Soleil Levant

2017 has been the most (positively) life-altering year for me yet – like a rising sun or ‘Soleil Levant’ (more about this later). The last few months have been a whirlwind of change (hence the lack of blog posts). I’ve changed jobs and cities. I’ve travelled across Europe, Asia and Africa – including trips to Singapore and Denmark for the first time – and learnt new words as part of my ongoing ambitious attempt to teach myself Arabic.

I’ve been taught some unforgettable lessons this year, not least of which is that relocating to a new city is no easy task! However, what makes things much easier is moving to a lovely Scouse city, supportive and inclusive work colleagues and of course bountiful doses of humour and reality checks from good friends (you know who you are). My year – both personal and professional – could be summarised in this eloquent, brief ‘autobiography’ by Portia Nelson:

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image source: http://shanahan1.pbworks.com/f/Hole%20in%20the%20sidewalk.gif (click image to open fullsize in a new tab)

I’m currently in either Chapters IV or V in various aspects of my life – but I’m slowly getting there and learning not to make choices that only lead me into the same ‘hole in the sidewalk’. Those who know me, will agree that I certainly applied the last chapter to a key area of my life that was bringing me nothing but stress and negativity. Also during 2017, I’m happy to report that following my reflections this time last year, I proudly wore my multi-potentialite and multi-localite identity. This is something I will continue to affirm, and hopefully, might lead to some interesting blog posts in 2018, so watch this space!

On a more solemn note, one particular experience from late Summer of 2017 which will be forever etched in my memory is that of standing before Ai Weiwei’s art installation in Copenhagen. The statement about the plight of refugees evoked powerful memories of my time volunteering with the refugees in Budapest, Hungary at the peak of the Syrian crisis in 2015. Weiwei’s Copenhagen installation, named ‘Soleil Levant’ (French for Rising Sun) is inspired by Claude Monet’s 1872 painting Impression, Soleil Levant. Monet’s art depicts the harbour in Le Havre, France, at the end of the 1870-71 Franco-Prussian war, capturing the political and social reality of its time with its cranes, steamboats and industrialisation. Weiwei’s Soleil Levant draws attention to the political and social reality of today through the arrangement of 3500 used refugee lifejackets stacked on the facade of a building. The installation is particularly notable, for its location within the thriving Nyhavn district, and I found the stark contrast between the vivacious outdoor cafes on one side of the canal, and Weiwei’s sombre Soleil Levant on the other side to be a moving and poignant reminder of the vicissitudes of life. I have inserted a slideshow of some images that reflect this below.

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Weiwei’s commemoration of the refugees’ ordeals reminded me of another of my favourite artists, Nizar Ali Badr, whom I was also thrilled to see receive recognition and coverage by the BBC in 2017.  I recall writing about Badr in 2016; his works moved me then, and continue to do so today. Experiencing Weiwei’s installation first hand, seeing the marks on the life jackets, the dried sand and possible bloody stains, served to remind me of the immensity of my own blessings.

So here’s to 2018 – may it be a year in which, like a Soleil Levant, the sun rises to greet us and remind us each day to be grateful for our blessings. I leave you, dear readers of my blog, as I do each year, with an Irish blessing which is one of my favourite new year wishes:

“May there always be work for your hands to do;
May your purse always hold a coin or two;
May the sun always shine on your windowpane;
May a rainbow be certain to follow each rain;
May the hand of a friend always be near you;
May God fill your heart with gladness to cheer you.”

Saneeya Qureshi © 2017

A Celebration of the Elderly

Normally, on this blog, I like to write light-hearted pieces, or short posts about any random topic that tickles my fancy; but sometimes, a girl’s got to do what a girl’s got to do. And I cannot shy away from writing this any longer.

In Africa, where I grew up, there is an oft-used adage, “When an old person dies, a library is burnt to the ground.” This proverb has stayed with me through the years and moves me every time I think of it, because its very essence is based on the utmost respect and regard for the elderly, for the wisdom they possess, for the value of their experiences.

So today, in the spirit of the Easter holidays and commemorating the renewal of hope and life, I’d like to use this forum to celebrate the elderly: the values they stand for; the rich, cultural and familial histories they symbolize; their infinite patience and forbearance; their love for even those who are at their most unlovable; their special bonds with their grandchildren. The list is simply endless.

