Monday, 9 July 2018

The Bizarre Contradictions of Thailand

Chao Le Moken Tribe Child At Nui Beach Ko Lanta Thailand

A young Buddhist monk, an oblivious Moken child and the inescapable Eye of the King.

Within these three, I was presented a Thailand of bizarre contradictions.

* * *

In the heart of Bangkok, you will find Wat Pho, the Temple of the Reclining Buddha. Sprawling nearly fifty metres in length, the figure that rests in this temple portrays Buddha's final stance as he declared all composites perishable and entered into a state of nirvana.

While the gigantic likeness in itself is arresting, it is the countenance of Gautama Buddha that gets to you. Many things in Thailand, especially Bangkok, (which I shall get to in a minute) left me rather disconcerted. Certain oddities, certain discrepancies that I, to date, cannot get my head around. But there was no indelible ambiguity about what I saw on the face of Buddha at Wat Pho.

He was at peace.

There is a distinctive absence of pain, fear or anger on the visage. Adorned with a certain unmatched tranquillity that is so contagious, that it even puts the viewer at ease.  At the Temple of the Reclining Buddha, which is also incidentally hailed as the birthplace of the traditional Thai massage, you will be given an opportunity, literally and figuratively, to seek reprieve from what lies outside those walls.

With nothing but your best interests at heart, I would suggest you go there and seek it.

You see, unlike the permeating aura of Buddha's serenity in the temple, Bangkok, in contrast, is in absolute chaos.

Roughly 35 times larger than Thailand's second biggest city, Bangkok encompasses a world of its own. But I just cannot leave it at that - too mild a description for you to truly envision the urban spectacle. Instead, I would like to ask you to picture a colossal circus where all acts are being performed at the same time. The trapeze artists soar over you while a lion roars at your side. A hysterical clown prances around pulling faces while gymnasts contort themselves into spectacular formations. The jugglers, stilt walkers, acrobats, knife-throwers and fire dancers.

But in this figment of your imagination where are you?

You? Why, you are the ringmaster.

Grand Palace In Bangkok Thailand

In Bangkok, one of the largest primate cities in the world, there is a conspicuous proclivity to tourism. But it didn't stop there. It seems, as a consequence of years of ingestion of spurious hyperbole, this disposition for tourists has now transcended into ceaseless freneticism.  

It's omnipresent. As you walk on a curb, tuk-tuk drivers honk at your left while waiters holler from the right. Street vendors squawk incessantly while displaying their fanciest and least useful contraptions.

The sights, sounds and smells. Deliberately induced, to deliberately inundate.

You cannot fight because Bangkok will win. It has seen tourists like you, equipped with their belief in internet research and trusted opinions. It will take those in its grip, crush them and ask you to give up.

So you should. It is a battle you won't win; a lost cause. The tuk-tuk driver is looking at you expectantly, hoping you'll agree to his proposal. For a moment, all the sights, sounds and smells seem to recede and you are on a little stage in an empty theatre. Two little spotlights shine on you, and the tuk-tuk you need to board.

Choice is an illusion, really, I reflect as I helplessly climb onboard. A little rev of the engine, and we're off.

As we zoom past districts, it seems you would need time to truly understand Bangkok - to tap into the essence of the city and connect with its soul. But such luxuries cannot be afforded by tourists with an agenda, hence the corollary confusion that this city cannily feasts on.

However, one aspect stands out with acute clarity - there is no mistaking the king.

One picture of Maha Vajiralongkorn, the tenth monarch of the Chakri dynasty, can be found all over Bangkok. Draped in gold, standing against an opulent backdrop, the king is unflinching in his gaze. This image follows you every mile in the city - on billboards, building facades, digital signage and even at the back of tuk-tuks. A short biopic plays in the theatres before every movie, to an audience that is compelled to stand for its duration.

It seems that every corner is under the Eye of the King.

Under his gaze, we're being whisked from one overpriced attraction to another by a community of drivers and hawkers. All of them seem to be in cahoots over our unfamiliarity with this teeming metropolis and the intrinsic monetary value of its products and services.

The blatant obviousness of the circus is not lost on the traveller yet we still do it. We grab the cheese. We do everything they say we should do, in hopes of finding those treasured travel memories in the labyrinths of manipulation.

In the house of Jim Thompson, the champion of the Thai Silk industry, you will find a peculiar apparatus in his bedroom. On a desk lies a box shaped like a television set, complete with a transparent glass panel. Behind the glass is a convoluted miniature mansion with scores of little doors and windows.

In the 1960s, Thompson preferred this as a form of entertainment over a television set. A mouse would be put in the glass box and it would go through the multiple inlets and emerge from another. A maze of tunnels connected each hole, so no one but the mouse knew where it would emerge next.

