Monday, January 21, 2019

From ‘Travels in a Dervish Cloak. Adventures in Pakistan’ by Isambard Wilkinson

…..Islamabad …..the expatriate cliché was that the city was ‘twelve miles from Pakistan’, the distance to the nearest ‘real’ city, Rawalpindi ….. ‘half the size of Arlington cemetery but twice as dead’ was another witticism….

…Pakistan ….For although a Muslim state, it was riven by the Hindu caste system its inhabitants disavowed; thus Rajput looked down on barber and barber on the darker-skinned Christian and lower-caste Hindus, who were traditionally ‘sweepers’, street cleaners. The North-West Frontier and Baluchistan were overtly tribal with most matters settled by councils rather than the courts and administration inherited from the British. Even the feudal, plain provinces of Punjab and Sindh ran along the lines of tribe and caste. The writ of the government was feeble in most of the country, which hung together loosely on a dog-eared colonial structure of cantonments, district commissioners, railway signalmen and post office clerks. It also seemed to adhere to the empire’s old prejudices as laid down in its gazetteers………where ethnic groups and peoples were classified in such categories as ‘Criminal Tribes’.

The Nawab [of Bugti] had regaled us with tales of the Baluch, a warrior race who, with the Kurds, he said, traced their origins back two thousand years to Aleppo in Syria.

Balaach, the greatest medieval Baluch warrior hero, held that ‘War is looked upon as the first business of a gentleman and all Baluch are gentlemen.’

…….Punjabi is a language that lapses into profanity regularly….

….Partition ……..A Pakistani poet, Faiz Ahmed Faiz, wrote, ‘This leprous daybreak, dawn night’s fangs have mangled, this is not that long-looked-for break of day’.

Much of the country’s officialdom runs on Johnny Walker Blue Label, despite Pakistan’s law, which forbids the Muslim population to drink alcohol……….The least remarkable thing about Muhammad Ali Jinnah, the Quaid-i-Azam (‘Great Leader’), once one accepts that much of the Muslim world runs on Johnny Walker, is that he ate pork, drank whisky and smoked fifty Craven A a day. More notable is that through sheer bloody-mindedness he created a nation-state. ….He was born to a middle-class Gujarati-speaking family of provincial merchants from the Shia Khoja minority. ……..Although Islamists had always hated him because of his moderation and secularism, most Pakistanis saw him as a sainted figure, blessed with the sort of virtues that are praiseworthy in others but undesirable for oneself…….he was a modern, liberal, stiff, secular, not very religious type of Muslim of Shia origin and his creation was a feisty, backward Sunni Muslim state dominated by Punjabis and Islamists.

Pakistanis lionize Akbar as a great Muslim leader, but in truth his legacy is unpalatable to Pakistanis official view of itself as an orthodox Sunni state…….there is some doubt whether he even died a Muslim ………he didn’t believe in the existence of Satan; he found Arabic religious commentaries on Islam muddled and contradictory; and he questioned the story of Koran’s genesis, doubting its heavenly origin and treating it as a historic document in a way that Islamic scholars five centuries later are only beginning to dare to consider.

The evening bore the usual hallmarks of a decadent Pakistani gathering. Vast joints of hashish were rolled; vast joints of hashish were rolled; vats of whisky sloshed down throats; and plans made for a journey that never took place.
There was much bragging, servility and sycophancy. ………And small, largely fabricated …….victories were celebrated.

Ghalib………whom many Pakistanis recite with passion and at length:
Na karda gunah ki bhi hasrat ki milay dad
Ya Rab agar un karda gunahon ki saza hai

Do give me praise for regrets of sins uncommitted
If there is to be punishment O Lord for sins committed

…Punjab …..a wheat basket divided by the bloodiest events of Partition; home to beefy backslapping ploughmen and the supplier of soldiers to armies for centuries. In spirit, it is earthy, humorous, with a firm grasp of realpolitik. ‘Don’t eat shit with a spoon, eat it with a spade,’ Punjabis say.
The country’s most affluent province, due to its agriculture and textile industry, is in many places as backward as any part of the country.

