Kimchi in Korea

By Shams Ahsan

What comes to mind when we think of Korea? Electronic brands such as Samsung and LG, automobile giants like Hyundai, Kia and Daewoo, emotional reunions of divided relatives living north or south of the demilitarized zone, and — of course — Psy of Gangnam style!

My knowledge of the Republic of Korea was also restricted to only these things. This is a country too far east to be on the itinerary of many tourists from this part of the world.

But as they say, the proof of the pudding is in the eating, and so is the beauty of Korea in experiencing it firsthand.

November is the best time to visit Korea as nature presents itself in its full splendor: Flowers are in bloom, weather is pleasant, and the trees are all shades of color as the leaves are bright yellow, blood red and stained brown.

Despite the common perception that Koreans are impatient (“pali pali” as foreigners teasingly tell them), I found them very patient — at least on the roads — as the traffic in Seoul, which is a heavily congested city, always moves at a snail’s pace. This seemed alien to me as road rage is a common site in Jeddah where traffic is chaotic.

Koreans love their cuisine, a main dish which is mostly a rice preparation and a number of side dishes which are mostly fermented.

“Koreans developed the art of fermented cuisine because of climatic conditions and the country’s landscape,” Vivian Han, the owner of a ritzy ethnic Korean restaurant in Seoul’s Palace-gil Junggu, told me over a lunch of pine nut soup, grilled chicken, kimchi and cinnamon ice cream.

I was surprised to hear from Vivian, whose restaurant was selected by the Wall Street Journal as one of the best, that “earlier it was a taboo to serve Korean food to foreigners.”

But that was in the past. Today Korean dishes like kimchi, bulgogi, and bibimbap are world famous. So is Korean street food and herbal teas which are soothing and refreshing.

Sandwiched between two giant neighbors — Japan on the east and China on the west — Korea has managed to outgrow their shadow. This peninsular country with rolling hills and flowing rivers has set its sight on the future while preserving its past.

To glimpse the future, enter Samsung D’light — which stands for digital light. Located in Seocho-Daero, Seocho-gu, Samsung D’light is an exhibition space which “places you at the center of a whole new world.” “Live Your Tomorrow” shows you a futuristic living room, a kitchen which is an interactive space, and a dressing room mirror which turns into a screen with Wi-Fi connectivity.

Not to be left behind is Hyundai with its studio in Eonju-ro, Gangam-gu, where gurus — yes, senior marketing executives are called gurus here — show you the future auto technology. The five-story studio is made of environmentally-friendly metals. It houses a library, a cafe, an interactive giant screen, and a creche for the children of visitors.

But places like Insa-dong Street, Furniture Museum and Gyeongbokgung Palace put a brake on your flight of fantasy, and transport you back in time to the past.

A leisurely stroll along Insa-dong Street from the Jongno 2-ga to Anguk-dong intersection gives you an insight into the rich Korean culture and heritage through antique shops, art galleries, folk handicraft stores, traditional tea houses and Korean writing brush and paper stores.

Korea is not only about electronics and automobile giants, it has also made its mark through advances in the cosmetics and healthcare fields.

Arabs and US celebrities as well as patients with slim hopes of survival fly to Korea for advance medical care.

“Korea excels in robotic and laparoscopic surgeries as well as minimum procedure surgery,” Dr. Joong Haeng Choh, Director of the International Healthcare Center at Seoul National University Bundang Hospital, told me during my visit to the 1400-bed hospital in Bundang.

The Seoul National University Bundang Hospital has a tie-up with Mayo Clinic Cancer Center, and it manages the Sheikh Khalifa Hospital in UAE.

On my return from Korea, I was told by my friends that Korean TV soaps are gaining popularity in Indian and Pakistani homes. It was also a revelation for me to learn that many Bollywood hits have been copied from famous Korean songs.

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A slice of Muslim life in the heart of Seoul

Shams Ahsan
Saudi Gazette

The aroma of Arab food permeates the atmosphere, restaurants displaying halal food banners are everywhere, women wearing hijab and men with beards are seen walking in the streets. There are shops offering Haj and Umrah tours.

At first sight, you feel that you are in some Arab or Muslim country, but the neon signs and display boards tell you otherwise. This is the Itaewon area in Seoul, a predominantly Muslim neighborhood.

