The City of a Thousand Minarets

Chaos, pollution and traffic. This is what we received as our greeting as we were driven to our hotel from the airport. A large congested five-lane motorway connects the airport to the city, like an artery constantly subjected to deep-vein thrombosis. As we entered the city we felt our lungs fill with air saturated with pollution to the point of weighing us down and being visible dashed against the sun. Over-crowded servees were racing dangerously down the road and people were trying to cross the enormous road with no zebra crossing. Energetic Egyptian music came from our taxi’s radio, blending with the one coming from surrounding vehicles which had their windows down because of the thick air. The taxi driver dropped us off at the hotel, nicely positioned in the centre of Downtown Cairo at walking distance both from The Egyptian Museum and from Khan El Khalili, the main bazaar in Cairo. We entered the dusty old building which bore the sign “Freedom Hostel” and we were greeted by the owner, who led us up four floors of this typical Cairene condominium.

When walking around Cairo, as in Tunis, I couldn’t help noticing many people simply sitting on the sides of streets, smoking, chatting amongst themselves and apparently doing nothing, looking around with a permanent cynical expression. Such a sight I believe, perhaps unfairly, to be the result of the overpopulation problem which currently affects Egypt’s most urbanized areas, and the consequential unemployment which appears to be rampant in the Arabic working class. One might dismiss this as insignificant, but there more I think about it, the more I realize the absence of such a feature in cities like London, where unemployment is nowhere near as problematic.

The following day we visited the citadel and admired the view of a city which loses its skyline in a thick bank of pollution, clinging to the buildings like cotton-wool. The air is dry enough though for the temperature to drop significantly as soon as the sun is blocked. We walked out of the citadel and into a large busy street, much like the one leading to the airport. We almost randomly managed to meet up again with our taxi driver, who had simply told us to meet him “here” in two hours, without exchanging phone numbers, nor giving us specific indications or ways to identify him. He drove us to Khan El Khalili through the so-called City of the Dead, cemeteries in which the poorer layers of the population took refuge and set up a home. As you drive from broad alleys to narrower streets, the aggressive tooting is a constant sonorous background. A lot of the time the tooting seems to have no functional end whatsoever, but appears to be a natural part of the Cairene driving experience, as much as braking and accelerating. Other drivers understand this and often take no notice of one another’s tooting. Lively music kicked into the scene when we entered the heart of Islamic Cairo with its shops, mosques and houses messily crammed together. We were dropped off at Khan El Khalili, next to the century-old Al Azhar mosque, traditionally the most prestigious centre of learning for Islamic studies. As we attempted to enter, a “guide” told us it would open in about an hour. In the meantime he intended to take us to the Al Muayyad Mosque. We followed him through crowded narrow streets of what he called the “real” Khan El Khalili for twenty minutes, as opposed to the popular, more touristic Khan El Khalili, whom he considered to be dominated by Chinese.

Facing the Al Azhar Mosque one will notice a bustling, lighted market on the left, and a quieter, darker one on the right. We were entering the latter. Children playing with a football, shopkeepers sitting outside their shops lazily inviting you to browse through their merchandise, stray dogs looking around piles of rubbish, are all elements of the local street life picture. Some youths were wildly attempting to get through the packed streets on motorcycles causing havoc and receiving angry replies from the shopkeepers.

At the mosque, he invited us up a tight dusty staircase to the mosque’s rooftop. We were rewarded by a stunning view of the Cairo sunset. The skyline was as always trapped in a layer of smog which reflected the sunset’s orange rays. The imposing Mohamed Ali Mosque dominated the view from the citadel with its shining dome, clearly visible because of its physical vicinity (not that this makes it particularly easy to reach). On the way back we met a shopkeeper who spoke clean Italian and claimed to be Swiss. In a brief conversation, they told us that tourism nowadays is “coming back Inshallah” . The “guide” took us back to the Al Azhar mosque and left us to visit the more touristy part of the Souk. In the general confusion it always seemed impossible to find the driver, but every time he appeared in exactly the right place at exactly the right time, seemingly out of nowhere. To reach our driver, we stepped through a hole in the metal fence erected in the middle of the road for no clear reason except to make it harder to move around. At the time of writing, I was laying on my bed thinking of my day in Cairo, the City of a Thousand Minarets.