The children would stay glued, hands splayed against the glass panel, watching in utter fascination as the mouse seemingly appeared from thin air. The adults indulged in their own form of entertainment - gambling high stakes on the hole that would produce the next mouse.

In present day, I feel like I'm in a giant mouse house myself.

As I'm whisked from one tourist attraction to another, I must confess I must be the most clueless ringmaster of any circus. Yet, I am integral to the show. Without me, none of these acts, gimmicks and cheap tricks have meaning. I give them purpose and hyperbole.

Without me, there is no show.

Street Grafitti In Bangkok Thailand

The tuk-tuk has started to slow down. We are approaching a large fluttering veil, behind which it seems lies the culmination of this performance and its unabashed obviousness. As I step over the shards of another broken fourth wall and pull aside this veil, I find myself at Khao San road - the centre of the backpacking universe.

A street that in the past was a market for selling rice, hence the name which literally translates to 'milled rice'. Yet today, I'm buffeted by a platoon of lights, music, barbecued insects and hawkers trying to intoxicate my sobriety with consumables of multiple forms - whether solid, liquid or gas.

The short road with the longest dream, or so they say.

Probably because everyone here is under some sort of influence? That would explain another sobriquet for this street - a place to disappear.

I, however, am in no mood to disappear or lose complete control of my senses. But it seems I'm doing Khao San a disservice - affronting the sentiments of these pedlars as I exasperatedly turn down their provocative offers. My rejections only fuel their frenzy. I'm copping verbal blows to the head and knees to the gut, engaged in my own little Muay Thai skirmish with salesmen, at the centre of the backpacking universe.

A lost cause, a battle I will lose.

Constantly and parasitically badgered by insidious hawkers of seductive practices. Goading and probing, urging us to indulge in vices - to revel in the carnal notoriety of Bangkok. They know, like all tourists before us, that we will relent at some point.

They will get to us, shatter that fragile glass wall of resilience, but they just don't know which lucky one will be our breaking point.

So they leech and suck the fortitude out of you so you can fund their daily wage. There is a certain crudeness to their practices - the niceties are plainly fraudulent, almost mocking the way we are attracted to gimmicks. Early this year, I witnessed a similar anarchy in tourist expenditure in Agra, which resulted in a highly fragmented distribution of money into multiple hands. Hands that would have to keep hounding new preys every day to scrape through life.

Anarchy, it seems, has been deliberately introduced and sustained. But it doesn't seem unintentional.

It seems Bangkok thrives on chaos.

Wat Arun In Bangkok Thailand

* * *

The ocean is hostile today.

I'm reclining at the isolated Nui Beach in Ko Lanta, but I cannot rest easy. Incoming thunderstorms have enraged the ocean, resulting in yawning waves that only seem to get larger with each minute. One of my companions is blissfully snoring at my side, but the waves keep me restless. The might of the ocean is often lost to us city-dwellers. Mightier powers have succumbed to the maw of the brine beast, so if these waves were to creep up to us (which they were doing second by second), it would be foolish to challenge my luck any further by attempting to relax on this beach.

Yet in the Krabi province, the ocean's vicissitudes notwithstanding, we found some peace. Here, on this secluded little island, there was a distinctive lack of hawkers. Even the Eye of the King had intermittent outposts. Not the most popular tourist destination in Thailand, yet the people seem happier and more affable to tourists. Despite not being able to match the standards in Bangkok, Patong or Phi Phi, they are still more content with the virtue of their services.

I'm pulled away from my thoughts by a most unexpected sound.

The rumble and crash of the ocean's rage almost deafens the sudden sound of uninhibited laughter. From the village behind me, where the houses are all on stilts in preparation for the imminent floods, runs a little boy. In his palm is clenched a little yellow toy truck. He spots me, flashes a toothless grin, and runs straight ahead towards the sea.

I think he is from the Chao Le tribe, the sea gypsies.

The people of the sea.

There is no flicker of fear on his young face. The fury of the ocean excites him, teases him. For months he has played at this beach alone, with calm waters for company. In its current state of agitation, the boy has found in the ocean a wild side that he approves.

He rummages through the debris on the beach and breaks a little stick from flotsam. The water has brought him gifts today. He goes about creating more toys for himself, only looking up to serve me his widest, most toothless grin every few minutes.

For a moment, it's just us. Me and him. Worlds and lives apart. On this secluded little beach, in our little bubble. Another set of spotlights, one on me and one on him. Yet in this instance the context is vastly dissimilar to the previous. I'm incredibly boring to him - just another human. Another human apprehensive and unwilling to test the ocean's fury, reposing in the mundane. The boy, however, has mightier tasks at hand, as he creates a little shovel and starts digging with purpose.

