What Alex and Dr. Pepperberg taught me through their Book

Friday, October 27, 2017 Hiba Moeen 10 Comments

Coco & Me with Alex & Me

Alex & Me is one such book that I had been eagerly searching for, however as unfortunate as it may sound, it hasn't been available in Pakistan. So, knowing my craze for parrots, a friend of ours got it from England ... thank you Fawzia, I owe you for this! 

I simply adore the personality of Alex, the Grey Parrot that is the center of attention of this book. Having one myself, as you can see above, I can so relate to the tantrums and mischievous demeanour of this species. And as I got to acquaint myself with both characters, Alex and Dr. Irene Pepperberg, the bird owner (although our type isn't exactly classified as bird owners but rather slaves) I fell in love with both. This lady's perseverance deserves all the respect in the world; despite being let down several times she continued working for what she believed in. Proving the cognitive ability of a bird in a world of ignorant humans was indeed a taxing task, however both came a long way.

Imagine sending a research proposal for a grant to carry out your study and being asked what you are smoking (Dr. Pepperberg's first attempt at acquiring a grant) is something one might not even directly ask a person who is perhaps even smoking weed ... oh yes, in that case the person would need help but in an intellectual case as this, the researcher is dealt with scorn. A drug addict is sent to a rehab and what do you do with an ambitious scientist? You ask her about her choice of drug ... how very cool. :P Never mind, human race can be funny sometimes, not knowing the real meaning of 'bird brain' as Alex later proved that this term could actually be used as a compliment.

As you go along Alex and Dr. Pepperberg's journey through the pages, it hits you hard given the sheer intelligence of a small bird which was not sought out before and the stark reality that there will never be another Alex. It's as if the author is directly talking to you.

I came to admire the fact that she did not believe in training the bird through operant conditioning based on which animals are starved and then given a treat when they respond in a desired way, quite an inhumane way indeed. Keeping the research of Otto Koehler, a German Zoologist in mind who did his research about Greys in the 1950s, she introduced a training model based on 3 components:

1. Reference (what the word/label means)
2. Functionality (pragmatics of how the word is used)
3. Social Interaction (the relationship between trainer and subject characterised by enthusiasm and kindness, as if talking to a child, hence leading to efficient learning)

She also introduced the rival method according to which she would have another person present during the training sessions and when asked a certain question if he/she would answer before Alex, that person would be rewarded. This sped up the learning process as Alex would try to win it ... eh, front benchers versus back benchers in class. :)

Alex was so intelligent that he even started coining his own terms. For example, when he was given an apple he called it 'banerry' perhaps thinking that it tasted somewhat like banana and looked like a large cherry. All attempts at emphasising upon the word 'apple' failed as he was persistent on calling it banerry quite vehemently and in the same cadence which apple was mentioned in. The author writes, 'No matter how hard we worked to get him to say apple, he stuck with his label. As far as Alex was concerned, "banerry" it was and "banerry" it was going to stay.' This way of picking parts of two words and adding them together into one word is called 'lexical elision'. Imagine a parrot not inclined towards rote learning but conversing and rather arguing for what he thought was correct.

At one occasion, Alex is described as being naughty. When shown a number of objects and asked how many of a specific colour they were, he deliberately started giving wrong answers after which Dr. Pepperberg decided to give him and break, took him to his room and closed the door. Immediately, Alex started calling out the correct answer, "Two ... two ... two ... I'm sorry ... come here!' he exclaimed. 

I know for a fact that these birds love to have their heads scratched and do not shy away from demanding some pampering, in Alex's case, he would say, 'You tickle' and as far as mine is concerned, she would grab my finger and drag it to her head, the rest is my duty to serve my mistress.

It is mentioned that someone sent Alex a toy bird, he went toward it, bent his head down and demanded, 'You tickle', ofcourse, the toy was unresponsive to which he said 'You turkey' and walked away. Apparently, some students sometimes said this to Alex when he involved himself in dumb acts.

Coco's demands are endless too. Sometimes, she would act lazy and not climb down towards the water bowl to drink water herself but would rather say, 'Coco wants water' and I have to oblige, these calls are at times fake and a means to lure my hand in for some scratches.

And she enslaves other bird species too, on her whim.

