Sunday, December 30, 2018

Poem from Pasternak

"The nights now sit down to play chess with me Where ivory moonlight chequers the floor. It smells of acacia, the windows are open, And passion, a grey witness, stands by the door."
-- Boris Pasternak, "Marburg"

Marburg refers to the German city where Pasternak decided to study around 1912, after his mother gave him an unexpected financial gift. He later published My Sister, Life (1917) and Doctor Zhivago (1957) in his native Russian.

Bonus: "I have a feeling that, for purposes unknown to me, my importance is being deliberately inflated... all this by somebody else's hands, without asking my consent. And I shun nothing in the whole world more than fanfare, sensationalism, and so-called cheap 'celebrity' in the press."

MIA: Context

With Western-led programs focusing on eliminating plastic bags and plastic straws as well as opioid overdoses, one wonders if we need a program to bring back context and common sense.

By way of example, 70,237 Americans died from drug overdoses in 2017. It's unclear whether this number includes ~45,000 annual suicides, but there were also 17,250 homicides, meaning 2.5x as many Americans died by suicide as homicide. Though seemingly large, these numbers, standing alone, lack context.

66% of America's population--or about 216 million people--is between 15-64. The math is simple enough for a 6th grader: only 0.061% of America's prime-aged population are/were involved in drug overdoses, suicides, and homicides.

The bigger problem? 1% (2.2 million) of America's population between 15 and 64 years old is in jail/prison. An additional 2.1% (4.7 million) are on probation or parole.

Abnormally high incarceration rates are the result of the American military's tendency to transfer its processes (supply chain logistics) and approaches (safety through deterrence) to the civilian sector. In this case, despite knowing Kissinger's deterrence model failed in Vietnam and thereafter (9/11), the U.S. government has decided to use the same approach against domestic criminals:

Discussing Sioux Falls, South Dakota's current economy, Mr. Fallows describes the city's choice of institutions a long time ago: "Would it prefer to be the home of the state university? Or the state penitentiary? ... the penitentiary offered steadier work for locals, so that is what they took." (From Our Towns (2018))

The federal government is able to pursue illogical ideas for reasons any Keynesian economist can understand: an approach backed by unlimited printing of money will seem to succeed even as it fails because it lowers the unemployment rate. Moreover, if the U.S. government admits its approach has failed, it cannot receive any return on its spending through the export and sale of its model to foreign allies, who are obligated to purchase a certain level of weapons and consulting every year to maintain the integrity of the U.S.-led military alliance.

Aside from incarceration rates (a severe problem) and opiods (not a severe problem), "an estimated 1/6 adults in America is on some form of psychiatric medication (a statistic that doesn't even include the use of sleeping pills, or pain pills, or the off-the-label use of other medications for psychological purposes)." [Jamieson Webster, The New York Review (November 2018)]

Oh, those plastic straws I mentioned earlier? According to, "Plastic pollution in the ocean is a real problem, but only about 1 percent of it comes from the U.S. Of that 1 percent, only a tiny fraction comes from plastic straws."

One wonders why larger countries, given their dominance over both physical and digital platforms, have become so intellectually flaccid. I do not have a definitive answer. I only know, as an outspoken person who tends to support the underdog, that I prefer my governments to have grander visions than the elimination of plastic.

© Matthew Mehdi Rafat (2018)

Bonus: I recently browsed through O'Brien's book (titled Keating) about a brilliant Aussie PM, Paul Keating. The depth and breadth of his accomplishments are remarkable.
He advanced Aboriginal property rights, became a catalyst for APEC cooperation (despite Malaysia's desire for an Asian-led, Asian-exclusive coalition), and helped lower a 10% unemployment rate. Other than the U.K.'s Gordon Brown and Czechoslovakia's Vaclav Havel, it's difficult to find another Western politician who accomplished so much. (I will count Singapore's Lee Kuan Yew as an Eastern politician, given his less than favorable view of the British.)

