Metanoia in Oman

Metanoia (n.): The journey of changing one’s mind, heart, or way of life

Two years ago, I had no idea I would be here again. This time, not to visit as a foreigner, but to live alongside locals and learn Arabic. Language is a key so miraculous that it allows you to embrace a culture and explore in a way a tourist can merely dream about.

Living in Ibri, Oman, during the holy month of Ramdhan, I am learning not only Arabic, but also the importance of searching for peace. Below is my first attempt to experiment with Arabic poetry and to discuss how what we choose to pursue in life transforms our definition of success and happiness. I am forever grateful to Ustaadh Said Mana Al-Ghafri, one of my Professors here, for guiding me through the writing process.

Surreal view in the city of Nizwa

Surreal view in the city of Nizwa

رمال جافة ممتدة بلا حدود في الأفق

السماء تعكس فساد شاحب

هناك حيث الصبار يعيش ويزدهر

الذين يفتقرون الشوك سيعانون

ليبقوا بدون نهاية حازمة

يواجهون الدهر والأرض الخشنة

عقيمة هي جهودي في البحث عنك

سرابٌ قاسٍ شبه تام ولكن كاذب

تحت الشمس الساطعة ارتعش في ضجيج

في عقلي أصواتٌ وشغبٌ ينمو

تائهةٌ في اِتجاه المجهول

يدّعي الوقتُ بأن جهودي لم تثمر

إعياءٌ يُغلّفني بذراعيه

وأنا أسبر خيالك وجمالك

واحذٌ فقط يمكنه انقاذ روحي الضالة

ويعطيني القوة لاكتشاف الصراط المستقيم

 لو ادركتُ فقط قوته وقدرته

حياتي سيغمرها النور المُبين

Wadi Zahir

Dry sand stretches unbound in my sight.

The sky reflects a colorless blight

where the cactus exist and thrive.

Those lacking thorns may strive

to endure without a resolute end,

encountering time and again harsh land.

Futile are my efforts searching for you:

a cruel mirage, almost perfect yet untrue.

Under the glaring sun, I shiver in unquiet

amid voices in my head, a growing riot.

Wander I in a direction unknown.

Time pretends my labor was not sown.

Exhaustion envelopes me in its arms

as I fathom your illusion, your charms.

Only One can salvage my soul astray,

give strength to find a stronger way,

if only I realized His power and might

life would again permeate with warm light.

Well, hello there!

Well, hello there!

Rollercoasters across 6 countries

Dar-es-Salaam, Tanzania ♥ Florida, United States of America ♥ Karachi, Pakistan ♥ Dubai, United Arab Emirates ♥ Istanbul, Turkey ♥ London, England

Round and round, we turned. The goal was to keep our eyes on the cloudy sky. My best friend and I could never stop giggling. Sitting in those teapots, I lost sight of time and space. The only feeling I experienced was that of freedom. We didn’t go often to Luna Park; when we did, we savored each bit of it. This was over 14 years ago, when everything was black and white. The only worries in the world consisted of getting our homework done and agreeing on which game to play next. I don’t have any pictures to share from then because the age of smartphones had not arrived yet. Merely having a basic Nokia cell phone was considered a luxury. Only for special occasions, we used an actual camera, the kind you had to take to the photo studio to get “negatives” and hard copies of pictures.

That was when my family and I lived in Dar-es-Salaam, Tanzania, a country in eastern Africa.

Living there, the strongest obsession my best friend and I spent time on was Harry Potter. We had both read the series several times, but I will confess she was better at recalling the spells. And she was the one who discovered an online network of fans like us who wrote stories about the Harry Potter characters. Since we enjoyed writing, we signed up under ridiculous pennames. After writing our stories but before publishing them on the website, we would exchange them with each other. She had the software to create beautiful headers with images inspired from the stories while I had the affinity to check for spelling errors and coherency.

I couldn't believe my eyes when I saw the Harry Potter World in Orlando, Florida.

I couldn’t believe my eyes when I saw the Harry Potter World in Orlando, Florida.