The ending of the book will make any pet lover emotional as it did to me, that's how the narration is ... so palpable! Even though it started off mentioning Alex's death, Dr. Pepperberg made the journey of her relationship with him so realistic that it almost felt like the brainy bird died yet again or that until then he was still alive.

Their last conversation and the parting exchange:

"You be good. I love you," Alex said to Dr. Irene Pepperberg.
"I love you, too," she replied.
"You'll be in tomorrow?"
"Yes," she said, "I'll be in tomorrow."

 This would squeeze anyone's heart! He died at the age of 31 in 2007 ... 10 years ago.

Alex's conceptual knowledge was equivalent to that of a 5 year old human's while his communication skills can be likened with a 2 year old's.

For the lovely person this lady is, she even replied to my email a few days ago for what was perhaps the last or the remaining few condolence messages. May she find peace in the thought that she made the most of the time she spent with Alex. 

What I learned through their relationship and perseverance is that if you truly believe in something you can make that happen, despite obstacles and hardships. Forget what people are saying now because tomorrow they will regret for not recognising what you were worth - their loss not yours. You don't really have to stand with the rest of the world ... stand out, make it happen and then enjoy the outcome. Relationships will be sacrificed along the way, people will leave you but that's life and in the end you would have achieved something and found true friends who were meant to be your pillars of support.

Don't run after those who were not meant to stay with you while you struggled ... make room for those who cherish and respect you.


History lives on through TDF Ghar and its Vintage Treasures

Sunday, October 15, 2017 Hiba Moeen 2 Comments

A couple of weeks ago my colleague and his daughters invited me to join them for a visit to the TDF Ghar which almost made us time travel to an era bygone. Everything on display; from the gramophone to the vintage bookshelf, the vanity table, and chess boards seemed to have a soul within them and were eager to be observed. Everything on display had its origins and information quoted. The kids were quite surprised to see the analogue phone with the rotary dial and the giant radio. Given the spacious old houses, these huge things still appeared small especially considering the high ceilings of the house as opposed to small boxes of apartments constructed these days. 

The Gramophone

TDF Ghar aka The Dawood Foundation Ghar, located in Jamshed Quarters was constructed in the 1930s and now owned by this particular entity that has presented it as a new public place for the citizens of an agitated city. Special emphasis has been laid on restoring the house and presenting it in its original form so that people get acquainted by history in its true essence. This particular society was built by Karachi's first mayor, Jamshed Nusserwanjee into the very heart of diversity where Hindus, Muslims, Christians, Parsis, and Jews lived in harmony while the city's middle class soared. 

The purpose is also to utilise the space for trainings, seminars, workshops, and exhibitions; something like what is offered by T2F and PCCC (Pakistan Chowk Community Centre) however, in a larger space.

"Informal learning spaces play an important role in helping society in using the right to speak in a constructive manner. People can share their ideas and materialise them for larger benefit of the public. Incubation centres and other similar projects are gaining popularity because of their inclusive nature. TDF Ghar, will connect the visitors with the rich and vibrant history of Karachi while giving them a place to talk and discuss ideas," Hiba Zubairi Communication Team Leader, The Dawood Foundation.

Present in the living room are antique artifacts and vintage collectables that one would only see in museums now. The tiles are also handmade and belong to the same era, the decade of the 1930s. Meanwhile, the first floor had almost got its renovation completed till the time we visited, it awaited antique furniture display, some of which was already stacked for its turn.

The Revolving Bookshelf

The Sehan Cafe arranged along the likes of Iranian cafes that existed till the last decade or so (even though some can be found inn Saddar) welcomes the early bird with Hulwa Puri.

As you go upstairs you see a pictorial display of Karachi's history, the time when intellect was widespread and people used to mind their own business, a time of prosperity somehow planned on a different tangent.

The rooftop offers a spectacular view of the quaid's mausoleum.

What we are not taught in history books is something that we found here; the concept and inspiration that led to the creation of this mausoleum. The design was influenced by the Samanid Mausoleum in Uzbekistan. You will find more details when you visit TDF Ghar.

The flora and fauna is quite meticulously arranged on the rooftop.

