How to spot a terrorist on your flight


Hijacking suspect (Credit:
Hijacking suspect

The skies are no longer a very friendly place to fly if you’re brown or “maybe-Muslim”. A few days ago, an Iraq-born researcher at UC Berkeley was removed from a Southwest Airlines plane for speaking Arabic. A passenger heard the guy end a phone call with “inshallah” and decided it must mean “this plane full of infidels is going down”. In reality inshallah (which translates as “God willing”) is a versatile Arabic phrase that can be used to mean everything from “hopefully” to “never going to happen” to “I’ve stopped listening now, kthanxbye.”

This isn’t the first time someone has raised suspicions simply by speaking Arabic – the world’s fifth most-spoken language – on a plane. Fearmongering around terrorism has ignited a vicious vigilantism in air travel. The 17th century had the Salem witch trials; the 1950s had McCarthyism; today we’ve got Mile High Hysteria.

Last November, for example, two Palestinian-Americans were blocked from boarding a Southwest flight after another passenger heard them speaking Arabic and felt “uncomfortable”. Shortly after that incident, Spirit Airlines kicked four passengers of Middle Eastern descent off a flight because one of them was making calls in another language.

You don’t even need to be speaking Arabic to raise suspicions among “concerned citizens”, you simply need to be doing something a little “terroristy”. Like not being white. Last month, Laolu Opebiyi, a (Christian) Brit of Nigerian descent was removed from an easyJet plane after another passenger saw the word “prayer” in his Whatsapp messages.

Oh, but these are just the times we live in, some might say. It’s not bigotry, it’s security! Better safe than sorry! Indeed, what better way to fight terrorism than through irrational fear that manifests itself in divisive bias?

However, if these really are the times we live in, shouldn’t aviation authorities be doing a little more to help people identify the terrorists in their midst? Rather than making us sit through demonstrations of how to insert one end of a seatbelt into another, airlines should be showing us the best way to racially profile our fellow passengers. While we await the modernisation of inflight safety briefings, I have taken it upon myself to provide some helpful pointers as to how to spot a terrorist at 30,000 feet. So, ladies and gentlemen, for the next few paragraphs, I would like your complete attention …

Hipster or terrorist? Know the difference


Unprecedented numbers of young men currently labour under the delusion that beards are attractive. This means that there will probably be a fecundity of facial hair on your next flight – not all of which will be fundamentalist. Please take a few moments to locate your nearest beard and assess whether it belongs to a hipster or a terrorist. You are, of course, entitled to argue that hipster-led gentrification is itself a form of urban terrorism, in which case I’d suggest dashing off 800 words on the matter instead.

First-class weaponry

Taking a knife on to a flight is frowned upon for security reasons. However, if you happen to turn left when you board the plane you are given a variety of sharp knives and glassware at mealtime. I can only assume that intelligence agencies have data which shows that terrorists are more likely to be sitting in the cheap seats. This makes no sense. If I were going to blow myself up on a plane (I’m not, despite my questionable name), I would not add insult to injury by flying economy.

Rather than showing safety demonstrations, airlines should be helping us to racially profile our fellow passengers

Recognise terrorist toilet time

Ten minutes locked in the toilet means someone is suffering explosive bowel movements from the airplane lasagne. Any longer than that and they’re probably going to blow up the plane. It’s just maths, really.

Beware of scarlet hair

According to Breitbart, a rightwing blog read – according to some experts – by people who aren’t very bright, redheads are more likely to be terrorists. The site notes that white “Islamic extremists reported on by the media are 15 times more likely than the general population to have red hair”. The rationale for this, Breitbart writes, “at least according to some experts”, is the “bullying and persecution [redheads] endure early in life”.

Yallah, yallah

Anyone who says “Allah” on a plane is 99.9% likely to be a terrorist, at least according to some experts. However, the tricky thing is that a lot of innocuous slang in Arabic sounds vaguely like “Allah”. Take “Yallah” for example, which means “hurry the eff up”. If the guy next to you is muttering “yallah, yallah” to himself he is probably not saying his last prayer, he maybe just wants the food to arrive.

Keep calm among the carry on

Jokes aside, it’s always worth reminding yourself of the cheery fact that you’re probably more likely to die from airplane food than from terrorism. So next time you worry that the brown guy in seat 32E looks murderous, resist Mile High Hysteria. He’s probably not Isis; he probably just wishes he hadn’t eaten that lasagna.

Who Are The Pakistanis Listed In Panama Papers?

A number of important Pakistanis have been indicted in the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ)  investigation into offshore companies.

In total the journalists received 11.5 million documents in a leak from Panama-based law firm Mossack & Fonseca. A huge number of Pakistanis feature on those lists, and we bring you a round up of the most prominent names.

So far 220 Pakistanis are featured in the list, although the ICIJ says that it will be revealing more files in May.