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My first day in Tunis

Tunisia is famous for being the liberal vanguard of North Africa, which after a few hard years due to a crash in tourism following a series of vicious terror attacks, has been slowly picking itself up again. The country is famous for its achievements in creating a democratic state and in restricting the role of religion in politics, after the Arab Spring in 2010.

But how is it coping seven years later? To what extent can you breath the success, considered such by observers, of the uprisings? What is the overall feel of walking in the streets today? I was curious to find out, so I packed my bags and headed to Tunis.

We arrived at the airport in Rome in the late morning and started looking at the people around us. We could see many Tunisian-looking faces, possibly heading to their homeland for the weekend in order to see their relatives, some of whom even appeared to be unaccompanied young women; we could see many Sub-Saharan African-looking immigrants and a lot of traditional families, but absolutely no tourists. An hour and ten minutes later the plane landed in Carthage Airport Tunis and we got off the plane. I noticed the general disorganization was as bad as it is in Italy and Greece, but I was surprised to see how keen they were on giving us two free Tunisian sim cards. The operation was remarkably quick, painless and infinitely more efficient than I could have ever hoped for in Italy. I’m always glad to see what different countries consider their number one priorities, and in many developing countries it’s technology.

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It’s interesting to notice that the Medina coincides with the central patch of a paler colour, presumably because the buildings are older. As you can see, the centre is quite small, but the Bardo is significantly more distant, so you’ll have to take a taxi if you’re interested. La Goulette (with it’s XVI century fortress) and Carthage are also well beyond walking distance

After getting all set and able to communicate with our new sim cards, we started looking for our taxi. We spotted a glum, bored taxi driver at the exit of the airport holding a card with our name on it, who looked as if he had had a terrible day and we went to greet him. Later, while he was taking us to our destination, although he wasn’t looking particularly talkative, I decided to try to ask him a question, so I asked in English “Do you get many tourists here?”, to which he replied “here, not so many”. I decided to go deeper and asked why (for some reason switching to french) and he said “par la revolution”. I asked him some more questions and I was surprised at how well he knew English, but then I realized from his look and accent that he must have been a Sub-Saharan African immigrant. As I would later come to know, in Tunisia French is obviously the most widely spoken European language, but Italian is actually spoken a lot more than English. We would later ask a trader why himself and a lot of other Tunisian traders knew Italian so well, and he said they were practically obliged to learn it for commercial reasons. There turned out to be a lot more Italian than English tourism.

After a twenty minute drive in the outskirts of Tunis we were dropped off at Clinique El Manar, as the indications on the AirBnB page of the house said, and waited for our host. As a matter of fact, our host hadn’t actually given us a way to contact her directly, but she had given us another phone number. This other guy told us on the phone that a friend of his was coming to show us the house. So we had to go through two people before talking to the person who was actually going to give us the keys. What did I say about organization?

We were shown the house, the furniture of which I would euphemistically describe as “essential”, and then left to our selves. We decided we intended to go to the City Centre so we started looking for a taxi. In Tunis there is an urban railway system, which however doesn’t seem too reliable and the fact that even most locals seemed to prefer using taxis, looked like a good indicator for what to do. Although we thought about it several times, and at one point even walked to the station, in the end we opted for not using the tram. From the outside of a train one could tell how packed they were, creating the perfect circumstances for pickpocketing. But even when using taxis one must always be careful, because taxi-drivers will try to con you (we learned the hard way); I’ll write all about our “adventure” with a taxi-driver in a follow-up article to this one.

We managed to get to the Medina, which literally means “City”, but is used to mean the City Centre, and started walking around the various souks. Three times traders started following us to drag us to their shops and simply wouldn’t leave. We would slow down to try to loose them, but even when it looked like they had abandoned thier cause we would spot them again round the next corner. After a stressful walk in the overcrowded souks, we entered into the outer courtyard of the beautiful Al-Zaytuna mosque. The name means The Mosque of the Olive, the olive being symbol of peace and an iconic plant of Tunisia. Suddenly all the noises of the souk were choked out and replaced by a religious silence which transmitted a feeling of inner peace and calm.

