An Urban Romance (Lessons from Toronto)

The Heart of the City (Oct 2014)

The Heart of the City (Oct 2014)

Cities are people to me, and whether it was my first trip to Toronto many years ago, trips thereafter, moving to Toronto for graduate school in 2010, or moving back to Toronto in March 2014, it’s always felt like Toronto and I are courting. Will this be my long -term city? The question has surfaced again and again in my heart and mind over the past few years, and been the subject of many audio stories and blog posts and late night cups of tea. Toronto has always been a love who is different and unexpected and challenging, and who is constantly asking me step up and become more.  Toronto can drive me crazy, push me, break my heart sometimes but ultimately, it is a place where I feel intensely happy and fulfilled. In particular, this past year in Toronto has been one of the most incredibly challenging and beautiful years of my life to date, and has taught me so much. In response to that long asked question however, a couple of weeks ago I packed my things and came home to visit before I begin God-willing, a new chapter in a different city soon. Preparation for what lies ahead is often aided by learning from your experiences, and before that move, I’d like to take a moment to reflect on the lessons of the past 12 months.  A list of brief reflections/lessons is underneath the audio story below.

1)  You cannot go backwards in time and recreate an experience.

One of the keys to contentment and adjustment I’ve discovered is that I need to create enough space in my heart for an experience and a place to unfold. When I moved to Toronto as a graduate student, I realised that the way to feel happy in the city was to not compare it to Vancouver, and to deflect questions about which city I liked better.  I love both cities for entirely different reasons and avoiding comparison allowed me to fall deeply in love with Toronto and appreciate the unique characteristics that make it an incredible place to live. Similarly, when I moved this year, it quickly became clear that my experience with the city would be entirely different to my previous experiences. I was no longer a student, I had been away for two years, and in many ways it felt like I was moving to a new city that felt slightly familiar, but otherwise was very very new. Allowing the city and I to get to know each other anew was important, and towards this end, it was important to create new rituals that allowed for new definitions and understandings of Toronto to unfold.

2) It is possible to become more comfortable with uncertainty. And you really don’t need very many things to be happy.

By nature, I am someone who is not good with change and uncertainty. I like it when things stay the same. I can’t handle plot-heavy novels because I stress out about the main characters. I feel sad when the gelato flavours at my favourite cafes change.  I mourn furniture changes when I come home to visit. All in all, it takes me a while to process new things. And while all these things are still true, this year has helped me to become much more comfortable with the unknown, and to learn that instead of becoming overwhelmed by change and uncertainty, all I can do is do the best I can with the day that is before me. In the past 12 months I’ve moved 4 times (3 times within Toronto and then back to Vancouver), and lived with 2 suitcases (I didn’t bring any books) for the entire time. Aside from groceries, every time I’ve wanted to purchase something, I thought about it several times beforehand, and by the time I asked myself the questions of “How will I move it? Where will I store it? Do I really need it?” several times, I usually realized it was something I could do without. In August I had a trip home scheduled, and it was time to move from the apartment I was in, so though I hadn’t found a new apartment yet, I packed my things, left them with a friend and went home for three days. When I returned I started a new job the next day and only retrieved my things a few days later, but I still had everything I needed with me in the little backpack I had taken to Vancouver. I found a new apartment the next week, but the lesson that you actually need very little, and that uncertainty can only be lived through one moment at a time has stayed with me. This year has taught me to become better at something I find very difficult: trusting and letting go.

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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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Becoming a Better Person in Indonesia (Day 9 and 10)

It’s Jumu’ah (or Jumat in Indonesian) today, which is the day of the week that holds special significance for Muslims. Last Friday I was in Singapore, and so today I thought I’d go and pray at the Masjid Alun-Alun, the Grand Mosque of Bandung. Yesterday during lunch with the staff of the Bandung Institute of Governance Studies though, I was told me it’s not common for women in Indonesia to pray Jumuah at the mosque, and so I’d really stick out. So pray at home it is! Still, Friday is a day of extra prayer and attention, and a day of praying intentionally for what you want. It is said that there is a time in the day when all prayers are accepted, and since you don’t know when that is, making supplications throughout the day helps ensure you find that time.

The prayer I keep thinking about is that I really want to cultivate the qualities of hospitality and generosity that have been so consistently noticeable in the people we’ve been meeting within myself. Everyone here has been so incredibly nice to us, and giving of their time and attention.Two days ago (my apologies, I haven’t blogged for a bit) a small group of us went for lunch with the owner of the hotel, his wife and a friend of theirs who lectures at a local university, and we learnt more about their impressions of the city, drank beautiful coffee (I had a melted creme brulee hazelnut cappucino!), ate wonderful food, and generally learnt more about the city that we never would have learnt on our own. He has invited us out again for dinner and a movie, but so far that plan hasn’t come together as yet. I felt the same warmth in Singapore with the families I was staying in welcoming me into their homes and dropping whatever they were doing to facilitate me having a comfortable trip, and I want to become the same sort of easygoing, gentle, generous personality. It’s inspiring because we see it everywhere, from the owner of the hotel, to people we meet randomly and offer to take us out, to people we meet at NGOs and government offices, we’re being treated exceptionally well, and there’s lots to learn from this style of hospitality.

