culture · music · Pakistan · poetry · Uncategorized

Western dervishes whirl through Pakistan as featured in The National

Tahir Qawwal. Picture:
Tahir Qawwal. Picture:

The first thing you notice about Tahir Qawwal are is his dreadlocks – they wrap around his head to create a turban-halo effect.

Combined with his shaggy beard and Indian kurta, the 35-year-old Canadian, the lead singer of qawwali seven-piece group Fanna-Fi-­Allah, which literally translates as ‘annihilation in God’, looks the epitome of whirling-dervish chic.

The artist looks completely at ease during this small gig in western Sydney, as he belts out passionate qawwali in his western-­accented Urdu.

Qawwal’s soaring rendition, accompanied by the beating of the frenetic tabla and the harmonium piano, create a mood of ecstatic celebration as the audience chants and sways to the rhythm. The singer admits his journey to learning qawwali, the spiritual music of the subcontinent, inspired by Islam’s mystical Sufi tradition, has been an ­unlikely one.

Born Geoffrey Lyons, Qawwal left his native Canada for India as a teenager. It was there where he explored Indian classical music, renounced all his material possessions and dabbled with the idea of becoming a yogi, before converting to Islam at 17.

“I felt the deep communicative powers of music as a spiritual language and also the teaching of the Sufis and that inspiring path was also simultaneously very magnetic for me,” he says.

The journey then took Qawwal to Pakistan where he studied under Rahet Fateh Ali Khan, Pashupatinath Mishra, Sher Ali Khan and Muazzam Qawwal.

“As with anything, one step in the path leads to another and you never know where it’s going to take you,” he says. “I was really nervous and really excited to meet these people that I had idolised and have been so moved by.”

The singers took Qawwal under their wings and he spent weeks embedding himself in the spirituality and poetry of the art.

Tahir Qawwal performing in Pakistan. Picture:
Tahir Qawwal performing in Pakistan. Picture:


Describing its appeal, Qawwal – who now lives in California – says the music transcends culture, and even those who don’t understand the poetry can feel the passion of the tradition.

“It’s a music of wild abandon,” he says. “When the qawwals sing with feeling, it gets offered in a very passionate heartfelt and divine way so people feel that.”

Fani-fi-Allah ensemble. Picture:
Fani-fi-Allah ensemble. Picture:


Fanna-Fi-Allah – which has a multicultural make up, featuring three Canadians and Americans, and one Pakistani – have been together for 15 years and initially struggled to overcome their novelty status.

Judging by the quality of their debut album, Mehfil-e-saga, however, they are well on their way to challenging misconceptions. The songs have the joyous, wild enthusiasm that embodies the passion and poetry of the qawwali tradition.

Street performance. Picture:
Street performance. Picture:

Qawwal explains that the buoyant sounds reflect the hospitality he experienced during his stay in Pakistan. He hopes the music shows a different side of Pakistani culture and Islamic spirituality, often associated with extremism and violence in the western imagination.

“There’s a deep-rooted generosity there that’s connected to the culture,” he says.

Dervish stylin'. Picture:
Dervish stylin’. Picture:

As a westerner who lived in Pakistan, Qawwal explains the group were “overwhelmed by the generosity of locals” after years performing across the country.

With Mehfil-e-saga well received, Fanna-Fi-Allah are set to tour Australia, New Zealand, India, Pakistan, Indonesia and South Africa.

“We’ve been invited to play in the UAE several times but it hasn’t worked out as of yet,” he says. “I would certainly love to someday.”

•Fanna-Fi-Allah’s latest album ­Mehfil-e-saga, and single, Man ­Kunto Maula, are available on iTunes

This article first appeared in the The National on October 15, 2015. 

Amman · culture · food · travel

Food adventures in Amman



Jordanian mezze. By Huda Aziz.
Jordanian mezze. Picture: Huda Aziz.


As many who know me can attest I’m a foodie. I can be at peace anywhere in the world if I have coffee, delicious food and wifi. I’d like to share some gems that I’ve discovered so far in my first few days in Amman (thanks to the recommendations of fellow intrepid travellers).

