Saturday, October 22, 2011

An Afternoon with Mr. Green

I'd planned to stay home today and catch Khabi Kushe Khabi Gham on Vasantham. But with less than half an hour to 4pm, i got an sms from Mr. Jamal Anthony Green asking if i was around Kampong Glam. I just had to ditch watching the show.

About a month ago, i had been informed by a friend, sis Dorayuanna of the presence of Jamal Green within the office of MUIS. He was assisting them in a research involving waqaf in Singapore. She thought i should meet him. And so today, i did.

I first heard of Jamal Green at a talk organised by Masjid Ba'alawi more than a year ago. It was titled Kapal Haji - a look into the travel of pilgrims to Mecca who took the age old sea route to perform their Hajj pilgrimage. Jamal Green is an Englishman who now lives in New Zealand. He spent 18 years teaching in Singapore, speaks a fair bit of Malay and enjoys "Teh halia kurang manis" at the Anonymous Teh Sarabat Stall along Baghdad Street.

I was interested in meeting Jamal Green simply because i wanted to learn from his experiences. He isn't an academic nor is he a historian. Yet, he feels passionately for the preserving of history in Singapore, and telling the stories of Singaporeans whose experiences would be lost forever within one of two generations.

While sitting down enjoying our teh halia kurang manis, i explained to him the difficulties i faced in this research of mine - the difficulties in finding willing interviewees, of finding resources, of not being taken seriously enough. He assured me well that frustration was much part of the process.

Now that i try to think back about it, i can't really remember much about the conversation i had with Jamal Green. He professed on his own that he tends to go off tangents - that's right, more than one tangent. He'd digress to tell me something, then digress again, and sometimes, again. But that was what made talking to him so refreshing.

He was critical of the culture of history and education in Singapore - where we tend to calculate and quantify things. He said that the resources found in our archives are fragmentary at best, and no one seems to know completely what resources are available. In addition, it seems there always is alot of restrictions to what information you could look at. He told me that if i ever have a chance, i should visit the National Archives in the United Kingdom.

Midway through the conversation, he called up a friend of his by the name of Munir Shah, who happened to be the son of Syed Niyaz Mohammed Shah, a former high ranking senior officer in our police force. He passed the phone to me and we had a nice conversation. He told me that his father is already 89 years old and will not be as lucid in remembering certain details about the people of the past. Still, he told me to arrange a meet up with him soon amidst his busy schedule.

It was an afternoon that was beautifully spent, with one of the nicest people you can ever meet.

Serendipity - it's when someone finds something they weren't expecting to find. Mr. Jamal Green says most interviews are such. Sometimes you follow a lead and you come out of it with nothing, while most times, you find unexpected information when you're not looking for it. 

Saturday, August 6, 2011

A Very Long Day, A Very Long Entry

The journey from Islamabad to Mansehra took about three hours. After our quick stop for washroom and gas (they call petrol gas there - which is funny considering gas is an American term while Pakistan was formerly a British colony. But i digress) which saw Uncle Zain giving up the steering wheel to Uncle Farooq, we made only one other stop. And that was to buy biscuits and some water.

I was seated at the front with Uncle Farooq who was rather quiet throughout. At the back however, Aunty Noor, seated in between my mum and Uncle Zain was wasting no time in making us feel welcomed. Aunty Noor had been our main point of contact the past month or so. She was the one who emailed me immediately after getting news from Bandi Sadiq that a letter had been received from Singapore. All this while i had been communicating in English with her, which was why it was such a pleasant surprise to hear her speak Malay!

"Dia macam jerangkung punya kurus!" she said of her brother Zain. Both me and my mum burst out laughing when we heard that! We had thought that only Uncle Zain could speak Malay, but as it turned out, all his other siblings could as well. We were connected by a language that no common Pakistani would possibly even hear in his lifetime. And it made us that much closer.

Throughout the journey, Aunty Noor recounted how her late father had told them they had cousins in Singapore and how they had listened to an old cassette recording of my late uncle Latiff singing Hindi songs when he was in his thirties. I'm not sure if my uncle had mailed it to them but it was amazing to me how the cassette had been regarded as some kind of family heirloom. 

