Wednesday, 19 December 2012

Qatar National Day 2012

18th December is Qatar's National Day and as part of the celebrations many family/tribal groups set up huge tent majlis around Doha. The land on which the tent's erected is allocated by the government and the various families use their allocated land for weddings or important occasions. Most of the time the land looks like bare, rocky wasteland and you'll see these seemingly abandoned areas all over Doha.  However, everything changes when there's a function and the area is transformed into a tent palace. Huge marquees spring up seemingly overnight, carpets are laid on the ground, huge generators kick into life to provide electricity, sound systems are set up, lighting's installed and seating for the visitors is brought in. Often, two of these tents are erected, one for men and one for women. For the national day celebration most of the families had erected long tents with large carpeted areas at the front surrounded by chairs.  Some had camels in pens to one side for the younger guests to ride.

We were guests at one family majlis and we sat in two of the plush armchairs that lined the inside of the tent.  There were also seats lining the entire outside area as well, there must have been hundreds. The tent area, the area outside and the walkway to the public footpath was covered in carpets, you'll see them in the video.

Inside the tent we drank cardoman coffee and watched the dancing, the drummers and the poets. The dance being performed is the ardah, the traditional male dance in the Gulf region. Two lines of singers face each other and are led by a poet who moves between the lines directing the next lyrics to be sung. If its a 'performance' these singers are the only people moving, howevr in a community setting such as National Day, everyone of all ages joins in most carrying their sword, singing along and moving in an anti-clockwise circle on the carpet while the drumming group stand in the area between the two lines of singers.  In Qatar and Saudi the dancers traditionally carry swords, I'm not sure about Bahrain but I assume it would be similar. Over in the Emirates the dance is called 'Al Yolla' or one of the many variations on the name.  The Emirati singers carry canes mostly but I've also seen swords used occasionally. In the Emirates and also in Oman, there are often two or three young boys or teenagers moving up and down in the area between the lines of singers expertly tossing swords or imitation rifles. While  I've seen this here in Qatar, it doesn't seem to be a regular part of the dance here.

This evening, while the adults had a break, the little boys had their chance to dance. They all seemed to be under the age of 10, outrageously cute in their celebratory dishdashs. Some enjoyed a chat and a play sword fight with their mates, others were serious, they were there to practice hard.  The very young ones clutched their fathers' hands and walked around earnestly clutching their swords.  So, as you'll see, some of the dads joined in with their sons showing them the steps and the sword movements.

Thank you to the family for their hospitality.

Monday, 19 November 2012

The A, B, C of modesty.

Campaign organiser Najla Al Mahmoud is quoted as saying 'We noticed a lot of shorts, spaghetti straps, transparent and very tight clothing being worn freely in public places.  We don’t want to interfere with anyone’s religion and force them to wear hijab, we only want modest clothing. It’s a matter of etiquette and class. We want to be able to go to public places without a lot of flesh around us.'

Sunday, 18 November 2012

Traditional Dhow Festival in Doha

For centuries fishermen, pearl divers, and traders from Africa to India have relied on boats called dhows for their livelihood. To honour that rich maritime heritage, a festival celebrating the traditional dhow is held annually in Doha, Qatar. This year, dhows from Bahrain, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, Oman and Qatar, along with their proud owners, took part. Visitors were able to climb aboard the dhows and imagine themselves as modern day Sinbads. A bit of trivia is that legend has it that Sinbad's home was in Sur in Oman.
Musicians and dancers performed, there was a pearl diving competition and rowing races between the crews of working dhows, local childrens' group demonstrated traditional games and craftsmen demonstrated the methods used in building a dhow. If you aren't keen on boats, skip ahead to 2:40 for the music and dance.  There are two dance groups performing on the clip, the first is probably from Yemen, or if they're from Oman, its from way down south near the border and yes, its bagpipes. Second is the fishermen's parade with drumming.
The background music is an old Qatari folk song titled 'Umm al Hanaya' (Mother of Abundance). It praises a ship, maybe a pearl diving boat or possibly a trading vessel (its left to your imagination), and tells of the excitement of the people when she departs and their joy when she returns safely. This piece of music was used during the opening ceremony of the 2006 Asian Games in Doha.


Thursday, 4 October 2012

This is rock and/or roll.

Surfing the net and I found this wonderful piece from The Simpsons, one of my favourites.  Its the scene where Bart gives the churchgoers the words and music to a hymn he says is Garden of Eden by I. Ron Butterfly.  When Rev Lovejoy's realises what the congregation are singing he utters the classic line "Wait a minute, this sounds like rock and/or roll."

Anyone over 50 will get the joke because they know the song referred to is Iron Butterfly's (I. Ron Butterfly, geddit?) 'Inna gada da vida' a song famous for its lengthy organ solo that went on and on and on.  Want to see the original? Its here  An interesting bit of trivia is that when the band released the album they couldn't play in bars or nightclubs in the US as several of the bandmembers were under the legal drinking age of 21.

Monday, 1 October 2012

A sporting irony.

The Grand Final weekend is over in Australia. The Sydney Swans are now the 2012 Champions in Aussie Rules which is Melbourne's game and the Melbourne Storm are the  2012 Champions in rugby league which is Sydney's game.  Its ironic really isn't it?  Now on to the V8s at Bathurst!

Thursday, 27 September 2012

Sunday, 16 September 2012

We (want to) know who you are.

Some changes on YouTube this morning which I 'm guessing are in response to the film clip and the often violent response to it.  YouTube now request that you rename your channel using your 'real name' (whatever it may be today) and then ask for a reason if you do not wish to do so.
On a tangent, a worrying question that comes out of this situation is this: the arbiteurs of what is 'free speech' and what is appropriate to be out in the public domain are not the governments who are supposed to represent the wishes of the people but the privately owned media companies who represent...who? Their shareholders? Management? Do we not care as long as the profits roll in? 

Thursday, 30 August 2012

A reader asks: 'So, what's an Amera hijab?'

