Surprisingly classy: the new Qantas inflight safety video

The new Qantas inflight safety video

This week, I’ve been a little bit obsessed with the new Qantas inflight safety demonstration video. It is, in a word, beautiful. For me, Qantas’ new inflight video is more than just a safety demonstration, or even a clever tourism campaign.

Frequent readers of this page will know that I’m not a huge fan of the country in which I was born. The cultural trajectory of Australia in my lifetime seems to have swerved in a direction that I don’t identify with; one where the unquestioningly patriotic, mindlessly crass, drunk alpha male is held up as the quintessential “Aussie larrikin” – and therefore something to aspire to.

(Image: David Jackmanson, Wikimedia Commons)

(Image: David Jackmanson, Wikimedia Commons)

And occasionally Australia gets it right, and when they do, it’s incredible. One excellent example of this, in my opinion, was the opening ceremony of the Sydney 2000 Olympic Games. Love or hate the Olympics, the opening ceremony was culturally rich and for the times, spectacular beyond words. It didn’t shy away from “iconic Australia”, while glossing over the parochial stuff that we could really do without. Those crap inflatable kangaroos from the Atlanta Olympics closing ceremony only made a brief, self-deprecating appearance in 2000 – long enough to be endearingly laughable, but not too long to make us cringe.

It is arguably one of the best showcases of what can be contributed to the canon of “Australian culture”, a notion that so many people used to (and still do) snigger at. Qantas’ new inflight safety video, I believe, falls into the same category. If you haven’t seen it yet, here it is;

A multiethnic cast of otherwise “ordinary” Australians going about their daily lives, creative reimaginings of otherwise banal safety procedures, a modern-yet-classic-sounding backing track and the stunning natural beauty of Australia on show for the world. This is a refreshing approach to the vision of Australian identity; varied, warm and articulate, with no Lara Bingle, racist redneck or drunken yobbo in sight. The idea is not completely new, as it’s actually an upgrade to the Qantas inflight safety video from last year which had a similar theme. There’s something about the new video however which, in my opinion, takes it to another level – I just can’t quite put my finger on what it is.

Creative, warm, diverse, refined but free-spirited. Isn’t this another (potential) narrative of Australian culture?

What do you think of the new video? Do you like it? Comment below!

Australia: is anti-social behaviour the norm?

Australia: is anti-social behaviour the norm?

This post is not anti-Australian, and nor is it seeking to lay blame. It is simply wondering out loud about the direction of society after a horrific incident which terrorised the nation’s second largest city on Friday afternoon.

Melbourne car incident Jimmy Gargasoulas

I had finished work and was walking home when I was stopped at the intersection of Flinders and Swanston Streets by a crazed man doing burnouts in his car. It was clear that he was not in his senses – whether he was high on drugs or mentally disturbed was not clear, although we would later find out it was probably both. Groups of thugs roamed around the intersection, some in the roadway, some among the crowds, goading both the driver and the police for fun. At least one woman was apprehended at the scene for obstructing the police operation – standing in the middle of the street screaming at the police, and then finally telling a police officer to “suck my cock”. The woman in question can be seen cavorting in the intersection in a blue top at the 0.43 mark of the video below.

The crowd which had gathered wondered aloud if it was a drug deal that had gone wrong, but then mostly began to go back about their regular business. Later, we would find out that the deranged driver had ploughed his car into Bourke Street Mall, the city’s premier pedestrian street, killing three and maiming many more. Two more would die in hospital.

