Friday, 29 August 2014

Incredible India: Intermission: Sikhism

world-map amritsar

As promised, here’s the first of my intermissions. This week’s subject is Sikhism, a religion that has intrigued me ever since I was first introduced to it on a an academic teaching course. It is simple yet contains hidden depts, seems parochial yet is universal and non-judgemental. The problem with going to a country like India is that it is just too vast, too complicated, too incomprehensible and alien to get a handle on. That is why I went with the aim of trying to understand the Sikhs a little bit more.They were a route into India and a fascinating goal in themselves. After all, how many religious figures in the world are as inspirational as Nanak? Well, for me at least, Christ and St. Francis of Assisi aside, I’m struggling to find many. Yes indeed, it’s worth learning more about the Sikhs…

Keep travelling!

Uncle Travelling Matt

Flickr album of this journey

Links to other parts of the the travelogue:

Intermission: Sikhism


Of the world's six major religions, Sikhism is, in my opinion, the most straightforward, the easiest to understand.

Or so it seems at first.

It all started with Nanak, a Punjabi Hindu born in 1469. as a young man he was religious and one day, after meditating down by the river, he disappeared. People feared him drowned, but three days later he reappeared. When asked where he had been or what he had been doing, he would reply only, “There is no Hindu; there is no Muslim.” By this he meant that we are all human beings, all children of God, equal in the eyes of God. Thus he became the first Sikh, (lit. 'disciple'), of that God. He gathered a band of followers attracted by his inclusive and empowering doctrine, who called him their Guru (lit. 'teacher') and before he died he nominated one of them to become his successor, the next Guru.

gurunanak with disciples Guru Nanak with two of his disciples: Bhai Bala and Bhai Mardan

And so it continued, ten Gurus in all, some long-serving and long-living, others martyred before their time by the ruling Muslim Mughals who disliked this new faith which shared so many traits with their own, (e.g. a belief in one God and equality of all before that God). But then came the Tenth Guru, Guru Gobind Singh, who did something very strange and unexpected. On Baisakhi Day in 1699 he summoned all the Sikhs together in Anandpur and then called form one of those present to give his life for his Guru. One man by the name of Daya Singh volunteered, went into the Guru's tent and was killed. Then another volunteer was asked for. Another man stepped forward and the same happened to him and so on until five had been killed. Then the tent was opened to reveal all five very much still alive. Like God to Abraham when He'd asked him to sacrifice his son, it had been a test of their loyalty and faith and they had passed. Then they were made the first five initiates of the Khalsa (lit. 'The Pure'), a brotherhood of baptised Sikhs who would lead and inspire the faith, making promises to observe the Four Rules of Conduct (rahat) and to wear five symbols of the faith (the Five Ks). Then he declared that after his death there would be no more human Gurus and instead the Sikh holy book, the Adi Granith, a collection of hymns and writings by the Gurus and other holy figures including some Hindus and Muslims would become the Guru Granith Sahib, the eternal living Guru. From then on the focus of Sikh devotion would be the book which was housed in a gurdwara (lit 'Gateway to the Guru'), a temple with no idols in which they would meet and read from the Eternal Guru together as well as partake in a communal meal cooked communally in a communal kitchen (langar). Thus it was that modern Sikhism was finally formed and crystallised and so it has continued until this day.

The End.

founding of the khalsa Guru Gobind Singh founding the Khalsa

Yet just like with the Christian who tells you that Jesus died for your sins and all you need to do is accept Him, or the Muslim who states that there is no god but God and Muhammad is His Prophet and that there is nothing really more that matters, it is not quite so simple as that, for the real story of Sikhism is far more complex, ambiguous, confusing and shrouded in mystery than all that. For just as many academics can cast serious doubt on whether Jesus or Muhammad ever actually existed – and if they did, their lives may have been radically different to those of accepted Christian or Muslim tradition – then so too is it with the Sikhs. Nanak did exist, as did all the Gurus that followed him but following that the shrouds of mist start to descend. Take for example this sentence from a famous treatise on Hinduism. “The reform movements of Ramananda, Caitanya, Kabir, and Nanak show the stimulus of Islam.”1 Here Guru Nanak's movement, known in its day as the Nanak Panth (lit. 'Nanak's Path), is clearly being labelled as a Hindu reformist movement, not a separate religion, and in his life it was virtually indistinguishable from many of the other Santi Hindu movements. So, did Nanak ever intend to start a new religion at all and, if he did, would it have looked much like modern Sikhism?

