Sunday, 22 September 2019

Pakistan's Kashmir obsession: unhealthy and unrealistic?


As the Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan arrives in New York for the latest session of the United Nations General Assembly it's necessary for Pakistanis to ask exactly what the country can do about Indian Kashmir.

Muzaffarabad is the largest city and capital of Azad Jammu and Kashmir. It is located near the confluence of the Jhelum and Neelum Rivers and is a four hour drive from Islamabad, Pakistan's capital. (Source: Wikipedia: Obaid 747) 
The country's economic managers are walking around with a begging bowl because the country cannot pay its bills leave alone spend money on national development. The Pakistan Banao (Bachao?) Certificates launched with great fanfare early in Khan's term and designed to raise Pakistan's foreign currency reserves have done little to strengthen reserves.

The economy is in the midst of a serious downturn with no recovery in sight for at least the coming 18-24 months. Large scale manufacturing is shrinking while small and medium sized enterprises labor under the effects of increased taxation, a sharp drop in the value of the Rupee and an emasculated consumer struggling to make ends meet while losing more discretionary income with each passing day given an official inflation rate above thirteen percent.

The country is running out of water but has no money to build dams. Despite arm twisting and 'forced donations' (e.g. via each Pakistan Railways ticket sold) the Supreme Court's Dam Fund is nowhere near numbers required to seriously assist with the urgent building of dams across the country. Indeed, the much hyped Dam Fund has become a hazy memory for most and an embarrassing one for those promoting crowdfunding as an alternate means to pay for massive national infrastructural projects. 

The electricity situation is no better. Despite suffering shortages and brownouts for the last several decades, Pakistan has been unable to fix its electricity load shedding problem until today. Much of the country suffers hours without electricity daily in both Winter and Summer months. Even when electricity is available it is not stable with voltage fluctuations playing havoc with machinery; a disincentive for manufacturing concerns requiring stable, uninterrupted electricity for normal operations.

The country has no proper waste management systems. Without a drastic betterment in urban sanitation levels improvements in preventive healthcare will remain wanting. (Picking up litter from urban areas and dumping it on the outskirts of cities so it is out of sight does not constitute proper waste management.) It's not surprising Pakistan is one of the only countries where polio still afflicts children. 

The air quality in Pakistan's cities is rapidly deteriorating due to pollution. Indeed, Lahore is blanketed by haze virtually on a daily basis with air quality moving into the healthy range an exception to the daily norm. Islamabad and Karachi are not far behind. This is the air Pakistan's infants breathe daily – and there is no shortage of infants given the country's fertility rate.

Pakistan cannot provide adequate food, housing, education or medical care to the majority of Pakistanis. In many households, animals are more precious than women, who have few effective social or economic freedoms. 
All these problems are compounded by Pakistan's unbridled population growth with its population increasing exponentially every few decades.

So as PM Khan travels back to Pakistan in a few days on on a borrowed Saudi luxury jet he may wish to ask himself what's more important for Pakistan's two hundred million plus citizens: ratcheting up Kashmir hysteria a few more notches or implementing a national development agenda on a war footing?

Imran is a Singapore based Tour Guide with a special interest in arts and history. Imran has lived and worked in several countries during his career as an international banker. He enjoys traveling, especially by train, as a way to feed his curiosity about the world and nurture his interest in photography. He is available on twitter (@grandmoofti); Instagram(@imranahmedsg) and can be contacted at imran.ahmed.sg@gmail.com.

Saturday, 7 September 2019

Hong Kong: heading towards irrelevance?


A few days ago a friend in the United States asked for my opinion on recent events in Hong Kong (HK). He prefaced his question with Chinese claims about international (read ‘Western’) involvement in stoking the unrest.

Admittedly, my response is not an essay worthy of Foreign Policy magazine. Nonetheless, for interested readers I have reproduced my response below.

Surely, there are 'agent provocateurs' within the HK protest scene. Intelligence agencies directly or at least indirectly are involved with the unrest. There is also a cyber war underway and both parties are pushing their respective narrative through social media.

However, the scale, depth and duration - it's been three months now - suggest genuine underlying grievances garnering popular support from a broad segment of the Hong Kong population.

