Sunday, July 5, 2015

From ‘Driving me Crazy about it. Reflections of an American in Japan’ by Anne Crescini


The onsen, or hot spring, is one of the most popular ways for Japanese people to relax, and an integral part of Japanese culture….They are usually separated into male and female areas, but in some cases you can reserve a private family onsen. One thing that makes Japanese hot springs stick out from the hot springs in other countries is that you must bathe naked with strangers, family, and friends ….Swimsuits are not allowed…..My friends tried to assure me that Japanese people don’t pay much attention to others in the onsen, that they are shy themselves ….

About being meiwaku, sometimes I think the Japanese spend their entire lives trying to avoid being a bother to others. Because this is such a group-oriented society, all individual actions are expected to be undertaken while considering the impact your actions will have on others. ….the number one rule of Japanese culture is this: don’t bother or cause trouble to other people.

Most Japanese bathe at night, not in the mornings, like Americans. It is not for them solely a way to clean the body, but to refresh the soul ….While many Americans feel cruddy waking up and going out without showering, most Japanese think it is disgusting to go to bed dirty…. Bathing in Japan is a national obsession. It begins shortly after birth, with the newborn baby scrubbed clean of the afterbirth just hours after arriving, continuing with a daily scouring until mother and child are discharged.

The Japanese love lotteries…

Nose washing is one of the weirdest, but strangely most refreshing medical treatments in Japan. This treatment is common for a variety of ENT ailments from sinus infections to colds, to allergies. The nurse squirts water up one nostril while holding the other one shut, and you snort it out like blowing your nose….after you are finished, it feels great!

People in this country love talking about bowel movements maybe because it is a sign of good health…. Bowel movements tend to be more of a private matter in the U.S.

The doctors, nurses, midwives – everyone was wonderful and contributed to my amazing childbirth experiences in Japan. I received unbelievable compassion and care from these people.

….gaijin (foreigner)…. Japansese spirit of hospitality, the willingness to go out of their way to help others ….for every nice lady to help the gaijin, there is another Japanese who will run screaming in the other direction, “I don’t speak English!!” (even if you ask in Japanese)…. That being said, most Japanese people will go out of their way time and time again to help others. I have experienced their kindness more times than I can count.

…the Japanese custom of buying souvenirs, or omiyage. Every time someone goes anywhere, there is a cultural obligation to buy omiyage of that place (most commonly a snack or some kind of sweets) for everybody from your boss to your friends to your fourth cousin twice removed…. When this gift-giving obsession meets the Japanese concept of duty the result is the okaeshi. This is a complicated beast, but as I understand it, when someone gives you a gift, you are obligated to return the favor…. The most common okaeshi for baby gifts is some kind of food or drink with the child’s name written elaborately in Japanese calligraphy on a paper attached to the gift. The return gift must be between one-third and one-half of the value of the original gift……

There is a concept in Japan called uchi (inside) and soto (outside). The uchi is the group of friends and family around a person. The soto is everybody else. Japanese people will do anything for the people in their uchi, but tend to often be a little more distant to people in the soto. Of course, Japanese are always courteous, and try to avoid bad manners and rudeness at all costs….. But more often than not, they will try to avoid interaction with the soto. This can be seen on trains. Very rarely will people start up conversations with strangers, and eye contact is rare. Most people listen to music, or read comics or newspapers….most Japanese just don’t make it a habit to talk to strangers. ….I was separate, set apart, not allowed into the uchi. I don’t think the Japanese are being spiteful or trying to discriminate. I just think they do not have a lot of experience with foreigners and are not quite sure yet just what to do with us. There is not even a uniform system in the country for writing our names. There are four alphabets used in Japan – Chinese kanji characters are used for Japanese names; katakana is used for foreign names; hiragana, a phonetic alphabet, is sometimes used for Japanese names, especially by children who cannot yet read kanji; and the Roman alphabet. Most of my credit cards, IDs, bankbooks, bills and official documents in Japan have my name written in different ways.

…..in Japan, where conformity to the norm is one of the most important concepts in the culture.
There is a Japanese proverb that says, “Deru kugi wa utareru” (The nail that sticks out will be hammered down.)

The one aspect that bothers me most is the unforgiving spirit I see in the hearts of many Japanese people…..in Japan, I find that one often vows to never forgive a wrong, even if done unintentionally by someone considered a good friend.