Personally, I find Guru Nanak a singularly inspirational figure. Popular Sikh tradition depicts him accompanied by two disciples – the Hindu Bhai Bala and the Muslim Bhai Mardan – and he travelled widely, gaining insight and inspiration from a wide variety of Hindu, Buddhist, Islamic and Jain traditions as well as, possibly, Christianity and Judaism.2 Much of his teaching was expounded on these travels and came in the form of parable such as this one:

'When Guru Nanak Dev Ji visited Haridwar, he asked the people as to what they were doing. A priest replied, “We are offering water to our dead ancestors in the region of Sun to quench their thirst.”

Upon this, the Guru started throwing water towards the west. The Hindu pilgrims were astonished and asked Guru Nanak about what he was doing. The Guru replied, “I am watering my fields in Punjab.” The priest asked, “How can your water reach such a distance?” The Guru retorted, “How far your ancestors are from here?” One of them replied, “In the other world.”

Guru Nanak Dev Ji stated, “If this water cannot reach my fields which are about four hundred miles away from here, how can your water reach your ancestors who are not even on this earth?” The crowd stood in dumb realisation.'3

hardwar Guru Nanak at Hardiwar

Here is a declaration as clear as any of the pointlessness of externals and ritual, and yet is not Sikhism a religion in many ways defined by its externals – the Five Ks worn by all members of the Khalsa for example – and similarly Nanak saw no distinction in race, creed or caste, “There is no Hindu; there is no Muslim”, mankind is one. How come then that the Khalsa of today is an exclusive organisation which one must be initiated into; that the vast majority of Sikhs are Punjabi and worship entirely in the Punjabi language and that most Sikhs marry according to caste? My mind struggles to see how all of this can be reconciled with Nanak and yet most Sikhs, who are far more learned in such matters than I, see no contradictions whatsoever. This trip to India, I hoped would furnish some of the answers for me.

Also, since Sikhism is very much a distinct religion these days, I wanted to find out if it is as uniform as is commonly made out. In the gurdwaras of Britain there seems to be an accepted form of worship within an accepted form of gurdwara; the Khalsa ideal is accepted by all Sikhs even if many do not take the final step of joining it. Yet no other religion on earth from Buddhism to Christianity, Islam to Mormonism, Rastafarianism to Hinduism is so uniform; a common factor of all faiths is that they are splintered into different, often antagonistic shards. Are there therefore alternative forms of Sikh expression out there that I have no encountered? In his work 'Sikhism', Hew McLeod devotes an entire chapter to Sikh sects, some of which seem to be quite distinct from the mainstream Khalsa ideal. Take for example the Udasis, today a minor fringe Sikh movement, but for much of Sikh history extremely influential, holding the guardianship of the Golden Temple and other major gurdwaras up until the 19th century. They follow the path of Guru Nanak's son, Baba Sri Chand, and their tradition still shuns externals and ritual. How does this alternative expression fit into the Sikh spectrum and why did the main body of the faith develop in the way that it did?

So, as can be seen, Sikhism, like all religions, is not so straightforward as it may first appear and with every question answered, a dozen more seem to crop up. But also, as with all religions, should we not also remember that it is in the asking, not in the answering of these questions, that the value lies? The gain is in the journey and not the destination as I am am sure that great spiritual traveller, Nanak, would doubtless attest.

1The Hindu View of Life, p.9
2He may have visited the Holy Land on his Fourth Udasi.

Friday, 22 August 2014

Incredible India: Part 1: Delhi (I)

world-map delhi

And now, our Arabian Prologue complete, we’re onto India itself, (though don’t worry if you liked hearing about the UAE; there’s a Postscript later on).

So this is Incredible India, my travelogue about one of the most full-on countries on earth, a carnival of colours, faiths, poverty, tastes, sounds and smells. I loved it and am already thinking about a second trip… and maybe a third… and fourth. But sticking to this one for now, I’ll give a quick rundown on how this travelogue works. Like all the others, it charts the course of my wanderings, but unlike the others there are a couple of intermissions, discourses on some of the religions that I encounter there. Despite not wanting to sound like a stereotype, India is an extremely spiritual place, but often that onslaught of mysticism, religion and ritual can seem a little confusing. Well, at least it does for me, and so what the intermissions are my attempt to make sense of what I’m seeing and experiencing. That is what they are; what they are not are in-depth, accurate and balanced portrayals of the faiths of the east. They are personal and are not meant to offend anyone in any way. Please believe that.

But for now, welcome to India and, more particularly, welcome to Delhi… and some severe culture shock…

Keep travelling!