A view of the protest demonstration in Hong Kong on June 9, 2019 (source: Wikipedia)
HK has historically been a society divided between the ‘haves’ and the ‘have nots’ so perhaps the fear of being left behind among those not in the civil or business elite, especially in light of recent increases in property prices is one major factor?

However, in a general sense Hong Kongers have not mentally accepted their accession to the People’s Republic of China (PRC). That psychological transformation from a British colony to a Special Administrative Region(SAR) of the PRC has not yet been made.

The reality for Hong Kongers is there is no going back to the previous status quo.

There is virtually no possibility of HK being given significantly more autonomy leave alone independence. That parts of the international community are providing 'hope' to protesters suggests, at least to some extent, these protesters are being used by segments of the international community to further their political agendas.

HK had lost its privileged position as a gateway financial hub for the PRC some years ago. PRC 2019 is not the PRC which (re)acquired HK in 1997. 

In the larger context, these protests are accelerating HK’s irrelevance. Within a decade or so HK will simply be another Chinese regional city, like Nanjing, Tianjin, Xian, etc. Surely, like all these smaller Chinese cities, HK will maintain a unique identity based on its own history.

But will HK remain a global, regional or international financial powerhouse and privileged gateway to mainland China? No. HK will become merely another wealthy, entrepreneurial Chinese coastal city.

Ideally, Hong Kongers should embrace their fate (some might even suggest good fortune?) as an SAR within the largest - and still growing - economy in the world. Subsequently, HK can consolidate its competitive strengths within the PRC context to secure a brighter future. 

However, time is fast running out for Hong Kongers to change the current trajectory.


Imran is a Singapore based Tour Guide with a special interest in arts and history. Imran has lived and worked in several countries during his past career as an international banker. He enjoys traveling, especially by train, as a way to feed his curiosity about the world and nurture his interest in photography. He is available on twitter (@grandmoofti); Instagram (@imran_traveller) and can be contacted at imran.ahmed.sg@gmail.com

Monday, 20 May 2019

Of Mardin's monasteries, wine and stone houses


From Gaziantep it was onwards to Mardin. Mardin was high on my visit list as it is at the confluence of several religious and cultural inflection points. Among others, Mardin is a cocktail of Arab, Armenian, Syrian Orthodox Christian and Turkish influences.

The narrow stone streets and houses
of Mardin's old city (Photo: Imran Ahmed)
Mardin is so close to the Iraqi and Syrian borders that kite flying may easily turn into a crossborder activity if one is not careful! Arabic is widely spoken in the city. Historic Armenian, Greek and Syrian Orthodox monasteries and churches dot the region.

Inside one of the many historic
churches found across Mardin (Photo: Imran Ahmed)
Like many cities in Turkey, Mardin has an old and a new section. 

For travelers the stone houses and narrow lanes of the old city hold more charm than the new, high rise buildings and supermarkets of Yenisehir or New City. Walking around the old city there is always a chance of running into an ancient place of worship or monument, e.g. Mor Behnam Kırklar Kilisesi, Zinciriye Medresesi or the Mardin Museum. Not to mention the Protestant Church, Ulu Cami (Grand Mosque) or the Mardin Evleri.

The courtyard of the historic
Syrian Orthodox Church in Mardin (Photo: Imran Ahmed)
While in Mardin, there are some worthwhile day trips to consider, e.g. to nearby monasteries – functioning monasteries with entrance fees and guided tours! 

There is also the historic town of Hassankeyf - which may be underwater by the time you read this post. Hassankeyf is expected to be submerged by June 2019 as a large dam has been built close by. Once the dam's reservoir is filled then the existing town will be underwater. It's worth noting some historic monuments and the town's entire population have been moved to the 'New' Hassankeyf located not far from the 'original' town.

The 'new' Hassankeyf town on the
Tigris River in the Batman province near Mardin (Photo: Imran Ahmed)
Wine is another attraction in Mardin. Remember the monasteries mentioned above? Well, these monks and their friends ferment wine from local grapes in large quantities. It's reasonably priced (or cheap if you're buying wine in a highly taxed environment like Singapore) and easy drinking. The wine is readily available in shops dotted on the main street of the old city.

