One Hundred Hours of Islam

The last month has been an absolute blur of activity, between travel, getting a couple of new business ventures off the ground and the anticipated arrival of kid#2. After much negotiation with my wife and the establishment of an agreed cut-off date by which I was to be home and “at service”, I decided a few weeks ago to do a last “tour” to try and tie up some loose ends around my business activities. The usual sort of “10 countries in 9 days” trip. I spent 3 nights in a hotel room and the rest sleeping on planes.

Fun fun fun.

One of the things that frustrates me about this kind of business travel is that you never spend enough time in a country to really get to know it. Yet on this last trip, I had a very unique experience that I think could only have come from such a fleeting and condensed journey. The middle portion of my manic trip was a series of meetings in Geneva/Lausanne, Berlin, Beirut and Kuala Lumpur. A slightly eclectic selection of cities but then my business activities are somewhat eclectic too. I had meetings in all locations roughly within a period of 100 hours (including travel) which left me with a very blurred but interesting juxtaposition of perceptions about how the world is changing.

Starting in Switzerland – I think it is fair to say that although Geneva prides itself on being “multicultural” it is still quintessentially European. If Geneva is “Europe” then Lausanne is “Swiss” – quaint, clean, controlled and somewhat monocultural. About the most exotic thing you will find in Lausanne is the Turkish or Lebanese guy managing the Doner kebab stand at the train station. I’m not saying that Switzerland fundamentally has a diversity issue (or that Lausanne isn’t incredibly pretty) – I’m just saying that the Swiss would rather keep it – er… Swiss.

Nothing but Alpenhorns and Muesli here....

Nothing but Alpenhorns and Muesli here….

Moving ahead to Berlin, a few hours in the centre of the city provided a few insights into what the German government is currently dealing with in terms of refugee crisis. I saw a lot of Muslim families on the streets, a lot of begging and a lot of people that looked pretty “fresh” off the train from Eastern Europe. I’ve been to Berlin many times over the years and the change was palpable, including the articulation of concern by residents. I think it’s fair to say that Germany proved its international citizenship with a truly disproportionate intake from the Syrian crisis, but integration is going to be a challenging process if makeshift camps in central Berlin are anything to go by.

A Minaret, Berliner-style?

A Minaret, Berliner-style?

Then moving on to Lebanon. Driving through Hezbollah-controlled districts around Beirut Airport provided a stark reminder that this is a country with incredibly fractured rule and not a lot of stability. Motoring through military checkpoints representing different political “factions” makes you realise that it doesn’t take much to trigger unrest, indeed much of the city centre was cordoned off due to large-scale protests and riots. Although the newly rebuilt centre of Beirut was relatively peaceful, there was still an atmosphere of tension. A lot of military presence and deserted cafes. In Beirut, 1/3 of the population is a refugee from somewhere. Syrians continue to flood over the border.

Plenty of reminders that this is a city on the edge of a war zone, from a military checkpoints, to freshly bombed buildings stopping traffic. Beirut is a city with plenty of scars, and plenty of different occupiers.

Plenty of reminders that this is a city on the edge of a war zone, from a military checkpoints, to freshly bombed buildings stopping traffic. Beirut is a city with plenty of scars, and plenty of different occupiers.

Finally – on to Kuala Lumpur, where the Islamic world meets capitalism. KL is fast-moving and prosperous, notwithstanding a recent (significant) currency devaluation and a fair amount of economic turbulence. Although far from the Mediterranean outskirts of Europe, KL seemed oblivious to the plight of their Syrian brethern, with Muslim Malaysians seemingly willing to die for the glory of the Hajj but perhaps lacking the true embrace of Islamic brotherhood. It was not without international provocation that countries like Malaysia, Thailand and Indonesia took responsibility for their role in the refugee crisis but even as recently as last week, Malaysia has only committed to a mere 3,000 refugees over three years.