It was this strong relationship we had established that made me miss her even more when I was fortunate to finally visit the Harry Potter world inside Universal Studios in Orlando, Florida. At that time, I was too scared of rollercoasters and although I stood in line for a few minutes, I justified my decision to quit with the fact that the line was just too long! My family and I ended up riding other rides that seemed less life-threatening, one of which I’ll never forget: Dr. Doom’s Fear Fall. I had never seen the world from such heights before. But I will say, what impressed me most was seeing and touching the places I had only read about in books. Oh, and taking a picture with Hedwig!

Dr. Doom's Fear Fall

The only other similarly heartbeat-accelerating ride I had been on by that point in my life was in Karachi, Pakistan. I was a 9-year-old, thrilled to be celebrating Eid-ul-Fitr, a day of rejoicing for Muslims worldwide to mark the end of the month of Ramadhan, the special month of seeking nearness to Allah. In Pakistan, like in many other Muslim-majority countries, Eid equals a public holiday for three consecutive days. It was on the second day of Eid that we went to Hill Park where I rode my first rollercoaster. It was called “The Train.” I had clutched my poor cousin’s hand so tightly throughout the ride that it had nail marks at the end!

I took this picture of "The Train" the second time I visited Karachi, nine years later.

I took this picture of “The Train” the second time I visited Karachi, nine years later.

I was overcome with waves of nostalgia when I returned to Hill Park nine years later. This time, I went on the same ride with my uncle because my cousin (his daughter) had married and moved to another continent. I often wonder: when is the next time I will visit again? Will the park still be open because it seemed pretty rundown this time? If yes, who will ride the ride with me?

Do you think these rides are different from water rides? I do, or at least I did. I didn’t mind going on rides where we would sit on tubes because there was a sense of security. I don’t know how to swim (yes, quite embarrassing!), but I knew that at the end of the enclosed tunnel, I would reach the water safe and afloat on my tube. The best water park I’ve been to is Wild Wadi in Dubai, United Arab Emirates. Since I was a child, I had heard it was the best in the world AND they had a ladies’ night. This meant I could take off my hijab (headscarf and loose-fitted clothing that some Muslim women wear). I was in Dubai for an exchange program through my university and I took advantage of the ladies’ night during my birthday week. I went with three of my friends: a Lebanese, a Nigerian-American, and a Pakistani-American. We went in the evening, my first time at a water park under a dark, velvety sky. Our favorites were surfing and the ride where the four of us sat together in one gigantic tube and almost fell into the busy highway outside the park, a skillfully created illusion.

My courage peaked during my next exchange program in Istanbul, Turkey. My aunt had asked me, “Have you visited the Disney World of Turkey?” I was confused until I realized that there was a massive theme park in Istanbul called Vialand. Getting there was an adventure in its own respect. Our cab driver took us to a rundown park with a similar name on the other side of the city. It took us forever to reach our actual destination because of the distance, Istanbul’s chaotic traffic, and the lack of our language skills. (To be honest, I was quite pleased with my Turkish language course because it helped me communicate with a local vendor who gave us the new address.) When we finally arrived, we were awestruck. An illustration from a fairytale had come to life. One of the proudest moments of my life was getting on the biggest rollercoaster of the park, one you could see from miles afar. I will confess that it would have been impossible without the support of my three friends who were study abroad students like me: a Bangladeshi, a Moroccan, and a Pakistani-American. They guaranteed that I would survive. And I did. Sure, my skin felt like it was being ripped off and I screamed like a madwoman, but the adrenaline rush was insurmountable.

Vialand, Istanbul, Turkey

Vialand, Istanbul, Turkey

All of these experiences prepared me for Thorpe Park and the Chessington World of Adventures in London, England. I went to both over the span of three days and wow! Watching my cousins who were younger, but bolder than me encouraged me further. Each ride carried its own thrill, but I will point out three. The Saw was where we were flung at a perpendicular angle both into the sky and then into the ground. The second one looked like a snake while we slithered on its body. And on the last one, which turned 360 degrees, I think I almost died.

We slithered on a massive snake. I guess, there's a first for everything, right?

We slithered on a massive snake. I guess, there’s a first for everything, right?