Pakistani Politicians in Panama Leaks:

Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif is linked to 9 companies connected to his family name. Those involved are:

  • Hassan Nawaz
  • Hussain Nawaz
  • Maryam Nawaz

Relatives of Punjab Chief Minister and brother of Prime Minister Shahbaz Sharif are linked to 7 companies. They are:

  • Samina Durrani
  • Ilyas Mehraj

Now deceased former prime minister Benazir Bhutto was linked to one company. However relatives and associates are linked to others:

  • Nephew Hassan Ali Jaffery
  • Javed Pasha, Close friend of Asif Ali Zardari (4 companies)
  • PPP Senator Rehman Malik (1 company)
  • PPP Senator Osman Saifullah’s family (34 companies)
  • Anwar Saifullah
  • Salim Saifullah
  • Humayun Saifullah
  • Iqbal Saifullah
  • Javed Saifullah
  • Jehangir Saifullah

The Chaudharies of Gujrat have not been linked personally but other relatives have including:

  • Waseem Gulzar
  • Zain Sukhera (co-accused with former Prime Minister Yusuf Raza Gilani’s son in the Hajj scandal)

Pakistani Businessmen in Panama Leaks:

  • Real Estate Czar Malik Riaz Hussain’s son (Bahria Town)
  • Ahmad Ali Riaz (1 company)
  • Chairman ABM Group of Companies Azam Sultan (5 companies)
  • Pizza Hut owner Aqeel Hussain and family (1 company)
  • Brother Tanwir Hassan
  • Chairman Soorty Enterprise Abdul Rashid Soorty and family
  • Sultan Ali Allana, Chairman of Habib Bank Limited (1 company)
  • Khawaja Iqbal Hassan, former NIB bank President (1 company)
  • Bashir Ahmed and Javed Shakoor of Buxly Paints (1 company)
  • Mehmood Ahmed of Berger Paints (1 company)
  • Hotel tycoon Sadruddin Hashwani and family (3 companies)
  • Murtaza Haswani
  • Owner of Hilton Pharma, Shehbaz Yasin Malik and family (1 company)
  • The Hussain Dawood family (2 companies)
  • Shahzada Dawood
  • Abdul Samad Dawood
  • Partner Saad Raja
  • The Abdullah family of Sapphire Textiles (5 companies)
  • Yousuf Abdullah and his wife
  • Muhammad Abdullah and his wife
  • Shahid Abdullah and his family
  • Nadeem Abdullah and family
  • Amer Abdullah and family
  • Gul Muhammad Tabba of Lucky Textiles
  • Shahid Nazir, CEO of Masood Textile Mills (1 company)
  • Partner Naziya Nazir
  • Zulfiqar Ali Lakhani, from Lakson Group and owner of Colgate-Palmolive, Tetley Clover and Clover Pakistan (1 company)
  • Zulfiqar Paracha and family of Universal Corporation (1 company)

Pakistani Judges in Panama Leaks:

  • Serving Lahore High Court Judge Justice Farrukh Irfan
  • Retired Judge Malik Qayyum

Pakistani Media personnel in Panama Leaks:

  • Mir Shakil-ur-Rehman of GEO and Jang Group (1 company)

NAB could investigate Pakistanis listed in Panama Papers

According to reports the the National Accountability Bureau (NAB) of Pakistan has started an inquiry into the involvement of Pakistanis in the ownership of offshore companies. A full investigation may still happen after a discussion between top NAB officials.

While owning an offshore company isn’t illegal in itself, the practice is commonly linked to tax evasion and fraud. The law firm involved in the leak has clients from around the world, including people linked to Russian President Vladimir Putin, Argentinian President Mauricio Macri and football star Lionel Messi.

The documents reveal how world figures use a series of shell companies to obscure the trail of their money and avoid paying national taxes. The techniques are also linked to money laundering for drug smugglers and other criminal groups.

Effects already being felt

The fallout from the scandal has the potential to reverberate around the world. The prime minister of Iceland was forced to resign after it was revealed that he had not disclosed the fact that he and his wife owned an offshore company.

In India a huge number of celebrities, businessmen and politicians have also been caught up in the scandal. It is thought that many public figures have used the shell companies in order to avoid paying taxes.

Nations around the world lose billions of dollars in tax revenue due to the existence of tax havens such as Panama. There have been growing calls to clampdown on the practice and a video of U.S. Democratic presidential hopeful Bernie Sanders has surfaced in which he criticizes the signing of a free trade agreement with Panama.

He says that the agreement facilitates this kind of behavior, which costs the taxpayer millions. In a country like Pakistan where so much money needs to be invested in infrastructure and other programs in order to alleviate poverty, it is a scandal that so many people are effectively stealing money from their countrymen.

While it should come as no surprise that rich people try to hold on to their money, the leaks provide hope that the flagrant tax dodging could come to an end.


East Coast blizzard: NASA satellites show lumbering beast

Blizzard from space (Credit:
Blizzard from space

The massive winter storm expected to blast the East Coast beginning Friday is already dominating NASA satellite images.

Images taken by NASA and NOAA satellites show the lumbering beast gathering mass as it prepared to sweep up the East Coast on Friday and into Saturday.

Snow is predicted to bury Washington, D.C., in a blanket two feet deep, with Philadelphia bracing for 18 inches and New York up to a foot, according to estimates by the National Weather Service.

Comparing it to the “Snowmageddon” storm that paralyzed the capital in 2010, and expecting it to rank near the top 10 blizzards ever to assault the Eastern United States, Paul Kocin of the service’s Weather Prediction Service nonetheless said the weekend timing would limit damage and injuries.