…..Japanese adults, especially men, almost never wear shorts. No matter how hot it is, they don’t wear shorts because shorts are considered childish…

….Japanese preschool system ….quality of care, education and nutrition are top notch, and the love the teacchers have for the children is unquestioned…. The Japanese preschool system is the best…..

The Japanese think letting your tummy get cold causes every sickness known to man…….

….seeing new parents drive their precious little bundle of joy home with no car seat, either holding the baby or even worse, placing him or her in a little, cushioned Moses basket on the floor…. I am amazed that a country so careful about protecting pregnant women, and so zealous about the health and education of their children, can be so reckless when it comes to automobile safety and children.

Japanese children are very rarely properly restrained…..

In any country, a law that is not enforced will not be followed. Japan is not any different. Japanese people routinely park in handicapped parking spaces; Americans don’t.

…Japanese houses, with the exception of those on the northern island of Hokkaido, are not equipped with central heating….Why would you spend money and natural resources heating rooms that you are not using?  …..Houses are cold. Schools are cold. Supermarkets, trains, post offices, gyms. Cold. Cold. Cold.

Japanese people don’t adopt. They don’t think about adoption. They don’t talk about adoption….. Much more than in America, blood connection is crucial in Japan. The Japanese feel a strong connection and loyalty to family, and while they may be the most courteous, polite people in the world, love and loyalty is restricted to family. What is family? Although changing recently, family has always been defined in Japan by bloodlines.

….tanshin funin would be “for the primary breadwinner in a family, almost always the father, to live away from his family for an extended period of time for work.”…transfer is inevitable for the Japanese public servant ….Many times, the length of the transfer is unknown, which may be one reason the father goes off by himself…

….children are the center of the family, and education is at the center of a child’s life. When a father is transferred for work, for a child to be uprooted from his school and friends, perhaps disrupting test studies and causing emotional distress, is not an option. In most cases, the mother will stay behind in the family’s home with the children. The father will rent an apartment or stay in company housing during his time of transfer; which is sometimes indefinite.

The societal expectations about work dictate his behavior. Many Japanese businessmen work late into the night, and on the weekends. In addition to regular work duties, they also have regular drinking parties that keep them away from dinnertime with family.

Many Japanese students are good test takers, but have not learned adequately how to express creativity, original thinking, or their opinions on a variety of subjects. Of course, I do not blame the students, but the system that created them…. The inability to express an opinion is one of my biggest problems with education in Japan …. Most Japanese classes are lecture-based, so students just take in information, and have little opportunity to express their opinions or question what they learn ….Many times, because teachers are so respected in Japan, they will just take what the teacher says as truth and not really question it…

Bullying is a big problem in Japanese schools…..

Japanese teachers do not just teach. They morally guide the students…. There is not really a summer vacation, as teachers are expected at school everyday to prepare for the new term, attend meetings…..Many Japanese public school teachers work hours comparable to Japanese businessmen, coming home late every night.
Nervous breakdowns are not uncommon.

Work in Japan can be so stressful that they even have a word for working themselves to death, karoshi

Japanese teachers pour their hearts into their students, but sometimes I wonder if this commitment comes at the cost of their own families.

One of my biggest criticisms of Japan is the lack of moderation I see in everything. They study too much. They work too hard. Sometimes, they even play too hard.

The math education system is also years ahead of the U.S.

The school meals are healthy, cheap and required: students are not allowed to bring their own lunches….students are also responsible for serving them, and cleaning up afterwards. In addition, they must clean their classroom at the end of everyday…


Japanese people in general are crazy about paperwork….

From ‘Jungle Child’ by Sabine Kuegler

[Sabine lived in a remote jungle area of West Papua, Indonesia amongst a tribe untouched by modern civilization]

Life in the Western world seems like a tornado to me. An irresistible force that sucks me into its whirling vortex and spins me around at a hectic pace, till I get the feeling that time is moving more quickly than I can keep up with….One fights with family over money, loyalty, and love’s disappointments, and with neighbours over irrelevancies. And there is never enough time. Above all else, never enough time.