Hashem restaurant

The go-to place for locals and starving students wanting to eat on the cheap. Hashem is a no-nonsense vegetarian restaurant in downtown Amman where it’s all about the food. The décor is sparse and the food – simple, hearty unadorned bowls of bliss. We ordered fresh hommous, fuul, pita, salad and the most crunchy and sublimely soft melt-in-your mouth falafels, swallowed down with some sugary mint tea. You need to order in Arabic and quickly as this place is packed! The best part about Hashem is the price- the bill amounted to about 6JD for the four of us ($AUS9). Yep, that’s what I’m talking about.

Hommous, pita, falafel and fuul (bean dip), salad at Hashem restaurant.
Hommous, pita, falafel, fuul (bean dip) and salad at Hashem restaurant. Picture: Huda Aziz.


Jafra café

Also in downtown Amman, this funky restaurant features a library, paintings, antiques and quotes from famous Arab activists, writers and poets including Mahmoud Darwiche and Edward Said as well as a balcony view where you can people-watch. Be careful to go upstairs from the alley into Jafra not into a restaurant looking area on the ground floor which is ahem actually a men’s bath area.


Spiral dial phone and other funky antiques at Jafra cafe.
Spiral dial phone and other funky antiques at Jafra cafe.
Books and quotes at Jafra cafe.
Books and quotes at Jafra cafe.

You can smoke an arghileh here or munch on some delicious Arab or western style food. We ate a sublime selection of hommous, fattoush salad, shish kebab, fresh pita and meatballs in tomato sauce. It’s popular with foreigners and the waiters speak English. It’s not as cheap as Hashem, but the beautifully furnished spacious interior is a great place for large groups and with our bill totalling  13 JD for two ($AUS20), it’s not too much of a hit on the wallet.

Fattoush, hommous, shish kebab at Jafra resturant, Amman.
Fattoush, hommous, shish kebab at Jafra resturant, Amman.


Down the road from Hashem’s is Habiba which sells Amman-famous kanafa (layered cheese and semolina drenched in sugar syrup). It’s sweet and savoury with the salty cheese a soft counterpart to the sweet semolina top. I’m not much of a dessert person but I’m told by connoisseurs the kanafa here is of a pretty high standard. There’s also an upstairs section open to families where large groups can sit.

Kanafa from Habibah. Picture: Huda Aziz.
Kanafa from Habiba. Picture: Huda Aziz.



A bustling two-storey establishment next door to Habiba where you can ask for an English menu and sample the traditional Jordanian dish- Mansaf, made of lamb cooked in fermented dried yogurt sauce and served with yellow rice (and the yoghurt sauce). We also try some lamb neck which just melts off the bone. They also serve dessert here including a $1 JD rice pudding topped with pistachio. The entire menu doesn’t have anything for more than $7 JD ($AUS10). Across the road you can climb the stairs to check out Darut Al-Funun, an art gallery that regularly features lectures and exhibitions from artists in residence and a second storey library  (arts in Amman deserves it’s own post).

Lamb neck, mansaf, salad and olives at Al-Quds.
Lamb neck, Mansaf, salad and olives at Al-Quds.


After you’ve finished gorging on the amazing food at these restaurants which are within walking distance of each other – don’t forget to check out the nearby downtown markets next to the Grand Husseini mosque (which has a female prayer space).  There’s gold, clothing and food souks lit up beautifully at night with low hanging lightbulbs. The food souk is filled with piles of glorious fresh fruit, dates, cheeses and olives. Wandering through the souks in the open air with the shouts of vendors and the intermittent sounds of the Adhan piercing the air is so much more of a joyful experience than passively buying groceries at Carrefour (the local chain). Best thing is you can practice your Arabic conversing with the vendors.


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Books at café

Books at café is located in the hipster central expat district on Rainbow street a short uphill walk from  central downtown Amman or Jabal Amman (mountain Amman). It’s filled with cafe, eateries, art-house cinema and galleries. At Books at cafe you’ll be greeted with the sultry tunes of Billie Holiday, spectacular second story views of Amman and can even buy a western-style weekend brunch which will take you back around 10 JD (AUS $15). Although this place is more expensive, it’s a safe place to chill for the day, find out about art exhibitions around town, catch up with people, or get your work done while sipping a refreshing mint-lemon drink. It’s a little expat-y and feels a tad formulaic but worth grabbing a coffee, checking the scenery and taking advantage of wifi.

