A Year to Remember

Yesterday, July 12, 2008, marked exactly a year since I left New York and embarked on my backpacking tour. My journey led me to some of the most storied cities of Europe, from London to Istanbul. I continued East and explored the colorful, cacophonous, and awe-inspiring India. I then traveled to Karachi, Pakistan and found myself in the midst of the tumultuous aftermath of Benazir Bhutto’s assassination. Even as the city roiled in fear and violence, I met Leena, the girl who would soon become my fiance. Finally, after seven months abroad, I returned to New York in early February. I had just enough time see some of you and pay a visit to my family in Florida before I got an offer from my old company’s Dubai office. In mid-March I left New York again and relocated to Dubai.

It’s been almost four months since I moved here to Dubai, and I’m happy to say that things are going well. It was a bit of a rough start — opening a bank account, renting an apartment, and other mundane activities we take for granted in the US can all be quite challenging here — but I’m starting to get the hang of things. Dubai is a remarkable place, and surprisingly, in many ways, it is very similar to the US. Of course, in many ways it is quite different and takes some getting used to. I plan to write in greater detail about my Dubai experience in my blog. For those of you keeping up with my blog, I apologize for falling so far behind. Now that I’ve finally settled into my new apartment though, I plan to start writing again soon.

Work is going well. My team is great, and though the hours can be long, I’m getting the opportunity to work on some very interesting projects. I’ve also had the chance to travel around the region a bit. The social scene, however, is still under construction. One of the benefits of living in New York was that many of my college friends still lived in the area, and the social scene was largely an extension of the college one. Here I have yet to find my groove. However, in yet another one of those strange coincidences I’ve come to relish during my travels, my Moroccan friend, Faical, whom I met on the train in France (Next Stop: Basel), moved to Dubai around the same time as I did. We ended up renting apartments in the same area, and now we hang out regularly.

In other news, the wedding dates have been finalized. The week-long (as per Pakistani custom) fiesta will begin December 17th, 2008. The proverbial tying-of-the-knot will take place on the 19th. All of the festivities will be held in Karachi, Pakistan.

It’s certainly been quite a year, a truly life-changing one. I’ve visited some fascinating places, met some amazing people, and learned a great deal more about our multifaceted world. Moreover, I’ve developed a deep appreciation for the possibilities that exist at the fringes of our comfort circles. Life can take some pleasantly surprising twists and turns if only we open ourselves up to those possibilities. I expect much more change ahead, and I’m looking forward to the new experiences.

I would love to hear from you, so please drop me an email when you get a chance. And if you decide to visit Dubai, please know that you have a place to crash.

Next Stop: Dubai

Dear Friends and Family,

The last time you heard from me was a little over a month ago. Let me assure you, I’ve spared you. I do not think you would have much enjoyed my reports from the swamplands of Florida where I went to visit my mother (for the record, she’s doing well and sends her regards). The weather may be nice down there, but the pace of life is a bit too slow for me.

Now, however, I have some exciting news. You may have heard already, but I’m rejoining the Pepsi company. The opportunity I was seeking with Pepsi Dubai came through, and I’m shipping out this Saturday night. I’m very excited about what this means for my professional growth. There’s a lot going on in that region, and I’m looking forward to being a part of it. Of course, the fact that my fiance is only a 2-hour flight away from Dubai only sweetens the deal ūüėČ

Thank you for your help, support, and kind emails throughout my “epic world tour.” It has been an incredible experience. I’ve seen some amazing places and made many lasting friendships. And the most gratifying part is knowing that I’ve changed for the better because of it. I plan to continue traveling and writing whenever I can make the time. Thank you so much for your encouragement, which has been the single most important motivation for me to keep up my writing. In case you’re wondering, I still intend to update my blog with my experiences from the rest of my travels, but it may take longer than expected. In the meantime, I plan to start a new segment with the Dubai move.

If you decide to drop by Dubai, please look me up.

And by the way, if you happen to be listening to Marketplace on NPR next Tuesday, don’t be surprised if you hear my voice… ūüėČ

The Adventure Continues

Dear Friends and Family,

Remember those “Choose Your Own Adventure” books we read as kids?¬† There would come a point in the story where we would have a choice: Does Tim investigate the strange scratching sound coming from the closet or does he scramble down through the trapdoor?¬† It seems that such twists in the plot have become ever more frequent in my life story, but the difference, of course, is that these choices and decisions are real with real ramifications.¬† And alas, I can’t cheat like I used to with those books and flip back through the pages to choose the other option.