The front pages of Melbourne's most popular newspapers the day after the attack. (Source: Twitter)

The front pages of Melbourne’s most popular newspapers the day after the attack. (Source: Twitter)

Then it emerged that the massacre was the culmination of a string of anti-social and violent behaviour that had begun almost a week earlier. The perpetrator had been released on bail the previous Saturday after being charged with violent offences. In the week that followed he;

It appears that only after the stabbing incident did the police begin to pursue him again. My question in all of this is; is so much of what else happened considered normal? Consider that until he began driving over people in the mall;

  • the assault and car theft was thought of as a routine crime incident
  • smashing the tables of patrons at a bar was the typical “loutish” behaviour you might see at pubs
  • displays of erratic behaviour by the perpetrator on live television was written off as the normal idiotic stuff you might see whenever a news camera is rolling;
  • anti-social behaviour by bystanders at Flinders Street Station, baiting both the perpetrator and police and interfering with the ongoing police operation was “the usual stuff you see going on in that part of the city” and
  • the rest of the crowd at Flinders Street Station largely went back to their usual business, thinking that they had just seen “a drug deal gone wrong”.

When did such disturbed, anti-social behaviour become so normalised? Why was all of this not just normal, but common enough not to raise the attention of society? Indeed, when I saw the burnouts at Flinders Street Station I figured the situation was a notch above, but not completely out-of-character for that part of the city; I witness drunken violence, street side intimidation and/or public assaults on an almost daily basis, and life goes on because, well, what else are you supposed to do?

And it’s not just Melbourne. I’ve been assaulted twice in Sydney, and both times the general reaction from the police and wider society was more casual than I would have liked – “getting rolled” is not unusual, I was told. I don’t know what the solution to this is, because clearly alcohol, other drug use, psychological issues and family violence are so deeply ingrained in the national culture that Australia is clearly never going to become Japan or Singapore (where these people might be a danger to themselves, but social mores mostly keep their troubles from being played out in public – and that’s certainly not to downplay the tragedy of suicide and other mental issues). Nor is Australia about to become Iran or Saudi Arabia, where the law prohibits the consumption of alcohol and drugs such that anti-social behaviour would raise the eyebrows of not just passersby, but also the law.

Whether it should or shouldn’t, Australia will never become one of those countries, because it is Australia – that’s what makes it what it is. So the question how to fix a society which considers domestic violence, and loutish, anti-social behaviour normal.

News reports are retrospectively calling Dimitrious ‘Jimmy’ Gargasoulas’ actions before the carnage as “ominous” and “chilling”. These actions didn’t make news before the attack, and there are many more people out there who continue to behave in exactly the same way today. Should we be concerned about them too?

Postscript: an article published a few hours after this piece went online describes the “failure of mental health services” as responsible for the Bourke Street carnage. As it is in a similar vein to my article, I have decided to include a link to it here.

11 things which drive me mad about Pakistan

Things which drive me mad about Pakistan

Don’t get me wrong – I love Pakistan, Pakistani people, and life in Pakistan. If, while reading the following blog post, you begin to doubt my sincerity in saying this, please refer to my Love Letter to Pakistan, posted in 2014. I even got it translated into Urdu, as a means by which to share the love.

But every now and then, there are things in Pakistan which drive me mad. They drive me so mad they make me wanna…. write a blog post about why they annoy me!


The geographically challenged

Pakistan Political Map

A visitor to a country sometimes takes a greater interest, or perhaps a different perspective, on the nation than locals. But in Pakistan, it reaches new heights where people almost redraw the map with their knowledge (or lack thereof) about their nation; “Don’t go to Peshawar – the Northern Areas are very dangerous…”.

Three issues; Peshawar isn’t in the Northern Areas, the Northern Areas aren’t dangerous, and the Northern Areas aren’t even the Northern Areas.



The disbelieving

Me, pretending to be a teacher in Melbourne

Me, pretending to be a teacher in Melbourne

A lot of people find simple facts simply baffling. Take conversations about my job, for example;

“I’m an English teacher” seems to be met with “oh… and what job do you do?”.

“That’s my job, I’m an English teacher.

“Oh… ok… so what about in Australia. What job do you do there?”

My response that “I’m an English teacher there too..” is usually met with an awkward silence, and then a pleasantly surprised expression. Is it really that hard to believe? You should see their faces when I tell them that I chose to be in Pakistan of my own volition. Stunned.


