Friday, 30 December 2016

Book Review: Massoud, by Marcela Grad

This is a must read for anyone wanting to understand the late Afghan leader Ahmad Shah Massoud and why he was/is revered as much as he is by his countrymen. It's also of interest generally to those familiar with the Russian invasion of Afghanistan and that period of Afghan history (the latter quarter of the 20th century). It's not a chronologically ordered biography but a collection of short reflections by various people who were part of his life. It's well structured into separate chapters where each chapter has a focus on a particular aspect of his life or a particular aspect of his character. For sure it's a book of praise rather than a critical look at his life but it's still a worthwhile read nonetheless. Here are some snippets from the book:

Maryam Massoud: "... Massoud [when he was young] had to be in the mountains all the time. He learned to ride horses, to do handy work. He was always the best, and he was always in the mountains."

Masood Khalili: "... We talked about the past and the future. I was talking more, maybe because I was older, but I found out later that listening was his habit."

Daoud Zulali: "He trusted the men under his command and worked hard to maintain their morale. He taught them ethics and piety more than military issues, and he was kinder to them than a father, closer than a brother."

Hiromi Nagakuri: "... he shook the hands of each villager, down to the last one. If I were the commander, maybe I would shake hands with one or two, but he shook hands with everyone in the village."

Sher Dil Qaderi: "There was another operation where he had twenty-three radio operators, all talking on their radios with him. He was working with all of them at the same time. I have never seen a mind like his."

Haroun Mir: "... I would see him in the garden at his house walking and thinking, thinking and walking."

Ahmad Jamshid: "... During those years I never saw him sleep without praying, and I remember many nights when he didn't sleep more than one or two hours... he had just two hours to sleep, but he would take fifteen or twenty minutes to pray. Imagine how much he loved his God! In my opinion, his success was because he really loved God."

Humayun Tandar: "... I think that is why they killed him – because he represented an opposition which was not so much material as spiritual and religious."

Monday, 28 November 2016

Documentary review: The Story of the Jews, by Simon Schama

I bought this 5-part BBC documentary (made in 2013) thinking it was called "The History of the Jews" and I watched it through to the end thinking as such. It was only when I started typing this Blog post that I realised it was called "The Story of the Jews"! And now the content of the documentary make a lot more sense. Its title is pretty apt but a better one liner summary is probably: "The Case for Israel, written and presented by Simon Schama". Don't get me wrong though: this is a good documentary and definitely worth the watch. If you want to understand why the existence of present-day Israel is so important for many Jewish persons then this is definitely a good documentary to watch. You'll find that modern history is given way more mention than the origins of Judaism so bear that in mind. And there were some strange points made in there in passing like "Judaism was the first monotheistic religion" and "Judaism invented the abstract God" but that was good food for thought.

Sunday, 4 September 2016

3-day family trip to Brecon Beacons


Went to the Brecon Beacons National Park last weekend with the family (9 of us; 2 cars). We booked our accommodation in the eastern part of Brecon Beacons in a place called The Beast House Barn. The barn is located right near a village called Cwmdu with the towns of Crickhowell and Abergavenny just a short drive away. We found the barn to be very easy to get to from London (it's a 3.5 hour drive with no rests or, like we did, 4.5 hours allowing for a stop or two along the way). Our itinerary for the trip was as follows:

Sun 28 Aug morning: we set off from home around 8am and arrived at the barn around 12:30pm.
Sun 28 Aug afternoon: we had a short rest at the barn, unloaded our baggage from the car into the barn, had some lunch and then set off for a walk. We drove up from the barn on the A479 following it north for 10 minutes to a car park that comes just before the village of Pengenffordd. From there we set off on a walk eastwards up the hills towards Waun Fach. Was nice and secluded. Just a few walkers around.
Sun 28 Aug evening: back to the barn for dinner and sleep.

Mon 29 Aug morning: a slow wakeup and breakfast.
Mon 29 Aug afternoon: we drove for an hour to the south-west of Brecon Beacons for the famous four waterfalls walk. We stopped at the first and fourth of the waterfalls (Sgwd Clun-Gwyn and Sgwd-yr-Eira) but didn't have enough time to stop by the second and third (Sgwd Isaf Clun-Gwyn and Sgwd y Pannwr). It's a long walk (4+ hours) so if you have kids with you bare that in mind. 
Mon 29 Aug evening: back to the barn for dinner, toasted marshmallows and sleep!

