Thursday, October 4, 2007

'I Hate Glamorization of News'

Barkha Dutt, the Best-Known Face of Indian Television, Speaks to Siraj Wahab

DUBAI, August 30, 2007 — Barkha Dutt is to Indians what Christiane Amanpour is to Americans: A heavy hitter fearlessly filing her reports from troubled regions of the world for viewers in South Asia and the Middle East. There doesn’t seem to be a conflict zone too hot for this 36-year-old managing editor for NDTV, one of the best 24-hour English-language news channels in India. Dutt produces and reports on the region’s major events as well as hosts popular talk shows.

She became a household name in India in 1999 following her daring reporting from the frontlines during the Kargil War. Dutt’s reporting from Gujarat during the communal riots in 2002 was the must-see news segments during those dark days. In 2004, Farhan Akhtar directed the film “Lakshya” about her life casting Preity Zinta as the intrepid Ms. Dutt.

Dutt did not emerge suddenly out of anonymity. Before she became a big name in the world of television, she did remarkably well on the academic front. Her bio speaks for herself: She earned her bachelor’s degree in English Literature from Delhi’s prestigious St. Stephen’s College and then went on to garner two master’s degrees, one in Mass Communications from Jamia Millia Islamia, Delhi, and another in Journalism from Columbia University in New York.

“I stumbled into journalism accidentally,” she said with a bright smile in an interview conducted during the shoot in Dubai for the 60th Independence Anniversary Special produced jointly by Geo Television of Pakistan and NDTV. In real life, Dutt betrays the larger than life image that she has acquired on the airwaves. She is quite unassuming on the sidelines and barely commands a second look. Once on the sets, however, Dutt is a bundle of energy, the queen of all she surveys.

“My job is to get all shades of opinion in the story,” she says. “That surely makes me unpopular. But then if you are hated by all sides, it means you are a great reporter.” Indeed she is. Following are excerpts from the interview:

Q: You must be relishing life in the limelight?

A: People always think that everybody enjoys the limelight. That is not true. It is actually very awkward. A journalist is used to being on the other side of the camera. When the film Lakshya was being made, Javed Akhtar discussed the story with me before he actually scripted it. Preity Zinta would call me now and then and would ask: ‘Can I wear this? Can I wear that?’ And I told her: ‘Look, war was happening at that time and I really don’t remember what I wore.’ At one level all this adulation is good because it gives you the strength to carry on. But at the same time, I feel scared because I am under the scrutiny of viewers at all times.

Q: So it is actually very tough but people think TV journalism is very glamorous.

A: Nothing irritates me more than the glamorization of television. When I joined television, it was not about how you looked, or what makeup you wore; it was not about what clothes you adorned. It was about going out into the field and reporting old-style, good journalism. All these TV anchors and news readers that you watch now are extremely beautiful, they are models and air-hostesses. “Lekin dimaag kahan hain unka?” Where are their brains? Everybody thinks television is a very easy business. But if you want to be a cracking good reporter, you have to be prepared for hard work. You have to slog for 16 hours a day. When we went to cover Kargil and tsunami, we would go without food for four days at a time. We would survive on water and dry biscuits. Today’s generation doesn’t understand that. They look at it from a distance and they think TV is glamour. Yes, for some people it is glamorous. I know the psyche of viewers. They may say ‘Yes, that girl is beautiful’ but they will not respect her until she has done some real reporting.

Q: These 24-hour news channels have resulted in a lot of sensationalism. Do you think competition has led to compromises in the standards of journalism?

A: We in India are debating this very fiercely. The government wants to regulate and control the television media. While I strongly feel that governments and politicians have no business in the media space, I also feel that we have to acknowledge that we have created a certain amount of tabloidization of the news process. I am in favor of a self-created code of conduct that we all follow. Just as there is an ombudsman for newspapers, we in the television news industry should also set up a panel of eminent citizens to regulate our conduct.

Q: One view is that television channels are more into providing entertainment than news.

A: I think television has done very good things in South Asia. It has made journalism much more active. Television created campaigns for justice. It brought the Jessica Lal murder case into the limelight. The whole court case was reopened because of the media campaign. But yes, in our Hindi TV channels in India we find that superstition, rituals, blind faith — all nonsense — is being dished out in the name of news. Those channels are entertainment channels instead of news channels. They have no right to call themselves news channels. The time has come for us to scrutinize ourselves just as we scrutinize other institutions. We have to maintain some standards. I believe that despite the sensationalism, our viewers are intelligent and that good journalism will survive.

Q: In newspapers you have a group of people through whom news travels. Are there similar checks in TV to check sensationalism and avoid inaccurate reporting?

A: The same mechanism exists in television. We should, however, admit that TV is a new industry in India. It is only 13 years old; in Pakistan it is even younger. We have to learn things that are good about the print medium. Newspapers have a foolproof system through which news travels. There are checks and balances. In 24-hour television what happens is that because news is being broadcast in real time, mistakes are made. We do hire people from print to come in as our news editors and drive the news from the desk as it happens in newspapers.

Q: In the old days a journalist was expected to be a clinical observer of events rather than becoming a part of the news itself. That is not the case with television.

A: I think those days are gone when a reporter was just a clinical observer. He was never one. Say whatever you want to say, there is no such thing as objective journalism. I agree there should be no biases in journalism but a reporter cannot exist in a vacuum. He is part of society and he will tend to reflect what he sees or hears around him. I don’t believe that news has to be dry and boring. If there is an element of emotionalism, what is the harm? Yes, those emotions should be genuine. Not acting. However, it is the job of an editor to see that all points of view are incorporated in the story. Take the case of Kashmir, for example. There are those in Kashmir who believe that the Indian Army is all wrong and that the separatists are right. There are those who believe the separatists are all wrong and the army is all right. My job is to ensure that all shades of opinion are incorporated in the story. And when you do that, you become very unpopular. The army will then say, ‘Oh you always take their side.’ And the separatists will say, ‘You always take the army’s side.’ But my take is: If you are hated by all sides, it means you are a great reporter.

Q: You talk about balancing a story. What if there is no other side to a story as, for example, in Gujarat?

A: In that case I would say it is my duty to give Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi or the BJP the chance to respond. I agree with you that there are certain stories that don’t have another side. I would, however, trust very few journalists to make that assessment.

Q: How do you see Middle Eastern issues from the Indian point of view?

A: Our perception of the conflict in the Middle East is still very much shaped by how the United States sees it. When we were growing up, we were told not to call it the Middle East but West Asia. Now everybody calls it the Middle East. We have internalized their language as well. People in India don’t understand the issues here. There is a high level of ignorance about the Middle East conflict. There is ignorance about the Israel-Palestine question. People have all kinds of perceptions about the Middle East: That there is no freedom. That it is the land of terrorists. There is a lot of ignorance.

Q: There is a charge that the TV industry is too urban-centric.

A: It is just that you tend to react more to stories that are in your immediate vicinity. It is a fault and we should not be urban-centric. We are captivated by shining India or whatever you call it. Yes, we have to and we must go out of our metros and our studios and into villages to find out what is happening.

Q: What is your take on the current Indian government?

A: I think this government, given the fact that it is in its last two years now, has actually done quite well for itself. Primarily because the opposition has fared so badly for itself. There are certain achievements that this government has made. Manmohan Singh cares a lot about the dialogue with Pakistan. He has personally pushed it.

Q: And what about the Indo-US nuclear deal?

A: As a technical document I don’t really understand it. But I do trust the government of the day not to betray India’s interest.

Q: As a woman managing editor of a premier TV channel, how challenging is your job?

A: Even if I were a man, I would have faced similar challenges. The challenge of running a 24-hour news channel where every second counts is enormous. I keep telling newspaperwallahs (journalists) that you bring out just one product and we have 24 bulletins and we face the same kind of tension with every bulletin. The challenge is how not to make my news bulletin fall into inaccuracy.

Q: Where do you get your inspiration from?

A: My mother (Prabha Behl) was a journalist. (She was the chief reporter of Hindustan Times in the mid-1960s.) She was one of only three journalists in India who covered the 1965 war with Pakistan. She broke the ice for people like us. (Prabha died when Barkha was only 13). I became a journalist by accident. I wanted to be a lawyer or a documentary filmmaker. I went and did an MA in Mass Communications and then went to NDTV to apply for a job where I told (NDTV chief) Prannoy Roy I wanted to be a producer. He said, ‘Try news first.’ That was it.

Q: Indians always blame Pakistan for being a theocratic state. But in fact religious parties never came to power in Pakistan at the center whereas in India the BJP did come to power on the plank of Hindutva? Do you see any dichotomy there?

A: The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is not the equivalent of the Jamaat-e-Islami. I think the Shiv Sena is the equivalent of the Jamaat-e-Islami. The BJP has Atal Behari Vajpayee who everybody thinks is a moderate leader. You can say that Narendra Modi is the counterpart of Jamaat-e-Islami.

Q: But then Modi and Vajpayee belong to the same party, don’t they?

A: Yes. It is a problem and the BJP will have to resolve this dilemma for itself. There are many people who are willing to accept the BJP as a mainstream party as long as it takes positions against such leaders as Modi.

Q: The Muslims of India have always aligned themselves with the secular parties. They never supported religious parties. But it is the media that gave space to the black sheep of the community.

