Saturday, April 30, 2011

On the lighter side-Travel- Turkey-2

The first thing I check whenever I am in a new place (or hotel) is how clean is the bathrooms and that is exactly what I did and I liked what I saw, a neat very clean bathroom with ample of towels and cleaning items. After settling down in the nice beds, I immediately took a shower and it was refreshing to have a nice bath. After that we were trying to decide whether to go out and find a burger area to eat our dinner but we decided that we were too tired to do that and ordered in room service. While the order was given, my daughter was playing with the remote and of all the 25 channels on the Television, only 1 (BBC world service) was in English, the rest were in Turkish or French or with Turkish subtitles.

Anyway after eating our burger (which was really big, delicious and fulfilling) we decided to hit the bed to wake up in the morning when our bus was supposed to be here by 8.00 to take us to the airport. In the morning, since we had only our carryon to pack, we went downstairs to get our breakfast and it was a big one with all kinds of things to choose from. After eating, our bus came and we headed back to the airport. After checking in with the immigration, we decided to eat burgers and some ice cream and then headed towards the final check in with our boarding passes and passports in hand to catch our flight to the U.S.

Just a note that I did not tune in to the internet for the at least 7 days and was really fine with it. You should try it too, it is not that difficult.

On the lighter side-Travel- Turkey

After an almost three hour journey, we reached Istanbul Ata Turk International airport. After going through the boarding passes for our connecting flight the next day and arguing with the staff of the Turkish airlines, we finally got our seats next to each other. Then after paying USD 20.00 each for a 90 day visas (each country which is suppose to get a visa on arrival in Turkey if you want to enter it will have different rates for visas of different durations. We came out of the immigration area and went straight to the Turkish airlines hotel reservation and converted some US dollars in Turkish Lira and boarded the bus to our hotel. As we exited the airport, we saw rain for the first time in 12 days and it was refreshing.

Our hotel was on the Ankara side of Turkey and the airport was on the Istanbul side. During our trip to the hotel, most of the people in our group were deciding to go to visit some famous landmarks in Istanbul and we decided that we were too tired to do any sight seeing on this trip and will come back when we come there exclusively for vacation. After reaching the hotel and getting keys to our room, we went upstairs to find that the room was filled with smell from someone smoking. We then had to call the reception desk to get it sprayed to clear the smoke.

On the lighter side-Travel- Iraq-13

At the first check point, we were asked to put our luggage on the ground and we were suppose to go and get physically checked by the guards while our bags and the buses were checked by dogs. After that the bags were again put back in the buses and we reached the final departure lounge where again we were subject to physical checkup and the bags again checked by dogs but not in front of us. Just to point one thing out that all the checking were done physically by the guards, while the men side was more relaxed, but on the women side my wife was saying that they checked thoroughly touching and squeezing the bra areas and the underwear area to make sure everything was fine. I happen to saw some U.S. officials at the airport by the way they were sporting tattoos.

After the physical check up, we proceeded to get our bags and get our boarding passes and then spent some time in the departure lounge. We were all dreary eyes and just wanted to take the flight as soon as possible to our next destination to Istanbul, Turkey. After our gates were announced and another round of security check up of our carryon luggage, we proceeded to enter the plane and leave the most amazing journey of our life behind.

On the lighter side-Travel- Iraq-11

When we reached the Samarra shrine, it was a sad view to see that the signs of destruction were still there. Although they are trying to rebuild it, but still it is really sad that even the people who are not in this world are not immune to the hatred of few crazed individuals. These individuals think that they will live forever or there will be party on the other side when they die. Hopefully, these individuals despite their vicious agenda will never win how much they apply their violent ways on peaceful people. We went inside the shrine and first did our prayers and then before entering the shrine we gathered to hear the story of how our Imams laid their lives and also the last Imam went into hiding because the ruler of that time wanted to kill him like he had done it before to his father. We stood there in respect and then after the recitation was done by the guide, we went inside the dome to pay our respect. It made me very sad and very mad at the same time to see the condition of the shrine and I prayed to God that it becomes again the beautiful shrine that it was before the bombing the next time I come back to see it. After paying our respect to the father of the hidden Imam, we went downstairs to the area where it is said that the hidden Imam Mehdi went into hiding from the forces of the then ruler. There it is said you’re your prayers are answered. After praying there, I came outside and started to heading back to our buses. On our way back to the buses, since it was so hot that we had to stop by some shop to get as much water and sodas as we can to quench our thirst.

After boarding our buses we headed towards Karbala and reached there a little after dark. After reaching our hotel and eating dinner. We went to our rooms to get rest and sleep to wake up again early in the morning for another trip to Baghdad- the capital city of Iraq which was 90 Kilometers (about 60 miles) from Karbala. Same as with Samarra, we encountered numerous check points and tanks along the way to Baghdad. Since the shrine was in a dense neighborhood of the city called Kadhimiya, we had to disembark at a bus stop to again walk to the shrine.