Tue 30 Aug morning: another slow wakeup and breakfast followed by clearing up of the barn and loading our baggage back into the cars.
Tue 30 Aug afternoon: we drove down to Cardiff to get a feel for Wales beyond the Brecon Beacons. We caught the afternoon (Dhuhr) prayer at Dar-ul-Isra Mosque before heading on to Pontcanna Fields for a picnic and a splash in the River Taff.
Tue 30 Aug evening: back home alhamdulillah!

For a small selection of pictures from our trip, see here.

Saturday, 23 July 2016

2-day trip: Devil's Dyke, Truleigh Hill, Shoreham-by-Sea, Brighton


Had a pleasant 2-day trip from London to the south of England last weekend with the wife. We set off from home on Saturday around 12pm and drove to Devil's Dyke in the South Downs. The drive – including a break for lunch and Dhuhr... and traffic – was around 3 hours in total. We chose one of the car parks right besides Devil's Dyke to set down our car and immediately saw a sign for a farm cafe (Saddlescombe Farm) a short walk away... and thus we followed suit! After cakes at the cafe (which were very nice... the Banana Flapjack especially) we walked back to the main part of Devil's Dyke and chilled there for a couple of hours before heading back to our car.

From Devil's Dyke we drive to our accommodation for the night: Truleigh Hill YHA. The distance from Devil's Dyke to Truleigh Hill is only 3 miles but there's no direct road so it's a half-hour drive. We chose to camp out on one of the fields besides the YHA (£13 per person per night) rather than booking one of the rooms. Our spot had an excellent view of the sea to the south and we were lucky in that the field was pretty empty that evening. We set up our tent, got out our disposable BBQ and heated up the chicken that we had pre-cooked at home earlier in the morning. It was a pleasant day and, as ever, it was a joy praying Asr, Maghrib and Eisha in the outdoors.

The next morning – after breakfast at the YHA and packing away our tent – we drove down to Shoreham-by-Sea (half-hour drive) and sat on the pebbles by the sea for a good hour or so. Always a joy to find an empty beach and not have naked people all around! There weren't many people around at all. Just a few people fishing by the pier and a few people out walking their dogs. Maybe it wasn't busy because it wasn't too hot and summer holidays haven't started yet?

After Shoreham-by-Sea we continued our drive on to Brighton. We parked up right outside Medina Mosque (24 Bedford Place), prayed Dhuhr there and then had lunch at a burger place called Chinoz and ice-cream next door at a place called JoJo's Gelato. Plenty of Halal eateries on Western Road right beside the Mosque! We couldn't stay long in Brighton because the parking spot we had was for up to 2 hours and because it's pretty expensive to park around there! £6.20 for 2 hours. So, a word of caution, if you want to go to Brighton, you're better off taking the train.

Here's a small selection of pictures from our trip:

Sunday, 8 May 2016

Book Review: Total Recall, by Arnold Schwarzeneggar and Peter Petre

I enjoyed this book. It's a fun read but at the same time it's great to get into the mind of a person who has gone from zero (a migrant entering America from Austria in his early twenties with little English and little money) to hugely successful in not one but multiple different areas throughout his life: sport, business, acting, politics and public service. Here's some quotes from the book that stood out for me:

"... Instead of existing I started to live... Now all of a sudden there was joy, there was struggle, there was pain, there was happiness, there were pleasures..."

"... If you tuned into my thoughts before a competition, you would hear something like: 'I deserve that pedestal, I own it, and the sea ought to part for me. Just get out of the f***ing way, I'm on a mission. So just step aside and gimme the trophy'..."

"... I like to always wander in like a puppy. I walk into a problem and then figure out what the problem really is. Don't tell me ahead of time. Often it's easier to make a decision when you don't know as much, because then you can't overthink. If you know too much, it can freeze you..."

"... The more knowledge you have, the more you're free to rely on your instincts... Yet in most cases, people who have the knowledge get bogged down and frozen. The more you know, the more you hesitate, which is why even the smartest people blow it big-time..."

"... A boxer brings a huge amount of knowledge to the ring—when to duck, punch, counter, dance back, block. But if he were to think about any of this when a punch comes, it would be over. He has to use what he knows in a tenth of a second. When you are not confident of your decision-making process, it will slow you down..."