The innocence and blissful obliviousness of youth.

Unaware of the vast destruction of the tsunami, spawn of the very ocean they worship, in 2004. Unaware of the politics and bigotry that shuns his kin from living a normal life. Unaware that he belongs to a tribe that fears extinction?

Does extinction really scare people who feel they are already culturally dead?

Intriguing that the propaganda that promotes Bangkok as a culturally diverse hot spot is unmindful of the cultural intolerance in the rest of the country, especially South Thailand.

Our bubble is burst as another young man jogs from the periphery. He is heading for the sizeable fishnet washed ashore. The boy looks up, gathers his walking stick, and rushes to give company. The man is now hacking at the net, trying to rummage for valuables he can sell at the market.

The boy jumps around him, poking his stick through the net. A mighty wave hits his feet. He screams with joy and runs back to the beach. Yet, as the wave retreats so does he into the water.

There is no fear, just the blissful obliviousness of youth.

He is one of the Moken tribe, the Chao Le.

He is a child of the sea.

Chao Le Moken Tribe Child At Nui Beach Ko Lanta Thailand

* * *

"What do I need money for?"

Across the table, grinning ear to ear, sits a Buddhist monk my age. I am sitting on a wooden stool next to Wat Chedi Luang in Chiang Mai, under a large canvas banner that spells 'Monk Chat Programme'. Visitors can opt to converse with Buddhist monks in order to learn more about their lives and practices. In turn, the monastic would be able to practice his English.

Within a few minutes into our discourse, conditioned by the socially-ingrained requisites of life, we were quick to bring up the apparent absurdity of a life without money. But the monk was unconcerned, rather unhesitatingly dismissive.

"What do I need money for?"

Really, what do you need money for in life? The immediate requirements that come to mind would be for a house and food. Traditional Thai culture denotes that all you need for a happy life is a house with a kitchen garden next to any body of water. It seems self-sustainability, and not money, is conventionally on higher priority.

As we walked through a little farm in Chiang Mai, smelling the flowers, fruits and leaves that our guide handed to us, we soaked in her infectious fondness for Thai food. As we sat there, grinding our curry paste in a little pestle and mortar, we came to appreciate the little spices and ingredients that added flavour to their simple, organic stews and soups. It would be hard to find a restaurant in Thailand that serves you delectable Pad Thai, Khao Soi or Tom Yum in extreme quantities.

It is neither too much, or too less. It is just the right amount. A trickle-down effect of the Sufficiency Economy or New Theory of Agriculture philosophies introduced by the previous monarch, King Bhumibol Adulyadej.

Anyway, I digress. What else do you need money for?

Or rather, what else do you need money for to sustain life? Amongst the plethora of requirements pouring into your head now, how many can you classify as a 'distraction'? How many of them can you classify as absolutely essential?

A composite that is not perishable?

I looked at the Buddhist monk and I saw a man with no artificially induced cravings, societal pressures or self-doubt. A meditative life that aims to eliminate passion, aversion and ignorance. He openly admitted he had no idea about his future, yet seemed curiously unruffled by that thought.

I wonder what it feels like to not live for the future? We study volumes and work exhaustive jobs to build for an idyllic future. In hopes that all these decades of effort and stress would lead to a calm, peaceful and happy life down the line. In hopes of attaining our own corrupted and artificially-induced interpretation of nirvana.

But it seems the race begins to define us - as we grow so do our goals, our greed. We outstrip our stop line - that once-sought idyllic moment of ultimate happiness now collects dust in the past because we are now chasing something bigger and flashier.

A cycle of rebirths, a chronic brawl between passion, hate and delusion. The race to ultimately, somehow, attain a happy life.

On one hand, at Khao San, Patpong, Patong or Phi Phi, Thailand was hellbent on convincing me that in order to be happy I needed to splurge money to consume food I don't need, drink liquor I don't drink, inhale gas that would take me on a false reprieve, watch a contorted show that would teach me nothing, buy contraptions for which I have no use and seek validation that has no end. Yet, their fundamental beliefs stand in stark contrast.

It is incredible that the land that shelters simple ideologies for happiness is as eager to exploit a visitor's penchant for the convoluted, senseless and pretentious. The distractions that the Buddhist monk shuns are the same that the hawkers shove in your face.

It seems they are living life their way by capitalising on you not living it their way.