So here I am still in Karachi.¬† Things, thankfully, have been calm for the past week or so.¬† However, the next adventure has already begun unfolding.¬† As I mentioned in an email some time ago, a friend I referred to as the “Oracle” in Istanbul prophesied that I would encounter significant changes in my life in my 26th year.¬† I’ve surmised that she may have been on to something due to two major developments: 1) I’m intent on settling abroad for at least a few years and 2) I’m engaged.

I’ve been pursuing an opportunity with my former company’s Dubai office for some time now.¬† I met with the folks there on my way to Pakistan, and it looks promising.¬† We were supposed to have something finalized by now, but unfortunately, the process has been slowed down due to major business restructuring in the region.¬† It is my hope that we can finalize something within the next two weeks.

And I’m engaged.¬† Surprised?¬† Me, too ūüėȬ† I set out on my trip open to possibility, and I am happy to say that I’ve met the one I plan to spend my life with.¬† Her name is Leena.¬† She lives in Saudi Arabia and was visiting family in Pakistan over the winter holidays.¬† We were engaged in a small, traditional ceremony here in Karachi, and the wedding is tentatively planned for later this year.

I am returning to New York this Friday, February 1st.  I will stay a few days before heading to Florida for another few days.  By then I expect to know where I will head to next.

Thank you for your continued support and thoughtful emails.  I hope all is well with you, and I look forward to seeing you soon!

With warm regards,
Khalid

Happy Holidays!

Dear Family and Friends,
Eid Mubarak, Merry Christmas, Happy Hannukah, and Happy New Year! Sorry to be late for most and early for the last, but due to internet limitations, I have to economize my emails. I hope you are well, and I wish you a blessed holiday season.

When you last heard from me, I was on my way to Karachi, Pakistan. It’s hard to believe, but I’ve been here now for over a month. I hope you didn’t take my incommunicado status as a sign of trouble. As expected, things are very quiet here. Street crime is prevalent, unfortunately, but thankfully, I’ve had no issues. With nothing major to report to you, I’ve been using my time to catch up on my journal and blog. If you’ve visited my site recently, you will see that I’ve uploaded more entries and pictures. At the moment I’m working on a video of the recent Eid celebrations in Karachi. I will post that online soon as well.

A fellow traveler in Istanbul predicted that the age of 26 would bring immense change in my life. Given how things are panning out, I’m beginning to think that the “Oracle” – as I endearingly refer to her – may have been on to something. Suddenly there is much afoot in my life — but more on that in future emails. In the meantime, I’m pretty much wrapping up my journey, and I’ve begun planning my re-entry into the ranks of the gainfully employed. I’m giving serious thought to my longer-term plans as well. I’ll let you know where I end up.

There are still many stories to tell about my journey. Please feel free to check my site for updates as I will be posting more entries shortly. Your support and encouragement has been instrumental in keeping me writing, and I thank you for it.

I’m beginning to feel like I’ve been gone for “too long.” I would love to hear from you. Please let me know how things are with you when you get a chance.

With warmest regards,
Khalid

In India

Dear Friends and Family,
It seems that time’s been picking up speed lately. The last time I emailed you, I had just arrived in Bulgaria. Since then I’ve spent five days in Istanbul, Turkey, made a pit stop in Doha, Qatar, and already been in Hyderabad, India for three days now. It’s been a whirlwind, and I’ve had an amazing time. Istanbul, just like I had been told, is a beautiful, charming city, and I regret that I wasn’t able to spend more time there. My visa for India was expiring so I didn’t get to stay as long as I would have liked. I certainly hope to return some day.

I made it to India to learn that my visa was expiring in two days. It turned out that the expiration date on my visa was not the last day of entry (as I had been lead to believe) but the last day of stay. Fortunately, an uncle who lives here helped me resolve the matter. After two days of stressful visits to various government offices and payments of several hefty fees, I’ve gotten a two week extension. It’s not as long as I would have liked, but it will have to do. So I’m here until the 15th of October when I fly out to Dubai for a short visit before heading to Pakistan.

So that’s the update for now. I’ve been working on the blog (albeit slowly) so check it out when you have some time. I plan to upload pictures soon. Please let me know if you have any tips/suggestions/advice either about India or Dubai.