Uncle Travelling Matt

Flickr album of this journey

Links to other parts of the the travelogue:




I can pinpoint exactly when it was that I decided to travel to India. The year was 2001 and I was in Japan. Sat at my desk in Ōsawano's town hall, I had just finished reading William Dalrymple's 'City of Djinns' which is subtitled 'A Year in Delhi' and is a record of just that. One chooses books, generally speaking, for two reasons; either the writer or the topic. This one was definitely because of the former. I'd read two of Dalrymple's earlier works, 'In Xanadu' and 'From the Holy Mountain' and they had blown me away. I wanted more of his writing and if the subject happened to be India, then so what? I'd never before considered the place, certainly it had never struck me as a country worth visiting. But after 343 pages of Mughal machinations, Ramayanan relics, scheming Sikhs, singing Sufis and eccentric Englishmen then I knew that, before I died, I had to see Delhi.

city of djinns

But I didn't do anything about it and my next Indian impetus was a long time in coming yet equally identifiable. It happened on a Tuesday in the September of 2006 in a classroom at Edge Hill University, (which, perversely, is in Ormskirk and nowhere near Edge Hill). I was considering a career as an RE teacher at the time and my enquiries had revealed that I would only be accepted onto the course if I completed what was called a SKBC (Subject Knowledge Booster Course) since I'd never formally studied the discipline of RE before. The SKBC was a two-week immersion into the religions of the world and how to study – and therefore teach – them. We looked at the concept of religion, its place in modern society and then hit the Big Six that are taught in British schools: Christianity, Islam, Judaism, Hinduism, Buddhism and Sikhism. It was, quite simply, the most fascinating and rewarding academic course that I have ever been on.

Christianity I, of course, knew pretty well, Islam too, and Judaism, (having a godfather in the local synagogue helps in these matters...), but then as we headed East, my knowledge began to waver. Not with Buddhism of course; two years in Japan and two more in Vietnam with a Buddhist wife meant that I had no fears in that department, but Hinduism, well, I'd always found that a bit of a struggle and as for Sikhism, to be honest, aside from the fact that they wear turbans, I hadn't a clue and, what is more, had never been interested.

As expected, the doctor who spoke on Hinduism revealed much but still left me somewhat confused, but then, on the last day of study, quite contrary to all my expectations, the schoolteacher who spoke on Sikhism introduced me to a faith that was easy to comprehend, relevant and, more than all else, appealed to me immensely. Guru Nanak, the founder, leapt off the pages as a figure of the highest spirituality and when I had to choose a topic for my independent study I plumped for him and his Four Udasis (expeditions or journeys) to the North, South, East and West.1 To one besotted with both God and travel, how could I have chosen anything else?

GURU NANAK UDASI Guru Nanak on his travels

The final push however, that eventually sent me hurtling across the sky to Indira Gandhi International Airport in New Delhi came from quite a different direction entirely. About a year before when reflecting on my teaching, (as all good teachers are taught to do), I'd noticed that my relationship with my Pakistani students was noticeably worse than with those of other nationalities. After pondering over this for a while I came to the conclusion that this was because, unlike the homelands of most of the others, I'd neither lived in nor visited Pakistan, nor indeed had I ever studied it or read about it. True, I could talk to them at length about Islam and cricket, but beyond those two topics I knew nothing of their world and what is more, if I am to be perfectly honest, nor was I really interested in it.

Interested or not, in the cause of professionalism, I decided that it must be rectified and so I took a book out of the local library detailing the political history of Pakistan. It was a dry, academic tome but even so I found it to be of great interest. Pieces of a jigsaw that I'd never understood began to fall into place – Why are so many of Britain's Pakistanis from Kashmir? How come Pakistan got so radicalised in the last thirty years? Why does it never seem to get any richer? - the book answered them all and much more besides. It also initiated conversations with my students, surprised and happy that a 'goreh'2 was finally taking an interest in them. Indeed, it was so successful that I decided that my next big trip would be to Pakistan.

Until I saw the price of the visas. £100 and that was before all the charges. It was daylight robbery and it fitted in well with all the tales of bureaucracy and corruption that I'd read about. Fascinating though Pakistan might be, no way was I being fleeced like that! But before giving up the idea completely, why not revise it slightly and visit the country next-door instead? I remembered 'City of Djinns' and I remembered the Golden Temple in Amritsar. To see the holy sites of the Sikhs and to admire the relics of the Mughals in Delhi, what could be finer? And on top of that, a chance to visit some Sufi shrines, landmarks of the British Empire and perhaps get a grasp on Hinduism at the same time. All of that and, oh yes, I almost forgot, the Taj Mahal. If Pakistan was not to be, then it would be India itself, one of the most spiritual and influential countries on earth, the home of three of the six great world faiths.

Not that I was feeling particularly spiritual as I arrived at Indira Gandhi Airport mind you. Primarily, I was tired after two nights devoid of sleep; after that I was stressed. Nonetheless my eyes were wide as I took a genuine Ambassador taxi into the city, drinking in the typical Third World detritus around the outskirts, the brightly-painted lorry with the slogan “Sound horn please!” across its back, the elevated Delhi Metro, the monument to the Salt March of 1930 and then the scruffy morass of Paharganj, the budget accommodation district, where I booked into the City Palace Hotel for the princely sum of 900 rupees (£11) per night where I collapsed onto my bed for a few hours' sleep, hoping to awaken around noon for my first day's sightseeing.
I didn't rise until past three in the afternoon. I was annoyed at losing the best part of a day but I shouldn't have been; I had a lot of sleep to catch up on after all.