I've had a couple of messages asking about the head covering, the Amera hijab, that I talk about in the posts describing the mosque visits in Istanbul.

The tube (r) and buknuk (l) that together make up an Amera hijab.
As you know you'll need to cover head, shoulders and legs when visiting many places of worship, not just mosques.  If you're wearing shorts and a top with shoulders and/or legs exposed then you'll have to use one of the cover wraps that are usually supplied but for head covering, the Amera is the go.  It squishes up easily and takes up hardly any room at all in a handbag or backpack. I carry it in my bag held together with a tie that I use to put my hair in a pony tail before putting on the hijab.

The Amera is a 2 piece hijab, the first part (on the right in the pic below) you put on like a head band.  The second part slips over the top of the band and its this part that is long enough to rest on your shoulders.  Some people call this second part a buknuk.  You put the buknuk under your chin and then slide it onto your head over the band.  There are also 1 piece Ameras available that are even easier as there's no headband.  Most important, for the traveller especially, the Amera is quick to put on and no pins are required. Above is a pic of an Amera hijab that I use regularly when travelling, the tube part on the right is reversible and the buknuk part is on the left.  I'm all thumbs, so if I can use it anyone can.


Thursday, 23 August 2012

Istanbul: And its (Turkish) bath time.

Final full day in Istanbul.  After breakfast at the hotel we walked up the road to the Aya Sophia where we picked up the Hop On-Hop Off double decker.  The same open top red double decker buses can be seen on the streets of London, Sydney and many other major cities. The Istanbul bus follows a 1.5 hour route circuiting the major sites and we sat on the top deck enjoying the breeze and the magnificent city as it passed by.
Suleymaniye Mosque, Istanbul
After a lovely morning on the bus we went back to the hotel, booked the car for our trip back to the airport tomorrow :-( and then headed out again to find the Suleymaniye Mosque. It turned out to be only a 15 minute walk from the hotel and as there are several streets nearby the mosque with shops specialising in copper work and handmade stationary its worth having a wander round the local area. Suleymaniye Mosque is a truly wonderful building designed by the master architect Mimar Sinan whose tomb can be found in a street leading up to the mosque.  While I was doing some research on Sinan, who died in 1588, I learnt that there is a crater on the planet Mercury named after him, great stuff for the next trivia night.  Suleymaniye Mosque doesn't receive the attention it deserves though. Still, maybe that's a good thing as the place was empty and we were able to enjoy the glorious exterior which is reminiscent of the Aya Sophia in relative peace. Except for the tea seller dressed in Ottoman clothes who let us know several times several times that the building was open, I think he wanted a tip but we'd figured it out for ourselves.

Before entering the mosque, ladies must cover their legs and heads but again no problem as I had my trusty Amera hijab in my bag. The interior with its soaring dome, stained glass windows and rich red carpet is a delight. Quite honestly if you only had time to see one major place of worship it would have to be Aya Sophia but get there early as the queues can be horrendous. If there's a choice between the Blue Mosque and Suleymaniye IMHO its a no-contest, Suleymaniye wins.
The tea house fountain made
from a shisha.
From the mosque we crossed the road to where the kitchens and madrassa (school) used to be and we were surprised to find a flight of steep stairs which led down to the tranquil tree lined garden that served as a tea house. In the centre of the garden is a water fountain and tables are laid out under trees or tents. The calm atmosphere and relaxing background music made this a haven. We drank several cups of apple tea, followed by some delicious pistachio icecream and were tempted to have shisha but I knew if I did that, I'd be there for the duration and we had a few more things to do on our last full day in Istanbul. So we dragged ourselves away, on the way paying suitable homage to the gorgeous tabby cat who'd appointed himself as door security.

Like many mosques of the time, Suleymaniye was not only a place of worship but also had a school, medical rooms, kitchens and a public hamam (bath). The hamam is located outside the main mosque area across the road and is now one of the small number of baths still in operation and we headed there for the authentic Turkish bath experience in a building that has been a functioning hamam since the 1400s. At the main reception you pay your fee (35 Euros) and wait for your turn. A receptionist calls you to follow him upstairs where you are allocated a lockable change room and are given a waist wrap for men and bra and shorts for ladies. The Sulemaniye hamam is mixed but is exclusively for couples. The first stop is the steam room with a large central stone for sitting or lying on while you sweat for 40 minutes or so. There are basins of water with dishes in them that can be used to douse yourself to cool off....slightly. There are several small rooms off to the sides where, after steaming, the hamam masseuse calls you for exfoliating with a firm glove, then you lie on a stone bench and he covers you with suds and gives a massage and scrub. After rinsing off with cool water, you leave the steam room and go to separate male and female change rooms to remove the wet outfits and replace them with cotton towels that cover 'everything', they're about the size of a large bath towel. Next stop is the relaxing room where you can sit on a bench to cool down, have an apple tea or water if you wish. Once you're temperature is back to normal you head back to the changing room to get back into your street clothes and get back on the tourist trail feeling squeaky clean.

Our next stop was back to May Costumes in the Grand Bazaar to collect my costume which was being custom altered and everything was ready as promised by the owner Ender May.  I managed to resist buying another bedlah though it was a struggle as he has wonderful costumes.  While I was there I met Yoko, a lovely friendly lady, who runs the annual Raks Turkey bellydance festival in Istanbul.

We headed back to the hotel to pack but with a detour by a local fresh orange shop. Unlike 'freshly squeezed orange juice' beloved of restaurants that tastes like its come straight out of a can, this is the real thing.  The oranges are pressed in front of you.  The shop also produced a yummy pide (pee-day) which is a pita bread with a range of fillings. The grand total for the lot was 8TL which is about $4 Aus. 

We packed, had a final dinner at Faros, and now we're ready to leave we're not at all ready to leave to Turkey!  We'll be back.