On the lighter side-Travel- Iraq-12

You cannot tell by all the traffic and rush in the city that this was the same place where bombings use to occur almost daily, but now all everybody wants to do is to make a few bucks to feed themselves and their family. After again walking to two or three checkpoints we reached our destination and after staying there for a few hours, we headed back to Karbala before sundown. Since we had to reach Baghdad airport in the morning which was two hours away, we headed straight to dinner and then packing again. We slept for about two hours and then headed back to the shrine to pay our final respect and then came back and packed our bags to be put in the lobby at about 3.30 in the morning.

Our bus came with a new passenger who was as we were told and confirmed later on was a veteran of Iraqi travel since he comes once a month. He was fluent in Arabic which was a big help in navigating with the Iraqi driver. Our journey towards the airport started in the early hours of the day when it was dark and we reached the outskirts of the Iraqi airport at the crack of dawn. Then a real checkpoint scenario started when we were told to disembark and put our luggage in the transportation ministry buses and then those buses will take us to the airport.

On the lighter side-Travel- Iraq-9

The next day was a free day for us, meaning we were free to do whatever we want in terms of praying visiting on our own the shrines, absorbing what was there and also paying our respect without time constraints. We decided to avail this opportunity by first getting up at a decent hour and then walking towards the shrine and also doing some shopping on the way. You really have to absorb the awe that you are in the presence of these great eminent personalities who were the household of Prophet Mohammed. It is really very hard to describe in words what you feel when you are there unless you truly love the Prophet and his family and the sacrifices they rendered in order to save us the true Islam which is peace and compassion for other people. The day went very fast and the next day we had to get up early in the morning to go to Samarra.
The next day we had to wake up at 4.00 a.m and get ready to leave by 6.00 in the morning to Samarra, since it was almost 5 hours drive from Karbala. We had to leave early because we had to come the same day back because of the precarious security situation there. This was the same place that was bombed by Al-Qaeda terrorists a few years ago in 2006 so there very few pilgrims stay there after dark. One of the guide person were saying that when they went to this place in early 2009, U.S. forces with their guns ready and tanks and APC’s (Armored personnel carriers) engine running on the pilgrims. Although I was not worried for now but the group wanted to make sure we visit it and make it back before dark.

As usual we did not start till almost 6.45 in the morning and then when we sat down, the journey became one long and excruciating sit in. Because you see when we left Karbala, we had to go through Baghdad and then we saw signs for Fallujah, Abu Ghareeb, Mosul and Ramadi (all Sunni Areas), and the situation in and around those areas is good but we did not wanted to test the security apparatus of Iraq. As soon as we left the Shiite Heartland, we started to encounter checkpoint after checkpoint. Every couple of miles, there was checkpoint, manned by Iraqi Forces with their Machine guns mounted APC on the ready. It was not as much a checkpoint as it was a slowdown of vehicles with barricades to stop any would be terrorist.

On the lighter side-Travel- Iraq-10

There were so many checkpoints during our trip to Samarra that either you become sick of it (we the tourists) or just get use to it (the local population) and further more the guards manning the posts were holding handheld thingamajig that they were scanning the buses with it. I guess it was to make sure there are no explosives or other types of ammunition on the buses. But one thing I have to say that the Iraqi army despite its shortcomings is doing a good job in trying to secure Iraq. I don’t know about protecting their borders but inside Iraq, they are doing a good job that is why we were seeing much hustle and bustle in the streets of Karbala and Najaf.

Now back to our trip, when we were approaching Samarra, one of the pilgrims took a picture of Iraqi guard manning the posts and it delayed our bus for quite a few minutes. The guard noticed that and with their M-16 boarded the bus and took the camera, he was really angry and wanted to take the camera permanently but after some talk with Iraqi guys traveling with us, he was calmed down. He told us that we are not allowed to take any pictures of the guards. Anyway when we reached Samarra, there were more Iraqi troops then usual with lots of APCs’ mounted with machine guns. As with other shrines, we had to park our buses much farther away from the shrine and had to walk there by foot interrupted by checkpoints.

Thursday, April 28, 2011

On the lighter side-Travel- Iraq-8

Although the heat was bearable but walking through one mile in that dry heat was enough to make you dehydrated. Also you had to go through several check points before reaching your destination. But it was an experience of a life time, as we were walking in a town which was more of a desert some 1500 years ago. This was the same area where the Battle of Karbala was fought between the household of Prophet Mohammed and the forces of Yazid. At that time, the access of water in the nearby river was denied for three days. At least we had water to rehydrate and I was drinking very little water but I was realizing how hard it was on them not to have water and still fighting the war exhausted with all the heat blazing. After we reached the shrine of Hazrat Abbas (A.S), the brother of Imam Hussein, we paid our respects and then went towards the shrine of Imam Hussein which was under construction. There were throngs of people around the area and our guide after we paid our collective respects outside told us that since it is Thursday and there might be rush so we should initially go individually into the shrine to pay our respects which we did and as with other shrines we had to first ask permission to enter which was inscribed on the entrance and then went inside.

