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.