> Ramazan celebrations: Bound by Faith

> Pakathon: An idea(l) Marathon

> Urdu Times: The Newsroom

> Chor Bazaar : Shopaholic's Gold

> The Reluctant Fundamentalist : Tribeca Film Festival, Red Carpet Premiere

Ramazan celebrations: Bound by Faith

Traditionally, Ramazan, the ninth month of the Islamic calendar, is synonymous with faith, abstinence, prayer and a sense of community for Muslims across the globe. This year, however, the month has been particularly tumultuous. Thousands of displaced people are scrambling for food and shelter in Pakistan as a military operation razes their hometowns, millions of Muslims across refugee camps in Syria have been pushed to starvation as the deadly conflict between the rebels and pro-Assad forces enters its third year and Gaza has been turned into an overnight battle ground with Israeli forces raining down missiles on the civilian population.

But, it is in these tough times that you will also find the most heartwarming examples of tolerance, co-existence and acceptance, not just within the Muslim circle, but also among those who would normally be limited to its exterior. You just need to know where to look.

The glorious iftars of London (photos and text by Sarah Alvi)

It is a little past eight in the evening in London and the walls of The East London Mosque are glowing in the light of the setting sun. In about an hour, Muslims all over the United Kingdom will break their fast as one of the longest and hottest days of summers comes to an end.

Inside the Maryam Centre, a part of the mosque designated for women, Yesmine Ozcan is waiting for the maghrib azan along with some 60 other women. Ozcan moved to London from Turkey six years ago for work, and has been regularly coming to the mosque for iftars since. “It is home away from home,” she says. “I believe Muslims cannot be alone anywhere in the world, as long as they have a mosque to go to.” Two volunteers in the hall carefully place plates laden with channa chaat, a samosa, a couple of pakoras, a slice of watermelon, dates, and rice with chicken along with a water bottle in front of each attendant. In a separate part of the mosque more than 400 men will also break their fast at the sound of azan.

London hosts nearly 600,000 Muslims, according to the 2011 census, making Islam the largest minority religion of the city. While mosques and homes remain a popular traditional place for iftars, Ramazan evenings have taken an innovative turn. Muslim community centres have opened their doors to people of all faiths and flash mob iftars have sprung up in parks and high streets under the banner of a community-led initiative called The Big Iftar.

The nationwide programme was launched last year in partnership with Mosques and Imams National Advisory Board amidst incidents of anti-Muslim crimes. With over a 100 inter-community iftars planned this Ramazan, it is already a huge success. “The Big Iftar is about building relationships. The purpose is to take ownership and present Islam and its practices in a positive way,” says Mustafa Field MBE, co-founder of The Big Iftar and director of Faiths Forum for London.

Then there is The Ramadan Tent Project. Now in its second year, this award-winning student-led project offer iftars to homeless and individuals in need along with the general public at Malet Street Garden in the heart of London. The setup is located at a stone’s throw from the campuses of SOAS, University of London and University College London and many students stop by in the evenings to share the scrumptious food. As dusk draws near, founder Omar Salha and his young team put together a white tent under the trees shade. Some volunteers neatly spread out disposable white sheets in four or five rows on the ground to serve as dastarkhwans. Other volunteers prepare food parcels inside the tent. Dates, water and neatly cut slices of watermelons are served to the arriving participants.

Everyone sits together on the ground. Haroon Ahzaz Ahmed, the social media manager for the project feels the communal seating arrangement breaks barriers and brings people closer. “Just the other day I was sitting with three Polish men. They said to me they thought Muslims were terrorists. They had no idea that Muslims could sit with non-Muslims and we could all eat together,” he recalls.

But it is not only Muslims who are reaching out to other communities. Earlier this month North Western Reform synagogue opened its doors and invited Muslims for iftar under The Big Iftar initiative. Perhaps one of the most symbolic interfaith iftars took place in North West London earlier last week when a group of nearly 60 Muslims and Jews met to share the breaking of fast as the 17th day of Ramazan and the Jewish fast of the 17 Tammuz coincided. The event was closed to the public due to its sensitive timing. “Initially people were a little apprehensive of what is going to happen,” says Sef Townsend who organised the event with the help of Jewish friend, David Bash and Muslim friend, Jumana Moon. But the ice melted as the organisers sang and prayed in Hebrew and Arabic.

