Mosques Tell of Meaning, Direction and Settlement

Display at the Sultan Masjid, Singapore.

Display at the Sultan Masjid, Singapore.

I’m lost in a book. On the way to work, during lunch, on the way back home, and in every spare moment I can squeeze out of the day, I’ve been reading “In the Footsteps of the Prophet” by Tariq Ramadan, a biography of the Prophet Muhammad (peace and blessings be upon him) that extracts lessons from his life with love, thoughtfulness and careful attention.  It is a spectacular read, and accessible for any audience. Before I reflect on the book in its entirety though (I’m halfway through) I wanted to reflect on a passage I read today that has relevance for how we understand and address contemporary conflicts about the development of mosques.

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Great Cities Are Like Great Books

Bandung 2012

Bandung 2012

You’re no use to Toronto if you only know Toronto. You’ve got to leave and see other places. Great cities are like great books. As a planner, you have to see as many as you can.  – Joe Berridge, Urban Strategies

A doctor spends years learning the intricacies of the body. An artist spends years learning their craft. But how does one become a person with a deep knowledge of cities?

One answer is to travel. Last year as graduate students we had the opportunity to sit with Joe Berridge of Urban Strategies and Ricky Burdett, the Director of the LSE Cities program in a small student seminar after a large public lecture, and both of them gave the same advice. That as young planners seeking to develop our skills, we have to leave Canada for a few years and immerse ourselves in studying the great metropolitan cities.  Both of them also strongly advised me to learn Arabic.

When I went to Bandung this summer, I thought a lot about this advice.  While I think there are caveats to travel – that you must do so responsibly, ethically and intentionally and not with a selfish desire to collect ‘cool experiences’, seeing the tremendous social capital of Bandung (theories around social capital began in Indonesia) was a lesson that travel has the potential for good. Visiting Singapore was another tremendous education.

I read a WashingtonPost piece this week about a growing trend of Americans leaving the States and going to Asia and the ME to work. Though the article is about people moving out of America because they can’t find employment locally – I’ve been thinking about the article ever since. Though Canada has always been home, perhaps at some point to be a well rounded planner it is necessary to take one’s anxieties about major moves and reframe that into intentional learning in a new location. In the meantime, I’m lucky to be close to an academic library, and right now there is a stack of books in my room about Indonesia and Cairo, and how faith is negotiated in cities (questions that I find particularly compelling) more generally. As I read and continue my studies, I hope to share thoughts here with you. I was in Toronto recently for my convocation ceremony, and being in the city again and having long chats with friends and mentors over chai and good food was an energising and inspiring reminder that though the unknown is scary, it’s a gift to be young and at the beginning of your learning and contributions.

(Below, notes from the seminar I mentioned above.)

Ricky Burdett

  •  LSE started a program that combines city design and social science. It’s the only school of social science that bring these issues together
  • Book: Living in the Endless City. Also has a website that is updated quite regularly
  • Discipline of understanding cities is about two dimensions: macro and micro. People may be thinking at one scale and not think about other scale at all. Cities are aging.  European cities are aged, but African cities are very young cities.
  • Importance of being interdisciplinary in dealing with issues. It has the risk of being an amateur of many things and a specialist of nothing. But that is what is necessary for good cities: need to know a bit of everything.
  • Design is one of many components.
  • In many cities, people show much more interest (than is shown in Canada) in what other cities are doing. City builders look internationally to see what other places are doing. Expecially in when sitting in relative comfort of Toronto, important to look at Bangkok.
  • You don’t want to have no idea what is going on rest of world. Need to bring where you are into your understanding of the rest of the world. Be an actor, know what’s going on.
  • We talk about phenomenon: but not the shape of cities.
  • Mexico city: endless city because it doesn’t end, but also not classical form of European cities.
  • 7-8 years of LSE Cities research is framed by three statistics:

a)2% of earth’s surface is occupied by cities.
b)53% of world’s population lives in cities.
c)33% of city dwellers live in slums

  • People move because they have a better opportunity of quality of life for children.
  • Mumbai like living in bird of gold because if things work you come in at the bottom, move up and then you fly. No doubt that urbanization comes with massive benefits if you channel urbanization properly.

Q: Where do planners fit into the developing world?
A: What is role of someone whose role is formal planning regulation in places of informal planning regulation? There is space but it requires a different way of doing planning. 75% of world’s CO2 emissions are produced by cities. As economy improves, people expect dignity of basic amenities and “modern facilities”. Not difficult to find tower blocks in new age cities. Don’t believe in one normative approach of cities, of someone saying “do it this way, and any other approach is wrong”. If wanted to be normative though, New York is good. It has continuous housing stock, and urban fabric. Very little possibility of resilience in totally zoned cities.

Mexico City, 2005.