They count on you to do everything they would never do, and you do it. Like rats chasing some cheese, we are coerced by our self-imposed impetus to complete this race to attain a happy life. But as the years roll past, taking with them milestones we have now crossed that no longer placate the hunger, it seems evident that it was just chicanery for the mind. The race was never to attain a happy life.

The race is our life.

Nui Beach Ko Lanta Thailand

* * *

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Monday, 4 June 2018

A Magic Trick In Cambridge, UK

Are you watching closely?

It is a misty Sunday morning in the year 2014, but as with all affairs pertaining to Cambridge - does it really matter?

At the fringes of Market Hill, a street magician is summoning the middling early morning crowd. The air is rife with summons interspersed with limericks, quips and some impromptu songs. Under the shadow of the antediluvian Church of St. Mary the Great, a motley of seduction techniques are being used to lure the mildly interested mob.

Of course, in addition to the little bag of tricks, it is vital that every showman exudes some charm, some allure to captivate the audience. But street artists, in particular, perform for an audience that has neither prematurely paid for the performance nor set out of their homes with the intention of watching a show that day. An audience that is waiting, hoping rather, for a lull in captivation to walk away.

It is imperative the artist vociferously snatches their evanescent attention away from their premeditated agenda for the day. Imperative that they desperately fetter it, incarcerate it within the permeating aura of their showmanship. Yet, the nature of this business dictates that even if they managed to suspend the audience on tenterhooks till the final act, the top hat that would get passed around would only jingle if the audience had change to spare.

It is the law of the jungle where the strong survive.

Having finished his summons for an audience, the busker has now put on his top hat. The show is ready to begin.

In line with Christopher Priest's prestidigitation maxims, the magician holds up an ordinary object - his hands in this instance. In a bid to provide substance to this act, your undying belief in the normalcy of his hands is crucial. He turns them to reveal the apparent emptiness of his palms to further solidify this belief. With a final tug at his cuffs, he reveals his wrists to cement the bond of trust we have just created. The audience is now bound with conviction - his hands hold no secrets.

He then proceeds to drape a black cloth over one hand.

A little count to three and the cloth is unveiled.

A fluttering white dove perched on the tip of his finger.

"If you could fool them, even for a second, then you can make them wonder. Then you... then you got to see something really special. You really don't know? It was... it was the looks on their faces."

The looks on their faces.

It is time to reveal to you, the reader of this piece, a little parallelism. This little anecdote of the busker under the shadow of the Great St. Mary was not just arbitrary literary theatrics. There is more to this street magician that concerns Cambridge, why because, and I must insist you believe me, this street magician and the town of Cambridge are one and the same.

Unaware of my participation in wizardry of unimaginable proportions, I was subject to a year-long magic trick.

Initially, the town too came at me with fingers splayed, asking me to inspect the quasi-ordinary elements of its serenity.

With a turn of its hands and twinkling smile, it prodded me to view it from all facets to further solidify my belief that there is nothing more to it.

With a final tweak of its cuffs and a fleeting wink, it seemingly bared down to its roots, deceptively goading me into confirmation that all that I saw was unaltered, normal and ultimately, real.

But it wasn't.

* * *

"We are in King's Cross station, you say? I think that if you decided not to go back, you would be able to... let's say... board a train."

Allow me now, as I do, to infuse a bit of context to this wistful panegyric. 

Despite the prevalent theme of this piece, I must confess I first stepped out of Cambridge railway station with the resolute intention of hating the town. 

How could I not? Despite consciously deciding to uproot my student life after sophomore year in Manchester, I tried to evade accountability for my own, well-reasoned decisions. So I channelled that energy into my personification of this town. This was aided and abetted by my unfamiliarity with residency in a small, county town, having spent my adolescence in the bustling metropolis of Dubai and late teens in the vibrancy of Manchester.

I was fuelled by a belief that after having experienced the most cherished year of my life surrounded by friendship, fame, love, happiness and success there was no way it could be outdone. 

So I decided to visit the other side. 

Cambridge had taken life, as I knew it, away from me. I chose to give up comfort and happiness and boarded my train at King's Cross - a train that would take me on.

I feel it is important to provide you with the right context - this piece, after all, is my personal account of Cambridge. Not the Cambridge you know from the Internet, on celluloid or from hearsay. The town that I saw and lived in. 

The Cambridge that I whole-heartedly resented with my very first step.

And, more than all, a strangeness in the mind,
A feeling that I was not for that hour,
Not for that place. 
But wherefore be cast down?

* * *

The Bridge of Sighs Cambridge St Johns College

The Bridge of Sighs at St. John's College was often visited by Queen Victoria, who loved it more than anything else in the town. It was there when twice in history students dangled cars from its arches. When Stephen Hawking swayed with Jane Wilde on a May Ball, it was there. It is alleged to have gotten its name from the countless, weighted sighs of all the students grudgingly traipsing towards exams, lectures or meetings with their tutors.

