Discount Airlines of the Middle East

As you are probably aware, the discount airline / low cost carrier (LCC) phenomenon is in full bloom around the world. While planning for our trip I became acquainted with some Middle Eastern low cost carriers, and thought that I would do a brief review. Middle Eastern carriers are not only useful for getting around the region cheaply, but for connecting Europe and South Asia, taking advantage of the Middle East’s strategic location. [Important note: LCCs are critically important to the backpacker not only because of their generally low fares, but for their one-way pricing, allowing the budget traveler to retain maximum flexibility as compared to buying discount round trip fares on conventional airlines.]

Air Arabia, based in Sharjah, is probably the most important LCC in the MIddle East. Based in the emirate of Sharjah in the UAE, which is located just miles from Dubai, Air Arabia has a terrific network reaching European cities such as Athens and Istanbul all the way to a full complement of South Asian destinations. With cheap fares, a new fleet and a website that is fairly easy to use, as well as the appeal of a Dubai stopover (Dubai isn’t the most interesting place in the world, but is definitely worth a long layover), Air Arabia has proven useful to us several times, including most recently to travel from Bombay to Damascus, with a UAE/Oman detour (see posts of 2008.04.04, 04.05 and 04.06). The seats are comfortable, the food and service not bad and free water provided (unlike certain Southeast Asian LCCs).

The second Middle Eastern LCC we flew on on our trip was Jazeera Airways, based in Kuwait, from Amman to Kuwait City. I wouldn’t put it quite on the same level as Air Arabia, but the fares were quite competitive, and the flight was fine. A third carrier is Bahrain Air, which we did not take. GIven how poor a stopover destination Kuwait City is (Bahrain is moderately interesting), I would probably opt to take Bahrain Air, were I to choose between the two airlines in the future. (See post of 2008.05.07.) Both Bahrain and Kuwait do suffer from visa fees, which adds a bit of additional cost should you choose to stopover in these countries.

In addition to the “typical” LCCs described above, the Middle East of late is suffering from something of a glut of airlines, from which the traveler has everything to benefit. The Bahraini flag carrier Gulf Air, for example, is not a low cost carrier, but offers its terrific network at quite low rates, often competing with LCCs. Gulf Air’s Hong Kong – Bangkok flight was often the cheapest, while we were living in Hong Kong. Gulf Air is also somewhat associated with Oneworld and certain Oneworld airlines, making it the best-allianced Gulf-based carrier. Kuwait Airways (one hears not the greatest airline) offers terrific rates from North America and Europe to South Asia, as does Qatar Airways (which is a good airline). Etihad and Emirates, the two flag carriers of the UAE, are usually not as competitive on price.

Especially because the actual LCCs such as Air Arabia do not usually show up on internet booking sites, it’s important to keep them in mind whenever traveling from Europe to South Asia or around the Middle East. If you try any of these carriers, share your experiences!

Bradford, England

Bradford, West Yorkshire, England. Note the large mosque on the hill.

Travelers often strike up conversations with other travelers. In Venice we chatted about the U.S. presidential election with a left leaning American couple who makes (Republican) political ads, in Istanbul’s Sirkeci Railway Terminal about writing for the New York Times with a young woman who used to live in Indonesia and with fellow divers on Flores about teaching English in Korea. But the thing travelers like to talk about most is of course their travels, past, present and future. Many times on this trip we’ve outlined our journey through the Muslim world, what motivated us and what we hope to get out of it. And from Brits, we repeatedly heard in response the same suggestion: that if we want to visit places with large Muslim populations, we should be sure to visit the town of Bradford in West Yorkshire, which is over a quarter South Asian.

They were being neither cute nor facetious, and I had had similar thoughts at many points on our trip: To have as full as possible a perspective on the Muslim experience in the world today, it is important not only to visit historically and majority Muslim countries but to see something of the large Muslim populations in non-Muslim countries. I considered visiting Berlin, with a focus on the local Turkish community, the North African banlieues of Paris, Arab Marseille or the Iraqi and Afghani refugees of Stockholm. When it turned out that one of the best fares for us to get from southern Spain back to India was through England, I decided that Bradford would be our Western European Muslim stop.

We spent three days in Bradford, with a generous host who happened to be a Pamiri from Tajikistan. I cannot say that we walked away with any real understanding of Muslim or South Asian life in England, but some things we heard and patterns we saw are certainly representative of similar immigrant communities all around the world. Through the pictures, some thoughts on Muslim England.

Bradford is not so much a town with a large Muslim population as a town with a large South Asian population, many of whom happen to be Muslim but others of whom are Hindu, which leads one to wonder whether religious identity is even an appropriate prism through which to view the local population. Here, the friendly staff at Lahore restaurant, named after the culture capital of Pakistan.