This shows how we go from social to environmental. In 2005, there were 4 hour commuting times per day.The more city is spread out, the more infrastructure spreads, therefore can’t support a bus. Infrastructure of 22 million people is spread this way. Think about what kind of police officer and nurse will you be with those kind of commute times? What kind of family will you have? Think of your social life and what you are like as a parent.
Convenience mentioned as something as very important in HK. Everyone wants to be 12 minutes from work. In Rome, restaurant and friends are important. So context is always important.

Terima Kasih For the Memories

It’s the last day of my trip, and I leave for the Changi airport (I’ve been in Singapore again for the past six days) in about an hour to start the trek back to Canada. It’s been an amazing month, and I feel so blessed and grateful for the chance to have made this trip. From the University of Toronto David Chu Travel Scholarship in Asia Pacific Studies and the Peter Walker Travel Scholarship that made it possible financially, to our wonderful professor Ibu Rachel that set up an amazing field course for us, the beautiful and friendly people we met in Indonesia, my extraordinary host family in Singapore, the amazing staff at our hotel in Bandung, family and friends who prayed for a successful trip and encouraged me to go, fellow students, and new friends in Singapore who showed me around, there are so many people that came together to make this trip possible. I hope there will be other trips after this one, but even so, this time will always hold a treasured place in my heart.

I hold a debt of gratitude, and before I leave, I want to make the intention that over the next days, weeks, months to come, I take these experiences and translate them into action. I want this trip to be a means of becoming a better, kinder person, who is engaged in service, who is a better social planner, who is improved for having made the journey. The blogging dropped off over the past couple of weeks as we became more involved in our research and it became increasingly difficult to verbalize internal reflections, but one of the things that I’ve been thinking about a lot during the past few weeks is that fun is a luxury that few can afford to have. Bandung is an amazing, trendy city, but it is also a city with tremendous poverty. $100 Canadian goes a long way, but the equivalent amount, 900,000 rupiah is difficult to earn.

In the past couple of weeks I hiked through the tropical rainforest, visited volcanoes, dined in the mountains/hills of Bandung, visited museums, and shared experiences with new friends. It’s been great, and now that the trip is coming to an end, it is tempting to think of the next stamp on the passport, the next neat sight to see, the next cool picture to take. Except the majority of people in Bandung are simply making a living. The roadside vendors, the men who carry a portable stove on their backs so can they can sell their wares, the men who play the guitar for you when your angkut (minibus) stops at a traffic light, the people carving wood into familiar shapes in the forest to sell to tourists, so many people are simply trying to feed their kids, and seeing this helps you realize that the abundance that we have, from plentiful water, to clear air, to trees, to education, are gifts that demand to be used in the appropriate way.

Terima Kasih (Thank you) for reading the few entries about the trip, and hopefully there will be more reflections/stories/pics in the weeks to come. The actual work begins now!

Goodbye Tea, hello Indonesian Coffee

I’ve been sitting in the courtyard of our hotel for the past few hours with the intention of writing this blog post, but I’ve been caught up in conversations about quantitative research methodology, the beauty of Bandung, the ethics of international travel, and how Islam is manifested in Britain, and the richness of the discussions have taken me away from my computer. Rich discussions and learning have been the highlight of today, a day that has been full of beautiful new places, interesting reflections and trying to stretch my courage muscles to try new things.

Which is something I forgot to mention yesterday in my post about intentions. Yesterday I was feeling a bit overwhelmed about all the new unfamiliar things we’ve been observing and experiencing, and realised that in addition to the academic goals I mentioned in the last entry, there are personal intentions I have for the trip. In essence, because I’m not very good at dealing with change, I want to focus on reframing anxiety into adventure, and recognising that for the next month, I have the wonderful privilege of (as my roommate beautifully described it) of waking up each morning and having the sole job of learning about Indonesia, and soaking up as much knowledge and experiences as I can. To extend this learning, I want to focus on stretching my courage muscles, trying new things, and God willing, putting forth my best effort to make this a meaningful experience. (Our tour guides, our professors and so many other people are so keen on facilitating our learning, that it seems poor form to not put in my best effort too). I also want to focus on becoming more directionally savvy, because so far I still don’t have my bearings in  Bandung, and I want to be able to navigate the city with a bit of familiarity.

And so today, in an attempt to be a tiny bit more courageous, I started the day by experimenting with Indonesian coffee. I’m a tea-lover, but today tried my first cup of coffee after many months. And oh, I fell in love! I’ve had four cups so far today, which is more coffee than I’ve probably had in the last year, but Indonesian coffee is simply that good. The rest of the day passed in an equally exceptional fashion. We had an amazing walking tour of the city that started with a visit to the Governor’s house, which is the seat of  the governor of the West Java province and the local mayor’s office, and then walked all the way to the top of the building where we could see all of Bandung. From above, you can really see how green and beautiful the city is, and the mountains are breathtaking.