……life in the jungle is more challenging physically, but psychologically much easier. Life in the Western world, on the other hand, is physically easier, but much more complicated for the soul.e

One of the acknowledged signs that a people or culture is on the verge of extinction is that knowledge no longer gets transmitted from generation to generation…… no Fayu [tribe] remembered the white visitors they received in the 1940s. The memory of the Dutchmen had apparently been lost within a generation.

Their user of songs to express themselves may be one of the reasons that the Fayu do not seem to suffer from depression or other psychological disorders. Feelings are immediately externalized. There are even times set aside for the release of emotions: for example, the mourning song. When the song of mourning runs its course, the grieving truly is finished and life resumes as normal.
When a person experiences a traumatic event, he might lie for weeks in his hut not saying a word but singing for hours at a time. During this period, other clan members provide him with food. Then one day he simply gets up with the trauma behind him. Cleansed of pain, he smilingly resumes his everyday tasks.


Irian Jaya contains one quarter of the world’s known language (800) as well as numerous dialects. ….It has the only permanent glacier of any tropical island. Its ‘wintry’ heritage also includes snow-capped mountain peaks that tower 5,000 metres over glacial lakes. Irian Jaya boasts the largest single tract of rain forest in the world (excluding the Amazon). Its jungles are some of the most impenetrable anywhere.

From ‘mad dogs and an Englishwoman’ by Crystal Rogers


A number of youngsters…would approach me for guidance on how to conduct themselves abroad …..I …put together an informal presentation on general etiquette… Out of this last chapter I will quote:
Perhaps one of the most important things at any social function in the West is to show yourself to be a good and attentive listener.
I hope I may be forgiven for saying that up to this point I have not found this quality in most of the Indians whom I have had dealings with……

The cruelties of the West are different from the cruelties of the East.
For far too many years, I have seen the barbarous methods by which animals are slaughtered in the reeking abattoirs and alleys of Indian cities. The cruelty involved in the transport of domestic animals, the terrible distress and terror of monkeys exported for medical research. The hunger, misery and bewilderment of animals turned adrift because they no longer serve any useful purpose. The agony of sick and lame draft animals who are still made to work, beaten and over-loaded…. But do not imagine that the West is any less cruel. It is equally so. While putting up a show of being humane, behind closed doors, where none may see, the blackest and most unforgivable crimes are committed.
The West must bear the burden of guilt for the inexpressible horror of, amongst other things, killing animals for the sake of vanity. A whole fashion industry grew and flourished around the slaughter of small, defenceless animals like minks, rabbits and the red fox…..
….The testing of many cosmetic products is performed on unsuspecting animals …..The exploitation of animals for amusement is yet another nightmare …circus …What the spectator does not see….is how that training has been done.
How the whip has been cracked with lethal force on a lion’s back.
How a heavy stick has been smashed on a baby elephant’s rump.
How the seal plucked out of the vast, cold waters of the Pacific has been shoved into a pool the size of a child’s playpen.
How the chimpanzee has been smacked mercilessly when it has shown reluctance to conform to the rules of the house.
How the spirit of each animal has been crushed and squeezed out till all that is left are the hollowed bodies of furry puppets.

….. vivisection laboratory ……what I did see was a gathering of abject, miserable animals who had lost their freedom for ever and knew deep within their frightened little hearts that they were on death row….

…..Ella Wheeler Wilcox….
So many faiths, so many creeds,
So many paths that twist and wind,
When just the art of being kind
Is all this sad world really needs.

The climate of Bangalore was pleasant and I found the people friendly. But the plight of animals remained uniformly pathetic across the length and breadth of India.

Some friends had advised that I return to England. I couldn’t even think of it. India is a strange phenomenon. It settles over one as soundlessly as mountain mists, as invisible as evening dust. The joy of India is in a bite of a firm, green guava sprinkled with rock salt. The unintelligible cries of the sabziwala as he trundles his cart over potholed streets. The chaos of babblers and sparrows as they wake up entire colonies on sweaty mornings. The sight of shiny, brown-skinned boys jumping into a canal for an afternoon swim. The pungent smell of fires burning on street corners on cold evenings, where men gather round and gossip about the day’s happenings.


I could not and would not leave India. I have loved it with all my heart. I have been welcomed by the country and its people without hesitation. Yes, of course, there is much to criticize and condemn, but there is much more to appreciate and treasure.

