For the Love of Naples

I am not a scholar of Italian culture but it does not take a college degree to observe that as one travels south from Milan to Florence to Rome to Naples, there is a palpable difference in the air. From the stench of urine outside Rome railway station to the aroma of freshly baked Pizza Margherita in a glass-front bakery on a cobblestoned Naples street, everything screams that the south is wild; maybe not in the “Wild West” sort of way but in a different, perhaps more exotic, way. I wish I had the time to travel farther south to Sicily to explore and contemplate this difference but I guess there is always next time.

When I had landed at Milan Malpensa (MXP) airport, I just had this vague idea to travel maximum Italy in minimum time and at all costs (which basically meant to travel at no cost at all besides my limited TA/DA) but I did not have so much as drawn a roadmap thus far. I started gypsy style, seeking help from locals – the first of whom was my trainer himself, a very cool guy who had made lots of money while working for years in European Space Agency and spent it all on building his own tech startup related to reference positioning systems. On the second day of my training, he drove me in his Fiat to Verona – the historic Roman city sitting just 30 km from my B&B which I still could not have discovered by myself; and this is where it all took off very well from. I finished the two-week training in four days, checked out of the hotel room which was paid in full for my two week supposed stay, and set out on what I now reminisce to be a very risky adventure financially with just a backpack and a thin wad of government euros in my pocket.

Right outside the Napoli railway terminal

Fast forward to a week later, when I was in Naples with a reservation for Pizza Hostel (the cheapest I could find) in my hand and a flight booking to Geneva the next day which basically left me with a little over 24 hours in the city. When you are short on time and money and friends and alien to the local language, you tend to realize and shrug off the massive weight of your third-world aristocracy and dive head-first into the stormy sea of fearsome unknowns that lay ahead. Navigating my way with Google Maps which often lost its way in the narrow, deceptive streets, I had to resort to local help to reach my destination. Before long, I found myself in the finest neighborhood you could expect your 20-euros-a-day hostel to be located in.

Pizza Hostel street view

The genial Greco-Italian owner cum warden of Naples Pizza Hostel evoked the image of a Spartan warrior from his handsome face and curly black beard. He conducted himself like a long-time friend to all the eccentric travelers lying half-dressed in all imaginable positions on sofas scattered in the hostel lobby. With my socks and underwears hand-washed earlier the same day in Rome still hanging in a pompous display from my bag pack harnesses for drying, I seemed no foreigner among them. The warden spoke little English and was kind enough to lend me the same paddle-lock for nothing which i was offered for 15 euros few days back in a hostel in Venice. I needed to stretch my back which was hurting real bad from the past week’s train journeys. As i lay on the clean sheets, the very thought of sleep became so tempting that only a quiet recitation of Robert Frost’s Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening could thwart the drowsiness after a brief siesta.

The woods are lovely, dark and deep.

But i have promises to keep.

And miles to go before I sleep.

And miles to go before I sleep.”

Naples bazaars reminiscing the sea

As i came out into the Mediterranean June afternoon, Naples was bustling with activity. The smell of crowded bazaars reminiscing the Tyrrhenian sea to the west brought to me a sudden nostalgia for my own home I.e. Karachi. The dilapidated high rise apartments lined up the cobblestoned streets through which automobile drivers zipped by at the speed of light displaying an almost mystical disregard for life. Creepers, electricity and washing lines criss crossed each other in a beautiful mess. The heavy, obscure street wall graffiti had a sinister air to it. It was not difficult to imagine that I was wandering in an Italian crime scene – though, for sure, a particularly thrilling one.

Criss crossing creepers, electricity and washing lines
The obscure, sinister graffiti
More obscure, sinister graffiti
Even more graffiti

As long as there are seas, I would find my way in foreign lands. And thus, I walked towards the Tyrrhenian through the most beautiful of the world’s streets.

The love affair of cobble stones and green
Could a street get any more inviting?
An interesting door along the way

Eventually, in the late afternoon, a street led into another street which led into an open boulevard offering me the first view to the sea.

Tyrrhenian sea in the late afternoon sun with Mount Vesuvius in the background

If all of us have a share of beauty to witness in one life then I already had mine for the day. Suddenly, I no longer cared for the ticking clock. A gypsy had decided to camp by the beach.