Grapes from the Midyat valley produces decent
wine which is easily available across Mardin city (Photo: Imran Ahmed)
Mardin is about architecture and history. It's about soap (yes, there's a lot of good locally produced soap around) and wine. It's about narrow lanes and stone houses. It's about keeping alive Christian monuments and practices in a country which is 99.8% Muslim (according to Turkish government sources). For travelers heading to Turkey's east, Mardin is a necessary stop.
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Imran is a Singapore based Tour Guide with a special interest in arts and history. Imran has lived and worked in several countries during his career as an international banker. He enjoys traveling, especially by train, as a way to feed his curiosity about the world and nurture his interest in photography. Presently, Imran is spending ten weeks (March – May 2019) in Turkey exploring the country. He is available on twitter (@grandmoofti); Instagram(@imranahmedsg) and can be contacted at imran.ahmed.sg@gmail.com.

Saturday, 18 May 2019

Gaziantep or Antep: it's still mosaics, castles, pistachios and coffee


It's a short bus journey from Adana to Gaziantep. Antep, as the city is informally known, is almost 200 kilometers east of Adana and not far from the Syrian border - Aleppo is less than 100 kilometers drive south.


Antep Castle (Photo: Imran Ahmed)
Antep's history stretches back to the Stone Age - remember the Stone Age from your history classes?!. That means the city has been continuously inhabited for over a million years with various powers, i.e. the Assyrians, Persians, Romans, Byzantines and finally the Turks (Seljuk and Ottoman) in control of the area.

Though it is Ataturk and the later Ottoman period which drives me to Turkey, the country also houses some amazing historical artefacts. A taste of this history is available at the Zeugma Mosaic Museum in Antep. The museum houses a diverse and breathtaking collection of mosaics. 

One of the most famous mosaics on display
at the Zeugma Mosaic Museum, Antep, Turkey (Photo: Imran Ahmed)
Much of the art focuses on the ancient city of Zeugma, a city believed to have been founded by Alexander's army in 300 BC. Zeugma, which literally means “bridge” or “crossing” in ancient Greek, gets its name as it was located at a major ancient crossing point on the river Euphrates. The archaelogical site of Zeugma is on the UNESCO World Heritage Tentative List.

Other than the Mosaic Museum, Antep is home to a Hamam Museum. The Hamam – or Turkish bath – is an integral part of Turkish culture. The museum is compact but provides a great introduction to the multifacted hamam culture found across the Ottoman Turkish empire.

The Hamam Museum is conveniently located next to the well preserved Antep Castle

So what, you say? Every Turkish city has an old castle and they all look and feel the same. Well, yes, but there is one difference in Antep. To get to the top of the castle visitors walk through a well constructed tunnel outlining the history of the Turkish War of Independence, specifically Antep's role in the War. Unfortunately the commentary is in Turkish so non-Turkish speakers can only view the visuals and guess at the commentary!

Menengic or pistachio coffee as served in one of Antep's many coffee shops (Photo: Imran Ahmed)
If history is not your thing then focus on the word 'fistik!' Fistik is the Turkish word for pistachio and there are a lot of pistachios in the region. 

The Antep fistik is famous throughout Turkey. It's plentiful and it's cheap. Try these nuts (technically pistachios arer drupes - a type of fruit – and not nuts!) straight from the shell, in baclava sweets or even in a type of pistachio coffee called menengic.

Antep has an unique place in Turkish history. No travels to Turkey's east are complete without at least a brief stopover in Gaziantep. From Alexander's general who started the Zeugma settlement, to the city's heroic defense during the War of Independence, Antep has it's own story to tell. Undoubtedly, Antep's story is incomplete without mentioning the word fistik. Taste it for yourself! 


Imran is a Singapore based Tour Guide with a special interest in arts and history. Imran has lived and worked in several countries during his career as an international banker. He enjoys traveling, especially by train, as a way to feed his curiosity about the world and nurture his interest in photography. Presently, Imran is spending ten weeks (March – May 2019) in Turkey exploring the country. He is available on twitter (@grandmoofti); Instagram(@imranahmedsg) and can be contacted at imran.ahmed.sg@gmail.com.

Friday, 17 May 2019

The Girl on the Train: a film review


The Girl on the Train directed by Tate Taylor based on the best selling novel by Paula Hawkins was perhaps better left as a novel. For the first hour of the almost two hour long movie it was difficult to follow the plot or make a mental note of the characters. Yes, the pace improved in the second half and, at the very least, the main characters were no longer confusing.