A: I feel very upset about how much scrutiny is put on the Muslims of India. But the one thing I do feel is that when people such as Modi do whatever they do, 90 percent of the people who speak against them are Hindus. I sometimes wish that moderate Muslims would raise their voices against these fatwa-giving, self-appointed maulvis. I wish moderate Muslims would reject them more publicly. I know they reject them but sometimes a public statement becomes more important. About the media projecting the black sheep of the community, yes we are at fault too. For example, I don’t allow Bajrang Dal or the Shahi Imam to come on my shows. The Indian media sometimes looks for cliches because it likes conflict. The media is also to blame. I accept that.

Q: Where do you see India in the next 60 years?

A: We are at a crossroads. Right now we are in a self-congratulatory mood. We should not be in such a mood. There are vast areas that have not caught up with the wealth and well-being of India. If we are able to bridge this gap, then we will be on the global stage in the next 60 years. But if we are not able to bridge this rich-poor, urban-rural gap, we will fall by the wayside.

'Don’t Give Up Hope on Palestine'

Chinmaya Gharekhan, India's Special Envoy to the Middle East, Speaks to Siraj Wahab of Arab News

JEDDAH, September 10, 2007 — Chinmaya Gharekhan is a veteran Indian diplomat. What adds to his prestige is his recent appointment by Prime Minister Dr. Manmohan Singh as the special envoy to the Middle East. He has been the longest serving Indian permanent representative to the United Nations (from 1986 to 1992). An undersecretary-general for nearly seven years afterward, he was the secretary-general’s special representative in the Security Council for four years. From 1997 till the end of 1999, Gharekhan was UN special representative in the occupied Palestinian territories with headquarters in Gaza City. He is currently touring the Middle East to express India’s support for the Middle East peace process. While in Saudi Arabia, he spoke on a range of issues. Following are excerpts from the exclusive interview conducted on Sept. 9, 2007, at the Jeddah Conference Palace:

Q: This is the first time that India has named a special envoy for this region, right?

A: Yes, this is the first time that India has named a special envoy to West Asia or what you call the Middle East. It is indicative of the interest and concern that we have for the region and its people. The idea behind appointing a special envoy is to share with the people and the governments of this region the problems that we all face and to express our solidarity with its people and governments.

Q: Is there something special at this point that brings you here?

A: The love and affection for the people of Saudi Arabia. I will be conveying my prime minister’s message to Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud Al-Faisal. And I am sure he will have some good advice for me. Basically we want to reiterate our strong commitment for the cause of Palestine. And since we support the inalienable rights of the Palestinians, we want to explore what India can do, if anything at all, in pushing forward the Middle East peace process.

Q: India is seen as close to both the Palestinians and the Israelis. That puts you in a good position to play the role of a mediator.

A: Both parties, the Palestinians as well as the Israelis, certainly feel very happy that we have good relations with them. I have made it very clear to the Israelis that our growing relationship with them is not at the expense of our commitment to the Palestinian cause. They have no difficulty with that.

Q: But there is certainly an element of uneasiness here in the Arab world about India’s growing defense ties with Israel. Have you noticed that during your current visit to the region?

A: Nobody has mentioned this to me. Nor did I notice it. Yes, we have this relationship (with Israel). And I am not being defensive about it. It is our sovereign right and duty to do whatever is necessary to protect and further our national interests. The governments and leaders that I spoke to in the region have not expressed any reservations about India’s having this kind of relationship with Israel. There may be some sections of public opinion that are not very happy and I am quite sure that some countries are doing their best to spread disinformation about India’s relationship with Israel. I am sure the people of this country, as well as other Arab countries, will and do appreciate that governments have to do everything necessary for the protection and promotion of their independence and national interests.

Q: As a seasoned diplomat are you comfortable with this U-turn in India’s foreign policy? India has all along followed the time-tested Nehruvian policy of nonalignment. And suddenly we see Delhi growing too close to the United States.

A: A country’s foreign policy cannot be based on sentiments or emotions. Foreign policy is a hardheaded, calculated game. Some people in India have not got used to this sudden shift. As professionals, however, we ought not to have any permanent attachments. If we think having good and close relations with the United States is in our interest, we will do that. And we are doing that.

Q: This surely must have led to a lot of disappointment among Third World countries who have always looked to India to take an independent line?

A: Not at all. In fact, every nonaligned country, every Third World country, all the Arab countries, everyone has the same desire — to get close to the United States. If anything, there might be a sense of jealousy as to how India could manage successfully to overcome the burdens of the past and establish a closer relationship with the United States.

Q: You have been associated with the United Nations for quite a long time. And your book, “Horseshoe Table,” is said to be a lively read on the organization. And so you are the right person to answer this question: Is the UN relevant?

A: I am convinced that it is relevant. Certainly its credibility, its influence and its prestige have suffered enormously in the last four or five years because of what has happened in Iraq. But if there were no United Nations, the whole world would not at this moment be coming together to decide how to create a new United Nations. Certainly the United Nations needs reforms, needs changes. One of the most important reforms that it has to carry out is to make it more representative, especially the Security Council. You can’t have a Security Council with the same 15 members for 40 years. Its membership hasn’t changed but the world has changed. And so has the balance of power.

Q: What are India’s chances of becoming a UN Security Council member?

A: Insha Allah. With Saudi Arabia’s support and in the course of time it will happen. I am convinced that this will happen but I don’t know when.

Q: You talked about UN losing prestige in Iraq. What is the way out in Iraq?

A: The best way out of Iraq is for the Iraqi people to sit together and to promote national reconciliation. They should take charge of their affairs, free of any foreign interference and certainly free of any foreign occupation. The US has to leave at some point. People in America themselves want their troops to leave Iraq. How to work out the modalities? That is certainly the question. And one that does not have an easy answer.

Q: You were very close to the late Yasser Arafat. Any reflections?

A: Had it not been for Arafat, the Palestinian cause would never have been at the center of things today. The fact that everybody, including the president of the United States, recognizes that Palestine is the core issue is all thanks to Arafat. I am impressed by President Mahmoud Abbas as well. I know him and have dealt with him over the years and I met him last week in Ramallah. He is a self-assured leader, a very confident leader. He certainly knows how to proceed. And so more strength to him.

Q: What about the Hamas leadership?

A: We have no dealings with Hamas. We are only supporting the Palestinian Authority led by President Abbas. We are, however, saddened by the infighting among the Palestinians. This is a serious setback. Palestinians should realize that their strength lies in unity. They should support Abu Mazen and his leadership and persuade Hamas to give up its ideology of violence.

Q: You think we are close to the creation of an independent Palestinian state living side by side in peace with Israel?

A: You can’t afford to be a pessimist. One has to keep hope alive, most of all, the Palestinian people do. If they give up hope, then there is nothing left for them except maybe more violence. And we have seen violence does not get anywhere. But as of now, everyone tells me — and I cannot go against the considered Arab assessment — that there is a window of opportunity. There is a set of circumstances in today’s world that gives us some reason to expect something good.

Q: How do you see developments in Pakistan?

A: India strongly wants a stable, peaceful and prosperous Pakistan and that the country should be at peace with itself so that it can be at peace with its neighbors.

Q: But Kashmir still remains the key issue...

A: Kashmir is an issue that has to be resolved. Even the Shimla Agreement of 1972 says that. We are, however, very happy that Pakistan has now finally realized and come to the conclusion that Kashmir can only be resolved through bilateral negotiations. In other words, direct talks between India and Pakistan, without the mediation or interference of any third party. That is a healthy development and we welcome that. We have been having talks with Pakistan. My prime minister and the Pakistani president have met a couple of times. Then there are special people on both sides who are talking on this issue. A lot of progress has been made as far as Kashmir is concerned. But of course there is always the problem of cross-border terrorism. Pakistan continues to support that. Funding and financing of cross-border terrorism is going on even as we speak.

Q: Do you still think the Pakistani establishment is behind these incursions?

A: Do you have any doubts about it?

Q: What about India’s relationship with Iran?

A: We have excellent relations with Iran. No problem there.

Q: But then India voted against Iran in IAEA...

A: We voted the way we voted in IAEA because that is the way we thought we should vote. We know that Iran is a party to the nuclear nonproliferation treaty (NPT) and as a signatory to it, Iran must fulfill its obligations and commitments. And we expect Iran to fulfill its international obligations.

Q: Are you going ahead with the gas pipeline with Iran?

A: India needs energy from all sources. Nuclear energy is one alternative that we are going to tap further as a result of our civilian nuclear agreement with the US. We need oil, we need gas. We are making progress on the pipeline issue.

Mission Accomplished

Waleed Al-Humaidi Talks About His African Experience in This Interview With Siraj Wahab

JEDDAH, September 27, 2007 — Waleed Saleh Al-Humaidi describes himself as “a much-married person with kids.” A manager of SAB Express/TNT in Jeddah, you might think the 44-year-old Saudi from Unaizah leads a rather docile life, but if you turn the clock back a bit, you will find him in the isolated hinterlands of Tanzania making some very special deliveries.

Al-Humaidi was the first Arab to take part in the School Feeding Volunteer Program arranged by the United Nations World Food Program (WFP) in partnership with TNT. The son of a Saudi diplomat once stationed in Beirut, Al-Humaidi saw firsthand the horrors of the Lebanese Civil War and its consequences for the people. “Those were tough times,” he recalled. “I would drive around Beirut and see destruction everywhere. I was around 20 at that time and it was very scary.”

