Monday, September 29, 2008

Aga Khan Film - The Middle East Premiere in Beirut

From the e-mail blast that just went out:

Dear all

As the divides between the Muslim and non-Muslim world, and within the Muslim world itself, seem to be getting worse - not better - it is time to hear the story of an Islamic spiritual leader who has persevered for fifty years to bridge them. This is the story of His Highness the Aga Khan and the community he leads, the Ismailis, told for the first time through film.

Will you join us for the Middle East Premiere at the Beirut International Film Festival?

AN ISLAMIC CONSCIENCE: the Aga Khan and the Ismailis
directed by multiple Emmy-award winning filmmaker Bill Cran

Beirut International Film Festival, Beirut, Lebanon
Oct 5th - 7:30pm * Oct 6th - 5pm * Oct 7th - 10pm
Empire Sofil - Achrafiyeh
Post-film discussion with Filmmaker/Producer Shamir Allibhai



Born into a world of wealth and privilege, he devotes his life to eliminating poverty and inequality. A religious leader who traces his ancestry back to the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH), he struggles to balance the traditional with the modern.

For the past five decades, the Aga Khan has been the spiritual leader and Imam of the 15 million Ismaili Muslims in a world that has changed dramatically. From the end of colonialism and the expulsion of the Asians in Uganda to the fall of the Iron Curtain and 9/11, the Aga Khan has struggled for a common humanity in a divided world.

At a time when Islam is at odds with itself and with the West, the Aga Khan represents a voice of moderation, speaking out for pluralism and diversity, and promoting dialogue between civilizations.

But will he be heard?

See you at the screenings!

Best wishes
Aga Khan Film team

Saturday, September 27, 2008

How to get to Tajikistan: Visa, Flights, Currency

It can be challenging at times to arrange your travel to Tajikistan so I write this in the hopes that people out there will find it easier to get to this wonderful, and at times difficult, country.

IMPORTANT: Patience is key :)

You do not need an invitation letter.
The easiest/quickest place to get a visa for Tajikistan, in my experience, is in Dubai, at the newly opened Consulate General of the Republic of Tajikistan. The Consulate is so new that none of the hotel concierge's know about it.

Consulate General of the Republic of Tajikistan (Dubai/UAE)
Dubai, Al-Safa-2, Plot 357
Street 4C, Villa Number 5
Telephone: +971 4 394 5810
(click on map for large image):

The Consulate was able to give me a visa within a day. If you have a Western passport, I am sure it will be fine but please check the rules. You should ask for at least a 1-month visa. In Washington DC, minimum is 2 weeks I believe, but still, get a 1-month. (I originally got 2 wks, then plans moved slightly and my departure date was after my visa was set to expire).

Please note, if you are going to different parts of Tajikistan, you need additional visas. Make sure you tell the Consulate where you are going so they can advise you as best as possible. For example, going to Khorog and Gorno-Badakhshan requires a separate visa called a GBAO visa. The consulate in Dubai was NOT able to give me a GBAO visa and said I needed to get it in Dushanbe. The Tajikistan embassy in DC was able to give me a GBAO visa.

Naturally, additional visas have additional costs.

There are 2 flights from the UAE to Dushanbe (the capital of Tajikistan).
One flight leaves from Sharjah and the other from Dubai. (Sharjah and Dubai are a short car ride from each other, prob 30 mins apart when there is no traffic).

TAJIK AIR: Sharjah to Dushanbe, flies once a week (Thurs early early morning)
Just call Mr Mohammedi +971 506 45 85 88 / +971 422 33 500
He runs a travel agency that deals with the Tajik Airlines flights for the UAE

SOMON AIR: Dubai to Dushanbe, flies once a week (Tuesdays)
Details from their website:
Somon Air
Republic of Tajikistan
734003 Dushanbe 100,
Rudaki Prospect
Tel: +992 44 640 40 40
Tel/fax: +992 44 640 12 34
R. Khalikov
General Manager

Turkish Airlines also runs a twice a week service from Istanbul to Dushanbe:

I only flew on Tajik Air, aptly nicknamed Tragic Air, and so I cannot comment on the other airlines. Everything was fine on my flight there and back; there were no issues (I feel like I have to state this up front!) But when you come from the West (and most of the rest of the world for that matter) where you are told - no mandated - to wear your seatbelt, put up your food tray, turn off your mobile phone, and stop playing music on your iPod all during takeoff and landing, sitting on a Tajik Air flight is very different, and could be scary. Rules are lax. The flight to Dushanbe was a free-for-all where everyone rushed to get on the plane. Seats were not assigned on the way there, luggage was all over the place: in front of the seat, in the aisle, in the emergency exit. Quite frankly, would the emergency exit even work if it needed to be used? (the planes are "not as young as they used to be".) And here is the kicker that could speak volumes: apparently the airline's safety record is so bad that it is forbidden to fly into UK airspace. Ok, now that I told you the less-flattering details: Go. It is an amazing experience. Not once during the flight did anything happen that you would question the pilot's experience. The plane took off (albeit slowly), flew the 3-hour journey, and landed just fine without a hitch.