Farewell, Marrakesh

I packed up my belongings this morning. Faical’s mother tried to help me, but I showed her that I was rolling my clothes and not folding them. She seemed surprised by this unusual way of packing. After some time she retrieved two dinner napkins from a cabinet and presented them to me. This was a standard gift in Morocco, Faical explained. I was moved by her generosity.

Meanwhile, she had spent all morning in the kitchen cooking a special dish. It’s cooked only once or twice a year, her kids explained. She had planned to cook it for Faical when he left, but she decided to cook it now since I am leaving. Once again, I knew not what to say to express my gratitude for her kindness.

The meal was delicious. We all ate out of the same large platter as I have been doing since I’ve been here. Faical’s mother expressed appreciation that I was able to adapt so well to their local custom and eat just like them. For me it has been a bonding experience. Sharing a meal in such a manner really makes you feel close to your fellow diners.

I took a taxi to the airport later in the day. I got the feeling that Faical’s mother was on the verge of tears when I was leaving. I will miss her. I will miss all of them. I am amazed by and grateful for the generosity Faical and his family have shown me. I was a complete stranger when I arrived, but now I feel like I’m part of their family.

While I waited at the airport to board my flight, I had a sense of being a stranger again. Amidst the plethora of European tourists whom I traveled with only a week ago, I now feel somehow foreign. I feel that I must break through an invisible barrier to rejoin them. Has my stay in Marrakesh been so comfortable that I have forgotten I am still a traveler? I don’t recall feeling this apprehension even when I left New York back in July.

I arrived in Madrid and took a taxi to Mad Hostel. It was nearing one in the morning by the time I reached the hostel.

Encore

This morning Anas and I decided to go to Oasis, a water park on the outskirts of Marrakesh. Sarah asked to come along, too. As we were finalizing our plans, I received a shocking piece of news: Latifa had stayed back in Marrakesh for another day instead of leaving with her family for Casablanca. The alarm bells went off in my head again. What was she up to? Out of courtesy, I invited her to join us at Oasis.

Anas, Sarah, and I met Latifa at the water park. A sign at the cashier’s counter caught my eye. It showed drawings of two couples. The first couple was fully clothed, and there was a line across them to indicate that such attire was prohibited. The second couple wore Western swimming clothes — trunks and bikini. This was the appropriate attire. Here again was another instance of the dichotomy between Western and Islamic ideals. Latifa, of course, could not bathe because she was fully clothed, but Sarah, who wore a bikini, could. I couldn’t help feeling bad for Latifa who sat in the glaring sun waiting for us while the three of us went swimming.

Afterwards, we parted with Latifa for the third and final time. She took a taxi to the train station, and we took a bus provided by the park back to the city.

Later tonight I took Faical’s family out to dinner. Since tonight is my last in Morocco, I wanted to treat the family. I wanted to take them to a nice restaurant, but Faical insisted that there were too many of them. Finally, we agreed to go to a cheaper place and take everyone. In addition to Faical and his immediate family, Sarah and another cousin came, too. We went to Jama al-Fna and had shawarmas at a small restaurant. Afterwards I bought ice-cream for Faical’s mother and myself.

As we walked out of the square, a little boy came running behind us. He went up to Faical’s cousin who now had his mother’s ice-cream cone and begged it from her. Then he came running to me and stretched out his arm for me to give him mine, too. His boldness amused me. I handed him my cone as well, and he ran off.

We decided to walk for a while, and after we had gone some distance, the women asked me to sing a song. By now my inhibition had greatly diminished. I let loose the same verses of the DDLJ song that I know. I sang with unprecedented virtuosity. We happened to be by a tree when I came to a finish, so I hooked my arm around the trunk and swung around in a mock reenactment of a typical Indian dance sequence. The Moroccans loved it and broke out in laughter. When the laughter subsided, Faical’s other cousin asked me to sing again. The same lines? I protested. Yes, she implored, the voice is so beautiful. I was greatly flattered, but I didn’t want to sing the same lines again. I couldn’t think of another song, so I demurred.

Return to Marrakesh

Anas, Latifa, and I arrived in Marrakesh this afternoon. At the bus station Latifa took a taxi to her family’s place, and Anas and I took a separate taxi back to his apartment. There I met his sister, Jihane. She spent the past week with her aunt in northern Morocco, and she finally returned today. She’s a very talkative girl who speaks English quite well, and she quickly warmed up to me. She doesn’t seem like the type who would take long to warm up to anyone though.