Participating Muslims and Jews fasted in solidarity with the bereaved Israeli and Palestinian parents. They prayed together for peace and lit candles inspired by a poem by Mahmood Darwish, “As you think of others far away, think of yourself. Tell yourself: if only I were a candle in the dark.”

Townsend who has been involved in interfaith, refugee and peace projects globally hopes there will be more of such events in the future. “I feel privileged to have shared this moment with our brothers and sisters in Islam, baruch Hashem,” he says in Hebrew, which means ‘glory to God’, then adds in a soft voice, “Alhamdolillah.”


Redefining Muslim identity in New York ( photos and text by Purvi Thacker)

Every evening during Ramazan, people from all over the city get together at New York University’s Islamic Center (ICNYU) to pray, break their fast and attend taraweeh with Imam Khalid Latif, NYU’s first ever appointed Muslim chaplain. Free and open to the public, NYU’s iftar has become synonymous with being the’ interfaith gathering to engage, share and create an experience of community and family.

“It’s a no-judgment zone, and doesn’t’ feel like a heavy, demanding environment. The messages here feel more like a blessing than a preaching,” explains 47-year-old Issa Mohammad, from Egypt. And like him, many of the city’s young professionals flock to the ICNYU every weeknight to bond over a meal with like minds from diverse backgrounds.

“Most Muslims have a rigid archetype of faith and so our vision and identity veers away from encompassing the community into a particular race, culture and ethnicity, but to open it up to different spiritual and personal experiences,” says Imam Latif. In keeping with that sentiment, it is no wonder that the Ramazan committee at ICNYU strives to include variety in the food served every night. From South Asian, Mexican, Caribbean, Lebanese and Chinese cuisine options, there is a concerted effort to even have soul food and vegetarian options on the menu.

The fast is broken with the evening call to prayer, followed by a short message from Imam Latif, who addresses a variety of topics ranging from amplifying women’s rights and prayers for the Rohingya Muslim community in Burma, to Ramazan garbage wars and the importance of halal meat.

Today’s choice is Abu Bakr (RA) and rights of women, for which Imam Latif explains that this Ramazan, ICNYU has paired up with New Jersey based organisation SMILE to support women in need. The goal of the fundraiser is to raise $150,000 to provide women with job skills, loans, cars and services like counseling and mediation, and he urges the community to partake in the bake sale, through which funds will be raised.

Community service and giving back is not just monetary, points out Sumaiyah Ahmed, who runs the Ramazan Program at ICNYU. She elaborates on the green initiative and zero waste campaign that is being encouraged. In the last two weeks, the ICNYU has sold eco-collapsible neo kits or food boxes and water bottles for people to carry every day and wash and re-use. “Every week we want a reduction in waste, because as Muslims, we need to be mindful of the world we live in and make a positive environmental impact,” she says. For the 200 to 300 people attending iftar every day, this will prevent the wastage of up to 6,000 cups and around 10,000 plates.

“Everything is donation-and sponsor-based,” explains Ahmed, but judging at the varied services provided by ICNYU to foster a sense of family and community, it doesn’t look like it is difficult to garner support for occasions like Laylatul Qadr and Eid (brunch and prayer), which usually brings in up to 1,500 people.

While a line gathers at the bake sale to tend to one’s sweet tooth after a long day of fasting, a young African American woman in a hijab says, “This sense of community is what family is really like and how it should look in our discourse.” She comments on how she feels at ease in the ICNYU. “ If I had to go to any other place, I would have to think of what I am wearing. Over here, what a sister wears is not a focal point of conversation. We look at the things that matter and that’s how it should be.”

Purvi Thacker is a graduate from the Columbia Journalism School and currently works as a freelance journalist in New York. She tweets @purvi21


Finding pluralism in Japan ( photos and text by Nicolas Gattig)

A few years ago during Ramazan, I attended the Friday prayer at a mosque in San Francisco. Enamored  and clueless, I explored the scene — an alabaster agnostic among dark-skinned and bearded believers, who eyed me with wonder as we kneeled to pray.