Wednesday, 22 August 2012

Istanbul: Mosques and markets

A very slow start today after our late return from Gallipoli last night, or I should say, this morning and it was 10am before we even woke up. Down the road to Faros for breakfast as the hotel breakfast buffet was closed. Turkish breakfast with 3 different types of Turkish cheese including the stringy one that looks like thick spaghetti and is very nice. After stoking the boilers for the morning it was time for a quick tram ride up the hill to visit Aya Sophia and the Blue Mosque.  Unfortunately, by the time we got to the Blue mosque it was closed for prayers so we walked along to the Aya Sophia.
Aya Sophia, Istanbul
The Aya Sophia is known as Hagia Sophia (G) or Sancta Sophia (L) all of which have nothing to do with St Sophia but mean 'Holy Wisdom'. The  current structure is the third church to be built on this site. The first, on the site of a pagan temple, was built by Constantine.  This church was burnt down
in the riot in 404AD.  Its replacement was also destroyed in a civil disturbance during the Nika Revolt in 532AD.  Some marble panels from this church can seen near the entry including one showing the 12 apostles as lambs.
The cathedral we see today was built by the Byzantine emperor Justinian and completed in 537AD in an attempt to stamp Byzantine's authority on the Christian world and for nearly 1,000 years the most important ceremonies in Christendom, including coronations, were held here.  Justinian's famous words on seeing the completed structure were "Solomon, I have outdone thee."  The Aya Sophia has survived fires, repeated invasions and several earthquakes. The city was sacked several times, including in 1204 by the soldiers of the Fourth Crusade who were supposed to be on the Byzantines' side. Describing the sack of Constantinople in 1204, Speros Vryonis, Professor Emeritus of history at UCLA says, "The Latin soldiery subjected the greatest city in Europe to an indescribable sack. For three days they murdered, raped, looted and destroyed on a scale which even the ancient Vandals and Goths would have found unbelievable."

From 360 until 1453 the Aya Sophia was a Greek Orthodox Cathedral, except for 60-odd years when it was a Catholic institution.  It was converted into an Islamic mosque following the Ottoman conquest by Mehmet the Conqueror in 1453.  Some of Mehmet's cannonballs used in the successful conquest line the walkways outside the building.  During its time as a mosque many of the original mosaics portraying the Holy Family and other figures were plastered over as Islam does not allow figurative imagery.  The alter was removed and a mihrab, a niche indicating the direction of Mecca, together with a minbar or pulpit were added. The minbar looks like a free standing staircase and can be found in all mosques.  The minarets and several fountains were also added.  In 1931 its use as a mosque ceased. The building was closed for four years, reopening to the public as a a non-secular museum in 1935. 

The central done of the Aya Sophia. Over the centuries, the
building has survived fires, invasions, sackings and 
The massive central dome at its tallest point is 55.6 m (182 ft 5 in) from floor level being supported by 40 ribs which rest on pillars concealed in the walls.  The largest of the pillars is estimated to weigh in excess of 70 tons. The original dome collapsed completely after an earthquake in 558 and was rebuilt.  The original mosaic work on the dome fell off after one of the many earthquakes and was replaced by ornate painted plasterwork.
On the surface of a smaller dome over the alter area is a mosaic of the Virgin and Child. The mirhab or prayer niche is now in place of the alter but as it shows the direction of Mecca it is slightly to the side of visual centre. 
The Sultan's Lodge, a screened area where the Sultan
could pray in privacy, it also prevented assassination attempts.
To the left is the Sultan's personal prayer area, called the Sultan's Lodge. A raised and screened area on columns, it was accessed by a hidden walkway so the Sultan could arrive, pray and leave without the hoy-palloy below seeing him. The screens also prevented any assassination attempts.

All the while, the women, including the Empress, were on the second floor seated above (nearer to God?) This area was accessed by a switchback ramp from the rear of the building.

Interior of Aya Sophia.

High above the central area hang huge green circular medallions inscribed in gold lettering.  The letters on the two medallions in the photo on the left proclaim, on the right. the name of Allah (Gold) and on the left the name of the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh).  The other six medallions, sometimes called roundals, show the names of the four caliphs who succeded the Prophet, Abu Bakr, Umar, Uthman and Ali and the two grandsons of the prophet, Hassan and Hussain.

The Blue Mosque (Sultanahmet Camii)
From there we walked back to the Blue Mosque. The mosque was designed by Mehmet Aga, sucessor to the famous architect Sinan and built on the orders of the Emperor Ahmed I who wanted to rival the Aya Sofya in grandeur. While its official name is the Sultanahmet Mosque, the name Blue Mosque comes from the blue tiles used in the interior.  The mosque was completed in 1616 only 7 years after work began.  We entered through the rear visitors' entrance as only worshippers are allowed to enter through the main front door. First we removed our shoes and put them in the plastic bags provided. Ladies had to cover their heads but I was prepared with my Amera hijab in my bag while other female visitors and some men who were wearing shorts were issued with blue wraps to use.

Main dome of the Blue Mosque.
The dome is covered in blue mosaic tiles and its four main supporting columns, called 'elephants feet' because of their shape, are visible for all to see. The minarets are impressive and the building's exterior imposing but quite frankly, I don't think it came within cooey of the Aya Sophia, but each to their own. 
The entrance to the Grand Bazaar.
Its wall to wall people.
From the Blue Mosque we walked back to the hotel. After a quick coffee we headed down to the Grand Bazaar which is only 10 minutes walk from the hotel. (If you're looking for a central location in Istanbul, the Hotel Raymond is hard to beat.)   The bazaar has been a centre of commerce since the 1400s and has been expanded and rebuilt many times, its current form took shape in the 1700s.   There was a major restoration following an earthquake in 1894. The famous Arabic traveller Ibn Batuta mentions the bazaar in his journal written 100 years prior to the Turkish invasion of Istanbul.  The bazaar now contains nearly 5,000 shops, has survived  fires, wars and earthquakes and still draws traders and visitors from all over the world.  Its open Monday to Saturday 9am to 7pm and is closed on Sundays.  The covered area eventually opens out and its streets lead down to the Spice Bazaar and eventually to the shore of the Marmara Sea.