Those images haunted Al-Humaidi as Lebanon became a memory. “I left for the United States for a degree in Industrial Engineering Technology from Southern Tech University in Atlanta, Georgia,” he said. “After completing the degree, I came back to Jeddah and had a couple of jobs before joining Sheikh Salah Hamdan Al-Balawi’s SAB Express. SAB Express sponsors TNT Express in Saudi Arabia, and they have an employee program that allows you to do volunteer work. I applied because it was something I had always wanted to do.”

Al-Humaidi said the selection after application was difficult and long, but almost a year later, he was on his way to Rome to prepare for a mission to Tanzania. Nothing could have really prepared him for what he was about to experience. The East African nation’s infrastructure literally ended at the city limits of Dar es Salaam and Dodoma.

“There are no paved roads at all. The country is all desert, so cars get stuck,” he said. “Going from one place to another is a big hassle. Most of the people in Dar es Salaam are living in better conditions, but the rest of the country has huge problems.”

Getting the help to where it was needed meant a lot of driving over frequently rough terrain. “We generally traveled by car,” he said. “We would have a tent, a mosquito net and basic first-aid kits — and plenty of water in case we got stuck, and that was it. Because the roads are very rough we had three spare tires — one down, one in the trunk and one up. The first thing we would do was to set up a modern kitchen in the schools. Sometimes it was not possible to get back to base in time. Under UN rules, after sunset we had to stay wherever we were for security reasons — you might get mugged, or you might get kidnapped.”

Danger didn’t, however, stop them from delivering the much-needed aid. “We traveled around 11,000 km during our four-month stay and went all the way up to the border with Rwanda. We went to a Rwandan camp, and they were in great need,” he said. “Because of the war, Tanzania had opened its border. We saw malnourished babies, and most of them were HIV positive. They had no water and no food.”

Making the deliveries tested Al-Humaidi’s physical endurance. “We would drive for hours on end to get to the remotest villages in Tanzania and come back before sunset to the United Nations camp,” he said. “I had to be hospitalized once. I just fell down, and I almost lost consciousness because of the dust, heat and exhaustion.”

All across Tanzania, illness and poverty were commonplace. “It is indescribable. It has to be seen to be believed. It is too bad — extreme poverty — it is very, very harsh,” he said. “Those situations make you even more determined to help them. Once I was out of the hospital, I was back in business helping the poor villagers.”

For Al-Humaidi, it was a time of living dangerously. “HIV is rampant there; so is malaria,” he said. “I knew that I was putting myself in a lot of danger, but then that is the difference between those who take risks and those who shy away from them. It was challenging indeed. Once I was in the field in Africa, I wanted to give my all. The thing is if I was not giving my all then I was not doing justice to the mission. Yes, it was very scary out there, but I was so eager and enthusiastic that sometimes I overdid it.”

Al-Humaidi says that if more people in the developed world knew the truth, civilized men would not allow this to continue. “They don’t know about HIV; they don’t know about people in their 40s with five to six infected children,” he said. “There are no hospitals. I think World Food Program is doing a great job there, and the UN is doing a great job as well. They are at least trying to provide two meals a day to those poor souls.”

Two meals a day can easily be the difference between life and death. “The families there send their children to school for a very simple reason. It means the family is relieved of providing two meals,” he said. “The children are provided with two meals every day during school hours. At 10.30 in the morning they get porridge and then again at 1.30 p.m. So by sending their children to school the family is relieved of providing two meals a day. All they have to worry about is the meal at night. But there is no meal at night, so the kids wait until the next morning when they can eat at 10.30 again. The level of poverty there is unbelievable, and what amazes me is that most of the people in Dar Es Salaam, the Tanzanian capital, themselves were shocked at what was going on in their own country.”

In those remote regions, the signs of civilization disappear, and people are left to live however they can — alone and isolated. “They have no radios, no television, nothing,” Al-Humaidi said. “When the sun sets, that is it. People just sit around a fire and sleep. They have not heard of the outside world. They have no idea about Saudi Arabia.”

Many of the other volunteers had no idea about Saudi Arabia, either. “Most of the people from other countries thought I would be wearing my thobe while doing my work,” Al-Humaidi said. “Tanzanians speak Swahili, which has some similarities with Arabic. It wasn’t hard communicating with them, but before we went there we went through a 10-day crash course in Swahili.”

His adventure also meant challenges for his family. “My wife supports me 100 percent. She also wished that she was there, as well, helping people in charity work,” Al-Humaidi said. “When in Tanzania, sometimes I couldn’t get in touch with her for weeks, and I would remain out of touch — no communication — nothing. That was tough on her, but before going to the next destination, I would tell her I was going to such-and-such village. I would tell her I might not be able to contact her, so she was in a sense prepared.”

Now spending time at his comfortable Jeddah office, he is still in the delivery business, but he is still up for making some special deliveries on behalf of humanity. “Of course, I would like to help people there,” he said. “And I want to support the work of WFP. It is organizing programs to assess needs in Tanzania. It evaluates the needs of the people there. It finds out how many teachers are required, how many chairs — the food situation. I want to help the WFP in the future and I want others to join me.”

Al-Humaidi hopes more people will get involved. “It is only a question of education,” he said. “There is not enough media coverage. People just get some idea because of television — maybe through CNN — but, by and large, people are not aware of what is going on there.”

Although Al-Humaidi’s time on the front lines is over, he is comforted to know that some of his countrymen remain in Tanzania, making special deliveries of aid for Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques King Abdullah.

“The Kingdom is doing a great job by contributing heavily to the WFP programs, by sending direct aid to the people in need,” Al-Humaidi said. “When I was doing voluntary work in Tanzania, I met Saudis there who were representing King Abdullah and distributing aid. They were sincere about it. They flew from Dar Es Salaam to Dodoma; they went with the donations to the villages, which welcomed them. They themselves delivered the food. We were there; people from the government and the United Nations were there, as well. That aid from Saudi Arabia was like a lifeline for them.”

Muslim Filmmaker Tackles Tough Issues

Jawad Jafry Talks to Siraj Wahab During His Recent Visit to Jeddah

JEDDAH, September 29, 2007 — Beyond the glitz of the North American media work are the documentary filmmakers who tackle issues beyond the realm of the sound bite. Canadian filmmaker Jawad Jafry is one of those whose focus ranges from battling the ignorance behind Islamophobia to looking at the plight of recent immigrants to the New World and the obstacles they face.

A producer, director, writer, editor and narrator, he has produced programming for television, educational and corporate media markets throughout the West. Jafry also is the creator of Islamic video cartoon series “Adam’s World,” which has been distributed widely. He says the explosion of satellite broadcasting has created a market for him.

“There are a number of TV channels offering different types of programs,” Jafry told Arab News during a recent visit to Jeddah on his way to perform Umrah. “So you have news channels; you have entertainment channels; you have documentary channels; there is lot of media space available, but the market is also fragmented. So what is happening is that there are specialized documentaries for different channels. They look for content from independent producers like me.”

Forty-two-year-old Jafry’s first documentary, “The Wonders of Islamic Science,” detailed the Qur’an’s inspiration that led to remarkable achievements by Muslims in astronomy, medicine, mathematics, geography, botany, zoology and many other fields, which in turn powered the Renaissance of Europe. He followed that with another fact-based film “Hijab: An Act of Faith.”

“Hijab is one of the most misunderstood symbols of Islam,” Jafry said.

“My documentary tries to explain Islam’s concept of modesty and why Muslim women cover. A number of articulate and committed Muslim women with varied backgrounds share their experiences and insights about their choice to wear hijab. The film also tackles many stereotypes relating to hijab and highlights the duty of Muslim men to observe modesty. ‘An Act of Faith’ was an important video for Muslims and non-Muslims alike.”

When Jafry turned his attention to the plight of many immigrants, the result was “Night Shift.” “The paradox of foreign-trained doctors, engineers, PhDs and other professionals driving taxis and doing other low-level jobs has been so common in Toronto that it’s almost a cliché,” Jafry said. “Night Shift” is a 30-minute documentary that examines the plight of underemployed foreign-trained professionals in Toronto.

It took a certain degree of courage to participate in the film, as proud men and women found themselves in sometimes-pathetic circumstances. “What we basically did was follow somebody around for five months,” Jafry said. “He is Malik Khan. Armed with a master’s degree in chemistry and four years of experience in his native Pakistan. Khan arrived in Toronto in 2003 with high hopes, but the only job he could find was working the overnight shift as a security guard at a downtown condo. He shared a tiny apartment with three other men and made weekly calls to his new wife, Fareeha, back in Pakistan.

“Khan was somebody who was qualified — somebody who has the qualifications that should be market-worthy — and he was working as a security guard at night because he couldn’t find any other job.”

Khan’s story is not a rarity. Jafry says while they were doing research for the documentary they heard of a brain surgeon from Iran who was driving a cab. “We tried to convince him to feature in the documentary, but he would not,” he said. “This is quite a common problem. It is a generational problem. People come here and basically get stuck in a wrong job, and then they sacrifice themselves for the next generation to succeed.”