There is a small flight that flies from Dushanbe to Khorog. I had nothing to do with arranging this flight so I can not offer any firsthand advice except for point A:
a) find someone local to sort it out for you
b) go to a nice hotel and ask the front desk
c) alternatively, the same airport in Dushanbe that you land at, is the one where you buy the tickets to go to Khorog. Try and ask someone to show you the purchasing and collection desk - it is in the middle of the arrival and departure areas.
d) As the plane to Khorog is small, it is limited in altitude, and thus flies through the mountain ranges in certain spots. This is why flying is weather dependent. If there is too much wind or it is cloudy, the plane will not fly. As fall and winter approaches, naturally, the plane is less likely to depart.
e) Try and sort this out as soon as possible. You may not be able to buy the ticket till the day before but then go early: very early. It is a small plane with maybe 20 seats. It also seems those with connections jump the queue.
f) If you dont get a ticket or your flight is cancelled, you can try again tomorrow or there are taxis that will do the drive from Dushanbe to Khorog. People have described the drive as "amazing", "incredible" and "breath-taking" but it is "long" (approx 15-17 hrs) and "bumpy". Again, find someone local to help you sort it out if you need to.

Lonely Planet Central Asia is the only travel guide I could find that covers Tajikistan:

It is useful at times such as when you have to register with the government within a few days of arriving in Tajikistan. Buy the book.

I saw bank machines in Dushanbe but not in Khorog. I suggest bringing US$ (cash, not travellers checks). It is fairly cheap to eat and get around but you can spend US$25 a person on dinner at the nicer restaurants.
There are many currency exchange shops in Dushanbe so exchanging money there is not a problem. In Khorog there are money exchange spots too.
Also at a few restaurants I tried giving them US$, which they accepted, and gave the change back in Somoni (the local currency name).

If you speak Tajik or Russian, you will be fine. If you don't, things can be challenging at times. Very few people speak English. At the nicer restaurants, English will be fine - just getting to the location will be tough. The Lonely Planet guide book has a map which is not bad and many things are within walking distance in Dushanbe. At the nicer hotels, English will be fine too. Remember, what I said about patience? Bring lots of this.

a) don't drink tap water or brush your teeth with it in Dushanbe
b) food can be dodgy at times - be wary but accept it: your stomach will do somersaults at least once. Bring the proper meds as needed.
c) bring snacks with you: cookies, chocolates, etc

Passport control may try and pull a fast one over foreigners saying your visa is not proper to try and elicit a bribe from you. They will put on a great act saying you cannot leave the country and if you miss the flight, it is your problem. They may ask for $100 or something ridiculous. My suggestion is don't pay and perpetrate this behaviour.

And if you go, post your stories here!

Enjoy and safe travels.


Tuesday, September 23, 2008

The Last Screening in Khorog - Jamatkhane

While Vadim and I were in Badakhsan, it was like a mobile cinema as we drove with our gear from one location to another. We slept little as we packed our days with screenings, sight-seeing, and research. (We also ate one too many times at Delhi Darbar - if you have ever been, you know what I mean!) The screenings were an unforgettable experience - it surpassed all expectations. Many people said how kind the Tajiks are - they are and they are very generous including with their compliments. They often told me at the end of the screening how they are so happy I came with the film and that when I go back [to the West], that I have to tell my Ismaili friends that the Tajiks have not and will not forget what the Western Ismailis did for them at the end of Soviet rule when so many were starving.

The Tajiks still have a long way to go and much more help is still required.

From my perspective, the most mind-bending thing of the Khorog trip was how the government there is Ismaili. The army is Ismaili. The teachers are Ismaili. The shopkeepers are Ismaili. The drivers are Ismaili. But so are the vulnerable - they are Ismaili. The wrong-doers too, are Ismaili. I had never been to a city or region which is 100% Ismaili. Here the whole spectrum of society and its positions/roles was filled with Ismailis. Fascinating to wrap your mind around.