The Korean Tourism Organization is promoting this part of the city to attract tourists from Muslim countries.

“Tourists from the Arab region are a big draw for us,” Jaesung Rhee, executive vice president for international tourism, told Saudi Gazette over lunch in one of the halal food restaurants in the area.

Just a few yards from the restaurant is the Central Seoul Mosque, an imposing structure which also houses the Prince Sultan Islamic School.

It was Friday so the area was bustling with Muslims: Koreans and foreigners.

There are 35,000 ethnic Korean Muslims, A Rahman Lee, Ju-Hwa, imam of the mosque run by the Korea Muslim Federation, told Saudi Gazette.

There are 15 mosques and 60 musallals (makeshift mosques) in South Korea, where Islam came just after the Korean War, the imam said.

After the Korean War, Turkish soldiers were posted to the region as peacekeepers in 1955. They introduced Islam to Koreans.

Slowly and gradually Islam spread in Korea where about 50 percent of the people say that they do not follow any religion.

Most of the youngsters that Saudi Gazette met in Seoul said that they have no religious beliefs.

Hwang, Jeong Ho, who works at the AJU News Corporation, said he used to practice Christianity, but now he does not follow any religion. The same was the case with Jae Yoon Lee, an interpreter and a translator.

Imam Lee, who himself embraced Islam in 1985, said that before Muslims came to Itaewon, the area was notorious for illegal and illicit activities.

“Alhamdulillah, now the Itaewon-ro (street) and most of the surrounding areas like Yongsan-gu, Jongno-gu, etc. are clean of any bad elements,” he said.

The Korea Islamic Foundation, which was registered in 1967 with the Ministry of Culture and Sports, runs a madrasa, has Shariah and halal committees and translates and prints Islamic books.

It also runs the Prince Sultan Islamic School which was opened in 2000 with money donated by the late Crown Prince Sultan Bin Abdul Aziz.

Today, some 65 students attend the school, says Imam Lee, who graduated in Arabic language and Islamic studies from Madinah Islamic University in 1985.

The Korea Muslim Foundation has also been authorized by the government to issue halal certification to restaurants and butcher shops.

However, there are no official halal slaughterhouses in Korea, said Kim Jin Woo, general manager of the Korea Institute of Halal Industry.

Most of the halal meat is imported from Australia and New Zealand, said Kim, who embraced Islam a month ago at the ripe age of 60.

Kim, who now calls himself Muhammad Ibrahim, has been actively involved in promoting the halal industry. He has even registered the Korea Institute of Halal Industry with the agriculture ministry.

He is focusing on developing a three-step halal system where in the first category a restaurant or a business has halal certification, in the second a restaurant or a business offers halal assurance and in the third at least the owner is aware of halal food and standards.

He expects such a halal standard to be in place within two to three years.

Kim spent many years in Malaysia and was impressed by the equality and fairness in Islam. He was studying the religion, but took the decision to embrace it only a month ago. He said that he has not disclosed this to even many of his family members, including his daughter and parents.

Islam in Korea is still in a nascent stage, only 0.25 percent of the population follow Islam. Outside Itaewon, Islam does not have a presence. Most Koreans are not even aware of halal food and standards. Koreans have no preconceived notions. So they are very open to beliefs which are new to them. Islam definitely seems to have a promising future in the Republic of Korea.

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yoga in Saudi Arabia

By Shams Ahsan

Saudi Arabia hosts the first internationally recognized body in the Gulf region on yoga, an ancient Indian art of healthy living.

The Arab Yoga Foundation was established in 2010 by Saudi yogacharya (certified teacher) Nouf Al-Marwaai, a Saudi Muslim woman.

Nouf started practicing yoga in 1998 when she was 18 years old. She was certified as a yoga teacher in 2005. Since then she has been associated with yoga.

Her personal journey into yoga began when she was sick and having problems with her joints.

“I wanted to practice something that could help me move slowly and gently. We were then living in Riyadh and it wasn’t easy to find yoga teachers or places to teach yoga. I knew about yoga from a small book my dad had from one of his trips. My dad was the founder of the Martial Arts Federation in Arab countries and we were exposed to such practices from the East,” Nouf told me on the sidelines of a yoga seminar in Jeddah.

She has taught yoga to around 8,000 students since 2005 and certified more than 150 yoga teachers since 2009.