Fishing boats line up the beach under a sun preparing to set
Sunset over Naples – a manifestation of beauty
A Naples night under dramatic skies

Later that night, I walked back to the hostel through the same streets contemplating the brevity of life, the aspiration for beauty and how travel can connect them for a more meaningful existence. I wondered if there was anything in the world i wanted to be more than a traveler – or a gypsy, or a nomad to use the lesser sophisticated terms. Tomorrow would be a new day. I had plans for Pompeii and Vesuvius before departing for Geneva. I knew that Naples’ cobblestoned streets, sinister graffiti, sunset over the Tyrrhenian sea and the contemplative walk back to the hostel will remain etched on my mind for a long time to come. For the first time in my life, I was nostalgic for a place I had not even left yet. I knew I was coming back here soon!

A contemplative walk back home through Napoli night

43 Notifications

There was a time
when a seductive, blood-red
Facebook notification
would trigger in me
waves of dopamine
which flooded my bloodstream
like amiodarone, lidocaine
and a handful other
difficult-to-spell drugs
which i hope
you never learn to spell,
are entering my papa
through an IV cannula
as he lies sedated
amidst beeping, blinking screens
and a flock of apathetic doctors
desensitized by
too much disease
too less equipment
and too often death.
For too long
I have been addicted
to that dopamine
while aching for interactions
meaningful enough
for a homosapien
to carry on
the futility, monotony
called modern life.
But now I ask
if that really is “enough”.
If, in my ten days of inactivity,
43 notifications
of a virtual book club’s activities,
of the memes I have been tagged in
made by sullen,
self loathing, suicidal teens
that are ironically intent
on making their viewers laugh,
of unreferenced, unverifiable anecdotes
no better than oldwives tales,
of pandemic-related quackery
both religious and secular,
of birthdays of people
I haven’t seen in years,
of friend requests by
people I don’t recognize,
really mean anything.
It’s silly how important
we think we are,
when we are nothing
more than
43 notifications.

Your serpentine curls

When fresh from the shower

your black serpentine curls

fall down to your waist

like hot Icelandic springs

And your fragrance spreads

like Mongols on fire

When your chapped winter lips

quiver with sadness

and you rush to the kitchen

to hide your tears

When your shores

are gently washed

with waves upon waves

of musical laughter

When you speak Urdu

with an intonation so lovely

and infinitely Punjabi

I could listen, captivated,

for eternities on end

When you’re strong and ripping apart

When you’re vulnerable and falling apart

I fall in love with you

quietly; like you and I,

our love cannot be much different

from us.

Hashir

Meet Hashir. The tiny owner and CEO of the Shit and Spit Factory (my wife came up with this comic name tonight). Born in turbulent times amidst fears of an impending nuclear war, outbreak of the deadly nCov virus and subsequent global recession, he can currently afford to be blissfully ignorant of the turmoil around while his father (i.e. I) takes the brunt of war deployments, salary cuts and overtime hours. Regardless, Hashir has been a bundle of absolute joy for me and taught me more about love in the past 6 months than Pablo Neruda ever did. That love is effortless. That its incremental and sacrificial. One day, I understand it will be painful. And maybe Neruda will be helpful then. But for now, I’d rather bask in its pleasure than wait for the inevitable pain. Did I just talk about the taboo on the eve of my son’s half birthday? Yes, I think the prospect of separation (death or otherwise) brings perspective to communion. It reminds us that humans can still commit to love when they’re aware of its devastation.

I love you, son. And I thank you for restoring my trust in my ability to engage in unconditional love. Happy half birthday!

Mevlana

I’ve an unresolved affinity for Maulana Rumi (Mevlana in Turkish) – an intuition that he might be the only saviour I will ever have. I taught myself basic Persian 3 years ago only to read his Masnavi and I still haven’t read it.

What if he doesn’t live up to my expectations of him? What if I fail to live up to his?

Konya is home to Rumi therefore, it was hard to come to Istanbul and forget Konya. Though I couldn’t visit it during my first layover in Istanbul while traveling to Italy, I made sure I see it on my way back. If you’re traveling to Europe from Pakistan and are interested in visiting Mevlana, Turkish Airlines will be your cheapest bet. After landing in Istanbul, you’ll have to take domestic flights for Konya and back because it is not an international airport.

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Landing in Konya on an overcast day. Taurus mountains can be seen in a distance.

Besides being a small public airport, Konya is also a military base so I could spot Turkish Air Force’s C-130s on the tarmac while my plane taxied to the terminal. I had already booked a motel room near Mevlana Türbesi (Rumi’s tomb) earlier while departing from Milan. Soon after I had landed in Konya, i realized my European sim wasn’t exactly functional here and the natives wouldn’t understand English. I could very well see a disaster unfold – how on earth was I going to navigate my way to my motel and then to Mevlana’s tomb if not with the internet or a local guide understanding my language? Thanks to Mevlana though; he became my guide, my host. All I had to say to the passport control at Istanbul airport, the bus driver, the pedestrians, the random strangers, the beggars and the prostitutes of Konya, was the word “Mevlana”. It seemed to be a word from some universal language. A word powerful enough to warm up a stranger to another, a host to a guest, a guide to a lost traveler. Not long after, I was in my motel with Mevlana just 400 meters east.