The story revolves around an alcoholic divorcee woman, Rachel, who becomes obsessed with a couple living in a house she passes on her daily commute into Manhattan. One day during these daiy voyeuristic commutes Rachel witnesses the woman kissing a man who is not her husband. Having been through a divorce with an unfaithful husband – who lives in their jointly purchased house a few doors down from the couple she obsesses about – Rachel loses it.

Rachel, known for making unannounced visits to her ex-husband's home, subsequently tries to visit the apparently unfaithful woman (Megan) to give her a piece of her mind. Unfortunately for Rachel as she was in her usual drunken stupor she has little recollection of what transpired during that fateful visit. Unfortunate because that night Megan mysteriously disappeared. 

The story slowly unravels and the viewer pieces together the puzzle, all the while learning more about each character. (Yes, you know the old adage: don't judge a book by its cover.) 

The Girl on the Train is billed as a psychological thriller on many move sites. That's a fallacy. At best it's a mystery - albeit incuding a side role for a mysterious psychiatrist. Only the strength of the acting held it together with great performances put in by the cast. In case anyone's asking, I would say the book might be the better bet!


Imran is a Singapore based Tour Guide with a special interest in arts and history. Imran has lived and worked in several countries during his career as an international banker. He enjoys traveling, especially by train, as a way to feed his curiosity about the world and nurture his interest in photography. He is available on twitter (@grandmoofti); Instagram(@imranahmedsg) and can be contacted at imran.ahmed.sg@gmail.com.

Thursday, 9 May 2019

Adana: much more than a kebab


From Konya it was onward to Adana. Adana is a nice sized city of 1.75 million persons located 35 kilometers inland from the Mediterranean coast. The Seyhan River flows through the city.

It's not difficult to reach Adana. Intercity public buses ply regularly to Adana from Konya. There is also a Turkish Railways (TCDD) train – the Toros Express – which travels between the two cities daily in a six hour rail journey.

Photo: Imran Ahmed
As I always find train travel more comfortable than buses choosing the Toros Express was a no-brainer - despite knowing TCDD's old fashioned diesel electric locomotive trains are not fanous for their punctuality (arriving two hours late may be considered 'on time!').

A Turkish Railways diesel electric locomotive stands at the head
of the Toros Express train at Konya station (Photo: Imran Ahmed)
The Toros Express train reached Adana after dark and we took a taxi to the hotel. Sitting in the taxi observing the city on the drive to the hotel I felt a sense of panic and dread. The hotel seemed in the middle of nowhere surrounded only by commercial warehouses! After check-in all I could see from our hotel window were a few trees and total darkness!

Things are always clearer when the sun ishines, i.e. during daylight. So it was with Adana. It turned out the empty space across the hotel was a park and beyond the park flowed the Seyhan River. In other words, the hotel's location was perfect!

Adana was a great place to rest and destress. Sure, there are several sights worth exploring, such as the grand Sabanci Merkez Cami or Sabanci Central Mosque but at its heart, Adana is for rest and recreation not for visiting six different attractions daily over a weekend.

The Sabanci Merkezi Cami (Photo: Imran Ahmed)
Nonetheless, it's hard to miss the Sabanci Mosque – nor should one miss it. The mosque is built on the banks of the Seyhan River and it is huge! It can accommodate 28,500 faithful for prayers, has six minarets with the tallest being 99 meters. Those numbers may not mean much to many but trust me the mosque is large. In fact, at the time of writing it is the largest mosque in Turkey (though soon to be surpassed by the official opening of a new mosque in Istanbul).

The banks of the Seyhan River (Photo: Imran Ahmed)
Though there are sights other than the mosque, the recommended plan for Adana is walk around the bazaar, eat some Adana kebab and, most importantly, stroll along the promenade by the Seyhan River – past the Sabanci Merkez Mosque – stop for a Turkish cay (tea) and simply soak in the environment. In today's information filled, wired society the soothing sounds of Turkey's longest river flowing toward the Mediterranean Sea is enough to add Adana to any Turkey travel itinerary.


Imran is a Singapore based Tour Guide with a special interest in arts and history. Imran has lived and worked in several countries during his career as an international banker. He enjoys traveling, especially by train, as a way to feed his curiosity about the world and nurture his interest in photography. Presently, Imran is spending ten weeks (March – May 2019) in Turkey exploring the country. He is available on twitter (@grandmoofti); Instagram(@imranahmedsg) and can be contacted at imran.ahmed.sg@gmail.com.