Tuesday, June 30, 2015

From ‘Brazil’ by Michael Palin


Twice the size of India….home of the greatest rainforest in the world, as well as the greatest river system in the world, and the biggest waterfalls, by volume….extraordinary diversity and richness of its inhabitants…..descendants of those millions of slaves brought to Brazil from Africa, and of the Portugese landowners who enslaved them. Then there are those who have come to Brazil voluntarily, and in huge numbers, from the late nineteenth century to the present day. Italians, Poles, Lebanese, Germans, Japanese, Koreans and many more…..fostered one of Brazil’s most marked characteristics, tolerance…..

The Yanomami are one of two hundred or so indigenous tribes still left from the days when the first Europeans set foot in the country. There were estimated to be some five million Indians in Brazil when the Portugese began to settle here early in the sixteenth century. Today, after the depredations of slavery, disease and loss of land to loggers, farmers and miners, they number no more than 300,000

Manioc, or cassava, is one of the oldest cultivated foods known to man, but it requires careful preparation as it contains toxic elements. Rendering it safely edible is a laborious and time-consuming process involving peeling, grating, grinding and boiling.

….the Yanomami…. The bond between mothers and children seems particularly strong. Small babies spend most of their time in flesh-to-flesh contact with their mothers, and I have hardly heard any of the crying or scolding that we in our enlightened world might take for granted.

Brazil is the largest exporter of beef on the planet, and seventy-five percent of the deforestation has been to clear the ground for cattle.

…..twenty percent of all the world’s fresh water is contained within the Amazon Basin.

Stained and grimy from the heavy rainfall, they make Belem look less like Lisbon and more like Calcutta. Both are at the heart of big river deltas, and concrete and high humidity don’t mix well, creating the impression of cities going mouldy.

The 2,500 kilometre long (1,500 miles) Araguaia, a river which all Brazilians regards as especially magical and magically beautiful.
Because of the blessed combination of the Andes and the Amazon Basin, Brazil generates ninety-five percent of its water needs without any recourse to dams or irrigation. This, together with abundant land and a generally benign climate, gives it enviable potential for cultivation on a huge scale.

Brazilians tend not to be prohibitive and proscriptive; their inclination is to accommodate each other….part of the reason might be that, unlike most countries, they don’t seem to have a natural enemy to rally against. Since the end of the devastating Paraguayan War of the 1860s, Brazil has avoided any major conflicts……Their standing army is small. They have a few fighters, a destroyer or two.

Alto Paraaiso de Goias….where a seam of crystals, 200 kilometres (124 miles) long and 30 kilometres (18 miles) deep, creates a force field of energy which is said by those who live there to have powerful effects. UFOs have been sighted there, and on a NASA photo of the earth from space the area was reported as giving off an unmistakable glow.

…I ask Tatiana if its quite acceptable to be a witch in Brazil. She nods briskly. The Brazilians are very tolerant of witchcraft, In fact, they’re tolerant of almost everything. Especially in alto Paraiso……

Brazilian tourists are already out in force. And, being Brazilian, half of them are as close to naked as is permissible. In this land of the uninhibited, the dress code is as elastic as the tiny thongs which cover less than a leaf in the Garden of Eden. Provided nipples (female only) and genitals are concealed, the rest of the body can be joyfully unencumbered.

…..its very rare to see anyone in Brazil being angry.

Fizzy drinks are hugely popular in Brazil…..

Slavery continued in Brazil for much longer than most countries……

On Brazilian beaches the buttocks are the most admired parts of the female form and they’re referred to as melões – melons…….Beauty criteria are always interesting, and I’m fascinated to hear….that it is the strap marks from a bikini that drive Brazilian boys wild..

Brazilians are night people…..The forro dance steps, done well, are amazing to watch. The couples dance close and the movement seems entirely to come from below the waist, feet moving in a rapid pattern, while hips gyrate rhythmically in a loose and sinuous, constantly rolling movement. This is extrovert, sexy stuff and the best dancers are marvelously agile…

…..no event in Brazil is complete without a sound-system…..