Tajikistan Screening No. 6: Aug 27
Location: Selkhoztehnik' sports hall, Gorno-Badakhshan, Tajikistan

We did not do any screenings on Aug 26th but continued them again on Aug 27. The screenings ended wonderfully. One screening was at Selkhoztehnik' sports hall and the other was at a local Ismaili mosque (jamatkhane).

Watching the Tajiks reaction to the film, at this screening and the other ones on this trip, was quite interesting. They were clearly moved at a number of points during the film, at times, shedding a tear or two. What I was surprised at, and probably shouldn't have been, was how during the 9/11 scene there was a unanimous ghasp. The audience was clearly upset with the crash of the World Trade Center towers. I wonder if many of them had seen this on TV before?

We spent the first 30 mins trying to fix the DVD player problems...

A lot of cute kids joined us for the screening :)

Shamir speaking to a local journalist (right)

The guy on the left is starting a library for the community. We donated a few copies of the film for it.

Tajikistan Screening No. 7: Aug 27
Location: Ismaili mosque / Jamatkhane, Gorno-Badakhshan, Tajikistan

The final screening was at a local Ismaili place of worship. The audience and I talked about our history and how it is so important for us to know it and preserve it through books, films, music and the like. If we don't tell our story, who will?

Sunday, September 21, 2008

Khorog - Screenings 4 and 5

L to R: Vadim, Khurshed (the Head of KEP), and me

KEP Students

Tajikistan Screening No. 4: Aug 25
Location: Khorog English Program (Khurshed), Gorno-Badakhshan, Tajikistan

The first screening we did on Aug 25th was a mid-day showing at the Khorog English Program (KEP). KEP is a small program that is preparing students to gain important skills for their future. They have a close relationship with the Institute of Ismaili Studies in London, UK where some students of the KEP program are selected every year to go to the IIS. KEP is very clear that they want those students that go abroad to make sure they come back to Tajikistan, with their new experiences and skills, and put it to use in their home communities.

The students at KEP tended to be more inquisitive. Generally I found the Tajiks did not ask many questions in front of the group during Q+A but at KEP, I got quite a bit. The other thing I pleasantly noticed was that the majority of students here were females.

Tajikistan Screening No. 5: Aug 25
Location: Kalinin School (Gulaken microdistrict), Gorno-Badakhshan, Tajikistan

A friend Rahim Dawood put me in touch with Shavkat and he and Vadim did a great job organizing the Kalinin school screening with its wonderful turnout. (All these Khorog screenings were free by the way).

Vadim, left, translating.

Shavkat seen here on the right.

Monday, September 15, 2008

Screening 3 and Village Politics

Creating a screen out of the wall

Tajikistan Screening No. 3: Aug 24
Location: Chohkandez Village, Gorno-Badakhshan, Tajikistan

I stayed in a beautiful Pamiri house while in Badakhshan, warmly taken care of by a lovely Tajik family. The house, sitting on the side of a mountain, was flanked by two fresh-water streams (and the water tasted better than Evian)! Waking up every morning to the sounds of running water and beautiful natural views is very refreshing.

In Chohkandez village that night, we screened AN ISLAMIC CONSCIENCE: the Aga Khan and the Ismailis in a Pamiri house. All was going smoothly till we encountered some village politics.

Three quarters of the way through the film, the head of the village came into the large main room of the house where we were having the screening. Clearly smelling of alcohol and with blood-shot eyes, he told all of us the screening is over in unequivocal terms. A few of the older men took him outside and tried to calm him down. He kept getting more and more agitated.

Then a few women got involved to try and calm him down. When he started to get too loud, I put on my best Russian and tried to speak to him. He wasn't having any of it.

Apparently, this guy had asked all the residents to help out with building a water pipe for their village earlier in the day. The village people did not help out: many of them were busy as there are a lot of weddings going on in the summer and with Ramadan looming, many people were trying to get married (and celebrate it with feasts and dancing) before the fasting begins.

The head of the village couldn't make much progress on the water pipe and thus got quite angry. He drank the rest of his afternoon away.

Then in the evening when he heard about the screening, saw the empty village, and found out that most people were watching a movie, he got even more angry. If the people would not help build a pipe, then they would not be allowed to watch a film - went his logic. As he is the head of the village and the (physically) biggest guy in the neighborhood: his word is final.

The crowd, quite apologetic, left. And some DVDs were given away so they can finish the film... once the pipe is built :)

I am trying to talk to the head of the village.