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Category: Travel

The Alternative Traveller’s Guide To London: Top 10 — Sacred Footsteps

London. The name itself conjures up images of red buses, black cabs and three-piece suits. As a major global hub, it attracts a large number of tourists all year round. But, like many major cities, those who visit it rarely get the opportunity to experience what the city has to offer away from its ‘main’…

via The Alternative Traveller’s Guide To London: Top 10 — Sacred Footsteps


Visiting the Saints of Morocco


After reading Michael Sugich’s excellent book, Signs on the Horizons, I felt a desire to travel back to Morocco and try to gain a taste of the things Sidi Michael had experienced during his early years in Islam. I travelled to Morocco five years ago, back then I was more of a tourist, and I didn’t know as much about the history of Sufism in Morocco at the time. The Morocco I had visited was a world away from what Michael describes in his book, and even he admits by the 80s spirituality was slowly dying away in the country, being replaced with the materialism and desire for worldly gain that many visitors to Morocco now experience. Regardless, I decided to make an intention and go off the beaten tourist track and to visit the many awliya buried throughout the country.

My first stop was Marrakech, ironically this was where my last trip had finished, and it felt like I had come back to carry on where I had left off. The main part of my visit to Marrakech was to visit the ‘seven patron saints’ of the city, particularly Shaykh Sulaiman al-Jazuli, the writer of Dala’il al-Khayrat and Qadi Iyad, writer of al-Shifa, both of these being books I had become acquainted with since my last trip to the country. There isn’t much online about how to find the locations of the saints’ tombs, but they are marked on Google Maps. For the benefit of anyone who wishes to visit them, I’ve marked them out here with walking directions  (Edit: Those walking directions don’t tend to work so well, and it seems there isn’t actually a listing for all the shrines anymore, so I’ve created a Google Maps List of the seven saints instead). A lot of people don’t realise that Google Maps comes with an offline facility, you can download specific areas to your phone with your favourites included. I cannot stress the benefits of using this feature enough, especially in a country like Morocco where you will be lost more than half of the time. I had a young faux guide show me to the first four, though I didn’t really want him to, and I paid him way more than I should have. If you mark the locations down you should be able to make your own way round. The only one I had difficulty finding myself was Sidi Es Soheili, his zawiyah is located next to the king’s palace, so if you make your way around it eventually you will find it. The only one I wasn’t able to visit was Sidi Yusuf bin Ali, as it was closed, but all the others should be open for most of the day. The following day I went back into tourist mode for a while and booked a day trip to the Atlas Mountains. Though one thing I learnt from my trip to Kota Kinabalu, is not to underestimate the benefits of using a walking stick when ascending steep terrain, unfortunately I didn’t pack one with me this time and I paid for it with a stretched groin muscle.

King Hassan II Mosque - Casablanca

King Hassan II Mosque – Casablanca

The next day I took the train to Meknes, but my plan was to buy the ticket for Meknes in Casablanca. Everyone who I’ve talked to, or read about visiting Casablanca, has hated it. But one thing they all share in common is they say the King Hassan Mosque is worth visiting. So I decided to just do that. I got off the station at Casablanca and left my luggage at the Super Tours office which is on the left side of the station as you walk out, they will take a small fee, and if it’s closed, as it was when I got there, knock on the window and the security guard should open it. From here, don’t do what I did and take a taxi from the station, which again I knew shouldn’t have done anyway. The guy who talked to me first told me he would take 100 dirhams, then his manager told me it would be 60. If you walk less than two minutes away from the station you can hail a petit taxi and they will charge something around the 10 dirham mark using the meter. Of course given the fact that the Moroccan Dirham is quite weak compared to the pound, none of these prices make a huge difference, but it’s the principle! The mosque is quite impressive, but like most grand mosques built by kings and sultans, because they’re so big they need to built where either no one, or very few people live. So the only people who are actually praying in the mosque are visitors and tourists, the actual spiritual benefit it provides the people of the locality versus the ego of the patron is up for debate. After praying Asr at the mosque I made my way back to the station, had a quick lunch, and caught my train to Meknes.

One thing people need to be aware of if they’re on a train that’s heading in the direction to Fez, is you’ll almost always end up with someone meeting you on the train, acting very casually, and eventually after a little while they’ll offer to put you up in their relative’s riyad, or book you a tour with one of their best mates. My general advice would be don’t bother. I’ll get to Fez in a little while, but on this particular trip I had someone a few years younger than me, with no luggage, who told me he had come from Germany to visit his family in Fez. (On my last trip it was someone who sold Moroccan goods from Fez in America). Once he found out I was going to Meknes, and I already knew my way around Fez anyway, he proceeded to tell me about the family problems he was having back in Germany. A part of me thinks he was genuine in that regard and I offered him some words of advice, but I still think he was a fixer.

Somewhere in Meknes...

Somewhere in Meknes…

A lot of people who visit Meknes, including tour guide writers, will tell you how people in Meknes are much more honest, relaxed and hassle-free compared to Fez. On exiting the station and asking how much a taxi to Bab al-Mansour would cost I was told 20 dirhams, around £1.50, ‘Wow these people really are honest’, I thought to myself. As the driver slowed down to make a turn he asked me a question, which I didn’t understand, as he made the turn and stopped, he pointed to a run down hotel with a sign on the front that said ‘Bab al-Mansour’, I realised he was asking me whether I wanted Bab al-Mansour square or the hotel, on telling him it was the former he informed me the price was actually 50 dirhams. So much for Meknesian hospitality.

Meknes certainly is the most modest of the imperial cities of Morocco, you can see the souq, the mausoleum of Moulay Ismail and the Musée Dar Eljamîi within a few hours. I even walked to the ruins of Moulay Idris’s stables all the way around the king’s palace and back and still had plenty of time to burn. But the main thing I wanted to visit in Meknes was the zawiyah of Shaykh Muhammad ibn al-Habib. Shaykh Muhammad, is probably most famous for being the Shaykh of Abdul Qadir al-Sufi, whose Murabitun movement at one point, and even to a certain extent today, contained numerous translators, artists and scholars from the UK and elsewhere, including Shaykh Hamza Yusuf and Shaykh Abdal Hakim Murad. I spent a good part of my first morning in Meknes looking for the zawiyah, initially thinking it was located next to the Zeitouna mosque, which in turns out it wasn’t (The mosque was undergoing extensive refurbishment anyway). In the evening I managed to get in contact with brother Waseem from Sa’dah who helped me out. The zawiyah is located on Boulevard El Habboul, look for this door which leads to an alleyway (photos provided courtesy of Brother Waseem). Edit (2nd September 2017): Aaminah Patel visited the zawiyah recently and the outside has been refurbished, she kindly sent me her photos, so I’ve edited the post to include updated images:

This door leads to an alleyway...

This door leads to an alleyway.


Which in turn leads to this door with a sign above it…


“The Shadhiliyya-Habibiyya zawiyah is only open for specific prayer and visitation only”. (I don’t know what the last line means).

If the door leading to the alleyway is locked the caretaker Sidi Ali, (who is mentioned in Michael’s book), is usually standing outside and he will open it for you (Edit 2nd September 2017: Unfortunately Sidi Ali has now passed away, I don’t know who the new caretaker is, nor if they will be at the zawiyah for most of the day. You’re best to arrive at prayer time). I arrived between Maghrib and Isha and found three of the fuqara, including Sidi Ali, having a meal with bread and olive oil. They were very welcoming and it was refreshing to be able to have a conversation in classical Arabic for a while, and to be able to talk to normal Moroccans who weren’t touts or faux guides. If you don’t speak French or Arabic you may want to consider taking someone along with you, but even if you don’t, they’ll still be very welcoming. After praying Isha I had the great privilege of meeting one of Shaykh Muhammad’s wives. I was quite surprised there was anyone left from his immediate family given the Shaykh was 100 when he passed away nearly forty years ago. After Isha, a meal of lentils and bread was served, followed by one of the young fuqara, who I believe was from the family of the Shaykh, singing odes from the Shaykh’s diwan. At the conclusion I took their permission and left for the evening so they could carry on with their conversations. (I think they had enough of talking fusha for one evening).