This was the only ride where I have turned 360 degrees and water was splashed onto our faces!

This was the only ride where I turned 360 degrees and water was splashed onto our faces!

Reflecting on my experiences across these 6 countries, I notice that each of these memories holds a special place for me because of the adventure infused with the company of my friends and family. What unites all these times is the sense of a temporary utopian world: freedom from a mundane life, with people close to my heart.

Struggling as a nefelibata

I stand at the train station, holding on tightly to my orange-and-white-striped umbrella for fear it might escape with the wicked wind any moment. (And with a secret wish that it might pull me up into the sky like a parachute.) It is 8:42PM. I hear the train’s engine getting louder and louder. I see the blonde girl on my left, who had shared her left shoe was soaking in a puddle of water. We were on the bus coming towards the train station and I had no help to offer (besides a sympathetic “aww”) for my whole being was currently drenched as well. With fatigue.

The train is almost here. I watch a guy running on the opposite platform, trying to reach the staircase, go up and over the bridge, to get to our platform. I hope he makes it. I smell the fresh fragrance of rain and revel in my freedom. Thursday night has arrived, after a long day of back-to-back classes, an awful exam on natural hazards, and work at the lab. Finally, I have the weekend to take a break from running. It is exhausting to keep running, from one building to another (on a campus that seems like a small town) and from one step on the ladder to the other.

Perhaps most university students experience a feeling of captivation within a cycle of working hard at one thing, accomplishing it, and then, realizing the next step awaits you as soon as you breathe a moment of relief. However, tonight I look forward to a warm cup of tea and watching TV with my mom at home. Tonight, I remind myself that life is short and that we need to take a step back from time to time in order to revitalize our minds and hearts.

Yesterday afternoon was beautiful. It wasn’t sunny, but it wasn’t cloudy either. It wasn’t chilly, but it wasn’t warm either. It was a peaceful time where I worked on my paper, sitting at a bench outside the Social and Behavioral Sciences building on campus, munching on a squished chocolate chip muffin, and listening to Maher Zain. Little joys like these are abundant in daily life, but we just need to try harder to look for them, or rather to create them.

The last time I wrote a blog post was probably when I was in my mother’s womb. I enjoy writing, but often, our lives become so hectic that there is no time to pursue hobbies and interests that don’t serve the primary goal (whatever that goal(s) may be). Or at least that is often our justification. What I would like to attempt is to create that time into a crazy, daily routine; after all, the way we choose to lead our lives is to quite some extent, in our hands, isn’t it?

This past summer, I was fortunate to pursue my passion for travel by participating in a study abroad program in Turkey. There were so many moments during my two month long stay when I felt an absolute sense of freedom from all things mundane and routine. However, there is one moment which I would like to share with you right now.

My friends and I had tried twice before to visit the Rumeli Fortress. We had heard it was built in the mid-1400s by Sultan Mehmet, the Conquerer, before he captured Constantinople. Unfortunately, the first time, it was raining and we didn’t want to slip off the steep edges, and haunt future tourists as drifting souls. The second time, the weather was perfect (at least not as hot and humid as Istanbul’s summers usually are), but we couldn’t find the main entrance. We had followed a shortcut within our campus and we reached the back entrance which was locked. Defeated, we started walking up the trail back to campus. On our way back, we asked a security guard on campus for instructions, and I tried my best to communicate with my basic Turkish language skills. The guard clasped both his palms together and placed them on the left side of the face to make a sleeping gesture, perhaps to convey that the fortress had closed for the day.

The third time, we didn’t take any chances and took a cab. The taxi ride was like sitting on a rollercoaster. We drove through a narrow street, down, down, down the hill. Finally, we entered the fortress and wow, the walk up the stairs was intense! There were so many staircases that I felt I was part of an adventure. One of my friends was very anxious about climbing the stairs because there was no railing to protect you from falling off. We formed a line and suggested her to walk in the middle so there was always a person in front of her and one behind her.