Indeed, such recollections remind me of various unique “only-with-the-elderly” moments in my life. Memories that I wouldn’t exchange for all the gold or diamonds in the world!

A darling Grand-Aunt has often surprised us with some astounding slips of the tongue which undoubtedly deserve a place of honour in the family hall of fame. Indeed, the family has often ended up in stitches of laughter, literally laughing till the tears flowed from our eyes, with priceless name gaffes such as Graffi Stef (Steffi Graf), Silver Stallion (Sylvester Stallone), Madeline Fullbright (Madeline Albright), not to mention a dear personal friend whose name is Arish, but is known to Grand-Aunt Dearest as “Ashar”.

Then there was the family acquaintance who was in hospital recovering from operative surgery. Grand-Aunt, ever the concerned mother-hen, called him up to enquire how his “elastoplasty” went. The patient was gracious enough to reply that all was going well. Meanwhile, myself and the rest of the family busied ourselves in prayer that his stitches wouldn’t come undone from the hysterical shock of hearing Grand-Aunt’s ‘minor’ mispronunciation of his “angioplasty” procedure. It was not an easy task, I assure you, as the image of the poor chap being constantly “twanged” with elastic bands by the nurses continuously replayed in our minds.

My all-time favourite though, has to be when Grand-Aunt was telling a friend of hers, during a serious conversation, that my mum used to be a “medieval” reading teacher. She meant remedial! – but since then, whenever I tell people about my mum’s work, I visualise her dressed up in apron-topped antediluvian clothes with a bonnet on her head, perched upon a barrel in a castle courtyard, teaching phonics to children of aristocratic knights and proletarian cottiers.

When it comes to economic issues though, no one brought a brighter smile to my face than my grandfather. For in his “real world”, his haircut used to cost a whopping thirty Rupees (equivalent to current £3)! Of course darling Grandpapa was blissfully unaware of the additional two hundred Rupees (equivalent to current £20) that my Uncle used to secretly slip to the barber. God rest both their souls in peace.

Even more amusing were the various covert acts that the family had to resort to whilst taking Grandpapa shopping. It still makes me smile to recall an incident when, as a student, I had to buy some stationery items. As luck would have it, I was accompanied by my grandfather into the shop. I tried unsuccessfully to get him interested in the various books on display, but by the time I had selected what to purchase, he was right there with me at the cash counter. Initially, I tried to make eye-signals at the shop-keeper to convey the hint that he should follow my cue. However, either the man had never seen a James Bond movie, or read a spy novel – or he thought I was making eyes at him! Literally. Actually, in hindsight, as I reflect on the episode, I fear it must have been the latter case. Oh God. The horror of it all! Poor man. Needless to say, it’s one shop that I never had the mettle to visit again.

Anyhow, as you might guess, when the actual tab was drawn up and announced in full hearing of Grandfather Dearest, his outrage lasted for quite some time. For months on end, the family was treated to the story about how “Saneeya was conned by a shopkeeper,” having paid a mind-blowing hundred and twenty Rupees (equivalent to current £12) for a set of markers (Crayola ones, mind you!) and some manilla sheets!

There are so many respects in which the elders around me have enriched my life. For me, they are a much-beloved source of strength and courage. They serve to inspire me during my own tough times and to bring out the best in me.

For every time I think of the worth of elderly persons, I feel humbled and blessed to have them around me. To me, they are indeed, one of God’s miracles. A celebration of what hopes and dreams still lie in the future. A celebration of all the goodness that still exists in this world. I salute them all!

Saneeya Qureshi © 2017

Oh, Earth!

This blog post has been inspired by Erhan Aqil Arif, the 8 year old son of dear friends of mine. Erhan wrote an eloquent poem about Earth, which he beautifully and smilingly illustrated (including a depiction of the little red planet Mars as well):

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Oh Earth – A poem by Erhan Aqil Arif (click on image for larger version to open in a separate window)

Oh Earth

Oh earth, such a beautiful planet.
Oh earth, you have big cities.
Oh earth, you have beautiful people.
Oh earth, you have beautiful, clean rivers.
Oh earth, you have boats that people can travel on.
Oh earth, you have different countries.
Oh earth, you are such a big planet that God created for me.

