Monday, 30 March 2015

Ataturk's withering Istanbul?

Istanbul is one of my favorite cities. I first visited Istanbul in February 2003, on the eve of the US invasion of Iraq. From 2003 onwards, I have visited Istanbul regularly.

In Istanbul, one cannot take more than a few steps without running into a historical monument or place of worship. Istanbul, after all, was the home of the Ottoman Empire – the Sublime Porte. An Empire which attempted to synthesize modernity and Islam, ultimately leading to the personality of Ataturk and ideas associated with Kemalism.

A painting of Ottoman era Istanbul. The Blue Mosque and the Hagia Sophia are visible in the background. 
For me, Turkey is Ataturk's Turkey. A nation pursuing a staunch, fascist-like, secular vision believing secularist thought is a prerequisite for modernizing society. Headscarves were not permitted in government institutions. Islamist tending politicians were persona non grata in Ankara, the nation's capital. Any deviation from Ataturk's path and the military flexes its muscles to remind society of the correct way. Remember Turkey's 'post-modern' coup and the fate of Erbekan's Islamist government in 1997?

Since 2003, Istanbul's character has changed. Along with the rest of the world, Turkey has seen a resurgence of religiosity in the post 9/11 environment. Ataturk's secular ideals have withered with time. Secularism is all but dead.

A process helped on its way by three successive governments formed by the Islamically inclined Justice and Development Party (AKP). Since the AKP's first election victory in 2002, the party swept the polls again in 2007 and most recently in 2011.

Tayyip Erdogan, in his capacity as Prime Minister from 2003-2014 and from 2014 as President, has presided over many far reaching changes in Turkish society. The headscarf debate is history. His wife – as Turkey's First Lady - adorns the headscarf at state functions. The AKP's symbolic victory in the headscarf debate underscores the increasing influence of religion in Ataturk's secular Turkey.

To the AKP's credit, Turkey has seen its status and image in the world transformed. With the largest standing army within the NATO alliance, Turkey was always an important state militarily. However, Turkey is now an economic powerhouse too. At the end of 2012, Istanbul had twenty-four billionaire residents, ranking it at number seven in the list of cities with the most billionaires. According to compiled by the CIA, Turkey's economy is the seventeenth largest in the world. It's GDP per capita on a purchasing parity basis is over USD 15,000. Turkish companies are global players with large overseas investments, particularly in neighboring Central Asian and Balkan states.

Politically, Turkey now pursues a more muscular and independent foreign policy – often bringing the country into conflict with its traditional US and NATO allies. Consider Turkey's vacillations over supporting Kurdish militias in battling extremist Islamic State fighters lodged in the Syrian city of Kobani. Or Turkey's increasingly active role in regional conflict zones such as Libya and Palestine.

Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the founder of the modern Turkish Republic, seen in his military uniform (1918)
Perhaps all of these changes simply represent a maturing of Turkish society? Or maybe the shift towards Islam is a belated recognition of the European Union's non-acceptance of Turkey as an European state? (Turkey has virtually abandoned the formal process of becoming an EU member state.) More likely, it is a combination of several factors. Whatever the reasons, the changes are unlikely to stop me from visiting Istanbul again in the coming years – as often as I possibly can. It remains a charmingly, beautiful city with many hidden secrets I have yet to uncover!
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, specially by train, as a way to feed his curiosity about the world and nurture his interest in photography. Imran can be contacted at

Tuesday, 24 March 2015

The Grand Moofti's (East and Central) European Rail Tour 2015

Following from my rail journey from Istanbul to London (via Bucharest, Budapest, Vienna, Munich, Cologne, Bruges) in late 2012, it was time to embark on another epic European land adventure. In 2015, my travels focus on Central and Eastern Europe, including three former Yugoslav republics.

The Sirkeji train station in Istanbul, Turkey. The starting point for Tour Europe 2015.
The 2015 itinerary – at the time of writing I am in Sarajevo – with planned mode of transport between cities is as follows:

Singapore – Istanbul (Turkey). Air.