The next day I took a grand taxi to visit Moulay Idris Zerhoun and Volubilis. You can take a grand taxi near the French Institute in the Ville Nouvelle, they’re usually meant to be shared, but I had no one to share with so I had to pay for the whole thing. You can negotiate a price depending on how long you want the driver to wait for you and what you want to see. Moulay Idris Zerhoun is a town in the mountainside built around the tomb of Moulay Idris I, founder of the Idrisid dynasty, and establisher of the first Islamic state in what is now Morocco. From his lineage comes many of the modern day descendants of Ahlul Bayt from North Africa such as Shaykh Muhammad al-Yaqoubi and Shaykh Ahmad Saad. Sidi Khalid Williams describes Moulay Idris I as the patron saint of the Moroccan state, which is a pretty accurate description, his tomb is an important place of visitation in Morocco, including by the king and the royal family. Much like Pakistan, some people have taken up strange customs when visiting shrines of saints, such as placing candles on or near tombs, or pouring rose water over them. In some places some of the caretakers will stop people from doing such things, but they’re not always heeded. When I visited there were a group of Mirpuris from North England placing their face on the cenotaph in imitation of some of the Moroccans, funny how much our two cultures have so many things (good and bad) in common from one end of the world to the other. The one thing I really disagreed with however were a group of singers who take money and will offer supplication for the benefactor. As if making d’ua has some sort of price. Saying that I will admit their performance of Qasida Burda in the Andalucian style made famous by Shaykh Hamza and the Fez Singers was wonderful to listen to, and in return I gave them some coins (though I think they were a bit confused when I walked away when they started to make d’ua). From there my driver took me to Volubilis, the ruins of a Roman city which probably served as the focal point for Moulay Idris to build his capital nearby. To know what anything is you will need a guide, but I wasn’t too fussed myself personally. With that my time in Meknes had come to an end, while Meknes is worth visiting I wouldn’t recommend bothering to stay there. You could easily arrange a day trip from Fez to Meknes, Moulay Idris and Volubilis.

Qarawiyyin Mosque - Fez

Qarawiyyin Mosque – Fez

The next day I took the train to Fez, a quick 20 minute journey, to save some money you could take a bus, but I wanted to get there in time for Friday prayer at the Qarawiyyin mosque. Arriving at Fez station I really wasn’t in the mood to get hustled by another taxi driver (The one on the way out from Meknes had also tried it but luckily I got away with my precious £1.50 saved). After unsuccessfully attempting to hail a taxi from the surrounding roads I used Google’s trusty offline maps to get me from the station to the riad in the medina, it was around an hour’s walk so I wouldn’t recommend it if you don’t have the legs, and aren’t as crazy or stingy as me. Leaving my bags at the riad, I found my way to one of the main streets in the old medina and charged my way down over the old rickety slabs I remembered from my last trip. The athan had been called by the time I had arrived at the riad and most of the shops had their shutters closed. Eventually I reached a blockade of French voyeuristic tourists gathering to take pictures through a doorway, an information board next to the door told me I had arrived and as I entered the Imam had just began his khutbah, I made it just in time. On leaving one of the doormen with a wide wry smile gave salaam and offered his stool to sit on as I struggled to put on my boots, I asked him for directions to the zawiyah of Sidi Ahmed Tijani, and after doing so he asked for charity ‘for the mosque’. This was the first of two times at the Qarawiyyin that a doorman would act this way, be advised the money you give is solely for their own pocket, so if you do give them something feel free to make it as minute as possible. After visiting Shaykh Tijani I bumped into a group of brothers from High Wycombe who are students of Ustadh Haroon Hanif, I ended up inadvertently becoming their tour guide for the afternoon, and we visited Moulay Idris II and Medresa Bou (Abu) Inania,  as well as having lunch at the famous Clock Cafe. After leaving them to relax back at their flat I made my way back to the Qarawiyyin to pray Maghrib and to take part in the recitation of Qur’an afterwards (to see a brief snippet I posted a video to Instagram). If you’re able to visit it’s definitely worth making the effort to attend. The next day I made my way north east of the medina towards Bab al-Fattouh. If you come this way eventually you’ll come to parts of the old city where hardly any tourists tread. When you reach the walls you’ll see in front of you the vast cemetery of Bab al-Fattouh, here there are a vast number of saints that graced the city of Fez over the centuries. The main one I wanted to visit was the tomb of Sidi Abdal Aziz al-Dabbagh. A friend had given me the number of a contact in the Muhammadiyya tariqa living in Fez to show me the tomb, but he hadn’t responded to my messages, I eventually found a hand drawn map of the cemetery online marking the tomb, and having ascertained the general area I thought I would try my luck. I didn’t need it in the end, having just entered the cemetery one of the caretakers asked me if I was looking for Abdal Aziz Dabbagh and took me where I needed to go:


Tomb of Abdal Aziz al-Dabbagh

Of course if you’re offered this service you will need to pay for it, I gave the caretaker 20 dirhams which he seemed pleased with. If you do visit Shaykh Dabbagh, it’s worth noting his tomb is visited quite frequently, and there will be others who look to gain something out of your visit. Before I had even realised a group of around six people had gathered behind me and began to recite Qur’an. I offered them some coins for their effort. The caretaker who showed me the way said something to me in Darraja and made a gesture which made me think these men also offered prayers in exchange for money. I wasn’t interested. The building over the grave is not the largest in the cemetery, but I’ve pinpointed what I believe was the location here. As you can see there’s no sign on the front except for the grave in front of the building, but there may be one on the side. The zawiyah is usually locked, but if you find the caretaker, (a picture of whom can be seen here) he will open it for you. Making my way back to the centre of the medina I thought I’d do some shopping before I left. The day before I was invited to a shop selling prayer beads very closeby to the zawiyah of Shaykh Tijani, and I found the quality of the ones the owner had were far better than others I had seen elsewhere in the city, but unfortunately he wasn’t open that day. I also managed to stumble upon the zawiyah of Shaykh al-Darqawi, the reviver of the Shadhili path in Morocco, from whom Shaykh Muhammad ibn al-Habib and Shaykh Abdul Rahman al-Shaghouri traced their spiritual lineage through. Unfortunately it wasn’t open, and besides the grave of the saint doesn’t lie here, he is buried I believe a two hour car journey away from Fez.

Fez is a great city, once you get past the touts and faux guides that put a real downer on their own country (offline Google Maps to the rescue), it’s a bustling ancient city that’s a pleasure to get lost in. For Muslims particularly it has a deep and rich spiritual tradition which offers a number of enclaves hidden away inside the storm that is the medina to offer spiritual nourishment. It was a great pleasure to visit again.

The next day I made my way to the CTM bus station to catch the 11am bus to Chefchaouen, but on arrival I was told all the buses for the day were sold out. ‘Praise to God in every state’, I thought to myself. As I flicked through my travel guide to figure out the best alternative route I could take, two women walked in with their bags towards the ticket counter, I watched them to see if an opportunity was about to arise, ‘Two tickets for Chefchaouen please’. Bingo. I asked them if they would be willing to share a grand taxi, which they were more than happy to do. So we made our way back to the old city and the other bus station to catch one.

Door in Chefchaouen

Door in Chefchaouen

Three hours later we arrived in Chefchaouen, a picturesque blue-washed city in the Rif Mountains. Googling images of the place will tell you why this place is so loved by many. The medina is quite small though, you’ll get around fairly quickly, there’s a national park and other scenic places to visit in the surrounding areas. My plan was to spend my first day seeing the city, and the next to visit Moulay Abdessalam ibn Mashish, the teacher of Imam Abul Hasan al-Shadhili. On asking the price at the grand taxi stand I was told 600 dirhams, almost as much as the taxi from Fez had cost for half the journey. The sole English speaking driver wasn’t willing to haggle, and I had no one to share the cab with. I was hoping I might bump into some Muslim tourists like I had did on the Friday in Fez but it didn’t happen. I thought I would try my luck in Tetouan the next day, but the receptionist at the riyad told me I would be looking to pay around the same there again. She recommended taking the bus that goes early in the morning from Tetouan’s main bus station, but my flight was the day after and I would be getting to Tetouan long after the bus had come back from Moulay Abdessalam. I resigned myself to my fate and decided it wasn’t meant to be. So I spent the rest of the day wandering around Chefchaouen again and making my way outside the north of the city to take pictures. One thing to be aware of is this is the heartland of Morocco’s hashish industry. You’ll get offered the stuff as you walk around, and a number of students from Spain travel down to make use of the ample opportunities to acquire it cheap.