After paying our respects to the shrines we had another walk of about 15 minutes before reaching our hotel. It was a very nice hotel, with all the amenities that you can see in any medium range hotel. It was getting to be night so after getting our rooms keys and putting our luggage in our rooms we headed towards the restaurant where it was a buffet style dinner.

Since we were too exhausted to do anything that day, we called it a day and went to bed early waking up the next day and then taking a shower. Our tour guide use to slip the next day’s itinerary through our hotel door late at night or have it posted on white board in the lobby so we were supposed to be prepared in advance. Although the timing when we had to leave to visit various place were strict but if you have tried to organize more than hundred people at one time, we always missed our departure time and even if we were in the lobby at the required time, sometimes the buses were late held up at

On the lighter side-Travel- Iraq-7

We knew that we had to take showers so we did take one but I knew that one shower would not be enough so the next day I woke up again to take another shower to make sure I had no sand in my hair. After that I went to again pray at the Imam Ali (A.S) mosque and then came back ate my breakfast and then went out again to a cemetery near our hotel which is considered as the biggest in the world. It also holds the graves of Prophet Hood and Saleh. It is said by our guide that wherever the good people are buried in the world, their souls come here to get buried again and wherever bad people are buried, their souls are taken to a cemetery in Yemen. After paying our respect to the respective prophets, we came back, ate lunch and then went out again to visit the house of Imam Ali (A.S.) and the place where he was martyred. His house was very small considering the fact that his three sons’ and his wives and other household people lived there. We also saw the place where his last rites were done. It was a very intense and emotional moment to witness and feel the earth where the household of Prophet Mohammed used to live and he used to visit them almost daily.
Then we went to the mosque where Imam Ali (A.S.) use to pray and where he was martyred. This is the same place where Prophet Noah built his ark and Prophet Abraham also prayed and where Prophet Adam and Eve came down and ask for God’s forgiveness for several years. It is also the place where almost every Prophet has prayed there. We also saw the exact place where Imam Ali (A.S.) was struck while praying his morning prayers and paid our respects. You really don’t want to leave that place since it is so peaceful, but being with a group with limited time, you had to follow their lead and left that Mosque with a heavy heart. Before leaving Najaf, I went back in the morning to pray and pay my last respect to Imam Ali (A.S.) vowing and promising to come back again with my family and my son.
After that we were ready to leave Najaf for our last stop of the journey to another holy city of Karbala (located about 90 kilometers from Najaf). Again we had to carry our carryovers to the bus stop. I had already exchanged some of my dollars into Iraqi Currency so I was fine with dealing with Iraqi shop keepers and vendors. After making our selves comfortable in the bus, the journey started which was a just a straight road.My eyes ventured outside to see how Iraq looks like during the day and it was just empty desert and nothing else. This country has more area than population and has great potential to be industrial power house if only their religious and ethnic differences can be solved and they can work together above that. But as we were moving closer to Karbala, the hot weather started to pick up. We encountered few check points during our way to the Karbala and finally we entered the city and encountered the traffic. Our bus stopped about a mile away from the shrines and our guide told us that in order to experience the true nature of the sacrifices rendered by our Imams, we will start walking bare foot towards the shrine. Although it was not mandatory but apart from some weak and old members of our group, everybody including children decided to experience.

On the lighter side-Travel- Iraq-6

The next day we had to travel to one of the cities outside Najaf called Kufa and the guide people were giving us face masks. I asked one of the guides why are you giving one and he said that it is because there may be a chance we may encounter a sand storm. Well I took one for each of my family members and then headed towards the bus taking us to Kufa. We went to one of the mosques where it is said that the pillars of the mosques bended because the body of Imam Ali (A.S.) was passing by. We went to another one where one of the companions of Imam Ali (A.S.) was buried. All these places we pray and gave our respects to the mosques. Then we went to one of the Mosques where it is believed that Imam Mehdi (A.S. our Current and final Imam comes every Tuesday to pray with the faithful and meets them though no body has known to see him as such but by the time they figure, he is not there. And at this mosque, we were at about after seven thirty we were hit with a sand storm. The signs had started to emerge early on and so I was already wearing the cloth mask on my face but when it started to hit hard that is when I was unable to see anything ten feet in front of me.

I was just getting blinded by this sand storm and since it was the first time I was encountering it, it was a new experience for me. In spite of having a face mask it was hard for me to see things in front of me and our guide told us that we should better start leaving early rather than get further caught up with the sand storm which did not seem to be ending and we had to leave without doing some other essential prayers. We were glad that we reached our buses which were parked nearby but going back to our hotel was a hassle since the buses were driving slowly due to very poor visibility. Reaching the spot where the buses were supposed to be parked, we had another walk trip back to the hotel and then we had to endure the same sand storm till we reached our hotel which was also covered in sand.