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Anyway I’m hardly a expert, I’ve been here less than a week. So look forward to updating this section!


art · blogs · books · culture

Hottest men in fiction

(Caption: Gone with the Wind’s Rhett Butler immortalised in film by actor Clark Gable).

For those of us who spend much of their life in the imaginary land of books, it is only natural that our crushes should also be imaginary (nerdy but true).  After an extensive poll of a representative cross section of women (chatting to a few friends) I compiled a definitive list of the hottest men in fiction. If they don’t make you swoon then I don’t know who will.

Continue reading “Hottest men in fiction”

blogs · books · culture

Writers’ lives: behind the books you love

I’ve been asked to do a post on some of my favourite writers and it got me thinking about why certain books and writers are favourites of mine.

It begins by discovering something beautiful, then finding out everything at all possible about the writer. This includes memoirs, diaries, articles, hearsay, everything. I make no distinction between art and writer. If the writer does not live up to my lofty expectations of the artist either by being a swot in person or having unforgivable misdemeanor- misogyny, dullness etc they are promptly removed from my list.

This has of course led to a lot anxiety for me. V.S Naipul was once unceremoniously dropped after revelations he treated his wife badly. I couldn’t read Camus or Ted Hughes the same again without thinking about their tragic wives devastated by their infidelity.

Purists will say judge a book on its merits. I think the book is a part of the artist, and to understand the book or philosophy you need to understand the life of the artist. As Nietzsche said “All philosophy (and art) is an unconscious memoir.”

Many would disagree, saying a purely imaginative work should be enjoyed on its merits without an  unjustified intrusion into the private world of an author. And who are we to judge, for artists are no saints.  It certainly wouldn’t be a scrutiny I myself would enjoy.

But I don’t think the creative process happens in isolation and I’m always fascinated to read of the life and experiences of the writers which you know have inspired a favourite fiction creation and how it came into being.

Would the works of the Bronte sisters or Dickens be understood in isolation from their own experiences of injustice in the society of the time?  Would Oscar Wilde’s delightful extrapolations on sin and hypocrisy not be influenced his trial by Victorian  puritans on sodomy charges?

 The lines between reality and fiction can sometimes blur, and finding where the distinction is and the world that informs the artists you love helps you understand so much more about a book and its significance.

When you read a book are you curious to know more about the writer and their creative process?

From ABC bookshow blog

blogs · books · culture

Writing, procrastination and social media

I’ve commented before on the fabulousness of social media in saving the world etc and am a great fan (despite being on a protest sabbatical from spacebook) but I haven’t discussed the evil side, in particular its effect on (ahem ok I am using the word) ’serious’ reading and writing generally (at least for me).

We know social media has plenty of pros. There’s the ability to share your work and read other people’s work. There’s the feedback and interaction. There is the ability to find stories and contacts and check out trends. There is the  accessibilityand exposure to different ideas and people instantly and constantly. This should all be excellent for creativity and writing generally right?

Yes and no, for me anyway. This is where the evil side comes in. The side that cuts your attention span so that if you are not constantly bombarded with a cacaphonous stream of message relayed through various technologies you get impatient. The side that has this dumbing down effect where the more information you have, the less you know. The side where  you lazily let your opinion on a complex political or social issues  be summed up in a status update or140 character tweet (why bother writing that 1000 word feature or opinion piece I was planning when I could avail myself of such a witty and succint mode of self-expression?) Not to mention the massive waste of time spent procrastinating over the pointless and inane.

I am sure I have many detractors who will rhapsodise on the joys of debate and artistic expression running wild in the social media sphere.

I do admit there some cyber gems to be found, but with the jadedness of a true believer I can’t help feeling a little nostalgic for the days when silence from technology did not feel deafening and where thought had a depth that went in a classically linear line instead of these postmodern tangents all running into each other.

What has social media done for your writing and creativity generally?

From ABC bookshow blog