Face down with my arms outstretched, my behind in the air and my nose smelling the prayer rug, I understood that a prostration is a submission — a concession of a humble servant to the only god, Allah. It was a gut-level challenge.

Fast forward a few years and once again I find myself attending the Friday prayer in Ramazan, but this time at the Tokyo Camii, the largest mosque in Japan. Nearly 200 Muslims (mostly men), had gathered there for food and a sermon. Later on, as people lined up for food, the atmosphere was relaxed and cheerful. In Japan, no one frets over immigrant waves eroding their way of life and imposing the Sharia law. “Islam is growing here,” says Dr Musa Mohammad Omar, the executive director of the Islamic Center Japan. “We don’t recruit, but the mosques are full and each day people come to visit.” The conversion rate, for both men and women, has also increased, many of those being for marriage.

Japan’s relations with Islam date to the late 19th century which were the days of its political alliance with Turkey. The first signs of an actual community came with the arrival of Muslims from Russia who were fleeing the October Revolution. According to Musa, there is no reliable data, but the number of Muslims in Japan easily exceeds 100,000. And the country has gone to great lengths to make this Muslim population feel at home. A number of university cafeterias, hotels and restaurants now offer halal meal choices. There are Muslim tour guides and souvenir shops, as well as prayer rooms at airports and offices in addition to more than 100 Islamic associations in Japan.

In part, the embrace is rooted in business. As relations with China went sour, Japan eased visa restrictions for Southeast Asian nations, to offset the lost business. This boosted tourism and student exchanges from Malaysia and Indonesia to the point where more and more hijab headscarves are now dotting the Japanese urban landscape.

Rahil Khan from Rawalpindi, who has been living in Japan for the past 28 years, believes that the communal aspect of Ramazan is what attracts the Japanese. “People are lonely at home,” he says. “So they come to the mosque for company, for conversation and jokes. At iftar, many Japanese show up at the mosque for free food. They follow Ramazan more than Islam — it’s like one of their festivals.”

Musa feels that the local Muslim community enjoys an idyllic diaspora. “We have no ties to any homeland politics,” he says. “At Japanese mosques there are no divisions, no problems between Sunnis and Shias. The police here are on our side, and the people are open prejudice they may have, from the West.”

But not everyone is without suspicion. Khan claims that government officers keep checks on the mosque Askusa and that police keeps eye on him as he walks around neighbourhood on business. day, walked into a station and confronted the officers. “I went inside and said, ‘What is the problem? Let us talk about this problem! If you need something, you should come and ask.’”

No one said that diversity was easy, or even natural. Perhaps for pluralism to work, we need both curiosity and indifference — both emblematic of how Japanese approach foreignness — in equal measure. And this alabaster agnostic is cheering for that.

Published in The Express Tribune, Sunday Magazine, July 27th,  2014

Pakathon: An idea(l) Marathon

New York University’s Kimmel Auditorium is usually reserved for award ceremonies, student performances and panel discussions. But on the last weekend of September, the sprawling space was littered with long tables and chairs, multiple power outlets, extension cords, laptops, notebooks, stationary and plenty of coffee. A group of approximately 35 people, split into teams, were huddled around various tables, working furiously on their computers with their backpacks carelessly strewn over the wooden floor. This was the annual Pakathon New York, a hackathon-style three-day event initiated across 16 cities in the US and Pakistan.     

The first Pakathon, which took place in Boston last year, was a unique collaborative effort to address some of the most pressing development challenges in education, human rights, finance, health and retail in Pakistan. Participants were encouraged to brainstorm solutions that could be implemented for sustainable social impact on the ground. This year, the initiative has spread roots to several locations in the US, Toronto and eight cities in Pakistan “Not everyone here is Pakistani. We encourage a global collaborative component and diversity of opinion as well as a mix of skill sets,” says Amna Khawar, the marketing and communications lead for the event, as she points to some of the teams. She elaborates that besides techies, social media junkies, programmers and developers, several participants were even graphic designers and lawyers, all united with the goal of leveraging ideas and moving it to action across countries.