While snow is the element hitting the headlines, with blizzard warnings or watches lighting up the storm’s expected path from Arkansas and Tennessee all the way up to New York, that is only one aspect of the weather system.

It also has the potential to inflict “brutually high winds, dangerous inland flooding,” and “even the possibility of thunder snow,” according to weather service director Louis Uccellini.

“It does have the potential to be an extremely dangerous storm that can affect more than 50 million people,” Mr. Uccellini told the Associated Press.

Five states and the District of Colombia have declared states of emergency. Supermarkets have been stripped of supplies. Schools and government offices are closing early. And thousands of flights have been cancelled.

The blizzard’s bulls-eye is set to be Washington, according to Uccellini. The city’s subway is set to shut down for most of the weekend, an unusual step, even during major storms.

New York is likely to be struck by the northern reaches of the system, while Boston looks to be escaping this time.

Further south, from Texas to Florida, severe weather is also expected to strike, though without the snow.

The mayhem is expected to be less severe than superstorm Sandy, but Tennessee, North Carolina, Virginia, Maryland, Pennsylvania and parts of other states have all declared emergencies.

All major airlines are allowing passengers to rebook on earlier or later flights, to avoid the weekend weather. Up to 5,000 flights are expected to be cancelled, according to flight tracking site Flight Aware.

But all is not lost. After a recent act of Congress, sledding will be welcome on Capitol Hill for the first time in decades, as long as conditions are safe.

And the president? He will be hunkered down at the White House, according to spokesman Josh Earnest.

The US Blizzard of 2016 is likely tied to a Warming Planet

DC under Blizzard (Credit:
DC under Blizzard

Snowstorms in January certainly aren’t rare. But what’s unusual about this one is how far in advance it was predicted. Unlike with most major storms, almost all the major weather models were in agreement that this storm was coming almost a week before it hit.

The only differences were in how much snow it would bring.

Moreover, this storm is just one of many similar storms we’ve seen in the past. We call them nor’easters because the wind is blowing from the northeast when it hits. Nor’easters are a nasty breed of storm that hits during winter.

Here are some of the forces that brewed the first nor’easter of 2016:

An energetic upper atmosphere

The storm began on Thursday night over the Gulf of Mexico.

Cold air from the Arctic had descended upon the mid-Atlantic Ocean and combined with moist air from an unseasonably warm Gulf Stream (roughly 5 to 6 degrees Fahrenheit above average for this time of year).

As the cold Arctic air sank and the warm Gulf Stream air rose, it generated a churning action — producing energy in the atmosphere.

At the same time this was happening, winds from a nearby jet stream blew the storm-brewing mix toward the Gulf of Mexico where it caused severe thunderstorms in Louisiana, Mississippi, and other states Thursday night.

But that was just the beginning.

As the nasty mix made its way up the coast, it smacked into a layer of air over D.C. — that came down from Canada — at subfreezing temperatures. This subfreezing air basically acts like a snowmaker.

As the storm generates precipitation, rain falls through this freezing-cold-air layer, which transforms the rain to snow. But the worst part of it all, which makes this storm so epic, is that it’s drawing from “nearly infinite reservoir of high humidity air,” The Washington Post reported.

Moving from the south is a pocket of humid air that will help fuel the storm. That means lots and lots of snow for us.

It takes a lot of ingredients to make a nor’easter, and not all of them are straightforward.

Other factors at play

This winter saw an unusually strong El Niño — a natural weather pattern caused by surface heating in the Pacific Ocean, which is tied to unusual weather around the globe. This creates an abnormally strong jet stream, which provides energy for East Coast snowstorms, as Slate reported.

And finally, while it’s hard to draw a direct link between weather and climate change, the warming trend may be partly to blame for the increase in severe storms like this one. As the planet warms, it’s causing a rise in sea levels, especially in the Northeast. The warmer water adds more energy and moisture to the air, which help drive severe storms like this one.

While storm forecasting has come a long way, it’s still not perfect. Take the “historic blizzard” that was forecast to hit New York City in January 2015, which was predicted to dump as much as 2 feet of snow on the city but only brought about 5.5 inches!

License to Kill?

2015 will go down in history as the year in which the Sindh Police publicly declared that driving licenses were mandatory for driving on the roads. However basic and apparent this declaration may appear, the fact remains that there has been a near silence on this issue since 1947. This has resulted in an estimated two million individuals who drive on the streets of Karachi, without having ever known a document called ‘driving license.’ Of the 3.8 million car owners in the city, only 1.24 million possess a driving license.  Moreover, the majority of the licenses held by individuals were never issued by the Licensing Department, placing them in the same league as their notorious cousins – fake gun licenses and fake university degrees. The DIG Police (Licenses) confirmed that a random sample of 10,000 driving licenses when sent for verification, revealed 8,700 fake licenses – outrageously making it one of the world’s biggest licensing scandals.

The Sindh Police is largely to blame for creating the ‘driving license crush of 2015.’ For 60 long years, it operated an institutionalised system that allowed the offenders to drive away after a minor greasing of palms. The making of licenses was a joint racket being operated by the police and its touts who hovered around the licensing premises, offering to get you any kind of license in an hour or two.