There are five recognized yoga schools in Saudi Arabia, offering specialized classes in various forms of yoga. For example, the Mawada Yoga school in Jeddah teaches Vinyasa or flow yoga. The Yoga in Jeddah school offers classes on Hatha and prenatal yoga. The Indigo Yoga Center in Riyadh offers Hatha, Vinyasa, pre- and postnatal yoga classes. Jeddah Yoga Club offers workshops and training on meditation techniques. Mahayana Yoga offers workshops on yoga related topics.

It is gratifying to know that today yoga, the over 6,000-year-old Indian practice of healthy living, has moved from the monasteries and sylvan solitudes to studios and workshops in modern metropolises. Western countries have adopted it and so have many people in Muslim countries.

Yoga is the sublime result of the combination of meditation and calisthenics. Meditation goes beyond the narrow bounds of semantics. It’s a form of relaxation.

The Arab Yoga Foundation defines yoga as a lifestyle and a means of healing and therapy.

It is a misconception to link yoga to Hinduism or to consider it as an exclusive feminine exercise.

According to Nouf, there are many exercises Muslims can practice in yoga.

“In yoga there are many styles and schools. Yoga is not just surya namaskar! There are many athletic sequences and postures which are also practiced in physiotherapy as therapeutic exercises.”

“I have been taught yoga and Ayurveda by Muslim teachers in India,” Nouf adds.

At the seminar, Dr. Mahroof Mohideen, a practicing gynecologist who embraces alternative medicine and yoga in his allopathic practice, advocated regular practice of this ancient form of exercise as it harmonizes body and mind.

“Though I’m an allopathic doctor, I ask all to do yoga as it is one of the best alternative medicines. It helps as a preventive measure by enhancing one’s immune system, while keeping a person fit,” Mahroof said.

He said that there is an analogy between the postures of yoga and the actions when Muslims pray. “The gentle movements in our prayers is similar to the movements in yoga, for example our ruku, sajdah are similar to some yoga postures,” Dr. Mahroof said.

People like Nouf and Dr. Mahroof have done a lot to remove misconceptions about yoga. But much more needs to be done for all to benefit from this ancient form of exercise that has been proven to have definitive health benefits.

Look at any literature or brochure promoting yoga, and you will invariably find a woman — in many cases a Western woman — performing various asanas or postures. Yoga has been wrongly associated with women so much so that Patrick Broome, the yoga coach of the last World Cup winning German soccer team, reportedly found many team members embarrassed to join yoga classes, thinking it was a feminine activity.

The UN’s declaration of the International Day of Yoga on June 21 could not have come at a more appropriate time.

— The writer is Managing Editor at Saudi Gazette, Saudi Arabia’s leading English daily. He can be reached at

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A virtual journey to the time of the Prophet