On the lighter side-Travel- Iraq-5

Although you may think that after the Iraqi-Iran war of the 80s there would be some hatred towards the Iranians and there indeed maybe but I believe that money has conquered that thing since you see that most of the shrines in Iraq are being renovated, expanded, remodeled, reconstructed or just being maintained with Iranian money. You can’t deny that influence of the Iranians is everywhere in Iraq.

My mornings use to start with going to the shrine of Imam Ali (A.S.) praying there and then come back since we always had a heavy schedule for the day. The first day after arriving in Najaf, the whole group went to the Shrine Imam Ali and prayed there and held a congregation to remember his greatness. You see he was killed by one of his enemies while praying in one of the mosques (Masjid Kufa) and brought to his current burial site to be laid to rest. After the congregation, the whole group for the first time paid our respects inside the shrine where as usual we had to ask for permission to enter his house. People were there crying and praying. It was really very incredible that the things you read in the books, I was witnessing first hand in front of me. I seemed to very blessed to be there which makes it really hard to leave once you have to for your home since you feel that is the place which is also like a home to you. We had a heavy schedule ahead of us while our stay in Najaf.

Anyway one of days we went to see Grand Ayatollah As-Sistani, the same religious figure whom the Americans courted during the initial stages of the Iraqi war since he has great influence over the majority of the Iraqi Shiites. I don’t know if it was his office or his house but it was small sandwiched between other old houses near the holy shrine.To reach him, you have to go through at least five check points in a space of one thousand feet. His security is very tight. His office has no chair or sofa or table to boost and you have sit on the floor, when he came in, he just sat in front of us and started replying to some of the questions people in our group had about certain religious matters. He was very humble enough to give detailed answers to each of the questions. Since our appointment time with him was only for one hour, we had to rush since other people/group was in line to meet him too. Before going out of his house/office, he offered every guest or person in our group a small ring as a token of gift. Meeting him was so much amazing since here you see a person who is one of the most powerful figures in not only Iraq but also of the Shiite Muslims world and he is so humble in his living and dress that you start to think about how other public figures live to the extreme in large houses and palaces and still can’t sleep well at night thinking about how would they survive the next day in a democracy or dictatorship.

On the lighter side-Travel- Iraq-4

It is really sad that in a country awash with oil, there is still not enough electricity to guarantee its population uninterrupted supply. But I saw that people in Najaf were not complaining, maybe they are use it by now or just because they are near a holy shrine that they tend not to complain but I have noticed that even away from the shrine there is not much complaining going on. Entering the shrine again you have to go through various check point since there is still the real possibility of violence terrorists attack. But overall it was peaceful with shops nearby selling variety of stuff and numerous small hotels (which can be called Inn, motel, lodge etc) lining the area leading to and surrounding the golden dome holy shrine.The mornings in Najaf were cold enough like here in New York that you need to wear your jacket but as the day progresses it becomes hot but bearable. The only thing you have to do is to drink lots of water to remain hydrated since it is dry hot weather.

We had the opportunity to do some shopping and it was rather cheap as compared to Syria or Turkey. The other thing that I saw that made me thinking that apart from the obvious Arabic and English spoken and understood, you can also find people like the shopkeepers and guards speaking Persian. Persian is not only understood somewhat but Iranian currency is widely accepted. You can see huge number of Iranian pilgrims in the Najaf area since they can be spotted easily with their language and loud voices.

On the lighter side-Travel- Iraq-3

Just to warn you in advance that the garbage situation in Iraq is really bad. You can throw your stuff on the road or on the side of the road and nobody would care. But you have to understand that the Iraqis are trying to secure the land and security is the number one issue, so it can be understandable that garbage collection and disposable would be the last on the minds of Iraqi officials running the government. Other thing that I noticed was that it is no use being courteous and saying Thank you, sorry or excuse me as you would not be heard or ignored by the people. You have to blend in with the crowd and leave your manners at home.

We reached hotel finally and then found out about our rooms and there to have a brief rest and then come down again for lunch. As with the food in Syria, the food in the hotel was good. The utilities situation is not that great but you can be rest assured that all the stores and the hotels have standby generators whenever there are breakdowns in electricity. The water situation was really good and there is plenty of it. But overwhelming majority of the people use bottled water which is available everywhere and cheaply at about 21 cents a half liter bottle. Iraqi uses the currency called Dinar which is right now equivalent to 1185 to a U.S. dollar.

On the lighter side-Travel- Iraq-2

Anyway I started to look outside while travelling to our hotel and you can see the ancient roads and areas. Iraqi troops were everywhere and you could see them but not that much as the security has much improved in the south of the country away from the Sunni dominated areas. Since our hotel was near one of the holiest Shiite Shrine in the world, the Shrine of Imam Ali (the First Shiite Imam, Prophet Mohammed Cousin, Son-in-law, the fourth Caliph), the moment I saw it and it struck me as I was dreaming as not in my wildest imaginations that I would have dreamt of coming here and seeing it with my own eyes. We had to disembark from our buses and walk to our hotels. Starting near the road, we had to go through a physical check; the women had to go through the women side and the men through the other side. Since being in a holy city, the women had to wear the hijab plus the traditional long dress called Abaya. It covers the whole of the female body.