My first Indian explorations were, like those of so many tourists, around the enclave of Paharganj. I changed some money and then indulged in some street food, a potato patty deep-fried with some chilli and chutney.3 It was delicious, absolutely incredible and a great introduction to Indian cuisine. The rest however, was less positive; Paharganj was an absolute dump and I had no idea where I was exactly so I hailed a rickshaw to take me to New Delhi Railway Station and paid the princely sum of 50 rupees for the pleasure, (I later learnt that it should have been 20).

The area around the railway station was no better than that which I had left: scruffy, filthy and crowded and my luck didn't improve either for there were touts everywhere telling me that the Foreign Ticket Office isn't that at all whilst all the ATMs at the station refused to disgorge any cash. Eventually though, I located one that would and then went to a travel agent to book my ticket onwards to Amritsar for 1,400 rupees (original price 900) and then, business done and the sun setting fast, I at last could do a little sightseeing.

After reading 'City of Djinns' there was one area of the city that I wished to see more than any other and that was the old Mughal medina in and around Chandni Chowk. The distance didn't look far on the map so I hailed a rickshaw and set off to the old part of Delhi.

Maps however, can be deceptive, and Delhi was a bigger city than I had thought, but the half an hour or so that I made that poor rickshaw wallah work taught me more about this incredible country that I'd landed myself in. it was crowded, scruffy and chaotic, yes indeed, but then so are Indonesia, the Philippines and Vietnam. India however, had something extra as well, not class for sure since this place was filthier than anywhere else that I'd ever set foot in, but instead an element of weirdness, eccentricity. On that short journey I passed cows in city streets, rubbish collectors, the shrines of a dozen sects and a completely naked man just wandering down the road as if such behaviour is totally normal. Who knows? Perhaps in India it is?

The rickshaw wallah dropped me off in a huge market near to Chandni Chowk. I headed off in the direction that he pointed through a vast, seemingly never-ending grid of stalls selling car parts or other small, unfathomable bits of metal. Realising that the spark plugs and the radiators of all models of Nissan were not what I had travelled 8,000km to see, I looked to find my way out of that maze for mechanics and after climbing some steps I was back in reality.

But this was an Indian reality, not mine and I soon learnt that I had in fact stepped out of the frying pan and into the fire, except that this was a fire that I rather enjoyed roasting in. I delved down an alleyway and spent the next hour or so hopelessly lost in the twisting backstreets and alleyways around Chandni Chowk. I passed through an area where every shop sold saris and another that was all bookshops; I wandered past tiny streetside shrines where the devout chanted and clanged in time to the tacky flashing lights surrounding their deity of choice; I tasted more streetfood – a deep-fried pancake and bread with chilli and pickle – before heading into a region selling only cooking utensils. The problem was that I thought that I was in a different place to where I actually was. I was convinced that the rickshaw wallah had dropped me off at the Lajpat Road Market to the north-east of Chandni Chowk whereas in fact he had deposited me in the Car Parts Bazaar (the clue was in the products I suppose) by the Jama Masjid to the south-east. Consequently, when I finally did emerge onto Chandni Chowk I thought I was on the opposite side to that which I really was and so headed off to the west when I wanted to go east. It was sometime before I realised my mistake.

To be fair though, whichever side you ended up on, Chandni Chowk was no great place to be. Built originally as the principal avenue of the city in 1648, it was lined with trees and had a canal running down the centre whilst halfway along was constructed a caravanserai which was described by visitors to the city as being the most magnificent building in Delhi outside the Red Fort. Today however, as Dalrymple explains far more eloquently than I ever could, the visitor experience ain't quite so positive:

'But instead, as you sit stranded in a traffic jam, half-choked by rickshaw fumes and the ammonia-stink of the municipal urinals, you can see around you a sad vista of collapsing shop fronts and broken balustrades, tatty warehouses roofed with corrugated iron and patched with rusting duckboards. The canal which ran down the centre of the bazaar has been filled in; the trees have been uprooted. All is tarnished, fraying at the edges.'4

Although there are traces of former glories here, beautiful Mughal and British Era buildings, they are crumbling and half-derelict, interspersed with the utilitarian concrete constructions of all Third World cities, the smell of traffic fumes overpowering the thousand and one other pungent aromas. Nonetheless, I was glad that I'd come for midway down Chandni Chowk I spied the Sis Ganj Gurdwara, one of the holiest sites in the world for Sikhs.