Jafry, a longtime Toronto resident who holds a radio and television arts degree from Ryerson University, is the son of media personality S.G.P. Jafry. He says he is in a good place that could be a better place. “Maybe it is too much to ask, but I’d really like to see the day when our community identifies areas where we are under-represented, makes it easy for our youth to enter those fields, and, when they graduate, has them work within the community,” he said. “I think we would all be so much better off if that happened.”

The city of Toronto gives him another unique opportunity to make a film of which he has long dreamed. “I have been working on a project for several years off and on trying to find the right candidates for a documentary on the victims of torture,” Jafry said. “A friend of mine told me once that Toronto was the first city in North America in which a center for victims of torture was actually founded. So among all the people in Canada there are some who have been victims of state-sponsored torture. They have been through horrendous situations. I want to reflect their trials and tribulations.”

Quite a shift for the creator of a children’s cartoon series, but Jafry realizes the important difference that his storytelling can make in helping to shape young minds.

“I once interviewed a woman for our ‘Hijab’ documentary who said that her mother used to read her bedtime stories about the Companions of the Prophet (peace be upon him),” Jafry said. “She said she always grew up wanting to be like them. That blew me away. It continues to amaze me how children can learn so much from the stories and characters they grow up with.”

Saturday, June 16, 2007

'Watu Izzu Mantasha, Watu Zillu Mantasha'

Here is a report on the Annual Indian Mushaira. I wrote this one for Arab News. It appeared in the newspaper on June 16, 2007. The picture above shows them posing for a group shot with Indian Consul General Dr. Ausaf Sayeed. Seen from right to left are: Altaf Zia, Haj Consul Dr. Suhel Ejaz Khan, Naeem Akhtar, Mashaf Iqbal Tauseefi, Rifat Sarosh, Dr. Shahnaz Nabi, Ali Zaheer, Dr. Qasim Imam, Dr. Ausaf Sayeed, Dr. Shafi Sagar, Rasheed Ansari, Dr. Naseem Nikhat, Muzaffar Razmi, Rahi Bastawi, Rabab Rashidi and Dr. Farooq Shakeel. Enjoy reading and do post your comments here. Cheers. — Siraj Wahab, June 16, 2007

Couplets Under the Stars at Jeddah's Annual Mushaira

By Siraj Wahab

JEDDAH, June 16, 2007 — The general perception is that Urdu poetry is all about love — and perhaps rightly so. Ghazal, the most popular genre of Urdu poetry, is essentially a conversation between two lovers. But on Thursday night (June 15, 2007), a young poet from Malegaon in Maharashtra gave ghazal a new meaning by drawing upon a popular verse from the Holy Qur’an:

Watu Izzu Mantasha, Watu Zillu Mantasha.

This verse from Surah Al-Imran, which is extensively quoted by Muslims at all times, simply means Allah honors those He is pleased with and disgraces those He is not happy with. Altaf Zia used this verse to compose a very interesting ghazal that became a big hit with the capacity crowd at the annual mushaira organized by the Consulate General of India at Jeddah’s sprawling and huge International Indian School.

The crowd was packed inside the school’s majestic auditorium, while outside the lucky latecomers sat in an overflow space, a playground where the cool sea breeze mixed with poetic verse, causing the fronds of the nearby date palms to shimmer and making for a pleasant evening under the stars.

Nadaan Ko Is Baat Ka Bilkul Nahi Pata
Watu Izzu Mantasha, Watu Zillu Mantasha
Allah Ke Huzoor Ye Hota Hai Faisla
Watu Izzu Mantasha, Watu Zillu Mantasha

There was a huge applause. Then Altaf Zia condemned the recent attack on Zahid Ali Khan, the editor-in-chief of the India’s most prominent Urdu daily Siasat. The attackers had stopped Zahid Ali Khan’s car near Hyderabad's Mehdipatnam area in March this year and had thrown filth at him. “My answer to his attackers is simple,” said Altaf Zia, and recited the couplet that became the highlight of the night:

Khush Ho Rahen Hain Mujh Pe Jo Kichad Uchhaal Kar
Din Aa Gaya Qareeb Ab Unke Zawaal Ka
Qudrat Karegi Dekhna Un Sab Ka Faisla
Watu Izzu Mantasha, Watu Zillu Mantasha

Two other reasons for Altaf Zia’s popularity was his melodious voice and an interesting way of presenting his compositions.

Altaf Zia was not the only successful poet at the very well-organized and well-attended mushaira, the credit for which goes entirely to the young, dynamic and popular Indian Consul General Dr. Ausaf Sayeed.

Among the other poets who were equally successful included Muzaffar Razmi, from Kairana in Uttar Pradesh’s Muzzafarnagar district. He struck an instant chord with the audience with his famous couplet that is on the lips of every Urdu lover in the Indian Subcontinent.

Yeh Jabr Bhi Dekha Hai Tareekh Ki Nazron Ne
Lamhon Ne Khata Ki Thi Sadiyon Ne Saza Payee.

I.K. Gujral read this couplet when he took his oath as the prime minister in 1997.

Muzaffar Razmi’s diction and compositions were beyond compare. Ghazal is known for its lyrical qualities and, in Muzaffar Razmi, it is at its peak and pinnacle. His diction was fresh, his phraseology unique, his coinage of metaphors superb, his imagery picturesque. His fans hung onto his every word of every couplet. His thought content was a perfect match to the lyrical attribute of the ghazal.

Then there was Rahi Bastawi from Basti in Uttar Pradesh, famous for his “geet,” another popular form of Urdu poetry that is hugely popular in the north of India. He was highly successful and his “Are re re na baba” was being crooned by the audience much after the five-hour poetry-reading session was over.

Dr. Qasim Imam from Bombay surprised the audience with his excellent anchoring and beautiful poetry. Two particular couplets from him sent the audience in a crescendo of wah-wahs. Both had political overtones, but their instant popularity was indicative of the truthfulness of the message behind them.
One was:

Sher Dil Log Pehente Nahin Chehre Pe Naqab
Apni Phansi Ko Bhi Aasaan Bana Dete Hain

And the second one was:

Ji Atalji Aapko Is Gham Pe Rona Chahiye
Dard Ghutne Mein Hai, Thoda Dil Mein Hona Chahiye

Dr. Farooq Shakeel from Hyderabad was successful in driving home some very poignant and interesting points. His “tanhaiyan bolti hain miyan” was very well-received. His couplet: “Apne Markaz Se Bichhad Ne Ki Saza Paate Hain/ Shaakh Se Toot Ke Patte Jo Bikhar Jaate Hain,” was also a hit.

Dr. Shahnaz Nabi, from Kolkata, wowed the audience with excellent and meaningful poems in a refreshing idiom. She received quite an applause. Associated with Urdu Academy, Kolkata, she has been in the forefront of giving Urdu poetry a new dimension by talking about the problems of the day. Her play with words was excellent.

Ali Zaheer from Hyderabad was inimitable. He rendered some of the choicest couplets that are in the Urdu poetry. His play of words was masterly and his couplets had that scholarly air. This one, for instance:

Ek Maidaan Mein Pada Hoon Na Hai Diwar Na Dar
Be Makaani Mein Yeh Dastak Ki Sada Kaisee Hai

Then there was Naeem Akhtar from Burhanpur, where his couplet “Har Koyee Masroof Hai Mahal Ki Taameer Mein/ Bhool Gaya Aadmi Qabr Ki Gehraiyan” was strongly applauded.

Dr. Naseem Nikhat was excellent and it was she who made the crowd remain glued to their seats till the very end. She recited beautiful couplets and her melodious voice kept everybody spellbound. Dr. Naseem Nikhat was a treat to hear; her treatment of ghazal is off-the-beaten track. She finds for herself new “radeefs” and “qafiyas”. Ghazal, which had become notorious for its monotonous and overworked and overwrought rhymes, and “radeefs” is treated by Dr. Naseem with a new and fresh idiom and images. She stole the event with highly romantic couplets.

Then there was Dr. Shafi Sagar. His satire was reflected in his delicate compositions. He made the audience laugh out loud. Rabab Rashidi from Shahjahanpur too recited some memorable couplets. Mashaf Iqbal Tauseefi from Hyderabad was the pick among the elder poets. His “Dekhen Kya Kar Rahi Hain Tanhai, Aaj Apne Hi Ghar Pe Dastak Den” was superb and very well appreciated.

The president of the mushaira was the erudite poet from Delhi, Rifat Sarosh. He is one of the greatest exponents of Urdu poetry in all its forms and gifted with a rare mode of thought and feeling about love and rebellion. He has given a new meaning to the craft of Urdu poetry.

Going by the large number of people who turned up for the mushaira, it was a record in the history of mushaira in the Middle East. The Jeddah Indian school’s grand auditorium was packed with poetry lovers and an equally large number were seated in the school grounds where the mushaira was beamed live on a huge screen.

The poets at the event came from across the length and breadth of the country. Consul General Dr. Ausaf Sayeed, in his inaugural address, said: “Care was taken to represent almost every region in India. In line with the philosophy of not repeating the poets year after year, new faces were invited. And while they were new to Jeddah, they are well-known in India and have authored very many books.”

He continued, “We have been innovating with the presentation of mushaira, which is a risky thing. But since we are not organizing it for commercial purpose, we can afford to do it. And people have loved it.” Dr. Ausaf Sayeed said: “It goes to indicate that if there is a will to promote Urdu in a good way, people appreciate it. We need to promote good poets. Mushaira is about poetry, not singing and nautanki,” he said.