The next day I took the CTM bus to Tetouan (this time buying my ticket a day in advance). Despite the fact Tetouan gets loads of rave reviews, I saw maybe one other tourist while I was there, a sight that is common for most people who visit it. Most of modern Tetouan was built by the Spanish, and the look and feel of the city definitely makes it apparent. My purpose in Tetouan was to visit Imam al-Harraq and Sidi Ahmed ibn Ajiba. The former is easy to find, make your way to Bab al-Maqabir in the north of the medina and you should find his zawiyah. Ibn Ajiba on the other hand is a different story, his tomb is located in the town of Mellousa, but I didn’t know its exact location. There is a large zawiyah in the area of the town called al-Zameej, but this is not the real Ibn Ajiba but actually one of his relatives. His real tomb is located a short distance away in a much more humble setting. I was hoping by the time I got to Tetouan I would hear back from someone I had emailed regarding its location, or I would come across some information from somewhere else, but that didn’t happen. You could always take a chance and book a grand taxi to take you to the main Ibn Ajiba zawiyah and then see if there are any locals there who can direct you to the real one (insha’Allah).

And that ended my swift journey to visit the saints of Morocco. Two are still left outstanding, and like a cheesy open ending finale to a movie it may lead to another journey to go back again. All knowledge rests with God. I ask Allah He accept my journey to visit his awliya, and that he allows us to continue to benefit from their works and their presence both in this life and the next. If anyone would like some advice or tips on making a similar journey feel free to get in touch.


2014-05-03 11.11.29

The last stop on our journey before returning home was the black sheep of South East Asia. Singapore is a developed and modernised metropolis surrounded by its neighbours who are still trying to catch up. The two main things Singapore has, is food and shopping. So if you’re into either of them Singapore has plenty to offer, including a lot of halal options. All of the fast food chains in Singapore are halal, (but if you’re the kind of person who gets excited about halal McDonald’s then you’re politely requested to stop reading my blog). Our first day was spent meandering around one of the shopping centres in the CBD (Central Business District), one cool thing we came across was a place called Awfully Chocolate, check it out if you’re near one. One of the main touristy areas of Singapore is the bay next to the CBD, from here you can visit the gargantuan Marina Bay Sands Hotel which includes a shopping centre, but the main sight is to take the high speed lift to the viewing platform at the top. The complex also includes the ArtScience Museum which has a number of rotating exhibitions and we took the opportunity to visit the Annie Liebovitz exhibition.

From there we made our way to Gardens By the Bay, a futuristic botanical gardens that has a number of interesting exhibits. A lot of what’s on display is used to educate people about protecting the environment and looking after the planet and so forth, which for the cynic in me felt like Singapore was trying to make up for cutting down all its rainforest years ago. From the Gardens we took a cab to the Singapore Zoo. The zoo is quite long winded to get to if you use public transport, so it may be worth taking a taxi or finding a coach that will take you straight there. The zoo has a large collection of animals, but like all zoos you’re getting a very sanitised experience of bored animals, exemplified best I felt by the Sumatran orangutan:



To see animals in more of a ‘natural’ surrounding, after the zoo closes the Night Safari begins in an adjacent part of the same complex. Although not a real safari, it’s as close as you’re going to get to one in a place like Singapore.

The next day we visited the best part of Singapore which is found in the area around the Sultan Mosque, this part of town is much like Penang, the hip “Shoreditch-y” part of town, but it is also still the main Muslim part of the city and there are a number of shops and restaurants you can visit. The greatest thing about this neighbourhood however is Wardah Books, for a Muslim bibliophile like me this place is a must-stop and I unfortunately missed out on it when I was in Singapore the previous year, so I felt very fortunate to visit it this time. They stock a number of books that are quite hard to find in the UK and even online. It was eventually also in this area of Singapore I found a decent artisanal cafe at Maison Ikkoku after all the disappointing cafes in Penang. From the Sultan Mosque area, which is the traditional Malay part of town, you can visit the traditional Indian part of town in Little India, though there’s nothing unique about the area that differentiates from any of the other Little Indias in south east Asia.

And thus ended our two day sojourn in Singapore and our trip in general. In the end I found Malaysia a mixed cosmopolitan country with plenty of space to improve and modernise into the future. The country is held up in the Muslim world as a beacon of modernity and a vision to aspire to, but from what it seems they still have plenty to offer. The different ethnicities and religions all get along with one another from what it seems, and it’s a far cry from all the debate and political postulating we see in Europe about emerging multicultural societies and how minorities need to integrate blah, blah, blah. Malaysia (and Singapore) in its post-colonial period relatively quickly got through all of that debate and now things work out pretty well. (Though positive discrimination of Bumiputeras leaves a bit of a question mark on the issue). Malaysia has a lot to offer to different types of travellers, my advice is decide what you’re interested in, and you’re pretty sure to find what you’re looking for here.

Malaysia – Kota Kinabalu


From Kuching we took another Air Asia flight to Kota Kinabalu in Sabah state on the east side of Malaysian Borneo. On the first full day we decided to explore the main city and eventually found there isn’t much going on during the day. There’s also very little in the way of sights and historical places to visit. My advice would be if you’re around during the day, don’t bother with the city itself, go to the jetty and head out to the Tunku Abdul Rahman National Park, the name is a little misleading when thinking about national parks in Malaysia, as this isn’t a rainforest but is made up of a group of islands. We unfortunately missed out on the park as we spent the first day trying to see the city only to realise, as I already mentioned, there wasn’t much to see. We took a taxi to the main city mosque on the eastern side and were hoping to visit the bird park which the Lonely Planet guide mentioned was near it, but the taxi drivers hanging around said it was a car journey away, whether they were being truthful or not I wasn’t sure, instead we headed back to the hotel and came back to the city in the evening when the night market is on. The night market, more so the food side, makes up for what KK has missing during the day. Similar to what we had in Kuching you can pick fresh fish and have it cooked how you want. There’s a variety of different fish for sale in general, and it does what most markets do best in allowing you take in some weird and wonderful sounds and smells.

The next day we went out to Mount Kinabalu National Park, the main attraction Sabah state. The park hosts South-East Asia’s tallest mountain, to ascend to the top is a two day journey and is quite gruelling but doable by most people in decent health (have a google to get an idea). Looking at some of the trips offered by numerous tour groups I was under the assumption you get take a trip up part of the mountain in a day and get back, so after having visited park headquarters and picked up a map we headed on some of the trails but eventually found they are based more or less around the park headquarters, none of them offered the tame ascent I was looking for. My advice would be if you do decide to visit Kinabalu Park consider going with a tour operator, they can show you the best parts of what we missed out on, and also give you transportation there and back. We made the choice to head out there on our own, and it took a while to find at least two other people to share a taxi with us back to KK.

And that was pretty much our time in Kota Kinabalu, most of it in summary was me misplanning everything. From the hotel being way out of the city, to missing out on Tunku Abdul Rahman, and not bothering to climb Mount Kinabalu. I suppose my main bit advice would be not to make the same mistakes I did. From KK we made our way to Singapore which would be the last part of trip and that is to follow in the next piece God willing.

Malaysia – Kuching


From Penang we took an Air Asia flight to Kuching in Sarawak state on the island of Borneo. Borneo conjures a lot of exotic images for a lot of people, not for me particularly, but it was easy to see why. Rainforests, mountains, orangutans, head-hunting tribesmen, all of it adds up for a potential out-of-this-world experience. Given Malaysia’s rapid economic expansion, the abundant tour operators and the fact nearly everyone speaks English, you’re not going to find a new world here, but it doesn’t mean you won’t enjoy all the things Borneo has to offer.

In Kuching city the main point of interest is the south side of the harbour, during the night it’s full of people out about on walks, having a meal, listening to buskers and perusing market stalls. During the day on the other side of the road you can visit the many shops that offer numerous locally made handicrafts, particularly by those of tribes native to Sarawak. For a Middle Eastern perfume head like me Sarawak’s main product is oud, but alas I didn’t see anyone selling to the public here or in neighbouring Sabah state which we visited later during our trip. Our first meal in Kuching was at an excellent food court called Top Spot, a number of hawker stalls operate here most of which specialise, in what I assume, are freshly caught local fish. Located on top of a car park (look out for the sign) this place gets frequented by loads of locals in the evening. Pick a fish/lobster/crab/Godzilla size prawn, anything that looks good and have it steamed/fried/grilled, definitely try some steamed fish (I think we had the snapper). Prices at fresh fish hawker stalls are more expensive as you’re paying for a whole fish by weight, so don’t be surprised when you get the bill, but make sure you check it over before paying.