(Erhan Aqil Arif, Aged 8 years, January 2017)

Erhan’s poem made me reflect on two counts. The first being certain electoral events in 2016 that have resulted in political upheaval which is still rippling across the global arena in numerous respects; climate change being the primary focus of this post. Climate change pertains not just to global warming, as was the buzz term in the nineties and noughties; but to any changes and extremes (both hot and cold) in global or regional climate patterns as per the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). It is a concern so grave, that countries’ national interests have been threatened. Climate change has long been the subject of discussion as a collective action problem, a focus of celebrity cause for concern, and divested political campaigns. Sadly though, there is not much contemporary information available about children’s voice in the discussion about climate change, bar one now-defunct website for teachers about curricular activities on the subject; the 2009 Young Voices on Climate Change series; a 2014 UNICEF publication on ‘Climate Change and Children‘ and the odd scholarly article.  It is my hope that more authentic and unaffected poems such as Erhan’s, or other prose written by children about their regard for our precious planet Earth, make their way  into the minds and hearts of not just politicians and policy-makers, but the common man too, who can do his part – his little drop in the ocean – to tackle this grave issue.

The second manner in which Erhan’s poem made me reflect, was a result of Erhan’s maternal grandfather’s (his Nana’s) response to his poem. He wrote the following to his grandson in acknowledgement of his eloquent ode to Earth:

Oh Erhan, What a nice poem.
Oh Erhan,  What wonderful ideas
Oh Erhan,  keep writing
Oh Erhan,  be happy.
Oh Erhan, Nana is proud of you.

Stay blessed.

(Erhan Aqil Arif’s maternal grandfather, January 2017)

Now, I may be biased in the first instance, as Erhan is already very dear to me, when I say that I thought his poem was an excellent effort for an 8 year old, who articulately expresses the reasons why he loves the planet that he lives on. Of course, Erhan’s grandfather is also biased in his view of Erhan’s eloquence. However, the exchange above epitomises the experience that each and every child should have – the ability to express themselves, to have that expression be positively and well-received and to have future expression encouraged and supported. Erhan’s paternal grandmother too, showers him with love, support and encouragement. No matter what cultural backgrounds children come from, this manner of nurture is one that each and every child has a right to, and that they should receive, so that their self-esteem and self-confidence can be developed and enhanced during their precious formative years.

It is my hope that Erhan takes from this experience the lesson of how much value his thoughts and views, and indeed, his very existence has in this world. It is through children such as he – indeed, all children (proud Aunt alert!) including my beloved 3-month old niece Ayzah – that we adults can experience joy and positivity and follow through on emotive calls to action for a hopeful future.

Saneeya Qureshi © 2017

Life is short, make it count

A friendly recently commented about the infrequency of my posts on this blog. Once I contained my excitement of actually having a loyal reader who’d noticed this (besides my dear mum of course), I got to thinking about the reasons why I post on this blog.

It started off as an exercise in writing for a different audience to the academics whom I normally write for in my day job. Away from work, my interests are vast and varied, and cover the spectrum from languages and cultures to current affairs. That is why it was difficult to narrow down the focus of this blog. Instead, I purposely sought to maintain it as a medium through which I write on any topic that tickles my fancy. In doing so, I have written posts on topics such as the ‘Grim Reaper of Football‘; my foray into amateur vexillology; and my mock indignation at public signage in Austria.

image source:

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image source: http://qaspire.com/2015/11/09/emilie-wapnick-on-being-a-multipotentialite/ (click on image for larger version to open in a new window)

I’ve often wondered whether these diverse and varied interests (and related knowledge that I’ve subsequently picked up along the way) were a boon or a curse. This is particularly because it means that I am almost always interested in almost all aspects of new things around me – and I then absorb myself in learning as much as I can about them. A TED Talk (12:26 duration) by Emilie Wapnick, a Career Coach, celebrates the “multi-potentialite” — those of us with many interests and many interlocking potentials. Emilie’s talks resonated with me to such a degree, that for the first time in my life, I actually thought of my ‘multipotentiality’ as a unique advantage that I have; further evidenced by Tanmay Vora’s sketch (image on right) of the ‘super-powers’ that we multi-potentialites possess.