Multan ……its old reputation: a city of heat, dust, beggars and graves. …….the city’s two main saints’ shrines ……Rukn-i-Alam ……and ……..Bahawal Haq…….
The tomb of Bahawal Haq (also known as Bahauddin Zakariya) is an immense bastion of fired bricks……Haq’s tomb was erected near an ancient fire temple built by Hindus. It had once been home to a golden statue of a sun god which had been smashed by various invaders, several times repaired, and finally destroyed by the Emperor Aurangzeb in the 17th century. The fire temple itself was destroyed again and again over successive centuries. Its last remains were finally extirpated in revenge for the destruction by a Hindu mob of the Babri Mosque in India in 1992.
……..Even 800 years after his death in 1262, Haq’s direct descendants own thousands of acres and wield considerable political power locally and nationally, his sainthood having been handed down from father to eldest son.

……Haq was benevolent as well as powerful. ‘If you give something to somebody,’ he once said, ‘you should give it with a flourish.’ It’s that flourish that you see all about you in Pakistan. It is in the salute to a stranger from a man working in a field; the hand that offers a stranger a seat or some food on a bus or train … or in the thwack that a minion gives to a fellow underdog to impress a new master.

Manners, charade, theatre, acting our roles with due aplomb; in Pakistan these things are as important as water, or more prized than the truth.
The magnificent dome covering the tomb of Rukn-ud-Din Abul Fath, known as Rukn-i-Alam, ‘pillar of the world’, gleamed like a white prayer skullcap. Supported by a brown brick octagonal drum that rests on a colossal, wider octagonal bastion, all ringed with strata of blue tiles, it is perhaps the fourth largest dome in the pre-modern world after Hagia Sofia, St Peter’s and Gol Gumbaz……….

In Pakistan the local name for Alexander, Sikander, is never far from people’s lips.

………I changed the subject by canvassing his views on politics………It was a game I often played in cities, asking for opinions about politicians, partly because I was always surprised by the forthrightness of the replies, and partly for the pleasure in seeing that the urban masses were under no illusions about their leader. In the countryside, where feudals exerted influence on every aspect of life, people were more circumspect……

He was the master of the Pakistani florid introduction………..

When he’d finished eating, he stood up to leave for some midnight appointment – here people work at all hours except the morning. Everybody instantly dropped their bowls, plates and forks ……and followed…….A scene that could have played out at Louis XIV’s court, it revolved around the Punjabi worship of power – nobody wanted to appear less than the most loyal of fawning disciples, nor to miss out on a morsel of favour that might fall from their lord’s hand.

…..the village. It was the usual Punjabi contrast of immaculate interiors and exterior squalor…..

Millions of Pakistanis were living in a state of medieval superstition, ripe for manipulation by mullahs, politicians and bogus holy men.

…..gouging one of his ears with a car key, as many Pakistani drivers like to do.

….the disregard with which well-educated

….the disregard with which well-educated Pakistanis so often treat their poorer compatriots.

…the old mixed culture of Pakistan, whose tolerance of heterodoxy was particularly strong in Sindh, a place suffused with Sufi spirit, where the lines between Sunni and Shia, Muslim and non-Muslim blurred.

….Chitral falls within the Pathan-dominated North-West Frontier Province …….the locals, ethnically , were Kho, speakers of Khowari. Known as Agha Khanis, they belonged to the Aga Khan’s Nizari Ishmaeli Shia Muslim sect, which here had adopted some of the ancient shamanism and ritual of the Hindu Kush and become a faith apart. Locals viewed both Shia and Sunni with some ambivalence. They believed in the transmigration of souls and they had their own mystical, ethical and metaphysical books (mostly written by their mystic, Khusro). Any elder could perform a marriage ceremony; people freely drank wine; and they were not fussed about the manner of slaughtering animals. ……now, Siraj said, an increasing number of Pathans were migrating to Chitral, raising fears that they would bring their violence with them.

…..the fairy-abode mountain of Tirich Mir stood centre-stage, a reference point for all Chitral. It was the stunning tower of rock ……The British traveler Wilfred Thesiger, recalling a landscape visible from its peak, of grassland, brown patches of bog and glittering water, wrote not long before he died .

The vast majority of the twelve million or so Christians in Pakistan traced their ancestry to the ‘untouchable’ Hindu Chuhra caste from Sialkot, Punjab, where mass conversions took place during the 19th century under British rule.