After our lunch with the owner of the hotel on Wednesday, we all went to the Bandung Institute of TEchnology and had an amazing presentation about creativity in cities. The first speaker was the creator of an organization called Bandung Trails which offers heritage walks around different themes to both local Bandung residents and international visitors (for instance Dutch visitors who are interested in seeing where their grandparents lived). The organization offers both free activities and runs as a business, and has been in operation for the past nine years. At present, the founder Amor is also a masters student at ITB. The story of how his organization grew over nine years was inspiring, and it made me think about how there is a definite culture of entrepeneurism among young people in the small slice of Southeast Asia I’ve seen so far. In Singapore I stayed with one family where the  eldest daughter was my age roughly, and had her own fashion line in addition to finishing her studies. The clothing was gorgeous, she had done exhibitions of her different collections, and even while I was there people were calling and ordering clothes. The next evening I also stayed with the creator of the amazing Khana Commune, which is basically one of the coolest ways to dine in Singapore. Here in Indonesia, we’ve met youth studying at ITB starting their own leather bag companies, we met Amor who started Bandung Trails, and it’s hard to ignore the palpable sense of creativity and ingenuity among youth here.

In contrast, since this is the end of my masters degree, as the months toward end of the term came closer this year, you could sense the anxiety amongst all of us about what awaits us in the post university life. Would it be easy to find a planning job? Are there firms that need our skills? Would we be ok? These are the questions on all of our minds, and we’ve all read articles in newspapers such as the New York Times about how for people in their twenties in North America,  a degree is no longer  a ticket to stability like it was for previous generations. Being here though, that entire notion seems strange. Youth here seem to be working at companies and creating their own jobs, and not waiting for anyone to say here, we need you. I am perhaps generalizing, but you can really sense that youth here don’t get derailed by fear, they have goals and dreams and they are committed to making them come true. There is no reliance on a company or a job, and one’s education is simply a stepping stone to help you realise what you already want out of your life.

I live in Canada, and despite having so much in terms of resources at my disposal, I don’t think I have the same spirit. I wonder about my writing, analyze if goals are doable, and in the thinking process forget to even get started! So once again, there is so so much to absorb and take away from this trip, and hopefully these reflections will be translated into actual implementation as well.

So much more to tell you about the last couple of days, so hopefully I’ll write more again soon.

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.

Making Intentions for Indonesia

After a few days in Singapore, and a couple of days in Indonesia, tomorrow (God-willing) I begin a three week field experience in Bandung involving an interdisciplinary group of students from the University of Toronto and the Bandung Institute of Technology. The program involves the opportunity to visit a variety of Bandung sites including government offices, local civil society organizations, and social planning institutes, as well as pursue independent research. I’m super excited, but my time in Singapore and these first couple of acclimatization days in Bandung have made me realize that stating intentions might be useful.

A couple of days ago as I wandered around the colonial district of Singapore (so many reflections to share from Singapore, hopefully another time!), and explored the Raffles hotel and some of the other major landmarks from Singapore’s past, I was struck by the architectural beauty of the buildings, but also the colonial history in Singapore. The Raffles hotel was built in the 1800s and was restored a few years back with an 160 million dollar renovation to restore it to former beauty. What is open to the public is various courtyards and passageways, three different levels of shops featuring high-end brand names (Tiffany, Louis Vuitton, British India etc) and a museum on the third floor that shows artifacts from the hotel’s history, its connection to other historical hotels (in Rangoon for ex), and famous guests who have stayed there, including Rudyard Kipling. In novels that talk about the beauty of Southeast Asia, the Raffles is often referenced. You can still have a famous Singapore ‘sling’ in one of the hotel courtyards, and as you walk through, you can almost see men and women from Britain sipping drinks in white linen shirts, enjoying the Orient.

And since I am here myself as a visitor, I want to make sure that my own travel experiences are different. I don’t want this to be a trip where I go and gawk at the locals, I want to learn collaboratively with the students we’ll be working at ITB and become a better planner through that cross cultural exchange. And so to help with that process, I thought it would be useful to state some of my intentions for the trip.

  1. To learn more about urban development in an international context. Though an excellent program, one of the gaps of our program is its lack of international content (most of our city discussions are based on North America) and so I want to help fill in that gap by understanding how urban and social development occurs in Bandung. I took a course last semester on Global Urbanism where we deconstructed the notion of developing cities being  large, chaotic places, and examined what they contribute to urban theory as a whole and so I want to think about that idea further during my trip.
  2. How does Islam shape community development/urban development in Indonesia? My research work for my masters was about how conflicts around the development of mosques are a metaphor for how religion is negotiated in cities, but was primarily focused on North America. I want to understand how religion is expressed in an entirely different context when the country has a Muslim majority.
  3. To think through my positionally as a Muslim female planner. How does that change in an predominately Muslim context? In my interviews during my research project, my positionality as a woman who wears a headscarf deeply impacted the type of research encounters I had during my graduate research project, and in Indonesia where the hijab is commonplace, I’m interested in how being situated differently shapes the type of knowledge one is able to develop.

So far Bandung is beautiful, a bit overwhelming (there are no sidewalks!) and is definitely a place of learning. After Bandung I’ll be in Singapore and perhaps Malaysia for a little under a week, and my hope is to blog my way through the experience. Speak to you soon.