Meanwhile, Anas informed everyone about Latifa. I explained that there was nothing between us, but Sarah, especially, began to tease me about her. She enlisted Jihane’s help to explain to me what kind of girl Latifa is.
“Girls here just want money,” Jihane opined. “All they care is that you have dollars.”
“What about you?” Tired of trying to make them understand that there was nothing going on, I decided to humor her.
“I’m the same!” she declared, much to my surprise. “Sarah, too! We want a man with money.”
The unemotional confession was somehow disheartening.

Anas and I agreed to check out a club later tonight. I wanted to see what kind of club scene there is here in Marrakesh. First we would meet Latifa in Jama al-Fna.

Latifa was upset with us for taking too long to come. Now she had to stay with her family and couldn’t hang out with us. It was just as well. I wasn’t entirely comfortable with her. I didn’t feel that she was being genuine. Then she pulled a surprise on me: Her mother and sister were coming to the square, and she wanted me to meet them. I barely knew the girl, and she wanted me to meet her family. I remained outwardly calm at this piece of news though alarm bells were going off in my head. I realized then that I need to be very careful here. This culture is foreign to me, and it would be too easy for me to find myself trapped.

Anas and I waited while Latifa disappeared into the crowd to find her family. Anas, too, was alarmed at this development, and he did little to allay my apprehension. I assured him that it would be alright. She’s leaving tomorrow morning to return to Casablanca, I reminded him. There’s no way she’s planning a future for us.

Latifa emerged from the crowd with her sisters, mother, and a brother in tow. I said salaam to them and talked for a bit. Their English was limited so our conversation was thankfully brief. As I eyed Latifa’s family, I got the troubling impression that they were sizing me up as a potential suitor for her, but I admit it could have all been in my head. Nonetheless, I was glad to see them leave.

Anas and I killed some time at a cafe in Jama al-Fna. We sat on the second floor from where we had a magnificent view of the square. Unlike Casablanca, Marrakesh retains a rough-around-the-edges feel, which makes it so delightful to explore. Jama al-Fna is the epicenter of Marrakesh, and it beats with a vibrant pulse. The whole square is aglow in a soft orange light. People mill about. Motorcycles, horse carriages, and donkey carts weave through the crowd. A constant drum beat accompanied by a wailing singer — a type of music called ginawa — can be heard above the clatter of the traffic. The rising white smoke enhances the mystical quality of the place.

Anas and I went to a posh night club later tonight. The club is part of a casino. It was very expensive to get in, and refreshments were also tremendously expensive at 100 Dirhams for a glass of soda. Anas and I danced for a bit, but I began to lose interest. It’s really not fun to go stag to a club, especially if you don’t drink. We started to take some pictures, but one of the security guards stopped us and pulled us aside. He demanded that we show him the pictures we took. I obliged, and he ordered that I delete the ones that showed anyone else’s face. I assume they’re very uptight about the security and privacy of their patrons and staff. This incident reminded me of the dichotomy that exists here. As progressive and Western-leaning as Morocco appears in many ways, it must still wrestle with its conservative, Islamic identity.

Anas and I left soon afterwards and found a taxi to take us home.

Hill of Beans

We arrived in Casablanca, which the Moroccans simply call “Casa,” late last night. Mohsin’s brother brought us to their family’s apartment since Mohsin was at a friend’s wedding. He joined us this morning, and after breakfast, the three of us took a taxi into the city.

Mohsin and Anas both claim that the only place to see in Casa is the King Hassan II Mosque, so that’s where we headed.

The King Hassan II Mosque is a beautiful piece of architecture. The most noticeable aspect is the square minaret with a large turquoise band near the top. My eyes lingered there, admiring the handiwork and the color combination. I asked the guys if it was possible to climb to the top of the minaret. They laughed and said only royalty was allowed up there.

The interior of the mosque is humongous — appropriate for a mosque that’s billed as the third largest in the world after the mosques in Mecca and Madinah. I sat in awe for some time admiring the immense size and beautiful decor.

Latifa met us at the mosque, and the four of us walked around the mosque plaza for a bit. I realize now that most of the minarets I’ve seen in Morocco have been square, although minarets generally tend to be circular. Furthermore, mosques here usually only have one minaret whereas I’ve seen at least four in most mosques, especially ones as big as the King Hassan II Mosque.