We passed through towns and mountains we couldn't see because it was dark. We passed by toll stations and security check-points. And finally, the car made a turn and came to a narrow up-slope road. In the dark where only the night sky provided us some lighting, we made a few more turns as we kept going up the slope. And when the car came to a halt, that was where i knew that we had reached. 

We were facing a wall seven feet tall, with a solid gate made of (i believe) zinc or iron. Somebody opened the gate and Uncle Farooq drove us into the compound. I noticed two white cars parked within the small compound, cars which i will soon be well-acquainted with, the 800cc Suzuki Mehran - the car for the everyday working class Pakistani. I remember thinking how the cars and the two-storey building in front of me was testimony to the prosperity of my late grand-uncle Younis Shah. Though i could not be more wrong to attribute it to his service in the Reserve Unit (of the Singapore Police Force) and his subsequent pension.

Our bags were brought up as i carried my haversack, walking up the narrow stone steps to the upper storey. I can't remember however if i was tired from the journey which had lasted 12 hours. I remember the air was breezy, and it was cold.

We entered the living room, which was modestly furnished with a carpet, a couple of sofas, a cupboard and a dining table. Yet, i felt like i had just taken a step back in time. There was something about the quality of it all that reminded me so much of my childhood and the kind of furniture i have not seen since. Time really felt as if it had almost slowed down to a halt. It was quiet, and almost everyone else was asleep. Everyone except for Aunty Saira who had waited for us, and Chachi Zaiton who had called up all three of Aunty Noor and Uncle Farooq and Zain almost every half an hour to see if we were reaching. She was in the room and we went to see her. She asked us about my aunt and uncles and my grandmother Bibi, and at that moment i felt sad having to tell her that she passed away five years ago. All the while she nodded her head saying, "Acha." I see.

Outside in the living room, the four siblings had gathered again and slowly the calm silence of the night was filled with chatter and laughter. It touched me deeply to see how close these aunts and uncles of mine were. Aunty Saira, who had stayed behind served her three younger siblings their dinner. It was briyani and all three of them were eating out of the same plate. When my mum saw this, she felt deeply moved, remembering how her siblings too grew up so close to one another. I suppose you can say it runs in the family.

The chatter and laughter soon gave way to calm and tranquility. The night was just enough for us to perform our isya' before the adzan (prayer call) for fajr was heard. It was as beautiful as i had imagined it to be. I stood in the open balcony and watched the moon. It was nearly full and bright, shining over the hills and valleys, framed neatly behind trees. "Breath-taking," i thought to myself. "If i wasn't so tired." I washed up, said my fajr prayers and went to bed.

Introducing Uncle Zain..

It was summer and so day-break was early. Fajr was around 3.30 in the am and by about 4.30, the sky had began to light up. I guess that was the beauty of our visit. We could afford a three hour nap and still wake up in time to hear the bustle of morning life.

"When you're here, you shall eat only Pakistani food, ok?" That was one of the first things Aunty Noor had said to me after i told her i wanted to live like Pakistani people for the next nine days. Discounting the fact that I  had Maggie mee twice, ate a plate of  "Nasi Lemak", Pizza Hut on our last day in Islamabad and discounting the few days i didn't have any appetite to eat after falling ill, i'd say i pretty much succeeded really. (I'll talk more on Pakistani food in upcoming posts. For now, we shall have to breeze through the first day!)

"Stand easy! Attention! Stand easy! Attention!"

I quickly learnt that the lower part of the house had been converted into a private school. Named Suffa Academy, the school is run by my aunts and uncles. Though accommodating about 200 students, the school is modest by our standards. Overcrowded classrooms, wooden benches and tables. Dusty blackboards. But here you see something you don't often see in our own classes - students smiling. It's really a throwback to Iranian films we've watched. The morning assembly almost felt like a scene from Majid Majidi's classic Children of Heaven. A group of five boys led the morning assembly. They'd call the school to attention before leading them in du'a (prayers) and singing the Pakistani National Anthem. And here, you witness something else you don't see in our own schools - students singing the anthem with such pride and enthusiasm. Either Pakistanis are that proud of their country, or they just love singing. I suspect, it's a bit of both.