Its never long before a visitor to Pakistan is regaled with the following stanza, which is sometimes, probably erroneously, attributed to Khushal Khan, a great Mughal-era Pathan poet and warrior: There is a boy across the river/whose arse cheeks are like the pomegranates of Kabul in spring/alas, the river is wide and I cannot swim.

In his The Lives of a Bengal Lancer (1905), the British soldier-turned-yogi Francis Yeats-Brown ……..noted while serving on the frontier in Waziristan, that ‘Sex life is more necessary in a hot country. The hysteria which seems to hang in the air of India is aggravated by severe continence of any kind. At the end of Ramadan, for instance, my fasting squadron used to become as lively as a basket of rattlesnakes.’

…..a Graham Greene line: ‘Scruples of cleanliness grew with loneliness like the hairs on a corpse.’

I set off …….to the shrine at Buner on the edge of Swat, the resting place of Pir Baba, a saint madly popular among the Pathans. ……..taking refuge in the fabulous gurdwara at Hasan Abdal ………shrine of Pir Baba ………The saint’s history is obscure…now Pir Baba is revered as a cave-dwelling philanthropist and mystic who had set up a leper colony in these hills….when the militants arrived ……They had driven out the area’s Sikhs and Hindus, who till recently had united with Muslims in gatherings, which included women of all those faiths, to worship here through the night in bewitched vigils of chanting and devotion.

From ‘Grand Tour of Europe’ by Kevin McCloud

[ - The term "Grand Tour" refers to the 17th- and 18th-century custom of a traditional trip of Europe undertaken by upper-class young European men of sufficient means and rank (typically accompanied by a chaperon, such as a family member) when they had come of age (about 21 years old). …….. the Grand Tour was primarily associated with the British nobility and wealthy landed gentry……]

Historically, visitor’s didn’t even come to France for the food: it was oily, garlicky, over-spiced and over-sauced and frog’s legs were viewed as a poor substitute for good, honest Protestant roast beef. They came instead for a crash course in Continental culture at the first stop on foreign soil and an opportunity to acquire the requisite manners and appearance for entry into foreign courts.

Built by Henri IV from 1605 to 1612 to designs probably by Baptiste du Cerceau, the Place des Vosges represented a concerted effort to create coherent cosmopolitan splendor in a city that was generally claustrophobic, chaotic and cramped. This was the first formal square as we know it with terraces of identical houses on four sides. It was built for the Parisian nobility, who had always resided in country chateaux or ‘hotels’ (private houses) scattered throughout the city ……In a radical departure from the norm the thirty-eight houses were all built to the same design ……..the Place …..architecturally it put Paris on the map. ……..the square ……it is a true square – represents the city’s first real attempt at town planning and was the prototype for countless city squares across Europe…the square’s uncanny resemblance to Covent Garden Plaza…..

…… Parmesan cheese, which is one of the world’s finest ……Parmezan, as it is known – or Parmigiano Reggiano – is the pride of Parma and the surrounding area. …..In the medieval allegorical work The Decameron, thought to have been written between 1350 and 1353, the Italian author Giovanni Boccaccio dreams of ‘a mountain of grated Parmesan cheese on top of which there were people who did nothing but make macaroni and ravioli’. The playwright Moliere begged for a chunk of it on his deathbed. Napoleon was a big fan and Samuel Pepys famously buried his Parmesan in the garden to protect it from the Great Fire of London……it was a costly indulgence for English gourmands.
Its appeal lies in its unique flavor – deemed to embody ‘umami’, the so-called fifth or ‘savoury’ taste……..It is also pretty unique among cheeses as one that consumes all the lactose from the curds and so its acceptable to those with lactose-intolerant stomachs.

……..Vicenza, an extraordinary city……..

Venice was variously described by visitors as ‘a stinkpot, charged with the very virus of hell’, ‘more noisome than a pigstye’ and ‘cursed by nauseous air’. The dirt and stench was overwhelming – the shit, piss, cooked food and dead animals were not collected by night soil men but dumped in the canal to be hopefully swept out to sea or collected by inland farmers for fertilizer. But to most British tourists the real source of astonishment was the air of moral abandonment and casual depravity.
In 1358 the Great Council of Venice declared prostitution to be ‘absolutely indispensable to the world’……..Thomas Coryat put the number of courtesans there in the early seventeenth century at 20,000…….

