Capitalist Transactions Replacing Traditions and Values from Istanbul to Makkah

Free Water Fountain on National Mall

Last month during transit for a few hours at the Istanbul airport on my way to Tblisi, Georgia, I was struck by the “transactional” nature of every interaction at the airport. I was surprised that there were no drinking water fountains available at one of the busiest airports of the world. I started wondering if US and European airports have also lost the free water fountains that must have been there some 25 years ago because I don’t seem to recall buying bottled water on my travels then, or has the University of Texas at Austin also lost its free water fountains which used to be there when I was there around that time. Nor do I recall having to buy bottled water during my visit to so many museums and buildings around the National Mall in Washington DC, or in Manhattan. If they have not lost them there in the heart of the capitalist West, then why this loss at Istanbul airport? However, a week later I got the opportunity to contrast this with the hospitality in the mosques of the same Istanbul! I will be connecting the dots later in the post.

I guess that at that time when I was in the US, the capitalists gurus still believed literally on the saying that “there is nothing like a free lunch“, and had not thought about extending this core concept from “free lunch” to “free water”! But, I now have the foreboding that this mantra for “progress”, taken to its logical conclusion, would eventually lead to the replacement of  free water fountains everywhere with bottled water that would have to be purchased. I can visualize a time in future when this capitalist drive would have forced the replacement of even clean  freely available air with “bottled air”, which then would have to be purchased; the natural air is being systematically “polluted” to make the bottled air an imminent eventuality. This relentless replacement of all things natural, wonderful, beautiful and free with artificial contraptions that can only be purchased through monied transactions seems to be our fate destined by this “progress” and “development”. Anyone or anything coming in the way is eventually obliterated or overwhelmed or converted as the examples below highlight.

The absence of free water fountains at the Istanbul airport, triggered my reflections on the great Abrahamic tradition coming down through millennia with illustrious examples of our great ancestors who would not sit down to have meals unless they had someone to share their food with. On days when there were no invitees, it was customary for many of them to go out and wait for a wayfarer or even a passerby to invite in for sharing food as they could never bring themselves to eat the food alone. Now with “development” and “progress” we have the fast foods and other restaurants. There is of course nothing like a free lunch for a traveller any more!

I connected the vanishing culture of offering water and food to the travellers to my recollection of the presence of sabeels (water taps) visible in every nook and corner of any city in Pakistan about forty years ago. These taps of free drinking water now seem to be fighting a battle of survival as the lifestyle based on seeking the pleasure of the creator by helping the travellers (and others in need) is being threatened by the lifestyle based on seeking the pleasure of Adam Smith et al characterized by money based transactional interactions.

Hagia Sophia

I recall having read in our history books in school that one of the several great things that Sher Shah Suri did during his brief 5 year rein in 1540 for the benefit of the travellers was to dig up wells that provided free drinking water and planted trees along the road that he constructed of what came to be known as the Grand Trunk Road from Chittagong in Bangladesh going through India and Pakistan to Kabul in Afghanistan. I still remember enjoying some 40 years ago the cool shaded environment of a historical structure with at least 10 feet thick walls to keep out the sweltering heat and protect the source of water from evaporation in one such historic well called “Losar boul-li” in Wah. [Is it still there?]

All the beautiful museums in Istanbul are now charging hefty entrance fees. As I was admiring the beauty of Top Kapi or Hagia Sofia, I was thinking wow what a wonderful way to maintain history and culture. I was comparing the dilipidated state of the monuments in Pakistan and was thinking what if they also start charging some hefty amount for the preservation of history.

New Mosque Yezid Sultan,
Beautiful Calligraphy
in Istanbul Mosques
Blue Mosque, Sultan Ahmet,

But, then I got a different insight as I went to the Blue Mosque and admired its grandeur, and then visited the Sulaimaniya Mosque to admire its magnificence worthy of Sulaiman the Magnificent, and then went to the New Mosque of Valide Sultan and admired the congregation, and to the Mosque of Ayub Ansari to soak in its serenity, and drink the cool water from the free water fountains there and could see many other beautiful mosques dotting the skyline over the the hills of Istanbul and I was struck by the contrast: There were no entrance fees or charges to admire the beauty and architecture of these wonderful historical religious buildings!

Why? Then, the reason struck me:

Ayub Ansari Mosque

The mosques are made to the glory of the creator, to lift you above this life and above the love for worldly possessions and as these buildings are still alive with Muslims offering prayers regularly five times a day, there are no charges. Anyone and everyone is welcome to come. However, due respect has to be observed; shoes to be put in the plastic bags, heads of woman to be covered, and full trousers to be worn. Both the plastic bags and shawls for the woman are available free of charge at the gate of these mosques for such coverage. One can give donation if one likes, but they are voluntary without any compulsion. Those who give are equally welcome than those who do not. jo de us ka bhi bhala, jo na de us ka bhi bhala.

Monetized Transactions at Hagia Sofia

As I walked around in Hagia Sofia I could see some of the frescoes indicating its origins as a Church constructed in 6th century. It was converted to a Mosque in the 15th century and the distinctive Islamic motifs, tiles and caligraphy testifying to the reign of the Ottomons. It was finally converted to a museum in early 20th century. Hagia Sofia in the era before the 15th century celebrated the christ and christianity, from 15th to 20th century it celebrated Islam with daily prayers as a mosque, and now it has been converted to a monied transactional enterprise celebrating the glory of Adam Smith’s message with the believers in thousands lining up to pay the entrance fees and waiting patiently for hours. There are now even stalls setup inside Hagia Sophia selling replicas and souvenirs as seen in the picture. Even the legacy, history and memory has to be transactionalized!