According to the consul general, the idea was to introduce “academic poets” to the people here in Jeddah. Poets who are being read through their books and through magazines but who have not been “performing artists,” so to say.

Everybody appreciated Dr. Ausaf Sayeed’s efforts in promoting Urdu language. “It is in his blood,” said Dr. Qasim Imam, referring to Dr. Ausaf Sayeed’s famous father and well-known Urdu essayist, the late Awaz Sayeed. “Dr. Ausaf Sayeed has given a new turn to the composition of mushaira,” said the elderly Rifat Sarosh.

Earlier, Dr. Suhel Ejaz Khan, Haj consul and director of India Forum, welcomed the poets. The mushaira went on for five marathon hours, with the crowd remaining glued to their seats till the very end, screaming “Mukarrar, mukarrar.” Encore, encore

Sunday, June 10, 2007

‘OIC Cannot Participate in Formula 1 Race With 1972 Model’

Professor Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu Tells Arab News

JEDDAH, June 10, 2007 — The Muslim world is in a state of ferment. There is confusion everywhere. Iraq, Lebanon and Palestine show no signs of moving out of crisis. In all three countries there is the problem of foreign occupation, but on top of that is a fratricidal war being waged with increasing ferocity. Nobody seems to be in control. Naturally there is frustration. As a result, despondency and cynicism have taken hold among Muslims. Adding to this sad state was the lack of urgency shown by the member states of the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC) at the 34th Islamic Conference of Foreign Ministers in Islamabad (May 15-17) which failed to finalize the much-needed new charter for the 57-member organization. The revised charter would give a new direction to the Muslim world. The OIC has a mandate to increase political, economic and social cooperation among Muslim nations. Since its establishment in September 1969, however, it has been a butt of jokes in the Muslim world because, though a useful forum for discussion, it is seen as lacking the means to implement its resolutions. It has been said jokingly that the OIC stands for the “Organization of Ineffective Commitments.”

For the last two-and-a-half years it has been headed by the erudite and dynamic Turkish historian, Professor Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu. At 64, he is a man with a mission. He is worried about what is happening in the Muslim world, but rather than wringing his hands in despair, he continues to give his all to his mission. “We can’t lose hope. These are difficult times, but we will continue with our efforts. We will not give up,” he said confidently in an interview with Arab News' Siraj Wahab last week.

Ihsanoglu is aware of the huge expectations from the man on the street, and during his time as secretary-general, he has undertaken a series of measures to rejuvenate the organization. “My message to the people is to put their trust in the OIC and in the wisdom of its founding fathers who built a unique organization for serving the Ummah. I want their support. If we have the people’s support behind us, we will be able to take more steps forward,” he said.

Ihsanoglu tried to put the Islamabad conference into perspective. “Things didn’t go wrong there, they went slowly. There was no substantial critique of the draft of the new charter that was submitted to the member countries. The OIC submitted the best draft that it could. It has been two-and-a-half years since the idea was conceived in the Committee of Eminent Persons in Makkah in September 2005. The draft then went through the Committee of Experts, which worked for the Islamic Summit in Makkah in December 2005.”

The OIC secretary-general listed the names of those who contributed to the new charter. Former Turkish President Suleyman Demirel, former Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, former Indonesian Foreign Minister Ali Alatas, former OIC Secretary-General Hamid Algabid, former Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) Secretary-General Jamil Al-Hujailan, former Algerian Foreign Minister Lakhdar Brahimi and former UNESCO Director-General Moktar Mbow provided their input. “These people represent a spectrum of the most experienced leaders of the Muslim world who during their long careers had shown interest in the OIC and similar institutions. Their contribution to the new charter was significant,” said Ihsanoglu.

The revised text was then submitted to a committee of prominent Muslim legal experts. This committee carried out a study of the draft from the legal perspective. “It was this draft that came up for discussion at the Islamabad meeting,” said Ihsanoglu. “Naturally, there was no substantial critique of it. However, some countries felt that they needed more time to study and digest it. So what happened in Islamabad is that the ministers said: ‘We need more time.’ And that was the decision. It was decided that the charter would be finalized before next March, and it would be submitted for approval at the 2008 summit in Dakar, Senegal.”

Ihsanoglu said the charter would empower the OIC to address the issues that have caused such anger and resentment on the Arab street, but he emphasized that a proper charter was a prerequisite for the group to take effective action. “Now we are waiting for this summit in March. But, of course, I would like to appeal to the public opinion. The OIC cannot participate in a Formula 1 car race with a 1972 model with a broken engine and flat tires. We need to have a new vehicle to participate in today’s international races.” By 1972, the secretary-general meant the charter that was approved for the organization that year.

The OIC chief elaborated on his race-car analogy. “The new charter is the engine of the new vehicle. And then we have to have well-inflated tires, and this is the staff — the staff members. We are recruiting new staff members, and we would like member countries to provide us with skillful diplomats who have experience in multilateral diplomacy. The member countries have to support us politically and financially. That is the fuel for the engine.”

Despite attempts in the Western world to dismiss the concerns raised by the OIC about Islamophobia, accusing the organization of being soft on terror, Ihsanoglu renewed his absolute and long-standing condemnation of terrorism and again focused on the growing, unwarranted discrimination against Muslims. “The OIC is, and has always been, against terrorism,” he said. “This was the stand of my predecessors, and this is my stand as well. The OIC has always and in unequivocal terms condemned terrorism.”

The meeting on Islamophobia in Islamabad, he reiterated, was a thematic session focused on discrimination against Muslims and the defamation of Islam in the world. The session aimed at addressing ways and means of dealing with this phenomenon. “This was not meant to target anybody and does not mean that we condone terrorism. I would ask those who are attacking us to go through our website,” said Ihsanoglu.

In the session on Islamophobia, the OIC ministers had only called upon the international community to prevent incitement to hatred and discrimination against Muslims and to take effective measures to combat defamation of religion and acts of negative stereotyping of people based on religion, belief or ethnicity.

Although the OIC is preparing itself to become a successful agent for change in the world, every day tragedies unfold in Palestine, Iraq and Lebanon. So how does the OIC chief feel? “I feel worse than anybody else,” he said. “I feel more disappointed than anybody else. I see that situations are aggravated. We are trying our best through quiet diplomacy, through bilateral and multilateral contacts. We have to admit that situations in these crises are getting worse. There is a need for international cooperation to solve these problems. Major powers should take leading roles as honest brokers for solving these problems. We will always carry on our activities. We are committed to solving these problems, but we shouldn’t be simplistic in our approach. Simplistic approaches may actually create more problems.”

Sunday, May 20, 2007

My Trip to Pakistan in Pictures (May 14-21, 2007)

The majestic Badshahi Masjid as seen from the Summer Palace of Lahore Fort.

Standing next to Allama Iqbal's tomb in Lahore.

A view of a prominent mosque in Lahore.

View of Minar-e-Pakistan from Badshahi Masjid.

Standing next to the map of Lahore Fort.

Minar-e-Pakistan and Shahi Qila directions.

In the beautiful courtyard of Badshahi Masjid, Lahore.

At Allama Iqbal's tomb with two Pakistani Rangers.

A view of a street scene in Lahore.

The majestic entrance to Badshahi Masjid.

At the Jamaat-e-Islami headquarters in Lahore. It is known as Mansoora.

A long shot of Minar-e-Pakistan.

The minarets of Badshahi Mosque as seen from the Minar-e-Pakistan garden.

Looking closely at Allama Iqbal's name engraved at his burial place just outside the Badshahi Masjid in Lahore.

Minar-e-Pakistan and Shahi Qila directions.

A Pakistani flag flutters atop the entrance to Lahore Fort.

A billboard explains the history behind Lahore Fort's Shish Mahal.

Tuesday, May 1, 2007

Majid Kazi — the Indian Doctor Who Went on to Become Saudi King’s Personal Physician

Here is one of my best interviews. That Dr. Majid Kazi is a gem of a person is pretty evident from the quotes that he granted liberally in the following conversation with me. The interview first appeared in Arab News and then The Asian Age and Deccan Chronicle. It met with a huge applause from Saudi Arabia's expatriate community. Picture No. 1 shows the good doctor with the late King Fahd. In Picture No. 2, Indian President Dr. A.P.J. Abdul Kalam honors him with the prestigious Pravasi Bharatiya Samman Award. — Siraj Wahab, May 1, 2007

Everybody Is Unique in His Own Way, Says Dr. Majid Kazi

By Siraj Wahab

JEDDAH, March 29, 2006 — Nov. 15, 1974, remains one of the most important days of Dr. Majid-Uddin Kazi’s life. For it was on that day he received a letter that would launch a brilliant and distinguished career for this noted Saudi royal cardiologist of Hyderabadi origin.

The letter came from Saudi Health Minister Dr. Abdul Aziz Khowaiter. “I am pleased to inform you that you have been selected as my personal adviser for the establishment of modern health facilities in Saudi Arabia for the prevention, detection and management of heart diseases,” the minister wrote to Dr. Kazi.

That letter came just five years after Dr. Kazi’s 1969 arrival in the Kingdom with his wife, Carol Ann Kazi, and a six-month-old son.