Florence, Firenze, the flowering city, may be the cradle of all that is noble and cultured in the Western world, but only because it was one of the world’s great capitalist cities. …… Grand Tourist could fail to be amazed by one building in Florence – one towering structure that dwarfs all others and still dominates the city – the dome of the cathedral. The Duomo Santa Maria del Fiore (St Mary of the Flower) was begun in the thirteenth century by city fathers ………At the time they were confident that someone would develop the technology to span the huge hole in the roof, but by 1400 nobody had – until Filippo Brunelleschi stepped up to the challenge…….It is still the largest masonry dome ever built …….It delivered an engineering masterpiece which was to inspire both Michaelangelo’s St Peter’s and Sir Christopher Wren’s St Paul’s. …… Brunelleschi’s dome was not just a technological wonder; its size and height make it visible for miles, even from surrounding cities. …..the Duomo’s superdome gave Florence a giant personality. Almost a century later…… was Michaelangelo who defined the essence of contemporary Florence. Firstly with his statue of David – a High-Renaissance hero on a truly colossal scale – and then with the Medici Chapel…..Commissioned at the end of the 1400s by the Medici family, the wealthiest and most powerful of the wealthy bankers who climbed out of the Florence power-cradle to become rulers and popes, the Medici Chapel is extraordinary, both architecturally and as a statement of power. ….. Where Brunelleschi’s dome was a symbol of Church and State, the Medici dome was all about the enforcement of a dynasty and unabashed personal power. And there are many that have found and continue to find such personal architectural statements offensive.

…….most Grand Tourists were simply smelly. After weeks spent travelling in a crowded carriage in the summer heat the baths must have been a godsend. This was before the days of deodorant, and opportunities to bathe en route were few and far between. Travelers had to resort to wiping their armpits, groin and teeth with a coarse linen cloth doused in vinegar – the antiseptic of yesteryear…..

Rome …….Pope Sixtus V and his architect Carlo Fontana had laid out streets and boulevards in the 1580s…….In the 1530s just 30,000 people inhabited a city built for a million, leaving space aplenty for the popes to implement their extraordinary vision for a new Papal City on an epic scale………..If you want to remodel a city, a fire that destroy’s 13,000 buildings clearly isn’t enough. You need a city which is empty, as Rome was. It also helps if you’ve got a despotic monarch or emperor as Paris has had in its time. Or best of all, a pope. We hardly ever got it right in Britain because our cities weren’t laid out by despots – and they hadn’t been laid aside to crumble for a thousand years. They were busy vital places that had grown from villages and towns and it was hard to reinvent them in any other than their sprawling form, grown as they had on principles of the free market and freehold ownership. The only real exceptions are Bath and Edinburgh – eighteenth century model towns laid out on a truly grand scale and done so on huge speculative scales.  ……..Presiding over all this papal splendor were two magnificent epic domes – the Pantheon and St Peter’s – and the tiny, but equally perfect, Tempietto.

Although the Pantheon, the most famous dome in the world, has been converted into a church, no amount of Christianizing it can hide the fact that it is powerful, primal, and pagan – and does anything but make one feel virtuous. It is gigantic and mysterious, like it was created by devils – and was indeed known as the House of Devils at the height of the Grand Tour. Renaissance thinkers believed it had been constructed by demons, not humans, such is its scale. ……The oculus – the hole in the Pantheon’s roof – is as wide as a three-storey house is high. ……the tiny but famous tin-pot Tempietto, built by Bramante, the first architect of St Peter’s in the early sixteenth century. It has been called the most perfect building in the world.

……….the Temple of Vesta, an unusual (at least to the eighteenth century eye) circular building composed of columns.
The temple sits above the wide plain of the Campagna, beyond Rome, a plain with a rich history…….The temple itself is an exquisite Corinthian edifice and it seduced and inspired countless visitors…..the celebrated view of the Temple of Vesta was (and still is) magnificent…..