“We are not limited to simply expanding on a concept, business plan or building a prototype, but we also welcome ideas like developing an app or an SMS-based service,” explains Hassan Ahmed, the co-lead for Pakathon NYC, referring to the sizeable mobile base in Pakistan, which makes SMS the easiest way to reach the population.

With over 120 people registered for the event alone in New York, the day kicked off with a meet-and-greet where teams were formed according to their preferred areas of interest and matched with professionals who had signed up to be mentors. “Mentors help the teams hone their ideas as they are from different walks of life — we have entrepreneurs, international development experts, human rights activists and even aid workers from UNICEF,” says Ahmed. He added that some of the teams were even connected to Pakistani mentors via Skype, who were helping them with on-ground knowledge and statistics.

Each team, which could be anywhere between one to eight people, had 48 hours to develop and present a 10-minute pitch to a panel of three judges, comprising of individuals who have a development-focused, entrepreneurship and start-up background. The winners from each of the 16 Pakathons then competed against each other for a $10,000 prize at the global Pakathon that took place at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Boston on October 11. While basic ideas that were in their early stage were given equal consideration, the most focused plan with the highest feasibility, marketability and chances of implementation would be given preference when it came to judging.

Most of Pakathon’s financial support comes from online donations via a funding campaign by passionate people inside and outside of the South Asian diaspora who believe in the cause. Khawar also points out that ‘kind sponsors’ help with food and transportation costs. “Everyone has a common cause — to develop a community where ideas can be creatively reflected and put to constructive use,” says Minza Zahid, co-lead for Pakathon NY, who was also a participant at last year’s event. The project she worked on, known as ‘Asli Goli’, an SMS-based system to address counterfeit medicine in Pakistan by scanning its barcode to validate it, is being put into motion a year later as one of her team members is currently back in Pakistan. “Forty eight hours is a limited time so we don’t want to say that after that ideas should come to an end. In fact, this is a vehicle to put ideas to concrete use,” explains Zahid.

Keeping this in mind, teams were working to come up with tangible solutions that were not only developed in a sophisticated manner but could also be translated into action. “Our team is in the health track where we are working to create a smart stethoscope called ‘SmartScope’, designed to measure more than just the heartbeat of a patient,” explains 28-year-old Sharmeen Noor, who is originally from Bangladesh. She added that the idea was viable as it addressed timely issues in Pakistan, namely the low doctor-to-patient ratio. A device like Smartscope could be very useful for hospitals and health clinics that do not have a first-mover advantage and lack equipment for diagnosis and triage. The team, like most others was divided in its duties — one of the members was researching statistics on the public healthcare market in Pakistan, while others were looking at value proposition and the social enterprise angle.

On the next table, 21-year-old Mansoor Alam, a Pakistani and Irish descent student from Wesleyan University, was working on a hands-on tool to map the Urdu script and text and Romanise it. “[While] growing up, I always struggled as a second-language learner of Urdu and it’s frustrating to not be able to have a translation source that will clarify words and sounds,” he says. Alam and his team were in the midst of creating a dictionary of letters from the Urdu alphabet so that they could ultimately create a mechanism to extract the script from a newspaper for example. While Alam knew that his project was more research-oriented, he was glad that the idea was at least set in motion.

Across the auditorium, two Indian girls were working on launching ‘DriveHer’ — an Uber app, which would provide a cab service for women with female drivers. “I grew up in Delhi, where issues like gender, women’s rights, safety and economic empowerment are at the forefront,” says Anahita Arora, one of the two-team members. “Given the social and cultural similarity between India and Pakistan, the idea resonated with me.” Her partner, Delkash Shahriarian, added that they were also looking to add a security layer to this project where an off-duty female police officer or SOS button could be added to the cab during travel. Both reiterated that ventures like Pakathon bring together some of the best minds, where ideas can be exchanged and refined further.

Both the SmartScope team and DriveHer team tied for first place in Pakathon NY and competed at the global Pakathon this past weekend. The team that took home the first prize in Boston based on its prototype and projected business plan, as well as marketing and implementation strategy was Rural Agricultural Technologies (RAT) from Atlanta, whose vision is to bring a paradigm shift in the agricultural sector of Pakistan by employing modern technology and educating the farmer.