Going through the physical check post, the guard was asking questions about our nationality (I don’t know why) but when it was my turn, he asked me and I said American the guard smiled and said to me in Arabic “Welcome”. It was surprise to hear those words coming from the Iraqi troops guarding the check post. Then we started to go towards our hotel which was almost two avenues in total but if you are carrying your carryon luggage and it is hot outside you would feel an eternity to walk. There was renovation going on near the shrine and the dirt and the heat was not that unbearable but I saw many kids begging or selling stuff on the street.

On the lighter side-Travel- Iraq

Since the flight duration was small and the airplane also small, there was less legroom to stretch our legs. We arrived at the An-Najaf International airport in Iraq deep in the heart of the Shiite world. Americans were the last nationality to get their visas surprising for us since our forces are still there. One thing to note in Iraq and Syria is that people smoke a lot and then smoke even when they are standing right below or next to the sign saying “No Smoking” in both English and Arabic so you have to be careful to avoid sitting next to or walking by some guy smoking. Because if you are a non smoker the smell of the smoke can give you a headache, coughing or breathing problem immediately.

Anyway it was starting to become boring seeing everybody getting their visas issued and we were the last ones to get one. But once we finally did, we headed towards the immigration counter to get it processed. After that we looked for our luggage and then got to one of the buses waiting for its last passengers. It was a hot day but not that bad considering what we had been told it would be in Najaf, Iraq. The buses were obviously air conditioned and so we departed the airport where I am not sure I saw some U.S. combat soldiers but maybe I was wrong since the Iraqi forces now wear their own dark blue/black uniforms and sometimes they wear the uniforms provided by the U.S.

On the lighter side-Travel- Syria-9

Since our flight to Iraq was next morning, we made sure that everything is packed the previous night and we had a good night sleep. Waking up the first thing I had to do is to make sure the bags are down in the lobby of the hotel by a certain time. You can just imagine that if there are two slow elevators and almost 120 people trying to haul their bags down at the same time, it would take much time to wait for the elevator to come up empty and then you have to put your bags in and bring it down. Even then you would not go down directly but maybe stop in some other floors since it was also breakfast time and people were coming up and down. Before leaving Syria, we had to make sure that we paid our respect to Lady Zainab (A.S.). First my wife went early in the morning to do just that and when she came back I did the same thing. Entering it again, I wasted no time in going directly to the shrine and touched the shrine and praying for my family and my wife’s family and whoever I could think in my mind at that time. It is so peaceful just sitting there and prayer that you don’t want to leave the place. Everybody is there for just one purpose to ask the Lady Zainab’s Intervention to God to forgive our sins and pray for the fulfillment of our wishes. I was very sad that we were there only for one day but we did accomplish a lot during that whole day. Giving my last respect for this trip, I heavy heartedly left the shrine promising to come back again if given another chance and went to the hotel.

In addition to our group going to Iraq, another group was in the lobby coming to Syria so you can well imagine the demand on the elevators was tremendous. After our breakfast and the bags in the lobby, we had to wait for the bus to take us to the airport. Arriving at the airport was not that much hassle but then we had to go through the immigration and getting our boarding cards. Our guide did a good job organizing the passports of different nationalities into their respective groups so that it would be easier for the immigration officials and airline people to give us the boarding passes. We did not have any assigned seats and the plane was small enough to accommodate our entire group with one of the regional airlines since the flight time was less than two hours.

On the lighter side-Travel- Syria-8

As with other developing countries, there is little to no traffic sense and you have to navigate yourself carefully through the traffic with your hands on the horn all the time since it is the only way to let other people pay attention to you and avoid an accident. After visit the shrine of Hazrat Hujar bin Kundi, we proceed to a place called Bab-i-Saghir (roughly translated into the Little Door) this is the place where the heads of the Martyrs of Karbala (more of it in my future posts) was brought in by the forces of Yazid and washed. There we cried for a while listening to the torture inflicted on the household of Prophet Mohammed by the enemies of Islam. We then went into another area in the same compound where the heads of the Martyrs of Karbala were kept. After paying our respect to them and cursing the people who killed them, we then proceeded to the graveyard beside them. It is a vast graveyard holding the bodies of the companions of the household of the prophet. We visited the first Moazan (a person who give calls to prayer) of Islam. We also went to see the Maid of household of Prophet. It is said that she was very wealthy and could have stayed with her family but decided that it is much better to serve the Prophet’s household. Walking through the graves is not easy since you are trying to be careful not to step on any of the graves.

