Cinnamon Colomboscope 2015: Colombo with @Colombedouin

(The following is one in a few interviews/feature pieces that I am writing in the lead up to Cinnamon Colomboscope 2015 scheduled to take place on the 22nd and 23rd of August. Keep an eye on this space for more pieces coming up over the next couple of days)

My Saturday mornings are usually pretty routine - catch up with friends, run some errands, recover from my week (and if I'm lucky the previous night's decadence). This particular Saturday however was anything but - I accompanied city walker and photographer Abdul-Halik Azeez on an excursion of his favourite spots in Colombo off the beaten track. Halik (as he is better known) has worn several hats having worked as a journalist, an economist, independent researcher and now consulting with International Alert; and all this has combined to give him a unique world view. He tells me at the start of our excursion that some of the things that fascinate him are the dynamics of power, economics, social structure and history and how this constructs the world views we subscribe to.

Halik is perhaps best known for his work on Instagram (where he is known as Colombedouin) - using
the platform in a unique way that has gained him over 19,000 followers; a number that is growing everyday. The pictures are not just visually arresting but are often accompanied by startlingly insightful narratives that give the picture more depth and meaning that draws the viewer in. Wandering around anywhere with Halik means you will find his lens focused on what most of us would have walked right by, and then find that the picture when uploaded contains snippets of the conversion you had been having at the time. This is the simplest testament to how Halik's work is much more than just photography, its is about stories, the deconstruction of ideas, and understanding how the world around us works.

We begin exploring the railway housing scheme at Dematagoda, where I witness first hand how Halik is able to get the stories he shares with his simple affable manner. The landscape looks like it has almost frozen in time, with worn crumbling houses speaking of the great era when the Burgher population lived here and ran the thriving railroad system. One can hardly imagine that we are still very much in the thick of Colombo as the sounds from the bustling main road fade away. But as Halik tells me "there are different sides to the city, there is the Colombo that people like you and I live in and then there are places like this that's a different dimension. It looks different and life goes at a completely different pace, its a different layer of Colombo". I ask Halik how he gets people to open up to him so easily, and he laughs telling me that it is a combination of things, including an open curiosity and projecting "the attitude of a tourist" that encourages people to share openly. This approach certainly seems to work
Wandering around the Railway Housing Scheme
well as we are invited to look inside another residents home (a beautiful building with imposing Dutch-style columns) and chat to people around. However we hit a bump in the road as we continue to wander through the land and are told off by an irate resident that this is private property and not a park! As we hurry off Halik assures me that this reaction is an exception and not the rule, and one must admit it added to the adventure of it all!

We continue on to the used book stalls in Maradana while as we search through the dusty tomes of books for hidden gems (of which I walked away with a few too many!); Halik shares with me why Instagram is his platform of choice and when he began using it. He had already been blogging and indulging in photography, and thus had already seen how powerful pictures and stories could be when challenging notions and world-views. He tells me he first began following a visit to the Hulftsdorp courts in 2012; and when asked why he was there I am treated to a story out of an Agatha Cristie novel involving the discovery of a dead body, a mysterious ringing phone and a stack of false passports found on the deceased proving that sometimes adventure finds you if you wander off the beaten track enough! Halik remembers his first picture which was an old notice board with a poster for a meeting on Trotsky and the rest as they say is history.

Finally we make it to the bustling, busy, noisy commercial center of Pettah. Almost instantly you understand Halik's draw to the place, the place is filled with people, nooks, corners and moments full of life and full of stories. We start off by re-energizing ourselves with samosa's and faluda (and yes, yes they are as good as everyone tells you) while Halik shares with me his experiences working as a journalist for the Sunday Leader and his first hand insight into how much power the media can wield. Running out of time I give Halik a challenge - to show me his top three places that exemplify the hidden stories Pettah has to him.

We start off at the famous Red Mosque and make it a little while before late afternoon prayers. Having never been inside, the experience is breathtaking and the energy of the place consumes you. A mosque caretaker offers to show us around, and shares snippets of information while we climb up to the roof (he also soundly berates me for my huffing and a puffing as we climb endless flights of stairs). Reaching the top we are treated to a 360 degree view of the city, with the contrast of different buildings jumping out at you. I am also able to get a glimpse into one of the drivers of Halik's world view - as a deeply spiritual practicing Muslim, his study and exploration into his faith is one of the many ways in which he sees the world around him. We then go on to have a look at the Old Town Hall, and have a look at the museum. Halik tells me that one of his favorite things is the lack of gentrification around this museum, and how it is accessible to anyone who just wishes to walk in. Holding some interesting and nearly forgotten artifacts and it nearly feels as though it is waiting to be found, showing you another world and another time. Pausing for a quick thambili, finally we walk over to the Dutch Museum, a treasure trove of artifacts and information from the time of the Dutch colonization of Sri Lanka and as we finish the round of the museum we stumble on to a center courtyard garden. The place is so serene and peaceful, and the sounds of hectic Pettah have faded away that it is quite literally "an oasis in the middle of all the madness". We sit down to rest and catch our breath - and wind up what has been a whirlwind few hours, showing me a completely different side to this amazing city.
Halik caught in action at the Dutch Museum

Halik will be speaking on a panel entitled 'Colombo Folk: Identity and rootedness in a changing city', alongside Author Ashok Ferry, citizen historian and civil servant extraordinaire Deshamanya Bradman Weerakoon, moderated by Ameena Hussain. They will be exploring the identity of Colombo people, and how where you live may determine who you are. What happens when Colombo changes and people move from where they belong – who are they then? What are its disappearing narratives? You can purchase tickets for this event here.

You can have a look at Halik's work on Instagram here. A huge thank you to both Colombedouin and Halik (who are most certainly diffrent alias of one person) for patiently carting me around the better part of his Saturday, and sharing with me a glimpse into his truly fascinating and brilliant world view. I am sorry about the quality of my pictures - after all I am no Colombedouin!

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