Students at Suffa Academy during their morning assembly. At the back is Uncle Farooq. All he needs is a tie

I had my first naashta (breakfast) in Pakistan. But it was to be awhile before i could dress as one. I put on my white collar-less kurtha and non-matching pants bought from Uniqlo. We were going visiting. We climbed back in the rented black Toyota. This time Aunty Noor and Uncle Zain stayed behind to attend to the school. Aunty Saira came along with us and Uncle Farooq drove. There was much chatter in the car as both of them began to warm up to us. And i came to realise the Pakistani humour inherent in many of my own uncles and aunts!

Paying our respects to grand-uncle Syed Younis Shah

We came to the cemetery of their father, my mother's uncle Syed Younis Shah. He passed away in 1994. He was 65 years old, a mere 13 years older than my grandfather when he passed away.

Though he was the second of four siblings, grand-uncle Younis Shah was about 12 years younger than my grandfather. My grandfather was the eldest and his parents had three other children after him who died in infancy. He came to Singapore in the 1950s, much later than my grandfather, who by then had already married my grandmother. As mentioned, Syed Younis Shah worked in the Reserve Unit (RU) of the Singapore Police Force. The Reserve Unit was a specialist riot control squad - formed in response to the Maria Hertogh riots of December 1950. (It was later renamed Police Reserve Unit and now known as the Police Tactical Unit.)

He stayed on till his retirement in February 1972 and then returned home to Pakistan. Both my parents were there at Paya Lebar Airport to see him, his wife and his four children off. Aunty Saira, the second one was around five years old when they left. When they returned to Pakistan, they lived in a rented house for about three to four years, before finally settling in this present house. Back then, it was a simple single-storey house, and it was only recently the house was renovated, with the second-storey added. For most of his years after retirement, he worked as a salesperson at Prince Jewellers, located in the heart of the town. He used to correspond with our family using this address.

The grave of Syed Mohammed Younis Shah (1929 - 1994)

Uncle Farooq then drove us to the house of an elderly man, Syed Sadiq Shah Bukhari, a close friend of their father's and who they affectionately call Sadiq Chacha. This really was a courtesy visit, as Aunty Noor had arranged for me to interview him. She knew beforehand that i was doing a family research and felt that i should meet Sadiq Chacha to get whatever information that i required.

It was here at Sadiq Chacha's house that i was given fresh insight into my research on family history and the Pakistani diaspora. We were seated in the guest room when a small-sized lady draped in a purple dupatta came to us. "Ini adik jantan kau?"

She had asked my mother if i was my mum's younger brother - in Malay! I was shocked that she even spoke Malay!

"Bukan, ni anak."
"Eh eh, muda nya."

Her name was Zarina Bibi, one of the two wives of Sadiq Chacha. At that moment she gave me a multitude of information i probably would never had known had i never made this trip!

"Bapak aku pun dulu dari Singapore. Aku beranak pat sana. Umur sampai 12 tahun kita duduk Singapore, pat Geylang."

She had mentioned that her father, Syed Jalal Shah had worked in Singapore. She was born in Singapore and stayed there till she was 12. I can only assume the culture she was immersed in and how she had to adapt to life in Pakistan after her father decided to return back to Pakistan in the 1950s.

"Korang suka negeri ni? Aku tak suka Pakistan. Aku suka Singapore."

I came to learn that Pakistanis born in Singapore and (then) Malaya who spoke Malay were regarded as Malay. Who would have thought that Malay Singapore existed in Pakistan? And more interestingly, that Pakistanis could recognise what is Malay. This was a post-colonial literature lesson in real-life. I was made to rethink the Pakistani culture. Here, there existed a Malay-Pakistani culture that was even closer to ours than i had imagined. Indeed identity is so culturally complex.

It's funny how people like Zarina Bibi exported a part of our past with them, a past that our own people - suffering from a perpetual historical amnesia - don't seem to remember. Here was a past where people lived in kampongs, where everybody spoke Malay, young boys and girls were allowed to run and play about in the streets. Here was a past - often depicted in black and white - lived in full colour, and remembered vividly by Zarina Bibi.

"Bapak kau dengan aku sepupu," she said to my mother. For most parts of my life, i thought my grandfather came alone to Singapore. Then when i was a little bit older, i learnt he had a brother here with him. And after nearly thirty years of my life i came to know that his father, my great-grandfather Syed Mahmood Shah was also in Singapore. And i only knew this two months prior, when my uncle in Pakistan sent back to us his Singapore Identification Card from 1948. And now, Zarina Bibi was telling me that her father Syed Jalal Shah and Syed Mahmood Shah were brothers. And they had both worked and lived in Singapore in the past! It was surreal really that moment, witnessing in my head the sudden growth of a branch on our family tree.