….A Portugese expedition….was blown off course while trying to sail round Africa………they stepped ashore on 22 April 1500…..in southern Bahia State……..A later ……Portugese expedition found this to be an abundant source of wood they called pau-brasil, which produced a valuable red dye which glowed like hot coals (brasa in Latin). So the new-found land took its name from its chief product. Brazil

This potent mix of a relatively small number of Portugese, a much greater number of indigenous tribes and a huge number of slaves created modern Brazil…. The city of Salvador ….remains the third-biggest city in Brazil, with a population of over three million, eighty-two percent of whom are black. Salvador is the biggest African city outside Africa.

Do the Brazilians have a word for self-conscious? I cant even think when they’d ever have to use it.

When the slaves were brought over to work on the plantations they were deliberately discouraged from practicing their own religion, in case it became a rallying point for resistance to the landowners. So instead of one all-pervasive belief system, different elements of African tradition became interwoven, both with each other and then with the prevailing Catholicism of the Portugese. Candomble is a syncretic religion, faith-based and animist at the same time, a melding of Europe and Africa, of gods and saints.

In Brazil almost everyone believes in some kind of religion or some kind of superstition. Atheism is considered profoundly weird.

The Candomble ceremony is at times powerful and at times mystifying, but the complexity and richness of quite a commonplace event struck me as another instance of the passion and vitality with which black Brazilians approach their religion. The act of worship has to move and involve the participants in something special. What impresses me is that it also has to be fresh each time. In Candomble no one quite knows exactly what will happen when the drums begin.

……Brazilian means extrovert.

…..my guide Sophia’s observation that in Brazil everyone wants to believe in something.

Hans has lived in Brazil for fifty years, and what he likes about the Brazilians is that they’re flexible; they adapt and move on. What he also admires is their sense of a unifying national identity.

For 200 years after the first European strayed by chance onto the coast of Brazil, the wealth of the country was largely generated by the world demand for sugar. This was serviced from the huge slave-worked plantations in the North-East of the country. Then, in 1693, something happened to change all that. Reports came in from Sao Paolo of an adventurer who had returned from the mountains with traces of gold……… The gold rush that ensured revealted that the mountains were also rich in diamonds and other precious stones as well as apparently inexhaustible reserves of bauxite, manganese and iron ore. God had rewarded them beyond their wildest dreams. Churches were built and profusely decorated. ………Agriculturally blessed as well as minerally rich, it became the new commercial epicenter of Brazil. The capital moved from Salvador to Rio de Janeiro in 1763. The transfer of power from the North to the South of Brazil was complete. It has never been reversed.

….despite being the fifth-largest country in the world, Brazil has no peaks higher than 3,000 metres

She is from Peru and works in silver. Which is the one thing Brazil has always lacked.

In Brazil everyone has a nickname………

…..one of Brazil’s most delightful characteristics – a complete absence of embarrassment.

……..Portugese expedition…..In early 1502 …..found themselves at the mouth of what they thought was a great river……It was a January …they called their new discovery Rio de Janeiro – ‘January river’…….It turned out not to be a river at all but a deep, wide bay.

And yet sexual display is less overt than in Europe. There’s less nakedness in street adverts, and topless sunbathing is still frowned upon. I see very few couples enmeshed on the beach. There’s plenty of show, but not a lot of action….For all the apparent openness of Brazilian society, sex is still at the heart of one of its most secret, lucrative and – from what I can gather – universal phenomena: the love hotels, or simply, the motels. Dotted all over the city, and indeed the country, are establishments where for anything from thirty minutes to thirty hours rooms can be hired for sex. And not necessarily sex with prostitutes. They’re used by boyfriends and girlfriends seeking privacy….. husbands who fancy other people’s wives….most important thing is that they’re discreet. And discretion is not something I would have put high on my list of Brazilian qualities.

Brazilians are the biggest consumers of poetry in the world…..

The samba rhythm seems hardwired into every Brazilian

….the two great passions of Brazilian life – football and samba. Football started at the top and seeped very quickly down to all levels of society, whereas samba started at the bottom and became the ultimate in sophistication.

….an historian, Sergio Buarque de Holanda, as suggesting that the Brazilian contribution to civilization is ‘cordiality’. The negative side to all this, thinks Tim, is a national inability, or simply disinclination, to deal with anything bad…..the manic depressiveness at the heart of the Brazilian national character. ‘It pats itself on the back effusively with every victory, and torments itself with every defeat.’