Along the return trip, we stopped for dinner and had a delicious plate of veal meat and couscous. Because of a mistake in understanding where we were, we ended up walking for half an hour after dark in the suburbs of Tunis, something which websites and guides had repeatedly and strongly advised against. In the end we arrived home and after a long and stressful day we were more than happy to go to bed.

Liebster Award

A few days ago I was nominated for the Liebster Award by sportsdiva64. A very warm thank you to sportsandtravelblog.wordpress.com for nominating me and an acknowledgement of her great content. She explains what the Liebster Award is here: sportsandtravelblog.wordpress.com/tag/liebster-award/ better than I could so check it out.

Here are my answers to sportdiva’ s questions:

  1. If I could chose where to live anywhere in the world that place would be London. I love the energy that city transmits
  2. My biggest fear would have to be moths. I hate them
  3. What I love about blogging is what I love about free online sharing platforms in general: the direct simple way a creator and a reader can communicate in way that in television for example is impossible.
  4. There are too many situations in which I would have liked to give advice to me in the past to list them
  5. I rather enjoy reggae and soul. Peter Tosh and Jimmy Cliff are personal favourites.
  6. My goal for 2017 was to get a full pass in all subjects at school. Fortunately, I succeeded.
  7. I have no favourite team in any particular sport.
  8. If I won the lottery I would use the money to go on a gap year and take a train from Europe to Beijing.
  9. Something I’m very passionate about is writing.
  10. No favourite drink…

My nominees:

GroundedHito
@khadijahsamad

dejahgatz
@dejahgatz

These are my questions for my nominees:

  1. Why did you start your blog?
  2. How important is blogging to you?
  3. How do you relate it to your daily life?
  4. What music do you enjoy?
  5. What films do you enjoy?
  6. What would you do if you won £ 20 000?

Kuala Lumpur

As we reached the end of our journey we decided to spend the last four nights available in Kuala Lumpur in an AirBnB flat near KLCC. Since I had last been to Kuala Lumpur I could notice some significant change such as the construction of a series of new buildings, which I had expected from a thriving financial hub such as Kuala Lumpur.

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I must confess that I find this city extraordinarily appealing. I really enjoy the way it fully embraces the challenges and opportunities lying ahead for Malaysia, the chances it holds in playing a more prominent role in South East Asia and in the world in general and the cosmopolitan prospect these wishes inevitably bring with them, while remaining distinctly Malay in feel.

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A Buddhist temple in Kuala Lumpur, Chinatown

I believe the energy and reserved optimism, characteristic of Malaysians in general are particularly evident here; perhaps it is somewhat part of Malaysia’s tradition itself to be prepared to sacrifice absolute cultural integrity and a part of their tradition in order to achieve greater social and economical ends. In this Kuala Lumpur, and Malaysia in general, stands as a model for many other developing countries.

Another major achievement lies in Kuala Lumpur’s ability to maintain its historic multiculturalism, for example the significant Hindi minority living there, while also ensuring integration and equality.

A major expression of Hindu culture can be undoubtedly found in the stunning religious sites of Batu Caves, which I warmly suggest to visit. But Hindu and Buddhist temples can be found all around KL. I thought I grasped the effective depth of Kuala Lumpur’s mutual respect and unity amongst minorities when I saw Hindu tourists in Buddhist temples and Buddhist tourists in a Hindu temple called Sri Maha Mariamman, which again I highly recommend a visit to.

This is not to say that the capital of Malaysia is flawless, far from it. Heavy immigration from the surrounding rural areas is making its infrastructure inadequate and it is putting a strain on its housing. It is Kuala Lumpur’s mission not to let the city become an overpopulated centre such as many in the area and avoid an all out housing crisis. Still, the city boasts the best infrastructure in Malaysia and one of the best in SE Asia and also serves as an example of the possibility of implementing consistent and at the same time sustainable growth, which is often overlooked in rapidly developing economies around the world.

All in all, Kuala Lumpur’s energy and vibrancy, but also its distinct cultural traits, which make it a unique  ethnic, social and even political centre, kind of remind me of London. Samuel Johnson once said “when a man is tired of London, he is tired of life”, I would say “when a man is tired of Kuala Lumpur, he is tired of South East Asia”.