…….remodelling swathes of British landscape, is exactly what inspired young aristos like Henry Hoare II, the son of a wealthy banker, who ……..created in the 1740s one of the most idyllic landscapes in the world on his family estate at Stourhead…..created a 100-acre fictional paradise. He damned the River Stout to form a great lake, directed his gardeners in the art of ‘painterly’ landscaping, and generally proved just how much effort was needed to get the natural look……..It is still there, the first English attempt at a 3-D reproduction of a Claude painting, replete with temples, a bridge, grottoes and a lake. Every device needed for a re-enactment of any scene from classical mythology, and still today, in my view, one of the most exquisite pieces of landscape design ever carried out.

Hadrian’s Villa is perhaps the greatest rural palace of Antiquity. Built between AD 118 and 128 by the Emperor Hadrian, it was a dazzling assortment of thirty or more buildings on a 300-acre site, with the hills of Tivoli as a scenic backdrop. Much of the architecture was inspired by monuments elsewhere in Hadrian’s vast empire, particularly in Egypt and Greece. It was constructed and staffed by thousands of slaves.

Robert Adam….found perhaps the most useful and inspirational ideas at Hadrian’s Villa. Here, as at the Emperor Diocletian’s Palace at Split, which he visited ………are the expressive ideas that he was able to import to Britain, market and promote to huge success …….Adam hoovered these ideas up and presented them in a new coherent style of design and decoration that we still marvel at today and associate, more than any other style of building, with the great English Country House.

The area around the Bay of Naples has been a magnet for the rich and famous since the days of Ancient Rome…….As you might expect from a population which has spent thousands of years at the mercy of a capricious volcano, the inhabitants of Naples were, and are, astonishingly superstitious…….many Neapolitans lived – and still live – in abject poverty. In the eighteenth century, of a total population of 300,000 an estimated 40,000 were lazzari – a tight-knit class of paupers who survived on the streets, picking pockets for a living…….

Until the mid-eighteenth century almost nobody went to Greece. It was part of the Ottoman Empire and was not an easy and safe place for the Western traveler……….

Lord Elgin’s misdemeanours. His most audacious act, the ‘liberation’ of the Elgin marbles……..Elgin oversaw the removal of countless Antique treasures, including around half of the surviving sculptures in the Parthenon. And he destroyed parts of the building in the process………Elgin claimed the moral high ground, arguing that his actions were designed to preserve the ruins from mismanagement by the Turks and to ‘improve British taste’…….The legality – and moral probity – of Elgin’s actions remains in dispute. The New Acropolis Museum contains an empty room awaiting their eventual return. …….

Greece is cursed with few forests and blessed with much good marble.

Set in verdant pinewoods with commanding views of the sea, the Temple of Aphaia exemplified the Greek approach to the site. Where Roman architecture was more urban, its external expression often amounting to little more than a single façade, the Greeks conceived their temples as three-dimensional objects in the landscape. Imposing from every angle, they were placed on mountain tops, between symmetrical hills, in valleys, and on mounds, depending on which god or goddesses they represented.

The cave on Antiparos in the Cyclades Islands in the middle of the Aegean Sea was one of many natural wonders ……….a truly astonishing site. The oldest stalagmite in Europe, thought to be 45 million years old, marked the entrance to a cave which burrowed down into the rock for a 100 metres or so, leading to an underworld fairyland of rock formations and stalactites……the cave had, in fact, been famous for over two millennia…….

The inevitable and dreaded part of every Grand Tour involved crossing the Alps, via any one of a number of high passes: the French Petit or Grand St Bernard Pass, the pass via Mont Cenis or a variety of routes through Switzerland………Chamonix opened its first guest house in 1770 and by 1783 it was receiving around 1,500 visitors each summer…….the first luxury hotel was built in 1816….

……..St Gotthard’s Pass. One of the most famous and dramatic of the Alpine passes…..English mineralogist Edward Daniel Clarke….tourists were still a rarity when he took the Gotthard route from Basel to Turin in 1793.

Wordsworth……..his description of crossing the Simplon Pass, which appears in Book VI of his autobiographical magnum opus The Prelude, is one of the finest things he wrote.

….the construction of Europe’s first mountain railway, from Vitznau to Rigi, in 1871, followed by the Arth to Rigi railway in 1875, transformed Alpine tourism……..

….the legendary Mount rigi sunrise, which was – and remains – the highlight of Thomas Cook’s Alpine tours.

……St Pancras Station: a cathedral of steel attached to a masterpiece of Gothic architecture……..constructed in 1868 by the engineer William Henry Barlow, the train-shed boasted the largest single-span structure to have been built at the time, and was a miracle of Victorian engineering.