We had planned it to be a short visit but were made to stay on to have orange juice (i was still awaiting my first cup of tea in Pakistan..) and some light lunch. And of course, a visit to Pakistan would not be complete if i did not commit the clumsy act of knocking against the glass of orange juice and having it spilled on the table and onto the plate of rice served to us - which i duly did. I told Uncle Farooq we "Malays" like having gravy and soup with our rice and he duly laughed. Jokes on our cultural hybridisation would be one of the hallmarks of this trip.

Sadiq Chacha's two wives stand at the doorway. The both of them are considered "Melayu" (Malay) having been born in Singapore

Photo taken at the back of Sadiq Chacha's beautiful brick house. 

On route to our next destination, Uncle Farooq quickly filled me in on our shajra (family tree). My great-grandfather had five other siblings - four brothers Syed Fazal Shah, Syed Akbar Shah, Syed Kalal Shah and Syed Kabul Shah and one sister, Bibi Nazir Jan. I would find out later from Sadiq Chacha that even Syed Akbar Shah had once worked in Singapore!

The information was timely because our next visit was to the village of Hado Bandi, where my immediate forefathers were from and where some of them were buried. No one from our family stays there anymore, and there is a story behind this.

We rode through the narrow dirt path till we reached the family land. I honestly can't say whether it is vast or not because i've heard from my father that one of my aunt's father - also from Mansehra - Ayub Khan was from a land-owning family and that the land they owned stretched "as far as the eyes could see." I don't know if this was real or the customary exaggeration that tends to characterise conversation amongst local Pakistani folk. All i could say was that ours was more modest.

The land belonged to the children of Syed Abdullah Shah, the father of Syed Mahmood Shah - divided equally amongst his sons who remained and passed on from one generation to another.

View of the family land used for cultivating wheat. The house on the right once belonged to grand-uncle Syed Muslim Shah
Posing for a picture on the family land

Greenery and hills, this is Mansehra
We could have died on the way back from visiting the family land. Really. And my mother was so traumatised she has said she would not want to go back to the place if we ever took a car there again. It seems that the side of the road ended on a cliff. And since the family land is only occasionally visited (it is off the main road, where no one stays) the owner of this big house a mere 100 metres away from the land, along the narrow road, decided to extent the compound of his house - at the expense of the road width.

"Ini orang hati busuk," Uncle Farooq told me after the whole 10 minute ordeal which saw us quite literally teetering on the brink of death. What happened was that we came to a bend, which conveniently coincided with the corner of the house. I looked out the window and all i could see was a bottomless pit. We were stuck and Uncle Farooq had to manouvre the car ever so gingerly round the bend. He pressed the horn and called for the owner of the house to come out. He did and what ensued was a heated argument between him and my uncle. I don't know what was said but i could only guess. He guided Uncle Farooq through, past the bend, saving us from falling hundreds of feet down the cliff.

We passed it finally, but my uncle was far from through. There were more gesticulating and raised voices. And finally, the fuming Uncle Farooq relented and we moved off, but not without the house owner extending an invitation for us to come in for tea, in true Pakistani fashion.

Uncle Farooq and Larib at the grave of Syed Mahmood Shah (1895-1960)

Our last stop for the leg at Hado Bandi was the visit to the grave of my grandfather's father, Syed Mahmood Shah and his wife Bibi Sakhawat - who up to that point in time, had been nameless to me. I saw the simple manner in which they were buried, with the engraving on the stone nearly fading. Aunty Saira told us that her father often brought them to those graves, ensuring that they did not forget to pay their respects to their forefathers and mothers.

My mother told me how she nearly cried upon looking at the grave of her grandmother. The reason being that the grave was inscribed not with her own name, but with that of her eldest son - my grandfather, as with the custom in this part of the world. In her death, she will be remembered as walidah Syed Hayat Shah - the mother of Syed Hayat Shah.