By Shams Ahsan
Saudi Gazette

JEDDAH — Travel a few kilometers to Makkah and you are transported 1,400 years back to the time of Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him).
This journey has been made possible thanks to the tireless efforts of Dr. Nasir Al-Quraishi Al-Zahrani, a Saudi businessman, who spent seven years writing a 500-volume encyclopedia on the Prophet (pbuh). Two years ago, he opened an information center-cum-museum based on his research work.
The word museum conjures up an image of a place where antiques are kept in glass cases. But the Assalmu Alaika Ayyuha Annabi project museum located in Makkah’s Al-Naseem district is different, because it uses modern technology to bring to life even the minutest details from the time and life of the Prophet (pbuh). The only sources of this information center-cum-museum have been the Holy Qur’an and the authentic Sunnah.
As you enter the museum a giant screen welcomes you with a description of the formation of this planet and the objective behind it.
Another screen describes more than 20,000 attributes of Allah as mentioned in the Holy Qur’an. An electronic display adjacent to this screen, mentions the 18,000 references on Allah’s oneness as mentioned in the Holy Qura’n.
“Feel as if the Prophet (pbuh) is with you,” says Yasir Abdul Mohsin, a PR executive at the Assalmu Alaika Ayyuha Annabi project.
It is difficult to ignore his words because the ambience is awe-inspiring. Cool, dark rooms and digitized presentations about things associated with the Prophet (pbuh) make you overwhelmed as if you were in the presence of the Apostle of Allah.
In the center of a hall are kept giant models of Makkah and Madinah as they existed during the time of the Prophet (pbuh). Yasir taps the computer screen outside the glass case, and a model of the Kaaba lights up. One more tap, and small bulbs start flickering around the place where the Prophet (pbuh) lived in Makah. With each tap on the screen, an important landmark of Makkah starts glimmering. The same happens with the model of Madinah.
A map on a wall shows the path the Prophet (pbuh) took to walk six kilometers everyday from the house of Khadīja Al-Kubra (may Allah be pleased with her) to Jabal Al-Nur and climb 200 meters to enter the Hira Cave.
As you move through the rooms looking at giant electronic screens, you feel as if chapters from the life of the Prophet (pbuh) are opening up. You enter a virtual garden of the Prophet (pbuh), where more than 50 family trees describe all the relatives of the Prophet (pbuh).
A family tree lists all the prophets mentioned in the Holy Qur’an, starting with Prophet Ibrahim (peace be upon him). An electronic screen mentions all those who helped and worked with Prophet Muhammad (pbuh). Another screen lists and describes all the activities — about 10,000 — the Prophet (pbuh) did during his lifetime and the things he will do on the Day of Judgement. Touch the screen, and it tells you that the Prophet (pbuh) will do 200 things on the Day of Judgement as mentioned in the Holy Qur’an and Sunnah.
Yet another screen mentions the 600 attributes of the Prophet (pbuh) and lists the 4,000 times the Holy Qur’an mentions the Prophet (pbuh).
Screen after screen describes various facets from the life and time of Prophet Muhammad (pbuh).
Standing out are those screens which mention the daily routine of the Prophet (pbuh). About 100 routines are mentioned in detail: What time he slept, what dreams he saw, what he did at home, etc.
Another screen gives the most detailed written description of the body of the Prophet (pbuh). Each body part is mentioned on the screen, such as the eye, eyelids, eyebrows, etc. Touch the screen to know the details of a particular body part, and a new window opens.
In a hall are kept replicas of the things the Prophet (pbuh) used everyday: a three-liter pot which the Prophet used to take a bath, a one-liter pot for ablution, body armor, kitchen utensils, etc.
A 3D display shows the interior of the house of the Prophet (pbuh) in Madinah.
At the end of the hallway is a dark room, giving the feel of a theater. The giant screen displays in 3D format the various departments and ministries during the time of Prophet Muhammad (pbuh).


Man with a mission

Dr. Nasir Al-Quraishi Al-Zahrani is a man with a mission. He spent seven years writing a 500-volume encyclopedia on the Prophet (pbuh), each volume containing 500 pages.
In the Assalmu Alaika Ayyuha Annabi project museum is a room where stacks of pages of the manuscript are kept in a glass case. Dr. Nasir scribbled notes wherever he was. So there is a Turkish airline flyer
with notes written on it, a Marriott hotel notepad etc. There are more than 250 pens used by the author while writing the encyclopedia.
He has signed a contract with King Saud University to translate the encyclopedia into 10 different languages, starting with English.
“I wanted to present Sirat Nabi (character of the Prophet (pbuh)) in the light of the Holy Qur’an and authentic Ahadith (sayings and teachings of the Prophet (pbuh)). I never thought that this would turn into a huge project,” Dr. Nasir told Saudi Gazette.
After finishing the encyclopedia, Dr. Nasir launched the Assalmu Alaika Ayyuha Annabi project, which today runs a museum, a television channel and a huge library containing more than 20,000 books to date.
The library, which is still in its nascent stage, has everything written on the Prophet (pbuh) in any language.
Dr. Nasir is planning to open 20 branches of the museum. Dubai already has a branch.
Adjacent to the museum in Makkah is the multi-story headquarters of the Assalmu Alaika Ayyuha Annabi project where more than 200 staff of various nationalities are employed. Dr. Nasir himself spends all his time in his room here. He even sleeps and eats here. He has dedicated his full time to the research work.
“Allah has selected me for this project,” he said, adding that all Muslims will benefit as they will get to know the true Islam.
“We will prove that Islam is a religion of peace and not of terrorism. We will rectify the negative image of Islam as being projected by deviants today,” said Dr. Nasir.
“Muslims mistakenly think about Sirat Nabi as relating to war and war booties. The fact, however, is that in his life of 13 years in Makkah, the Prophet (pbuh) never picked up even a stick. He spread the religion through his manners and etiquette.”