On our first whole day in Kuching we started with a wander round the harbour where we were the night before. Making our way westwards towards the main city mosque. At this point we tried to find the Islamic Civilizations Museum, which took us a very long time, due mostly to Lonely Planet’s surprisingly inaccurate map and directions. To get to the museum find the Gurdwara on the corner of Jalan P. Ramlee and from there head south-west down this road, you’ll see the museum on your left. The museum is quite dated, everything feels like it’s from the 80s, but it was free and quite varied so I wasn’t complaining. Before we found the museum we came across an “Islamic shopping centre”, I can’t remember what it was called but it’s near the museum and next to a banqueting hall called Dewan Kompleks Islam, I only mention it if sisters are looking to buy hijabs/jilbabs etc, there wasn’t much in the way of goods for men over 6ft. In the afternoon we had booked a trip to Semenggoh Wildlife Centre, situated in a nature reserve the centre caters for the semi-wild orangutans that live there. Seeing orangutans is a big feature of many people who visit Borneo, as this is one of only two places in the world you can see them (the other being Sumatra in Indonesia). The good thing about Semenggoh is that the orangutans here are not kept in captive, they live in the nature reserve and come to the centre for food if they’re hungry. The whole purpose of the centre being to help them get reintroduced back into the wild, so as such their main concern is not catering for tourists but the orangutans themselves.  However this does mean that you’re visit Semenggoh may result in you not seeing many, or any orangutans at all. From what I gathered Semenggoh is quite difficult to get to using public transport, it may be worth doing what we did and booking a tour through your hotel (which is quite out of character for me), our guide was a native Sarawakan called Tony, he drove us from the hotel, gave us information about the centre, explained things, let us wander by ourselves and then drove us back, the cost of the tour includes entry into the reserve, so it works out pretty well. If you do decide to visit the centre on your own there are two feeding times, once in the morning and once in the afternoon so time your visit to coincide with them.

The next day we visited Bako National Park, we took a taxi there which cost RM50 (we unknowingly agreed a price with one of the blue taxi drivers which are more expensive than the more humble red ones), the bus is a much cheaper alternative at RM3.50 per person and leaves every hour from the bus station near the mosque, and takes around an hour to get there. The bus or taxi won’t actually take you to the national park itself, it’s situated on a peninsula jutting out into the South China Sea and can only be reached by boat. You buy your ticket and get on the next boat, it’ll stop a little further out from the beach so you have to wade out to the park entrance (apparently this is meant to be “part of the experience”). At the park entrance pay the entrance fee, sign in, pick a trail and head out. You can hire a guide if you wish but apparently given Bako’s relatively small size it’s not really needed. The park has a mixture of beaches, jungle, mangroves and cliffs, it’s definitely worth making a visit to if you’re in Sarawak. Just make sure you take a big bottle of water for each person, use mosquito repellent, and as a personal recommendation, consider wearing one layer of clothing. Sisters who wear hijab may want to consider bandana style, though you do see Malaysian girls wearing the standard hijab I suppose they’re used to the heat and humidity. The park is one of the best places you can see proboscis monkeys, who are only found in Borneo, as well as silver leaf and macaques. Bit of advice, don’t feed the macaques, unless you want them to go through your bag for anything else you may have to offer (and no I didn’t find that out the hard way). There is a trail that leads to a beach where you’re meant to be able to see proboscises, though we didn’t see them along the way, there were quite a few at the park entrance. The tide was low when we got there and you can go for a swim but the water around the park is teeming with jellyfish so check with the rangers at the entrance before deciding to take a dip. From there we backtracked to take another trail which went through different terrains in a very short period of time to reach a cliff overlooking a great secluded beach:


The reason for its seclusion is that the only way to get there is to charter one of the numerous boats operating around the park (I only realised that after we go to the top of the cliff). From there we made our way back to park headquarters and paid for a ticket on the last boat at 4pm. There are a number of lodges you can stay in overnight if you want to, the wildlife changes completely at night and it’s meant to be quite an experience, but apparently the accommodation is quite dire.

The next day we visited the cat museum on the north side of the city. At this point I should explain that ‘Kuching’ means cat in Malay, and as a result the city authorities have jumped full on in capitalising on this, there’s a number of cat statues scattered across the city, and the cat museum is even run by the state and located in city hall. Entry is free but you have to pay if you want to take photographs, or hand over your equipment. The museum is an eccentric collection of literally everything cat related covering numerous topics. History, religion, culture, biology, film, anything that had anything remotely cat related you can find it here. In the afternoon we decided to use the time to visit the Sarawak museums located near the western side of the city centre, you can tie in a visit to these museums as well as others, including the Islamic Civilizations Museum in a single trip.

And thus ended our time in Kuching. One of the main tourists things we skipped on was the ‘longhouse experience’. Personally I don’t really see the appeal of going into a longhouse to experience someone else’s culture just because it’s weird and different to where you’re from. Sure the whole point of travelling is to see, experience and feel a different culture to yours, but when it’s handed to you on a plate as opposed to coming to you naturally it loses its appeal to me. But if you are interested every tour company offers trips to take you to some of the longhouses still occupied by native tribespeople, most of whom are now Christians, and there’s also the Sarawak Cultural Village if you prefer to see it in a sanitized form.

From Kuching we flew further east to Kota Kinabalu in Sabah state, and that will God willing follow in the next piece.

Malaysia – Penang


From Puduraya Bus Station we made our 5 hour journey to Penang in the north of the country. There are a few options available to get from KL to Penang, flying is probably the easiest, but given the fact KLIA is around an hour’s journey from the city centre and you have to get there a couple of hours beforehand, and with the hour’s flight time, there’s not that much time saved from the extra carbon emissions. There is also a train that runs from Singapore all the way through Malaysia to Butterworth, and from there you take a ferry to Penang island, but it takes a lot longer, the evening run is a sleeper train. There are a number of companies that operate buses from the station, all of them will try to ply you with promises so you’ll make use of their services. I searched online for a bus company that would take me to Komtar Tower near Georgetown, the colonial area of Penang Island we wanted to stay in. I confidently walked up to the counter for the bus company I wanted, ignoring all the touts who tried to take me for another western tourist, asked the guy for a ticket to Komtar, confirmed with him the bus did actually go to Komtar after he gave me a ticket that said ‘Sungai Ni[bong]’, the bus station in the middle of the island as opposed to the north, got on the bus and five hours later I found out it didn’t actually go to Komtar but to Sungai Nibong, go figure. So we ended up having to pay around £8 for a taxi to our hotel to Georgetown, not the worst thing that could happen on a holiday, but it was a reminder that not everything you read on the internet is true.

Georgetown in Penang is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, that adage in itself is usually enough reason for me to want to visit a place. In its heyday it was a thriving British trading post that acted as a melting pot of different cultures and peoples. Its best enjoyed, like many other cities that enjoy UNESCO privilege (such as Kyoto and Fes), by going for a wander and coming across old houses and places of worship perchance. As Penang is the one state in Malaysia that has a majority Chinese population the best buildings to see are the Chinese temples and clan houses, the most famous of which is Khoo Kongsi (pictured above), but there many others scattered around that are just as impressive on a smaller scale. One thing Penang takes pride in is the way its different ethnic and religious groups have got along with each other, and the fact that you have so many different temples. mosques, shrines and churches sprinkled around town, usually within close proximity to one another is testimony to that.

The first day and half we were in Penang were spent as I mentioned just wandering around the streets. Georgetown is not massive, so you can see a lot in a short period of time. The main things to see I felt, were Khoo Kongsi and the Kapitan Keling Mosque, originally built by Indians (I believe) but now used by Muslims of different ethnicities in Penang. You’ll find a number of Tamil Muslims praying in a syncretic mix of Shafi’i and Hanafi given that over the centuries followers of the two schools have mixed, though Shafi’i obviously being the more predominant in Malaysia. As you a wander around a bit more, especially by the time you get to Armenian Street, you’ll realise that the city has jumped on its UNESCO status in the last few years. There’s street art and hip cafes and shops opening up everywhere, usually next to run down dilapidated buildings waiting for the next businessman to turn it into the next trendy venue. It provides and interesting mix of old and new, and eventually I recognised as a Londoner that Georgetown was being Shoredified. Now I hate Shoreditch and the whole gentrification of East London by the hipster race, but in Georgetown the process seems to work. People who have been there for years, are still there, and they can still afford to live there (by the looks of it), prices (unless you go into one of the hip cafes/restaurants) are still cheap. There’s no unemployed arts students going around trying to makes their middle class accents sound street, there’s no guys with Philly beards in extra-skinny jeans (Malays struggle to even keep Sunnah beards given their genes, and secondly it’s too hot and humid for skinnies). And the street art is actually quite good, especially given that a lot of it involves cats:





So it had everything Shoreditch has to offer but better, and without the bits I hate. The only thing that still doesn’t work are the cafes. Most of them are style over substance, the one exception I found was a place called siTigun, a non-pretentious, rustic style coffee house that even had its own roastery. (I picked up some Sumatran beans which were great).