From the mosque we took two taxis to the “Old City.” I began to see what Anas and the rest had meant about Casa. There’s really not much to see around here. It’s not the exotic place portrayed in the eponymous film. In the black and white classic, Humphrey Bogart’s brooding character, Rick, runs a bar in a seedy neighborhood, full of all types of corrupt, conniving types. The story takes place against an Orientalist backdrop, replete with camel caravans, dirt roads, and Arabs in flowing robes. Maybe at one time it was a realistic representation, but the Casablanca today is a sprawling, industrial town with wide, paved roads and modern buildings. It’s a dull place, and I didn’t find much going on. Bogart’s lines from Casablanca the movie ring in my head: “…the problems of three little people don’t amount to a hill of beans….” For me, Casablanca itself hasn’t amounted to more than that.

Anas, Latifa, and I hung out at a sheesha cafe tonight. I’ve noticed that Latifa has become more free with me. The attention is nice, of course, but the thought that she’s only interested in me because of my American-ness nags me. At the end of the night, the Moroccans decided amongst themselves that we would take a bus back to Marrakesh tomorrow. Latifa suddenly declared that she would come with us since her family is back in Marrakesh for a few days.

Sleep haram in Marrakesh!

This morning Anas, Faical, and I headed to the hammam.¬† Since it is Jummah (Friday), throughout the Muslim world it is considered almost mandatory to clean oneself thoroughly today.¬† I took my jalaba with me to change into afterwards.¬† This time I didn’t feel as uncomfortable as I did the first time.¬† It helped that the weird man in skimpy shorts wasn’t around.¬† Anas, who is the definite veteran of the Moroccan hammam, scrubbed both Faical and me.¬† Faical scrubbed his brother in return.

We returned to the apartment afterwards and ate breakfast, which again consisted of sweet tea, bread, cheese, and jelly.  Then the three of us went for Jummah prayers.  I wore my jalaba and felt like a local.

After Jummah prayers, we¬†met Faical’s mother and Sarah¬†at the apartment of Faical’s cousin.¬† The apartment is beautiful with intricate Moroccan designs covering the walls.¬†¬†Faical’s cousin, Lutfi, and his wife are extremely friendly.¬† They had prepared a large bowl of couscous, which is a traditional North African dish.¬† It looks and tastes like a mix between¬†rice and pasta.¬† I had expressed a desire to eat couscous to Faical’s family, and they had assured me that I would eat it today since it is the typical dish on Fridays.¬† We all ate out of the same big clay bowl.¬† The couscous was delicious, and I ate a lot.¬† The experience of communal eating is itself a memorable one.¬† The family laughed, joked, and talked merrily throughout the meal.¬† I contributed when I could.¬† Meanwhile, Faical’s mother made sure I had the choicest parts of the broiled lamb meat.

After lunch I felt sleepy, and Lutfi invited me to take a nap on the living room couch.¬† I gratefully accepted.¬† Faical, Sarah, Anas, and Lutfi’s two boys soon joined me.¬† For some time now, Anas and I had started a “No sleep in Marrakesh” slogan.¬† I had taken it a step further by declaring, “Sleep haram fe Marrakesh.”¬† As in, sleep is forbidden – as if it were a sin – in Marrakesh.¬† The point was that we had to see as much of Marrakesh as possible, even if it meant sacrificing sleep.¬† Sarah knew our slogan, so now when I attempted to sleep she kept waking me up with the chant “Sleep haram!”¬† The kids picked it up, too, and soon they were all ganging up on me and doing whatever they could to keep me awake.¬† I played along and grabbed at the kids when they tried sneaking up on me.

By and by, Anas and I decided to head to Casablanca this evening.¬† We had talked about going for some time now.¬† I have heard that there’s not much to see there, but there’s a certain attraction about the city, mainly because of the eponymous film.¬† Since it is a weekend we can hang out with Mohsin, Faical’s friend who lives there.¬† Moreover, Latifa has returned home¬†to Casablanca and has been messaging Anas and me to come visit.

Anas and I caught the 7pm train to Casablanca.¬† On the train I was reminded again how incredibly social Moroccans are.¬† We found ourselves in a car with an older woman and her daughter, a precocious little boy and his aunt, a young woman in her mid-twenties, and an older gentleman.¬† Soon the Moroccans were all talking and laughing amongst themselves.¬† The little boy appeared to be entertaining them with his responses to their questions.¬† I couldn’t understand them, of course, so I kept silent.¬† Eventually, however, they asked Anas about me, and they drew me into their conversation.¬† The young woman spoke English very well, and I started talking to her.¬† If someone¬†had looked into our cabin, he would have thought that we were old friends, laughing, joking, and sharing food.