I, however, did not add to that ghoulish collection of academic despair as I never got a chance to walk through the Bridge of Sighs.

In fact, my first sighting of it was on my last day in C town, a year from the day I first stepped through the archway at the railway station. You see, unlike most accounts of this magical place, mine isn't one of the infamous university it houses. While the confines of living in a university town ensure that you are never really cut off from its ominous presence, I was still an outsider to this renowned echelon of academia. 

An echelon of academia that could be viewed in all its glory at The Backs, which featured the rear of many prominent colleges including the infamous King's College and Trinity College. Here, punters, anglers and picnickers are subject to the emblematic Gothic English architecture that drives the summer tourism.

At the Great Gate of Trinity College, you will find an endangered Flower of Kent cultivar that is named 'Newton's Apple Tree'. Touted to be grafted from the very same tree that purportedly stemmed the birth of the universal laws of gravitation. A spawn of the original at Woolsthorpe Manor in Lincolnshire, now serving as a reticent gatekeeper of Trinity College - in the rooms of which Isaac Newton once resided.

Newton Apple Tree Trinity College

Before I moved to my permanent residence overlooking Cambridge Railway station, where every morning I was woken by the rumble of trains taking the daily workers into the heart of London, I first hung my hat at the front of the 'The Backs', not too far from Newton's Apple Tree at the oldest college in the university.

Around Peterhouse, as with most things in Cambridge, there hung a heavy weight of history. Of students, mentors, treaties, bishops, religion, discord and nobility. Of honour and customs, of chivalry and principles.

The hands of the magician, splayed for the world to see.

It seemed that the creeping ivies, rusted plaques, peeling coat of arms and creaking staircases were just by-products of a legacy that dated back to 1284.


Once again, does it really matter?

No other place could be more befitting for Professor Stephen Hawking to explore his thesis on time. A few minutes north from Peterhouse, he had inaugurated the Corpus Clock. With no clock hands or numerals, the clock tracks time with a metal creature named the Chronophage turning concentric gold plates to count down. The Chronopage, which translates to Time Eater in Greek, seems to sadistically revel in its ingestion of each second, its eyes lit with the arrogance of its gluttony.

The clock, however, is only accurate every fifth minute. The phases in between are mingled with functional aberrations that seemingly represent the irregularity of life.

Yet, despite time being eaten up, consumed whole second by second to never return, Cambridge doesn't seem perturbed.

For men would come and men would go, but this town will live on forever, eternal in the inescapable continuity of time.

Cambridge Railway Station

* * *

It is well documented that Parker's Piece bore witness to a feast of grand proportions. In 1838, over 15,000 guests gathered at the 25-acre green common to celebrate the coronation of Queen Victoria. Yet, as I dawdle along one of the only two diagonal paths that dissect this ground, I could easily be back in 1838, adrift in the continuity of time. Back there amongst the revelry and grandiosity of the nineteenth century, drinking away to the merriment of a new monarch. Save for the trundling traffic on the roads at the perimeter, the sight I see with my eyes could well be a portrait from a previous century. 

Parker's Piece has two diagonal footpaths connecting opposite corners. At the centre, the only point where the two paths intersect, lies one large solitary cast-iron lamppost. The only major source of light on this colossal ground. 

I approach it bemusedly while questioning the anomaly. As I step closer, certain inscriptions and murals start to get coherent. The base of this solitary lamppost seems to be cyphered with graffiti.

Another masterpiece, by the creatures of the night. 

There seems to be a line of text, right at the base around which the rest of graffiti seems to circle. I'm now close enough to decipher the words that seem to have influenced the nightcrawlers to express their creativity. What I read makes me stop dead, at the centre of Parker's Piece. 

Painted in white, in crude and hurried longhand, at the point where the only two paths connect at the base of the solitary lamppost, are the words 'Reality Checkpoint'.

Are you watching closely?

A little turn of the magician's hands.

Stubbornly repainted over the years whenever the city council attempted to expunge it, the real meaning remains contentious. The most popular one is that it serves as a checkpoint of the real world for all the students living in the fantasy of their university campus. Beyond this point, reality would poke the bubble of obliviousness that engulfs these students, for they were to venture into the moors of Cambridgeshire, no longer under the protective shield of their alma mater.

All of this a trance, an illusion.

Cambridge Botanic Gardens

* * *

The Lombardy Poplar trees are an incredible sight.