Of course Australia’s response was hardly stellar either … but compared to this…

Nothing but refugee-free prosperity here, folks... (well, except a bit of afternoon rain)

Nothing but refugee-free prosperity here, folks… (well, except a bit of afternoon rain)

CNN has started referring to some refugees as “economic migrants“, reflective of the serious Syrian “brain drain”, something that will no doubt hamper the ability for the country to rebuild itself anytime in the near future. But whether an economic migrant or a true refugee fleeing unimaginable violence, the truth is that people are taking huge risks to get to a better place, and they aren’t turning to the rest of the Islamic world for that future. Syrians see a future in the west – in Canada, USA, Germany, Australia – not UAE, Saudi Arabia, Indonesia or even beautiful Malaysia. Indeed, other than throw cash at the problem, Saudi/UAE have done shamefully little.

My “100 hours of Islam” reinforced this perception. Sunni-Shi’a tension not only poisons the political tension in Syria, it also underpins the migration pattern of refugees – political or economic. The big question is whether “we” can meaningfully integrate Syria’s diaspora in a way that offers peace and stability, or whether a generation from now we will just have one more failed, isolated and angry sub-culture.

Detour#1 – India

In a previous post, I committed to myself that that I would occasionally allow life detours. This is #1 for 2015.

I want to state from the outset, that I probably annoyed my wife. I know I left home at a time when Max wasn’t sleeping very well and Zhenya was going to be taking the brunt of some sleepless nights. One of my colleagues sourly commented on my “lack of availability” at the end of last week. I know my team could have used me around when a few intense deliverables were due. But instead, late last week, I went to a wedding.

A Bollywood wedding.

Last year a dear friend of mine invited me to a wedding in India. Not his wedding, but his son’s wedding (the “son” – to protect his identity – is a super guy in his own right) but I really went because Daddio invited me. I am sure I could have said no without offence. I know for sure that there were far more important and special people invited than me (i.e. a very large and interesting family). But I went because I think an Indian wedding is a life experience that should be struck off the bucket list, and even better if that experience comes from nice people that you genuinely like.

These are very nice people.

So, I skedaddled to Bangalore for the weekend. I arrived at my hotel and was immediately “bindied” (first image, below). An hour or so after this happened, I Skyped Max and he asked me “Dadda, do you have an ‘owie’ on your head?” Nope. That red smear on my forehead is apparently a “welcome blessing.” Frankly, the young lady that crouched down and marked my forehead was absolutely stunning and the Catholic in me momentarily hybridized this velvet-skinned specimen of loveliness rubbing ochre on my forehead, with the vague echo of  some sort of ecclesiastical ritual. A kind of Hindu baptism. Rowdy. I don’t mind saying it left me slightly cross-eyed.

Geddit Indiya...

Geddit Indiya…

I settled into my hotel in Bangalore around mid-afternoon as it was starting to get hot and sweaty, and I am not just talking about me. My immediate item of business was to go out and find a Sherwani, the traditional Indian festive dress. This was less easy than I had hoped, mainly because of my “western” frame and stature (i.e. chubbiness). I went to a dozen hole-in-the-wall boutiques selling traditional men’s clothing, with no luck. Nothing really fit me, especially around the midriff. Eventually, I found an enterprising tailor who exclaimed “NO problems, Mr. Chris, we can expand, we can expand!” (accompanied by the necessary side-to-side head waggles).

This is my hero:

The Grand Tailor of Bangalore

The Grand Tailor of Bangalore

A couple of hours later, I walked out with a lot of bling…

bling

The wedding was insane. Rituals. Food. Dancing. When I caught my 2:50am flight to Paris, I was tired but happy. Not drunk though – it’s hard to get hammered at an Indian wedding. Lassi (yoghurt drink) and gavathi chaha (lemongrass tea) is hardly conducive to a crazy, wild night. Unsurprisingly I arrived feeling surprisingly fresh.

I was grateful to be hangover-free…

The nicest thing about the wedding was that it was the union between a high-gotra Brahmin and a north-African Muslim woman. They are such a beautiful couple, but also a testimony to the fact that education and prosperity can overcome any religious difference. Every time our politicians cut funding to education, what they are really doing is making a social pact that they will foster intolerance and prevent the union of people who would be otherwise perfect for each other.

Inspiring.

TSA Pre-Check is Back

A few weeks before Christmas I air-dropped into Turkey for a few meetings. I arrived in Istanbul from Brussels at about midday and I left again late that night. In-out…

The following week I took several US domestic flights and on every single flight I took, there was the dreaded SSSS at the bottom of my boarding pass, that “secret” TSA code for “please give this person extra attention”. Of course, all flyers are randomly selected for additional security checks, it’s part of the the grand schema intended to make our skies safe. In general, I don’t grumble about it and duly submit myself to the prodding, patting, dusting, unzipping (usually of luggage, but not always…) and occasionally a pointed question or two.