“Even if some of these projects are a work-in-progress, I am happy with this turnout as it’s a stepping stone for growth and innovation,” says Khawar. She adds that for the Pakistani diaspora, events like Pakathon are a way to give back to their homeland. Moreover, for participants who are not of Pakistani heritage, it is a way for them to learn more about a country that is misrepresented and always under global scrutiny. “Only a community of voices together can address change of any kind,” she says.

Published in The Express Tribune, Sunday Magazine, October 19th, 2014

Urdu Times : The News Room

In the basement of a brightly lit South Asian video and DVD store situated in a busy thoroughfare of Jamaica, Queens, 61-year-old Khalilur Rehman adjusts his print glasses as he feverishly edits a hand-written Urdu article, which has to be sent to Lahore, Pakistan, where it will then be typed out.

On the opposite side of the cluttered table, his Hyderabadi wife, Anjum Khalil, patiently sifts through sheets of printed Urdu stories and scratches out and re-writes sentences. Old issues of newspapers, a few pens and highlighters, calendars and other office supplies lay carelessly strewn over the L-shaped desk setup, surrounded by four chairs and two desktops. A handful of overhanging wires connecting the computers with a router, scanner, fax-machine and printer dangle from various shelves and walls, giving the place an almost warehouse-like feeling. This is the New York newsroom of the oldest and largest weekly Urdu language newspaper, The Urdu Times. Run by the husband-wife duo, this Pakistani weekly is the most widely read Urdu language newspaper in North America and has 14 print and online editions in the United States, Canada and Britain. It also enjoys the largest circulation for an Urdu paper outside of Pakistan, according to its owners. And the paper’s free availability makes it even more unusual compared to other publications.

Le(a)ding the market

Raised in Islamabad by an upper-middle class family, Khalil says he had “no real job” before he migrated abroad. “It was around 1979 and I worked in the floor covering or carpet business,” he reminisces. “I had no intention of publishing or doing any newspaper business.” His trajectory from an odd-job immigrant to the founder, editor and publisher of The Urdu Times has been remarkable for someone without any journalism background or publishing infrastructure.

At the time, Indian immigrants in New York had started publishing newspapers centred on South Asian news, which usually had a negative angling towards Pakistan. “Now I am a liberal person, but misrepresenting my homeland and community is not justified,” he says. He also recalls that during the 1980s there was a vacuum in the market for Pakistan-centric news. Both reasons spurred him to start his own newspaper, The Eastern Times, an English language weekly, as there was no typesetting or calligraphy for Urdu at the time. The paper eventually folded, but Khalil had set the wheels in motion. He had single-handedly “self-taught and self-made” a publishing business, in an environment where he had to rely on borrowed teleprinters from the Pakistani consulate.

This venture eventually paved way for The Urdu Times in 1991, at a time when there was a dearth of Urdu journalism. “I moved shop from Manhattan to Jamaica, Queens, and stopped carrying bags containing sheets and rolls of faxed news from the Pakistani consulate,” he explains. Instead he started toying with existing technology to get him his news. With his number 286 basic computer, he managed to churn out stories for the tabloid-sized Urdu publication from Pakistani newspapers and utilised the then newly developed 12-point font Urdu typecast and stencils for headlines. Every week he booked a call to Lahore, where he would have had someone record five or six Urdu stories emerging from the local media and phone record the clips. He would then transcribe those stories, develop new angles and re-write them. “My subject matter was anything to do with Pakistan, South Asia and Muslims,” he says. He would then distribute these papers in a bookstore that existed by Grand Central (now by the MetLife building) in Manhattan. With a staff of 18, consisting of four typists, he tried to sell the paper, but with scant luck. With limited Urdu newspaper readers in the community, who didn’t fully understand the business or anything about local advertising, Khalil had no other choice but to make his paper available for free so he could improve readership.

The Big (B)ad world

For Khalil, combining passion with technological advances was one thing, but using his entrepreneurial judgment to sustain the business was the need of the hour. Post-1995, the newspaper market expanded due to the rising number of Pakistani immigrants to the United States. Using the budding community as a resource, Khalil started procuring local advertisements ranging from halal meat in ethnic grocery stores, local South Asian travel agencies advertising for Haj, to Islamic community centre ads. He slowly progressed onto corporate ads, which consisted of Western Union money transferring, long-distance phone cards and cell phone ads. The engineers and doctors in the Pakistani community were prospering, and so local business advertisements also proved to be lucrative.