I spent that night in conflicting emotions. It was not exactly spiritual, to say the least. The room next to mine was occupied by a couple who started to let off their steam right after I unlocked the door to my room. I flipped open the Masnavi in my phone to distract myself and tried to read it over the loud thrusting and moaning but eventually had to give in, put my phone aside and wait for them to finish.

Next morning, I set off early before sunrise. Remember I had no internet so I navigated my way in the morning twilight like ancient wayfarers and caravan guides with the rising pinkish hues on the horizon being my sole sense of direction for east. I went about my usual way, preferring narrow streets over wide roads every time I had a choice. This might have taken me long but led to some hidden treasures too.

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Nar-i-Ask – a small streetside art gallery I came upon. Nar-i-Ask is a Persian word, written here in Latin and Arabic script, meaning “The fire of love”

Eventually one of the streets left me at a wide traffic-less intersection and a huge structure stood in the middle of it. I knew I had reached somewhere important. My heart skipped a beat – it could be Mevlana Türbesi.

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The western front of Cami Selimiye – a minaret of Rumi’s tomb can be seen at it’s back (to the right)

I soon realized it was not. I walked past the intersection and around the building to reach the courtyard in its front. The wall inscription beside the door read “Cami Selimiye”. The architecture was similar to the mosques of Istanbul and the tiled space stretching in front of it seemed more like a public square due to its vastness.

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I was confused. Though magnificent it was in its own right, i was too close to the Rumi’s tomb to be happy for finding Cami Selimiye. Mevlana was nowhere to be seen. Or so I thought. Upon my inquiry, the street selling woman sitting on the stairs outside the Cami, told me what I saw to my left was in fact my destination. I zoomed out and yes, there it was. I had probably mistaken it to be an extension of Cami in spite of its very distinct architecture.

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It was a moment of epiphany, regret, happiness, sadness – quite a turmoil of emotions. I wanted a close up of Mevalana’s final resting place.

20190629_063809.jpgMy return flight was 1000 hrs and the tomb was to open for visitors at 0900 hrs so this is the closest I got to Mevlana. I could see a series of small minarets of Mevlana’s tomb from the courtyard and wondered what life would be like for dervishes in the cells underneath them.

Perhaps I was too impure to be let inside. Mevlana might have wanted me to read his Masnavi first before visiting him. So be it. I turn back.

I’ll see you again, Mevlana.

I took some steps then turned instinctively, one final time, perhaps to etch the memory of this place forever in my mind.

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Peace

If it were up to me

I would wish you peace

of all the things in the world

because it’s been too long

that you’ve been fighting

unknown battles on faraway fronts.

I can see you

wearing out

breaking down

as the hands of clock

are running round;

living the battles alone

I had once hoped

to fight by your side.

As I lay now

in my comfortable chaise longue

and you wounded,

perhaps mortally,

in a distant battlefield,

I try to write

a string of words

a prayer or a wish

that might comfort you

against the ugly dance

of raging death.

There are n number

of beautiful words

you could say

to a parting friend

but I know

for you

“peace” is not one

“not till your last breath”,

you had said.

A warrior you lived

and you hope to die

nothing less.

So I’d wish you instead

all the pretty four lettered words

starting from “luck”

and taking the liberty

to end

with “love”.

Mediocrity

ٰAs I am advancing in years, the transition seems more from abstraction into concreteness than in age, really. I preferred to think of myself as some sort of a prodigy, a precocious savior of humanity who is prowling in the dark alleys, waiting for his time to rise and shine. Unfortunately, as it turned out, neither the alleys were particularly dark nor was I, the brightest kid in town. And as this much-loathed realization of mediocrity – the sense that I lie somewhere right under the geometric center of the bell curve of any imaginable global statistical survey – hits home, I am left with an ominous question mark on my own identity – if I am not the top guy, who really am I? My fixation on being the best, shaped partly by my father and partly by my own idealism, had been so strong that it took the form of a purpose to me until I realized that being the best is not always viable for me.