But there is no doubt that religion is in fact a defining trait for the Muslim residents of Bradford. Without seeking them out, we ran into these two Muslim-oriented businesses–a supermarket and a religious products store. One could imagine similar stores organized by ethnicity rather than religion–say a store selling South Asian food products with a Hindu/Urdu name (rather than an Arabic one), or a store selling products particularly useful to all South Asians.

Similarly, this “Muslim Directory,” which we saw in the Living Islam store, was published according to religion, rather than ethnicity.

The Pakistani Community Centre promotes a campaign for Gaza. I find it somewhat peculiar that the Iranian government is so moved by the Palestinian cause, given general disrespect in Iran for many things Arab; that it moves Pakistanis who are even further geographically removed is a strong statement on the feeling of brotherhood fostered by Islam.

We were also told by a white resident of Bradford working in social services that great differences marked the Hindu Indian community and the Muslim Pakistani and Bengladeshi communities in England–the former has been much more successful in assimilating and achieving professional heights (apparently the Indians and the Chinese exceed the native white population in education rates), while the Muslim South Asians lag behind. We were also told that Bradford residents of Pakistani origin were almost bizarrely traditional, with over 90% of local imams and many marriage partners imported from Pakistan, despite the community’s decades-long presence in England. Is there something about their religious identity or practice that is holding this community behind or preventing better integration?

Two local mosques

Bradford is a university town famous for its School of Social & International Studies, where our host was a student in the Peace Studies program. Note the sign on the door for an Islamic study group.

A couple other funny local quirks. We don’t think these two items have anything to do with the relatively recent (postwar) Muslim South Asian community, but the principal theater in Bradford happens to be named The Alhambra and a local synagogue was of clearly Sephardic design, somewhat reminiscent of the Great Mosque of Cordoba (see post of 09.02.02).

The South Asian community has been in Bradford for decades, and are far from the newcomers. A Polish store (note, not a Catholic store) shows the effect of the enlargement of the European Union in even smaller towns in Western Europe.

Local family

Jews in the Muslim World

One of the great ironies of the Middle East conflict is that Jews and Arabs are, in a deep sense, brothers–they both hail from the same region, Hebrew and Arabic are closely related languages and Judaism and Islam are faiths of the same Abrahamic tradition. As with Greeks and Turks (see post of 2008.10.28), or Chinese, Koreans and Japanese, it seems that genetic/cultural/historical kinship and familiarity help breed contempt. But looking back in history, we see that antipathy between Jews and Arabs, or between Jews and Muslims more broadly, is far from a historical constant–much like real brothers, the two peoples have often lived side by side, peacefully coexisting.

In fact, our trip through the Muslim world has been almost equally a trip through the Jewish world, because so often throughout history where there were Muslims, there were Jews, and where there were Jews, there were Muslims. The connections between the populations were and are that intimate (not least in Palestine, of course). Through the photographs below, a journey through the Jewish populations (some of them, alas, now historical) of the Muslim world, radiating from Israel to Central Asia and Morocco, to Europe.

Even the Muslim Quarter of the Old City of Jerusalem, a part of the state of Palestine under any future negotiated scenario, has a Jewish presence–in this case a building acquired by a right wing Israeli group imperiously announces its Jewish Israeli ownership.

Hasidic man with child looks over Jerusalem and the Islamic shrine of the Dome of the Rock, located on the Temple Mount.

Ever since the days before Moses, Egypt has been home to a Jewish population. (Graham Hancock suggests in his book The Sign and the Seal that a Jewish community based in now Aswan at one point had possession of the Ark.) Below, a picture taken through the locked gate of the 19th century Eliyahu Hanavi Synagogue of Alexandria. Fear of anti-Jewish terrorism has the synagogue under constant guard.

Syria was home to a large Jewish community for hundreds/thousands of years, and the old city of Damascus contains a large Jewish Quarter. All but a handful of the Damascus Jews have, sadly, emigrated to the U.S., Israel and elsewhere, leaving their impressive family homes to be renovated as hotels and restaurants, and in many cases artists’ studios, in what is fast becoming a trendy part of town. The first two images are from Bait Farhi, a wealthy Jewish home that is being converted into a hotel (a translation of the writing in the first: “a fruitful vine by a spring” from Genesis 49:22). The third image is the studio of Mustafa Ali, a Syrian sculptor. (See post of 2008.04.07.)

In Iran, many more of the local Jews–some 25,000–have stayed, apparently able to live their lives and practice their religion in peace, as the autocratic/theocratic government continues the historical practice within Islam of letting people of other Abrahamic faiths practice their religions relatively unmolested. (Many Iranian Jews have of course chosen to emigrate, most famously to Beverly Hills.) In this photo, a Jewish man stands outside the tomb of Esther and Mordecai in Hamedan, Iran.