May's costumes.  A treasure trove!
Luck was on my side, within minutes of walking into the bazaar we'd found May Costumes and then just up the alley was another costume place called Ali Baba. May's stands out, Egyptian style costumes at a reasonable price and an owner who was easy to deal with. Ali Baba only offered costumes that I could have made myself (and, honestly, have made them better.) So back to Ender May, sales made, tea consumed, everyone happy.

We walked back down the hill into the dress, shoe, hijab and jilbab area. So cheap! Then out for dinner at the North Shield along from the hotel which tonight featured a Russian tv channel that shows nothing but car accidents, several of them could have been filmed in Doha and would have barely raised an eyebrow!

Tuesday, 21 August 2012

Istanbul: A pilgrimage to Gallipoli.

34 years. That's how long its been since I visited Gallipoli. Let me tell you a story, or if you'd rather not hear it, trawl down a few paras and start there.  Anyway, the last time I was here, back in 1978, I was young, idealistic, and on an overland bus from Katmandu to London. Unfortunately when we crossed from Afghanistan to Iran we found the revolution in full flight and foreigners were distinctly unwelcome. We crossed from one side of Iran to the other in only 3 days. This was back in the days when there were no mobile phones and we kept in contact with home by letter and postcard. Letters from home were waiting for us at Poste Restante in some of the major cities we went to and there was an eager readership for any newspaper cuttings received by fellow travellers.

Our current events were completely out of date, hotel rooms didn't routinely have tvs at that time in the parts of the world we were in, so while we spent 3 months on the road, up-to-date(ish) news was obtained through crackly BBC World Service or by meeting someone who knew something. When Pope John Paul I died someone heard about it one night on the BBC and passed the information around. A month or so later another passenger shelled out for a copy of the International Herald Tribune and announced 'The Pope's died.' 'Yeh, yeh', we scoffed, 'We knew that weeks ago.' 'No.' he said to a crowd of disbelieving faces, 'Its the new pope. He's died too.' Funny feeling of dislocation like it was all happening in another dimension unrelated to important daily things like, who was chronically ill with diarrhea today and did we have enough toilet paper. Ah, but who could forget the evening performance in Afghanistan by Bul Bul, the Nightingale of Herat.  He sat cross legged on a platform and sang while we ate our camel knuckle stew served with the obligatory mountain of rice.  I wonder what happened to him? I can probably guess. 

Anyway, moving along, we eventually made it into Turkey and sutlac (rice pudding) which seemed like mana from heaven after camel knuckle stew. One of our stops in Turkey in was to Gallipoli which was, even back then, a place of pilgrimage for Kiwis and Aussies. At that time the area surrounding the battlefields was undeveloped, there were no roads just tracks cut through the scrub. We got up to ANZAC Cove, from what I remember there was no official signposting just the guide's word for it. Sadly we could go no further as rain had made travelling up the track to Lone Pine and the New Zealand memorial impossible, but what little we'd seen gave the Kiwis and Aussies on the bus much to contemplate.

Fast forward 34 years and I'm back. 

We had limited time unfortunately so we booked a one day return trip from Istanbul to Gallipoli, Gelibolu in Turkish, stopping after 4 hours in the seaside town of Eceabat. Here we had lunch at the hotel owned by the tour company, then off we went for a 4+ hour visit to the battlefields and grave sites. Nowadays there are sealed roads, information boards, tour buses, multi-lingual guides, a lot's happened.  
Our guide's name was Hassan and his services were provided by RSL Tours.  Hassan was most informative, knew more about Gallipoli than most historians and was able to explain the reasons why our guys ended up on Turkish soil with insights from both sides of the conflict.  He also explained the strategies and battle plans they'd been sent so far from home to fulfil. He explained the importance of the Dardanelles, which once you've seen how narrow it is, explains why everyone wants it even today.  He explained why the hills of the area were important enough to die for, though after 9 months and thousands of deaths it was a stalemate. He explained why the Turks fought so tenatiously (wouldn't you if you were defending your home?) He also painted a horribly vivid picture of what life was like for the men who endured the heat of summer and the cold of winter in the trenches. He also raised questions that made me revisit what I'd been taught at school and heard from family members over the years.Over the afternoon we visited Brighton (North) Beach, walking along the beach to the ANZAC cemetery. From there we drove further up the coast to ANZAC Cove. The site of the first landings is a shallow pebbled beach bordered by Ari Burnu to the north and Hell Spit to the south. On the night of 25th April 1915 the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps (ANZAC) made an amphibious landing onto this and other beaches along the coast. There are many books on the subject or check out Wikipedia

We then visited the Mehmetcik Statue, a statue of a Turkish soldier carrying an English soldier and apparently based on a story told by Gov. Gen Casey of Australia. Further up the peninsula is the Lone Pine Australian memorial and reconstructed Turkish and Allied trenches at Johnston's Jolly (so called because the Allied commander was ordered to use his cannons to 'jolly up' the Turkish defenders.) We also paid our respects at the cemetery of the Turkish 57th Infantry Regiment of the 19th Division (Ottoman Army).  It was to the 57th Regiment that Ataturk gave his famous order, "I do not order you to attack, I order you to die."  This regiment was completely wiped out during the Gallipoli campaign, the regiment number being retired afterwards as a mark of respect.

The final stop was the Chunuk Bair New Zealand Memorial marking the area where combined NZ and British troops stormed and took the hilltop.  During the battle, 17 men of the 'Native Contingent', the forerunner of the Maori Battalion were killed and 89 were wounded. (The story of the Native Contingent is fascinating in itself.)  The success of the assault was fleeting and the Turks retook the hill only a few days later. 
The Canuck Bair Memorial.
The statue is on the right is of Kemal Ataturk.
On the sides of the memorial are engraved the names of 860 officers and men of the New Zealand Expeditionary Force who died in the area in 1915 but have no known grave.