Suddenly they seem to have woken up to the reality, and announced a huge penalty for anyone without a driving license. While it is difficult to design an efficient and customer-friendly licensing process, it is even more difficult to implement one.  A system that currently is handling around 400 licenses a day cannot overnight be expected to handle a crowd of 5,000. Placing scores of extra policemen at each branch can only add to the confusion, as the primary process remains unchanged.

Information is always the first need of a license-seeker. A large notice board at the entrance to the Clifton Licensing Branch (partially covered by bushes) is conspicuous by its vagueness. It keeps the applicant guessing as to where the counters are, where one can get access to the forms that need to be filled, and the license fee to be paid. What’s more, one has to queue up at four different counters to make four different types of payments. There is no reason why one consolidated fee cannot be charged from an applicant at one location and in one go. Moreover the current driving test is an eyewash. Each branch needs to have a large-sized, scientifically designed and camera-monitored testing ground. The licensing staff is in itself the biggest hindrance often  breaking the queue, and providing fast-track services to the ‘high-ups,’ who consider it an insult to rub shoulders with the common man.

After years of serving as puppets to their political masters, the police has lost its capacity for any serious pro-active planning. The link between crime, militancy, guns, fake car registration plates and fake driving licenses has never been understood. Car registrations and driving licenses are not subject to NADRA’s verification of an individual’s thumb impression and CNIC. If this could be done for 130 million SIMs, surely it can be done for a few million vehicles and driving licenses. This is an essential security check that links every vehicle and driving license to a unique individual and CNIC. Currently, one can register a car or obtain a license on a fake CNIC and a fake home address.  The extra step of requiring an applicant to make a second visit to collect his/her registration book or driving license can be completely eliminated. Posting these documents to the specified home address will not just save an extra day for millions, but also help traceability and verification of the specified address.

Having no license or a fake license is just as hazardous as having no number plate or a fake number plate on one’s car. It is estimated that some 100,000 to 300,000 vehicles ply the streets of Karachi with fake, illegal or deceptive number plates. There are numerous creative ways of committing this crime. Thousands of individuals simply paint their private numbers on a green background, and add ‘Government of Sindh,’ to make them appear as official vehicles. Many use forged number plates which are not registered with the Excise and Taxation (E&T) department. Hundreds of vehicles go around with number plates of foreign countries or plates that carry personal names or insignias. Many continue to evade taxes by using an AFR (Applied for Registration) number plate for several years.

Such vehicles have been increasingly used in crime, kidnappings and bomb attacks. By failing to recognise this link and remaining a silent observer, the Sindh police may well have contributed hugely to the spread of crime. A major hurdle in this process is the Sindh government, that itself is guilty of not having registered thousands of vehicles that are in its own use. Very few of those that are registered pay their annual motor vehicle tax. These unlawful practices offer a huge opportunity to criminals who can unabashedly use fake, fancy or ‘look alike’ government or police number plates to gain access to high security zones or  indulge in criminal activities. The police is simply too scared to check vehicles that appear to be official, foreign registered or display plaques like ‘Minister,’ ‘Commissioner,’ etc.

Regrettably, the Sindh Police, which is responsible for fighting crime and militancy in the province, has made no attempts to modify its performance or improve its capacity. It has refused to use even the most basic tool that every  police man is gifted with by nature – a pair of eyes. Most of the irregularities relating to vehicle number plates can be visually spotted from a distance – if only the police had the slightest inclination. Don’t be surprised if some day they decided to drop the bombshell and announce the existence of millions of fake and unregistered vehicles.

The use of computers or hand-held tablets, with internet facility to directly access the data of any vehicle at any time of the day, is a routine practice by the police in most countries. Ironically, while any ordinary citizen with a smart phone in Pakistan can access the E&T Department’s website and see most of the data relating to any vehicle, the Sindh police has chosen not to do so. The near zero checks on vehicles and driving licenses suggests a deliberate shirking of its primary responsibilities by the police. They have allowed matters to slide to this chaotic stage. The driving license process needs to be re-engineered and the police needs to acquire the relevant technology to check out the complete details of a vehicle, including the driving license data within a few minutes. An Excise and Taxation Department that has not been able to issue the standard number plates for the past 18 months ought to be either shut down or go in for a major overhaul.

Can any of these reforms be led by a government, which is averse to the idea of registration of vehicles in its own use and payment of the annual motor vehicle tax?


When Taliban proved fiercer than the crocodiles of Mangophir

Crocodiles in Mangophir (Credit:
Crocodiles in Mangophir

KARACHI, Oct 15: The lean days appear to be over for Mor Sahib, an 87-year-old crocodile venerated by Pakistan’s tiny Sheedi community, as pilgrims once again flock to a shrine in Karachi that has been shunned for years amid fears of Taliban attacks.

The ageing reptile, his leathery skin fissured by time, waddled out of the murky water towards a crowd of visitors wearing garlands, all hoping to lure him with handfuls of sweets and choice pieces of goat neck.

The pilgrims are Sheedis, whose ancestors came from Africa and are drawn from different sects, making them a potential target for hardline militants.