I'm pretty sure you would have come across them in some capacity in your adventures, and if you haven't I would insist you try and see them for yourself. They seem haughtily impervious to the world around them, and immensely disinterested in this young man staring at them over a fence, silently astray in intrigue at the sight of Coe Fen, a sprawling meadowland to the east of River Cam.

But I am not here to mislead you - the world harbours multiple spectacular natural reserves that effortlessly eclipse this unimportant, and in all honesty - quite an ordinary fen. For a botany aficionado, even the Cambridge Botanic Gardens would easily be a greater outing than a visit to the Coe Fen.

But I like what I see.

Easily surpassing 50 feet in height (a four-storey building?), the noble Poplars stand as mute, unflinching sentinels guarding the beauty of this fen. Apart from the rustle of leaves and the sporadic rumble of a lone car on the Fen Causeway, there are only whispers in the wind. Even though I'm aware I'm hardly a mile from the city centre, the Coe Fen is an abstract gateway into my childhood idea of a British countryside.

As if awakened, summoned, roused, constrained, 
I looked for universal things; perused 
the common countenance of earth and sky

This is the countryside I used to read about in books, nestled in the cement cocoons of my urban cities. From delving through volumes of literature by Enid Blyton and Ruskin Bond that asked me to embrace the rustic fantasy to here and now, helplessly beset by the inescapability of its entrancing actuality.

A final tweak of the cuffs and a fleeting wink.

It is tempting to lose yourself in this enchantment, to never worry about those mundane, unimportant problems of daily city life. The whispers in the wind have now taken the shape of a hand. It seems to shimmer with mischief, and with a beckon, it asks you to step forth into the foliage. Step forth, and let it caress your soul. 

The distant rumble of a car and the trance is lifted.

I'm aware that this newfound bucolic lust will not last. As a man bred in towering metropolises, this was just a fling, a hiatus, a discontinuity. Yet, the actuality of my roots could not take away the circumstances that led me to this fence, overlooking the silent sentinels of nature.

Somehow, I had made it to the imaginary countrysides of my childhood.  

Somehow, I was here, alone, on this fairy work of Earth.

Coe Fen Lombary Poplar Trees Cambridge

* * *

The stream mysterious glides beneath
Green as a dream and deep as death

Of the River Cam, which incidentally borrowed its name from the town (and not the other way round), I will not say much as it is omnipresent in everything I have talked of so far. It has serenely carried the punters along the Backs, trickled with impish merriment under the Bridge of Sighs and flowed in subdued reverence at the Coe Fen. The river has been with us, right from the start.

"See, sacrifice, that's the price of a good trick."

Despite my determination to detest this town, Cambridge never fought back. It seemed happy to goad me further. Happy to throw me further into the discomfort of lifestyle extremities. It wanted me to feel out of place. Me, a child of the skyscrapers, a stickler for the grind, prodigal son of the future against the might of the past. 

In making me believe everything I thought it was and how it raged against my style was absolutely true. That I didn't belong on those cobbled paths, on the vacant emptiness of Castle Hill and in the serenity of a country town that had been there since the Iron Age.

That it was an illusion against the reality of my life. A draped black cloth, and a fluttering white dove.

Now you're looking for the secret.

In hindsight, years later, a seedling thought. A thought that starts to congeal, take shape in the vestiges of nostalgia. Having returned to my metropolises, I have come back to my supposed actuality but I am accosted with a certain restlessness. It probes me to look deep into my preferred world and see the cracks that start to appear. The fraudulence of urban societies is starting to come to the fore.

Driven by the omnipresent wizardry in the Cambridge, that in the process of seducing me with caressing hands, seems to have surreptitiously embedded an abstraction, a thought.

A thought latched onto my soul that this, around me, is the discontinuity. 

There, my reality.

I was the Dreamer, they the Dream.

Kings College University of Cambridge

* * *

If you liked what you read then do help me by sharing this on social media platforms of your choosing (Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, G+, Reddit I ain't picky). We're all artists somewhere, in some field, and this is just my form of art that would truly find expression if more people get the inclination to read it. (not too dissimilar to the street magician whose top hat goes around empty even if his act was appreciated with claps)

You can like this blog's Facebook page here, follow the Twitter feed here, follow me personally on Twitter here, like the Instagram post here or upvote this piece on Reddit here.

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*Poetry excerpts taken from The Prelude by William Wordsworth and The Old Vicarage by Rupert Brookes

Monday, 30 April 2018

A City's Soul In Deira, Dubai

Dhows In Deira Creek Dubai

"If you can't find it in Deira, you will never find it."

So impregnable was the belief of the merchants of Deira, at the booming hub of trade in the Gulf that dissecting its legitimacy would have been deemed purely absurd, if not sacrilegious.