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A rhapsody for BJP doesn’t mean a requiem for Congress


In India, this is a time for eulogizing the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). But a rhapsody for the  BJP doesn’t mean a requiem for Congress. So I am going to script a different narrative here. I am going to write a prologue for Congress at a time when everyone has written its final chapter.

Yes, it’s a prologue, because Congress has to turn the page and start a new chapter. Gone are the days of parties with cadres at grassroots levels. Indian elections are no longer party-based. Now they are more on the pattern of a US presidential poll which is personality-centric.

Take Narendra Modi out of the BJP, and the party loses its face. The problem with Congress was that it fought against the BJP’s cult figure Modi in an old-fashioned way. It was like racing against a Ferrari with a chariot. Ironically, the chariot used to be the symbol of the BJP. Today, they have jettisoned it to adopt a modern and advanced vehicle called a ballyhoo running on the gasoline of marketing, PR and social media.

The party ignored the displeasure of its old guard and selected a face which was new and fresh on a national level. The party’s think-tank knew that this was the face that would launch a thousand ships and burn the proverbial tower of Delhi. What was required was to project this face as larger than life as happens in movies. The party successfully utilized all the modern tools of technology to chisel out a figure which towered above everything else, even the party to which it belonged. Thus was created a persona called Narendra Modi. People willingly suspended disbelief and saw in Modi, a redeemer.

If Congress is to rise like a phoenix from the ashes, then it should find a personality which can dwarf that of Modi. The process should start now. The party will be wasting its time if it listens to its old guard and again adopts the old ways of developing its grassroots cadre. Unlike the BJP, Congress already has a grassroots presence all over India. But the popularity and hype around one person enabled the BJP to get a foothold in  the northeast and in the south where it never had any presence. Does this mean that the BJP developed a cadre across India in just five years or that Congress lost its cadre base? No. It means the pyramid of election politics has been turned upside down.

The process of revamping Congress should begin with Sonia Gandhi making way for a non-Gandhi president of the party. Manmohan Singh could be a good choice. The second phase would be to push Priyanka Gandhi into active politics after, of course, wiping the stain of the Vadra scam from her sari’s hem. The third stage: Project her as a reincarnation of Indira Gandhi. Fourth stage: Engage with urban youth through the modern means of communication, create a media hype, project her as larger than life.

India is a country which loves cult figures. If Congress ruled the country for most of its post-independence years, it was because it had towering personalities like Pandit Nehru and Indira Gandhi. The era of unstable governments based on cobbled together coalitions began once Nehru and Indira were gone from the scene. But a reminder of the personality-centric nature of Indian voters occurred in 1999 when the BJP’s legend Atal Behari Vajpayee led his party and its coalition partners to a thumping victory.

Modi’s resounding election triumph has reiterated the fact that Indian voters are enamored of personalities.

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Being Indian is out of fashion: Tom Alter

Being Indian is out of fashion: Tom Alter

Shams Ahsan
Saudi Gazette

JEDDAH – His grandparents came to India in 1916 from Ohio as American missionaries. He was born in Mussoorie, now in Uttarakhand, when an independent India was just three years old. The year he was born, India became a republic. So, in a way, he has grown with India.

Tom Alter – actor, theater artist, sports writer and commentator, and above all an intellectual – is the true personification of India.

But as much as he loves the country which his parents opted to make their home, he feels sad at things that happened during the last few decades in India.

“We have gotten into a phase of arrogance,” he told Saudi Gazette in an interview here Saturday evening as he rehearsed for the solo performance of the play “Maulana Azad”.

“It’s out of fashion now to say that one is Indian. Nobody says that I am an Indian. I have not heard a politician say that I am an Indian first. They say that I am from this state, from this caste, this community. Who is the last one who said that I am an Indian. If you say that you are an Indian you are going to lose the next election.

“When was the last time (Narendra) Modi said he is an Indian.”

Tom, who speaks impeccable Urdu, says that India needs reconciliation like the one Nelson Mandela did in South Africa.

“All the old problems of color, caste and religion have sprung up again in the last 10-15 years. Our politicians are using these problems to the hilt.

 I think that Nehru, Gandhi, (Sardar) Patel and Maulana (Azad) must be weeping that all those things that we wanted you to stop doing, that our Constitution declared illegal; you went back to them, most of them in the name of politics. You take any survey in any city now, you will find that it is divided into castes, sub-castes etc.”