"... I saw myself as a businessman first. Too many actors, writers, and artists think that marketing is beneath them. But no matter what you do in life, selling is part of it. You can't make movies without money. Even if I had no publicity obligation in my contract, it was still in my interest to promote the movie and make sure it made as much money as possible..."

"... People can be great poets, great writers, geniuses in the lab. But you can do the finest work and if people don't know, you have nothing!... the most important thing is to make people aware..."

"... Just like bodybuilding, campaigning is all about reps, reps, reps..."

"... The voters thought that they were getting a diet pill when they elected me. Instead, I had turned around and asked them to meet me at the gym at five in the morning for five hundred push-ups..."

"... have a vision, trust yourself, break some rules, ignore the naysayers, don't be afraid to fail..."

Saturday, 9 April 2016

Book review: True Grit, by Charles Portis

This novel hands down is in my top-5 of all time. I absolutely love it. The 2010 film adaptation by the Coen brothers was good but a film can never quite capture the imagination like a book does. The plot is pretty simple: the main character —  a 14-year-old girl named Mattie Ross — is out to find the man who murdered her father. She enlists the help of a Marshal named Rooster Cogburn and she is adamant on joining the hunt herself. The third main character in the story is a Texas Ranger named LeBoeuf who joins Mattie and Rooster in the hunt for reasons of his own. As I said, the plot is pretty simple. What is standout however is the dialog and conversational exchanges between these three characters. So frank, so direct, so different! I absolutely love it. The actor Barry Pepper who plays Lucky Ned Pepper in the 2010 film adaptation described the language as American Shakespeare! That's a great way to describe it. Here are some of my favourite passages from the book:

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Mattie: "... I have since learned that Judge Isaac Parker watched all his hangings from an upper window in the Courthouse. I suppose he did this from a sense of duty. There is no knowing what is in a man's heart."

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Mattie: "... The watch was of brass but not very expensive but I was surprised to find it because people who will not steal big things will often steal little things like that..."

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Mattie: "... There is nothing free except the Grace of God. You cannot earn that or deserve it."

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Goudy: "You were backing away?"
Cogburn: "Yes sir. He had that ax raised."
Goudy: "Which direction were you going?"
Cogburn: "I always go backward when I am backing up."

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Mattie: "I would not put a thief in my mouth to steal my brains." (Mattie Ross' response to Rooster Cogburn who offers her a spoonful of Whiskey to help treat her cold whilst they're in the process of negotiating the details of their business agreement.)

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Mattie: "I have never wasted any time encouraging drunkards of show-offs."

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Cogburn: "You might think that Polk Goudy is a fine gentleman to look at his clothes, but he is sorriest son of a bitch that God ever let breathe."

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Mattie: "Well, it is nothing to me one way or the other except that when we get Chaney he is not going to Texas, he is coming back to Fort Smith to hang."
LeBoeuf: "Haw haw. It is not important where he hangs, is it?"
Mattie: "It is to me. Is it to you?"
LeBoeuf: "It means a good deal of money to me. Would not a hanging in Texas serve as well as a hanging in Arkansas?"
Mattie: "No... I want Chaney to pay for killing my father and not some Texas bird dog."
LeBoeuf: "It will not be for the dog, it will be for the senator, and your father too. He will be just as dead that way, you see, and pay for all his crimes at once."
Mattie: "No, I do not see. That is not the way I look at it."

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Mattie: "Men will live like billy goats if they are left alone."

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Cogburn: "... A man my age ought to have a good bed if he has nothing else..."

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Cogburn: "I will not be stopping at boardinghouses with warm beds and plates of hot grub on the table. It will be travelling fast and eating light. What little sleeping is done will take place on the ground."
Mattie: "I have slept out at night. Papa took me and little Frank coon hunting last summer on the Petit Jean."
Cogburn: "Coon hunting?"
Mattie: "We were out in the woods all night. We sat around a big fire and Yarnell told ghost stories. We had a good time."
Cogburn: "Blast coon hunting! This ain't no coon hunt, it don't come in forty miles of being a coon hunt!"
Mattie: "It is the same idea as a coon hunt. You are just trying to make your work sound harder than it is."

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Mattie: "You think I am wrong."
Stonehill: "I think you are wrongheaded."

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Cogburn: "... I robbed one of them little high-interest banks there. Thought I was doing a good service. You can't rob a thief, can you?.."

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Cogburn: "... You go for a man hard enough and fast enough and he don't have time to think about many is with him, he thinks about himself and how may get clear out of the wrath that is about to set down on him."