I then recalled that a week before I was in Tblisi, Georgia where the skyline was dotted by the church towers. Many of the churches I visited had no entrance fees as they were operational churches with devout christians lighting the candles and praying. These structures were made for a religious cause higher than the worldly monetized transactional interactions, hence there were no fees. Yes, donations are welcome, but they are voluntary with no compulsive expectations. Those who give the donation are equally welcome than those who do not.  jo de us ka bhi bhala, jo na de us ka bhi bhala

The reason I think National Mall in Washington DC may not have lost the free water fountains, but in Istanbul they had is because there are still some traditions entrenched in the US history and culture that are difficult to dislodge, whereas in Turkey a wholescale dumping of traditions took place when Ataturk changed the script of the Turkish langage from Arabic script to the Latin script. With a single stroke of pen, the baby was thrown out with the bath water: Turkish nation in a single generation lost its history, its literature, its traditions and its legacy. A language takes centuries to assimilate values in its stories, traditions and history. When the script was changed, several essential ingredients of the cherished traditions were lost. Loss of free water fountains is only one example. There is however a saving grace, mosques and churches in Istanbul that are alive and have managed to maintain their link with the past and are still open to prayers for believers have however, retained the Abrahamic tradition of at least free water, if not the free food for travellers. I think in the interior of Turkey many of these traditions even free food for the traveller or the needy would still be visible.

Poetry on a door in Topkapi Palace

Turks who do not know the Arabic script are like the European tourists who can only appreciate the gold and diamonds and the antiquity but can no longer appreciate the beautiful poetry engraved on swords and
other relics in the Top Kapi palace museum, they can no longer read the inscriptions on the entrance of various gates and walls in the palaces, they can not understand the beautiful calligraphy on the walls of those exquisite mosques, and can no longer appreciate the legacy imprinted on the walls of historical palaces and tombstones. As I admired the beautifully engraved sword of Sultan Selim in Topkapi, I recognized the verses La fata illa Ali, La saifa illa Zulfiqarand recognized the verses in the wonderful qawwali often recited in Pakistan and for the first time became aware of the transcontinental and centuries old connection of this verse with history. A privilege no longer available to Turks who have lost their script.  What a loss! We should now be preparing for a similar loss of our culture and values as we jettison our language and script for English, and with it will go many of our precious traditions.

A Calligraphic Painting on
Display in Hagia Sophia

The skyline of a city or a country indicates the dominant lifestyle. In old Tbilisi, Georgia the skyline was dotted with Church towers, indicating the dominant lifestyle of that area. In old Istanbul, the skyline was dotted with mosques and their minarets, indicating which life style dominated this part of the city. However, the story of new part of Tblisi or new part of Istanbul tell the same story, the skyline dominated by commercial highrises celebrating the capitalist lifestyle. Same is the case with the dominant lifestyle of Dubai. and with this I come to the pitiful skyline of Medina and Makkah. In a space of 20 years, the skyline that used to be dominated by the spiritual ascendency of Islam represented by the rising minarets, is eclipsed by the commercial highrises in which even the haram shareef and masjid e nabawi is dwarfed from all sides by buildings testifying to the ascendency of the capitalist enterprise and money making transactional interactions of the demand of the tourism. This is what happens when nations like Turkey in their secular zeal jettison their culture and tradition, and nations like Saudi Arabia in their salafi literalist religious zeal, jettison their culture and tradition and get rid of all their religious symbols and buildings.  In their zeal to jettison the later aculterations they have thrown the baby out along with the

Haram engulfed by Hotels

bathwater. Once traditions which form the bulwark against the onslaught of foreign lifestyles is gone, then there is no stopping the onslaught of the underlying philosophy/religion of Adam Smith. Wholescale adoption of foreign culture and values at the expense of traditional lifestyle takes place as seen from the prevalence of the monetized transactional interactions now underlying all the religious ritutals related to visit to holy places, hajj and umrah. What the secularization zeal of Ataturk could not achieve with the skyline of mosque minarets in old Istanbul, has been achieved swiftly with no resistence by the strict wahabi religious zeal of Saudis in the holiest of places in the Islamic world. Haram shareef and Masjid e Nabavi are now dwarfed and hidden and eclipsed by the asendency of the symbols of capitalist enterprise, the hotels!

However, there are still pockets of this tradition alive in places around dargahs and tombs of sufi saints where thousands eat daily for free.  Inside Masjid e Nabvi and Haram Shareef millions get food during Ramazan donated by people from all around the world and by the state. This free food facility is even available on several places along roadsides in Karachi thanks to Saylani Welfare Trust which is feeding about 100,000 people daily as pointed out by Javed Chaudhry in his column “Yeh hain asal Musalmaan“. The major underlying model among these initiatives continue to be the voluntary donation model: jo de us ka bhi bhala, jo na de us ka bhi bhala. This model stands in vivid contrast with the model based on the monetized transactional interactions which exemplify the essence of capitalist philosophy that I would be highlighting in my later post in detail on Rational Man and Rational Lifestyles based on Trasactional Interactions.

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