Istanbul – Sofia (Bulgaria). Combination of bus and train.

Sofia – Belgrade (Serbia). Train.

Belgrade – Sarajevo (Bosnia). Bus.

Sarajevo – Mostar (Bosnia). Bus.

Mostar – Sarajevo (Bosnia). Train.

Sarajevo – Zagreb (Croatia). Train.

Zagreb – Budapest (Hungary). Train.

Budapest – Bratislava (Slovakia). Train.

Bratislava – Prague (Czech Republic). Train.

Prague – Munich (Germany). Train.

Munich – London (England). Train. End of journey.

London – Singapore. Air.

I will pen my thoughts as I go along. Follow my experiences on Twitter (@grandmoofti) and on this blog.

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, specially by train, as a way to feed his curiosity about the world and nurture his interest in photography. Imran can be contacted at

Wednesday, 4 March 2015

Pakistan's Peshawar: Gandharan relics, warriors and food all wrapped in Pashtun hospitality!

In only a few days Peshawar and its people have won me over! The City of Flowers history, tradition and warm people have more than compensated for the awful dark skies and rain which welcomed me to the provincial capital earlier this week.

Street side stall holder proudly displays his selection of food. Peshawar's food, especially kababs, is divine 
During the last few years, Peshawar has disappeared from the radar of most travelers, Pakistani and international alike. The Taliban Trail of Terror has replaced the Hippie Trail. Still, in the intervening years the city seems to have lost none of its charm. (I must confess my last visit to Peshawar was at least twenty years ago – so long that I don't even remember the exact year!)

For those interested in history and religion, the Peshawar Museum hosts the world's largest collection of artifacts from the Gandharan civilization, which flourished for almost one thousand years, c. 1500 to 500 BC. Gandhara was an ancient kingdom centered around the regions of modern day Peshawar and the Swat Valley. The Gandhara Kingdom was a center of Buddhism, Hinduism and Greco-Buddhism. Greco-Buddhism is the cultural syncretism between Hellenistic culture and Buddhism, which developed between the 4th century BCE and the 5th century CE.” (Source: Wikipedia)

The entrance to the Peshawar Museum, which houses the world's largest collection of Gandharan artifacts
Other aspects of Peshawar's history can be found in the Storytellers Bazaar or the Qissa Khawani Bazaar. The bazaar dates back at least two thousand years. More recently, in 1930 the Bazaar was the site of a massacre by British colonial authorities of unarmed civilians agitating for independence against British rule.

The imposing Bala Hissar Fort, which sits regally atop a hill, symbolizes the city's strategic and military importance for invaders and defenders as the gateway to India (through the fabled Khyber Pass). It is believed some sort of a fortification has stood on the elevated site since the seventh century. The present structure, used as the Headquarters for the Pakistan's paramilitary Frontier Corps since 1949, was built in the 1830s by the then Sikh rulers of Peshawar.

Peshawar will be done a great injustice if I don't mention the great 'frontier' food found in every nook and cranny of this city. Simply put, anyone leaving Peshawar without trying local barbecue specialties like chapli kababs, seekh kabas or Kabuli pulao cannot claim to have visited Peshawar! Stay away from the fancy restaurants, instead make a beeline for the 'hole in the wall' cafes sprinkled across the city.

Kababs being marinated and barbecued / cooked on coal at a streetside cafe
Perhaps more than the rest of Pakistan, Peshawar has suffered tremendously due to violence perpetrated by Islamic extremists. Nonetheless, Peshawar is a city like no other. A city of warriors, food and people with big hearts. Not surprisingly, despite the recent ravages of terror, the city's soul remains intact. That soul will surely touch any visitor to the ancient Gandharan city of Purushapura (aka Peshawar). 

Imran is a business and management consultant. Through his work at Deodar Advisors and the Deodar Diagnostic, Imran improves profits of businesses operating in Singapore and the region. He can be reached at