“Corporate ads brought in some decent revenue and our position as the only Urdu language paper appealed to the community,” he says. For the non-computer savvy older immigrant community that was used to reading Urdu papers, The Urdu Times served as a dual resource — for them to get news in their mother tongue from Pakistan along with staying updated with the local happenings and deals in New York.

Muhammed Farooqi was appointed editor of The Urdu Times, just when Khalil moved to Jamaica, Queens. But soon, he too realised that it was important for the community to get a taste of the day-to-day issues and incorporate hyper local elements. To fill that gap, he started The Pakistan Post, which focused on in-depth, long form community-centric news. “For the older generation, reading a newspaper is a basic, it is a necessity,” he explains.

While Farooqi and Khalil have long since consolidated and set a standard advertising rate so that both papers can mutually coexist, other small-time Urdu papers have sprung up to contend within the South Asian community, which has caused a divide in advertising revenue. Both, The Pakistan Post and The Urdu Times can be found stacked side by side atop racks at several of the city’s community newspaper distribution spots, but often smaller Pakistani weeklies will be strategically moved to the top. Popular spots of distribution are outside mosques, community centres, South Asian grocery stores and ethnic neighbourhoods like Jackson Heights, Murray Hill and even outside the Empire State building.

Overseas sources, local angle

Both papers have moved their major operations to offices in Lahore. This outsourcing has been strategically done in keeping with the rising costs and lowering readership. “Do you know that one man’s payroll here covers the cost of employing four people in Pakistan,” explains Khalil. He says he made the conscious decision of hiring a 10-man team in Lahore, simply because it was more economical to cover staff as well as printing and production expenses.

His crew in Lahore usually sends him a selection of daily news, which he then uses his editorial judgment to pick, angle and handwrite into an article. “I pay heed to the American point of view and what my community here would want to hear,” he says. The articles are then scanned and sent to Lahore where they are typed out, sent back and reworked before Khalil and his wife send in the final pages for layout and graphics back to Lahore. The assembled product is then given to Linco Printers based in Long Island City. This process is repeated weekly and both of them even work through the weekend. “I don’t even know what a Sunday is anymore,” his wife admits.

Farooqi follows a similar pattern of PDF, e-faxing and proof reading. “I am the biggest labourer in my office,” he jokes.

The Urdu Times also has its share of regular columnists and contributors in every city where it is distributed. Professors, students, community leaders and even one-off writers vie to send in a piece. “Look, our contributors do this purely out of passion, we hardly pay them more than $150 a month, so there are minimal op-eds or original content,” says Khalil. He mentions an older gentleman in New York who provides a nazam (poem) on current affairs every week.

The newspaper’s burgeoning readership across cities such as New York, Washington DC, Miami, Los Angeles, Houston, Dallas, Chicago, Atlanta, Toronto, Bradford, Montreal, Manchester and Birmingham is a testimony to its outreach and influence. While the paper’s Toronto and London office have a staff of 10 each, most of the American office branches don’t have more than a team of two. “Our Canada and UK issues are flourishing,” he says. Hence, there are more pages in their issues as compared to New York. Khalil is blatant about the fact that “ads are the master” for a market like New York where circulation is estimated to be around 15,000 copies weekly. Sometimes if there are more classifieds (featuring property and rent ads or marriage ads), the pages can even go up to 16 or 17. Canada, on the other hand usually has an issue of 25 pages as the city pages featuring community-centric events and news are far more popular than the international news items.

All 14 editions of The Urdu Times are scanned and posted online as PDF versions. While the front page lead story for each issue is the same, because it is usually an international news item, a marked difference when comparing issues online are the changes in advertisements on the cover page and minor headline alterations, which cater to the local audience in each country. The masthead also remains uniform, with changes to the flag, depending on the country of issue.