Australia's small population certainly assists its ability to successfully implement ideas, but the question remains: how can we reverse the increasing irrelevance of politicians in larger, less homogeneous countries, where legal complexity and debt-backed trade agreements render the individual citizen less and less important?

From National Geographic (2019)

Thursday, December 20, 2018

Interview with HalalTrip's Fazal Bahardeen

I met HalalTrip’s Fazal Bahardeen in Geylang Serai, Singapore. 
Q: You work in the travel business. What countries would you recommend?

A: Malaysia, specifically Penang and the beach town of Langkawi. Also, Jordan. Petra is beautiful.

Q: It’s not too touristy?

A: Well, it is, but you can focus on the architecture and surroundings. You’re seeing structures that have been there for thousands of years.

Q: They told me the same thing about Stonehenge, and I wasn’t impressed. I try to read a book about a place before I go—for Indonesia, I’d recommend Toer’s This Earth of Mankind—but I can’t think of a single book by a Jordanian author.

A: Stonehenge is just a bunch of stones, but Petra has houses, people used to live there. The city was the site of an advanced civilization.

Q: What’s the name of the civilization you’re referring to?

A: There are two or three, but the Nabatean Kingdom comes to mind. Petra is a very old place. Wadi Musa means the Valley of Moses. Some scholars say Koranic verses exist about the people who used to live there, how they were so big and used to mountain living. 

Q: We’re having biryani together, which I’ve had many times, but this dessert is new to me. What is suji? It’s like kheer, but not the same. Absolutely delicious.
A: The ingredient is semolina… same thing they use for cous cous. It’s a grain.

Q: You actually have two companies, HalalTrip and CrescentRating. Tell me about them.

A: CrescentRating is completely different from the [HalalTrip] app. CrescentRating is BtoB [business to business]. It helps businesses target the Muslim market. We write reports, work with governments, create training programs, and issue ratings based on our proprietary algorithm. Basically, CresentRating provides [consulting] services to enable the industry to target and welcome Muslim travelers. It helps Muslim travelers find out where to go, what are the places for food, etc. 

The consumer-generated reviews are on HalalTrip, which is like TripAdvisor. On CrescentRating, we would determine whether a hotel fits our criteria and provide a rating from 1 to 7. The HalalTrip app would then display our own rating.

Q: How do you ensure accuracy in the information used by your algorithm? Do you travel yourself to check out the places you rate?

A: I don’t travel myself to fulfill the ratings. If you want a rating, the hotel, shopping mall or restaurant has to apply. Once they register, then we get a local person to do the audit. We have partners in some countries and local company contacts. In some cases, we have freelancers, people who can register on our website to be auditors. 

Q: How do you ensure the veracity of the data if you rely on third parties?

A: Our contractors/auditors are trained by us. The hotel, restaurant, or other establishment will register on our website and provide/upload all the information we request. The auditor goes to the hotel and confirms the hotel has submitted correct information.

Q: Tell me more about HalalTrip.

A: HalalTrip is separated into three parts. One is the content we create ourselves: city guides, place discovery content, etc. We have a continually growing database of halal restaurants, we have [travel] attraction guides, and all these are created by us.

Second, we are dedicated to our tagline: “Get inspired, go, inspire others.” The content we create is to inspire others to travel, and we provide services, not just guides, making it easier to book hotels, visit attractions, and go sightseeing. We already have hotels [on our site], but it’s not enough. We need to expand, add experiences [like Airbnb], etc. 

Third, we encourage people to share their experiences. Generally, our travelers share their experiences with halal restaurants and mosques on our app. Here is the problem we have: sometimes we are unable to check the halalness of it. We try and check it as much as we can. We have a stamp that says “User Verified” but no independent fact checking for that rating. If it is HalalTrip certified, then we have done some research, though not always directly, to verify the halalness. We also have a third stamp, which indicates an establishment has been rated and verified by CrescentRating.
Q: I notice you already offer travel packages all around the world, even in non-Muslim countries like Croatia. I know Croatia’s economy depends substantially on tourism, but how did you end up working with them?