Their new-found confidence coincides with a major crackdown on crime and militancy by paramilitary Rangers in the port city of 20 million people where the shrine is located, which has seen murder levels drop sharply.

The military has also been carrying out a major offensive against the Taliban movement in the northwest of the country since June, 2014, and its pursuit of militants gathered pace following the massacre of 134 school pupils in December.

“Three, four years back, armed Taliban had become so influential that police were afraid of them … at the nearby police station they killed 18 policemen,” said shrine caretaker Mohammed Yaseen, light glinting off tiny mirrors stitched into his traditional cap.

“Since the Rangers and police operation (in Karachi), people have started to return.”

Yaseen recalls when displaced ethnic Pashtuns fleeing fighting in northern Pakistan began flooding into Karachi after 2008.

Among them were Taliban sympathisers whose interpretation of Islam had no place for crocodiles, around 100 of which inhabit the shrine’s pond. The site closed for 10 months in 2010 and a charity fed the crocodiles in secret.

The shrine quietly reopened in 2011, but only a handful of worshippers dared to come. Gradually, improving security meant 100 people might turn up on a busy day last year. Now crowds of more than 1,000 flock to the shrine several days each week.

The drop in violence has also raised Sheedi hopes that they might hold their annual four-day festival before the end of the year. It has been cancelled for the last five years for fear of attack.

At the autumn celebration, four Sheedi communities slaughter goats and dance to a drum beat before the crocodiles, who are showered with rose petals and anointed with perfume and saffron.

“This year we are planning to hold the festival, so our young generation comes to know about our traditions,” said Yaqoob Qambrani, chairman of the Pakistan Sheedi Alliance.

While there is no reliable data available, estimates of the number of Sheedis in Pakistan vary widely from tens of thousands to a few million.

The community believes the crocodiles living in the shrine’s pond are the disciples of saints. A wrinkled man at a wooden kiosk sells worshippers rose petals and other offerings.

At the inner entrance to the shrine hall, a bearded man in a small black cap blessed pilgrims by patting their heads and shoulders with peacock feather quills.

Among them was driver Mohammed Arif, 30, and his three children, whose bright, freshly starched clothes shone in the gloom.

“My father used to bring me to this shrine, now I am bringing my children,” he said happily.


Ajunta caves (Credit:
Ajunta caves
In the early summer of 1819, a British hunting party was heading through thick jungle near Aurangabad, in the hilly ghats of south central India, when the tiger they were tracking disappeared down into the chasm of a deep ravine.

Leading the hunters was Captain John Smith, a young cavalry officer from Madras. Beckoning his friends to follow, he tracked the pug marks down a semi- circular scarp of steep basalt, and crossed the rocky bed of the Wagora river, then made his way slowly up through the bushes at the far side of the steep horseshoe- shaped amphitheatre of cliffs. Half way up, Smith stopped dead in his tracks. The pug marks led straight past an opening in the rock face. But the cavity was clearly not a natural cave or a river-cut grotto. Instead, despite the long grass and the all-encroaching pepper vines, Smith could quite clearly see that he was looking onto a man-made façade cut straight into the rock face. The jagged slope had been painstakingly etched away into a perfect portico. It was clearly a work of great sophistication. Equally clearly, it had been abandoned for centuries.

A few minutes later, the party made their way inside, crunching over a human skeleton. Smith held aloft a torch of burning dried grass and his companions clutched their muskets. A long apsidal hall led right into the living rock, flanked on either side by 39 octagonal pillars. All over the walls, the officers could see through the gloom the shadowy outlines of ancient murals: figures of orange and yellow- robed monks with green haloes standing on blue lotuses.

In the decades to come, word spread that in this most remote spot lay 31 caves which collectively amounted to one of the great wonders of the ancient world. The murals told the Jataka stories of the Lives of the Buddha in images of such elegance and grace that the murals of Ajanta are now recognised as the finest picture gallery to survive anywhere from any ancient civilisation. Even today, the colours glow with a brilliant intensity: topaz-dark, lizard green, lotus-blue.

I first saw these murals in 1984 as a young backpacker, on a first, long six-month journey across India that completely changed my life. It was my first close encounter with Indian art, something that has obsessed me ever since. I was 18 then. I am 50 now. In this short series, I hope to convey how and why the art of India has the power to fascinate, hypnotise and even make you fall in love.

The murals of Ajanta that I saw that winter morning in 1984 embraced subject matter that was at once both profoundly spiritual and strikingly sensuous. Although the images were originally intended for a monastic audience and the occasional passing pilgrim, what puzzled the 19th century Orientalists who first worked on them was this unexpected yet heady mixture of two worlds normally considered incompatible. Yet it was clear that the artists of Ajanta clearly saw nothing odd in this juxtaposition of monk and dancing girl. There are no panels or boundaries in the Ajanta paintings beyond the physical borders of the cave, and the artists likewise move from the world of the ascetic’s cave to the pleasure gardens of the royal court and back again without recognising any essential separation between the two.