The main thing however that Penang is famous for after its history, is not its cool-hip scene, but its food, especially its hawker stall culture. Think what Lahore is to Pakistan, but with at least some form of health standard, and much less requirement for imodium. As a colleague who lived in China advised me, the tip to finding a good hawker stall is to find one that’s busy, that way you know the food is probably going to be good, and secondly they’re constantly going to be cooking their items fresh. To that end if you’re made to wait a little while for your food that’s usually a good sign. The only problem is that most businesses, including the hawker stalls, open from 10-5, when the day is at its hottest, you’ll still be able to find food in the evenings, but your choices will be limited slightly. The Red Garden however is a good choice to make for an evening meal. If you feel a little awkward about the whole hawker style system of ordering, you’re not alone, it can be quite confusing, even for locals, “Do we go up to the counter to place our order, or does someone come over?”, “Do we pay the guy who served us or do we have to go up to the counter this time?”, “Is this guy scamming me cos I’m tourist or have I just forgotten how to work addition”, all of these and more are valid questions when going out for a meal in Malaysia. The best thing to do is have a walk around and find a place that looks interesting, there’s usually someone who assists the cook by helping out customers, look out for this person and ask them any questions you have, most places will be halal but some of the Chinese run establishments won’t be as they use pork lard in some dishes, they’ll tell you if this is the case. Once you’ve made your order pull up a plastic chair on a dirty table and don’t expect Parisian style dining, it’ll be hot, busy, noisy, you’ll still be a little confused about the whole system, but the food is going to be great. Once the person has served you they’ll take payment there and then, there’s usually a separate business that handles drinks, and they will is most cases come over to you quite soon after you sit down. Personal tip is call them over again once you’ve finished your meal and order a teh tarik (Malaysian style tea) for afters, it’s one of the best hot drinks ever. To get an idea of what to try we picked up a food map from the hotel which had a list of dishes Penang is famous for, and some of the stalls that produce the best versions of said dishes. See if you can find a copy, but don’t worry too much about going for the stalls listed, just look out for a busy one serving any of the dishes you’re interested in.

On our final full day in Penang we visited Kek Lok Si, the largest Buddhist temple in Malaysia, situated in the middle of the island up the hill. From there we visited the national park in Batu Ferringhi. Batu Ferringhi is the beach resort side of town (you’ll see a lot of Gulf Arabs on honeymoon, dudes dressed in t-shirts and shorts while wifey stays in niqab, go figure). The national park is the smallest in Malaysia, it spreads along the coast at the north-western tip of the island and there’s a beach for most of it. Unfortunately we couldn’t spend too long there as we had hired a driver for the day, but the main destination in the park for most people is Turtle Beach. Despite its small size there are a few trails of varying lengths you can go on. From there we made a brief stop at Coffee Tree a popular place that lots of taxi drivers will recommend to you, I assume they make some sort of commission as you’re given a sticker on your shirt as you walk in with your driver, but the prices are fixed and our driver didn’t push a sell on us so it was no loss on us. They sell loads of different flavours of coffee, mostly instant, and weird and wonderful chocolates, it’s a little pricey but a decent place to pick up gifts for back home. From there we made our way to the temple of the sleeping Buddha, which is built in a Thai style, immediately across the road on the other side is a Burmese style temple with a standing Buddha. In the evening we took a bus back to Batu Ferringhi to check out the night market. Though most of it is cheap wares from China, you can pick up some decent pieces, make sure you take your haggling skills with you.

And so ended our trip in Penang. Looking up a list of places to visit in Malaysia, Penang is always on there, and rightly so. If you consider going to Malaysia I would highly recommend adding Penang to the list. From there we made our way to Kuching in Borneo, and that will God willing follow in the next post.

Malaysia – Kuala Lumpur


Last year I had planned a trip from Singapore, through Malaysia and into Thailand, but a family emergency lead me to call the trip off short. This year I returned to Malaysia after only being able to spend about 20 hours there the year before, but my intention this time was to spend around two weeks just in Malaysia (with a brief weekend stop in Singapore again on the way back).

For most people Kuala Lumpur is the starting point of any trip to the country. My first piece of advice, everything in Malaysia is cheap, including the five star hotels in KL. A three day stay for two people in the Shangri-La costs as much as a single night in the London equivalent, so if you’re up for it it’s worth making the investment. (I won’t go into the spiritual repercussions of doing so, this is one of my travelogue articles as you can tell, not an Islamic one).

Our first day in KL started with a very long nap as we were both very jetlagged. After our initial wanderings we made our way to KL Menara or KL Tower, which much like the Petronas Towers offers you great views of the city, the main difference being the viewing deck being a circular platform so you end up with a more panoramic view. From there we made our way to Bukit Bintang, a bit of a shopping area just on the fringes of the city centre, this is where you will find a lot of Arab residents and tourists to KL. For those who are interested you can also pick up some oud or perfume in this part of town. Oud comes from this part of the world, but from what I can tell the locals don’t really use it and export most of it to the Gulf, so I’m not sure which of the few shops around are actually any good. I decided to make my purchase from Oud Line, which I found out about before we flew out, and it seemed to be the only large well stocked shop we came across during our travels.

The next day was our first full day in Malaysia and we started off at the Petronas Towers. Another bit of advice, we got there around 8:30 in the morning on a Sunday when that whole area of KL feels deserted, but yet there are still tourists queuing up waiting for tickets in this small antechamber area in the bottom of one of the towers. They’ve recently started allowing people to pre-book tickets online and it’s definitely worth it if you’re keen on going up the towers, otherwise I’ve heard the wait can go on for hours. The tour includes a visit to the skybridge which connects the two towers, and then a trip to the top where, as you can expect, you can get a great view of the city. Though be warned, pollution and rain is quite common in KL so you may not necessarily end up with clear skies. The area around the towers is made up of a large complex containing a number of different things, one of which is the KL Aquarium, which was OK, there’s also the Suria KLCC shopping mall if you’re into that sort of thing. Though given the glitz and glamour of the place I was wondering what normal Malaysians must think about it.

From the the City Centre, we made our way to the colonial district, which as my brother pointed out, actually makes you feel like you’re in Asia. The City Centre is a mass of skyscrapers, expatriates and big business, but KL certainly hasn’t forgotten its roots, once you leave KLCC you’ll soon be reminded that 1) this is actually still South East Asia and 2) that this place used to be a massive rainforest. There’s a still a lot of greenery around pockets of KL, particularly if you walk between KLCC and the Colonial District. You also will end up walking past the edges of an area known as Kampung Baru, the traditional Malay area of town that still has a few wooden houses. The main sites in the Colonial District are the Jamek Mosque, built in a Victorian-Moorish style of architecture familiar to many sub-continentals, Merdeka (Independence) Square, as well as a few museums that follow on from the architecture of the Jamek Mosque. Not too far down the road is Masjid Negara (National Mosque) which took over as the main mosque of Kuala Lumpur from the Jamek Mosque when it was built. The mosque, like many modern mosques in Malaysia, is a mixture of different architectural styles, mostly modernist, but the Mihrab is built in a beautiful Andalusian style:

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Nearby the masjid are a number of sights, the Islamic Arts Museum was, given my addiction to museums and Islamic art, high up on my list and it’s definitely worth paying a visit. Reading descriptions of pieces it’s clear to tell the people who work here are enthusiastic about the subject matter, there area number of permanent and temporary exhibitions, plus a well stocked shop with original calligraphy pieces, and even a Lebanese restaurant. Up the hill from the museum is the KL Bird Park, which was nice to visit, but it’s evident a number of the birds don’t enjoy being in their cages. If you’re interested nearby the mosque and museum is KL’s old train station, built again in a Victorian-Moorish style but on a much grander scale. Think the Brighton Pavilion x 2. Heading back towards Jamek Masjid we visited the Central Market south of the mosque. The market is in Chinatown, and at night when the market is open you can end up going down narrow streets clogged up by stalls which makes for an interesting experience.

