visit
The Oxford experience
The visit to the small English university town leaves one inspired to the extent of intimidation
By Ather Rizvi

While travelling to Oxford a week ago, I recollected all late-night discussions with my sisters on factors behind Imran Khan's appeal, Benazir's public-speaking skills (of the bygone days, of course) and all our teachers who wear their Oxford days like a badge. Thrilled, excited, intimidated and while mostly on phone, after an almost two-hour journey from London Victoria, I reached Gloucester Green Bus Station, Oxford.

Caged culture
The Lok Virsa museum in Islamabad has no heritage to boast about, only replicas to offer
By Bilal Tanweer

The museums in Pakistan are legendary for their shabbiness. So it should come as no surprise when I say that Lok Virsa Museum in Islamabad is another one of such. But I must say with greater force and emphasis, it is not just bad, it is awful. I must go on to say, it is not a museum at all, but something else.

While travelling to Oxford a week ago, I recollected all late-night discussions with my sisters on factors behind Imran Khan's appeal, Benazir's public-speaking skills (of the bygone days, of course) and all our teachers who wear their Oxford days like a badge. Thrilled, excited, intimidated and while mostly on phone, after an almost two-hour journey from London Victoria, I reached Gloucester Green Bus Station, Oxford.

While entering the town, I noticed banners all around stating 'Celebrating 1000 years of Oxfordshire'. The bus took me to the city centre, where it seemed every Oxonian had decided to enjoy the sun and huddle for their weekend shopping.

Meeting two of my best friends after a good six months -- and it was quite a meet-up -- the deadly trio was all set and ready to experience the town. Abeer was visiting from Cambridge and Sana, the official 'Oxford lady' was going to be our tour-guide for the day.

We started our tour from the Oxford high street, Cornmarket Street. Not any different from any small-town centre, the Cornmarket Street is home to all chic shops. Though nice, it is the last place you want to visit when on a couple of hours trip to Oxford! Walking through the Cornmarket Street, we reached the very famous Bonn Square -- where getting yourself photographed is an Oxford tourists' ritual. Known to be the home for the homeless at Oxford, the square is named after the German city of Bonn and is directly opposite Westgate, supposedly the best shopping centre in Oxford.

With only a few hours at our hands to see the whole (or most) of the place and do six month's equivalent of talking, we moved next to the Oxford Castle. Sadly, it turned out to be a major disappointment especially for someone like me who has had an over-dose of castles by virtue of being stationed in Scotland. First-timers should keep hope; the castle does have a lot to offer. Dating back to the 11th century, the castle is witness to years of war, violence, treachery and some believe, even romance. It attracts a large number of visitors from the town and around and is definitely worth visiting if you are not starved for time.

For people wanting an over-night stay at Oxford, Oxford Prison Hotel is the place to be. A prison converted into ample luxury while still maintaining the original site offers just the right amount of pampering which you deserve on any holiday. Even though Fodors says, about the hotel: "Sentenced to luxury at Oxford Prison", the idea of spending a night in 'prison' even in luxury made me uncomfortable. Perhaps this is the reason that they have now changed the name to 'Malmaison Oxford' from 'Oxford Prison Hotel'. The prison offers 'escape' from the hectic life as boasted by the hotel website. Ironic? Weird? Definitely.

From the castle, we walked by the Oxford canal to reach the Oxford University Business School. Established in 1996, and with its state-of-the-art building inaugurated in 2001, it is home to students for most part of the day, and night. Walking through its auditoriums, common rooms and social areas, one does stop to think of all the corporate leaders, business giants and academics who have were here. And yes, one does deeply admire and appreciate the people who have the brains to make it to these places, struggle through the pressure and create real value in their lives.

Inspired to the extent of being intimidated, we went to see the Oxford colleges next -- as many as we could out of a total of 39 in the remaining time that we had. Balliol College was the first must-see, for it is known as the oldest college at Oxford, dating back to 1263. An interesting fact about Balliol is that it was a traditional all-male college till 1979, when it allowed admissions to female students. The fact does come as a surprise to many, especially because 1979 does not seem that long ago! Next was Sana's college, Brasenose which we had heard so much about. We immediately fell in love with its old and archaic library, although small but it had a very Harry Potter feel to it. Walking through absolute silence and quiet, I absorbed the academic air of the place and enjoyed looking at a typical old, calm and very English library. These are the centres of learning. Consider yourself lucky if people in the library hold their head up for a few seconds to acknowledge your presence. Trinity College was the next; it reminded me of the Trinity College Cambridge which I had seen last year. Its West Tower is worth noticing, as it has four female statues which represent Astronomy, Geometry, Medicine and Theology.

It was a good idea on Abeer's part to carry a city guidebook which gave us little details about the places we were visiting; to which a couple of hours don't do any justice.

A must-do while visiting Oxford and Cambridge is Punting, another tourist ritual and the best way to spend time on a warm, sunny afternoon. Punting with friends on the Oxford canal was great fun. We were taken on a peaceful half an hour ride through the river just for 20, which seemed almost too good to be true. While in the boat, the three of us were mesmerised by the peace and quiet of the canal, slow and steady movement of the boat and the ride which gave us views of the green and peaceful botanical gardens. Most of our Oxford photography was done while on this ride as well. There is a small souvenir shop on the Oxford Canal, which offers you enough variety of inexpensive Oxford University memorabilia to take home. Key chains, mugs, wall hangings, paper weights -- there's ample stuff to choose from and you can buy items for as low as two pounds. This is the only shopping you want to do, which when rests on your table reminds you of a truly inspirational place that you visited.