Sis Ganj is built on the site of the imperial execution ground for that is where the Ninth Guru, Guru Tegh Bahadur, was martyred. Orthodox Sikh tradition states that the Emperor Aurangzeb had him killed because he intervened on behalf of Brahmin Hindus in Kashmir whom the Mughal Emperor was trying to force to become Muslims.

'For their forehead mark and their sacred thread he wrought a great deed in the Age of Darkness,
This he did for the sake of the pious, silently giving his head.'5

guru_tegh_bahadur-singh_561 The Martyrdom of Guru Tegh Bahadur

If this is true – and there is an alternative Sikh tradition which makes no mention of the Hindus – then his story is remarkable. Many people over the years have been martyred for their faith, but how many, if any, have been martyred for the faith of others?6

Sis Ganj was busy and under renovation but it felt different the moment that I entered its precincts. Outside was filthy and chaotic, inside all was clean and ordered. I left my shoes with the attendant and looked around. I saw the site of a holy well where the Guru had taken his last drink and then went up to the main prayer hall. Outside it was the office where donations are made so I went to give something and the attendant took it on himself to show me around, taking me round the back of the shrine where I dropped my money and then through a room filled with enormous bags of flour and tubs of ghee to the langar, the communal kitchen instituted by Guru Nanak in order to help smash the prejudices of caste. In Sikhism there is a sacred obligation to feed all who come to the door so long as they are prepared to sit together as equals and so I was led to the vast hall where I sat cross-legged in a row whilst be-turbaned gents served me delicious vegetarian food. After this I thanked the attendant and then returned to the prayer hall, a beautiful gold-encrusted chamber in the centre of which the book – the eternal Living Guru, Guru Granth Sahib – was placed whilst an elder read out the scriptures aloud to the sound of a sacred band. It was indescribably beautiful and I sat on the plush carpet, closed my eyes and let it enfold me. India was shocking, horrible, dirty and stressful and yet at the same time this was beautiful, so unique that it was bowling me over. Such a battering of the senses and emotions after only a single day, most of that spent asleep in bed. What on earth would tomorrow bring?

II008 Sis Ganj Gurdwara

I'd arranged a wake-up call for eight but I slept straight through it and did not emerge into the waiting world until one – the jet-lag was obviously worse than I had anticipated. I took a rickshaw to the tourist office to pick up my railway ticket and then wandered around the backpacker ghetto of Paharganj, (my hotel was in a different part of the district), where I bought some books to read. I then enjoyed a “Punjabi menu” in a small eatery near to the railway station before heading for my train.

The meal was served on a metal tray and consisted of a number of helpings of curries and chutneys supplemented by chapattis. I was going entirely vegetarian on this trip, partly because it is recommended for newcomers to India as a way of avoiding the dreaded Delhi Belly but more because it was Lent for at least a portion of my trip and I always abstain from meat during the period of fasting anyhow. Nonetheless, I was entering this period of vegetarianism with trepidation; successive Lents in both the Far East and Europe have taught me that veggie food is, without exception, pretty dull. However, so far in India I had to admit that I hadn't found it so, indeed, quite the contrary and as of yet I wasn't missing the meat at all.

My train was the Shatabdi Express, one of Indian Railways' premium services, covering the three hundred or so miles to Amritsar, the holy city of the Sikhs, in under six hours. All my fellow passengers were Indian save for an elderly gay white guy and his young Thai boyfriend, a couple who attracted far less attention this side of the Indo-Pak Border than I suspected they would have done on the other. I settled back in my seat and watched the heart-wrenching slums of the city roll past before they gave way to lush green – yet rather flat and dull – countryside. Good for the farmer maybe – the Punjab is referred to as the 'Breadbasket of India' so fertile is its soil – but not so for the spectator and so I switched my attentions to reading a translation of the Bhagavad Gita that I'd purchased in Paharganj and, when that proved too dull and inaccessible, the far raunchier 'Flashman at the Charge'.

II009 The Shatabdi Express to Amritsar

1Some Sikh sources talk about a 5th Udasi after the others around the Punjab, but generally only four are listed.
3Vada pao
4City of Djinns, p.54
5Bachitar Nātak
6The only other example I could find was Britain's first Christian saint, St. Alban, who was a Pagan who died in the place of a Christian priest that he was harbouring. However, tradition states that he converted to Christianity before his execution so perhaps he does not fit into this category.