Yet further east was the domain of the Bukharan Jews, who lived not only in Bukhara but in other Central Asian cities, developing a unique culture that was a significant part of the religio-ethnic mosaic of that region. They even had their own language, Bukhori, which was something like Farsi/Tajik written in Hebrew characters. The most visible landmark of the Bukharan Jews in Bukhara may be the cemetery (first image), but a walk around the old city in now Uzbekistan reveals many more remnants of the Jewish population, including a synagogue (second image) and old Jewish homes such as Akbar House, now a bed and breakfast (third and fourth images). (translation of the writing in the fourth: again, “Joseph is a fruitful vine, a fruitful vine near a spring” from Genesis 49:22)

The Old Bukharan Synagogue, in the Bukharan Quarter, Jerusalem. Many Bukharan Jews have also settled in Queens in New York City.

Equally famous for its resident Jewish population, including thousands who remain today, is Morocco, half a world away. All of the great historical cities of Morocco have a large Jewish quarter, known as the mellah.

The narrow streets and tall buildings of the mellah in Marrakesh show how densely populated these ghettoes were.

Jewish life continues in some of the mellahs. Here, Al Azmeh Synagogue in the mellah of Marrakesh.

Large Jewish cemeteries show how much greater were the historical Jewish populations of these cities. The first two images are from Marrakesh, the rest from Fez. In the fourth and fifth images, a small synagogue/museum attached to the cemetery next to the Fez mullah. The Arab decor in the second and fifth images shows how local Jews were very much a part of the local culture (as well as the universal Jewish culture).

Another synagogue, in the Fez mellah

As in pretty much everywhere else they lived, Jews performed a significant role in the commerce of Morocco. Here, a Jewish funduq, or caravansaray/inn in old Fez.

Moroccan Jews were not only in the big cities. In the first image, a Jewish cemetery in the Skoura Oasis, near the town of Ouarzazate. In the second image, the ruins of a synagogue in the Jewish Kasbah of Amezrou, near Zagora in the Draa Valley further south (see post of 2009.01.11 on the multiethnic Draa Valley).

What was in African Morocco was of course also in Moorish Iberia, and there were Jewish populations in all of the cities of Spain. In the first two images, the alleys of the Juderia, or Jewish quarter, of Cordoba (the minaret/steeple of the Great Mosque visible in the first image). In the third and fourth images, an old synagogue in Cordoba (note again the “Arabesque” decoration). The fifth image is a statue of Maimonides, a great Jewish philosopher–Jews were the third of the “three cultures,” along with the Muslims and Christians, that made Iberia during la Convivencia the great intellectual hotbed that it was (see post of 2009.02.04).

But of course la Convivencia was not to last, as the Catholic Monarchs completed the Reconquista and imposed their policies of ethno-religious cleansing. (See post of 2009.02.02.) In part because the Iberian Jews were so closely associated with the Moors and were suspected of being pro-Muslim conspirators, Ferdinand and Isabella issued the Alhambra Decree or Edict of Expulsion in 1492, exiling all Jews from Iberia. Many of the Sephardi Jews ended up in areas that were part of the (Muslim Turkish) Ottoman Empire, which sent boats to Spain to help transport them. (To the Ottomans, the skilled and wealthy Jews were highly desirable immigrants that the Spanish, blinded by their extreme sense of religious orthodoxy, were foolish to give up.)

The Old Synagogue in the old city of Sarajevo, now a museum of Jewish history in the region. Local Jews continued to use the Ladino language, a Jewish language derived from Spanish.

The Ashkenazi (or Eastern European) Synagogue in Sarajevo, built in the early twentieth century for the Eastern European Jews not of Spanish origin.

The Sofia Synagogue in now Bulgaria, one of the largest in the region, built to accommodate the descendants of the Sephardi Jews who settled in that part of the Ottoman Empire.

Strictly speaking it is not a part of the Muslim world, but a city known for its trade with the East of course had a local Jewish population that could make use of the significant Jewish mercantile networks throughout the East. A couple images from the “original” Jewish ghetto, in Venice.

Andalusia / Al-Andalus

In the Guadalquivir River in Cordoba, an Arab-style waterwheel, or noria, like those found in Hama, Syria

Washington Irving in his famous Tales of the Alhambra mentions that the Moroccans of his day (the late 1820s) spoke of eventually retaking southern Iberia and restoring Moorish/Arab/Muslim rule to Andalusia. In the current world order such a Moroccan encroachment into Spain and the European Union is not realistic, but the spirit of Moorish Andalusia is very much with us today, not only in terms of the Moorish influence on Spanish culture generally (see post of 2009.02.01), but a definite awareness of the uniqueness of Andalusia as a historical blend of Christian and Muslim. Not only do Arabs and non-Arab Muslims feel a connection to Andalusia that they do not feel to the rest of Christian Spain, but also Spaniards (perhaps through Andalusia) seem to have adopted sympathies to Arabs that are a far cry from their ancestral rulers who led the Inquisition.