A: Most travel agencies come to us. Last week, a few French travel agencies came to us. It is them who come to us. Why do they come? We work with all suppliers, and we operate in different countries. We educate them on the needs of Muslim travelers.

Q: What does halal mean? Does it refer only to a specific procedure to prepare meat?

A: Halal means permissible, as opposed to haram. Halal food means permissible food. Vegetables and fruits are permissible, so a vegetarian restaurant is halal. When it comes to meat, it has to be slaughtered in a certain manner, according to Islamic requirements.

[Editor’s Note: zabihah aka dhabihah is a specific Arabic word meaning “slaughtered,” coming from another Arabic word, thabih, sometimes pronounced zabih. It only discusses one specific element of the halal requirements, whereas the term "halal" encompasses broader issues including but not limited to consumption of blood, types of permissible meat, etc.]

One might ask, “What is halal certified?” A certification body checks if this restaurant serves non-halal food. If the restaurant is only serving halal, it provides a certification. It does not mean they have to serve meat. 

[Interviewer's Note: under this broad definition, a Hindu restaurant serving only vegetarian food could be halal-certified. Attracting vegetarians is one way to broaden the appeal of the halal rating, and it will be interesting to see how such an approach will be implemented.] 

Q: Brigitte Bardot has campaigned against both halal slaughter and kosher slaughter (called shechitah). She claims the way animals are religiously slaughtered is inherently cruel. What do you say about her claims?

A: I'm not interested in Brigitte Bardot. I'm focused on my company. 

Q: How long has your company been around, and why does it seem like Islamic-based marketing is finally becoming popular? 

A: HalalTrip has been around 3 years. CrescentRating 10 years. Regarding your second question, there has been an increased awareness around Muslim consumers and [therefore] more and more halal options.

Q: How do you differentiate yourself?

A: We focus on what we have been doing. We are not focused on the competition currently. The space is big… the players in the space, you can count on your fingers… Right now, competition is not the [issue] that keeps me awake.

Q: Given the limited number of halal/Muslim traveler industry players, do you try to collaborate with each other rather than compete?

A: Collaborate? Not really… we know them personally, we are on good terms with them, but we are focused on what we are doing.

Q: What’s the most difficult part about your job?

A: Travel takes a toll on me, but that’s me… in the entrepreneurship space, we just do it.

Q: What’s the most challenging part about your job?

A: We are trying to raise funds. Other than that, when you are a startup, you get up in the morning, solve 100 things, go to sleep, and the next day, there are another 100 things to solve. That’s the life of a startup.

Q: I notice you have an Instagram account.

A: We are on FB, IG, Twitter… also YouTube. On Facebook, we have about 500,000 likes. We don’t spend too much money getting “likes.” We don’t have the time. We rarely pay Facebook for advertising. When we do, we boost some of our posts—that’s it. 

Q: In Singapore, what are your favorite halal restaurants?

A: Zam Zam (North Bridge Road), Rumah Makan Minang (18 Kandahar Street), and Bryani Dam (Geylang Serai hawker centre).

Q: What does it meant to you to be Singaporean?

A: Singapore is a secure, unique place, with all the efficiencies of a developed city, but also multiethnic and cosmopolitan.

Q: That’s a nice description, but I was asking what it means to you to be able to call yourself Singaporean. An American might answer, “freedom.”

A: As Singaporeans, we come from an environment which is very regulated and reliable and efficient, with strong governance in the business sector. I am proud to come from a city that represents these traits.

Note: this post has been updated to correct a few errors in transcription. A reference to HalalTrip's "full board" package has also been removed. 

Monday, December 17, 2018

Paul Theroux's Deep South (2015)

I'm reading Paul Theroux's Deep South (2015) and though only halfway through, I'm already convinced Theroux has written the first Great American Novel. The scope of the work is incredible. Theroux quotes older Americans who've lived through Jim Crow and sharecropping, the illegitimate daughter of a prominent politician, and ordinary people with incredible stories, all while sharing his prodigious knowledge of other American writers. I've always said everyone has one amazing book, song, movie, or poem inside them, but I never thought much of Theroux's international writing. I suppose in some cases, it takes 75 years to midwife your great work. 