Saturday, 16 August 2014

Incredible India: Prologue: Al-Ain and Dubai

world-map abu dhabi

Things are settling down and the sad sad fact is that summer is drawing to a close. I’ve just enjoyed a great week’s travelling in Ireland but don’t have anything else booked until North Korea next June, whilst the days get shorter and colder. Oh dear, seems like a spot of cheering up is needed and so I present to you my account of my trip to India with two short sojourns in the UAE as well. I hope you enjoy it and, by the way, if you were enjoying the Japanese Musings, fear not, there’s plenty more of them left, but since they tend to involve wintry things I thought I’d leave them to a more suitable time.
Keep travelling!

Uncle Travelling Matt

Flickr album of this journey

Links to other parts of the the travelogue:


Prologue: Al-Ain and Dubai


600px-Flag_of_Abu_Dhabi.svg  dubai_flag

A murky haze is not what you'd expect. The stereotype dictates that deserts have bright blue skies, enough for several pairs of sailor's trousers, not a cloud in sight. But this was a dusty, grey soup through which the daring shape of the airport's control tower loomed mysteriously, more Tataooui than Triploi.

II001 Waiting for an X-Wing Falcon: Abu Dhabi’s Control Tower in the haze

Flew in from Manchester International, Etihad, didn't get to bed last night. On the way the paperback[1] was on my knee, not really a bad flight. I was back in the UAE. How lucky can you be? Back in the UAE.
Eight years after I'd last visited.

That was on a three-day stopover in Dubai flying back from Vietnam to live in England. Emirates had had a special deal on at the time whereby if you booked their accommodation and stayed less than seventy-two hours, then no visas were required. That was like a gift from Heaven for me as I was travelling with my then-wife whose Vietnamese passport presented problems at every border. So, we'd picked the cheapest accommodation in the brochure, (a four star apartment for £40 per night), and had a mini-break.

I'd rather liked Dubai. It was radically different from both Vietnam and Malaysia where we'd come from and the UK where we were going to. I'd long been fascinated by the Middle East and here was a little slice of it to break-up our journey. True, if I'd travelled there from Cairo, Baghdad, Damascus or even Tel Aviv then I'd doubtless have been less impressed; it would have seemed new and fake, but all things are relevant, where you are both physically and mentally at the time has a huge impact on how you view a place. We'd checked out the malls, dined on Lebanese cuisine, had our photos taken by the iconic Burj al-Arab and chatted to a genuine thobe-clad Emirati whilst his black-clad wife peered at us through the narrow slit in her niqaab. My favourite part though was the Creek. I'd checked out the museums of Emirati days gone by, marvelled at how Dubai, but a village in the 1950s, its first skyscraper built in the 1970s, had mushroomed into a metropolis of over two million in half a century, puttered across the water on an abra – a small slice of the Third World in a technological wonderland – and, best of all, drank tea and smoked shisha as the muezzin of a dozen mosques called the faithful to Maghrib Prayer.

II002 Dubai Creek with its abras

This time I was also on a stopover, my destination Delhi not Manchester and my airport of choice not Dubai but Abu Dhabi. I'd have two full days to explore, one on the way going and the other on the way back. So I decided this time to check out the inland city of Al-Ain and, if time permitted it, to revisit Dubai. On the return leg I'd check out Abu Dhabi itself.

The airport thoughtfully laid on free buses to the Emirates' three major cities: Abu Dhabi, Dubai and Al-Ain. I boarded the latter wondering what I'd learn. I'd read that Al-Ain was the place to see the “real” UAE if indeed, such a thing exists. In his celebrated 1950s travelogue of the Arabian Desert, 'Arabian Sands', Wilfrid Thesiger stays with the Emir at Al-Ain and talks of how life in those days was focussed on either the coast or the oasis. Back then, the oasis was still far more important and Al-Ain, the largest oasis in the region, was the Emir of Abu Dhabi's inland home, a splash of green amidst the rolling dunes.

The UAE is a complicated place politically and most outsiders fail to grasp even the basics. People refer to Dubai as if it were a country and yet most definitely it is not. The UAE (United Arab Emirates) is the country with its own ruler, the president, who also happens to be the Emir of Abu Dhabi. Yet Dubai also has its own Emir and its own flag, both of which you see plastered across buildings far more often in Dubai than you do those of the national flag and leader. So, what's going on?

Reading Thesiger's book it all becomes a lot clearer for he presents to us the region's desert life in its traditional form. The idea of a country with defined borders is very much a European concept. It makes sense when all the land is cultivatable and the peoples of that land live fixed lives. But in the desert where nothing grows and tribes are nomadic, such notions are ludicrous. There are tribes who roam about roughly in a certain part of the desert but who cross over with one another and meet at wells, those few vital spots where the very source of life can be found. So, when it came to defining borders in the 20th century, these were naturally artificial, ramrod straight lines in the sand marking out approximately the area in which one particular tribe held sway.

And in the 1930s the tribe that had imposed its authority over most of the others in the peninsular was the al-Saud tribe, hence we have the mammoth state of Saudi Arabia dominating the desert today.