Saturday, 4 May 2019

Why ten weeks in Turkey? Blame Ataturk and the Ottoman Turks!


Spending ten weeks in any country outside your own is a commitment. It costs money, requires energy and, most importantly, the country must tickle your fancy. And, it uses ten weeks of your life – time which can never be recovered!


Our journey starts in Istanbul and gradually moves eastwards until Kars. Along the way we take in one city on the Black Sea coast, i.e, Trabzon. Finally, from Kars we head back to Istanbul via Ankara on the Dogu Express train. 
But why Turkey?

I first visited Turkey in 2003. Following that first trip, I continued traveling to Turkey at regular intervals, including twice by train from Istanbul to London, Britain and an Istanbul to Tbilisi, Georgia by rail / road journey in 2018.

However, my relationship with Turkey started much earlier and it was due to a gentleman called Mustafa Kemal (1881 – 1938) aka Ataturk.

In my youth – and in my family (as was the case with many Pakistani families) – Ataturk was revered as a modernizing Muslim leader, on par with Quaid-e-Azam Mohammad Ali Jinnah and Dr Muhammad Iqbal. Here was a leader destined to pull the Islamic world towards progress following centuries of decay and stupor. He was a uniting force in a world where Muslims were (are?) torn, divided and at the mercy of Western nations.

To be sure, for millions of Muslims around the world Ataturk inherited the honorific leadership position held for centuries by the Ottoman Sultan in his capacity as Caliph of the Sunni Muslim world. Ataturk, however, not only inherited the leadership title, he earned the respect of millions through his exploits as a military officer during World War I and the ensuing Turkish War of Independence.

Postcard depicting the 'Sick Man of Europe' being devoured by other European countries (Circa: early 20th century)
When World War I ended in 1918, the defeated Ottoman Empire's carcass was being devoured by victorious European colonial powers, i.e. Britain and France. Istanbul was occupied by French and British forces. Izmir was to be handed over to the Greeks, Armenia and Russia were encroaching on eastern Anatolia with only a small rump in Anatolia allocated as living space for Muslim Turks.

Ataturk, the hero of Gallipoli and the father of modern, Republican Turkey was the military leader who - with some good fortune and masterful leadership – saved Ottoman Turkey from the devouring colonial powers. Ultimately, through the 1923 Treaty of Laussanne the Allies recognized modern Turkey and its present borders. In return, Turkey renounced all claims to former Ottoman Empire territories, including in the the Middle East.

Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the saviour and founder of modern Turkey (Photo: Wikipedia)
Students of history understand that history is like a cyclone. Once you get caught in the torrents of history the only way forward is by going deeper towards the center. That's what happened to me. After studying Ataturk it became obvious the man had to be placed in the broader context of the Turkish Ottoman Empire.

So it went, from studying the Mogul Empire I turned to the Ottoman Empire. I've not looked back since then.

Finally, in 2003 I became just one more number in Turkey's tourism statistics with my maiden visit to Istanbul. Since 2003, Turkey has been on the travel agenda regularly, though in fits and starts. Recently, it became apparent that if I am to deepen my relationship with Turkey I must broaden it beyond Istanbul. Moreover, I've already paid my respects at Ataturk's mausoleum in Ankara so it's time to move into the Anatolian heartlands.

That's where we are today, Turkey for ten weeks, including two long stays in Istanbul (arrival and departure) plus three to five nights in each of the following cities: Bursa, Eskisehir, Konya, Adana, Gaziantep, Diyarbakir, Mardin, Van, Agri, Erzerum, Trabzon, Kars and finally Ankara.

By the end of this trip, not only should I speak a smattering of Turkish words but also have a better understanding of Turks and Turkey. At least, that's the hope!

Imran is a Singapore based Tour Guide with a special interest in arts and history. Imran has lived and worked in several countries during his career as an international banker. He enjoys traveling, especially by train, as a way to feed his curiosity about the world and nurture his interest in photography. Presently, Imran is spending ten weeks (March – May 2019) in Turkey exploring the country. He is available on twitter (@grandmoofti); Instagram(@imranahmedsg) and can be contacted at imran.ahmed.sg@gmail.com.