Since we were travelling on a bus, during the afternoon after our visit to the graveyard just outside it we were entertained to a packaged meal which we ate a little and the rest was given to a guy who was collecting for poor people or somebody else. After that our guide decided to take us to the specific bazaar of Damascus where the ladies (and children and men) of the household of the Prophet were paraded to the court of Yazid. We had a little mourning period right outside the bazaar and then we started to proceed towards the court of Yazid through the bazaar. It was a surreal moment since we walking taking the same steps as the Prophet’s household took in chains and bruised and injured to the court of Yazid. You can just imagine how humiliating it would have been for them to walk like that when you have known that those were the same ladies not seen without a viel outside for a second now being paraded without one. Reaching the palace of Yazid I saw a huge courtyard where you can see the whole court being flashed in front of your eyes almost 1500 years ago.
Inside the palace we saw the grave of John the Baptist (the Muslims call him Prophet Yahiya) and did a Majlis (rough translation a congregation of sort remembering the hardships of the household of the Prophet) there. It was also told by our guide that previously thousands of Christians use to come pay a visit to his gravesite but now due to the political situation in Syria, they have stopped coming. After that we went to a place where the head of Imam Hussein (the Grandson of Prophet Mohammed) was kept after being brought by the forces of Yazid. It is hard to control your tears when you are in such a place, but you also feel lucky that you have been to such a place. Thousands of devotees and followers come to this place to pay their respect and give whatever money they could give inside the glass covered dome. After paying our respects there, we excited the palace to go through the small lanes of the bazaar to the shrine of BIBI Sakina (A.S.) (the Daughter of Imam Hussein) who was the favorite of Imam Hussein and who died at a young age of four. The shrine is very big and very beautiful and thousands and maybe millions of devotees come there and give their regards to her. She really was touched by what happened to her family but she was brave enough to endure it and it is so incredibly sad that Yazid would be so vicious enough in his hatred to harm some innocent child. I saw some dolls inside the shrine and I really became sad that she did not even had the opportunity to play and saw so much sadness in her life at such a young age. There we prayed the evening prayers and gave our final respects to her and then proceeded towards where our buses were to take us back to the hotel. Coming back after a tiring 11 hour journey around the city and visiting religious sites, it was nice to have a hearty meal and going back to our rooms to start packing again for the next and final leg of our journey to Iraq.

On the lighter side-Travel- Syria-7

Although we did not do much shopping in Syria due to time constraints but one thing to notice for American is how easy is to bargain and haggle with the sellers on the street and the shopkeepers. There are no price labels and when you ask the price, usually that is not the final price and there is always room to haggle. It would also be nice if you can speak Arabic or have some common daily spoken knowledge of it since it helps to keep a rapport with the sellers and there is less chance that you would be charged an outrageous price. We did went through some bazaars of Damascus and saw ordinary common folk selling stuff on the side walks and the better organized people selling in the stores.

Since Syria is a considerably liberal country, you can see a variety of dresses for women like some wearing the traditional Hijab, but some also wearing skirts and jeans. We also went outside Damascus to see the shrine of Hazrat Hujar Bin Kundi (it is said that Lady Zainab has said that one who visits my shrine and does not visit his will be as if he or she has done an incomplete visit to her) . He was one of the most loyal companions of the Cousin and Son in law of Imam Ali who was tortured to death by the ruler of his time for speaking the truth to the ruler for which he was killed without mercy. When we gave our respects to him, our guide had told the group that he would be giving one of the prayer mats in the shrine to whoever should ask. It just happened that he had two of them and my wife was the first one to ask for it and he obliged with giving the first to her. This shrine is visited by thousands of people each year and as with other shrines you have to take off your shoes and ask for permission to enter it. On the way back I saw some military activity but nothing that would alarm or alert anybody like if you move around here near a military base and you see some soldiers, same was the case with Syria with no signs of violence or chaos (at the time of my visit around the second week of April, 2011). Driving around Damascus you can really feel like you are in an ancient city with modern facilities.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

On the lighter side-Travel- Syria-6

After taking a well deserved rest (which was not that much) we went out walking in the old city area. There is dirt and garbage everywhere and the traffic does not stop just because you are waiting to cross the road. You have to wait till there is no traffic in order to stop. Since we were supposed to be in the city for just one day, we had to make the most of it with our group or without. The room of the hotel was nice. After taking shower and changing into new clothes, I went to the dome of Lady Zainab (A.S.) for the first time. You see when you go to somebody’s house; you knock on the door or ring the bill to wait for the owner of the house to open the door for you. The same thing happens when you enter any of the holy shrines like this of Lady Zainab (A.S.). After asking permission (written on the walls on the entrance), I went inside to visit the grave of the Great Lady. I could not have imagined that one day I would standing in front of the shrine of the Lady Zainab, who according to narrations sacrificed all in order to bring down the fall of the ruler of that time (Yazid- God curse him to hell). After touching and kissing the walls of the shrine, I then prayed there for my family and my wife’s family and then gave my farewell respects of the day and went to the hotel. I then joined my family to have a breakfast which consisted of Arab and Western food, like eggs, coffee, bread, fruits, lamb and chicken meat etc. After completing it our buses were ready to take us to our destination. Before doing that I had the chance to change my currency into U.S. dollars, with the current rate at 47 Syrian pounds to a U.S.Dollar.