Historical and preserving its magnificent architecture, Oxford was no doubt a relief from the noisy, hectic andcrowded London. If you plan a trip to Oxford, please don't make the same mistake I did of visiting it for a couple of hours. It leaves you asking for more and wanting to stay back to experience more of the Oxford charisma. Yes, evenings have their own special charm and nights are magical when all bars and pubs come to life. When you think of 'intelligent' tourism next, think of Oxford.


Caged culture

  By Bilal Tanweer

The museums in Pakistan are legendary for their shabbiness. So it should come as no surprise when I say that Lok Virsa Museum in Islamabad is another one of such. But I must say with greater force and emphasis, it is not just bad, it is awful. I must go on to say, it is not a museum at all, but something else.

This 'museum' in Islamabad, which I happened to visit a couple of Saturdays ago, is apparently built to showcase the rich folk cultural heritage of Pakistan. A relatively new creation, the Lok Virsa Museum reflects the mindset of its conceivers: people with no cultural or intellectual training. My visit was a heart-and-stomach-wrenching experience. And when I left the museum, I left with a severe headache and a tremendous sense of anger.

First things first. It is clear that the government has constructed this 'museum', if you insist upon calling it that, with an aim to make an impression on the foreign delegates, who abound the capital city -- "to promote a softer image", as they say these days. But since the capital city has no history over the past 40 odd years, the government has tried to make amends by forging together, from across Pakistan, various artefacts and works of local craftsmen, and in this particular instance, has ended up with a monstrosity. 

When one enters the premises of the Folk Heritage Museum, just outside the main building are models of camels, trucks (yes, these too are an integral part of our 'folk legacy'), tongas, and other modes of transportation that are used by ordinary people of this country to travel. The Museum itself is air-conditioned and the folk culture is preserved in glass showcases along the walls, sanitised for the viewers from foreign and elite backgrounds. Indeed, it would be too great an inconvenience for people from either of these groups to leave their air-conditioned abodes to visit Tharparkar to experience all this. So we have their crafts exhibited in these showcases, labelled with fonts that vary from one showcase to the next -- clearly reflecting the lack of an eye for these details, which really are not difficult to detect. 

But other things aside, the most shocking things in the museum are models of actual 'folk' people. Yes, shocking as it might sound, there are models of people as artefacts of folk heritage. It serves a grim reminder of how the elite of this country views common people. Indeed, the parallel with the colonial mindset is unavoidable here. It reminded me of the sickening instances where the African slaves were imported by the Europeans in the same spirit of importing exotic animals from various parts of the world for zoo exhibitions. These 'exotic creatures' were then put in cages, and civilised Europeans, with their children and friends, would visit to see these 'objects' and were fascinated by God's glory and thanked Him for not making them 'one of them'.

Occasionally, these visitors also tested the caged-creatures by throwing a few morsels at them. It was -- still is -- entertaining for many. And woe betide this country and this country's elite! Indeed, one would be hard-pressed to find culture where the elite is more disconnected, more insensitive to its ordinary people than ours, where to celebrate the cultural achievements of the folk-people, people themselves are made into artefacts open to the condescension of everyone. 

And then there was an 'extracted', disproportionate replica from Sadequain's 'Treasures of Time'. Sadequain, one of our masters, had painted great thinkers and artists of all time in this particular mural. It was commissioned by the State Bank of Pakistan and is massive in its original size. The exhibitors of the Lok Virsa with their ignorance rendered yet another horror as a tribute to our Sadequain. The image has been replicated, rendered in some random proportion to the original, and an 'extract' with only the Muslim thinkers has been placed for the viewers. No, it does not end here. Taking a step further to improve upon Sadequain's own creation, the exhibitors have placed labels naming each thinker on the image itself! After they were done with this, to facilitate the viewers, whom they consider to be as ignorant as them, they also took the liberty of inscribing the title of the mural on the image itself - in a terrible, terrible font. To say that my heart bled, would be an understatement. Worse, I noticed that no fellow compatriot among viewers even paused to take a notice of this. I did not want to scream, for it would have made little or no difference. For Sadequain is treated as badly everywhere else: ceilings that Sadequain painted in Frere Hall and Lahore Museum are becoming termite food with no one to take notice (in the Lahore Museum, these 'defects' have been 'repaired' with purple tape; and in Karachi, people have been barred from using the premises of Frere Hall, which leads people away from the gallery and the building as well).

It would be apt to mention that accompanying me was a group of a hundred people who will be leaving the country for higher studies, and no one, I dare say, complained of this rather hideous display of humans as exotic beings.

The best things in the museum are things not done by the organisers: actual artefacts which have been brought and placed with little thought or deliberation. They show tremendous skill and dexterity of hands that receive no official patronage and will soon die out. And to drill the point deeper: if our state is so concerned about the Lok Virsa, why not establish a number of institutes for the study and promotion of these cultures so that they also inform and blend within the national consciousness? Why such cosmetic measures on the pretence of promoting and preserving culture?

Once while talking to Arif Hasan, one of our country's few real heroes, he said, "The most unfortunate nation is one whose rulers are uncultured. Corruption is not as big a problem. Italy is known for its corruption. In our case, our rulers are corrupt and uncultured." 

I cannot explain the situation better.

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