The grave of Bibi Sakhawat, mother of Syed Hayat Shah
Not far from their graves, lies a maqam of three saintly men - Syed Bagh Ali Shah and his two sons Syed Qudratullah Shah and Syed Abdullah Shah. They were Mushehdi or Mashahdi syeds. Their forefathers were descendants of Prophet Muhammad who had migrated from Mashhad in Iran. Syed Abdullah Shah was the grandfather of my grandfather. That makes him my great-great grandfather and Syed Bagh Ali Shah my great-great-great grandfather.

The story of this maqam reminds me of the keramat of Habib Noh Alhabsyi on Palmer Road. Like the maqam of his distant cousin in Singapore, the one here in Hado Bandi was to be torn down and relocated to make way for the expansion of a road. Midway through dismantling it (i assume in the days where one had to manually do so instead of using a bull-dozer) person who ordered it had a dream in which one of these three waliyullah told him not to do so. I may be wrong in my interpretation of telling this story though. But essentially someone had ordered the relocation of the maqam but was eventually unsuccessful.

The grave of my mother's forefathers - Syed Bagh Ali Shah and his two sons, Syed Qudratullah Shah and Syed Abdullah Shah

This cute little girl must have been tired following us everywhere we went!

I'll just end this long post with some more pictures on the first day. On the way back home we visited the maqam of Baba Sahab - whose grave is nine yards long and rests at the entrance of Muhallah Nogazi (Nogazi Street). Nogazi means nine yards. Nothing much is known about him save for the fact that he was a pious man during his lifetime.

Back home, i helped Aunty Noor pick the apricots! It was ripe and ready to be plucked! =)

View of Mansehra during the day trip


This tree was planted by Chachi Zaiton. She told her children not to pluck the fruits until we arrived

Apricots on a silver platter

The maqam of Baba Sahab. Muhallah Nogazi (Nogazi Street) is named after this 9 yard long grave

Climbing up stairs and mountains. And you wonder why the people of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa are lean and strong?

Saturday, July 2, 2011

My grandfather Syed Hayat Shah

I had played this moment in my mind for weeks. I had imagined it exactly to be the way it was. It was night and our plane was now flying over the hills and plains of Pakistan. Specks of light could be seen from the houses that clustered together in villages every few miles or so. I plugged in my earphones for the first time that night.

It was the beautiful voice of Maher Zain crooning Allahi Allah Kiya Karo.

And for the first time, it dawned on me how real this moment was. It was surreal. I had to hold back the sudden, overwhelming urge to break down and cry.

There it was again - the longing i had for my late grandfather Syed Hayat Shah. It must have been in his memory that we made this trip.

My grandfather was born in 1917. He came to Singapore and served with the Police Force, first at the HMS Sembawang Naval Base and then later at the Army Depot. He married my grandmother Halimah bte Syed Nadar Shah sometime in 1950. Together they had seven children, one of which passed away in infancy.

There was no doubt that life was difficult for them, as it must have been for so many.

Whatever else we knew of him was limited. He passed away in 1969 at the age of 52.

Whenever i asked my mother or any of her siblings about their father, the answers are almost always accompanied with tears. Sometimes i get the impression that their love for their father is one tinged with much sadness, and the longing to remember him. My mother was not yet 14 when he passed away. My eldest uncle was sixteen when he brought home his half-conscious and dying father in his arms.

It was in March 1969. My uncle told me once that he just didn't feel good that particular day and skipped school to visit my grandfather. He was then a guard at Connell House - a rest house and club for British sailors. One of the other guards there - an elderly Malay man - informed my uncle that my grandfather had been unwell for the past few days and that he was in the washroom, coughing too much. When my uncle managed to break open the door lock, he found my grandfather lying on the floor half-conscious.

My uncle actually took him back home. I have thought about it many times before. I imagine what it must have been like, for a boy sixteen years old, the eldest son in the family, supporting his father on his shoulder as they waited for a bus.

Those were difficult times; a time where people could not easily afford taxis. A time where a sixteen year old boy had to drag his semi-conscious father on a bus all the away back home to Nee Soon - some sixteen kilometers away.

It was difficult not to like my grandfather, even for someone who never met him. For the most part of his life here in Singapore after he left the Police Force, my grandfather stayed in a small dirt house built by a Chinese neighbour who took pity on him. There was no flooring, just dried mud. And there was no bed, only a single plank on the ground to lay on.

Before he passed away, he moved to Nee Soon where my great-grandfather Syed Nadar Shah had once lived. Living there was my grandmother's sister Bibi, a widow who not only took care of her four children, but also often my mother and her five other siblings. A small house was built for him and my grandmother.