Being in a hotel has it own issues like poor ladies and boys storming to beg you for the money and sometimes they are relentless so it is better to avoid them. Although the roads are crowded and the garbage is collected but being a poor country, it does not take much to see the poverty all around you. The most striking thing that I saw in Damascus was the picture and portrait of their President (sometimes along with his father) almost everywhere even in stores. Since I was a tourist and not a reporter I was not about to gauge the popularity of their president by asking the hotel people or the bus driver or any store owner.

On the lighter side-Travel- Syria-5

We reached Damascus, Syria after midnight and that is where we met up with our group at the airport. The airport was deserted with just our group of people maybe 14 trying to get through the immigration. Our guide was outside so the immigration guy had to ask one of our people to go outside and check if he is still there. He came inside and since he spoke Arabic was able to get through the immigration faster. After getting our luggage (after paying the required cart fees), we went outside and there were more people supposedly waiting to help us with our luggage. I wanted to avoid them but they were forceful enough and I had to give them 2 U.S. dollars (equivalent to 94 Syrian Pounds) and boarded our bus for the hotel. It was chilly outside and being after midnight was quiet on the roads.

I did not see at that time any sign of trouble or troop movements in Damascus and it was just a sleepy (literally) city like any other in the world. I was excited to be in Damascus because it is the oldest continuously inhabited city of the world and considered to be one of the oldest in the world so we were driving through the roads and streets of history. Reaching the hotel in one of the oldest parts of the city was a welcome relief and the hotel was not half bad. The weather was rather chilly like that you encounter in New York so it was a pleasant surprise. The main purpose was to visit the Islamic holy sites and the instant view of the dome of Lady Zainab (A.S.) (Grand Daughter of Prophet Mohammed) was a sight to watch. It is surely true that a picture is worth a thousand words. The dome was shinning in the light and it was a huge Golden one.

On the lighter side-Travel- Syria-4

Although Turkey is a Muslim Country but alcohol is served and available freely and this is what was offered on their airline also along with the regular assortment of sodas and water. Food is good but it all depends on your taste. After we landed at the Istanbul airport for a brief stopover (almost 5 hours), we were faced with the choice of what to do with those hours. The first thing I did was to convert my American money with theirs. One U.S. dollar is equivalent to approximately 1.53 Turkish liras. Although all the international airports are expensive but I was shocked to particularly see that Istanbul airport was really expensive. Your American dollars don’t really go far enough here.

A small ice cream cone (Turkish one) with one scoop cost 4 U.S. dollars. Prices are usually quoted in U.S. dollars, Euros and Turkish liras. We were hungry as it was lunch time and we found Burger king but as usual with 10 dollars burgers and 4 dollars cokes. But what can you do if you have hungry family and you cannot go outside the airport. It is not that big of an airport but with usual international variety of shops, cafes, restaurants, souvenir shops and currency exchanges. Passengers waiting to catch their plane or in transit waiting for their flight to depart. When our plane gate was announced, we went through the usual security checkup before boarding a plane to Damascus, Syria.

On the lighter side-Travel- Syria-3

Since our flight was at night, we had ample of time to reach the airport. If you may have read the news regarding the uproar over the scanners at the airports, we did not encounter any and the security clearance went smoothly. The best part about the night flights are if you are with kids, they can go to sleep right away and don’t wake up till the end of the flight and this is what happened to us too. Our flight was Turkish airlines going to Istanbul; the flight time was approximately nine hours. My wife and daughter went to sleep right away but since I hate sleeping one seat, I decided to watch some movies on the small TV screen installed on the back of the seat in front of me.

The airline is a clean one with plenty of entertainment on the TV screen in several languages. The movies were latest still playing in the movie houses or were out on DVD but not yet on pay TV. If you want to watch classic movies you can go to the classic channel and see old movies. Besides movies, there were TV shows, video games, documentaries and KID shows. Once we were up in the air, the flight attendants started to bring us drinks and snacks. Although I was seated in an aisle seat (which I like the best since I don’t have to bother anybody to get up and go to the rest room) but sometimes it is annoying since you have to keep your elbow in so that it does not get physically harassed by other passengers passing by or the flight attendants trays of food.

On the lighter side-Travel- Syria-2

After getting our visas and flight ticket (which were done by our group organizers) the main step for us was to pack our stuff. Since my wife have not been to a third world (or for that matter any international destination) for the last 9 years and my daughter has not set foot in a developing country, it was just a challenge to start packing stuff according to the developed world standards. We knew that everybody drinks bottled water in Syria and Iraq and also the food in the hotels would all be clean, but still fear of the unknown took over us and we started to pack snacks and medicines (in case of sickness) and clothing for the duration of the trip.