From there we continued our walking tour and saw different areas of the city, took the local para-transit system of shuttles called Ankut Kotor, which was an adventure in and of itself (it’s not clear which shuttle goes where, and the passengers are really packed in tightly in the van) , went to the Asian-African Museum, which details the Bandung conference of 1955 (where the term third world emerged), went to the Grand Mosque of Bandung, went to an amazing lunch at a local restaurant, and finally ended our day at ITB, the Bandung Institute of Technology, where we learnt more about the school and got feedback on our research projects.  I was impressed by the depth of knowledge of our hosts- all of us have such different research interests, and yet regardless of topic, they were able to suggest wonderful resources to help us get started. Our hosts also are speaking to us in English, which is not their first language, but are doing so well that I feel silly about my own hesitancy in practising languages I’m not comfortable with (such as Urdu) and am committed on being more courageous on that front once we return. By the time we left ITB it was Maghrib (the evening prayer) time, and so I went back with some of the students from our program to the hotel.

But even with the early evening end, it was an incredible day where at each stage, there was so much to take in and explore. On one street called Jalan Brago ( I think) we learnt that though things look unplanned, there is informal housing intended to support the formal work in the area.We learnt that the street is connected to Pasir Baru (the old market) and that there is a logic to the structure of the street. When we went to the Grand Mosque it was time for Dhuhr (the midday prayer) and so as we approached the mosque we could hear the adhaan, or the call to prayer. I was surprised how emotional I felt hearing it, but it’s been so long since I’ve heard the call to prayer from the street, and hearing it made it real in a visceral tangible way where we’re in a place where it’s ok to be Muslim. Where being Muslim isn’t immediately connected to assumptions of patriarchy or exaggerated media representations. I wouldn’t say I’m experienced discrimination really in the past, but it surprises me how good it feels to see so many Muslims, and to really feel like you belong. I felt this most strongly in Singapore, where many locals asked me if I was Singaporean or Malay, and I would look around the MRT car and realise that I really did physically resemble many of the people on the train. I felt more at home there than I have when I visited Karachi, but as of yet, I’m not sure what one does with that realization, since I identify most with Canada and that is home. Oh for a world with the comfort and invisibility of South East Asia, combined with the loveliness of Toronto and Vancouver!  In any case, while it lasts it’s a joy not being a visible minority, and not being asked why i wear a headscarf and I’ll miss that when I return home.

Back to the call of prayer though, it wasn’t simply hearing it that was beautiful, it was also the sight of people rushing to prayer, and seeing the exterior design of the mosque, as the minarets were unlike any I’ve seen before. Part of the words of the call to prayer are rush to success, rush to prayer, and as we witnessed that today, it was good to reflect on the fact that those words are not simply the thing that happens before the prayer, its a call that one is meant to respond to. More pertinent to planning, I’m  curious to learn more about the story about this particular mosque. There was a courtyard that was bustling with people even during the prayer, and it is clearly an active public space that functions for more than prayer.

Being in Indonesia has made me hungry for information about Islam in this particular country, and though it’s a planning course, I have so many questions about how Islam has informed the region, and social and cultural identity. During our time at ITB I mentioned my interest in mosque development, and learnt that mosques typically were built with a courtyard, with the south side having a palace, and the west side having the mosque. I also learnt that even in Indonesia, given the colonial presence, mosque development has been contested territory.

At the same time, I’m curious about Muslim fashion in Indonesia, and how Muslim women are clearly targeted through advertising. In the supermarket yesterday I saw a cosmetics brand called Wardah featuring women in headscarves, there are shops that have ads for trendy Muslim clothing, and the women in Bandung are incredibly fashionable, with hijabs unlike ones I’ve seen in Toronto. Those two topics, Muslim women fashion and mosque development fascinate me at present, and I’m not sure what direction my research will take me.

I’m also trying to figure out how to negotiate prayer times within our course. The schedule is quite full, and  prayer rooms are not easily identifiable (at least so far, apparently there is a campus mosque at ITB) and so today we heard the Dhuhr call to prayer while we were at the mosque, but we didn’t really have the time to stop and I prayed later on. Then when the call to prayer for Asr (the afternoon prayer) came in, we were in a seminar, and I wasn’t sure what to do. So God willing in the days to come, I’m going to pack a prayer mat, and just pray in the hallway if needed once a prayer time comes in. There’s no point wanting to study Islam in the city  if I’m not diligent enough to pray at an appropriate time, and the prayer times are so close, that delaying will likely mean missing them.

So much more to share, but my battery is nearly gone, and it’s another full day tomorow. Till next time.