So as the fog starts to clear up, I realize that you can’t satisfy yourselves by standing on a victory stand in every competition life throws at you. Victory stands are in fact the biggest distractions for ambitious men. Competions are to be chosen wisely. When you are 27 years old and you can see life slipping out of your clenched fist like river sand, it becomes a critical question: which avenue of life deserves your attention, time and effort. You cant give everything your everything. You have to be selective. You are not limitless. You are mediocre. Let it sink. Yes, you are. Hard though it might be to register but believing in this is the only way you can amount to anything meaningful, anything worthwhile.

The Melodrama of Glass

First time i discovered that glass had an amorphous structure on a microscopic level, an infinitely disordered, messy arrangement of molecules, it was in my science class in grade 8 and i remember to have felt defrauded, even betrayed. It was a weirdly emotional moment. Glass was the most sacred thing to me before, a symbol of perfection, beauty and purity. It was hard to believe that it’s fabric, just like everybody and everything else, had it’s own unholy patches.

Growing up, as it happens with all the children, I started off with the imagination of a perfect world created in the image of a perfect god. Slowly and gradually, as the reality hit home, I realized that perfection or absolute divinity is rather a rare thing on Earth if it exists after all. I saw that my nicest class fellows cheated in exams, teachers were ignorant, parents were distant, things stood way inferior to their imaginable ideal selves. It was like ideals were bugs and my experience an efficient insecticide. As my ideals diminished with time, the greater was the force I held on to those left. Fast forward to grade 8 where glass was pretty much the last thing I was left with. Giving up on it would mean, giving up hope, if ever, of catching the reflection of God because if not in the glass mirror, where else could you catch it! Though I was too small to enunciate it back then but I knew it in my heart of hearts that it was religiously important for me to establish that glass was divine/beautiful in its own way.

So i looked closely into its molecular structure, surfed through the internet, downloading all the possible images that I could get my hands on of the striking, though still not ordered, molecular arrangements of the glass insides. I realized beauty does not have to be ordered. Perfection is not averse to messiness.

Life is probably hard for an honest, thinking man. As long as I hated glass, I broke my fair share of it and now that I love it, I feel bad for all the fragments I have left behind in my path. If that’s a sacrifice life calls for, I think i have paid my dues in full. If there is one take-away from this melodrama of glass, it’s that perfection is over-rated and idealism is unrealistic and needs reality to pivot on to make any sense. All things are beautiful in their own right. Absolutely nothing in this world is totally impure, and if you find one, check the lens you’re viewing the world with. That might just be the only dirty thing around.

Konya – Rumi’s Abode

As Vayu, the tropical cyclone, approaches the coastal towns of South India and particularly Karachi, I think I’ve found a brand new metaphor for my own religiosity in it.

Recklessly unbridled from outside and hauntingly hollow from the core. Creating a stir all around and changing directions all the same; powerful yet empty in the eye.

I hope it achieves enough in its power, recklessness and destruction that long after I’m gone, it’s carefully preserved, if not in the meteorological journals then at least in my memos, letters and emails to my victims.

Call it a stroke of luck or a sweep of typhoon (if you allow me to drag my metaphor this long), I was able to arrange a reasonably long stopover at Konya, Turkey in my upcoming official visit to Italy next week – long enough to pay my respects to Maulana Jalal ud Din Rumi. If you don’t already know my interest in and association with Rumi, now is not the time to share it because this blog will otherwise turn into a treatise. My feelings about the whole affair are quite mixed. I think this is exactly what I had in mind when I wrote my poem “Tempest“.

Have you been to Konya?

Xoxo & Goodbyes

One of my foremen used to wear a premium, jet black baseball cap with silvery bold letters ‘xoxo’ printed right on its front. The first time he wore it to my office, i studied his face for any sign of humor but all I could find was his usual, blissfully ignorant, childlike morning smile. From that day on, everytime he visited me, which was a lot of times in a day since he is my direct subordinate, I would find myself smiling. Our conversations would go something like:

Foreman: Salam Sir

I: Wassalam come sadaqat noticing the silvery xoxo and beaming ear to ear

Foreman: Sir you seem to be quite happy these days. You’re getting married, I suppose?

I: Not really. It’s just your cap. I like it.

Foreman: Sir the moment I saw it yesterday in a jumble sale in Attock, I knew I had to buy it. Looks good on me, sir. Doesn’t it?

I: Yes it does. It does still smiling like crazy

Foreman: But sir you don’t smile like that, I smell something fishy.

I: It’s just that I haven’t seen you wearing anything fancy like that before. You got taste.

The man has just proceeded for retirement a couple of weeks before and the office is not the same anymore. As I go in to work each day and look at the sea of dull, weary faces around, I miss that refreshing child-like grin under the silvery xoxo front of a black baseball cap. I hope that smile, wherever it is, keeps shining through all the dullness around.