Tuesday, 5 April 2016

10-day trip to Malaysia: Kuala Lumpur, Langkawi, Kota Bharu, Perhentian Islands

Below is a write-up of my 10-day (approx) trip to Malaysia with my wife. We set off a week-and-a-half ago and got back into London yesterday. Definitely wouldn't mind going back to Malaysia again in the future! So much to see and experience...

Kuala Lumpur

Wed 23 Mar afternoon — set off from London Heathrow airport flying on Emirates Airline (flight cost us £550 return per person; we booked three months in advance).
Wed 24 Mar evening  — landed in Dubai International Airport for a 4-hour stopover before proceeding onwards with our journey. Had a McDonald's burger meal while we waited!
Thu 24 Mar afternoon — landed in Kuala Lumpur International Airport. Got a taxi to our hotel (The Federal) located in Bukit Bintang, Kuala Lumpur. (We arranged and paid for the taxi at the taxi counter at the airport.)
Thu 24 Mar evening — joined a friend of a friend (a local) for a drive out to a restaurant named Sate Kajang Haji Samuri for some local Malaysian food. We had Satay meat (chicken, lamb, beef and fish) with rice and rice balls and peanut sauce! Was awesome!
Fri 25 Mar morning — the travelling caught up with us and we totally slept through!
Fri 25 Mar afternoon — we walked (around 20 minutes) from our hotel in Bukit Bintang to the Suria Kuala Lumpur City Centre (KLCC) mall located under the Petronas Twin Towers, and then had a browse around the mall.
Fri 25 Mar evening — met some friends for dinner at Madam Kwan's on the fourth floor of the Suria KLCC mall. We ordered Nasi Lemak and Kung Pao Chicken. Was very decent!
Sat 26 Mar morning — we just about woke up in time for the hotel breakfast and then met with a local brother who drove us around Kuala Lumpur. We stopped by some places like the National Mosque and Central Market.
Sat 26 Mar afternoon — we continued our tour with the local brother and went on to Putrajaya where we saw the newly constructed government buildings as well as stopping by the two famous mosques here: the Putra Mosque (also known as the Pink Mosque) and the Tuanku Mizan Zainal Abidin Mosque (also known as the Iron Mosque). Totally loved the open designs of these two mosques.
Sat 26 Mar evening — met some friends for some Thai food at a little local eatery called Pak Chu Tomyam located in Keramat, Kuala Lumpar. If you're gonna go, go with a local otherwise you won't know what to order!
Sun 27 Mar morning — headed to Kuala Lumpur International Airport to catch our flight to Langkawi booked with Malindo Air (approx £15 per person). We should have flown from Sultan Abdul Aziz Shah Airport (also known as Subang Airport) which was a bit closer to our hotel but I made a mistake when booking the flight!

Langkawi

Sun 27 Mar afternoon — landed in Langkawi International Airport and got a taxi to our hotel (Langkawi Chantique) located in Pentai Cenang.
Sun 27 Mar evening — we got a taxi to the Cenang beach, enjoyed the sunset, prayed Maghrib on the beach, and then walked along Jalan Pentai Cenang (= Pentai Cenang Road) and browsed the shops. We also booked ourselves on the Mangrove Tour for the following morning. Absolutely lots of places offering tours and activities and things to do in the shops dotted along Jalan Pentai Cenang.
Mon 28 Mar morning – we got picked up for our Mangrove Tour and taken to Kilim Geoforest Park where the tour starts.
Mon 28 Mar afternoon — we continued with the tour travelling to the various sites by boat. You'll see bats, monkeys and eagles along the way. Highly recommend the tour. Thoroughly worth it.
Mon 28 Mar evening —walked from our hotel to the shops dotted along Jalan Pentai Cenang in the search of dinner. We settled on Telaga Restaurant based on the taxi driver's recommendation the previous day. Bad idea! Don't trust drivers when it comes to restaurant recommendations! The food was not nice and overpriced too.
Tue 29 Mar morning — we hired a moped for our last two full days in Langkawi and what a great decision! So cheap (£10 per day including full insurance cover) and so liberating to go wherever we want whenever we want.
Tue 29 Mar afternoon — we rode out on our moped to Langkawi Cable Car (also known as Langkawi SkyCab) and enjoyed the views up top of the mountains. The Oriental Village at the bottom was nice too. Some nice cafes to rest at.
Tue 29 Mar evening — we rode out to the night market which is set up in a different area of Langkawi every night of the week and on this night happened to be close to our hotel. Had we known how good it was we would have gone the previous nights also! Lots of snacks and drinks on offer.
Wed 30 Mar morning — we rode out to the Crocodile Farm. Worth a quick stopover to feed the baby crocodiles and to watch the adult crocodiles being fed!
Wed 30 Mar afternoon — we continued our ride on to the Crafts Complex and then the Fruit Farm. Both worth a quick stopover.
Wed 30 Mar evening — we continued our ride on to Restoran Siti Fatima which had some good reviews online only to discover that it closes at 4pm! We thus rode back to Jalan Pentai Cenang and had dinner at Restoran Haji Ramli instead. Was decent. Good value for money.
Thu 31 Mar morning — rode out to Jalan Pentai Cenang to return our moped which served us so so well the previous two days.