Hard of hearing?

Image: Jesslee Cuizon, Wikimedia Commons

Image: Jesslee Cuizon, Wikimedia Commons

When I first arrived in Pakistan, a friend told me that “one of the biggest problems you’ll encounter is that Pakistanis don’t listen”. At the time I wrote this off as being overly critical, but it’s true! Ask someone where they do their shopping from, and you might be given the answer “On Saturdays.” Ask them why they want to go to Murree for their holidays, and they’ll tell you “With my friends.” Ask how many brothers and sisters they have, and they’ll say “Actually my sister lives in Dubai with her husband – he went to GCU.” So… one sister then?


Trust versus naivety

Walled city of Lahore

This one is kind of sweet. Or stupid. or both. So many Pakistanis tend to trust each other so much, to the point of blind faith, that they are often astounded when things don’t turn out perfectly. I have heard so many stories of siblings who put thousands of dollars into their brothers’ businesses, only to see them fail and the money disappear. Then you ask what sort of business they were doing – he had invested it in a pyramid scheme which was “meant to work” – and he didn’t have any previous business experience, nor his own savings, nor a day job. And everyone is simply astounded (and bitter) that things didn’t work out.

Endearing or naive?



Did you know that Pakistan is a Muslim country?

Did you know that Pakistan is a Muslim country?

And not just to women, but by women – and to everyone. If I had a rupee for each time I’ve had to listen to explanations about how “Pakistan is a Muslim country…” after four years of living there, I’d be a millionaire by now. Other explanations abound too; “in Pakistan we drive on the left side of the road”, “in Islam we believe in one God” and even “men are different than women”.


Paying dues

Attend any Pakistani event where speeches will be made, and expect the first five minutes of each speech to be spent delivering verbose thanks to every individual in the room. “Thank you to my highly esteemed dear colleague, Mr Syed Mir Abdul Ghafoor Hussain Shah Saheb, son of the respectable Ustaad Syed Hussain Shah Saheb from Mianwali, for giving me the golden opportunity to present this cherished speech. And thank you also to…”

I actually don’t know how these speeches end – I’m normally asleep by that time.


Speculative medicine (times two!)

(Image: from Dhaka, Bangladesh; Steve Evans, Wikimedia Commons)

May I heal you? (Image: from Dhaka, Bangladesh; Steve Evans, Wikimedia Commons)

Fall sick in Pakistan, and open yourself up to a whole world of speculation about how you fell sick. “Maybe someone is doing black magic on you.” “It must have been the vegetables – you need more meat in your diet.” “The heat causes the pain.” “You ate too much yogurt.” Speculating on how someone fell ill is a national sport. And it was probably none of the above – it was probably the chef who didn’t wash his hands after taking a dump.

Which brings me to point two of speculative medicine – the idea that spicy food is the cause of all illness in foreigners. “Hygiene in Pakistan is usually ok, but foreigners can’t handle the spice” is something I’ve been told a thousand times. Believe me, Pakistani food is nowhere near the spiciest I’ve eaten, a lot of foreigners handle spicy food better than many Pakistanis, and again, it was probably the chef who didn’t wash his hands after taking a dump.



National exclusivity

"OMG an unsealed road *scoff* - only in Pakistan!" *eye roll*

“OMG an unsealed road *scoff* – only in Pakistan!” *eye roll*

Many Pakistanis seem to think that the rest of the world operates in a way completely at odds with that of their own country. Sometimes the “only in Pakistan” label is actually appropriate; you see some 7-year old kid riding his dad’s motorbike to the shops, or a father fires a few rounds into the air from his AK-47 to celebrate his daughter’s birthday party, and you look at each other and say “yup – only in Pakistan!” But then someone turns up 5 minutes late to an appointment, or a car breaks down, or you have to walk across a lawn (instead of a paved path) to reach a gate and your friends roll their eyes and say “only in Pakistan.” Um, actually, no…

But on the flipside, we are so happy to be Pakistani when it suits us. 2 hours late for an appointment? Completely ignorant? Bankrupt? Don’t worry, just say “well, we’re Pakistani after all!” Is that the reason, or just an excuse for how we are?