But around the coast other, lesser emirs, held their own, the Saudis unable to touch them because they were protected by the Great Powers, and in the area where I had now landed, a plethora of local leaders remained, protected by Britain and called collectively the “Trucial Coast” because, for survival's sake, they'd broken with millennia of tradition and signed a truce not to attack one another. And then, in 1971, when these seven emirates, some little more than the domains of village chieftains – Abu Dhabi, Dubai, Sharjah, Ajman, Fujairah, Ras al-Khaimah and Umm al-Qaiwain – declared independence from Britain and formed the loose confederation of the UAE, each one with its own laws and customs but united under a single foreign policy and currency.


But the moment that one looks at a map of the UAE it becomes immediately apparent that there is a disparity: the Emirate of Abu Dhabi comprises of 80% of the country including two of the three major cities. And what the map does not show is even more telling: almost all the oil – the main source of wealth for the country – is in Abu Dhabi. Several of the emirates are relatively impoverished; one is amongst the richest places on earth.

My bus took me on a two hour journey through the heartland of this dominant emirate, along broad highways around the sprawling suburbs of the country's capital, then through the desert to the inland capital. We passed through scruffy towns that did not seem to have shared fully in the wealth of the nation and for miles the road was lined with trees, a miracle of modern irrigation compared with the windswept expanse of sand that Thesiger traversed on camel only six decades before. I was reminded of Israel with its tatty new-build concrete cities and kibbutzim that make the desert bloom and I liked the comparison even though I'm sure that many of the locals wouldn't appreciate it.

Al-Ain though, was a little disappointing. This “cultural heart” of the UAE looked much like any other new, spread out, concrete town. After getting my bearings I sought out the oasis at the heart of the settlement which had given it its original purpose. This is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, the only one in the country, but I must admit that, walking around I struggled to work out why. It was a pleasant enough place, don't get me wrong; a series of winding lanes bordered by shady irrigated groves of date palms, but there were no structures of either note or antiquity here. There is talk of how corrupt UNESCO – the organisation that lists and classifies World Heritage Sites – is and I can believe it. My guess is that the UAE wanted a World Heritage Site as a status symbol and as a very wealthy member of the organisation, it had to be granted one which happened to be the Al-Ain Oasis since there was nowhere else that came even close to qualifying. Which is all well and good since the oasis does preserve a flavour of Arabian irrigation and life in days gone by, just so long as it doesn't divert funds away from sites of real importance and with real need in more impoverished parts of the world.

II003 In the oasis

After exploring the oasis I dined in a Pakistani restaurant named 'Quetta' enjoying some very good chicken tikka and whilst there reading a curious little story in a free newspaper that I'd picked up from the airport. It told of an Indian gentleman who was a guest worker in the UAE and who had won the equivalent of $250,000 on the national lottery. “I'm so happy because now I can pay off all my debts,” ran the headline. But reading on, it turned out that those debts, the cost of building his family home in Gujarat, came to only $5,000. He could pay all those off, build homes for all his children, then retire and never work another day in his life and still have a bulging bank account at the end! Yet when asked what he intended to do with the lucre that the Lord had thrown in his direction he declared that (after paying the aforementioned debts) he would “buy a café in Al-Ain.”

This story troubled me. The UAE is full of guest workers, approximately 90% of the population in fact, with no legal rights whatsoever, often living in appalling conditions at the mercy of unscrupulous employers. There's a great deal of racism too with whites at the top of the ex-pat tree, then other Arabs (Lebanese and Egyptians in the main); then the Filipinos (who are, by and large, Filipinas), valued for their work-rate and linguistic skills and then, at the very bottom, Pakistanis, Indians, Somalis and other unskilled labour. They sign contracts for six-seven years and are not allowed to return home or bring their wives and children over. Living in slums, they send all their spare cash home, subsisting only and missing out as their children grow up. It is not an enviable existence. Yet here was one such man, who had been gifted a ticket out to a better life back home and yet had decided to stay! Do his wife and children – and the article did mention him having both – mean so little to him that the lure of a café in dusty Al-Ain, (much like the one that I was sat in), is far more appealing than the prospect of playing games with his little ones, sharing a bed – and a life – with his partner and sitting in contented relaxation in the sun on his porch? My father always taught me that money should be your servant, never your master and how glad I am that I was brought up with such sound advice.

I had a stroll around the city itself, admired the very angular Sheikha Salama Mosque and wondered what life must be like for those faceless women draped all in black, even their eyes covered by a piece of cloth. In his book on Arabia, Hammond Innes talks about women in Yemen who never leave their husband's house save in a coffin and whilst these ladies did not suffer so, I wonder how one copes with a life hemmed in by a myriad of cultural and religious restrictions. I would go mad I fear!