The Myth of Independence

I met a dear friend unexpectedly today, and we had the kind of conversation you can only have with old friends, where you pour out the contents of your heart and you know the other person will help you make sense of it all because they’ve known you for so long. And afterwards I had dinner with another beautiful soul, and it made me think about how strange (and inaccurate) it is to attribute anything you accomplish to yourself. My research project studying mosques was due this week, and handing it felt like the conclusion of months (if not longer) of thought about what I wanted to research. I was battling between different ideas even before I came to Toronto, and so handing it in felt like a significant milestone.

And yet, it is a milestone (like the entire graduate experience) that is not mine alone. When you move to a new place, you realize that no matter how strong and independent you think you are, you require other people to make that experience a positive one. You need kind people to help you move and carry heavy things, to help you find good company, to invite you to their home on holidays when you don’t know anyone, to send you food when you’re homesick, to check up on you when you’re sick, to hear your rants about school, to encourage you when you’re unsure about your decisions, to give you advice, and to send you a note sometimes and let you know that you’re in their prayers. It requires tremendous effort on the part of other people to make the small(in comparison) task of studying possible. And without kind souls to generously welcome you into their family and friend circle, life simply would not be as beautiful. When you’re an introverted person (as I am) it’s easy to stay on your own and forget to seek out company, but Toronto has taught me that community is necessary.  I’m thankful that Toronto has been a place full of kind hearted souls who have made me feel so comfortable here.

And so this is a resolution for the weeks, months and years to come. I’d like to strive to be as kind and gentle as the people I’ve met, to be the sort of person and social planner who people feel comfortable around, and to have a home where people who are new and finding their way feel welcome, and leave nourished and revitalized in more ways than one. I’m curious as Anne would say, what the ‘bend in the road’ will bring forth, but am making intentions that this next chapter is an enriching one.

Face the World

Make people ashamed of their existence, Jean Paul Sartre said. Yes: make them aware of the possibilities they have denied themselves or the passiveness they have displayed in situations where it was really necessary to cling to the heart of the world, like a splinter – to force, if needed, the rhythm of the world’s heart; dislocate, if needed, the system of controls; but in any case, most certainly face the world.

~Frantz Fanon, Black Skin, White Masks, p.59 (Grove Press Edition).

The Argument Against Modernity’s Dominant Formulation

Sometimes you read articles that make your heart sing with their intelligence and insight and overall wonderfulness, and as you read, you find yourself whispering intentions and prayers to yourself to go at your work with a bit more determination and focus. Today that happened as I read a lovely article by Massey, and wanted to share bits of it here as inspiration when my enthusiasm stores run a bit low. =) The article as a whole is about different ways of disrupting and problematizing popular academic and general conceptions of globalization,why such disruptions need to occur, and why we need to construct ‘space-time’ understandings of the  process of globalization.  The chapter was assigned as one of this week’s readings in a class I’m taking this term titled Global Urbanism and Cities of the Global South. In the 2 years of my program, I think this is the first course offered about ‘other’ parts of the world, so I’m excited to soak up as much as I can. (Because as interesting as Canada is, my heart and brain is craving to learn about urbanism in other contexts).

The quote below talks about how we need to recognise the particularities of the modernity story. It predicates an extensive discussion about why popular conceptions of globalization (one for example being that globalization is about free unbounded movement) need to be deconstructed, and outlines four reasons that the author is uncomfortable with unquestioned usages of the term. One particularly interesting part of the piece is the way she demonstrates how different powerful geographic imaginations are utilized to construct a particular understanding of economic globalization and the implications of this knowledge production. The international movement of capital is valorized and celebrated, whereas the international movement of labour is discussed in the context of protecting local people and controlling immigration.  It is a fascinating piece that warrants a read in its entirety.

“The standard version of the story of modernity – as a narrative of progress emanating from Europe – represents a discursive victory of time over space.  That is to say that differences which are truly spatial are interpreted in being differences in temporal development – differences in the stage of progress reached. Thus Western Europe is understood as being ‘advanced’, other parts of the world as ‘some way behind’ and yet others as ‘backward’. Euphemistically to re-label ‘backward’ as ‘developing’ does nothing to alter this process of thinking of spatial variation in terms of a temporal series. (..) It is this act which deprives these spatial differences of their ‘real import’, deprives them of  ‘the full measure of the real differences which are at issue.’
(..)
Ironically then, not only is this temporal structuring of the geography of modernity a repression of the spatial, it is also the repression of the possibility of the temporalities (other, that is than the stately progress towards modernity/modernization/development on the Euro-Western model. Indeed it is in these terms – that is, about the existence of other temporalities and stories – that the argument against modernity’s dominant formulation is usually posed. In other words, for different temporalities to co-exist there must be space.

Massey D (1999). Imagining globalization: Power geometries of time-space. In A. Brah and M. Hickman, M. Mac An Ghaill (eds). Global Futures – Migration, Environment and Globalization (pp.27-44). New York: St Martin’s Press.