Here & there: Haunted hotel, single begums — III —Razi Azmi - Wednesday, March 21, 2012

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The ladies section in the front part of Pakistani buses resembles a cage in a Third World zoo, complete with iron grills and nets, in full view of men at the back

There is a certain strangeness or, should I say, familiarity about Mississauga. Here, a mere 30 km from Toronto, one has to wait long to see a person of European descent. Judging by the crowds, Mississauga does not look western at all. One could be excused for thinking that one is in South Asia. Until recently, there were so many Pakistani and Indian women in Mississauga minding the children and biding their time to earn Canadian citizenship, while their husbands worked in the Middle East to earn petro-dollars that some Pakistanis jokingly referred to the place as Begumpura.

Toronto is a fine city with many attractions, though I find Montreal and Ottawa, both of which I visited on an earlier trip many years ago, more attractive. On that visit, I also went to Montebello and Kingston. Montreal is the largest city of the French-majority province of Quebec. Owing to a significant secessionist sentiment there, two referendums were held on the issue of independence from Canada, in 1980 and 1995. In the latter, the secessionists lost by the thin margin of 49.4 percent to 50.6 percent.

If only the pro-independence forces had asked Pakistan’s formidable ISI for assistance, they might have won the vote by a big margin! Or, they could have sought help from the then Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak, but that would have been a risky gamble. There is an Egyptian joke that Vladimir Putin asked Mubarak for advice in winning an election with the kind of majority that Mubarak always got but which eluded Putin despite his best efforts. The veteran Egyptian leader obliged by providing the Russian president some of his own election officials. But, when the results were out, Putin was furious. Only 3 percent had voted for him. No less than 97 percent of Russian votes had been cast for Hosni Mubarak! 

In the capital of Canada, where fair and free elections are taken for granted, I had the pleasure of staying at the Chateau Laurier Hotel, whose grandeur is tinged with a little mystery. A mere twelve days before the railway chief Charles Melville Hays was to open it on April 26 1912, he perished aboard the RMS Titanic when it sank. That explains why this magnificent Ottawa hotel is believed by some to be haunted. Some guests have reported seeing the ghost of Hays, hearing eerie sounds and feeling unexplained shaking, while others have claimed a feeling of “being watched”. I saw nothing, heard nothing and felt nothing. But then I am always sceptical of supernatural or paranormal tales. 

The quaint village of Montebello in western Quebec, where I had the pleasure of attending an academic conference many years ago, is famous for the Château Montebello resort, said to be the largest log structure ever built. The retreat stands on 65,000 acres of forested wildlife sanctuary and 70 lakes on the shore of the Ottawa River, between Ottawa and Montreal.

On the bus to Montebello from Montreal, when I hopped forward from a back seat to a vacant front seat for a better view, I had rude words addressed to me by a white country man seated there. I didn’t mind much sitting next to him as long as I got a better view from this front seat. 

In much of the world, women and men intermingle in buses, sitting or standing next to each other. However, in many Muslim countries (including Pakistan, Bangladesh and Saudi Arabia, but not Morocco, Malaysia and Indonesia) they are segregated. The ladies section in the front part of Pakistani buses resembles a cage in a Third World zoo, complete with iron grills and nets, in full view of men at the back. In Saudi Arabia, the seating arrangement is reversed, with men at the front and women at the back. Some might think it mirrors the inferior status of women in Saudi society, but in my view this reversal of seating arrangement makes more sense, if the purpose of segregation is to protect women from the prowling eyes of men. Rather than lustily gaze at the women in the front section of the bus as in Pakistan, Saudi men can only visualise in their mind’s eye, so to say, the beauties seated behind them wrapped in abayas! 

A few Indian cities have introduced some “women only” buses to save women from male harassment. Delhi’s mixed buses are patrolled by plainclothes police, monitoring what is euphemistically called “eve-teasing”. Segregation of men and women is also practiced in the ultra-orthodox Jewish neighbourhoods of Jerusalem. Here, as in Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan and, increasingly, in Pakistan, women are also banned from billboards. The very sight of women is too seductive for some sharia-loving Muslims, just as it is for ultra-orthodox Jews! In the Taliban’s Afghanistan, women had been liquidated as human beings, only allowed to live as bed-fellows and house-keepers. This attempt to quarantine women from men, for the supposed good of both, is a vicious cycle — the more the segregation the greater the urge to ogle, prowl, stalk, harass, eve-tease, call it what you will. 

Alas, religious fanatics and cultural chauvinists are unable to see the human and funny side of things. A First World War veteran, Albert Facey, describes a funny incident in his memoir, A Fortunate Life. He was then driving a tram in Perth, Australia. An elderly passenger, seeing a very pretty young girl standing with a large bag, offered to take her bag, but she declined saying the bag contained important stuff. As she struggled to stay on her feet in the moving tram, the old man said: “I am too old to stand up and you won’t let me hold your parcels for you. What about sitting on my lap?” Tired as she was, the young woman accepted his offer and sat on his lap. After a while the old man tapped her on the shoulder and said: “Excuse me, Miss, please get off my knee. I am not as old as I thought I was.”

(To be continued)

The writer, a former academic with a doctorate in modern history, can be contacted at

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