In 1977, he was appointed personal physician to the crown prince of Saudi Arabia and a decade later was promoted to the rank of a Cabinet minister when he became the personal physician to King Fahd. But that key post also meant that he had to keep a very low profile.

There is little disagreement that he is the highest-ranking person of Indian origin in Saudi Arabia. By virtue of being the royal cardiologist he was granted Saudi citizenship.

Now at 68, Dr. Kazi is still an adviser in the Royal Court having been reappointed last year to the ministerial-ranked position for four more years.

Dr. Kazi speaks with the precision of a surgeon, but he is extremely shy. At times one notes a little embarrassment in him when his public stature is discussed, perhaps because he thinks he owes everything to good fortune.

“Everybody is unique in his own way,” he says. “There is a hidden rainbow in each one of us. When a sunray goes through a droplet with the right tilt, and God’s help, a rainbow can be woven.”

The Saudi Arabia to which Dr. Kazi came in 1969 was a far different place than it is today. “At that time, Saudi Arabia was still an underdeveloped, sparsely populated, peaceful and charming place. There were sand dunes where now stands the modern, well-equipped King Faisal Specialist Hospital & Research Center.”

Dr. Kazi credits his wife for his successes. “She played and is still playing a vital role. She used to push me forward rather than pushing me around. I wished I were half as great a believer in the academic excellence of our children.”

Carol Ann Kazi is a certified art instructor who specializes in painting. Until a few years ago she used to run Riyadh’s Desert Designs, a popular arts-and-crafts shop. The couple is blessed with two daughters and two sons.

Dr. Kazi was thrilled earlier this year when he went to Hyderabad to receive the Pravasi Bharatiya Samman Award from President Dr. A.P.J. Abdul Kalam. “What an exciting moment it was for me to be able to see, hear and shake hands with the Indian president. I consider it an honor for my family and me. I was deeply touched by Dr. Abdul Kalam’s wisdom, articulation, knowledge and humility. I couldn’t agree with him more when he called on Indians and persons of Indian origin to have wings for ascent in every walk of life but never to lose ‘Indian-ness,’ which essentially comprises civility, nobility and humility.”

Dr. Kazi hails from Aurangabad in Maharashtra. His father Kazi Hameeduddin was a leading lawyer and a prominent Muslim leader of his times. Dr. Kazi’s brother, Qazi Saleem, was a successful Urdu poet and politician. He represented Aurangabad in Parliament during Indira Gandhi’s reign. When Qazi Saleem died recently, almost all the major Urdu publications came out with a special edition on him.

Dr. Kazi’s elder brother always was an inspiration to him. “During my childhood, Qazi Saleem was already a famous new groundbreaking poet. I was enchanted by his style, thoughts and imagination. With a view to imitating him I used to compose childish poems. Several of them were printed in children’s magazines in India, such as ‘Phulwari’ and ‘Khilona.’”

Those sweet early years have left Dr. Kazi with many wonderful memories. “At age 11, I got my first gold medal when my poem was selected in the provincial middle school competition, and it was published in a children’s magazine from Delhi. I used to be thrilled to take part in the children’s program of the newly-established Aurangabad Radio Station. I used to write for the children’s program at times and was paid ten rupees a couple of times. Back then, it was a joyous moment for your work to be selected and rewarded with 10 rupees.”

Dr. Kazi’s early childhood and primary education were in, what he calls, “my beloved city of Hyderabad.” He returned to Hyderabad as a medical student in 1956 to seek a degree in medicine at Osmania Medical College.

“Immediately after graduation, I worked as a tutor for a year at Gandhi Medical College where I had spent the first six months of my first year in medicine, being among the top 40 students of that college. We used to call ourselves the ‘40 Pillars’ of the institute. Later, I was transferred to Osmania Medical College where I spent my early youth tumultuously, studying and celebrating our annual college day function that used to last three days.”

In college, he continued to develop his writing skills, penning sarcastic comedies and taking active part in dramas. “I used to enjoy being on the college stage with the nickname of ‘Sher Khan.’ We used to mix hard work with pleasure. Early in the morning, I would walk to the public gardens and study for exams under tall trees and enjoy the soul-nourishing breeze. The culture, education, interactions and celebrations of the city of Hyderabad all played a vital role in my life.”

The good doctor is never one to boast, and he advises those looking for good role models to look inside themselves rather than look to him. “I strongly believe in teamwork rather than a one-man show. It is good to be mild — but not meek. At least when it is your turn, get up and speak. I am no role model, so please don’t copy me. I am less than a dust particle floating in space. By chance, the rays of the sun illuminated it for a while.”

For the tens of thousands of Saudis young and old who live healthier and longer lives because of the healthcare system he helped to create, it is a dust particle that is likely to shine brightly for many years to come.

Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Makkah and Mina: The View From Above

Note: This article has just appeared in the prestigious Haj & Umra Magazine (April 2007 edition) brought out by the Ministry of Haj. The glossy and well-edited magazine is not available online but is mailed every month to a select group of subscribers worldwide. All pictures posted above are mine and my copyright. — Siraj Wahab, March 27, 2007

'It Is Like Performing Tawaf From the Sky'

By Siraj Wahab

MAKKAH, January 1, 2007 — Covering the Haj is no easy task. Ask any print or broadcast journalist and he or she will tell you about it being the most challenging assignment. I covered Haj for the Jeddah-based English daily Arab News on nearly six occasions. I have been on foot, bus, truck and bike, but Haj 1427 was extraordinary in that I had my first look at the holy city of Makkah and the tent city of Mina from overhead. Thanks to a friendly lift from a Civil Defense helicopter, all the improvements at the holy sites were laid out before my eyes in panoramic detail.

Down in Mina, the streets were packed with pilgrims rushing to and fro. Everywhere one looked, it was a colorful sea of people. Mina is a small city and as far as your eye can see, tents cover every open space. They have been neatly arranged, row after row. The entrances to many of the tents are decorated with banners and garlands. This helps pilgrims identify their temporary residences from among so many that otherwise look the same. Huge balloons hang in the sky over certain locations to help pilgrims find their tents.

From the pictures appearing in newspapers, magazines and on television everyone gets the impression that the Haj is a sea of white, but being on the ground with the pilgrims it is amazing how colorful it is. Each national group is carrying a flag. Many of the pilgrims have signs or some sort of design pinned to their clothing to help them identify each other. They have prayer rugs over their arms and bags clutched in their hands. Even the pilgrims’ faces are colorful. Every shade of human skin is represented. Among the two million pilgrims are the tall, majestic Afghans with flowing beards, bushy eyebrows and aquiline noses; the lanky Somalis with their graceful gait; the helpful Sudanese, with smiles playing on their faces at all times; the loquacious Egyptians with goatees; the fair-skinned Iranians always walking in one large group; the young Pakistanis with their trademark mustaches and the ubiquitous Indians talking away in their regional languages.

The sheer numbers of pilgrims in Mina overwhelm everything in their path. They engulf the motorized vehicles and march up and around the Jamrat Bridge. They are an oncoming force on all routes to Makkah. Traffic police and security personnel must shout at top volume to be heard over the hubbub of the crowds. For the officers, directing the human traffic in the area is a physically demanding task. “Please don’t push,” the officers beg. “Please keep moving,” they implore. “Please be careful,” the officers urge. The pilgrims, caught up in their own immediate surroundings, too often don’t understand why the officers are so unwilling to let them sit down on the pavement or why the police refuse to allow them to turn against the flow on certain streets.

It is a pity that every pilgrim coming to Haj could not be given a bird’s-eye view of the area. So they don’t have a sense of the staggering security and logistics nightmare that the authorities are trying to keep under control. The helicopters circling the holy sites from above are constantly reporting to the ground commanders about areas of congestion at the holy sites.

Security forces manning the massive bridge are immediately alerted to the problems and move in to remedy the situation, perhaps by restricting the flow of pilgrims or vehicles to the area, or clearing out squatters and their luggage or directing sidewalk vendors to less obstructed locations.

In the past, sometimes I would get very nervous with the security personnel at Haj. Their instructions could seem pointless and inconvenient. Then, I had the opportunity to join 19 other journalists in a Civil Defense helicopter tour of the holy sites. Packed into the passenger benches of two massive choppers, we clamped earmuffs to our heads to drown out the rotor and engine noise and hung on to overhead straps for dear life.

It took just a few minutes for us to realize that the experienced Saudi pilots were taking us on a slow gentle ride, designed to allow us to view the area, snap our photos and keep our wits about us. One door of the helicopter was open from the top, enabling everyone to take turns putting camera lenses out for a clear unobstructed capture of the scene below.

From above, the pilgrimage looks very different. The hubbub is gone and the scene below is white, black and shades of gray. At Mina, the tents stretch out in waves with Al-Kuwaiti Mosque floating in the center of the swells. King Abdul Aziz Bridge is a slash through tent city.

The Jamrat area has undergone the greatest transformation. So much has been written about the new Jamrat Bridge that I didn’t expect to be surprised by the sight of it. But surprised I was. The new bridge is huge and already two levels -- ground and first level -- have been completed. There is an air-conditioned basement as well. The basement is actually a highway that allows the transport of aged and infirm pilgrims directly to Mina and can also be used for the movement of ambulances and emergency vehicles.