……… of the most exciting and influential buildings of the eighteenth century turned out to be James Gibbs’ Gothic Pavilion at Stowe…………

From ‘Mappillai ….an Italian son-in-law in India’ by Carlo Pizzati

Italians ……..saying……. ogni mancata è persa. In romance, every missed opportunity is a lost one.

………Tamil Nadu, where aggression, like sexuality, is kept mostly where it belongs: repressed.

……Chennai has the worst traffic in India…..Driving in Chennai is one sure cure to its main defect: it’s a boring city, unless you work for organized crime and political parties, which is often the same thing ………

The international investors or businessmen I met………when asked what its like for them to do business with India have inevitably replied: ‘Difficult’.
India is no doubt amongst the most unethical places to do business in the world today. …….Legal agreements are not truly binding, thanks to the connivance of authorities and a court system that is often reliably for sale.

In Italian fare l’Indiano, to act like an Indian means to feign total indifference.

‘Oooo, I’d love to go to In-di-aaah, but I’m so scarrrd…’
How often do I hear this phrase in Italy?

Increasing waves of migration from Asia and Africa have brought out the old fascist and racist spirit in the land of pizza/pasta.

……actor and all round wonderful guy Kabir Bedi played a courageous, egalitarian Malaysian pirate in a majorly successful TV series in the ‘70s. Wherever he shows up in Italy he’s still greeted by 40 to 50-somethings who sing to the top of their lungs the refrain of the opening credits song of Sandokan, an Italian six-part television series ………..He achieved more with that TV hit, than 70 years of diplomatic relationships between the two countries.

………Tamil, one of the most symmetrical and smooth skinned people you will find in this planet………

That touch of humanity I’ve experienced even with the busiest doctors in Chennai is central to the cure, maybe not as central as competence in your specialization but I’m convinced it contributes to healing.

People living in immigration-based countries like the US, Canada or Australia naturally smile more. These frontier societies, where initially there was more anarchy due to little presence of state authorities, developed the need to quickly signal to strangers the message: ‘I am a friend (Please don’t shoot me!)’
And that is why there’s such a thing as the appropriately named ‘Pan-American Smile’, the forced-polite wince of flight attendants – deadpan eyes………..Then there’s what could be called the Asian smile, with wide differences within that category………….
In many non-immigrant based countries, like Russia, China or Japan, smile is often only for friends, not strangers…..Many Russians are averse to smiling in public. As Maxim Gorky famously stated: ‘The main thing you see in an American is teeth.’ …….the notoriously morose Russian border guards are instructed to smile more. And so are the famously unfriendly French tourist authorities. …….Koreans say ‘He who smiles a lot is not a real man.’ Ancient Romans said laughter abounds in the mouth of a fool.

Indian brides are not supposed to smile as much as Western brides, it is believed, as Indian macho culture values female shyness, and a more serious expression is expected…….Outspokenness and an extrovert attitude have not historically been very appreciated or rewarded in traditional Indian culture and public speaking and communications skills have not been extremely encouraged either……..

In fact, India, Argentina and the Maldives associate public smiling to dishonesty more than other cultures, according to the Polish Academy of Science, and Japan, India and South Korea also associate happy smiling with less intelligent people.
Personally, I see a lot of smiles in the land of the Dravidians. I am actually impressed by the serenity and availability of smiles in South India, compared to the more challenged Indo-Aryan North.

From ‘ScoopWallah. Life on a Delhi Daily’ by Justine Hardy

India ……..Much of its survival is amidst apparent chaos and regional anarchy is perhaps due to the cultural shrug summed up in the Hindi expression jo hona hai hoga …….a smiley acceptance of everything, from the deeply sublime to the utterly ridiculous.

Perhaps I felt a little as Kipling did when he wrote to a friend in 1883: ‘I am in love with the Country and would sooner write about her than anything else. Wherefore let us depart our several ways in amity. You to Fleet Street …..and I to my own place, where I find heat and smells and oils and spices, and puffs of temple incense, and sweat and darkness, and dirt and lust and cruelty, and above all, things wonderful and fascinating innumerable.’

………Lhasa Tibetan, a gunfire language from the people of peace.