My colleague, Khurram Zia Khan with his daughters, Nabeeha and Zainab


The 145 year old Masjid Rajgan of Khanpur

Thursday, September 21, 2017 Hiba Moeen 4 Comments

Masjid Rajgan from a distance

Our office takes us to an off-site location for the annual retreat, this year we went to the Khanpur Valley where the 19th century history had left its mark while some scars remain from the 1970s. The bird species and the sunset were a treat to observe although it was pretty warm just when we went two weeks ago. 

We were staying at a resort along the outskirts of the Khanpur Dam. In the distant hills stood a vintage architectural structure engulfed in sheer melancholy or so it appeared, yet its beauty attracted the curious and restless soul. Later, some locals told us that it's a mosque which is about 200 years old, upon return I did a little research and got to know that it's actually 145 years old and is called Masjid Rajgan (aka Rajon ki Masjid). It's ironic how our government hasn't put in any efforts to preserve old buildings so that people could know history along with its proof, this one in particular like other magnificent structures of the past has been looted of it's precious belongings and left at the mercy of architectural extinction.

The state of affairs of our historic treasures and their significance reminds me of a saying by Marcus Garvey: "People without the knowledge of their past history, origin, and culture is like a tree without roots." Is this what we are turning out to be?

So after getting to know that it's and old mosque, my colleague, Pooja and I planned to visit it the next morning before breakfast. As we walked, there was a great deal of beauty along the way, it was just a matter of being able to observe it because it was pretty hot and when you feel hot you don't feel like observing much and try finding a shady spot instead. But we came to explore and hence observe ...

So this is what we first saw:

And then there was this gate that welcomed us to the abandoned mosque.

As we stepped inside the mosque we were amazed by the cool temperature within and its high ceilings that gave it a very spacious effect despite the hot weather outside. We lack construction like this in our present day and have resorted to living in cramped up spaces.  

Masjid Rajgan was was built in 1872 by Raja Sultan Jehandad Khan who also happened to be the founder of the old Khanpur Town which was later swamped by Khanpur Lake and the dam which displaced people from this area. It is said that the Raja invited architects renowned for their Islamic art from Dehli to design and construct a mosque in the valley. The carved wood used for the doors and windows was brought in from Leepa Valley, however, unfortunately the mosque has fallen prey to theft and neglect. The mosque's arched entrances and the main gate were said to be replicas of the Jamia Masjid in New Dehli which was built by Shah Jehan in the mid 17th century.

Given its large courtyard, it could easily house a 1000 people at a time. Though completely deserted, it is still preferred for Eid prayers due to the availability of a bigger area.
There are graves outside the mosque but are quite battered. Some of us visited the spot once again the following day and got to visit a shrine nearby which adorns the late date of cleaning to be June 30, 1969 now quite generously infested by hornets. 

There was also a family palace that was equipped with precious glass, wood, and ornaments acquired from Belgium, Italy, and France and this too succumbed to greed as it is said to have been destroyed by WAPDA and looted off its treasures in 2000. 

An article published in The Express Tribune emphasizes that Masjid Rajgan falls under the Antiquities Act of 1975 and therefore it qualifies being declared a preserved antique by the archeology department but who really cares as was obvious from its dilapidated condition. It should definitely be on the list of protected sites.

Some of the pictures are of the birds and shepherds encountered on the way. 

Pooja, the wanderer ...

The scary, barren tree ...



Pot Painting - DIY Weekend Project

Sunday, September 17, 2017 Hiba Moeen 0 Comments

Well folks, we had a long Eid weekend some time ago so I had been at the verge of painting everything coming my way. I painted my old bid cage, balcony railings, earthen pots that I am going to show you now, and could have ended up painting a human being, had the voices inside my head not forced me to stop. Yes, they go berserk sometimes and douse a strong spell of creativity (I'm not quite insane though eh ...).

I thought of sharing the pot painting story as a DIY project through step wise instructions. Here's how to go about it!

1. Take an earthen pot(s), wash thoroughly, dry out, and paint using an enamel paint. I used white. Let it dry for a day or two. In my case, one day sufficed.

 This is what the painted pots will look like.