Here the Buddha tends to be shown not just in his monastic milieu, after his Enlightenment, but in the princely environment in which he grew up. He takes his place among handsome princes and bare-chested nobles, as princesses with tiaras of jasmine and raat-ki-rani, Queen of the Night, languish love-lorn on swings and couches. Close by, swan-necked, heavy-breasted and narrow-waisted dancing girls of extraordinary sensuousness, dressed only in their jewels and girdles, perform beside lotus ponds, swaying to unheard music, ringing their silent ghungroo anklets. These women wear only spinels and chrysoberyl cat’s eyes; they hold nothing but empurpled ebony flywhisks of burnished gold; gleaming rubies the colour of peacock’s blood flash against their dark skin. The features of these palace women conforms closely to the ideas of feminine beauty discussed by the great fifth century playwright Kalidasa, who writes of men pining over portraits of their lovers, while straining to find the correct metaphors to describe them: ‘I recognise your body in liana vines; your expression in the eyes of a frightened gazelle; the beauty of your face in that of the moon, your tresses in the plumage of peacocks; and the play of your eyebrows in the faint ripple of flowing water… alas! Timid friend—no one object compares to you.’

Nearby are painted very different images of stark ascetic renunciation—a shaven-headed orange-robed monk lost in meditation, a hermit seeking salvation in the gloom of a rock-cut grotto, or a group of wizened devotees straining to hear the words of their teacher. Dominating everything are portraits of Bodhisattvas of otherworldly elegance and compassion, eyes half-closed, inward-looking, weightlessly swaying on the threshold of Enlightenment, caught in what the great historian of Indian art, Stella Kramrisch, described, wonderfully, as ‘a gale of stillness’.
From almost the beginning, scholars working on the site came to the realisation that there actually were two quite distinct phases of work at Ajanta. Most of the Ajanta caves, and almost all the murals, date from around 600 CE. This was at the height of India’s classical Golden Age, when Kalidasa was writing his great work, The Cloud Messenger, and the Buddhist university library of Nalanda, then the greatest repository of knowledge east of Alexandria, was at its scholarly apex, its wisdom and learning sought by scholars and pilgrims from across the world. The murals left by this Ajanta Renaissance included many of the most striking picture cycles, notably fabulously elegant and other-worldly depictions of the beautiful lotus-holding Bodhisattvas Padmapani and his bejewelled companion, Vajrapani.

Such was the celebrity of these 5th century masterworks that almost all modern accounts of the Ajanta caves have more-or-less ignored the earlier 1st and 2nd century BCE picture cycles in caves 9 and 10. These earlier paintings were always more fragmentary and smoke-blackened than the almost pristine later murals, and perhaps for this reason seemed, blackboard-like, to invite the attention of tourists who wanted to leave an inscribed record of their visit. By the time the Nizam of Hyderabad sent the art historian Ghulam Yazdani, to produce the first photographic survey of the murals in the late 1920s, the murals of Caves 9 and 10 had already been irreparably damaged.

At the same time, the Nizam also sent two Italian conservationists to help restore them. Unfortunately their efforts only obscured the murals further: they coated the pigments with shellac varnish which attracted grime and dried bat dung and quickly obscured the images from both travellers and scholars. Less than a century after being rediscovered, the figures of caves 9 and 10 were lost again. For the entire length of the 20th century they remained hidden, invisible to the naked eye, forgotten by all.

It has taken a slow and painstaking restoration of the paintings by Manager Singh of the Archaeological Survey of India to bring these images out of darkness. Manager Singh has recently succeeded in removing 75 per cent of the layers of shellac and grime from 10 sq m of the murals, revealing for the first time since the 1920s the extraordinary images which lay beneath.

On the façade of Cave 10 there is a panel which mentions a prince of the Satavahana dynasty, which controlled the Deccan between the second century BCE and the first century CE. The murals within are therefore not only the oldest images at the site, and indeed the oldest Buddhist paintings in existence—dating from only 300 years after the death of the Buddha—but with the exception of a few pictograms of stick men left by Paleolithic hunters at Bimbedkar in the wilds of Madhya Pradesh, they are also the oldest pictures of Indian people. The murals of Caves 9 and 10 represent nothing less than the birth of Indian painting. The best preserved of these early murals—and undoubtedly my personal favourite—are the images from the Shyama Jataka, an early Buddhist text which tells of Shyama, a virtuous forest dweller who was fatally hit by the poisoned arrow of the King of Varanasi who was out hunting. Because he was sinless, his blind parents were able to call him back to life and he becomes the King’s guru in the virtuous ways of Dharma.

In illustrating this story, the early artists of Ajanta open wide a window on an age which remains otherwise dark and shadowy to us. We see the costumes of this very early period: the King of Varanasi, for example, wears a white cotton tunic of strikingly Central Asian appearance, wrapped around the waist with a cummerbund, while on his head he wears a very Indian turban cloth wound around his hair and twisted into a top knot. He has a bow and a full quiver of arrows. His guards are bare- chested but wrap a lungi around their hips and are armed with spears and bows and bell-shaped shields decorated with the emblems of half-moons and shining suns.

