transfixed, I thought there couldn't be a better way to start my day.

I was reminded of Sydney, especially that particular morning a few days before leaving the city when a kind friend persuaded me to join him for a short drive to Maroubra Beach to watch the morning sun. I was pretty embarrassed to admit that I had never really watched a sunrise in a proper setting - the kind of setting that makes you pause & reflect about His bounties as you take in the surroundings.

I have been thinking a lot about Sydney lately, I think I miss her badly. Sometimes before I go to sleep, flashes of memory would come passing by to remind me about the people & places during my time in the city. The people, especially; some who had come by & left a permanent indent in me & others who played important parts but whom I inadvertently let go.

At some point a few years ago, I made a promise that I would take things slow, that I would appreciate the little things. I don't believe that I have failed completely, but at the same time I know that I may have deviated slightly. I'm still eternally thankful for the glimpse of sunrise, the memories which I hold dearly, the health of my parents & the desire to continue living, despite the setbacks.

Tuesday, October 01, 2013

Second Bite of the Cherry

I never actually planned to stop writing altogether, you see. I remember some years ago reading Henry David Thoreau's saying (which you can see on the top right of this blog) & thinking that 'Hey, let's take a little break here & figure out if you've really stood up to live', as Henry suggests. Turned out I took a  long time to get back to my figurative feet, & in the middle of that I forgot about writing altogether. It wasn't until a couple of months ago when I came across Pramoedya Ananta Toer's saying that I'm reminded about this blog again. In essence, he said that 'Orang boleh pandai setinggi langit, tapi selama ia tak menulis, ia akan hilang di dalam masyarakat & sejarah'. Ouch. Funny how my life decisions are driven by quotes from people I'm not even familiar with, but there you go.

I'm thankful for the second chance in life, the second bite of the cherry that's been presented to me in recent times. I've not particularly been a well-behaved kid, so to know that Allah does listen to my prayers is a humbling experience indeed. 

"To all those struggling & failing again & again, I tell you what I tell myself; today is a new day. Don't give up. Hajar didn't stop trying. Maybe today will be the day you finally get there, the day the 'impossible' happens. Maybe today will be the day water springs forth from the desert." - Yasmin Mogahed

Here's to life's second chance!

Sunday, March 17, 2013

Remember Me

I will forever remember you as the girl who cried over a lost jug.
I hope you will remember me too, as the guy who got lucky.

The balloon is free, for good this time.