Dumb questions

Obama White House press conference

“Are you a spy?” No… but if I was, is that the kind of thing I’d share?

“Can you give me a visa?” No, that would be the Australian embassy in Islamabad

“Are you a Muslim?” Yes, are you?

“Can you eat Pakistani food?” Are you referring to ability or permission? Either way the answer is yes…


Wake up and smell the coffee!

pellegrini's featured coffee

Few things make me as liable to become physically violent as Pakistanis’ attitude to coffee. Like any committed drug addict, I become fiercely protective when my my relationship with the brown liquid is challenged. And in Pakistan that happens frequently. My closest friends know how to stay alive and uninjured;

  1. No substitution of coffee with tea
  2. No mention of coffee being a ‘winter-only’ drink
  3. No amazement if I have it without milk or sugar
  4. No shock and horror that I can have it “so early in the morning” (i.e. – with breakfast)


This article!

me and the Pakistani flag

Having almost finished this article, I realise that I’m now obscenely guilty of one of my pet peeves about Pakistan, and that’s all the Pakistanis who complain about their own people. “Pakistanis are all chors (thieves)”, “Pakistanis are all dishonest” and “Pakistanis are uncivilised people” are common refrains from the general populace, both in social gatherings and in the media. Thank God they’re not in charge of the country’s tourism promotions!


And things which drive me mad about Australia? Don’t even get me started…

What drives you mad about your country? Vent your spleen in the comment section below – and please play nice!

2017 is gonna be BIG!

2017 is gonna be BIG!

Enough moaning – 2016 is nearly done with, and it’s time to get excited about what 2017 has to bring. And while I’m planning on taking things a bit easier, as far as my blog is concerned 2017 is gonna be BIG!

it's gonna be big promo

This year I have so much planned for the site, and I’m so excited to share it with you. I’ve already been dropping hints all over social media for the past month.

This year will be the year of weekly videos! Every Sunday there will be a new video uploaded to my YouTube channel, featuring stories and travel tips from around Europe, Pakistan and Central Asia, plus Recipes for Ramadan!

Secrets of Central Asia logo 2

Speaking of Central Asia, it’s an area that doesn’t appear on many people’s radars, whether they be travellers or simply scanning the world map. I’ve travelled there a couple of times, and have a wealth of video, photos, stories and tips to share – so come with me on a journey through the Secrets of Central Asia!

Dare promo 6

And probably my biggest news of the year is related to the above teaser – and as you may have guessed, it relates to Pakistan. There are more updates to come, so stay tuned for something BIG on the 14th August 2017!

new year 2017

new year 2017

So stick with me on UrbanDuniya as we journey through 2017 and all the plans and surprises it has in store. It’s gonna be BIG!

What have you got planned for 2017? Comment below!

Was 2016 a shit year for you too?

Despite what some people think, I’m not a really negative person – more realistic. The past few years have been successful for me – sometimes full, busy or hard work, but overall successful. But I know I’m not alone in saying that 2016 has not been my favourite year ever, and it often felt simply exhausting. Often it was downright shitty.

In Hunza Valley in May 2016 I came across a drink called "Shat". I should've known then.

In Hunza Valley in May 2016 I came across a drink called “Shat”. I should’ve known then.

Yeah there were highlights; my trip to Europe, my trips to Sindh and Northern Pakistan (stay tuned for more about these), the spiritual wonder of spending Ramadan and Muharram at home in Lahore, the launch of my new book Recipes for Ramadan, recent Christmas festivities.