Television stations broadcasting from the area showed cranes and heavy equipment in the Jamrat Bridge area, so many people thought the bridge was not ready for the pilgrims. That was not true. After Haj this year, more levels will be added to the bridge and other improvements made, but the bridge in its current condition greatly facilitated this year’s pilgrimage.

From above, the pilgrims are mere dots creeping slowly up, down and around the bridge. They cluster tightly around the three Jamrat, which are walls jutting up from the bridge’s surface. As the pilgrims come forward on the bridge they pass the first wall, Jamrat Al-Ula, then they pass the second wall, Jamrat Al-Wusta, and finally there is Jamrat Al-Aqaba. Then the pilgrims move off through several different lanes and away from the bridge.

We flew over the hills that surround Mina, with the highway to Makkah a black snake, pushing through the tunnels in the mountains beneath the helicopter. The road was remarkably unobstructed and traffic was moving well toward Makkah. Our group included journalists from all over the world, both men and women, including Ms. Arifa Akbar, a news reporter with UK’s The Independent newspaper, Saudi photographers Ms. Susan Baaghil and Mr. Ahmad Al-Ammar and TV producer Mr. Azlan Bin Asri from Singapore’s Channel News Asia.

Suddenly there was a collective gasp. The Holy Haram came into view dead ahead. Cameras began snapping and telephoto lenses were set long to get the closest shot.

“I can’t believe this. This is just superb and fantastic,” gushed Ms. Susan Baaghil excitedly. “It is like performing tawaf (circumambulation) from the sky,” she said. “I have taken pictures of many subjects in the past but the pictures in here are among my most prized possessions,” she said tapping at her high-tech camera.

Mr. Ahmad Al-Ammar was equally delighted. “Before boarding the helicopter I had no idea what I was going to see. But what I saw from up above was fascinating. All our lives we have been praying in the direction of Kaaba and here was Kaaba in all its glory shimmering in the glow of a setting sun. It was just amazing. I kept clicking as the helicopter circled the holy city,” he said.

Once the requisite images were in hand, everyone needed a photo of himself or herself with the pilgrims performing tawaf in the background. As the earmuffs cut out all sound, communication was by means of hand signals, with all the journalists shifting left and right to enable everyone to have an equal chance to take photographs and get a direct look at the majestic scene below.

The helicopter tour has given me a new appreciation for the efforts of the authorities. Hearing that nearly three million pilgrims came for Haj is one thing. Casting eyes on those millions from above provides a different perspective on the event and what is required to bring it to a successful conclusion.

Wednesday, March 7, 2007

Interview With Bosnia’s Grand Mufti Dr. Mustafa Ceric

‘Muslims Should Use the Force of Argument’

JEDDAH, June 20, 2006 — Perhaps Bosnia is the most frightening manifestation of Europe’s Islamophobia in recent times. The wars between the portions of the former Yugoslavia raged in the 1990s and, at one point, Muslims became the target of ethnic cleansing. It would be easy to imagine radicalized Muslim leaders emerging from that era but Bosnia’s Grand Mufti Dr. Mustafa Ceric is the exact opposite.

Instead of calls for revenge, he calls for dialogue. Instead of sanction for acts of terror, he calls for the most severe condemnation of them. In short, Dr. Ceric is a leader committed to restoring respect for Islam through mutual tolerance and understanding.

When interviewed by Siraj Wahab at the World Economic Forum on the Middle East in Sharm El-Sheikh (May 2006), Dr. Ceric wore a Western suit and bore a striking resemblance to the American author, Ernest Hemingway. He feels that compromise with the West and the complete abandonment of violence perpetrated in the name of God is the only way for Islam to move forward if it is to survive in the age of globalization.

“European Muslims must take the issue of violence in the name of Islam very seriously, not because some people hate Islam and Muslims, but because the act of violence, the act of terror, the act of hatred in the name of Islam is wrong,” Dr. Ceric said. “It is against Muslim beliefs, and it is against Muslim interests in the world, especially in Europe.”

He said it was time for Muslims to remember the meaning of the word Islam. “They must fully and unequivocally proclaim to the whole world the nonviolent nature of their faith and teach their children that the right way to success in this world and to salvation in the Hereafter is not through argument by force, but through the force of peaceful argument.”

The Bosnian grand mufti also noted that Europe’s Muslims are among the most enlightened in the world. “Europe is a good place for Muslims themselves to discover the power and beauty of the universality of Islam,” Dr. Ceric said. “Muslims should be honest and confess that it is in Europe that many of them have discovered Islam in a totally different way from what they knew in their homelands. This is because in Europe when they meet their fellow Muslims from other parts of the Muslim world, they thus begin to appreciate the diversity of the Islamic experience and culture.”

Dr. Ceric is disappointed by the lack of reality in the approaches of many Muslim nations to a new era of globalization. “They are in general unable to live in a global world. Muslims have no global strategy; they have no global mind or mentality,” Dr. Ceric said. “They don’t even have a global calendar to save them from an embarrassing confusion about the dates of Eid Al-Adha. Above all, and most unfortunately, they have the image of threatening the freedom and security of the world; they bear the stigma of global terrorists.”

According to him, the idea of global awareness should not be strange to Muslims. “In essence, Islam is a universal faith and a global phenomenon. It would have been fully appropriate if Muslims had come with an agenda of globalization in terms of global freedom and security because Muslims are scattered almost everywhere on the globe, so their freedom and security are of global importance,” Dr. Ceric said.

Last year, the Bosnian grand mufti presented a widely discussed Declaration of European Muslims to the European Union stating that people of different religions could live side by side in harmony. “The declaration contains a clear message that European Muslims are fully and unequivocally committed to the rule of law, to the principles of tolerance, to the values of democracy and human rights, and to the belief that each and every human being has the right to five essential values: the value of life, the value of faith, the value of freedom, the value of property and the value of dignity.”

The Bosnian grand mufti said that many of the problems Muslims have in Europe are the result of a fundamental lack of understanding about Europe and the concepts of tolerance and coexistence with people of many faiths.

“Europe is neither ‘Darul Islam’ (a house of peace) nor ‘Darul Harb’ (a house of war). Europe is ‘Darul Sulh’ (the house of social contract). Europe is not ‘Darul Islam’ because Muslims do not constitute the majority and thus Muslim law cannot be fully implemented. Europe is not ‘Darul Harb’ either because some aspects of Muslim law can be implemented. The land of Europe is ‘Darul Sulh’ because it is possible to live in accordance with Islam in the context of the social contract.”

The most distressing point, however, is that a minority of intolerant Europeans, who want to restrict the rights of Muslims, is given fuel by a minority of Muslim extremists. The result is the destruction of the middle ground and the rights of both peoples to live in peace with one another.

“Some people in the West believe that the dialogue between Islam and the West is a waste of time; therefore, the only way for the West to deal with Islam and Muslims is the argument of force, not the force of argument,” Dr. Ceric said. “On the other hand, there are people in the East who believe that the West is an old enemy of Islam and so the Muslims should fight the West. They believe that there cannot be any dialogue between Islam and the West. According to their logic, there can be only dialectical opposition between the two.”

The grand mufti, well-versed in both Occidental and Oriental perspectives and who also knows of the horrible consequences for humanity when man tries to resolve differences with rifles rather than reason, stands for what people of all faiths and all nations need to ponder if they genuinely seek a future of peaceful coexistence.

“For a long time now, Islam has been in focus, both in the East and in the West. In the East, Islam is a center of attraction and in the West, it is a center of attention,” Dr. Ceric said. “The East believes that Islam is the solution whereas the West thinks that Islam is the problem. In the East, people claim to defend Islam against its enemies, whereas in the West, people believe that Islam is threatening their way of life. Hence, Islam has become a magic word for the East in the face of the West; and it has become a big puzzle for the West in the face of the East. It is one of the biggest challenges of our times to comprehend the magic word from the East and to appreciate the puzzle faced by the West.”

Monday, March 5, 2007

Interview With OIC Secretary-General Professor Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu

‘What Is Taking Place in Iraq Is Very Heartbreaking’

JEDDAH, December 6, 2006 — Sixty-three-year-old Professor Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu is the secretary-general of the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC). Founded in 1969, the OIC is the world’s largest organization of Muslim countries and now represents 57 nations. Its mandate is to increase political, economic and social cooperation among Muslim nations. Since its establishment in September 1969 after the burning of the Al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem, it has been the butt of jokes in the Muslim and Arab street because, although a useful forum for discussion, it is seen as lacking the means to implement its resolutions.

Professor Ihsanoglu has given the OIC a new direction in the two years that he has been its head. A Turkish national, he is a historian and a scholar who speaks both Arabic and English. His facility with Arabic has helped him play a key part in negotiations on Middle Eastern issues. He also has a working knowledge of French and Persian. He has written numerous books, articles and papers on science, Islamic culture, Turkish culture, relations between the Muslim world and the Western world and Turkish-Arab relations.

Professor Ihsanoglu is media savvy. He loves fielding questions and is a treat at press conferences. He is articulate and suave and his select group of political aides is always more than willing to provide essential quotes to breaking stories which affect the Muslim world. The secretary-general understands the challenges that he faces. Prominently displayed on his desk is a neatly framed political cartoon taking a dig at the OIC. The cartoon features a turtle on its back; it is being helped to its feet by a number of people. The turtle of course represents the OIC and, “one of the men is me,” chuckled Professor Ihsanoglu. He would not be drawn on what he has accomplished at the OIC, but all realize that in the last two years he has managed to put the organization back on its feet through a series of initiatives. Some of them are the historic Extraordinary Islamic Summit in Makkah and the bringing together of the religious leaders from Iraq in Saudi Arabia to sign a reconciliation document.