I'll leave you with one paragraph where Theroux indirectly predicts the outcome of the 2016 presidential election: "The whites felt like a despised minority--different, defeated, misunderstood, muddled with, pushed around, cheated. Blood mattered, so did history and old grievances and perceived injustices..." 
My only quibble is Theroux's repeated comparison between (inadequate) federal government funding for rural development vs. international aid. The two are not comparable. America spends less than 1% of its annual budget on foreign aid, much of it to employ American overseas workers; to gain footholds in countries that would otherwise be inclined to grant infrastructure projects to China or Japan; to keep the peace (Kosovo, Jordan, etc.); or--let's be honest--indirect bribery to gain the trust of foreign leaders who might otherwise be hostile to American interests. Though it's true the federal government funded the development of national highways, which benefited rural communities, such domestic aid was done in the national, not local, interest. Regardless of this flaw, Theroux's Deep South (2015) should be required reading in every American history college class, and its chapter on Faulkner required reading in every 12th grade English course. 

© Matthew Rafat (2018) 

Bonus I

"That seemed to be the theme in the Deep South: kindness, generosity, a welcome... I found so much of it here that I kept going, because the goodwill was like an embrace." 

“America is accessible, but Americans in general are not; they are harder to know than any people I’ve traveled among.”

“We [Americans] tolerate difference only when we don’t have to look at it or listen to it, as long as it doesn’t impact our lives. Our great gift as a country is its size and its relative emptiness, its elbow room. That space allows for difference and is often mistaken for tolerance.”

“All air travel today involves interrogation, often by someone in uniform who is your inferior.” 

"He [John Lewis] had distinguished himself by his insistence on ethical behavior in Congress--an uphill task, given the number of crooks, sneaks, junketers, opportunists, liars, tax cheats, adulterers, sexual stalkers, senders of selfies of their private parts to perfect strangers, and unembarrassed villains in that tainted assembly." 

"'The South gives indications of being afraid of the Negro. I do not mean physical fear,' Frank Tannenbaum wrote ninety years ago in Darker Phases of the South. 'It is not a matter of cowardice or bravery; it is something deeper and more fundamental. It is a fear of losing grip upon the world. It is an unconscious fear of changing status.'

Bonus II: "When will we learn that the white man can no longer afford, he simply does not dare to commit acts that the other 3/4s of the human race can challenge him for, not because the acts themselves are criminal, but simply because the challengers and accusers of the acts are not white in pigment... Have we, the white Americans who can commit or condone such acts, forgotten already how only fifteen years ago what only the Japanese, a mere 8 million inhabitants of an island already insolvent and bankrupt, did to us? How can we hope to survive the next Pearl Harbor, if there should be one, with not only all peoples who are not white but peoples whose political ideologies are different from ours arrayed against us after we have taught them, as we are now doing, that when we talk about freedom and liberty, we not only mean neither, we don't even mean security and justice and even the preservation of life for peoples whose pigmentation is not the same as ours... Because if we in America have reached that point in our disparate culture when we must murder children, no matter for what or what color, then we do not deserve to survive and probably won't." -- William Faulkner, September 6, 1955 

Thursday, December 13, 2018

Book Review: Peter Mayle's My 25 Years in Provence

If you're looking for a casual, simple read about life in a small French town, you might enjoy Pete Mayle's book, My Twenty-Five Years in Provence (2018). It's not very funny or very insightful, but it's adequate "vacation beach reading." 

Only three items stood out: 1) an introduction to pastis, a unique drink, and condiment grenobloise, "an inspired mixture of brown butter, capers, croutons, parsley, and lemon"; 2) a delightful account of Guide Dogs for the Blind for children (look up Quebec's MIRA); and 3) the following paragraph: 

The cafe is much more than just a place to get a quick cup of coffee or drink. In fact, it's a most useful and civilized compromise. More comfortable than perching on a barstool, less formal than sitting at a restaurant table, it is also a most welcoming destination for customers, who, for one reason or another, are on their own. Sitting by yourself in a restaurant goes against human nature; man does not live by eating alone. But sitting by yourself in a busy cafe, you will usually find yourself in the company of several others who, for various reasons, prefer the companionable solitude offered by a table for one.