A Muharram procession in the Walled City of Lahore

A Muharram procession in the Walled City of Lahore

And man, there were some lowlights. Getting my phone stolen in a crowd in Lahore; repeatedly falling sick; a couple of friends and family members going through some really shitty personal circumstances; scraping the bottom of my savings barrel – something I’m not particularly proud of; my experience with the Sukkur police; and just generally overburdening myself with work and stress in an unhealthy way. None of them earth-shattering (first world problems, if you may), but shitty enough to be a constant pain in the ass, and leaving me feeling like I just couldn’t catch a break.

Me waiting at Rohri Station with a police guard - for my protection, of course.

Me waiting at Rohri Station with a police guard – for my protection, of course.

As mentioned in the Buzzfeed article I linked above, 2016 seems to have been a shitty year for the world, too. Violence and war (maybe we’re just more aware of it, thanks to the omnipresent media), famous deaths (Abdul Sattar Edhi, David Bowie, Prince, Muhammad Ali, Amjad Sabri, Christina Grimmie, Qandeel Baloch, Junaid Jamshed, George Michael), global politics (Brexit, Donald Trump), plane crashes and even a particularly horrible epidemic ahead of the Rio Olympics.

A hospital in Aleppo (Image: Scott Bobb, Voice of America, Wikimedia Commons)

A hospital in Aleppo (Image: Scott Bobb, Voice of America, Wikimedia Commons)

I don’t imagine that simply the change from 31st December 2016 to 1st January 2017 will magically stop the ups and downs of a normal person’s life, but the new year does represent a convenient bookend with which one can create (or imagine) closure. I don’t normally get to the end of the year and say that I’m happy for it to be over – but I’ll be really happy to close the chapter on 2016.

Above us only sky... one of the last sunsets of 2016, in Melbourne

Above us only sky… one of the last sunsets of 2016, in Melbourne

This Saturday, to welcome 2017 I’ll be posting my annual preview of the new year – so stay tuned!

What was 2016 like for you? Comment below!

Black Friday in Pakistan. Yeah, really!

Black Friday in Pakistan

Call me ignorant, call me unworldly, but I had never heard of “Black Friday” before a couple of years ago. Then I forgot about it – because I really had so little interest in it – until this week. A good friend of mine asked me what Black Friday was, and I wracked my brain for what I could remember about it – just about nothing. I searched online, and was quickly reminded that it’s the USA’s version of Australia’s Boxing Day sales.

Lahore's glitzy new Emporium Mall in Johar Town

Lahore’s glitzy new Emporium Mall in Johar Town

Alas, that was not the end of it, because apparently Black Friday in Pakistan is a thing! I arrived at work on Thursday and Friday of this week to several colleagues discussing the Black Friday sales, and what they were planning (or not planning to buy). So that left me with the questions; since when did a discounted shopping day from North America become a worldwide phenomenon? And since when did Black Friday become a thing in Pakistan?

A Pakistani shopping website advertising for Black Friday

A Pakistani shopping website advertising for Black Friday

The answer to the second question is “since last year”, according to the photocopy guy at my work. I searched online, and indeed, Black Friday in Pakistan was a big thing last year… very big, it seems; check out this news clip from 2015. It’s in Urdu, but you’ll get the idea;

Vouyers, eat your heart out. Pakistan has a small collection of upmarket shopping malls where people (middle-aged women, evidently) can hone their skills in martial arts once a year. For oblivious little me, it came as quite a surprise that Black Friday is such a major retail event in Pakistan of all places; but then perhaps I should have expected it, given the average Pakistani’s fixation with with things American.

Lahore's Emporium Mall

Lahore’s Emporium Mall

Is Black Friday “a thing” in your country? Had you heard of it before? Or was I the only one? Comment below!

The “hot chaiwallah”, fame and Pakistan

The “hot chaiwallah”, fame and Pakistan

This week an 18-year old chaiwallah (tea vendor) in Islamabad shot to stardom after a photographer posted his photo online. His intense gaze has captured the attention of South Asia, and he was quickly snapped up for modelling deals.