Another thing that I have learnt about myself in 2016, is that I should be proud to be a ‘multi-local’ person: a citizen of the multiple global identities in many senses. Taiye Selasi’s TED Talk (16:31 duration) on ‘Don’t ask where I’m from, ask where I’m a local‘ made me realise that it’s alright not to have a straight answer when people ask me where I am from: I was born in one country; raised in a second;  spent my teen years in a third; travelled and volunteered in a fourth; realised my strengths in a fifth; and am currently working in a sixth – and those are just countries that I identify with by virtue of having lived in them for extended periods of time. There are still even more countries, cultures (and languages) that I associate with, such as the ones where my ancestors are from; and where my personal travels take me to the most!

These two profound realisations (aka my double boons), coupled with other personal milestones for me this year, have made me realise that my mantra for 2017 will be “Life is short, make it count.” And to make one’s life count, one cannot and should not discount the attributes that make one unique. So here’s to 2017 – may it be a year of more frequent posts on this blog, and may it be the year where I proudly stand up for my multi-potentialite and multi-localite identity!

And for you, my dear readers, I think it only fitting, having recently returned from a trip to Dublin, to leave you with an Irish blessing for a happy and prosperous New Year:

“May there always be work for your hands to do;
May your purse always hold a coin or two;
May the sun always shine on your windowpane;
May a rainbow be certain to follow each rain;
May the hand of a friend always be near you;
May God fill your heart with gladness to cheer you.”

Saneeya Qureshi © 2016

The Circle of Life

One of my mother’s oft-sermonised mantras relates to not judging people by appearances. “You never know what challenges and hardships, trials and tribulations their seemingly-carefree façades may be masking,” she’d often tell my brother and I, particularly during our formative years, as we  faced struggles of varying degrees and descriptions and would often turn to her, my Uncle and my grandmother in frustration and despair. And so, we persevered. We got knocked down, but we picked ourselves back up and were sustained by those who cared. Worries and complications still abound, but we endure.

What is most interesting to me today is the circle of life as it works its way around:

Where once my mother was our pillar, we are now hers.

Where once she was a source of courage and fortitude for us, we can now be hers.

Where once those who had but few words of care, kindness or comfort, have now the time and inclination to spout platitudes and bromides, and pose unsolicited, yenta-spirited counsel.

Where once a little acorn stood its ground, and from it grew a mighty oak tree… but where once a mighty oak heaved and burgeoned; is today felled and forlorn – all in tandem with the circle of life – the most chilling reminder of all!

But as ever, any karma-related discussion with my mother results in yet another oft-quoted reminder, “Gratitude and humility – these are the two things I want my children to have learnt from me. Do not gloat; do not compare yourself with others; and do not begrudge. Embrace your blessings. Success, wealth and fame are insignificant and ephemeral.”

So I leave you with this quote from Martin Luther King  which prompted today’s blog post, catalogued from his keynote address, ‘The Three Evils in Society,’ at the 1st Annual National Conference on New Politics in 1967: “Let no man pull you so low as to hate him.” – Martin Luther King Jr (January 15, 1929 – April 4, 1968).

 Saneeya Qureshi © 2016

Stories through pebbles

A few months ago I spent some time volunteering with Syrian refugees in Budapest, Hungary. The memory of the experience is forever imprinted in my mind. So much so, that whenever I come across news to do with the refugee crises, I am compelled to read it through the lens of someone who has spent hours talking with these brave souls about their unimaginable journeys from what were once their homes and safe havens.

I recently came across the work of a Syrian artist Nizar Ali Badr. Hailing from the historical Syrian port city of Latakia, Nizar’s latest works of art are based on  pebbles and stones found in his town of residence. A recent corpus of his work is based on the theme of the Syrian refugee crisis – a  situation quite literally close to his heart.

Nizar’s work “transmits the pain of the people who have to die, to suffer, to leave the country, but also… a hope for the revival of the country, the return of human values – love, home, family.” I believe his pieces of art speak louder than words; his work is painfully accurate in its portrayals of the emotions and physical tribulations that refugees have to endure.

The incredible power of Nizar’s wordless visualisations of human suffering and migration due to war are made even more poignant by the fact that they are made from Syrian pebbles and stones.  Nizar himself is a man of a few words, saying on his Facebook page, “”I love the dust and stones from Syria. My message is a humanitarian message.”

I leave you to absorb a few of his works.