Kota Bharu

Thu 31 Mar afternoon — we got a taxi from our hotel to Langkawi International Airport and then our flight with FireFly (a subsidiary of Malaysia Airlines) to Kota Bharu airport (also known as Sultan Ismail Petra Airport) and then a taxi to our hotel (Hotel Perdana Kota Bharu). The flight cost us approx £25 per person.
Thu 31 Mar evening — we set off from our hotel and walked around town. We had no real plan. Just to walk around and get a feel for the town centre. We picked up some Kelantan FA (The Red Warriors!) football shirts along the way, stumbled across a local book fair and stopped by the local night market for some dinner. The local night market was cheap and cheerful but not quite as good as the one we experienced in Langkawi.
Fri 01 Apr morning - we got a taxi from hotel to take us to the Kuala Besut Jetty. The taxi ride from our hotel to the jetty took us just under an hour.

Perhentian Islands

Fri 01 Apr afternoon —we caught the 12:30pm boat from Kuala Besut Jetty to our hotel on the Perhentian Islands (Perhentian Island Resort). Note that boats are hourly from around 8:30am to around 4:30pm and the boat journey is around 40 minutes. We bought our boat transfer tickets from Kota Bharu Airport (70RM return per person).
Fri 01 Apr evening — we chilled by the resort's beach and jumped in for a swim till sunset and then prayed Maghrib before tucking into the resort's buffet dinner.
Sat 01 Apr morning — we got some snorkelling equipment from the resort's equipment hire cabin and practiced using it on the resort's beach.
Sat 01 Apr afternoon — we joined a snorkelling boat tour and stopped by three different places close to our resort which are good for seeing coral and fish.
Sat 01 Apr evening — last evening on the island... sitting by the beach and taking it in :-)
Sun 02 Apr morning — we caught the 8am boat back to Kuala Besut Jetty and then a minibus ride to Kota Bharu airport.

Kuala Lumpur

Sun 03 Apr afternoon —we flew to Sultan Abdul Aziz Shah Airport (also known as Subang Airport) from Kota Bharu and then got a taxi to our hotel (The Federal). The flight cost us around £20 per person.
Sun 03 Apr evening — we joined some friends for some delicious Western Chinese Muslim food at Amber Chinese Muslim Restaurant located in Bangsar South, Kuala Lumpur. Excellent way to wrap up the trip.
Mon 04 Apr morning —a taxi ride to Kuala Lumpur International Airport from our hotel and then the return flight back home with Emirates Airline.

*****

SUMMARY: Excellent trip throughout. We'll be back to Malaysia for sure! And if we go back to Langkawi (which we sure plan to) we'll probably spend a week there next time round rather than just a few days.

Friday, 1 January 2016

Book Review: 'A Million Bullets - The Real Story of the British Army in Afghanistan', by James Fergusson

I'll be honest, I skipped a large chunk of this book in the middle. I liked the opening chapters of this book — thoughts of British troops on the ground who have fought against the Taliban — and the closing chapter of this book — thoughts of Taliban insurgents on the ground who are fighting against "foreign invaders". With regards to the mindset of British troops, if this book is anything to go by, it is clear that in 2007 (when this book was published), many British troops on the ground were really not sure what they were fighting for. If they were fighting to remove the Taliban and to put in place a competent, uncorrupt, pro-Western government that can defend itself against the Taliban, then they had failed. If they were fighting to bring the Taliban to the negotiating table, then the fighting was pretty pointless because the Taliban could have been brought to the negotiating table without any fighting.