My grandfather Hayat Shah with his six children and three nieces (the daughters of Bibi and Syed Gulab Shah) in 1965. This photo was taken less than 4 years before he passed away and was sent home to his brother Syed Muslim Shah.

The times when he came home from work, he would call out to his children. He would bring for them food. What they didn't know then was that he often didn't eat himself. My uncle described him as a big-hearted person whose whole life was for his children - that as long as they were happy, he was happy.

I have yet to meet a person who had something bad to say about my grandfather. He was patient, even with my grandmother who was often temperamental due to her psychological condition. She had witnessed her suitor fatally stabbed in front of her eyes just before they were to be solemnised. She was only nineteen then. But that's another story for another time.

As the plane finally touched down, i looked to my mother. "First time in all our lives," I said to her.

"Kalau tak pasal Abbas, tak lah Mami datang sini."

"Kalau tak pasal bapak Mami, kita dua-dua tak akan ada sini.."

I told my mother, "If it wasn't for him, neither of us will be here [in Pakistan]"

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Is It Safe in Pakistan?

All the time i was there, i get this feeling that the western media had done much to make people believe that Pakistan is a dangerous place to visit.

Before i left, i had informed Habib Hassan that i was going to Pakistan with my mother. Indeed he looked worried and advised me to take care and stay away from crowded areas.

When i booked the flight tickets to Islamabad, i was more excited than cautious. In all honesty, there were some reasons holding me back from making the trip. Yet, the issue of safety wasn't one of them.

I googled up is it safe to travel to pakistan and found a page "Pakistan Travel Advice" by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. While reading through it, suddenly the disturbing images of the Islamabad Marriot Hotel bombing of September 2008 surfaced to mind. And for the first time, i did feel affected.

I read through the travel advice given:
"There is a high threat from terrorism and sectarian violence throughout Pakistan. Attacks could be indiscriminate including at places frequented by expatriates and foreign travellers.
Following the announcement that Osama bin Laden has been killed in Abbottabad, Pakistan on 2 May, you should be aware of a possible increase in threat throughout the country. This may include an increased threat against westerners. We already advise against travel to much of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, which includes Abbottabad and Charsadda, where a blast on 13 May 2011 killed at least 80 people. British nationals in Pakistan should be particularly vigilant at this time, including in all major cities of Pakistan. You should keep a low profile, avoid large gatherings and crowds, and limit movements on Friday afternoon. In Karachi, you should avoid the area around the US Consulate buildings in Saddar Town."
It didn't help that around this time i received a call from one of my aunts who had family in Mansehra and visited them there occasionally. Although happy for me, she gave me some stern advice:

"Chachi pesan, jangan berbual orang putih sana banyak sangat. Kalau naik public transport, baik diam aje. Jangan cakap apa-apa."

She told me not to speak English unnecessarily and if i was to take the public transport it was better for me to remain silent than risk drawing attention to myself. She added how it wasn't safe for young travellers like myself. Her nephew, while there, had his bus stopped along the highway by members of the Taliban. She added that the Taliban were concerned with young men of Pakistani descent returning to Pakistan, presumably because they were too western. At the same time, she told me to be wary of army personnel who frequently stopped buses and cars for checks. It seems the Pakistani army was concerned with young men of Pakistani descent returning to Pakistan, presumably to join the Taliban!

It didn't help that our flight on Thai Airways was arriving in Islamabad at 2210hrs, and that the journey to Mansehra by road will take at least another three hours. I emailed my aunt who was going to fetch us, asking her, "will it be safe to travel back to Mansehra the same night?" while all the time imagining a roadblock in the middle of a deserted highway with turban-wearing men carrying Kalashnikovs pulling me out of the vehicle and shoving me to the ground.

By the time our plane landed in Islamabad, i had honestly forgotten all of it.

We moved through the immigration and the customs without a single hitch. A cousin of mine who went to Pakistan by himself but landed in Karachi had described how he was left at the mercy of immigration officers there. They asked him for the address of his relatives - which he had carelessly forgotten to bring with him. They then proceeded to ask him to call his uncle who was waiting for him - despite his protests that he did not have a local cell line. Finally, sensing his desperation, they showed him to another officer and "advised" him (my cousin) to give a "tip" to the said officer.