The next day we travelled to the Batu Caves north of KL. You can take a taxi which is quicker, but I would recommend taking the train from KL Sentral which is a lot cheaper and doesn’t take too much longer. The caves form an important part of Hindu culture in Malaysia and KL in particular, and there are a number of temples located in numerous locations around the caves. Aside from the temples the natural scenery is definitely worth checking out. There are about 200 steps leading up to the main area up into the mountain, there are large steps along the way that you can rest on before carrying on. We were both under the impression the area would be a lot larger than we thought it would be, but we ended up going up the stairs and coming back down again in just under an hour. The Batu Caves were the last thing we wanted to see in KL, so the rest of the day was spent filling it up with shopping mall wanderings, and also taking the opportunity to take pictures of the Petronas Towers at night. We also decided to have a wander around Kampung Baru, which ironically given that it lies in the shadow of the Petronas Towers feels like a world away. There’s a large hawker centre on the main thoroughfare going through the area which was quite busy when we walked through in the early afternoon, which is usually a good sign of what the food is like there, but unfortunately we didn’t get to try any (my tips on Hawker Stalls will follow in a subsequent piece).  The next day we made our way to Puduraya Bus Station (or Pudu Sentral) to take a bus to Penang, which will follow in the next article God willing.

Why Muslims should visit al-Aqsa and Palestine

This follows on my previous post regarding my trip to al-Aqsa and Palestine. The question of “Why Muslims should visit al-Aqsa” does not really need an answer, every Muslim is aware of the sanctity of the mosque and the encouragement our Prophet (ﷺ‎) gave his companions, and by extension us, to go and visit it in the same manner of which we go to visit the other two holy sanctuaries in Mecca and Medina.

But since 1967 following the occupation of East Jerusalem by the state of Israel, a disagreement has occurred amongst Muslims, both laymen and scholars, as to whether we should visit the mosque while its current situation is in such a state. The feeling amongst many is that to visit al-Aqsa would mean having to go through the state of Israel, which in turn poses this question, is doing so legitimising their illegal occupation?

The reality on the ground, and something that is obvious for people of intellect to see, is that the Palestinian people are in a dire state. As Gaza has essentially been turned into a prison, and the West Bank is constantly being confined and suffocated by the growth of settlements and the wall, al-Aqsa, just like everything else the Palestinians own, is becoming susceptible to Israeli encroachment. Throughout 2013, and remaining unreported by mainstream media, extremist Zionists entered the Temple Mount under armed escort on a near daily basis. On some occasions IDF forces close the mosque to Muslims so that Israelis can enter unperturbed. In at least one instance on the occasion of Rosh Hashanah this resulted in tear gas fire being fired on worshippers to force them out. (See Al Jazeera’s report here and a video of the incident here). The Israeli government has only been able to carry out such transgressions given the fact that the number of Palestinians able to travel to al-Aqsa to worship has decreased. As Habib Ali mentioned, if the Noble Sanctuary were full of believers for every prayer, just as the sanctuaries of Mecca and Medina are, the Israeli government would never be able to do such things. And this is where we need to come in.

For those of us with nationalities that allow travel to Israel (which includes a number of Muslim majority countries) we should make a sincere intention to travel to al-Aqsa with or without Israeli occupation. The way things are right now, peace does not look imminent, the Palestinian Authority essentially runs as an Uncle Tom Authority (to use the nomenclature of Malcolm), and it does not look as though they will have the will and determination, particularly given the ruling party Fatah’s secular leaning, to secure or care about complete control of the Noble Sanctuary. Just as we as Muslims in the west need to stop relying on politicians at home to make our societies a better place to live in, we need to do the same for other Muslims in other countries. Let us not put our hopes on politicians who do not know or care about us, in the hope that maybe some day he or she will do the right thing, let us as Muslims roll up our sleeves and instead put our trust in Allah. If Muslims were to travel to al-Aqsa, regularly and in large numbers, it would ensure the sanctity of the blessed place would remain intact, as a result, if we go there and purposely ensure we stay in Arab owned hotels, eat in their restaurants, buy their goods and so on, it would enable the Palestinians (both Muslims and Christians) to have more economic clout which will lead them to have more of a say in Israeli society.

One concern Muslims may have travelling to the region is Israeli immigration. The fact of the matter is their discriminatory profiling of travellers is part of the establishment’s wider aim to ensure the weakening of foreign solidarity with the Palestinians. When one travels there it is obvious to see that Israeli immigration, apart from the desk clerks, are highly understaffed. It’s for this reason the Flytilla incident happened in 2012, Israel does not have the means or manpower to put large numbers of travellers through their stringent immigration checks. Again if the number of Muslims travelling to the area were to increase, Israel would have no choice but to either reduce their checks for Muslim travellers, or spend the millions required to vet every single one that comes through their borders.

Many people feel that travelling to Israel is somehow justifying and accepting their occupation, but if one reflects on this it’s not really a stance that has any tangible worth. The fact that you have your passport looked over is not in anyway granting them some sort of victory and you accepting defeat. If one is truly adamant about BDS you can always choose to travel from Jordan rather than Tel Aviv, which if I were to return again would be my choice. Although you will still potentially go through a long waiting time to have your passport cleared, on your return you should not receive any issues, and you need not have any interaction with Israel proper.

The one last final thing I will say on the matter is with regards to the issue from a jurisprudent point of a view. There are some scholars such as Shaykh Muhammad al-Yaqoubi and Shaykh Yusuf al-Qaradawi who hold the opposite opinion of what I’m espousing here. However the martyr, Shaykh Muhammad Sa’id Ramadan al-Buti, had the opposite view, he said:

Muslims visited Al-Masjid Al-Aqsa while it was under the rule of the Crusaders and they never considered their pilgrimage to be recognition of the Crusaders or their assumed rights. Indeed those Muslims saw their visits to Al-Masjid Al-Aqsa as a challenge to the Crusaders’ presence and a continuation and a renewal of their covenant with the Almighty to repel that aggression … It is by God’s Grace that I searched and found no Imam in history and no Companion of the Prophet (pbuh) who severed ties or stopped visiting Al-Masjid Al-Aqsa while Jerusalem was under the Romans [Byzantines].

This for me put to bed any hesitation I had lingering about my decision to visit Palestine, for although I have a lot of respect for Shaykh al-Yaqoubi and Shaykh al-Qaradawi (more so the former), Shaykh al-Buti was one of the marja’ scholars, those who have been given authority to ascertain new rulings by the preceding maraji’ scholars, it is the highest authority a scholar of jurisprudence can be awarded in our time, and with all due respect Shaykh al-Buti was one of them, but Shaykh al-Qaradawi and Shaykh al-Yaqoubi are not.

With that I again ask all Muslims who are serious about their faith and in supporting the Palestinian people to make their intention to visit al-Aqsa. One needs to only look at the rapid expansion that has happened in Mecca and Medina (whether you like it or not) to see the potential benefit that could come about if the mosque was full every day with people praying. Rather than sitting on our sofas watching the plight of the Palestinians on our tvs from the comfort of our homes we should get up and help them in a sustained and consistent way that will prove more beneficial to them than just the occasional charity donation.

For some more reading on this topic I would recommend the following pamphlet forwarded to me by sister Sidra MushtaqWhy Visit Masjid Al Aqsa – Virtues & History

EDIT: It has recently come to my attention that Shaykh al-Yaqoubi is not of the opinion that al-Aqsa should not be visited, rather he encourages it. See here:

Occupied Lands

In 2012 I had the blessed opportunity to once again visit the sanctuaries of Mecca and Medina, on my return I had a dream that I was praying in the al-Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem. At that time, I had the opinion that I would one day visit the mosque and Jerusalem once they were freed from Israeli occupation, and now that I think about it I can’t quite remember why I had that opinion. That changed however once we heard Habib Ali Jifri talk about the topic. Last year the Radical Middle Way hosted a two day seminar studying the twentieth book of Imam al-Ghazali’s ‘Revival of Religious Sciences’, during the course one of the African scholars present asked Habib Ali to talk about and discuss his recent visit to Palestine and al-Aqsa, something I was unaware of, and had apparently been taken as quite controversial. Habib Ali explained why he went and why he encouraged all Muslims who have the ability to visit Palestine should do so, God willing I will explain the points he made in a subsequent post, and from that point on why I now feel the same way. After Habib Ali finished it was clear to me that I needed to make the intention to visit the mosque and the people of Palestine with or without Israeli occupation. The biggest hurdle was to convince my parents, but after some substantial period of time, and by elucidating  Habib Ali’s comments to them, my father eventually agreed. The cheapest flight available to Tel Aviv at the time was in December of this year, and with that we were booked.