Joy.

Joy.

TSE security checks are usually fairly benign but I do remember one time where I had returned to the US from the Middle East and was flagged for additional security clearance. The fact that I was carrying a textbook on the basics of Shari’ah finance and a Qibla on my iPhone home page didn’t really do me a lot of service in the “discussion” about who I was and where I had been. Incidentally, these days, my general viewpoint is that airlines that have an “arrow to Mecca” and a prayer room are a hell of a lot safer than carriers from secular countries and I have a theory that is is somewhat reflected in the price difference for any ticket that involves flying over the Caucasus, MENA or Asia Minor. The proverbial flying Islamic body shield? Hmmmm…. perhaps not given that moderate Muslims seem to be fair game these days too.

… But I digress.

Six or seven times in one week is more than just a coincidence and so I asked a United Airlines service desk whether they could see anything against my frequent flyer number. The agent confirmed that my record was “flagged” and that my TSA Pre-Check status had been removed. A brief discussion with TSA confirmed that there was a process I could go through, including an interview with the FBI, to re-instate my status. Crazy.

I am not exactly sure what happened but today my TSA status is back. Perhaps it was Uncle Sam’s forgiveness from the Christmas season? Perhaps my little venture off the path of travel enlightenment only entitled me to a limited number of rubber gloves? Perhaps it was just a case of a time lock – enough time to have me searched a few times (and irritate a few hundred passengers when the security queue has to be temporarily closed to facilitate my search)? I realize that the US-Turkish relationship has markedly declined in the last decade on the back of war in Iraq and the Armenian Genocide controversy but Turkey is still, in my view, a critical ally of the US and NATO and I am surprised that there is this level of security sensitivity.

Frankly, I am relieved.

If I am honest with you, I wouldn’t have really wanted to explain that I was visiting a Turkish nuclear technologies company. I probably wouldn’t have wanted to explain that my (US) company was hoping to sell nuclear medicine products in places like Turkey and the Middle East. As a Canadian passport holder whenever I arrive back in the US, there is always an intrinsic skepticism about the integrity of people from across the “leaky” northern border and a week in the Australian summer sun had turned my skin a nice dusky “Arab” hue, thanks to my Mediterranean genes. On the other hand, it would have been interesting to understand how half a day in a country touted as the “Land Bridge to Syria” put me on a watch list.

I guess I will never know.

At least the TSA agent in this photograph was kind enough to offer to put on a fresh set of gloves before getting into my trousers. Photo courtesy of JQ (thanks for capturing my irritation on camera)

At least the TSA agent in this photograph was kind enough to offer to put on a fresh set of gloves before getting into my trousers.
Photo courtesy of JQ (thanks for capturing my irritation on camera)

 

My Aleph

This past week I did something completely out of the ordinary.

I read a book.

I used to read 2-3 books a week back when I had no responsibilities, travel, study or a child in my life. The past few days I didn’t travel anywhere, I didn’t work. When my son went to bed, I read.

Paulo Coehlo’s Aleph has been sitting in my bookshelf waiting for me for a few years now. I don’t know what it is about South American writers – but I love his writing almost as much as Gabriel García Márquez (especially Love in the Time of Cholera – probably in my top 5 favorite books). I finally got to dust off Aleph and read it. Paulo’s language is simple and yet the divinity in his writing is something that persists in your being long after you have put the page down. I found myself walking down the street this afternoon ruminating on what I had read. I believe in Paulo’s concept of the Aleph – I have met people in my journey through life that I am sure I have met before. It even happened to me fairly recently – I walked into a meeting in New York and met someone that I am sure I knew in a past life. The familiarity of that person was astonishing.