Andalusia’s ties to Morocco and the Middle East are often used to orientalizing effect for tourists. In the first image, Moroccan leather goods for sale in Seville. In the second image, advertisements for Arab-themed entertainment in Granada. In their defense, many of these establishments are run by Arab immigrants, not only from Morocco across the Strait but from the Middle East as well.

This hammam has been restored as a ruin/museum, but others have been restored for actual bathing by tourists. We visited one in Granada and were disappointed–a fairly sad facsimile of a hammam if scoring for authenticity (and coed–the sacrilege).

Muslim tourists–even non-Arab ones–are drawn to Andalusia for its Arab Muslim history. In the first picture, British tourists of South Asian Muslim descent at the Medina Azahara outside Cordoba. In the second picture, Malay students at the new Granada Mosque taking a break from sightseeing.

The memory of an Arab Iberia very much lives on in the Arab world.

Moors evicted from Iberia after the Reconquista settled in an entire district of Fez known as the Andalusian quarter (first image). The second image is of the Sahrij Medersa in the Andalusian quarter, perhaps the most beautiful in Morocco.

Al Andalous is the inspiration for this barbershop in Nouadhibou, Mauritania, as well as the brand of underwear being sold in Fez.

Half a world away in Doha, Qatar, this curtains and furniture store commemorates Arab rule over Iberia.

One of the most puzzling little aspects of the global taking of sides in the Middle East conflict is the very common phenomenon of pro-Palestinian Spaniards. Pro-Palestinian graffiti is more visible in Spain than anywhere else I have been, keffiyeh are popular accessories among Spaniards and in parts of Palestine the only other tourists other than us were Spanish. I think the real reason for this is the popularity of leftist politics in Spain (perhaps a backlash against Franco) that tend to favor the underdog cause that is Arab Palestine, but perhaps two more interesting factors are also causes: 1) that modern Spaniards feel guilt for their ancestors’ anti-Arab crimes during and after the Reconquista or 2) that modern Spaniards recognize that, genetically, they are part Berber and Arab, descendants of the Muslim Moors who chose to stay in Iberia and convert, and therefore have sympathies for their Palestinian kinsmen. (I do recognize that these theories are somewhat ridiculous, and would really appreciate if someone could enlighten me on the phenomenon.)

Pro-Palestinian / Anti-Israeli graffiti, in Seville and Granada

The Alhambra

Its reputation is beyond mere renown, a complex of buildings that is widely considered to be one of mankind’s greatest cultural achievements. The Alhambra represents, in the form of architecture, the loftiest heights of Moorish civilization in Iberia and the fruit of the melding of Muslim, Christian and Jewish ideas that was la Convivencia. Like many other great treasures, subjected to much deterioration and modification in its history, the Alhambra is now one of the great tourist attractions of Spain, the heart of the city of Granada.

The significance of Granada to Moorish history in Spain is tremendous. Granada was the very last stronghold of the Moors in Spain when in 1492 it fell to Ferdinand and Isabella, marking the very end of almost 800 years of Muslim rule in Iberia. Upon completing the Reconquista, Ferdinand and Isabella presided on their throne from the Alhambra, where Christopher Columbus had his audience for the financing of his voyage West. As a historical center of Muslim life in Spain and a great University town, Granada retains a cosmopolitan atmosphere, its souvenir shops filled with goods imported from the Middle East, much as they might have been centuries ago.

For this post, mainly photographs of the Alhambra.

The Alhambra sits on a hill overlooking the town of Granada. On top of the hill from which the second photograph was taken sits the new Mosque of Granada (2003), serving Moroccan immigrants and other Muslim residents and visitors to the city in a sort of grand return of Islam to the city.

The internal courtyards of the Alhambra, some of them separating parts of the building constructed at different periods, throw the interior open to light.

The Alhambra, like other celebrated palaces around the world, was as much a feat of landscaping as architecture. The Mirador de Lindaraja, of Debussy fame.

One of the most famous parts of the palace is the Patio of the Lions, with its many intricately decorated columns, and spectacular domed halls nearby. [The Lion fountain in the middle was under renovation during our visit.]

Much of the beauty of the Alhambra is in the intricate ornamentation.

The stuccowork in the Alhambra comes from the same tradition as the 9th century stucco in the Nain Mosque (first image) and the 14th century stucco of the Oljeitu Mihrab (second image), both in Iran.

The tilework is of course also celebrated (and also related to Iranian craft). The second and third images are from the hammam located inside the complex. Alhambra tesserae are said to have inspired M.C. Escher.

The conquest by the Catholic Monarchs resulted in some large scale as well as small scale changes to the building.