Arshad Khan, Pakistan's "hot chaiwallah" (Image: Dunya News)

Arshad Khan, Pakistan’s “hot chaiwallah” (Image: Dunya News)

“Hot chaiwallah” Arshad khan was an unsuspecting player in the creation of his own fame – apparently he didn’t know of the photograph until some street kids showed him the image – they said the pictures had been dropped from a passing helicopter.

Arshad Khan - on the red carpet

Arshad Khan – on the red carpet

Instant fame – the type that seems to be the dream of so many. This got me thinking about my own experiences with fame, and how this episode sits in the modern state of Pakistan. 

Andy Warhol quote fame

I’ve never been famous – this blog, my work on an online media news site, and a couple of fun photo shoots with friends are about as famous as I have ever been. In Pakistan, I am often given special treatment as a “gora” – a white-skinned foreigner. Special seating at events (often, unhappily, separate to my brown-skinned best friends), special introductions to people who I’ve never heard of before (but who I’m assured are really important), and extraordinary invitations for food, chai and more. An element of this is no doubt Pakistani hospitality – the need to shower anyone “foreign” with the best the nation has to offer. However a large part of it is also borne of Pakistani society’s veneration of fame and the famous – and the notion that power, money, fame and success – and the resulting exceptional treatment – go hand in hand, and are always welcome. Many Pakistanis seem surprised when I say that I don’t want to be treated differently to others – especially my friends. More still seem bewildered – who wouldn’t want to be special?

The only gora in Lahore

There are several reasons why I don’t want to be given special treatment – the sick racist motivations for doling out special favours to a gora are first and foremost, and are so rooted in the cultural history of the region that they really deserve their own post.

Another reason for my wanting to avoid the spotlight is simply that I don’t want to be famous, special, or known. I am really happy with my life as a “nobody”, and despite appearances on this blog, I am actually a fairly private person who values solitude, my own time to think, doing things on my terms. I would much rather spend a couple of hours with a few close friends than at a party with a hundred fun acquaintances. 

I’ve even wondered if this is a socio-psychological consequence of the region’s Hindu heritage, and its deification of saints, preachers and other members of society. Because while Islam doesn’t forbid fame, it certainly doesn’t vault certain members of society above others – social equality is a key aspect of Pakistan’s declared national faith.

Jameela Mecca Kaaba

The Kaaba in Makkah. According to Islam all Muslims are equal before Allah – judged on their character, not their social standing. (Image: Jameela Deen, Diary of a Serial Expat)

Although fame is a wish of people everywhere, much of Pakistan seems to be convinced of everyone’s desire for it. I have spent years wondering why this is. Pakistan, more than in many other societies, is a place where status matters. If you are somebody, it can ensure your future – connections in this society form the social security net where the government provides none. Particularly Punjabi culture places great emphasis on the visibility of wealth and success as an indication of someone’s value as a person in society – so the opportunity to improve ones standing is not one to miss. 

Who would ever want to be king?

The media (local, Indian and western) also plays its role to portray westerners as excitable, fame-obsessed, decadent, rich and extroverted. No wonder many locals are shocked at my wish for an “aam admi” lifestyle – it’s at odds with everything the local and foreign culture has ever dictated to them.

'Typical' westerners at play in 2005 Bollywood hit Salaam Namaste.

‘Typical’ westerners at play in 2005 Bollywood hit Salaam Namaste.

Unfortunately I can’t help but think that this is one of modern Pakistani society’s greatest losses – wither the thoughtful Allama Iqbal, national poet and inspiration for the nation, and long live the “big men” – people who can live however they want and do whatever they want, as long as they have a connections, a security detail, tinted car windows and whatever else is required to insulate them from real life in Pakistan.