All of this did not happen on my arrival, all through my departure.

Within half an hour, we were out of the Benazir Bhutto International Airport.

There is no stench nor sudden heat that greets you as you pass through the exit pushing your luggage trolley, on the contrary to what some friends may tell you about visiting Third World countries. What you see is an overwhelming image of hundreds of people, who at one glance all look the same, wearing the same shade of cream-coloured shalwar kameez. What i heard was my name being called, in the way that i already miss, "Abbas!" The "a" was fully aspirated and rounded, the "b" purely bilabial and "a" in the second syllable prolonged and "s" intonated with a higher pitch.

I knew to look to my left and i recognised my Aunty Noor immediately with her pink dupatta and my Uncle Zain in his blue shirt and bushy moustache. And what i felt at that moment cannot exactly be described in words.

After the initial hugs and greetings we went to the black Toyota they had rented for the occasion. I sat at the front throughout the journey. We first stopped at a gas station near Rawalpindi for a toilet break. I haven't use all the toilets in Pakistan to make an informed judgement on the state of cleanliness of toilets in Pakistan. But from first impressions, there really was nothing to complain about. It was clean.

Throughout the journey, the car was alive with chatter and laughter. There were numerous stops along the way, usually upon entering each town. Indeed some of them were uniformed officers, i wasn't sure if it was the traffic police or the army at those road blocks, slowing down cars and at times and occasionally flashing the torch through. Other times there were the toll booths that stopped us. But one thing i'm sure, there weren't bearded men wearing turbans brandishing Kalashnikovs to be seen anywhere. The journey to Mansehra took about three hours through the towns of Rawalpindi, Taxila, Hasan Abdal on the Grand Trunk Road and then Haripur, Havelian and finally Abbottabad on the Karakoram Highway (KKH).

Driving and roads seem such a feature of my trip to Pakistan as i would immediately learn. Right from the first night when my uncles Zain and Farooq took turns driving us from Islamabad, i got the sense that Pakistanis are the most skillful drivers in the world.

"Formerly Pakistanis did not drive fast, only dangerously. With the advent of improved roads, drivers now take additional risks by still driving dangerously, but also faster." 
- Discovery Channel Insight Guides: Pakistan

I recall what Amee (Ameera Begum Aslam) told me (my cousin) Nawaz had said to her the one time she gave him a lift home - "You drive like a [real] Pakistani." I thought if only he was there to witness it himself.

Pakistanis drive with the recklessness of a monster-truck driver and yet with the finesse of a cyclist. It speaks volumes when the first road sign a traveller spots is one that reads, "Avoid over-speeding." Imagine that - avoid over-speeding!

Most roads or 'highways' including the famed Karakoram Highway (KKH) are single carriageways with no divider to separate opposing traffic flows. That means it's a single lane to drive on and if you're stuck behind a slower moving truck (slow of course is just a matter of relativity), then you're going to overtake the driver in front. The overtaking of a vehicle is done from the right facing oncoming traffic and with the driver hitting the honks in order to wake the whole of Pakistan up!

The hilly slopes of the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa can be tricky to negotiate. Accidents can occur if one is not careful.

Indeed, this goes back to the very question i had been asked again and again, "Is it safe in Pakistan?"

More than once when over-taking, the Peugeot or the Mehran Uncle Farooq was driving seemed to be in for a head-on collision with the oncoming car, only for him to accelerate and successfully cut back into his lane a mere two metres (i exaggerate not!) before the oncoming car crashed into him. And there were other times when you'd think the road is barely wide enough for two cars to pass by one another, a third car approaches and finds a way to squeeze through!

My mother had a significantly higher blood pressure while we were there. She attributed it to the tension she felt sitting in the car watching Uncle Farooq behind the wheel negotiating the bends along the moutain slopes, where really, a split-second break in concentration could send the whole car plunging hundreds or even thousands of feet down to certain death.

So is it safe in Pakistan? Well, if your uncle is driving and he's Pakistani, then yes, it is indeed safe in Pakistan..

Uncle Farooq has made the 30 hour drive from Karachi to Mansehra more than once. He's ever please to drive us around.