In an exclusive interview with Siraj Wahab at the OIC headquarters in Jeddah on Dec. 5, 2006, Professor Ihsanoglu talked at length about the crises in the Middle East and his views. Following is the text of the interview:

Q: Jordan’s King Abdallah recently said that the Middle East is facing three civil wars — in Lebanon, Iraq and Palestine. What is the OIC going to do or is doing about the current state of affairs?

A: I don’t think they are civil wars. I see them as big problems. What is going on in Palestine is not a civil war. It is a war against aggression and against occupation; it is the struggle of a people against occupiers and a struggle of those people to get their legitimate rights and their own independent state. It is the struggle of a people to live with honor and dignity in a way they are entitled to. What is going on in Lebanon is really a very sad story. The political leadership there should do more. They should have more dialogue, more understanding and the political wisdom to go through constitutional means rather than confrontational means. During the Israeli war last July, the Lebanese proved that they are a coherent society. The country’s leadership showed great wisdom. We expect them to show the same wisdom now. As for Iraq, it looks as if the situation were out of control. We, in the OIC, tried hard and we are still trying hard to contribute to the solution of the crisis. It is really sad. There is the danger of a civil war. No doubt. I don’t want to say that it is civil war but I think that it is very near to that. The situation is being aggravated every day. We hope that reason and wisdom will prevail. The narrow-minded political interests or political supremacy of one party over another will not continue in the same way. Because if it does, it will end with what we are all afraid of. This would not be in the interest of anybody or any side or any component within Iraqi society or any country outside Iraq.

Q: You think the three issues are inter-related?

A: Yes. Of course all three issues are related to each other because all three issues are the outcome of external influences. That has been the unfortunate fate of the Middle East since the beginning of World War I.

Q: What is your top priority: Iraq, Palestine or Lebanon?

A: Well, logically speaking, the Palestinian issue is at the root of Middle Eastern instability and conflict. We cannot think of the Lebanese issue without thinking of the Palestinian issue. What is happening in Iraq is also related to the stability of the region.

Q: You said you still would not call what is going on in Iraq a civil war. As an academic and as a historian, can you please define civil war?

A: I don’t want to indulge in semantics here. I don’t want to go for academic definitions. What is taking place in Iraq is very serious, very heartbreaking and we all feel sad. We don’t want to call it civil war because that would be an attempt to close our eyes to the sad reality of the killings every day. We want to call everybody to acknowledge the true way, the wise way of solving the problem. If we accept it as a civil war, we are closing our eyes to a political solution, a negotiable solution and a peaceful solution. That is why we leave the definition, semantics aside, and we try our best to deal with the situation there. Defining or characterizing the situation is not a solution to the problem. We know what is going on there and that is why we are worried. Very worried.

Q: You brought prominent Sunni and Shiite scholars to Makkah and got them to agree to a reconciliation agreement. Then they went home and the sectarian killings continued. It must be quite frustrating for you. Do you see a real Sunni-Shiite divide in Iraq or do you think the occupation is creating these problems?

A: The main purpose of the OIC initiative, as it materialized very successfully in the Makkah Document, was to identify one of Iraq’s very complex problems. By doing so, by getting 15 scholars from each side to agree on the 10-point reconciliation declaration and by getting their complete approval and then the consensus of all the top Sunni and Shiite religious leaders such as (Ali) Sistani and (Abdul Aziz) Al-Hakim and (Harith) Al-Dhari and others, we saw that the real problem is not religious or one of “madhab.” (I am not using the English word “sect” for “madhab.” It is usually translated in English as sect but by “madhab” here, I mean the school of jurisprudence.) So it is not the difference of jurisprudence that is motivating these people. It is not a religious fight per se. That was a major step in identifying and understanding the problem. Nobody inside or outside Iraq can now say or claim that this is a “religious” fight or that it is based on a “madhab.” The leaders of the two “madhahib” agree on this point. And according to all of us, there is nothing which justifies the killings. The religious leaders say they have asked their people not to kill each other and they have made it clear that whoever does so is not a Muslim. That was the major contribution of the Makkah conference. Now, is that all we aimed for in Makkah? No, we aimed for the religious leaders to ask their people to follow the provisions of this document because these are religious commands. Actually this began to happen, but in the end, political factors and political struggles overcame everybody. Now we must intensify our efforts. And we are trying to bring people back to the spirit of the Makkah Document. Of course, this is no one-dimensional solution because it is not a one-dimensional problem. The crisis is very complicated but we all have to try our best.

Q: There has been a suggestion for an international conference on Iraq. The idea has already been rejected by Iraqi President Jalal Talabani and Abdul Aziz Al-Hakim. What is your opinion?

A: Well, my personal view is that there is a need for such a conference. Already there exists a mechanism for a conference. It was in place well before the occupation of Iraq. All countries neighboring Iraq should be involved in the solution of the Iraq problem. We have to admit that without the cooperation of Iraq’s neighbors and without the cooperation of some international powers, we cannot reach a comprehensive and peaceful solution in Iraq. The crisis will be prolonged. The suffering of the Iraqi people will be prolonged. Every day you have hundreds of people being killed, the militias are doing as they wish — kidnapping people, slaughtering people, torturing people and all of this is meaningless. We have to get the Iraqi people out of this cycle of killing. And this needs cooperation from within Iraq as well as from those outside Iraq. The only way to do this in my opinion is through international cooperation.

Q: Is the OIC in talks with the Iraqi leadership on the conference proposal?

A: No. Not on this but this is what we think would be one of the best ways. Other options have been exhausted.

Q: There is also talk of some kind of an international peacekeeping force composed of soldiers from countries that did not participate in the occupation. Is that viable?

A: Officially we have not received such a request from anybody. We know that one possible way of ending the occupation in Iraq is to have peacekeeping forces. The modalities of this option have not yet been thought through. But I am sure that some OIC countries would be interested in helping the Iraqis out of their difficulties. Of course, they would be countries which are acceptable to both the Iraqi government and the Iraqi people, as is the case in Lebanon now. But all this is early talk.

Q: Washington says that if it withdraws, there will be more bloodshed. Do you agree?

A: Well, if the American forces withdraw before Iraqi forces take over security and if the government is not in full command of all forces, and if security is left to the militias, I think there will be more bloodshed. We are not justifying the presence of any foreign forces there, but we have to look at it in a right context. The only aim should be safeguarding the people. And preventing the killings. If the killings are happening in the presence of all the foreign forces, I think if they leave, then it will become a civil war and then what we all are afraid of would happen. If civil war happens in Iraq, I don’t think it will stop in Iraq. Civil war would be an invitation for others to intervene. We should all be careful not to allow things to deteriorate to that extent.

Q: Meaning the US should not leave unless and until there is a mechanism in place to take over?

A: Of course, there should be an agreed-upon mechanism; otherwise one cannot imagine what could happen there. Nobody would have thought this would happen in Iraq. Never in the 14 centuries of Islamic history, let alone in the history of Iraq, has this ever happened. This is for the first time and, I, as a secretary-general and also as a scholar who knows the history of this region and religion, feel it is very difficult to understand why these things are happening.

Q: What is the OIC view on the US-Iran standoff?

A: We think that Iran has full rights to develop its nuclear capacities in a peaceful way in agreement with international conventions and covenants and International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) protocols and the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treat (NPT). Every country has the same right. What we see in how the Iranian nuclear issue is treated is another manifestation of double standard. Of course, we are all against using nuclear power for military purposes. We believe that the Middle East should be a nuclear-free zone. We had a very good example in which a group of OIC countries — the Central Asian group composed of Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Kyrgyzstan — all agreed to make Central Asia a nuclear-free zone. That was done recently and we are happy with the agreement and the experience. We commend them. And we hope the best solution to end this (Iran nuclear) controversy is not resorting to sanctions or doing this and doing that but to be honest. To have the same yardstick for everybody. We need to work to make the Middle East a nuclear-free zone. I think if we do that, it would be a solution for this problem and it would also be a prelude to many other solutions which would contribute to peace and security in the Middle East. If we make a breakthrough here, we can make a breakthrough in other areas too.

Q: Earlier the talk was that the road to peace in the Middle East began in Baghdad. This was the neocon and Zionist view, of course. Now there is talk of reviving the Arab-Israeli peace process. Would the OIC take the initiative to bring Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques King Abdullah’s peace plan to the forefront?

A: What happened in Baghdad unfortunately showed how wrong all those ideas were that were put forth as justification for operations in Iraq. Using power does not solve any problem. It aggravates and exacerbates them; it makes things worse, it makes them more complicated and leads to more bloodshed, more killing and more destruction. So what happened and what is happening in Baghdad should be a good lesson for those who would really like to contribute to peace and cooperation in the Middle East. I think King Abdullah’s peace initiative is an excellent point to start from. If we can make the Middle East a nuclear-free zone and then start peace talks based on King Abdullah’s plan, I think that would be two great steps to solving the problems in the Middle East. In the long run, such steps could turn the Middle East into a place of peace, security and prosperity as it was historically before the foreign interventions of the 20th century.

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