Saneeya Qureshi © 2016

For the love of flags

A recent TED talk caught my attention, primarily because the presenter is seemingly as obsessed with flags as I am. Roman Mars waxes eloquent about design concepts as applied to flags, and talks about how banners are unifying instruments which can bring groups of people together in various situations. I have always loved learning about flags and their symbolism. Growing up, one of my favourite games during long car trips with my parents and my brother, was describing and guessing flags. Another one was guessing capital cities. There was also I-spy and another favourite – adding up the numbers on car registration plates, as a competition between my brother and I to see who was fastest at mental computations (I usually lost). Suffice to say though, with such an upbringing, it’s no surprise that I’ve gone on to have a career in academia. But I digress.

Back to the topic of flags. One of the most-thumbed encyclopaedias in my house is The World Encyclopedia of Flags: The Definitive Guide to International Flags, Banners, Standards and Ensigns. I remember spending hours upon hours pouring over the fascinating world of pennants, banners, standards, ensigns, streamers, and the symbolism associated with colours, emblems, representations and images. Who knows – I might very well have possibly grown up to become a vexillologist (from the Latin word vexillum, meaning flag or banner) were it not for the innate educationist in me. Nevertheless, vexillology still remains a hobby for me, and indeed others too. There are some fascinating resources for those who might be interested in funny trivia about flags, anecdotes of flag mix-ups and world records and historical overviews of the flags of British counties. Despite the vast array of flags that we as individuals align ourselves with – be they national, civil, provincial, diplomatic, social, religious, linguistic, professional or institutional – the main representation which most of us proudly associate with, is that of the country to which we belong.

The Kenyan flag, that I am proud to represent, was officially adopted on December 12, 1963. The colour black represents the indigenous people of the Republic of Kenya, red for the blood shed during the struggle for independence, green for the country’s natural resources and fertile landscape and the white fimbriation was added later to symbolize unity, peace and honesty. The black, red, and white traditional Maasai shield and two spears symbolize the defence of all the things mentioned above. Growing up in Kenya, I fondly recall, following the offical flag-hoisting ceremony and recitation of the National Anthem, chiming in collectively with the rest of the school during Friday morning assemblies to recite the (now-withdrawn) ‘Nyayo Philosophy of Peace Love and Unity and the Loyalty Pledge‘:

“I pledge my loyalty to the President and the nation of Kenya. My readiness and duty to defend the flag of our Republic. My devotion to the words of our National Anthem. My life and strength in the task of our Nation’s building. In the living spirit embodied in our national motto – Harambee!* And perpetuated in the Nyayo** philosophy of peace, love and unity.”

*Harambee: Kenya’s national motto; Swahili for “Let us all pull together”

**Nyayo: Motto for Kenyan’s original political party, KANU; Swahili word for “footsteps”

The pledge was withdrawn after Kenya evolved into a political multi-party state in the 90s. Nevertheless, the pride and self-identity instilled in me with respect to hoisting the flag of my country, and accompanied singing of the National Anthem whilst standing at attention, remains as indomitable as ever. I leave you with a rendition of it:

Saneeya Qureshi © 2015


			

Learning a new language

A BBC item titled Language lessons ‘should aim for more than phrasebook competence’ caught my interest. The article caught my eye for a variety of reasons; firstly it’s about teaching, and secondly, because I am trying to teach myself Arabic these days. In the article, Vicky Gough of the British Council, says, “It’s really important that we don’t just teach languages in isolation, but as part of a wider cultural education.” The more I resort to a variety of language resources in my quest for basic Arabic understanding, the more I am struck by how cultural aspects impact languages.

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image source: http://www.itchyfeetcomic.com/2014/10/vanilla-arabic.html#.VQSaz47keSo (click on the image to open a larger view)

I am learning that Arabic is a very poetic and metaphorical language. Expressions of delight, for instance, can be described in a myriad of ways which actually have nothing to do with the object of delight in the first place! For example, in colloquial Levantine or Shami Arabic (my attempts to figure out which Arabic I want to learn could comically be surmised from the cartoon on the right), the transliterated phrases “aala ra’see”  (Arabic: على راسي) literally means ‘on my head’, and “aala aynee” (Arabic: على عَيني), literally translates to “from my eyes”; both are the replies oft used to mean “it’s my pleasure”, after someone thanks you for something.