Sunday, June 26, 2011

Pakistan 2011: The Preview

I haven't had much time to upload pictures and start blogging on what a meaningful experience it was visiting Pakistan. The past few days had been spent catching up with sleep and work. With that said, i had presented the slideshow of the photographs from our trip no less than 3 times. And there were about slightly less than 600 photos in all.

I've edited some of them and here's a preview of what's to come!

Scenic view of the Kunhar River and the Kaghan Valley

This is one of my favourite photographs from the whole trip. This was taken at one of the stops on our trip to Shogran - one of the mountainous destinations along the stretch of the famous Kaghan Valley. The Kunhar River flows through the valley. The water is ice cold, even though it is in the middle of summer. Drink stall owners selling carbonated drinks like Coca-Cola and Mountain Dew (a Pakistani favourite) will simply dip the bottles in the water instead of relying on ice. Cool, no?

The Kaghan Valley and the Kunhar River are the slightly more popular tourist attractions in Mansehra.

Essentially our trip can be said to be divided into two - Mansehra city and village Bandi Sadiq in Oghi (pronounced Ooghi).

My late grandfather, Syed Hayat Shah came to Singapore from Mansehra. To be specific, he came to Singapore from a village called Hado Bandi, which is only a few kilometres away from Mansehra city.

Both the village and the city are within Mansehra District. (Imagine a district to be like a state. In the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, there are 25 districts in all. Mansehra is one of them.)

There are many other Singaporeans (and even Malaysians) whose forefathers came here from Mansehra. My grand-aunt's husband, the late Syed Gulab Shah was also from Mansehra. I was told that Haji Mohd Ayub Mohd Yusoff was also from Mansehra. So too were the late chacha Kushal Khan and Syed Ali Akbar Shah.

View of Mansehra city and the villages surrounding it

My great-grandfather, Syed Mahmood Shah had four children, of which my grandfather was the eldest. My grandfather had two younger brothers - Syed Younis Shah and Syed Muslim Shah - as well as a younger sister Zuriya Sultan.

My grand-uncle Syed Younis Shah passed away in 1994, but his children and some of their families are settled in Mansehra city. On the other hand, Zuriya Sultan was married off to a syed from a village called Bandi Sadiq in Oghi. The town of Oghi is located about 30 km away from Mansehra city and as we found out is about an hour and a half travel by road. My grand-aunt Zuriya Sultan passed away only late last year.

The valley of Agror, as seen from the window of my uncle's house in Bandi Sadiq

Thursday, June 2, 2011

Work in Progress and Continuation..

Finally got to updating this blog!

I changed the name to Project Bostan - in memory of my late great-grandfather Bostan Khan. His name is just so unique. I don't think you will ever come across anyone here in Singapore with such a name. There is however a place in Baluchistan called Bostan.

We're leaving for Pakistan in less than 2 weeks!! I still have to wrap my brain around that! Pretty exciting stuff. What exactly can i expect..?

Here's to updating my blog more regularly.

Allah Hafiz!

Saturday, April 9, 2011

Regards from Pakistani relatives

Two Sundays ago, i came up to my mum and asked her if it was ok we wrote back to her cousin, who wrote to us back in 1997. My mother was more than willing to accommodate . And for reasons like this, i truly appreciate my mum. She has been nothing short of encouraging as i try to piece together our genealogical trail and account for the history of the community here.

I drafted a letter (which my mum said was good) and put pen to paper something i wished we had done years ago. In truth, i think my dad did write back, but the correspondence never got past the first letter it seems. I spent almost an entire Sunday evening writing a two page letter, scanning photographs (my mum's idea!) of my grandfather and of his brother Yunos Shah's family. And on Monday, with a feeling of excited trepidation, i queued up at the post office and delivered two letters - one to Oghi, Mansehra and the other to Karachi.

To be honest, i felt more hopeful than anything. What if they have sold the land? What if they have moved? What if they weren't receptive? What if the mail was lost? For nearly ten days, i would spent 5 minutes daily, keying in the tracking number of the two registered articles to see if they have reached their intended destination.

And when the surprise came, it took me totally off-guard!

its me zahid shah son of misken shah bandi sadiq your letter had been recieved wait for reply

these 18 words that i have read, and re-read till i've practically memorised them. It came through my gmail, yesterday (Friday). And when i woke up for Subuh this morning, i found another couple of emails. 

The process of correspondence has begun - or perhaps re-started you may say.