We always over pack stuff and then regret it later on to carry heavy stuff on our carryon baggage. But as the saying goes “better safe than sorry”, we put clothing like there was no laundry in those countries. We also packed our laptop, since we assumed that in this day and age, the hotels in those countries would have wireless internet from where we can connect to the outside world. Anyway packing is the most stressful part of the journey and may take days to complete and even when you are done you want to make sure one more time before the night you leave that every thing in place.

On the lighter side-Travel- Syria

Well right now the travel to Syria may not be on the lighter side but this is what I and my family went this month to two volatile countries- Syria and Iraq (whose travel adventures I will describe later) and on the way we had a stopover in Istanbul, Turkey. But anyway starting with Syria, when we were making plans to go there (with a big group), I was just praying that all goes well. Most of the people whom I spoke to with my travels plans were very surprised and concerned that I was first of all going to the middle east as it is not one of the favorite destinations of Americans or for any one not there for the first time but of all places Syria and also Iraq. They had started to question my choice of vacation and that too with my family.

As opposed to Syria, I was much more relaxed with Iraq since I knew that it was much calmer as compared to Syria and also we had our forces there and it has already gone through it shares of extreme violence and was much settled in terms of disruptions and violence. But coming back again to Syria, the first step was to get the visa, since we were traveling with a group, the visa was the responsibility of the tour guide and it did not take much time to get one. As for the Iraqi visas, we were supposed to get at an Iraqi airport. Just to make a note here that it would have been harder especially for the Americans to get individual visas of Syria as opposed to a group one.

The problems of unemployment in the developing world

The upheaval going on in the Arab world is not only about political freedoms or overthrow of government but about the chronic problem of unemployment. Most of the Arab population is young but their opportunities to gain employment are next to none due to corruption, cronyism and lack of industrialization in their countries. All this lack of opportunity breeds resentment and frustration since these youths have few areas to channel or vent their frustration. Due to the high unemployment, many young men are not able to get married and thus can’t support a family.

The fear that was keeping this youth from protesting their living standards vanished as they see no hope in getting gainful employment and this was the last resort that they had to take and stand up to their governments to make their lives better if they can. Once the potential to face down the fear is vanished and having nothing to lose, these youths have come out in force to demand a say in their country’s affairs and demand an end to corruption, cronyism, nepotism, and favoritism and general lack of jobs. This was bound to happen sooner or later, they were just waiting for a spark to give them the impetus to protest.

The echoes of Democracy

Few years back when the former U.S. President declared that the goal of the U.S. was to spread democracy starting with Iraq, many people were skeptical since that area of the world is not known for ideas of democracy especially when it is being imposed from outside. But the recent events in Tunisia, Egypt, Jordan, Bahrain, Libya, Syria, Yemen and now Morocco have shown that democracy is being craved by all the people there. When the idea of democracy was initially floated, it was resisted or dismissed by many people in the Arab world because they did not wanted to be associated with anything that the U.S. has to offer.

But ultimately the fever of democracy is catching fire not due to some U.S. encouragement but because the people living there are just fed up with their living standards and lack of opportunities while the world surround them is passing by them very fast. They want the same thing as many other people around the world want but before there was a fear of what would have replaced the long running and deeply entrenched governments. But the fear of the governments has started to vanish slowly in the hearts of the people and they believe that if they are united then they have nothing to fear and in order to achieve their goals they will have to sacrifice. Although the struggle to have democracy has just started but surely the first steps by the people have been taken and there is no turning back for them.

The cost of wedding attendance

If you have ever attended a wedding, you would know that how much it becomes expensive to go to one. If you are alone, you maybe even afford some tuxedo or a suit which you have not worn for a while to get it dry cleaned and wears it to the function. But if you have a family with kids you would know that the expense can run into hundreds with new clothes for the spouse and kids, gifts and then reaching to the place of the wedding.

You can easily get away with not attending if the wedding clashes with your other activities or the couple are not that close with you but if it happens to be your family or your best friend then there is no choice you have to attend. Locally you can manage with just going there by your car and getting a gift. But if it is in another city and you have to fly in there, then the cost of attending the wedding with your family can easily run into thousands with the airfare and hotel accommodation, clothing, cab fare and gift buying. In this economy if the wedding is in your family then you don’t have much choice but if not then you can always skip and just send them a gift with apologies enclosed and it would be understandable.

On the lighter side-Movies- Knight and Day

Tom Cruise stars in this confusing and utterly useless waste of a time movie as an agent who is always ready to fight and survives various assassination attempts on him and along the way tag along Cameron Diaz as the somewhat unwilling accomplices. Lots of action but no story whatsoever and hard to keep your attention. For me I just wished it would have ended much sooner. Anyway don’t be fooled by the top stars names (I was) and avoid this movie at all costs. Not Recommended.