I consider myself to be elementarily proficient in French. But today I learnt, after a strange look from a friend, that the meaning of the sentence “Je suis trop pleine” (I am really full) after a meal, does not have the same expression as it does in English. This is because in French, one cannot simply state that they are full. “Really now, so what are you full of?” my friend asked me with a cheeky grin. After some banter, I had to correct myself to say, “J’ai trop mangé” (I ate too much). Incidentally, in Arabic, although you can say “Ana qad aa’akl kteer” (Arabic: أنا قد أكل كثيرا) ‘I have eaten a lot’, I am told that it is more appreciated by Arabs when you say  “zaki kteer” (Arabic: زكي كثيرا) which literally means ‘very yummy’.

I am off now for a seminar about ‘School Life Experiences of Young People with Intellectual Disabilities in Columbia’. So Au revoir and “Ma’a-salaamah” (Arabic: مع السلامة) ‘see you later’ .

Saneeya Qureshi © 2015

And the most difficult language to learn is…

I am an avid reader of The Cultureist, an online global travel and culture magazine. I was recently taken aback to read that Arabic, a language of which I already possess an elementary ability to read and write (but not yet fluently comprehend or express myself with grammatical accuracy), is one of the most difficult languages to learn. According to the infographic summarising research based on sources as diverse as the Foreign Service Institute of the US Department of State, and the academically-questionable Wikipedia: Arabic, Chinese, Japanese and Korean are the most challenging to learn for native English speakers. I find this to be quite a daunting piece of information, considering that I am in the process of trying to teach myself the varied nuances of Arabic, without registering for any formal classes.

Click on the image for a larger legible version of the infographic which will open in a new page. (Source: http://static1.businessinsider.com/image/5384e031eab8ea5f2ef4b401-860-3034/voxy%20language%20graphic.png)

I possess relative fluency in Urdu, which is similar to Hindi, and therefore, by default, I maintain my ability to converse comfortably in both languages. I also have a basic knowledge of French. However, looking up these languages on the infographic, led me to an interesting observation: all the ‘hard’ and medium’ difficulty languages include those that have a different script to the English alphabet. This was followed by another thought – if this is an infographic about language difficulties for English-speakers, then what would a similar infographic look like, for say Urdu speakers? Or Turkish speakers? Or Chinese speakers?  If anyone can point me in the direction of such a resource, I would be most grateful.

Having grown up in Kenya, I speak Swahili, so I thought I would end this post with a Swahili phrase that even you – yes you! – dear reader of my blog, know and understand. After all, practically everyone has watched the Hollywood animated movie, ‘The Lion King’, so I leave you with an excerpt of these lyrics to usher in the New Year:

Hakuna Matata! What a wonderful phrase

Hakuna Matata! Ain’t no passing craze

It means no worries for the rest of your days

It’s our problem-free philosophy

Hakuna Matata!

It means no worries for the rest of your days

And with that, I take this opportunity to wish you and yours a happy and peaceful holiday season.

Saneeya Qureshi © 2014

“My grandfather is as cool as Beyoncé”

I have just finished watching a TED Talk by Vincent Moon and Naná Vasconcelos, about ‘Hidden music rituals around the world’. In it, Vincent gives an eloquent exposition of how he is able to capture unique and emotive musical performances. These range from a powerful Sufi ritual in Chechnya to a hallucinogenic ayahuasca journey in Peru.

Through the lens that he brings to these vocal and visual displays, he says, “I just want to represent them in a beautiful light. I just want to portray them in a way that their grandchildren are going to look at their grandfather, and they’re going to be like, “Whoa, my grandfather is as cool as Beyoncé.” To substantiate this, Vincent’s talk was then followed by a captivating musical performance by the internationally-renowned Brazilian musician Naná Vasconcelos. I leave you with an sampling of his enthralling and culturally uplifting music, ‘Batuque nas Águas’:

“Batuque nas Águas” by Naná Vasconcelos

As a postscript, I must add that I have endeavoured to find a non-youtube link for this post, as I was reminded yesterday that youtube is still banned in a number of countries. Whilst, I find it disturbing to hear of such a useful site being censored, I must admit that I’m thrilled about my viewership coming from all over the world! Thank you for your feedback about my blog. Please keep your comments coming in as I strive to improve my writing.

Saneeya Qureshi © 2014