On arriving in Israel/Palestine the main issue is dealing with Israeli border “security” if you are a Muslim or someone with Arab descent. A quick look through the internet will reveal a number of people’s experiences and encounters in dealing with entering and leaving Israel. One of the first ones I came across was on Mondoweiss about two girls’ ordeals of Palestinian origin. To know the full extent of what Israeli security will do to probe your personal life that article is a good reference. I had arrived fully prepared for their questioning, having removed any emails and posts on Facebook they would have found disliking to their tastes. However in the end they only kept us for around an hour, which is a relatively short time for being questioned by the state of Israel. I’ve had friends who I know personally kept at the border with Jordan for 14 hours, and another friend kept for 6 hours at Tel Aviv before being told he would be deported in the morning. Their main questioning was around family history, father’s name, grandfather’s name, if I knew anyone in Israel or Palestine (I was surprised the Shin Bet officer questioning me even used the term ‘Palestine’), relatives in Pakistan, their contact details blah blah blah. I complied with their requests as I knew this was part of their strategy to deter people from visiting al-Aqsa and that I had nothing to hide from them (mainly because everything I did have to hide had already been deleted). Eventually they asked me for all my email addresses, including work and any old teenage emails and all my mobile phone numbers. After that I eventually received my passport back with a blue coupon confirming I had been granted access to Israel, and surprisingly I got it back before my father’s. One piece of advice is to recite Ayat al-Kursi and verse 9 of Surat Ya-Seen before getting into any kind of situation where you don’t want people to pay attention to you and if you want to be hidden, this may have been the reason why we ended up not having to stay very long at the airport.

The following day was our first full day in Palestine, we stayed in East Jerusalem in an Arab owned hotel just outside the old city walls. The old city itself is typical of medieval Muslim cities, however it’s not as spread out and complicated as Fez, so making your way around is not too much of a problem (if you know what to expect from a medieval Muslim city). Our first stop was al-Aqsa where I could finally fulfill the intention for my trip. All the gates are policed by the Palestinian Authority, who check to see if you are Muslim, giving your name as ‘Muhammad’ is usually sufficient. Non-Muslims are only allowed to enter the sanctuary through the Maghribiya Gate next to the Western Wall during certain hours. As soon as you enter you’re greeted with a vast open plain which contrasts with the constricted streets outside, and in the middle shines the Dome of the Rock, the gateway between heaven and earth. It is here the Children of Israel kept the Ark of the Covenant, where all souls must travel through to reach the heavens, and it is here the Prophet (ﷺ‎) travelled to the Divine Presence. To go in you need to satisfy the waqf official you are Muslim, usually by reciting the declaration of faith. Most times there’s also a guide who works for the waqf who will show you around and explain things to you, they’re not supposed to take a fee but some of them will expect one. The Dome of the Rock (usually used as a prayer space for women particularly during busy periods) is one of the many mosques inside al-Haram al-Sharif   but the whole area is considered al-Aqsa. Underneath the rock is a cave which is also used as a prayer space. The other main building is the Qibli Mosque, the main prayer area in al-Aqsa, and which is quite commonly referred to (some consider it erroneously) as the al-Aqsa Mosque. Most of the other mosques in the haram are underground, as the sanctuary is essentially on top of a mountain, they include the Old Mosque which is the original prayer space before the Qibli Mosque was built. The Marwani Mosque, commonly referred to as “Solomon’s Stables” which contains the prayer niche of Sayidda Maryam, and the Buraq Mosque, where it is believed the Prophet (ﷺ‎) tied Buraq when he arrived in Jerusalem. It was a great relief having been able to fulfill the intention of my visit, as I wasn’t sure if it would happen or not. To be able to follow the steps of the Prophet (ﷺ‎) and be able to obey him in coming to pray at the Noble Sanctuary was a great blessing of which I cannot be more than thankful for. After praying zuhr we went to visit the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, the place believed by Christians to be where Jesus was crucified and died. From there we took a taxi from Damascus Gate to the Mount of Olives, a place that has a number of important sites related to all three Abrahamic religions, such as a large ancient Jewish cemetery, the Chapel of the Ascension and the Garden of Gethsemane. The main thing I wanted to visit here was the tomb of my namesake, the companion Salman al-Farisi, unfortunately it was closed and there was no caretaker around who could open it for us. For anyone wishing to visit the tomb it’s located a little uphill from where tourists are dropped off at the Mount of Olives, on a road called Suleiman El Farsi (sic), it’s in a small building annexed to what I believe was a madrassa (See Google Street view here). There is also a tomb nearby associated with Rabi’a al-Adawiyyah (Rabi’a al-Basri) but this is more likely to be a different Rabi’a as opposed to the famous Sufi waliyah. From the mosque we made our way down the mountain back to Jerusalem. As per most of the world outside of Britain a lot of places shut for lunchtime/siestas, so a number of the sites were closed when we were there.

The next day our plan was to visit Nablus. However the weather started to change, currently we were in the middle of a torrential downpour which was about to turn into a snowstorm, so the day was spent unfortunately not doing much. We made the trip again to the area near the Church of the Holy Sepulchre to visit the Mosque of Omar which we had forgotten about the previous day. The mosque is located in front of the church but unfortunately it was shut.

The next day the plan was to visit Bethlehem and Hebron, the rain had turned into snow and Jerusalem was now covered in it. Undeterred I was unwilling to spend another day in the hotel room boring my mind into non-existence. However on arriving to meet the tour company they told us that Hebron had a foot of snow overnight and the roads to the city were shut. Allah is the best of planners. My main desire of the trip was to visit Hebron and our master Ibrahim, I guess it wasn’t meant to be. Instead we spent the day in Bethlehem with our tour guide Yamen, a native Palestinian and peace activist who has spent most of his life in Bethlehem. He started off by showing us the Separation Barrier and explaining how the settlements and Israeli policies are squeezing the life and living out of people in the area. From there we proceeded to the Church of the Nativity and Manger Square, the main sites in the city. After that he took us around the back streets of the city explaining to us that these are areas most tourists don’t get to see because the tour companies avoid them as they highlight the the sheer deprivation of the locality, and potentially provide a downer for the tourists who do decide to come. After our walkabout we returned to Manger Square for lunch where Yamen introduced us to a great dish called sakkan, I also used it as an opportunity to pray in the Mosque of Omar, the story of which is the same as the one in Jerusalem, in that the Caliph Umar bin al-Khattab was invited to pray in the church, but he declined in the fear Muslims would take it as a prayer space, so instead he prayed a short distance away, and the mosque is built on this spot. After lunch we were shown more of the Separation Barrier and nearby settlements and their effect on the area, after which we were treated to a famous Palestinian dessert called knafeh. Our tour guide Yamen did a great job and didn’t mince his words about the situation in the occupied territories, something that many of the tourists who visit the area need to hear. He works with a number of politically minded tour companies in Israel, the one we booked with was Green Olive Tours which from their website you can see offer a number of different packages, most of which cater towards people who want to understand the numerous socio-political and religious situations of different communities in Israel/Palestine.