The income disparity in countries like India (pictured) and Pakistan is stark. (Image: Roberto Mura, Wikimedia Commons)

The income disparity in countries like India (pictured) and Pakistan is stark. (Image: Roberto Mura, Wikimedia Commons)

Such is the grind of daily life for many Pakistanis that being a “big man” seems like an instant solution to many of life’s woes. I’m fortunate enough to have a close group of very good Pakistani friends who understand and respect my wish not to be on a pedestal.

A beggar outside a mosque in Pakistan (Image: Noor Fatima Sultan Khan, Wikimedia Commons)

A beggar outside a mosque in Pakistan (Image: Noor Fatima Sultan Khan, Wikimedia Commons)

So I wish Arshad Khan all the best for his new found fame – luckily for him, he seems to have welcomed and embraced it with enthusiasm. It is my wish, however, that those who don’t want to be famous not be thrust unwillingly into the linelight… because not everyone welcomes it.

Would you like to be famous? Why or why not? Comment below!

We Don’t Sleep…

In what is becoming an annual tradition, this is my latest attempt at poetry/prose/vignette inspired by the events of Karbala. For last year’s poem, click here. For an explanation of the events of Karbala, click here.

Lahore walled city jaloos

We Don’t Sleep…

The wind that blows through the Walled City’s dusty ramshackle lanes

The tears that wash the pavement of the dust

The fallen petals whose beauty belies the heartbreak

The passion that flows in the veins of faithful

And pulsates with each heartfelt beat

Will the earth accept our humanity, the viscous drops in the sand

The rejection of finality – that which cannot be the end

But we carry on, we maintain, we remember

Nothing is forever, so we stay alive, either in being or in memory

We don’t sleep…


Candlestick Street and the love of writing…

Candlestick Street and the love of writing…

I owe some of the inspiration for this site (and my love of writing) to a good friend of mine. I recently made a pilgrimage to a particular part of Brussels in Belgium to pay homage to her wonderful writings, and to try and better understand what inspires us to put pen to paper simply for the innate pleasure of it. This is a long story, and it starts in 2002…

Candlestick Street, Brussels

Candlestick Street, Brussels

Once upon a time I was a journalist. I wrote about things that were happening in the world – namely in the Indian community in Australia, or in the Australian media. My road to becoming a journalist wasn’t a short one – I suffered from a lack of confidence in both my writing and myself. It’s not that I was shy – I left that trait behind somewhere in the tenth grade. I simply wanted to land the “perfect” job without having to “put myself out there”.

(Picture credit: Ahsan Ali)

(Picture credit: Ahsan Ali)

From when I finished school in 2002, people urged me to pitch letters and articles to the local media outlets in the hope of getting published and gaining exposure. I would like to say I was too lazy to do that, but the truth was I simply didn’t believe in myself enough. Later I was introduced by a friend to an Australian journalist who was, at the time, very much the flavour of the month in the local media. The hope was that she would be the introduction I was waiting for – and again, I disappointed my contact by not exploring my options – and I perhaps let myself down by simply not wanting to. I added the word “perhaps” there, because I am still not sure if I let myself down – I think I simply wasn’t ready. Perhaps I let myself down, and perhaps I just didn’t want to go down that route – yet.

Tehran station featured

On a train in Iran in 2005

Fast forward three years and I was living in Melbourne, teaching English, the idea of being a journalist now on the backburner. In a conversation one of my students, Fahad from Saudi Arabia, asked me if I would ever consider going back to study a Masters degree. Like all epiphanies, this one hit me like a bolt of lightning. “Why not?” I asked myself. Within months I was enrolled in a Masters of Communication (Journalism) and buried in books about visual communication and the ethics of reporting.