….eighty percent of Brazil’s population lives within 400 kilometres ….of the coast

I admire and rather envy the Brazilians’ ability to eat, drink and be merry in public without feeling the need to be in any way aggressive or objectionable.

The Amazon Basin occupies forty-two percent of Brazil’s land area. Yet its combined population is less than that of New York City. The southern and south-eastern states of Brazil comprise only sixteen percent of the land area, but sixty percent of its population.

Brazilian women, he thinks, like to dress more daringly than their European counterparts. If they’ve got it, they like to flaunt it……Cleavage seems almost obligatory in Brazil.

Sao Paolo is a helicopter city. As traffic mires the megapolis in endless congestion, the rich and successful take to the skies. ….In 2009, Time magazine reported a traffic jam 200 miles long.

In Brazil, he says, ‘If you want to be respected, you have to be informal.’… Brazil’s relaxed, less uptight attitude to life…….

Brazil doesn’t have a history of social or political violence.

This southern ‘tail’ of Brazil contains some of the richest land in the country and some of its most prosperous cities. If the North-East can be called African Brazil, then the South is predominantly European Brazil.

Apart from some commuter services in Sao Paolo and Rio, Brazil is a passenger railway wilderness……….Brazil is a country where those who move either fly or drive, or take enormously long bus journeys.

Brazilians love a good hug.

Alex, holding the calf down with his knee, finds claw marks in its side which have been inflicted by a jaguar. ….Alex …sprays it with antiseptic. In the days before chemicals, he tells me, they would have used dried cow dung to protect the wound.


As we’ve travelled round I’ve been struck by how little curiosity the Brazilians seem to have about their own country. Many times in the journey I’ve wanted to share with them the beauties we’ve seen here. The power of the Amazon, the splendor of the rainforest…….And more often than not my Brazilian friends nod their heads politely and ask, ‘What’s it like?’

From ‘All Roads Lead to Ganga’ by Ruskin Bond


Guptakashi and its environs has so many lingams that the saying ‘Jitne kankar utne Shankar’ – ‘as many stones, so many Shivas’ – has become a proverb to describe its holiness.

….Bhyundar Valley …..Valley of Flowers…..It would be no exaggeration to call it one off the most beautiful valleys in the world.

….Hindus enjoy their religion. Whether bathing in cold streams or hot springs, or tramping from one sacred mountain shrine to another, they are united in their wish to experience something of the magic and mystique of the gods and glories of another epoch.
Even those who have renounced the world appear to be cheerful…..

There has always been a mild sort of controversy as to whether the true Ganga (in its upper reaches) is the Alaknanda or the Bhagirathi. Of course the two rivers meet at Deoprayag and then both are Ganga….I put the question to my friend Dr. Sudhakar Misra…he answered: ‘The Alaknanda is Ganga, but the Bhagirathi is Ganga-ji.’
One sees what he means. The Bhagirathi is beautiful, almost caressingly so, and people have responded to it with love and respect, ever since Lord Shiva released the waters of the goddess from his locks and she sped plainswards in the tracks of Prince Bhagirath’s chariot…

The Ganga enters the world no puny stream, but bursts from its icy womb a river thirty or forty yards in breadth. At Gauri Kund (below the Gangotri temple) it falls over a rock of considerable height and continues tumbling over a succession of small cascades until it enters the Bhaironghati gorge.
A night spent beside the river, within the sound of the fall, is an eerie experience. After some time it begins to sound, not like one fall but a hundred, and this sound permeates both one’s dreams and waking hours..

….deodar….from the Sanskrit Deva-daru (divine tree). It is a sacred tree in the Himalayas, not worshipped, not protected in the way that a peepul is in the plains, but sacred in that its timber has always been used in temples, for doors, windows, walls and even roofs….. No one who has lived amongst deodars would deny that it is the most godlike of Himalayan trees. It stands erect, dignified…….in a strong wind it may hum and sign and moan…..


I think its only in India that you could find such a situation – a young offspring of the Raj [Ruskin Bond], somewhat at odds with his mother and Indian stepfather, choosing to live with the latter’s abandoned first wife!

From ‘Roads to Mussoorie’ by Ruskin Bond



And that’s what I have been doing all my life – plodding along, singing my song, telling my tales in my own unhurried way. I have lived life at my own gentle pace, and if as a result I have failed to get to the top of the mountain (or of anything else), it doesn’t matter, the long walk has brought its own sweet rewards; buttercups and butterflies along the way.

