Sunday, August 19, 2012

Eid al-Fitr Reflections

Today in the Middle East we hear greetings of "Eid Mubarak" heralding the celebration of Eid al-Fitr, which marks the end of Ramadan.  From what I have heard and read I understand that it's a time to reflect on the achievements and successes following the undertaking of religious discipline that has involved especially daily practices of more intense prayer and abstinence, and also acts of charity.   It has some parallels with Christian observances of Lent, but the quality and practice of restraint seems more pervasive: Muslims who are fit and able are generally expected to abstain completely from food and water from dawn until sunset, at which point they break the fast with Iftar.  In Islam countries this is clearly manifest - for example, at my workplace all catering facilities ceased during Ramadan and I didn't see anyone eat or drink in the office.

To those not used to such a discipline it may seem quite extreme.  It's certainly not a trivial undertaking in summer - Muslims in the tropics of near the equator have to contend with the heat during the day, whilst their brothers and sisters in the extreme north or south have to experience very long days.  The risks are well known and so there is medical advice to help practitioners prepare.  I tried for a day and managed okay, but that felt enough for me!

I asked an Indonesian restaurant staff member about her practice and she related that as a young child her parents had not expected her to join the fast and so had not woken her up just before dawn to join Suhoor.  Feeling she was missing out, she complained until her parents relented.  She has had no regrets since and today relates how she doesn't find the fasting a great ordeal.  Instead she extols the healing virtues of this regimen, indicating that it would help detoxify the body.  In a world of conspicuous consumption - and my present hotel life is surely part of that - it sounds a refreshing antidote.

I think all the local newspapers irrespective of language have been featuring Ramadan on a daily basis.  I've been reading on a daily basis articles published by The Peninsula newspaper.  I have kept and put to one side quite a number of these special features as they reveal interesting facets about Islamic practices and local traditions.  There's considerable theological content applied to daily life, for which the closest UK equivalent I can think of would be a Catholic newspaper such as The Universe or the Catholic Herald running a series of articles on Lenten preparations. Some of the concerns expressed by the authors and community elders - particularly about consumer culture and the challenges of modern technology to personal encounters - are very familiar, having strong echoes among commentators in the West. 

Regarding commentators, among the secular broadsheets in the UK probably only the Daily Telegraph would presently feature these kinds of theological views.   So I find it interesting that The Peninsula when choosing to convey a UK perspective reproduces key articles and opinion pieces from the Financial Times and The Guardian, the latter known for its contributors' advocacy of secular liberalism, particularly the separation of religion - deemed as a private matter - from affairs of the State.  In contrast, newspaper articles in the Gulf generally have an underlying assumption that religion is pervasive and cannot be separated from the way society is run.

Many of the Ramadan articles in The Peninsula have provided close scrutiny of the individual and family within the wider fabric of society, all of which are topics earnestly discussed in the UK.  Whilst British society enjoys many freedoms, there are anxieties about personal safety: for instance, how safe is it to walk along the streets?   You'd seldom get an unequivocal statement that it's fine at any time.  On the other hand here in Doha it is claimed that individuals and families can wander around the city around the clock and feel safe - and I tend to think this is true.  How important then are the methods in which this safety is ensured?

I think there are pros and cons, but if you were to measure safety and well-being based on, say, hospital statistics then I expect in Qatar the annual per capita health bill from accidents and illnesses relating to drugs and alcohol is probably minimal compared with the NHS in the UK.  I think this sense of well-being derives a lot from Islamic practices rooted in moral virtue and situated in cohesive families.  Irrespective of discussions on liberties and the wider regional situation, I'm sure there are some valuable social insights to consider. 

Hence I have an idea.  Perhaps UK broadsheets such as The Daily Telegraph and The Guardian may one day like to try and reciprocate by publishing a regular series of contributions from Middle Eastern papers such as The Peninsula, especially the religious features.  Would this not be a liberal attitude to another perspective on society...?

I think some aspects, though, will probably just stay here - not sure Thames Valley Police would be distributing Iftar boxes like this. :-) 

Friday, August 17, 2012

Archiving Educause Connect blog posts

Since I started bloggin in 2004, I've posted to several different blogging platforms.   Unfortunately, all the posts except those here on blogger.com have disappeared.  In particular, in 2006 and 2007 I posted re e-learning matters on Educause Connect at http://connect.educause.edu/blog/pault/, but now all the URLs just take you to the generic home page and I've been unable to search or browse to my contributions.

Fortunately, the wonderful Wayback machine on archive.org has kept copies of all the posts and I've decided to re-post them on blogger.com, reinstating the original dates.

Here is a summary list (in reverse chronological order):
The posts are old, but many of the issues remain just as relevant today.

Saturday, August 04, 2012

Ramadan Majlis and Suhoor

Wednesday 1st August, a day of many meanings: almost two weeks into the holy month of Ramadan, a full moon day that is marked the occurrence of Asalha Puja in the Thai Calendar, and a date designated Friendship Day in South Asia.  So it seemed fitting that on this day I had the opportunity to attend my first Majlis in Qatar - majlis means assembly, essentially somewhere people gather and settle or sit down.  From what I hear, the traditional usage connotes meeting to share and exchange, to discuss in council, but it used more informally for any social gathering around some activity - for example, I was told about a "Playstation majlis"(!)

Shortly before 10pm I arrived at my destination, a house in a residential area not very far from the hotel.  I was led into the entrance hallway by the youngest member of the household, where I took off my shoes before being shown into the Majlis.  Gathered together in a very spacious lounge were friends and relations of the host, mainly Qataris, all in thobes.  Not having experienced anything quite like this, I was content mainly just to observe the process: a wonderful flowing movement of people arriving, exchanging and then departing.   When a guest arrives, everyone stands up and the guests goes round to exchange introductions with each one and they take their seat followed by everyone else; similarly, when leaving everyone stands, there is a farewell to each person, and departure.