The End

As I reach the end of my wonderful trip to Malaysia, from revisiting the places of my childhood, to travelling to remote villages in the interior, there is little I can do apart from looking deep into this country’s future and trying to imagine what the next decades have in hold for Malaysia. What I see is many of its ambitions coming true, from a more important geopolitical role in the region, to better and more advanced infrastructure thanks to greater investment.

All things considered, I think we’re safe to say that Malaysia’s future is indeed, looking very very bright…

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Travelling down the peninsula

As hard as our taxi driver tried to convince us to hire his car to travel to the heart of Malaysia and down to Kuala Lumpur, he could not move us from stubbornly wanting to go by train. Thinking back at those slow, stressful twelve hours we spent getting to Jerantut, a small city in central Malaysia with a curiously sizeable Chinese minority, I can’t help feeling happy I did it, but being there was whole different kettle of fish. How stubborn westerners can get in wanting to be “adventurous” and “blend in” with the locals!

For starters, one must bear in mind that Malaysia, as modern and financially expanding as it may be , is still a developing country and its public services, especially in the most rural areas like the one we were visiting, can still do with investment. Of course, huge change and progress has taken place in the past fifty years and undoubtedly more will occur.

To reach Jerantut, we chose to take a three-hour ride on a regional train to Dabong one hundred and fifty kilometres away, then wait four hours for the next three-hour train to Jerantut, this second one being an Express and covering distance more quickly.

This is a link to The Man in Seat 61. A great website we consulted while planning our trip

When on the train we went through north Malaysian countryside and crossed many muddy rivers, so typical of south-east Asia. Also, because it was a regional train we stopped in many small villages apparently entirely cut from the rest of the world. However this was clearly not the case, as we could see by the excellent mobile data connection and decent infrastructure. As we penetrated deeper and deeper into the Malaysian wilderness a perhaps quite natural yet unjustified feeling of uncertainty emerged in me at times; the feeling of, well, being in the middle of a sparsely inhabited and uncontrolled landmass, this feeling was later on to be summed instead to a very real fear.

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A street in Dabong

When we got off the train the usual wave of sickeningly hot, sticky air encapsulated us in its revolting embrace, so much stronger because of the contrast between it and the exaggerated air conditioning at 16c° which is always found in closed spaces in south-east Asia. We sat down on a bench in the station and thought about what to do with the evening, as all the passengers got off and walked away, quickly leaving us alone. We decided to take it turns to go for a wander because of our heavy luggage, so as I left the station and headed for the central square I was greeted by a series of large posters with the writing “AWAS DENGGI” (or “Danger Dengue” in Malay) written in large red capitals and a large picture of a mosquito. The posters were written exclusively in Malay, the English translations not succeeding in reaching much away from the major urban centres, but one could easily understand from the bits and pieces what they were all about.

“AWAS DENGGI”

A child on a bicycle who had been following us for the past ten minutes after we had given him a sweet stared at us as we looked at the poster.

Later on, we noticed an intense grey smoke coming from a household and we got closer. We could see a man powerfully spraying what looked like disinfectant on a house and people walking quickly in the opposite direction with cloths over their mouths. A few minutes later we confirmed our thoughts: “Excuse me, what is the smoke for?” we asked a middle aged man sitting in the square surrounded by cheerful playing children “Disinfestation for the Dengue” he said and smiled peacefully as Malaysians do.

When we returned to the station we put on long sleeves and long trousers, and at least partially thought we understood why Malaysians dress like this even in such humid and hot weather. Since I am a bit of hypochondriac, I found myself at this point virtually on the verge of freaking out. But eventually these four hours past and what seemed to me as the most beautiful of trains arrived on schedule.

Heritage trip

At five I moved to Miri, Sarawak, Malaysia. I’d lived in Rome for the previous years of my life, I hardly spoke any English and I’d just gone through little-brother-steals-the-show-after-being-an-only-child trauma.

To say I was unprepared would be an understatement. However, the months went by, my English improved, the relaxed international environment of the school ensured that I quickly blended in and soon my life had become a cheerful series of cheerful events amongst, at least in part, cheerful people. But it couldn’t last forever and, thinking back at it, it shouldn’t have. 