Model: Tim Blight Photographer: Zainab Hussain Shihab

In Melbourne

I was made redundant in early 2010, and that hastened my search for a new job. After completing my masters in the middle of that year I began applying to jobs in writing, and lo and behold I was accepted to write for a local Indian community newspaper in Australia. Two years later I was hired as a writer for an Australian media website, reporting on the happenings in the entertainment industry. I was finally on the way to fulfilling my dream of becoming a journalist – but then something strange happened. I began to dread writing – the type of writing which is written of compulsion – and the inevitable reaction from putting a piece of paid writing in the public domain. To defend something that you don’t fully believe in is at best tiresome, and at worst torture.

At the Taj Mahal in 2010, after I finished my studies.

At the Taj Mahal in 2010, after I finished my masters.

I decided to start writing for myself. I quit my jobs and went back to teaching English. I started UrbanDuniya, a place where I could write for the love of writing, personal expression, the joy of putting pen to paper. I owe some of the credit for this decision to my good friend Rijn Collins, a very talented writer with whom I worked in Melbourne. I remember how Rijn threw herself into writing after we finished working at the college, publishing pieces in a book about stories from northern Melbourne, and with several pieces featured on national radio. I look back on 2010 as a year of change, when I took the plunge into journalism and when Rijn dedicated herself to writing. One of her most vivid pieces is Street of the Candlesticks, her diary entries written from a window above a charming street in downtown Brussels where she lived for a year.

Candlestick Street, Brussels

So naturally when I was in Brussels recently, I had to make the pilgrimage to Candlestick Street, the venue for Rijn’s late night musings. I went there on a hot August day, and I struggled to imagine the rain which soaked the medieval rooftops of the city. Amit and I wandered down the street, breathing in the warm summer air with a sense of nostalgia for Rijn’s writing, and for how beautiful the art of writing can actually be. A truck was parked in the street, unloading furniture into someone’s house, someone new to the street, someone with more stories to experience, but which may never be written. We rounded the corner into the main street towards Grand Sablon, a bohemian market nearby. We wondered if we had visited at the right time – perhaps we should have come at night, or in cooler weather.

Candlestick Street, Brussels

At the Grand Sablon people sat under a flawless blue canopy, sipping beer and making merry with friends, neighbours. Someone has had too much, and they stumble out of the beer garden, knocking over an empty bottle of black cherry beer in the process, the tinkling sound of glass on cobblestones piercing the incessant hum of humanity. It was almost poetic. And we started to understand.

Candlestick Street, Brussels

These stories belong to Candlestick Street… and to the love of writing.

Rio Olympic cauldron lights up the night

The 2016 Summer Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro have kicked off in style, with a spectacular opening ceremony at the city’s Maracanã stadium. After months of speculation, the design of the two Olympic cauldrons was revealed, with one ‘public’ cauldron at the Praça Mauá (Plaza Maua) area near Candelária Church (as I wrote in June), and a larger ‘ceremonial’ cauldron in the stadium.

The ‘ceremonial’ cauldron in the Maracanã stadium was lit by Brazilian marathon runner Vanderlei Cordeiro de Lima. For non-athletics enthusiasts, Cordeiro may be best remembered as the unfortunate runner who was attacked by a crazed spectator as he completed the 2004 event in Athens. Cordeiro stood in for football legend Pele, whose ill health prevented him from taking part.

The simple ball-like cauldron then rose, seemingly by itself, to rest in the centre of a dramatic kinetic sculpture. Designed by artist Anthony Howe, the wind-powered structure twists and spirals to represent a blazing sun.

(Image: Agencia Brasil, Wikimedia Commons)

(Image: Agencia Brasil, Wikimedia Commons)

Meanwhile the ‘public’ cauldron in Plaza Maua follows a similar design, but with a more abstract, colourful, arty makeover. The two cauldrons, but particularly the first one, are designed to reflect our spiralling lives, and raise awareness about the fragility of our natural environment.

The Olympics Games will continue over the next 16 days, culminating in the closing ceremony at the Maracanã stadium on the 21st August.

Did you watch the opening ceremony? What did you think of it? Comment below!