What doesn't change is that, despite what current historians may think, these events and the ones that followed resulted in a seismic shift in how New Zealanders and Australians saw themselves. It took many years but the public started to see themselves less as relocated English people ('South Pacific Poms') and more as 'New Zealanders' and 'Australians' with distinct national identities. It takes time, but with the passing of the generation with direct links to the UK, family ties fade. Gone also are the days of Overseas Experience when young Kiwis and Aussies headed for the UK for a couple of years of work and travel before returning home to settle down, build a career, probably a house, and start a family. Those young people, often the descendants of soldiers who fought for King and Country now apply for visas and have their stay in the UK limited. 

That's life I guess, time changes everything and our enemies last year are our friends this year.

'Maori Units of the NZEF', URL:, (Ministry for Culture and Heritage), updated 1-Apr-2011

Monday, 20 August 2012

Istanbul: Palaces and pounding the pavement.

Exterior of Domabache Palace.
After a quick ride on the tram we arrived at the waterfront and walked along to the Dolmabahce Palace which is in the Beskitas area of Istanbul right on the Bosphurus.  Work on Dolmabache, which means filled-in garden, started in 1843 and was completed in 1856 just after the Crimean War. The palace was built by Sultan Abdul Mecid to replace the old and outdated Topkapi Palace and he went all out. The exterior of the building has a European feel.  Unfortunately on entering the building we learnt that photography inside the palace is forbidden so, as a result, this blog will be more words than pictures. The upside was that we didn't have to take our shoes off, we got to wear natty pink plastic bags on our feet during the tour hehe.

 The interior feels a bit overblown and theatrical (even for a palace!) but that's not surprising as the interiors were the work of the designer of the Paris Opera at that time.  The interior of the palace is in original condition in some places particularly in the harem even with the original drapes in some places.

Covering over 250,000 square metres, Dolmabahce Palace served as the official residence of the sultan until 1924 when the caliphate was abolished and the Republic of Turkey established.  The palace has three functions: ceremonial, administrative and family residence (harem).  The ceremonial hall is utterly breathtaking.

The founder of the republic, Kemal Ataturk, used the palace as both his office and his home on his trips to Istanbul from Ankara, the newly appointed capital of Turkey.  All the clocks in the palace show the same time, 9.05(am), which is the time that Kemal Atatürk died on 10 November 1938. When touring the harem you'll be shown the small bedroom in which he died.  Access to the balance is as part of a guided group only.  Usually different languages are catered for with their own group and guide but as it was the Eid holiday we were in one large mixed group.  The guide did a great job, jumping between 5 or 6 languages to make sure that everyone knew what they were looking at.

After the palace visit we took the funicular from Karaköy station, up the hill to the Beyoğlu area exiting at Taksim Square.  There are only the two stations on the funicular. In the centre of Taksim Square is the Monument of the Republic commemorating the forming of the Turkish Republic in 1923. 
 İstiklâl Caddesi
We then walked the length of İstiklâl Caddesi, a major shopping and people watching area.  Before 1923 Istanbul was the capital of Turkish and this was the centre of the fashionable part of town.  After the capital relocated to Ankara in 1923 the  İstiklâl Caddesi area suffered a serious slump for several decades, its nadir being in 1955 when the avenue was ravaged during riots aimed at the Greek minority (it was all to do with Greek-Turkish friction over Cyprus).  Greek houses and shops were looted and burnt, churches desecrated, people raped (1204 all over again but with different perpetrators?)  At least 30 people were killed during the riots that only ended with the involvement of the Turkish military.  Ian Fleming, the author of the James Bond books, covered the riots for the Sunday Times, I guess it was a better paying gig than his usual work with MI5.   The area recovered and has now been been gentrified.  Its become Istanbul's restaurant, bar and nightclub hub.

Galata Tower
We continued our walk downhill stopping at the Galata Tower. Built in around 1348, the tower is now isolated but used to be part fortifications of the city walls.  We stopped to take some photos and have a much needed coffee break and it was here our friends Kelly and Andrea left us to return to the hotel to catch their flight home. 

Yuksek Kaldirim. Its steep!
Colin and I walked down the steep Yuksek Kaldirim, a cobbled street that used to be Karaköy's main pedestrian thoroughfare before the opening of the funicular.  The area has been the first stop for immigrants to Istanbul from the Genoese in the 1200s, Spanish Jews escaping the Inquisition, Greeks, Armenians and in 1917 a wave of Russian émigrés fleeing the Bolshevik revolution.

There are music shops with window displays of darbeckis, mizmar, nay, kemence, ouds etc.  I bought a new pair of zills (finger cymbals) and listened to one of the shop workers play the saz and he was good!
Q: What's the difference between a mizmar and a trampoline?
A: You take off your shoes when you jump on a trampoline.
Ok, moving along.....

Once at the bottom, we walked over Galata Bridge checking out the success of the fishermen who hang their lines over the sides of the bridge. 
Wall to wall people at the Galata Bridge.

Back on the old side of the bridge, it was heaving with people out with their families and enjoying the first day of the Eid.  Most were buying food from the floating restaurants which moor next to the wharf.

We did a short walk in the Spice Bazaar but it was so crowded that it wasn't much fun so we headed back to the hotel after another wonderful day.

Sunday, 19 August 2012

Istanbul: The birthday bellydancers.

Today is the first day of the Eid holiday to mark the end of Ramadan and all the major sites and most of the shops were closed for two days.  So we decided to take a wander round the local area starting near Gulhane Park. We walked up Sogekcesme which is a street running between the outer walls of the Topkapi Palace and the Aya Sophia mosque. Sogekcesme is a cobbled street with houses on one side which back onto the palace walls. These houses are some of the few remaining wooden Ottoman era houses in Istanbul. Mostly used as pivate hotels the houses are now painted various soft pastel colours and are notable for their covered verandahs on the second floor. As you walk past you also notice the lattice on the bottom half of the windows which ensured that the women of the house could not be seen from the outside.