Even today, in 2018, it is nearly impossible to not find your goal in the hustling souqs of Deira. It was only natural then to finally succumb to the tenets of trading yore. I had to immerse myself in the frenzy to involuntarily seek answers to questions I've had for Dubai since time immemorial.

Involuntarily since these answers could not simply be found with just one vendor in the souq - no goal-driven odyssey into Deira would ever yield what I sought. That was the blinkered blunder of my past; an unfortunate fallibility of my youth, and I was bound to correct it. In hindsight, as I finally type this out to you, it must've been the reckless abandon of a result to this quest that ironically did the trick.

They say if you can't find it in Deira, you will never find it.

It took some time, and I can't point exactly when, but I found it.

Having grown up in and with Dubai in my adolescence, I often struggled with a sense of detachment with 'my city', if I could take the privilege of calling it my own. But I didn't know why. It was an adolescent's want for something he couldn't understand, additionally disconcerting because couldn't put a finger to it. Dubai in the late 2000s was the place to be: the pearl of the United Arab Emirates, led by a prescient dynasty that had a vision to truly make it a globally significant city.

You were living the expat's dream.

With it came the perks of being in a technologically progressive and increasingly diversified environment that would be ideal for easily impressionable adolescents. However, the 'would's and the 'could's remained elusive and ephemeral. In stark contrast thrived this aforementioned sense of detachment which, while vague and perplexingly untraceable, was still undeniably and irrefutably real.

I found it hard to appreciate things that I watched grow, step by step, in gradual transitions (I'm pretty sure erudite psychologists would have some research material that would be able to justify the reasoning in these sentiments). As my school bus whizzed past the under-construction Burj Khalifa (then known as Burj Dubai), I watched it ascend towards the skies, storey on storey, week by week, so much so that the emphatic impression that world's tallest building should leave in a child's mind was lost by the time it was unveiled to the rest of the world.

I was there when the Dubai Mall, Jumeirah Beach Residence and even Downtown Dubai were just ambitious projects on erstwhile barren land. As an unfortunate aficionado of stories, context and history, it seemed that I was growing in a city that was growing with me and there was not much history to explore. There was not much history to read.

I was a part of the history being written.

* * *

Deira Spice Souk in Dubai

The origin of Deira can be traced to 1841 when a smallpox epidemic coerced inhabitants out of Bur Dubai (represent!) and across the Creek. The geographical advantages of Dubai coupled with the lowering of trade tax brackets by the Emir resulted in the development of a community of merchants, primarily from Persia (now Iran). Religious and fiscal disputes in Bastak resulted in a mass exodus of traders migrating to the Arabian Gulf, and they took with them not just their skills but also multiple facets of the Persian culture, language and architecture.

Today, the badgirs or 'windcatchers' of Persia loom over the streets in Deira, heirlooms of a significant transposition of cultures. The migrants would later model their own little neighbourhood aptly named after their hometown in the heart of Bur Dubai: Al Bastakiya.

The origin of the name 'Deira', however, is under contention. While some believe it stems from 'دار' (dar) which means 'house', others dispute it refers to the contour of the land around the Creek, having taken its roots from 'استدارة' (aistidara) or 'roundness'.

Even amongst the proponents of the 'roundness' radix are some that believe the roundness refers instead to the circular nature of the trading business, of which Deira was a frenzied hub in the Gulf. It seems that bona fide facts on this matter shall now never be found, having been set irrevocably adrift in the streets of the souqs.

But Deira itself is not yet adrift. Despite having plunged significantly in importance in the last two decades, it is still here. As I aimlessly amble into the Spice Souk, Asif Khan from Afghanistan lures me and tries to ensconce me in a world where life without any of his products would be unbearable. Yet I'm not the only one - he is seen greeting tourists in Mandarin, Japanese, Hindi, Urdu, Arabic, Pashto and Dari.

It's not often you meet men who speak so many languages, but none too well (apart from their local dialect).

Spice Souk in Deira Dubai

His linguistic skills were sufficient to do the job I must admit, as I feign interest in his kaleidoscopic sacks of multi-hued spices. It takes him a while to open up beyond his practised sales monologue, but I manage to crack into the subterfuge with one of my fondest and only icebreakers: cricket (the other being Bollywood)

(embarrassing, I know)

It took a mutual admiration for Rashid Khan and Mujeeb Rehman's hypnotic bowling for him to break into his first genuine smile in our discourse, the beauty of which was undeterred by a decade of plastic smiles. He is eager, almost insistent, to show me his learnings in writing the Arabic alphabets. I let him scribble the words 'Sulphur - Skin Allergy' into my notebook, which seems to give him blatant joy and a suppressed sense of achievement.