The following day was a Friday, and my plan was to pray Juma’a at the mosque before heading to the airport for our return flight. Unfortunately the snow had turned into a bit of a blizzard overnight, the largest amount of snow to fall in the region for decades. As a result I wasn’t able to attend prayers, instead we had to leave 2 hours earlier than scheduled to get to the airport as the main highway (Highway 1) between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv was shut. The other route (Highway 443) was just about open, it turned out to be the strangest journey I’ve had, as it felt like a trip through a disaster movie where anything could go wrong at any time. The road in the opposite in direction was completely shut, littered with abandoned cars, the side we were travelling on had the occasional setback, as every now and again a vehicle would get stuck, or traffic had to make way for cars coming from the other direction. Thankfully, we eventually made it out of the mountainous areas of the West Bank and the snow was finished, but eventually, and ironically, as we were approaching a military checkpoint, it started to hail heavily leaving frost on the road. The checkpoint was manned by what seemed like just two teenage female conscripts, one of which who just asked us where we were from and wished us a safe flight when we responded ‘London’. Arriving at Ben Gurion airport however is a different story, again I was prepared for what was to come and ensured we arrived at the airport three hours before the flight as everyone recommends you should. Their “security” starts at the road entrance to the airport where your driver will be racially profiled if they’re Arab, you will be sent to the side to be examined for explosives. A search of the vehicle, bags, person and mobile phone ensues, a sticker is placed on your bags indicating this search has been carried out. On arriving at the terminal entrance you’re again racially profiled and asked to present your passport at the door if you have the wrong complexion. Next at check in you’re asked about your visit to Israel and the standard security questions about who packed your luggage and if there’s anything dangerous in them. Your bags and passport are tagged with a barcode which starts with a number between 1 -6, 1 being minimal threat, and 6 being the highest, we were given a 3. If you have luggage to check in it’s passed through a complex machine that does a thorough x-ray of your bags. Next is immigration, and as expected we were again brought to the side for further questioning, mirroring what happened when we entered the country, although this time they don’t take their time as they want to avoid you missing your flight. The one thing that was different here was the number of people cross-examining myself and my father. There was the senior immigration official, a plain clothes police office who I realised had been following us since we entered the terminal building, and was watching our body language as we waited outside for our passports, a plain clothes Shin Bet officer who I believe was Druze as he spoke Arabic but feigned surprise when we told him we spoke neither Hebrew nor Arabic, and one of the senior airport security personnel. Each one took turns to ask us different questions, most of which revolved around the usual baloney about heritage, purpose of visiting Israel, whether someone had encouraged us to visit for any particular reason, again all part of their intimidation tactic to stop you from visiting again and in the hope you will relay your experiences to other Muslims who will then be put off from visiting Palestine. If they had any genuine security concerns they would have had all the answers to their questions on the computer record entered by the officers when we entered the country. At one point all of them came out together standing over us while the female Mizrahi immigration officer asked us what countries we had visited in the last ten years, pretending to write down our responses. The whole thing lasted around half an hour, after which eventually you reach your gate, but not before having one last security check where you have the standard airport x-ray of hold luggage and a metal detector test carried out. Just in case you managed to pick up some contraband in the 1 minute between checks when they weren’t able to watch your every move.

And so ended our pilgrimage to Palestine. Although we missed out on quite a few things God willing my intention is to return again and visit the places destiny held us back from visiting this time round. Despite the efforts of the Israeli establishment from not wanting me and other Muslims from doing so, my hope is to return and continue to visit the Holy Land continuously from now on. In the next post I will explain some of the reasons why I feel Muslims should make an effort to visit al-Aqsa and Palestine in general.

A Few Days in Paris

As per my usual annual travel habits I go to new European city for a few days, this year I decided on Paris, which for many Londoners at my age is not a new experience, but for myself it was. For those who don’t know there is a train service run by Eurostar that goes directly from London’s St Pancras station to Paris’ Gare de Nord, and is a worthwhile option if wanting to travel between the two cities.

Our hotel was situated in the Latin Quarter within the 5th arrondissement, which is a decent location for a mid-priced centrally located hotel. But if you’re on a budget it’s worth searching around. The first stop was Notre Dame, as I’ve mentioned in my previous posts when writing about my travels in Catholic countries, I’m not the biggest fan of gothic cathedrals, so unfortunately there’s not much for me to say. From there we made our way along the Seine to the Tuileries Garden situated in front of the Louvre, a nice location to relax if the weather is good. From there we walked along the Champs Elysee to the Arc de Triomphe. The Champs Elysee, despite its reputation, I found to be quite bland, in that it’s very similar to London’s Knightsbridge, superficiality and sensationalism in full effect, with plenty of Gulf Arabs for good measure. It was pretty accurately described by one of the BBC’s journalists in Paris who wrote about the famous avenue before I left. I imagine the American clothing store the writer mentions is the infamous Abercrombie and Fitch, which I for myself saw the long queue to get in for. At the time of writing a fire has burnt down some of the store, which I can only imagine as being divine providence. (If you haven’t already check out #FitchTheHomeless). On the way we stopped at Ladurée, but I didn’t have the macaroons, I think that was a mistake. To get into the Arc de Triomphe is paid entry, as it is essentially a luxuriant roundabout to compliment the Champs Elysee I didn’t really see the point. From there we took le Metro to the Eiffel Tower. A word of advice, if you want to go up the tower, book your tickets well in advance, as I missed out, and I didn’t want to queue for hours to get tickets. The Tower, despite being considered a cliché by some is actually quite impressive when you see it for real, the one downside of my trip was probably not going up to the top.

The second day started off with a trip to Shakespeare & Company, arguably the most famous bookshop in the world, and it deserves its reputation. Layers upon layers of English books fill every nook and cranny, a truly magical place for an avid book lover like me, and for anyone with a few hours to spare it’s a great place to idle away the time to read. Unfortunately my other geeky obsession of museums was beckoning in form of the Louvre, the world’s largest museum, our main destination for the day. One piece of advice is don’t bother with the main pyramid entrance, from the main pyramid facing the museum, go left to the road there, take another left and go into the Carrousel du Louvre shopping centre from which you can also go into the museum, and the security queue is much shorter. The Louvre recently opened a new Islamic wing, which in comparison to the V&A’s isn’t that amazing but it’s still worth a visit. The interactive sessions were avidly viewed by many of the French tourists and it serves a great purpose in educating the French about our tradition. The Mona Lisa is the Pièce de résistance of the museum, but unfortunately I still don’t get the hubbub (call me a cynic). The main contender to that title is Venus de Milo, again still didn’t get it, I have the feeling if it still had its arms it would have not achieved the fame it had, but what do I know. On exploring other areas of the museum it became very apparent that a lot of what was on display was being used to fill space given the size of the palace. Eventually we reached a point where the objects on display were nothing compared to the sheer magnitude and detail in certain areas of the buildings themselves. For myself as a Londoner and a member, the British Museum is what I would want to compare it to, and despite the latter’s smaller size, a lot of what is on display are much larger pieces which attract more interest. I suppose as I said due to the Louvre’s much larger size they would want to fill it with as many artifacts as possible, whereas the British Museum most likely keeps many items in storage given its limited space.

From the museum we went to Angelina’s, another one of the famous tea rooms of the city. Their signature drink is l’Africain, an extra thick hot chocolate, which on first taste does have a very good kick, but eventually becomes quite sickly. Their signature dish is the Mont Blanc, most of which is taken up by it’s very dry topping, but the bottom level cream with meringue is worth the effort, just don’t do what I did and go with someone who doesn’t have a sweet tooth and gives you their dessert to finish, and you end up having way too much rich food in one sitting. In the evening we visited the main mosque of the city located not far from our hotel in the Latin Quarter, the building is exquisitely built in a Moroccan/Andalusian style. When I visited the cafe and restaurant were closed, but apparently it’s quite popular with Parisians looking for Moroccan cuisine/mint tea. On visiting for the sunset prayer there were a number of French families looking to have an evening meal. I felt this was an excellent way to open a masjid to visitors and have them feel welcome and find out about a culture they may not know much about. Apparently there’s a hammam too which is also meant to be quite good, but I don’t know if that’s taking a bit too far…

Our next day started with a visit to the Institute of the Arab World (Institut de Monde Arab), which is worth visiting. Despite my dislike of modern architecture, this one fits its purpose quite well. The museum is one part of the building, while the rest is dedicated to research, not so much Islamic but more cultural. From there we went to Musée d’Orsay, which contains an interesting Orientalist section, as well as numerous paintings by Cezanne, Monet and Van Gogh. From there we went to Musée du quai Branly, but first stopped at Michele Chaudun, regarded by many as the best chocolatier in Paris, and his Paves, despite their high price tag certainly give credence to the accolade. The Musée du quai Branly is definitely worth checking out, it’s a weird and wonderful place designed to help explore the cultures of Africa, Asia, the Americas and Oceania. The evening was spent visiting a cousin in Saint Maur-des-Fosses which gave me a chance to have a brief glimpse at the suburbs.

And thus our trip concluded. Unlike many of the other European cities I’ve visited and talked about on this blog, Paris is one that actually didn’t leave me underwhelmed, I suppose it’s the fact that it rivals London so closely. There were still a few things I didn’t manage to do which I would like to cover the next time round (God willing), such as the Eiffel Tower (as I already mentioned), Versailles, Sacré Cœur, and Berthillon ice cream on  Île Saint-Louis (which is meant to be the best in the world). But all in all, I enjoyed my journey, and encourage anyone looking to visit Europe to definitely book Paris in for a few days.


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