We walked further into the Sultanahmet area passing numerous hotels and cafes which were doing busy trade. We also passed Les Arts Turc, the headquarters of an artist collective who can arrange classes in everything from tile painting, bellydance, Turkish language lessons and cooking. Eventually we arrived down by the sea and we followed the road that would around the walls of the Topkapi Palace walking along the footpath by Kennedy Caddessi which runs along the edge of the Bosphoros. The cars and buses whizzed by which could be a bit disconcerting at times. The huge walls were built in the mid 1400s and are massively thick. In several places we saw that recycling isn't a new idea, as in some places the builders had used sections of unwanted pillars to make the walls. We went inside the walls at a couple of places where there had been collapses.  The walls seem to be hollow in places with corridors. Kelly said that sometimes false passages were put in to confuse any invadors who breached the walls. 

After winding our way back to the hotel we rested up for the afternoon and in the evening the bus picked us up for our evening at the Orient House. Yes its a tourist-centric show but I wanted to see the bellydancers and it was my birthday so there! There were 3 dancers, all gorgeous women. The first, Oya Man, is a Russian dancer, real name is Olga Roussina. Dressed in a pink sequin skirt and bedlah she put on a terrific show, technically accomplished, professional and a pleasure to watch.  Her style was almost exclusively Egyptian.  The second dancer was dressed in biege and seemed quite disinterested, a bit of a shame.  After another couple of folk troupe numbers, the final dancer, Birgal appeared.  She was wonderful and for me the highlight of the show. While the other two were technically proficient they just didn't have *it*, in fact the second one looked a bit bored. No Turkish Romani, karshlma, 9/8 or zill playing from any of the bellydancers, though each of the dancers used a bit of modern Turkish music.  It seems that Egyptian style rules with some crowd pleasing American tricks (fan veil for instance) thrown in.

Saturday, 18 August 2012

Istanbul: Topkapi Palace

Top of the agenda today was a revisit, for me after 34 years, to Topkapi Palace. We entered the palace by walking through through Gulhane Park, which used to be the private gardens of the palace. Work on construction of the palace commenced in 1460 taking until 1478 to complete. The palace was expanded and changed right up to the late 1800s when the sultans left Topkapi and moved to the new 'modern' palace of Dolmabahce.

Topkapi Palace is organised into 4 'courts'; the first for the public, the second for invited guests, the third for the royal family and the the fourth being private living areas for the sultan and his immediate family. The first court is now a large park area with the ticket booths in one corner, from there you enter the second court which has a large garden in the centre and the kitchens on one side. The Imperial Council Chamber is on the left, its a double room where the powerful leaders of the Empire gathered to discuss matters while the Sultan listened from behind a golden grill. When the Sultan had enough he would either cough or slam the grill loudly and the council knew the meeting was over and they'd been dismissed!

The infamous harem can be entered nearby.

The third court holds the audience chamber and a library building with an ornate painted ceiling. Also in the third court was a display of religious artefacts including gold plated guttering and part of the lock from the Kabba in Mecca. The sword and bow of the Prophet (pbuh) are on display as well as the gold plated cover of the holy black stone from Mecca worn by the touch of pilgrims.  An imam sits nearby and recites from the Koran, I believe there used to be an imam chanting from the Koran 24/7 but I'm not sure if this is still the case.
Through into another room was a display of portraits of the sultans.  The right arm of John the Baptist encased in gold is also on display (not many people know there is another right arm of John the Baptist in Venice).

Then came the highlight, the Treasury, housed in a building constructed by Mehmet the Conqueror in 1460 (he was the brains behind the whole palace). Unfortunately photography was forbidden as was the case in much of the palace. There are golden swords, bowls and bottles carved from rock crystal and then inlaid with precious stones, a pair of huge solid gold candlesticks that have over 1,000 diamonds on each and of course the Topkapi Dagger. The dagger was made on the orders of Mahmoud 1 as a gift for Nadir Shah, the ruler of Persia. An ambassador was despatched from Turkey to present the dagger to the Shah in Tehran but when the ambassador arrived at the border he learned that Nadir Shah had died so the ambassador returned to Istanbul with the dagger.  And there its stayed.

The dagger features 3 enormous emeralds on the hilt and the hinged lid carries a further large emerald surrounded by diamonds.  Diamonds and flower motifs are used to decorate the shealth. It was stunning 34 years ago and still is today.

We had a coffee on one of the terraces below the palace and then headed off to watch the All Blacks -v- Wallabies rugby game which was being shown live at one of the local pubs.

After the game, and the ABs triumph, we took a tram to the Basilica Cistern built by Justinian in AD532 to provide water for his palace. Eventually it was closed and then forgotten until around 1545 when a scholar researching the area was told that local people were able to get water from below their basements and were sometimes even able to catch fish. It has been restored several times in the past, the most recent restoration which involved the removal of 50,000 tons of mud, sludge and years of rubbish. The cistern is now a tourist attraction its 336 columns holding up a bricked roof 65m wide x 143m long. In a dark corner on the north western edge of the cistern two of the columns are mounted on carved heads of the mythical figure Medusa.  One of the Medusa heads is lying on its side and the other is upside down. Whether this was done on purpose or just 'recycling' will never be known. There's about a foot or so of water in the cistern now and its populated by carp, some of which were so big they had trouble moving round, in what is to them, shallow water.

After emerging into the light from the cistern we took the tram to the Spice Bazaar (Egyptian bazaar). It was packed as busy shoppers prepared for the end of Ramadan and the 2 days of public holidays, we'll try to get back at a time when its not wall-to-wall people.

We walked back to the hotel on the way trying some local icecream which is strangely stretchy when you try to bite into it.

Friday, 17 August 2012

Its Istanbul not Constantinople.