Perhaps inspired by them, I decided to do a bit of shopping. I had read about fine leather face masks worn by traditional Bedu women and had always fancied buying one for my collection of weird garments from around the world, but none were for sale so instead I purchased a niqaab, a black faceveil with three layers, the first leaving the eyes free, the second and third making the view of the world consecutively darker so I could see the world a little as they do. Then, shopping done, I took the first bus out of town.

II004 The Sheikha Salama Mosque in the centre of Al-Ain

On the edge of Al-Ain I saw a curious result of the 20th century process of drawing lines in the sand: a huge barbed wire fence cutting through the city. Traditionally the Al-Buraimi Oasis upon with Al-Ain sat had four villages in it; Al-Ain which the Emir of Abu Dhabi controlled and the other three being controlled by the Sultan of Oman. Consequently the national border divides the conurbation in two although looking through the fence to the other side, I must say that Oman doesn't appear to be much different to the UAE at all.

I slept for the two hours that it took to cross the desert to Dubai, awaking to see the city of prefabricated slums where the guest workers dwell on the conurbation's fringe. The journey terminated in the main bus station by the Creek and after doing a bit of electrical shopping – a card reader for the SIM of my new video camera – I headed to my favourite part of town where I again sat in the waterfront café, drank tea and watched the abras chug by. A return to the familiar before exploring a new world.

And Dubai truly is a new world, evolving at a scarcely believable pace. It is the Shock City of our era, just as Chicago was in the first decades of the 20th century and Manchester in the middle years of the 19th. Since my last visit a mere eight years previously the changes that the city had undergone have been breathtaking: artificial islands in the sea in the shape of giant palm trees, more set out like a map of the world and then to top it all, the tallest building on earth. And if that isn't worth taking a look at then what is?

Yet in many ways the method by which I got to that building mattered more than the destination itself. Back in 2005 there were a number of things that I didn't like about Dubai and by far the most irksome of them all was the fact that you needed to hail a taxi to get anywhere. In the scalding desert climate, walking for long distances is not really an option and Dubai is a city built around the car. That makes for ecological disaster, (Emiratis consume more carbon dioxide per capita than anyone else on earth), and sprawling, soulless urban environments where all life is internalised. That however, has begun to change for in 2009 the Dubai Metro opened, 75km of railway line uniting the city in one vast transportation spider which forces its users to occupy the same public space as one another. I loved it, descending down into the depths at the Al Ghubaiba Station, then enjoying the views as it changed from a subterranean to an elevated system at Bur Juman. What's more, I felt a strange affinity with this state-of-the-art transportation system: it is operated by the same company that employed me at the time. I just hope that they employ more competent managers in their Emirati division.

II005 The Shock City of the 21st century and its Metro

Alighting at the Burj Khalifa/Dubai Mall Station, I assumed it would be a short walk to the Burj Khalifa itself. However, it was a lengthy trek of over a mile through a glass tunnel before entering the gargantuan Dubai Mall next-door to the skyscraper. Nonetheless, when I finally stepped out into the Burj Park that surrounds the tower then it was well worth it for the Burj Khalifa is truly magnificent. Generally I'm not much for modern cityscapes, but this one was worth beholding: a balmy park surrounded by exciting and imposing buildings and overshadowed by the most unbelievably tall structure one could imagine. What do I mean by that? Well, let me put this into perspective: most decent-sized mountains in Wales and England, (admittedly not a land of huge hills, but nonetheless), are around 700m tall; the tallest, Snowdon, is 1,085m. The Burj Khalifa is a staggering 829.8m high, that is taller than most of my local mountains and over 200m taller than the next highest skyscraper. If it were God-made rather than man-made, I'd expected to take around five hours to ascend and descend it. All in all, it reminded me of anywhere else that I've been to, then it was KLCC, the park and shopping centre adjacent to the Petronas Towers in Kuala Lumpur,[2] but this was in another league entirely. I felt dizzy just looking up at this glittering, modern-day Tower of Babel, (not so far away from the original either), and shuddered to think what it would be like at the top. This was the UAE encapsulated in a single building: the biggest, boldest and brashest, an unreal wonderland where money is no object. But do all those superlatives also equate to that most important superlative of all, the best? Impressive maybe, but somewhere that you could fall in love with? For me at least, no.

I took my leave and started the long walk back through corridors of crystal and concrete to the Metro. The UAE had whetted my appetite, a zany, contemporary apertif. But now it was time to move onto the main course. The question was, would the myriad of spices that is India prove pleasurable to my palette?

II007 The Burj Khalifa: tall
1'Are You Experienced?' by William Sutcliffe
2Which is fitting since when I first visited there in 2003, the Petronas Towers were the tallest buildings in the world just as the Burj Khalifa is now.