Otherwise, expect the same tropes about small town living being slower-paced (quelle surprise!) and stores closing at 1:00pm. 

Sunday, December 9, 2018

Madakaripura Waterfall in Java, Indonesia

Madakaripura waterfall on the island of Java competes with Sipiso-piso waterfall on the island of Sumatra for title of Indonesia's #1 waterfall. I loved them both. 

Madakaripura is 3 hours' drive from Surabaya. Many visitors combine a Mt. Bromo visit with the waterfall, but you'll need an overnight stay to do this, and I didn't have the patience for such a long trip. (I'm also not sure the sulfur at the mountain is good for anyone's health.) For Madakaripura, you'll need an experienced driver who knows how to use the new toll roads/highways. Tolls *roundtrip* will total about 64,500 rupiah (about 5 USD). Parking will cost about 8,000 rupiah (less than 1 USD), and park entrance fee will be 26,000 rupiah (about 2 USD). (All numbers accurate as of December 2018.) 

I found my driver through my hotel and paid 1 million rupiah (about 70 USD, *including* gas) for up to 8 hours, with each additional hour charged at 100,000 rupiah. My roundtrip totaled about 7 and a half hours from Surabaya's city center. 

Once at the parking lot, you can hire a motorbike for between 10,000 or 15,00 rupiah (about 1 USD) to get closer to the waterfall, but I enjoyed the 4 km hike. You can hire a guide at the park entrance. My guide and I didn't agree on a price beforehand, but 100,000 rupiah was the going rate for foreigners/bules. I tipped him an additional 50,000 rupiah because he was incredible. He carried my backpack and also put my shoes under his parka to keep them dry. You don't really need a guide until the very end, when you reach the waterfall, but unless you're an expert climber, it's worth it. It's very difficult for anyone not used to climbing to get to the final (and most spectacular) waterfall on his/her own, but I saw most Indonesian teenagers able to make it. I brought my own sandals, but I also saw several touts selling them along the way. Obviously, you'll get wet, so if you bring hiking or athletic shoes, you'll need a plastic bag to protect them when you switch to sandals at the waterfall. 

Travel and Language

I love watching English-subtitled foreign films for many reasons, but specifically, it is a godsend for language acquisition. 

I just learned my favorite Bahasa Indonesian insult: goblok! (which means a fool) 

I also learned an Indonesian phrase originating from Persia: "buru buru" is borrowed from the Iranian "boroh boroh." (Hurry! vs. go, go!) 

[The movie I recently saw was a well-made comedy, Sesua Aplikasi (2018).] 

Sunday, December 2, 2018

Jepara, Indonesia

Jepara, Indonesia is known for its exquisite woodwork but not enough is written about its natural scenery. Equally suitable for raising a family and adventure tourism, Jepara has thus far managed to be a hidden gem on the island of Java/Jawa. After Medan, it is my favorite city in Indonesia. 

If you visit, you can fly into Semarang's airport (I prefer Garuda or Scoot airlines) then take a shuttle or Grab/GoJEK to Jepara. I suggest staying one night in Semarang, where you can purchase a Telkomsel SIM card (I find the app useful but also frustrating) and see the city's outdoor food markets. 
Mini-Aquarium at Pantai Kartini 
Raden Adjeng Kartini, teacher, feminist, heroine.
Died shortly after giving birth to her child.
Air Terjun Songgo Langit;
Not an impressive experience but the easiest waterfall to get to.

A small example of Jepara's woodwork. In a restaurant.
Niagara Gorge Manten aka Air Terjun Jurang Manten.
Impressive waterfall and experience. Intermediate difficulty to reach but avoid if recent rain. 
Niagara Gorge Manten aka Air Terjun Jurang Manten