A digital future

To keep up with the pressures of a rapidly evolving news market, Khalil has started a website that “puts all the news under one head”. He admits that it has become more about survival in such a struggling market and feels that the other 10 to 12 Urdu language papers are also ailing under the staggering pressure of digital and online world of news. “My wife is my biggest anchor and it is only two of us here in New York who are sailing this ship,” he says. His long-term vision is to develop a site with daily news updates or “pure news” and then devise various regional and hyper local verticals. “I want it to be like BBC Urdu and VICE.”

Farooqi concurs with the demand for online news, but feels that language-oriented newspapers have a bigger chance of surviving in a declining print market vis-a-vis English papers, which he feel are “already finished.”

Khalil has even incorporated the naskh script from the existing nastaliq script in an attempt to keep up with the recent changes made to the Urdu script and make it more searchable for mobile devices and the web. The nastaliq script is more cursive and ornate, and is still used in The Urdu Times, whereas the naskh script is more angular and straight. “My print reader is confused with this change, but it’s something they have to get used to. Anyways I am only giving myself another 10 to 15 years in this business,” he says.

The fax machine starts beeping and Khalil calls for his marketing manager. “Right now, this man is the most important part of my business,” he playfully adds as he archives yet another old issue in a back room where years of history lies stringed together in yellowing pages.

Published in The Express Tribune, Sunday Magazine, April 20th, 2014

Chor Bazaar : Shopaholic's Gold


‘Mutton Street’, as its name suggests is not thronged with butcher shops or chicken coops. Nor is it dotted with old chai houses serving keema-pav or roadside stalls concocting local meat delicacies. In fact, this lane has nothing to do with food.

Housing the legendary “Chor Bazaar” or market of thieves, this quiet bylane is located amid the bedlam of south Mumbai. But getting to it is the real challenge. One has to circumvent bullock carts piled with melting blocks of ice carelessly covered in jute bags, navigate through bumper-to-bumper taxi traffic, dodge the brouhaha of street vendors and even trudge through cow dung and rotting fruit and vegetables swarming with flies from the neighbourhood fresh produce market.

As the story goes, this flea market of sorts derived its name from the same adjacent mêlée, and was originally known as “Shor Bazaar” (market of noise). But over time, the British rendition reduced it to “Chor Bazaar”, which today seems more fitting, given that one can find smuggled and stolen goods among the glut of Rajput era antiques, vintage bric-a-brac and artifacts.

Mutton Street is a nondescript dusty road that doesn’t have the chaos of local souks commonly reflected in the Bourne trilogy series or the stereotypical fanfare of a market seen in Bond movies. It is a serene thoroughfare strewn with small shops and merchant handcarts, with vendors and shop owners peacefully sitting on cane stools smoking beedis listening to Jagjit Singh on their outdated transistors. No one hollers prices and peddles their wares or thrusts their products at you when you pass by. Hawkers enjoying their daily siesta on a pushcart is a fairly common sight. Occasionally there will be an enchanted foreign tourist photographer taking pictures of brass doorknobs and locks, grandfather clocks, gramophones and traditional hookahs.

But that’s not all. Chor Bazaar is Mecca for even local art collectors, retro-loving hipsters, shopaholics and interior designers can be found who rummage and bargaining for furniture, sculptures, Bollywood memorabilia, sought-after ancient maps, trinkets like bird cages, printed coasters and ornate figures of gods and goddesses, and even old metal signboards.

“Chor Bazaar is an exciting treasure chest to say the least,” says Mumbai-based fashion blogger Jasleen Kaur Gupta. “The thrill of finding a good thrift piece is simply unmatched by the experience of visiting a store. It’s just one of those things you have to tick on your bucket list.”

But the real test is discerning the real from the brilliant copies or replicas. “Most of our stuff is from old palaces in Rajasthan and Gujarat,” says Mohammad. Iqbal Ibrahim who owns a small shop called “Art House”. He points to intricately engraved jewellery boxes, whose attached mirror is rusted and covered in dust. But even then, it’s hard to distinguish whether the artifact is actually age-old or just a discarded piece from one of the high-end handicraft manufacturing factories in India.

Another fascinating facet of this market besides the quality of its wares is the variety in the merchandise it offers. Don’t be surprised if you see come across logos of BMWS and Mercedes cars being sold at half their market price or items like prams, cots and even chandeliers. It is common knowledge that if your expensive car has a tire or logo missing, it will make its way back to you through Chor Bazaar, at a price more reasonable than that found from elsewhere. As for other unusual items, it’s all about one man’s trash being another man’s treasure.