I felt like the leader of my troop, battling sweaty and dangerous conditions to make it to the top. When we finally made it to the highest point, I realized it was completely worthwhile. There were different peaks depending on which steps you chose to take. But there was one from which you could see a painting come to life. I finally felt I was a nefelibata, a cloud-walker, both literally and metaphorically. The water and sky were merging together and I could almost touch the clouds. Standing on the highest point of the Rumeli fortress, I felt free and able to live in the clouds of my imagination and fulfill all my dreams. It would take hard work, but with prayers, determination, and the support of family and friends, I could prove to be a successful and content nefelibata.

Rumeli Fortress

Life can be seen as a period in which several staircases are to be climbed to reach different destinations. Remembering our trip to the Rumeli Fortress helps me come to terms with the fact that running and climbing are part of each day. It was us who had decided to pause for a few minutes in the middle of the staircase to take a breath because it was really hot. It was us who had decided to stop again to drink a few sips of water to rejuvenate ourselves. Finally, when we reached the top, it was us again who sat down for half an hour and took the time to captivate forever our accomplishment – a glimpse of the enchanting scenery – both with our smartphone cameras and our hearts. How you climb the ladder depends on you. Tonight, the ladder can wait while I tuck myself under a soft blanket and spend time with my mother analyzing how the lead actress in the Pakistani TV series we watch patiently tolerates her mother-in-law’s bitter criticism because of the unwavering love and respect the actress has for her husband.

Deep Hüzün

How can a blind man find his way through such a crowded street of Istanbul? Especially, when his female partner is also blind. The couple was walking confidently with canes at 11PM in the night. I was in awe and felt so happy for them. Little did I know that I am in fact the blind one. I fell face down. My water bottle rolled into the road of speeding cars. My packet of chocolate wafers flew near a surprised brown cat. The only thing I clutched tightly in my hand was the plastic bag (now torn into pieces) formerly carrying the two objects.

After a few seconds, I registered that I had tripped against the man’s walking cane.

My Turkish friend immediately asked the man if he was alright while my other friend helped stand on my feet again. I was embarrassed for making a fool of myself in the middle of a large crowd an for disconcerting the couple who was strolling happily. More importantly, I was shocked that I was the one who fell.

Of course, I don’t mean to say that I’d rather have had the man fall down. What I mean is that we don’t actually see as clearly as we think we do. And yes, here is where I go off to a tangent. Not really. It is quite relevant to the discussion of how my attitude has changed from my first post. I just realized that I was wearing the same outfit the day I arrived in Istanbul. In a week, my life has made a full circle. I thought I saw clearly that I had made a terrible decision to come here. In reality, my vision was simply muddled with anxiety. I had no idea that a week later, I would feel so much more comfortable in my new surroundings and with the beautiful people I had met.

Sight is not in the eyes, but in the soul. We need to let go of our fears and see farther than what our eyes, not the most loyal companions, can reveal to us. (All my advice is often first directed to me!)

Alright, back to the ground. This whole incident happened right before I went to watch my first World Cup game with two friends, one of who is really passionate about soccer. It was between Algeria and Germany. We watched it at a café called Simit Sarayı and we’ve been going back ever since. The games run from 11PM to 1:30AM or sometimes longer. It’s been quite a lot of fun! That’s where I had my first cup of tea in Turkey that I looked at and enjoyed. (Accompanied by a chocolate muffin.)

Soccer Game

Tea

The day after, we walked from the university down a steep hill. And when I say steep, I mean really, really, acutely steep. So steep that we couldn’t walk; instead, we were running and panting down to Bebek. We were laughing the whole way, even when a car was driving up the hill and we had to scoot over to the narrow sides of the street to save our lives. Bebek is in one word, magnificent. Serene, with men fishing, people strolling, cats watching, and us licking. Ice cream. After a long walk, we were looking forward to the famous Bebek ice cream. I had the pistachio and chocolate and it was delicious.

Bebek Fishing

Bebek Water Splash

Ice cream

From there, we courageously walked to Ortaköy. It was over an hour’s walk from the university and although my feet thought I was crazy, my heart wanted to continue on. I had heard about the Ortaköy Mosque, also known as the Büyük Mecidiye Camii (the Grand Imperial Mosque of Sultan Abdülmecid). Praying in it was my incentive. When we arrived, I fully understood that the energy spent was perfectly worthwhile. The mosque was lit up because it was evening time and the call of prayer began as soon as our eyes fell on the gorgeous architecture. The interior was equally striking with an unearthly view of the Bosphorous from the window.