Lights on the Blue Mosque, Istanbul, Turkey
 The end of the holy month of Ramadan is here and we've taken advantage of the public holidays to have a much needed break out of Qatar.  So, we've arrived in Istanbul after a 4 hour flight from Doha on Qatar Airways. 

On arrival in Istanbul there is a list of nations requiring visa displayed on a board. New Zealanders don't require one so I joined the queue with the Turks and the sundries who who also need visas. The queue was long and snakelike, there was no air-con, several planefuls of passengers and only two immigration officers on duty.

As Aussies need a visa Colin first had to stand in a long queue at a separate window to purchase the entry visa which cost him an eye watering $60!  Then to add to the indignity once he got his visa, he then had to join the end of the huge queue that I was standing in, in order to have his visa stamped. Its not like Doha or the UAE where, if you're eligible to pick up a visa on entry, you queue, pay your money,  have your visa stamped into your passport and off you go.

By this time all the visa officers decided to have a tea break and the queue of several hundred people were served by only one officer. Fortunately this happened just after I got through so I trundled off to find the bag which, wouldn't you know it, was on the luggage belt at the furthest end of the hall but by the time I collected the bag and walked back to the immigration area, Colin was through.

We'd booked the hotel car to pick us up though taxis are plentiful right outside the door of the arrivals terminal.  We were quickly into the old part of the city with narrow, cobbled streets.  On the edge of the footpaths are short metal bollards to prevent cars mounting the footpath and parking there. 

We met our friends at the Hotel Raymond which is in the heart of the old area and within walking distance of all the main tourist sites.  While the rooms at the Raymond are small, they're spotlessly clean, have all mod-cons and after all, you're only there to sleep!   After dropping the bags we walked around the corner to a cafe called Faros and sat on their veranda, drinking coffee in public (very exciting after being in Doha) and watching the world go by. Many ladies wear hijab, many don't and only a few were wearing abayas.  The Turkish ladies who cover seem to favour square silk head scarves in every colour and pattern imaginable. The scarf is folded into a triangle and placed over the head, usually over an underscarf or bonnet, and the scarf is then pinned under the chin to hold it firm with the loose ends tucked under the collar or pinned.

We then walked to the tram which runs along the end of the road.  The trams come frequently and are a great way to get around town, avoiding the traffic.  We purchased the red tokens from the dispensing machine and rode it just one stop up the hill to the Blue Mosque.  We had a wonderful dinner at Rumelis restaurant sitting outdoors then walked over to the grounds of the Blue Mosque where many families were having iftar picnics.

Tomorrow's agenda is a return, after 34 years, to the Topkapi Palace.  Really looking forward to it.

Tuesday, 29 May 2012

Kept in the dark.

The performance, or rather non-performance, of Qatar's media is under scrutiny following yesterday's fatal fire at Villagio which resulted in 19 deaths. For the entire day yesterday there was NOTHING on the radio/tv in either English or Arabic and no mention of the fire on Doha newspaper websites.  There seemed to be a complete news blackout while half of Doha could see the smoke and the other half could smell it.  The only people filming at the scene seemed to be shoppers or passers-by who just happened to be there as the situation unfolded.  This is not voyeurism, its informing people so they know what is happening.  Only the privately run DohaNews website and the social networks dared to carry the story and then did a good job of trying to keep readers informed throughout the day.  Today even some within the media community are questioning their own performance.
The traditional media, and that includes Al Jazeera which is based in Doha, should collectively hang their heads in shame. 

Sunday, 15 April 2012

TheSmallBlacks: 4 weeks

TheSmallBlacks are nearly 4 weeks old so its time to introduce them to solid food before MotherCat
starts bringing in mice to show them how its done. 

Wednesday, 11 April 2012

Tuesday, 10 April 2012

The Small Blacks: Day 21

The Fab Four are now firmly (sort of) on their feet. Personalities are emerging, the two smallest kittens are turning out to be the feistiest and the most adventurous while the two larger ones can't be bothered with all that stuff. The largest kittens has been nicknamed The Blob as its decided that its easier to lie down and just wave its paws around as eventually one of the other kittens will come into swotting range.

Monday, 9 April 2012

The Small Blacks: When the cat's away. (Day 17)

Day 17 and they're walking round though as you can see the two little ones are steadier than their chubby siblings who often can't be bothered. The kittens' ears have unfolded so they're looking like small cats rather than large, furry mice. They can hear now and when we talk to them all the little heads turn. They don't try to hiss when I pick them up now either though I only pick them up when MC is outside for some fresh air. After all, Mum is a feral and this is her first experience of being an inside cat. She has boundaries and I'm respecting them.
Their idea of fun is play-fighting with each other and climbing on and over their mother who's spending more time sitting outside the box either sleeping or watching them from a safe distance :-)

Tuesday, 3 April 2012

Introducing The Small Blacks.

This is the first part of the story of four kittens who were born in our wardrobe here in Doha, Qatar, two weeks ago. Their mother is a black feral who took a shine to us when we moved here, ok, she knew a soft touch when she saw one :-)  The father is a local boy who's also jet black and is part of her regular posse.
I moved the kittens out of the wardrobe when they were about 10 days old and into a large box in the same room. MotherCat has been happy so far. She's doing a great job, the kittens are growing quickly they're spotlessly clean, chubby, squirmy and they all have their eyes open. They are trying to stand, they get up on all fours and sway backwards and forwards. One is more aggressive than the others and tries to hiss when s/he is picked up.

Wednesday, 25 January 2012

The Grey Ghost

I must have the memory retention of a goldfish. Driving the Grey Ghost down to the Coast I looked in the rear vision mirror and saw what appeared to be another car "Gee that grey car is close......oh its not another car, its the rear spoiler (giggle)". Ten minutes later I looked in the rear vision mirror again and saw what appeared to be another car "Gee that grey car is close......oh its the rear spoiler (giggle)". I could keep myself amused with this for hours.

Rain, rain go away.