Tom has harsh words for politicians: “It’s sad that politicians have used democracy for power. Democracy in their opinion is based on dividing people for votes. No one is looking at the bigger perspective that the world is much bigger than just your community.”

But the way out, in Tom’s mind, is the next election. “The people who say such things, we must beat them in the next election. It has very much happened in the past. In 2004, one particular party thought that they have got India by the neck, that party was thrown out. Now for 10 years another party has been doing what they liked. They are going to be thrown out.”

Tom does not mince words and he is as forthright in his views as he is in his dialogue deliveries. “The established parties are not going to win all the seats. It’s going to be spread all over the place because people are sick and tired. It’s going to be a hung parliament,” he says.

But doesn’t a hung parliament mean instability?

“Instability is much better than some hard-headed fanatics running the country,” comes the reply.

Tom, who has presented the solo performance of the play “Maulana Azad” in different parts of the world, feels it a great honor and a great challenge to be performing in Saudi Arabia where Maulana Azad was born.

But there has been a particular occasion when the play was banned in Gujarat. Recounting the incident, Tom says, “We were to perform at Malika Sarabhai’s theater. She got a notice from the police that the play was a threat to communal harmony. The reason why it was a threat was it promotes communal harmony. And certain people don’t want that. People said, ‘Tom don’t feel discouraged because if someone feels that its a threat it means it is very powerful’.”

Keeping the audience engaged for more than two hours with a solo performance must be a big challenge for any artist?

“I am very lucky that I have a very strong partner on stage, and that is the script. Dr. M. Sayeed Alam, scriptwriter and director of the play, researched this for five years based on personal observations, his own thoughts on history, interviews with people who knew Maulana.”

But is theater losing its appeal in the age of soap operas and reality shows? Tom doesn’t agree.

“I am doing six to seven shows every month, and the response we get is tremendous. If you give people good plays they will come and watch. The interest, the passion is there. Theaters in many languages in India is booming.

“In the last 10 years, when people got a little bit bored of television, they have come back to theater. The last 10-15 years have been very healthy for theater in India. I insist on playing original Indian plays.”

Tom has been addressed as the blue-eyed man of Bollywood. This is literally true, because as an Indian of Western descent he has azure eyes. But is this expression figuratively true? “I have gotten far more than I ever dreamt of. My eyes are blue, I can’t hide that fact. My appearance was not a hindrance. I got many roles because of my Western appearance. Its not a hindrance, it’s a help. I worked with all top Hindi film directors in the last 40 years. I am very proud that out of the 100 years of Indian cinema I have been there for 40 of them.”

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interview with AMU VC

AMU plans to have separate hostels for NRI children’

Shams Ahsan
Saudi Gazette

JEDDAH – He is a man with a mission and a vision. Years of military service have hardened him and made him a tough taskmaster, a disciplinarian and a believer in action rather than rhetoric.

Lt. Gen. (Rtd) Zameeruddin Shah, who took part in the battle of Longewala in the Indo-Pak war of 1971, is today fighting a different battle as the vice chancellor of India’s premier Aligarh Muslim University (AMU).

His mission: To revive the glory of AMU and restore its minority character. His vision: To make AMU the best university in India by 2017 and among the 200 best in the world by 2020.

This is a Herculean task considering the fact that AMU is ranked ninth among top 10 institutions of higher learning in India, according to a latest survey by the Times Higher Education Magazine, UK.

But to achieve his aim Shah has been globetrotting of late, generating funds and reestablishing ties with AMU alumni, who euphemistically and nostalgically address themselves as old boys.

“The central grant is enough to keep your head above the water. We have received a special grant of Rs150 crores (Rs1,500 million) from the government this year. But if we are going to march forward we need an immense infusion of funds,” he told Saudi Gazette in an exclusive interview here on Monday evening. “It’s payback time,” he has been telling the alumni. And the alumni are paying back.

“We have got permission to generate funds through Non-Resident Indians (NRIs),” Shah says, clearing all doubts about the legality of generating funds and maintaining transparency. “The AMU Alumni Fund has got all the clearance. It is directly under the vice chancellor. It is managed by the pro-vice chancellor and the registrar. All contributions are acknowledged and put on the website. The expenditure too will be put on the website. All of this will be open for the alumni to examine, so there will be total transparency,” he said.