The intimacy, classicism, and striking realism of these figures, combined with the haunting wistfulness of the features of these faces, is not a million miles away from the melancholy world of the first century CE encaustic wax mummy portraits from the al-Fayum region of Greco- Egyptian Egypt. As with the painted mummy covers, we are in a world so astonishingly realistic and lifelike that even today, even in reproduction, they can still make you gasp as you find yourself staring eyeball to eyeball with a silently watching soldier who could have fought the Bactrian Greeks, or a monk who may have attended the great Buddhist university of Nalanda.
So realistic are the faces of the people depicted, so direct are their expressions, that you feel that these have to be portraits of real individuals, glowing still with the flame of eternal life. There is something deeply hypnotic about the soundless stare of these silent often uncertain Satavahana faces. Their fleeting expressions are frozen, startled, as if suddenly surprised by the King’s decision to lose his arrow or by the nobility of the great elephant breaking through the trees. The viewer peers at these figures trying to catch some hint of the upheavals they witnessed and the strange sights they saw in ancient India.

But the smooth, clean humane Indo-Hellenistic faces stare us down.
Perhaps the most disconcerting thing about the people in these murals is that they appear so astonishingly familiar. Two thousand years after they were painted, these faces convey with penetrating immediacy the character of the different sitters: the alert guard, the King caught in the excitement of the hunt, the obedient son fetching water. Indeed, so contemporary are the features, so immediately recognisable the emotions that play on the lips, that you have to keep reminding yourself that these sitters are not from our world, that they are pigments attached to the wall of a cave, and depict a court and jungle world of hunters and hunted, and Buddhist monks and devotees, that vanished from these now bare Deccan hills more than two millennia ago.

Yet these are self-evidently the same people who inhabit Western India today: looking at these images, you cannot help but feel the great distance of time separating them from us; and yet we find in their eyes an emotional immediacy that is at once comprehensible. Some of them look like the guards who admit you to the caves: indeed while the glass coverings were being removed to allow me to photograph the images, the guards joked among themselves about which painted king looked most like which guard. The women on the cave walls wear the same bangles that the Banjara tribes of these hills still stack along their forearms, and their dupattas are decorated with fringes of Paithani still popular in Maharashtra today, as are the fish-scale kham textiles which clothe the hunters in the Shyam Jataka.

It is odd and eerie to stare into the eyes of men and women who died more than 2,000 years ago, but odder still to feel that their faces are reassuringly familiar.

Egyptian Billionaire Offers to Buy Island to Resettle Middle East Refugees

Naguib Sawiris (Credit:
Naguib Sawiris

Egyptian billionaire Naguib Sawiris has offered to buy an island off Greece or Italy and develop it to help hundreds of thousands of people fleeing from Syria and other conflicts.

The telecoms tycoon first announced the initiative on Twitter.

“Greece or Italy sell me an island, I’ll call its independence and host the migrants and provide jobs for them building their new country,” he wrote.

More than 2,300 people have died at sea trying to reach Europe since January, many of them Syrians who fled their country’s four-and-a-half year conflict.

Sawiris said in a television interview that he would approach the governments of Greece and Italy about his plan.

Asked by AFP whether he believed it could work, he said: “Of course it’s feasible.”

“You have dozens of islands which are deserted and could accommodate hundreds of thousands of refugees.”

Sawiris said an island off Greece or Italy could cost between $10 million and $100 million, but added the “main thing is investment in infrastructure”.

© Getty Images Egyptian billionaire Naguib Sawiris has offered to buy an island for migrants.

There would be “temporary shelters to house the people, then you start employing the people to build housing, schools, universities, hospitals.

“And if things improve, whoever wants to go back (to their homeland) goes back,” said Sawiris, whose family developed the popular El Gouna resort on Egypt’s Red Sea coast.

He conceded such a plan could face challenges, including the likely difficulty of persuading Greece or Italy to sell an island, and figuring out jurisdiction and customs regulations.

But those who took shelter would be treated as “human beings,” he said. “The way they are being treated now, they are being treated like cattle.”

Sawiris is the chief executive of Orascom TMT, which operates mobile telephone networks in a number of Middle Eastern and African countries plus Korea as well as underwater communications networks.

He also owns an Egyptian television channel.


Third century BC stupa discovered at ancient Buddhist site

Taxila stupa (Credit:
Taxila stupa (Credit:

TAXILA, May 9: A stupa dating back to the 3rd Century BC was discovered at the ancient Buddhist site of Badalpur near Taxila during excavations carried out by the Taxila Institute of Asian Civilisations (TIAC) of Quaid-i-Azam University.

The stupa measuring 25×25 was discovered on the southern side of the main monastery with a centre water tank at the ancient Buddhist site. Coins, pottery and metal objects have also been excavated from the site by graduate and doctorate students of the TIAC. The students were led by the institute’s director, Professor Dr Ashraf Khan, Assistant Professor Dr Sadid Arif and Coordinator Mohammad Ibrahim.

Professor Dr Ashraf Khan told Dawn that the newly discovered monastery was built in Kushan workmanship style known as ‘diaper masonry’, consisting of thin neatly placed layers of schist interspersed with large blocks of stone as well as semi-ashlar masonry.

He said the cells of the monastery are plastered with mud mortar, the first of its kind seen in the Taxila Valley.
In response to a query, Dr Khan said the discovery of metal objects showed the craftsmanship of the people living in the area between the first and fourth century.