It has happened to me more than once…

But the most interesting take-home message from this book, is how divinity is obtained through our spiritual journey through life. Paulo speaks of a personal crisis of faith where the routine of his life no longer enables him to connect with his spiritual identity. This is also the experience of my life. As 2014 comes to a close and I reflect on my journey the past 12 months, I realize it has been demanding, tiring, occasionally exhilarating and often frustrating, but it is has followed a routine that has not opened me up to the possibilities of the universe. Even in the physical domain, I traverse the same beaten pathways, the same cities, the same air streams…

The only inkling I have of the oppression of this routine is from a trip I made a few weeks ago to Istanbul. I was in Turkey for perhaps 15 hours, no more. A few business meetings and dinner and then I flew back to Los Angeles. I’d been in Europe for several days in the “usual places” before getting up bright and early one morning and boarding a Turkish Airlines flight to Istanbul. As the plane made its descent, I felt a strange feeling that isn’t normally invoked in my business travel – excitement. Not so much for the meetings I was to have (though excellent people), or going to a new place (I have visited Istanbul before) but rather that I was going somewhere that was not in my usual routine. For a brief moment, travel was exciting, intriguing, different – and I felt open to the possibility of what the day would bring to me.

So therefore in 2015 I must ensure that, if only periodically, my journey deviates from the routine. Of course life can serve such detours without your asking (and one must not taunt the universe) but I will be spiritually much better placed to respond to the challenges of life if I also occasionally enact a detour myself.

To 2015… and elective detours…

Ugly, Scary Day

I normally don’t pay much attention to Halloween although I suppose when Max gets older it will be more interesting. However, this year Halloween took on a whole different kind of freakshow. I happened to be in San Francisco for some business meetings last Friday and pretty quickly regretted the decision. A perfect storm of a Giants victory parade, rain, a bikers convention (10,000 of them apparently) and Halloween meant that Market St turned into a zoo. By 7:30am there were already people lining up for the parade, booze was flowing and the punch fights had already started.

Downtown San Francisco turned into a bizarre spectacle as the usual orange and black jack-o-lantern hues of Halloween were eerily amplified by the bright orange blaze of giant fans. Probably 1/3 people I saw walking down the street was wearing something orange in solidarity. Indispersed between the baseball caps and jerseys were creepy ghosts, ghouls, zombies and the occasional Dracula. It was almost as though the underworld had crawled out to feast on some kind of orange-hued human plankton.

The undead grazing on hapless baseball fans.

This is what happens when a Giants fan sees a Dodgers insignia...

This is what happens when a Giants fan sees a Dodgers insignia…

‘Frisco is alternative at the best of times. At the worst of times it rapidly turns into an bizarre, ugly and dark place. To wear a Dodgers cap would have been as suicidal as swimming across a pond infested by salt water crocodiles, with the guarantee that some green-haired monster with a third eyeball in the middle of its forehead would devour any uneated strips of flesh left behind to rot.

Had the San Andreas Fault decided to let one rip, I doubt Hollywood could have conjured a more realistic – and supernatural – end of days.

Don't lose your head...

Don’t lose your head, Chris…

Manhood for Good, Baby…

palmsEvery once in a while you have an opportunity to experience something that gives you a resurgence of hope that the world is slowly but surely trying to become a better place. Last week I had this opportunity when I attended the 21st Annual Scientific retreat of the Prostate Cancer Foundation (PCF) in San Diego. The work that the PCF in conjunction with the Movember Foundation, is truly remarkable. Because of the work of PCF-Movember, new drugs have been discovered and clinical developed, patients are living long and there is real hope for men with prostate cancer.

I, of course, have a vested interest in the prostate cancer landscape, since ImaginAb is developing new strategies for better managing  prostate cancer (oh, and I have a prostate too…). But there were also a lot of public health and government stakeholders that are closely involved and supportive of such a remarkable initiative. What I particularly liked was the informal and relatively apolitical environment – it was clear that people were there to share ideas, support the research and generally celebrate life and the progress that is being made in prostate cancer. Very high energy.

I’d also like to make a big shout-out to the Movember Foundation. What an amazing group of people. I had the great privilege a few months ago to drop into Movember HQ in Melbourne Australia, my home town. I met the team. I had a beer in the “Handlebar”. It was a truly memorable afternoon, being with a bunch of MoBros, and MoSistas that are not only changing the world in a fundamental way, but having a hell of a good time doing it.

Don’t forget to support Movember 2014! If you think your boyfriend, husband, father, uncle or pool boy deserves to be looked after, feel free to donate to Team ImoginAb.

Pay close attention...

Pay close attention… use it, or lose it! 🙂