Shah is also receptive to the problems of Gulf NRIs, who lack proper higher education avenues for their children in their countries of work. “I quite understand the problem. There are children of blue collar workers who are deserving but certainly cannot pay the NRI fee. I am going to have another look at this. I think we need to reexamine it,” Shah said, and suggested the establishment of what he called a “sliding scale” of fee structure.

“We can have a sort of a sliding scale depending on the income of the NRI parents. A sliding scale would be more practical. But reducing the fees totally to what the students in India are paying will deprive AMU of a lot of funds which the NRIs are contributing.

“In addition, we are trying to attract NRI students. I think the factor that acts as a deterrent is the fact that we don’t have an NRI hostel. Now I am aware that NRI students are used to a higher standard of living and the present scale of accommodation really would not suit them.”

Shah also acknowledged that NRIs have problems of attendance because of iqama-related issues. “We will try and have all payments and all applications online. The request has also come, and we are examining whether we should have one or two examination centers in the Gulf. We are in the process of trying to help our NRIs in whatever way we can.”

The vice chancellor also wants to reopen the AMU center in Dubai. “I am going to examine why it was closed. There is a lot of resistance to opening AMU centers, even the ones we opened in India have faced  considerable resistance. It wouldn’t be a bad idea to open AMU centers in the Gulf. I will have a look at it. I am open to it.”

Shah also wants to revive ties with the Gulf. “We are going to make protracted efforts to reestablish links with the authorities in the Gulf and I hope that because of our concerted efforts we will be able to have many more visits.

“So far we have been concentrating only on universities in the West. But after my visit, I realized that universities in the Gulf are among the top universities of the world, and we should open our windows to them. So I think students and faculty members of both AMU and the Gulf will benefit greatly if we have student-to-student contact. So we are on the verge of launching our efforts to have MOUs and understandings with universities in the Gulf. We should take advantage of the fact that they have modernized very, very quickly within a period of 10 years.” Shah is straightforward and forthright when he lists the shortcomings of AMU, something which most people shy away from.

“Our standard of research has fallen. It is not productive. It is just paperwork. We need to make our research more productive according to the requirements of  industry. Our departments have to spearhead new medical and agricultural revolutions.

“We have an acute shortage of teachers. In some cases there has been no general selection committee for 15 years. As a result, departments are dependent on temporary teachers called guest faculty. They are selected every year. We need to draw the best talent. Since the guest faculty tenure is only one year, it attracts only locals.

“Our classrooms are antiquated. We are still at the chalk-and-blackboard stage. We are making attempts – at least this academic session – to create 100 smart classrooms. We have to improve the standard of students who enter the university.”

But Shah does not fully agree that inbreeding is a major problem. “It certainly affects us, but it should not be taken as a major problem. We have to be selective. We have to maintain certain academic standards. We are not going to allow the recruitment of ill-equipped teachers.” Then he lists the things he has done since assuming office some 18 months ago.

“We have also introduced the semester system for every course. This has helped in improving academics and attendance.

“For the last 18 months, the university has not been closed for a single day. There have been no strikes except for some little problems with the doctors who were roughed up by patients. The university has functioned unhindered. We had the convocation after many, many years. We have been able to establish the rule of law. The days of “sine dies,” closures and police action in the university are over. We have been able to rid the hostels of a few illegal elements.”

One of the major tasks of the vice chancellor is to decongest the hostels, which have the capacity to accommodate 6,000 students but are housing more than 15,000.

“There are two hostels on the cards: a girls hostel with a capacity to house 1,500 students, and a boys hostel accommodating 1,000. This will take at least two years.

“We aim to get the girl students into the campus because they are living in the city. It is unsafe for them to travel through some of the notorious stretches.”

Talking about AMU’s centers in minority pockets of India, Shah said that efforts are being made to upgrade these centers into full-fledged universities. The Ministry of Minority Affairs is looking to open six central universities in minority areas. The Maulana Azad Fund will financially support these universities. I have offered three centers to be upgraded.

The university is also planning to open new faculties like the Faculty of International Affairs with departments of strategic affairs, the conservation of energy, and foreign languages where Chinese, German, French Turkish and Hebrew will be taught, Shah said as he prepared for his trip to Tabuk, yet another stop in his hectic itinerary.

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