Reclining in plush sofas that lined on all sides, conversations were relaxed with lots of gesturing and good humour.  They would sometimes be plenary and then tail off and evolve into smaller groups where interests were shared more closely, until the next guest arrived ... and the dialogue would be reconfigured automatically - networking par excellence!  There was provided a continuous supply of hot beverages and fresh dates; drinks were served in small containers, alternating between Arabic [Al-Qahwa] coffee in ceramic cups, and tea in Arabian glasses with very small handles near the base.  For the coffee, I had already read in The Middle East Unveiled about the custom of taking 2 to 3 cups, and shaking the cup to decline a further top-up, but evidently I shook too gently the first time, as more was served.  From then on I shook more vigorously (with the desired result)!

There were people from many walks in life to share and engage in wide-ranging topics covering the arts and culture, business and current affairs.  Of course most of the conversation was in Arabic, so I was fortunate in having the youngest son explain some basic aspects to me whilst his father occasionally summarised some of the main conversation.   However, I was encouraged to undertake intensive study of Arabic, over maybe 2-3 months, so that I could in particular read the Koran in the original.

The lounge conversations continued for about a couple of hours before the remaining guests were ushered into the dining room for Suhoor, the last meal taken before undertaking the coming day's fast.  It's well known back in the UK that Muslims provide excellent hospitality around food and it is instilled with special significance at this time.  I was informed that for the family you lay out only what you need, but for guests there should be laid out a banquet; food should be more than what's needed and guests should be allowed to keep going back for more, as much as they wish.

It was also explained to me that whereas Iftar is a substantial and quite heavy meal, Suhoor is lighter, here comprising salads, vegetables, fish and a bit of chicken, and a few desserts such as sagu; all were delicious.  They had been prepared by a Sri Lankan cook, and also included a special round savoury pancake (no eggs) that was proudly claimed as unique in Doha [the claim for uniqueness is common]!   At least there was some indication to back this up - on a previous occasion one of the guests had put one in his pocket, taken it to his head chef, who confessed they didn't know how to make it.

After about an hour conversations switched back to the lounge and quite soon after it was time to return.  I wasn't to leave empty-handed, though, as I was given an instruction: "Now you fast until Iftar...!"

Friday, August 03, 2012

What Would Turner Paint at 35,000 feet?


QMA have very generously paid for me to attend an EMu training course at KE Software's office near Oxford Road station.  So after just 3 weeks in Doha, I found myself on another Qatar Airways plane, this time destined for Manchester!   Putting pen to paper, I started jotting...
... It's shortly before 8am and we've just taken off.  From my seat I peer out of the window and have an excellent view looking to the West. 
As we ascend we rise above the clouds I recall being told that the painter, JMW Turner, would spend hours simply gazing up at the clouds, simply observing, watching.   So the question enters my mind: what would he have painted if he were to have gazed from besides and above the clouds?  What visual impressions would he have created - especially the light, shading, and colour?  Where would he have looked?  Up, down or across?  And what would he make of the different shapes, including the curvature of the Earth? 
Now at the cruising height, we're atop the fluffy white clouds, which at a distance are like remote islands floating in a now hazy sea whose waters show but traces of the land masses below.  Sometimes we are drawing close to them, moving besides them, and we see them rise up and across towards us, billowing fully in 3 dimensions, like celestial icebergs, a well-defined yet immaterial presence.   Reflecting clear sunlight, they radiate the luminosity of paper lanterns, but here the light is coming from many directions. 
The scene below becomes gradually clearer revealing at first a largely uniform mass of sand with indistinct features.  It's seemingly washed out by the summer heat, but looking more closely reveals a few roads criss-crossing the landscape, and then shades of colour, with reddish hues and assorted patterns from the shadows of the clouds.  And above the clouds we only see our movement relative to the clouds, we only detect their movements through their shadows drifting across the static land... and dwelling there with our eyes can be discerned a few geometric plots of human habitation in the midst of ... and soon more is revealed: many more settlements - the haze is reducing and now there are traces of green, faint at first, and then of stronger hue - irrigation circles
And now all obscured again by a soft hazy blanket.   Empty space ... infinite space ... the horizon merges white and blue.  Textures and shade, layered, uniform, ... Then suddenly like twin prongs, two straight lines converge.  What are they?  Roads?  Pipes? Canals? I don't know.  We're approaching the coast.  The hazy view below makes it seem hazier above until a network of lines appears and an orange patchwork... and strips of cultivated land - they look like fields!  There's less haze and more detail ... and these patterns stretch far and wide. And we can see finer details in this patchwork - denser patterns, settlements, many houses.  Then we cross an expanse of water, perhaps a lake or an estuary? 
Now bolder strips of green, even the specks are prominent.  A river!  It twists and turns, with cultivation hugging its curves, and trees and forests, but still surrounded by sand. More irrigation circles, some having concentric radial discs.  As we continue north and west the landscape thickens - sometimes with mountain ridges, sometimes with vegetation and cultivations... Across the Black Sea into Eastern Europe and more familiar patchwork of fields... 

Very soon we were crossing the North Sea and over East Anglia, starting our descent.

It was only my third visit to the Manchester area, the last one was also mainly work-related (a meeting about Personal Learning Environments).  Actually, on that occasion I stayed not at a hotel, but a meditation centre, and on this occasion although I did stay in a hotel (Ibis, Portland Street), I had some free time to join a ceremony at its current location in Stockport.   Meditation helps me not to have my head 'in the clouds'... :-)