2. You can be as creative as you can get. You can paste small round mirrors that are used for mirror embroidery or use a glass lead to draw a design (which I did with the other pot). I painted a bird and used this bird painting here as a reference that I shamelessly copied. Remember, one should always be original but this was my practice attempt and I love this bird painting and well ... I used Marie's oil paints for the bird themed painting and let it dry for another two days.
You can paint directly without applying a coat of enamel paint.

Here's a closeup of the bird I painted on the pot
 3. Once the paint has dried out completely, apply a coat of varnish. Mix gold dust (or any other colour of your choice) and apply generously making sure you're not dabbing layer after layer without the previous one getting dry as it would leave an untidy look. One is enough.

You can even use coloured enamel paint and apply varnish with gold/copper dust and that would be quite enough as well. So either way, go for whatever suits your preference.

These are the gold and copper dusts I used

Mix it with varnish and apply on the pot

Either use a brush or a tissue/old cloth for the application of varnish. Remember to use a disposable brush and not an expensive one if you opt for the brush.
Tadah! This is what my bird painted pot nest looked like!

4. Add a plant or decorate however you want to. I housed a plant in the bigger one and put marble eggs (which I bough from Haripur during our office annual retreat) in the small one. I guess I'll later use it for another plant.

I also drew a paisley design on the small pot which you can see in the video towards the end.

Here's an instruction/tutorial video for you. Enjoy with Yanni's music (A love for life)! 



In Conversation with Artist Abdul Hayee

Thursday, September 07, 2017 Hiba Moeen 1 Comments

Last weekend was a very happening one with so much to look forward to in the city. I went to the Bonsai Exhibition at Zamzama Park after work on Friday where bonsai enthusiasts had displayed their most cherished bonsai plants and shared their knowledge about the art that most are not aware about, it was arranged by the Pakistan Bonsai Society. There is so much that Karachi has to offer for art lovers, in this blog post you'll know how to avail all. Those who are interested in bonsai in particular can attend this society's free of cost sessions every first Saturday of every month, for further information, you can visit their Facebook page: Pakistan Bonsai Society.

And the next day was the best day of the week when I paint, following that was our photography exhibition organised by the Facebook photography group called, Aaj ka Random, I must say that the admins had done a commendable job! The best 3 pictures of each member were displayed among other marvellous ones at Alliance Francaise and all sales proceeds are to go to Edhi Centre. Such exhibitions are proof that there is no dearth of talent in Pakistan.

The next day I went to the, museum, TDF Ghar with my colleagues and his lovely girls. It's an amazing place and I'll write about it as well so that you know just how valuable vintage stuff is, with this house being among them.

Sunday was the day I got enlightened with a place that promotes Art & Culture and is located in one of the oldest places of Karachi, Pakistan Chowk, where you see pre-partition architecture that makes you feel part of the time that was perhaps more organised with the city being undoubtedly well structured. This cottage is called the Pakistan Chowk Community Centre and is inspired by the likes of T2F that was founded by the late Sabeen Mahmud. My art friends' persuasion to visit this wonderful art adobe was worth it.

There was a session by the senior most watercolourist of Karachi, Ustad Abdul Hayee who has been associated with watercolour since the past 60 years and teaches as well. If you see an astute watercolourist, chances are that that person has been his student at some point in time. "We are available for eager students and are here to teach you without charging anything, you just have to be willing to learn," said he, "Anyone who works and spends a day with us, learning and practicing, we'll offer him the anday wala burger (egg burger being the specialty of this area)," he chuckled. As Mr. Abdul Hayee shared his stories and experiences he added a touch of humour to everything, including his perseverance for Art and struggles he faced along the way.

Mr. Abdul Hayee has been associated with various art shows at a global level and is a member of the Sadquain Awards Jurists. Here he tells all:

His apprentice and student, Farrukh Nasim Sethi later showed us his spectacular watercolour paintings and the best part was his own earnestness to teach it to others. When we requested him for a watercolour demonstration, he happily agreed to enlighten us with his skills and talent. Here's a video compilation of his watercolour demonstration:

Here's the final painting:

Following are his paintings that he displayed and mesmerised us with. You end up looking and hoping to paint like these immensely talented fellows.

Keep a track of Pakistan Chowk Community Centre to be updated with related events. The roundabout outside this building is also the spot where they gather and paint every weekend. 

Masking Fluid ... no you don't need it as suggested by him. That's when you have command over your talent.