Whether they are kerosene lamps or hanging lantern lamps in different vibrant colors, or alarm clocks, grandfather clocks or decorative lamps, the collections are eclectic. It’s all about how you end up mixing and matching — for an old biscuit tin can even become a bangle box and a crate of cutting-chai glasses can transform into candleholders.

“I love the fact that you can get items at a throwaway price and you can then transform into whatever you want,” says Rhea Rakshit, a graphic designer from Mumbai. She especially likes the plain frames of different shapes and sizes that then can be painted on and adorned with mirrors and other accessories.

“We have over 100 shops on this street, but sometimes it is better to go into the smaller, less commercial ones,” says Haji Iqbal, the owner of one the shops. Popular names like Taherallys and Karachi Gift Store definitely seem to be better organized, but sometimes one can find unusual steals in more inconspicuous stores. Take the shop that had no name, but the elaborately engraved lipstick holder and wooden chest sold there couldn’t be found elsewhere. It is also easier to haggle and bargain in smaller shops, where prices are usually not fixed.

The magic of the market can be absorbed on any day other than Friday, when the predominantly Muslim area is shut for the afternoon prayers. For anyone visiting Mumbai, an exploration of Chor Bazaar is highly recommended. Whether you indulge the shopper within or merely stroll through the narrow streets, taking in the sights and sounds of the bazaar, the visit will be easy on the pocket but an aesthetic joy you wouldn’t want to miss.

Published in The Express Tribune, Sunday Magazine, October 20th, 2013

The Reluctant Fundamentalist : Tribeca Film Festival, Red Carpet Premiere

New York: Indian film-maker Mira Nair’s movie, The Reluctant Fundamentalist premiered in New York City at the 2013 Tribeca Film Festival. The international star cast including Nair, British actor Riz Ahmed, Kate Hudson and Kiefer Sutherland were all present at the red carpet.An adaptation of acclaimed novelist Mohsin Hamid’s bestseller and Nair’s most ambitious project to date, the film’s narrative centres around a Pakistani protagonist’s journey. A compelling subject, the lead’s conflicting political ideologies explore the bicultural dialogue of the Pakistani- American equation.

The theatrical release in Pakistan is scheduled for May 17, where the film will open in the original version (in English and Urdu) as well as in a complete Urdu version called Changez. Thrilled about this, it was the realisation of a dream for Nair, who feels that the movie is her “love song to Pakistan”. She believes that the film is a celebration of not only the cinematic debut of artists and singers, but also a showcase of the rich, cultural tapestry of the country.

As the lead, Ahmed is also excited about the release of the movie in Pakistan. “Someone sent me a picture of a poster outside a big cinema in Lahore and I would just love to be there for the release,” says Ahmed. “It is important that the film is an official release because it is welcoming to the institution, which I think is huge for cinema halls in Pakistan.”

On a personal level, the experience of making this film resonated with Ahmed, who feels more immersed with his Pakistani roots. Having been raised in Britain with a family that speaks Urdu at home, he never really felt out touch culturally. However, the homework he did for the role of Changez allowed him to explore his potential. “Whether it was raising the standard of my Urdu to a point where I could read and understand Faiz or watch political discussion shows on Geo, I really tried to get to grips with it,” he says.

Ahmed also had to imbibe a sense of Pakistan from both Hamid (who co-wrote the screenplay) and novelist Ali Sethi, who acted as a guide to help him soak up Lahore from a distance. “A large part of the film is about missing Lahore and I have never been there,” explains Ahmed. He had booked a ticket when he was offered the role but was denied entry due to insurance reasons.

The experience of working with Nair also gave Ahmed a sense of home. “Sometimes we can erect these divisions between India and Pakistan or Britain and Pakistan and think that they must be really different,” he says. “While there is a cultural sensitivity that has to be taken into account and homework to be done, people are people and sometimes when you tell really specific stories, they can be universal in their impact and that’s what we are seeing with this movie.”

Published in The Express Tribune, April 27th, 2013