Dr Khan said six copper coins from the Kushan period have been discovered in the excavations. He said that according to the carbon study of the newly discovered stupa carried out by the University of Wisconsin-Madison dates it between the 3rd century BC to 1st century AD.

He said during the last season of the excavation, a good number of antiquities such as a bust of Buddha in stucco, copper coins, bones, charcoal, iron objects and pottery were discovered.

Unveiling the archaeological significance of the site, he said the site was early mentioned by Alexander Cunningham in 1863, the then director, Archaeological Survey of India, during his expedition to Gandhara.

The first excavation at the site was carried out in 1916-17 by Natisa Aiyar, superintendent of Frontier Circle, while the second was carried out from 2005 till 2009 by Federal Archaeology in collaboration with Taxila Institute of Asian Civilisations, Quaid-i-Azam University.

He said five seasons of excavations had been successfully conducted by the institute at this ancient Buddhist site.
The most remarkable discovery was an iron nail and animal bones which revealed that Gandhara people knew the use of different metals and that Buddhists used to eat meat, said Dr Khan.

“History of Taxila should be rewritten in the light of the new and substantial evidence obtained,” he said.

Dr Khan said despite limited resources, the university had planned to excavate and preserve the whole site.

The Diary of an Arab Hunter

Arabs travel for the hunt to Pakistan (Credit:
Arabs travel for the hunt
to Pakistan (Credit:
Wallah, it is once again the season of the hunt. We Arabs love God’s magnificent creatures; we travel all over the world to find them and kill them. For there is no struggle more glorious than a Sheikh’s entourage of armed bodyguards versus a small, defenseless bird. In the great deserts of Arabia there are few animals to hunt. There are camels but they do not understand the idea of running away; they stand there, idiots, and it is the Sheikh who has to run away to make distance. Ya tifl, that is not good.

That is why we come to our friends in al-Bakistan, where everyone looks like our servants from back home. They have many of these (houbara) bastards for our falcons to hunt. The Sheikh Abu bin Ibn says there will be great reward on the Day of Judgment for those who have killed the (houbara) bastards for this illegitimate bird is close to Shaitan and there is good in striking it down.

We choose the second day of the second month for this pilgrimage to al-Bakistan; the weather is nice and hot but by the grace of God their country is a bit rural, too few malls and eight lane highways and five star hotels. I ask the locals, “Have you not been blessed with the divine gift of oil?”

They cast their eyes downwards and make faces as if to say no. The Sheikh Riyal bin Petrolyam tells me people do strange things with oil in al-Bakistan, like but it in their hair or in their food. I say no, no, you have to find Americans and sell it to them but the Sheikh says they do not understand.

The hospitality here is heartwarming and we truly feel part of a global Muslim Ummah which is why we build balace sized homes with electrified fences to keep the locals out.

We start the hunt on a Friday for verily on this day there is a blessing upon those who carry radar devices and radio transmitters in a ten vehicle cavalcade. This year we go to the inhospitably arid dunes of Chagai.
Ya Habibi, this is the thrill of the hunt; pitting yourself in air-conditioned cars against harsh deserts, ferocious foreign journalists and keepers of wildlife reservations. Wallah there is nothing more dangerous than an enraged conservationist.

And though we do not gamble verily we make a bet of 40 camels to see who can strike down a (houbara) bastard before the other, and this time Sheikh Abu bin Ibn’s falcon did fly away and when he started firing upon the houbara bushes in anger, the recoil set him upon the hot desert floor and the bullet hit a passerby and there was much rejoicing, for surely God smiles upon him who falls down while firing a rifle.

Then we heard the crown prince had landed in al-Bakistan and upon seeing the airport at the capital had remarked, “Is this a joke?” but then the prince told the Sheikhs that whatever has been promised to you has been promised tenfold, and in dollars, to the government of al-Bakistan for truly he is a friend who lets his brother hunt in his home.

The Sheikh Riyal bin Petrolyam tells me people do strange things with oil in al-Bakistan, like but it in their hair or in their food. I say no, no, you have to find Americans and sell it to them but the Sheikh says they do not understand.

For even though the locals are forbidden to strike the (houbara) bastard, for Arabs that they establish a special hunting license, called a keffiyeh, that is worn around the head and makes blessed all animals killed while wearing it.

This follows a long tradition of Arabs enjoying safaris in South Asia from the days of Muhammad bin Qasim who made the journey to hunt the prized wildlife known as Maharajas.

But some people try to make bad this relationship like last year when an al-Bakistani bureaucrat whispered ill things about the crown prince saying he had personally destroyed the habitat of hundreds of flying creatures and should no longer be given a visa. Surely, as justice is served on the wings of the falcon, the bureaucrat is now washing dishes somewhere in Sibi and close bond between Arabs and whatever these locals call themselves is preserved.

When the crown prince joined us in Chagai, he explained that in nature many things had been made good for man, and the bastard is one of them, for the bastard is good for the kindling of an Arab’s passions and keeps him young and virile.

And the Sheikhs Wiz bin Khalifa, Khalid bin Naum and Sahil bin Kahil did raise a toast of halal wine to his speech and there was much rejoicing.