Asif rues the months of heat, where he would have to sweat more and still earn less due to the seasonality of low business. In fact from his experience of twelve years of hollering in the souq, he feels the crowds have surprisingly started to thin. I find this slightly incredulous, as in my estimations the markets are quite crowded for a blazing, stifling Sunday morning, which happens to be the first day of the week in the UAE.

But Asif doesn't agree.

It's not that Dubai is no more a tourism haven, it's just that people now have more places to go.

As the metropolis moves further down south along the sheltered opulence of the Sheikh Zayed road, Deira settles itself into oblivion. Despite the alleged depleting volume of buyers, life still goes on and the curtains on the circus of trade are never drawn. As the spotlight shifts to the future, a certain darkness has started to descend in Deira, but yet it stays stubbornly mired in interminability, covertly watchful of its relics of the past.

Museum of Poet Al Oqaili in Deira Dubai

One of these relics, nestled in midst of the crooked streets in close proximity to Heritage House, is the museum of the late poet Mubarak bin Al Oqaili. In the walls that housed a 'majlis' frequented by people of thought, science, literature and nobility can also be found excerpts from his poetry, amongst which are these lines from the poem 'Ask The Night':

I complain my grief to God, as I have no supporter for my sadness except my tears and unhappiness
Ask the night whether I have slept and whether my body got rest after your abandonment

I'm starting to see the light at the end of the tunnel. It seems that Deira does hide some stories from the past.

Do you see it?

One of the reasons I was transfixed by my explorations in London and Manchester was the inherent and inescapable depth. There was context in the alleys - murmurs of ballads of the past that if you looked hard enough and strained your ears hard enough you would see it and hear it.

You would start to feel it.

The fresh garlands at the memorials to fallen warriors, the vitriolic graffiti by the creatures of the night, the impromptu acts of busking, the embellishments of the present and the scars of the past.

These things to me, I must confess, gave a city its soul.

Deira Clocktower Dubai

In the chaotic electronics bazaar of Naif, you will find a homage to the sales practices of yesteryear. In an age of technology, limited and preferably avoidable human communication and virtual advertisements, in Deira you would still sell and seek things the old-fashioned way.

But not all areas are entirely outmoded. Of all things, the Gold Souk stands as the one bizarre juxtaposition of antiquated and modern selling styles. The wooden arches that screen the aisle don't complement the elegantly furnished and minimalistic interiors of several showrooms where all that glitters is indeed gold. It seems the archaic arches in this market shield it not just from the relentless sun, but also the seasonal plagues of low business.

I guess gold never goes out of fashion.

In contrast further east, bereft of attention, resides the Dubai Clocktower. Rebuilt and restored on a couple of occasions, it once served as an emblem of Dubai, a marker of its entry point on road. In commensurate deficit of attention a few miles away lies the Memorial Fountain, an obelisk-like guardian of Union metro station.

Sitting at Union Park, you can spot all iconic buildings along the Deira side of the Creek that were once glorious monuments. The convex National Bank of Dubai, the globe adorned Etisalat tower, the triangular Dubai Chamber of Commerce and the cylindrical Rolex towers. A contorted assortment of geometrical shapes that were once the original Dubai skyline.

Now relics of a forgotten era.

A gust of wind, and a swirl of leaves.

Dubai Creek Deira Skyline

Even though it has remained stoic amidst the flurry of development, Deira too will one day have to change. It would need to keep up with the pace of a global city. I turn back to squint at the Memorial Fountain, serene in its oblivious stupor. Daily, thousands of commuters throng past it with a cursory glance at best, lost in the vicissitudes and transience of daily life and their fate.

Even though I doubt it will, for the sake of this city's lineage, Deira must endure.

The droplets at the fountain now glisten with reflected sunlight. The sun has start to set in, and on, Deira. I don't think the beauty, relevance and historical significance of Deira could've been highlighted earlier. My revelations are not the by-products of a decade of blissful ignorance. Deira needed the glass spires of Downtown, sprawling beaches of JBR, gastronomic delicacies of City Walk and the monstrous scale of the Dubai Mall to carve its own individuality. To distinctly establish a preserved vestige of history.

Without them it would have no legacy.

I was out there trying to find the essence of my city, somewhere in the midst of the crowd where for long traders have found what they were looking for. At last, I had found it - a culmination of an adolescent's want for something he couldn't understand and an adult's search for something he couldn't have.

I had finally found my city's soul, right there, in heart of Deira.

Memorial Fountain Union Square Deira Dubai

* * *

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