From ‘Mumbai to Mecca’ by Ilija Trojanow


It was fascinating to watch the different behavior of various pilgrims in Mecca……. The black Africans managed to look relaxed even in the ihram, thanks to their athletic build, their way of walking coupled with the fact that they used the upper cloth as a scarf sometimes, draping it around their necks with an almost dandy air. The Afghans benefited from laying aside their intimidating robes – now their regular features and bright eyes were shown to advantage. The moment they pulled on their local garments their proud bearing returned, they stood up taller, feet wide apart, two heads higher thanks to their turbans. They kissed and embraced one another in elaborate rituals – the expression of a connection that went beyond Islam. In absolute contrast to the Afghans were the Indonesians, the largest Muslim population in the world, and perhaps the friendliest… the Indonesians were reserved, gentle, and discreet; they were soft-spoken, and their diminutive height seemed part of their good manners: they never blocked one’s view….

Mecca is a town steeped in history, and yet one with no ancient buildings. Its history is not merely ignored by the prevailing teachings – it is regarded as dangerous. In an amnesia that enjoys an official stamp, believers are to pay no heed to the developments and decisions made in the 14 centuries since the Prophet (pbuh) and the Sahabah lived, but to trust only the Qur’an and ahadith, and, as a pilgrim to visit only the Kaaba – which is an artefact that goes beyond history. The desire to see the sites of the stories of the Prophet’s (pbuh) passion and revelation is regarded as destructive tourism. The Saudis have destroyed what was believed to be the birthplace of the Prophet (pbuh) and consigned the burial spot to anonymity. …..Likewise, Mecca is a cultural centre which has been drained of its culture. Theatre and music are frowned upon, of course, but the public baths and the coffee houses have also gone….. In the bookshops, the great Arabian thinkers of the past, and present, are nowhere to be found….the Saudi interpretation [of the Qur’an] often differs considerably from the classical ones.

Pilgrims from Istanbul, Damascus and Cairo regard the Saudis as parvenus, nouveau-riche, and lacking in civilization. And the Saudis do their utmost to live up to this assessment through their rude and coarse behavior.

During the first capture of Medina by the Wahhabis 200 years ago, the treasures of the Grand Mosque were stolen, supposedly to be shared amongst the poor, but the leader, Saud, sold parts of it to the Sharif of Mecca, retaining the lion’s share for himself. Although the Prophet’s (pbuh) commandments are meant to be followed at all times, certain ahadith are postulated as fundamental principles, while others are simply ignored. One hadith states, for example, that one should not build a house substantially bigger than one’s neighbour’s so that he does not feel humiliated, and yet the immense palace of the king in Mecca dwarves not only the neighbouring buildings but even the House of God.
Another hadith says: pay those who have worked for you before the sweat on their brow has dried. Yet Saudi Arabian employees continue to owe wages to foreign workers who come in their hundreds and thousands from the poorer regions of the Islamic World…..
And the high life of the Saudi elite break another very well known hadith: ‘Allah despises those who squander their wealth.
Wahhabi Islam, referred to ….as ‘fundamentalism’, doesn’t even correspond in its rudiments to the holistic programme of Islam. Neither the absolutist monarchy nor the totalitarian suppression of free expression can find any justification in the Qur’an. The sovereign elite keep tight control of the laws, but if it suits their interests they will also turn a blind eye….. But because they keep the holy sites clean and accessible, constantly improving the infrastructure while ensuring the Hajj is less dangerous and more just, the hosts often receive a great deal of approval. ….The Saudis take their role as guardians of the holy mosques and sites very seriously, and shy away from no investment that could result in a safer and more comfortable Hajj. And thus gratitude is as commonly expressed as criticism.


In Mina, as in Mecca, there are hardly any beggars, but the few that were there, were Indians (‘The Indians, always extreme,’ Richard Burton wrote, ‘are either beggars or millionaires’) Up until a few years ago beggars from India were imported especially for Ramadan so that the prescribed generosity for that month wouldn’t fail for lack of recipients. The beggars were apparently professionals….they had to hand over their alms to receive a wage in return……