Ortakoy Mosque

View from Mosque

After prayer, we went to the restaurants nearby feeling overwhelmed. Of course because of the beauty we had just witnessed, but also because of the headwaiters, all of whom seemed to know we were new to the area. The restaurant we ended up choosing was the one where the headwaiter was literally screaming, “Gyal, gyal, gyal,” come in, come in, come in.

Ortakoy

Two days later, we went to Ortaköy again. We hadn’t had enough of that vibrant area; heck, this was just the beginning. This time, we sat on a terrace on the fourth floor of a restaurant. The view of the Bosphorous, the bridge, and the mosque was amazing! I ordered a tuna sandwich and while it was being prepared, I went to pray at the same mosque especially because it was so nearby. When I was walking down the spiral staircase of the restaurant, my heart fluttered in excitement for these were the things I always missed back home.

Praying

Night view

Later that evening, we perused the area. One of the vendors who spoke Turkish asked if we spoke Arabic. Some of the girls in the group said yes, and then he asked me if I spoke Urdu in Urdu! He said he spoke ten languages and had lived in several countries. My first opportunity to bargain. It was fun although it was for a bracelet one of my friends had fallen in love with.

Ortakoy

We ended the night with a Turkish waffle and a fast and furious cab ride back to the university.

Smiling Waffle Maker!

Smiling Waffle Maker!

Do you remember I had mentioned the magical Boğaziçi Pastanesi in my first post? I had reported feeling that I was bound to come again. And I did. The next day at this café, I met up with a Turkish friend who was studying at my university back home and was visiting family for the summer. We couldn’t stop laughing thinking how great it was to meet up in a completely different continent.

On Friday, we went to the older part of Istanbul. I was speechless when I walked into the Sultanahmet Mosque. It is also known as the Blue Mosque because its interiors are decorated with blue tiles. It was built in the early 1600s and I could almost see and hear the all the people who were born, grew up visiting this mosque, and passed away. Generations after generations. I was particularly riveted for I had written a paper on this mosque for my Islamic Art and Architecture class. I couldn’t believe I was standing in a place about which I had only read in rusty textbooks from the library.

The Sultanahmet Mosque was built right near another building which was famous at the time (and still is) to show the power of Islam. This other monument is the Hagia Sophia, also called the Ayasofya in Turkish. It was originally established in the mid-500s as a Greek Church and then, it was converted to a mosque. It was interesting to see up close the images of Christian art partially erased to portray this change. Eventually, Hagia Sophia was treated as a museum, for wanderers like me to experience in awe decades of rich history.

Unique candy vendor with Hagia Sophia in the background

Unique candy vendor with Hagia Sophia in the background

Minbar: pulpit from where prayer leader can deliver sermons

Minbar: pulpit from where prayer leader can deliver sermons

Window in Hagia Sophia

Window in Hagia Sophia

View of Sultanahmet Mosque from the window in Hagia Sophia

View of Sultanahmet Mosque from the window in Hagia Sophia

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

After quite some sightseeing, we sat down at a restaurant nearby (on the terrace again and so, you witness my obsession with terraces). The food was delicious and when we were leaving, we saw a whirling dervish. I am not aware of their practices well enough to elaborate and it would be disrespectful to do so without a complete understanding. So, I will leave it at that for now.

