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On Secession movements in UK, Spain and Turkey 2017

One of the advantages of modern travel is that the local crises involving secession in countries one passes through are debated in a foreign language.  One does not understand the noises of their fracture.

Visit Great Britain, where the bickering over the Brexit divorce from the 28 member EU is being argued in at least as many national languages. Go to Spain, and the sparring over the referendum by Catalonia can be overheard in dialects only Spaniards truly understand.  Move to Turkey, and the demand for Kurdish independence is unintelligible to the unaccustomed ear. It is only when one returns to Pakistan that familiarity is restored. Nothing has changed. Here, no one understands each other. Politicians still conduct what Dr Henry Kissinger described elsewhere as ‘the dialogue of the deaf’.

For years Spain was the poor cousin of Europe. From 1939 until his death in 1975, General Franco (a relic of 1940s fascism) ruled Spain with the commanding singularity a matador exercises in a bullring. Since his death, Spain has seen a restoration both of its monarchy and its self-respect within the European Union. Today’s visitors to Spain notice how deftly it has adapted to 21st century tourism. It may be inundated by a recurring, an ever-repeating tsunami of visitors, but its monuments stand impervious like haughty contessas, oblivious to the plebeians who mill around them, snapping selfies using history as a backdrop.  

Anyone permitted a second wife should go to Seville; it is a city to fall in love with. Gracious and serene, it is effortlessly seductive.  The ancient city of Toledo by comparison is set forever in amber – a perfect example of what a walled city should be like, and inevitably a model of what Lahore’s old city could be - and is not.

Islam has not been erased in Spain but, like some footprint left in stone, it is honoured but in the abstract, on display but not in use. Everyone knows that that Muslims ruled the Iberian peninsula for nine hundred years.  Few are left, yet nothing symbolises the flaccidity of the Ummah than the magnificent mosque of Cordoba.  Once, Allama Iqbal defied local authorities by praying in it; later, young Austrian Muslims tried to but were evicted; today, the prayers of visiting Muslims are lost in the murmurs recited aloud from guide books.  If only the Qataris had offered to buy Cordoba’s mosque instead of Harrod’s.

The first and only azan one heard in Spain came from the minaret of the white mosque in Granada’a Albayzin quarter. The mosque was begun by King Hassan of Morocco. He died and funding stopped. It was completed finally not by Saudi Arabia or Abu Dhabi but by the impecunious Shaikh of Sharjah.  The small mosque faces the majestic Alhambra complex on the opposite side of the valley. Millions of tickets support the Alhambra; the mosque in Albayzin ekes out a living on donations from the occasionally pious.          

If Spain looks towards the 21st century, Turkey has opted to turn its face backwards, towards the 16th century. Thirty years ago, visitors to Turkey noticed a visible inclination to be part of Europe.  Skirts and blonde tints were the norm. Today, a hijab is as common as a doner kebab.  Walking in Istanbul’s popular Istiklal street is to risk being washed away by a gulf stream of Arab shoppers. They have deserted Europe’s up-markets for the lower Levant.

The Ottomans were pedestrians by inclination.  All their major monuments - the Topkapi place, its bejewelled harem, the Hagia Sophia – are located within walking distance of each other.  Judging from the scaffolding and cladding in each, they are now undergoing overdue renovation.  The treasury with its spectacular display of emeralds and the Costume gallery are closed.  If you want to see how imperial Turks dressed, switch on a period Turkish soap opera. History no longer needs text books. Caesars, Tudors and Ottomans re-live in television serials.   

In the 1960s, Turkey looked towards Pakistan as a role-model. It became a partner with us and Iran in the Regional Cooperation for Development (RCD). Fifty years later, Pakistan returned the compliment. The Sharif brothers when in power used the Turkish concept of development as their beau ideal. They visited Istanbul and saw a cat’s cradle of bus, tram and metro lines. They wanted the same.  No one warned them that progress should not involve desecrating heritage sites.

Visiting the United Kingdom, Spain and Turkey within one fortnight is to journey through tunnels of time, of their culture, refinement, taste, their evolution. Returning to Pakistan, one is offered a tour of a lesser sort - to the mirage of a Promised Land, with a choice of guides – either an ousted elder brother or his younger one who, it appears, would prefer to negotiate with the pursuing Pharaoh’s army.



     [DAWN, 2 November 2017]



02 November 2017
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