Seven years later I returned to this place with my family. Here are some impressions, memories and observations…

First and foremost, Miri is objectively an unappealing, industrial, peripheral city in the state of Sarawak, on the northern coast of the island of Borneo. Its history cannot be traced back very far, no further than one hundred years and it can be summarized in one word: oil.

Coming back to this place was a very interesting experience to say the least. One physical barrier in the city, a rusty bridge connecting the city to what is now “Piasau Nature Reserve”, must have had a much stronger impact on an eight-year-old than I would have thought, so much so that it must have in some way entrenched itself in my way of looking at Miri. This was very evident both in how the two banks of the river had changed, and also in how I now looked at the way they’d changed. Whilst walking in the city consisted in filling the gaps in my memory of it and creating a somewhat needless mental map of Miri, visiting the Shell camp was a much more emotional experience.

On the northern edge of Miri, squeezed between the river and the coast lies the narrow strip of land formerly occupied by the Shell camp, with its equally spaced and standardized houses. 

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The ex Shell camp, now a Nature Reserve

The place was abandoned a few years after we left, scattering Shell expatriates around other areas of Miri or in other cities entirely like Kuala Lumpur, the capital of Malaysia. Interestingly enough, behind an apparently trivial event such as the abandonment of the camp, lies a broader political process, Malaysia’s wish to cast itself on the international stage as a modern, independent, dynamic nation, mature and self-confident enough to disentangle itself, at least apparently, from its historic agreements on the European giants of the past, which still somewhat links the country to its stagnant colonial years. Visiting the camp, now a ghost of its former self, had a stronger emotional impact on me than I would have thought. While a rational, self-aware, perhaps even politicized approach prevailed most of the time, an emotional attachment to these places at time crept in, often prevailing upon the idea that “it is only right for Malaysia to be able to finally call itself independent” and embark upon the arduous task of nationalization. Perhaps it is good that at the time of writing this internal conflict has not yet been solved.

After visiting Miri, we rented a car in order to drive to Kota Kinabalu, the capital city of the region of Sabah, the northern and second-in-size region of Malaysian Borneo, with a two-night stop in Brunei along the way. When we arrived in KK, I was positively surprised by how the city had transformed itself in the past seven years, when I last visited it. I found it appealingly matched industrial and commercial elements with a certain picturesque touch, which can be especially found on the lively waterfront.

Kota Bharu

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City Market seen from above

After spending a night here, the following day we took a flight to Kota Bharu, the capital city of the north-eastern region of Kelantan.               If you browse on tourist websites you’re likely to encounter semi-negative reviews by disappointed visitors about this “mid-sized” city, whilst it appeared to me that Kota Bharu actually demonstrated all the charm of the truly Malay, Islamic city, without stunning buildings, sprawling shopping centres and bright lights.

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Kota Bharu City Market, ground floor

Naturally, for a good start you will need to visit the market with its colours, smells and shouting. Just make sure you’re there well before five or you will end up with a beautiful view of lowered portcullis, as the market will be pretty much dead very few minutes after hearing the muezzin, whose powerful voice will boldly spread through the market thanks to large megaphones attacked to the walls (a detail which ominously reminded me of Orwell’s novel Nineteen Eighty-Four).

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Kota Bharu, City Market

The speed with which this happens helps understand how truly Islamic Kota Bharu is, also known as, well, the Islamic capital of Malaysia. For example, we had to change the taxi we had called because the time we needed him coincided with his prayer schedule. The ruling PAS, or Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party, has enacted some Islamic laws that however, in line with Malaysia’s history of multiculturalism and respect towards religious and ethnic minorities, only apply to Muslims.

Kota Bharu expresses its religious conservatism, conservatism for Malaysia’s liberal standards that is, and proud Malay traditionalism in many ways, such as the presence of the Jawi script on insignias, which consists of an enlarged Arabic alphabet to suit the Malay language, which I had previously found nowhere outside Brunei. Kota Bharu may not be the tropical paradise you’re seeking but if you want an authentic Malay experience come to this place and appreciate it.