AYASOFYA Restaurant

AYASOFYA Restaurant

Bon Appetit in different languages (seen at the restaurant)

Bon Appetit in different languages (seen at the restaurant)

A few snapshots on our way back from the restaurant:

The Sultanahmet Square was originally the Hippodrome, sporting and social center of Constantinople, capital of Byzantine Empire

The Sultanahmet Square was originally the Hippodrome, sporting and social center of Constantinople, capital of Byzantine Empire

I am dying to return to the older side of Istanbul, or “The Historical Peninsula,” as my roommate fancily calls it. I was very excited to spend the holy month of Ramadhan in a Muslim country. However, in the area where we live, it isn’t celebrated as much as I had expected. Sure, the people who are fasting do gather at restaurants waiting to hear the call of prayer on the TVs so that they can open their fast. But I feel that the other side of town would have more festivities. This could be an erroneous assumption. We shall see since we are planning to attend this Friday’s prayer (Salatul Jumah in Arabic) at Sultanahmet Mosque. We hope to spend the day in the area concluding with iftaar (meal when we complete the fast) outside the mosque, where we’ve heard Muslims come together to eat in a community of benches clustered together. I am quite excited!

Yesterday, we went to Indian Musafir Restaurant. I was craving my mother’s spicy food and this place looked like the closest to such cuisine in Istanbul. It was around the infamous Taksim Square. As soon as the call of prayer played on the TV, all the waiters sat down at a large table to have iftaar as well. It was great to see everyone eating together. I had chicken kadai, spicy chicken curry served in a special pot called kadai. I ate the curry with naan, a form of bread. To top off my special meal, I ordered a glass of sweet lassi made of yoghurt.

Allow me to now elaborate on the area near us. There is a café which we discovered has board games (apparently quite common here). I cannot wait to go there! There is a great place right by it with a fresh variety of Turkish delights. (Note: the picture of the store here actually belongs to a different sweets place we had walked past earlier that day but the closeup is of the box I purchased from the nearby place.) Today, we went to a restaurant right near South Campus and the its specialty was an assortment of burgers! I had a Chicken Kansas Burger (with spicy fries, a rare delicacy in Istanbul so far!) and one of the other girls had a New York Burger!

Turkish sweets!

Turkish sweets!

The farther you go from our area and the closer you are to the older side of town, the deeper you feel hüzün, a Turkish word with Arabic origins. It means “a melancholy resulting from inadequacy or failure and weighing so heavily that it becomes communal, resigned, and even curiously poetic.” So many children roam the streets of Istanbul trying to sell flower crowns or crouching on the sides of the road to create toys out of the soil. I spotted a young boy near a watermelon vendor once, biting down on the leftover of an almost eaten slice. There was a mother and her child knocking on the window of our cab when we stopped at a red light today. Near the port, when we went on the Bosphorous Cruise, there was a family (a couple and two children). They were sitting on the ground and the man was calling out trying to grab attention at the little items that he had gathered. Right past an expensive carpet shop, there was an old man pulling a cart full of heavy baggage. I wish I had a magical wand that could alleviate the plight of these people and those struggling all around the world.

Kadir Bey (I asked his name in Turkish - he replied Kadir - I called him Mr. Kadir)

Kadir Bey (I asked his name in Turkish – he replied Kadir – I called him Mr. Kadir)

I will end with the story of Mr. Shoe Polisher. He was walking near us and one of his brushes fell down. Unknowingly, he kept walking and one of the girls in our group who is Turkish said, Pardon, Excuse me! He turned around and she pointed to the brush. He walked back to us and because the brush was near my foot, I bent down, picked it up, and gave it to him. He said thank you and we continued walking. That’s when we heard someone call out, Pardon, pardon! We turned around to see it was Mr. Shoe Polisher. He immediately sat down on the floor and told me to come so he could polish my shoes at no cost. I couldn’t believe it. He appreciated my small action of courtesy so much that he responded with such a beautiful gesture. I was baffled, but came back to my senses in time to answer, “Çok, çok, çok teşekkürler!” meaning Thank you very, very, very much and “Kolay gelsin,” a phrase I learned in Turkish class which means May your work be easier. My friends were so proud and the Turkish girl patted me on my shoulder for having responded so well in Turkish. (I seriously wish I can learn the language.)

Seeing the humility, kindness, and hope in the eyes of the children and the hardworking men and women here reminds me that there is so much more than racing in the world for material assets. Yes, money is important, but we need to see beyond aiming for luxury. If we all try to sacrifice our luxury, we may actually provide for someone’s necessity (again all advice is first directed to me!). That of course seems like a dreamlike world, but doesn’t hüzün involve becoming poetic after all?