Day 3 on the Gold Coast and torrential rain is quickly losing its novelty value as its poured virtually non-stop since I arrived.  The beaches are deserted while the grey waves come crashing in while the malls are full of depressed holidaymakers in their beach gear heading to the movies for the umpteenth time. Like me, I bet they didn't expect to be looking at the gumboot selection in the shoe shops on the Gold Coast! What happened to 'beautiful one day, perfect the next'?
Across the road from my parents' place, the park has flooded and the ducks are very happily paddling around the playground equipment. 

Sunday, 15 January 2012

Are your eyebrows dying? The dangers of instant translations.

There are many useful tools available on the internet, one is the automatic language translation software. I have a YouTube channel and often receive messages in foreign (to me) languages and by using the translation sites, I know within seconds whether the message is nice or nasty.  All you need to do is go onto one of the translations sites, cut and paste a piece of text written in a language you don't understand and either choose the language if you know what it is or leave the software to figure it out.  Simply press 'translate' and the software gives the translation in English. Or vice versa.  So far its been great for short sentences or greetings but anything more and the results are, well, sub-optimal.  Given a larger paragraph, the translation sites translate literally from the selected language into English.  Often this is sufficient and with a bit of thought the meaning can be decoded but unfortunately many times the output is a stew of unrelated, and often amusing, English sentences that leave the reader no wiser than before.
While probably not done by computer software, you only have to look at the name boards outside some of the shops here (Doha) and in the UAE to see the danger of taking easy translations at face value.  There are endless examples where an Arabic or Hindi business name has been translated word for literal word, into English.  The translators seem to be unaware that to anyone with more than schoolyard English, the business name is either nonsensical eg “Travel and Walk Rent a Car” or amusing eg 'Riff Raff Tailors', the mattress shop called “JoySleep” and the oddly named 'Moist Flower Electronics', then there's the, never fails to amuse, 'Parking at Backside' signs or the vaguely lewd eg 'Fanny International' or 'Gang Massage'.
All this was brought to mind by a local beauty saloon (yes its spelt 'saloon') that's opened up down the road.  Below are some pages from their price list.  The price list proves that accepting the output from someone who says they 'know English' or running it through Google Translate/Babelfish/Bing can be a dangerous thing to do. I don't know about you, but I am intrigued by the Swishing Programme though I don't fancy cooking any Egyptians thanks.

 Moving onto Page 2 where we meet the Department of Cleaning the Skin which offers a session wrinkled skin, though they don't specify whether that removes or adds wrinkles.  Feeling energetic? Maybe you need the skin exhausting session.  And what the erecta is, well, I hate to think but its possibly illegal here.

Moving onto the next page and I'll leave it to you to enjoy in peace.  Its wonderful.

Tuesday, 10 January 2012

Its a car chase Jim but not as we know it.

Never thought I'd see a Fairlane -v- Ford Zephyr car chase again but here we are.  This is a clip from a 1965 Egyptian film 'Al Mouchaghib' (The Troublemakers) where we see the 'baddies' in the Fairlane, the 'goodies' in the Zeph and the police bringing up the rear in a Peugeot station wagon.  You can't bottle this stuff its so good!

Tuesday, 3 January 2012

A spot of break and enter.

I headed off into Doha City Centre by taxi this morning I realised I'd left the kitchen window open.  After a flash of panic I remembered that the cleaner was coming so I wasn't worried as she usually closes any open windows when she finishes work. 

And why was I in a taxi?  Well, many of the roads in Doha are so poor that Madame can't go on many of the places I need to go as she's too low to the ground.  Some of the speed humps in our suburb are so high that she 'bottoms out' going over them.  None of the speedhumps are marked so driving at night in an unknown area is a slow and cautious affair. 

Arrived at City Centre which is the largest mall in Doha, its probably about the size of the shopping area at Bur Juman in Dubai.  First stop coffee to make an 'action plan'.  Surely its an indictment on all the other coffee bars that the best coffee in City Centre is at Starbucks?  10am, the shops opened so I neaded down the hallway to the retail cemetry that is the back section of DCC, where only a few evening dress shops and a row of abaya shops remain. Its reminiscent of the gold souq in Dubai Mall.  The perfume  shop guy told me that there's going to be another entrance  to mall from the new carpark and many of the shops in the retail cemetry will be removed to make it more open and accessible from the main part of the mall.  Meanwhile, most of the shops in the back section of the mall have not renewed their leases anyway. He has 3 months to go and then will relocate to Al Rayyan.  Even Al Jeida's gone :-(

Dear ShoeMart: If you join a pair of shoes with a security band that's so small that a customer cannot walk in the shoes to try them out, then the customer will not buy! I asked for a pair of scissors so I could cut the plastic band to take a few steps, I mean that's what you do when you buy shoes, but the guy said "No Ma'am only manager have scissor(singular)". WTF! a shoeshop where you can't even take a step in the shoes before you buy them.  How will you know if they fit properly?  So, like the lady next to me, I walked out (something I couldn't do in any of the pairs of shoes they had on display).

Anyway, after my non-purchase from ShoeMart I headed home.  At the front door I tried my key, it didn't turn, meaning the cleaner had left the key in the lock on the other side.  No prob, I collected the shopping and went round the back of the house to try the back door. I put the key in the lock, tried to turn it but mafish, nothing, so, sigh, that meant the key was in the lock in that door also.  Well that was the end of the door option, now for windows.  Fortunately the cleaner hadn't gone round closing the windows before she went home and the kitchen window was still open.  I reached up and moved the pots of herbs off the window ledge, hauled the ladder out of the storeroom, put it against the side of the house and up I went.  Onto the window ledge (woo, does it collect a lot of dust there), slid the flyscreen back, hopped onto the bench (nice work, very clean) then down to the floor.  I went over to the back door and sure enough the key was still in the lock but, when I turned the door handle, I discovered that the cleaner hadn't locked the door when she left, it was unlocked and if I'd thought to try the handle I could have just walked in.  Still, the whole ladder up to the window brought back a misspent youth and keeps skill levels high.