Friday, June 23, 2017

Ramadhan In Sanford – 2017

I return home from my extended trip jetlagged, harassed and homesick, with tons of pending home tasks and office paperwork that a ten-week hiatus entails. I tackle these troubles quickly, within a couple of days, alhamd’Allah. But the month of Ramadhan, in a few days, is staring in my face. Hot, long, weary, dog-days of belly rumbles and lethargies and pining for magreeb. These will be the longest days of Ramadhan in the northern hemisphere before we slowly swing the pendulum the other way.

It has been soopa hot and dry here in Sanford, with temperatures testing the 100ยบ F mark. But guess what? Allah’s mercy rolls in with the arrival of the blessed month. The skies darken, the rain pours, and pours some more, and the temperatures subside; it has been consistently wet and balmy since the month set in. The dreaded first few days are a breeze, so are the subsequent days, Allah sends His blessings of tranquility and ease and serenity as I fast and reflect. As usual, I am overly apprehensive and ungrateful. Even working out, mandated by my medical doctors, fall into place. Ninety minutes at the local gym is a challenge without water and the omnipresence of scantily clad humans of course, but I engage in supreme jehaad of the nafs and prevail. Only just. Even jogging the five mandated miles on alternate days is possible before duas and magreeb at HIC. So, I merrily trot away as our upright President bobs, with the mighty executioner’s sword in hand, with honorable Bedouins in faraway lands. It’s all in the mind. Life’s good, alhamd’Allah.

We are blessed with Hasnain Rajabali as the lecturer for the first half of Ramadhan at HIC. His lectures are a shot in the arm, as usual. Here is a man who is a pleasure to listen to, and teen daughter Maaha Zainab is in love with his practical, sometimes witty, advice. I see other teenagers as well, their lifeline mobile phones ignored, in rapt attention to his lectures; now, that’s a miracle, no? As one who is not too public savvy or running in a popularity contest or being always politically correct, I feel an affiliation to Rajabali’s frankness in matters that can (and does) ruffle feathers at times. Unfortunately, too few of our current pool of ‘speakers’ want to venture away from their comfort zones. Rajabali’s is one of a very few who does not have his head buried deep in the muck.

Rajabali touches on several topics, but the following are outstanding, worthy of continuous ponder:

> The religion of Islam, hands down, is ahead of the pack, in both substance and intelligent rational. It is clear, logical, hits the bull's eye in the matters of truth and justice, establishes and elevates the honor of an individual based only on deeds.
> Given the above, Islam is primarily a verb and not a noun. It is a religion of action, not from a birth or an acquired title.
> Humans are a universe in ourselves. Allah has bestowed in all of us His many attributes. And given us all free will to choose good from evil. We need to elevate ourselves and reach for the sky so that we can touch the stars. That Allah has created us with intrinsic goodness and that it takes hard work to do evil or be seekers of hellfire.
> We, ahlebeyti Muslims, will be held to a higher standard on Judgement Day. Because we epitomize the truth, follow the best that Allah has sent to mankind, and that tabligh is not trying to convert others; rather it is in our actions, our akhlaaq, our morality, our speech...
> That smoking, in whatever form whatsoever, is inherently haraam, a fact I heartily embrace, even though I am stupid to have indulged in the nasty habit in the past. Even though some of our marajas, for perplexing, frustrating reasons, will not come out and openly outlaw the menace.

But even though we are all pepped up during the lectures, old habits are hard to abandon. The air outside HIC is as stinking and polluted as ever, and I scramble to find pockets of clean breathable air. The grounds are littered with ugly, sodden cigarette butts, even though management has provided containers across the grounds. I wonder if we give our homes the same treatment? Time for HIC to restrict all smoking the rear of the complex perhaps? Wishful thinking?  

Rajabali touches upon the goodness of life, of good deeds and kind words. There is an abundance of good in all of us, yet some of us are fixated with a woman’s sexual anatomy; except for the wrong reasons. One of our upright member, ‘leadership’ material no less, has just finished reciting Dua e Iftetah, a gem of a dua, given to us by none other than the Imam (a) himself. He sits outside HIC afterward and cites a woman’s sexual anatomy in casual Kiswahili banter three times in a span of two sentences. Kxxxmamayo, he says, this guy did this and this, kxxxmamake this and kxxxmamababiyo that. Baffled and repulsed, I glare at him; to no effect. What is it with us? Why do we have to resort to this offensive uncouth and vile word repeatedly? I hear it all the time, every time I visit HIC. Is it an East African Khoja curse? And why pick on the poor woman, a mother? Why not hurl this offense at the man’s sexual organs? The father for a change? I guess this is a question that’ll never be answered, beyond comprehension. Not meaning it as abuse is not an excuse, ever.

The management of HIC and its volunteers shine through and through. Yet again. Incredible selflessness and dedication from the team ensure the smooth running of the center - from the yummy food (most nights), especially the new addition of exotic salads, cleaning up, parking and the various programs for all ages throughout the month; there are after-events almost every day. The inter/intra-faith programs are a resounding thumbs-up, and again, Rajabali shines with the keynote address and the ready answers he has for the attending guests. HIC is growing…there are so many new faces…with wonderful additions like the ever smiling and industrious Akil Anjarwalla. HIC will move into their new digs a short distance away soon, insha’Allah. It has been a long six years since I witnessed spade touch the dirt at the start of the construction. It is a beautiful structure, grand and imposing. Although a bit further to me than the current HIC, it’s so close I plan to continue attending it every day when in town, insha’Allah.

There are reciters and then there are good reciters, and then there are disciplined reciters. Amongst our reciters, are a few, bless them, who take upon themselves to add masalas to the standard duas and amaals rituals that take place on the eve of 19/21/23. Even more than the Imams (a) recommend or did. Imagine! Because they are convinced they have a good tenor. Khoob. So, they slip in a few of their own concoctions that will prolong their echo from the mic and elongate the already two hours plus spent pleading and begging and imploring Allah for everything under the sky. These masalas would be okay, I guess, if this was a one-time deal. Alas, these tend to stick, and become rituals. Till kingdom come. Never mind it is the peak of summer, with short nights, it is late in the night, there are infirm elders who can’t but want to finish the rituals, there are infants and young ones barely able to keep their eyes open. No Sir, the masalas be must be added, by God, whether logical or not, like it or not. Never mind that we rarely follow up these duas with concrete action. A good tenor does not compensate for taqwa, I say…

The sanctified and blessed period is sullied by events in London with illiterate animals mowing down and knifing innocent people, all in the name of my religion. Seven are dead and scores injured in this heinous act. What did you achieve, you bastards, except the damnation of hellfire and for us here, to yet again, bear the burden of consequences that wrongly, but understandably perhaps, raise an accusing finger at us or view us with reproachful eyes? I get engulfed in gloom and utter frustration. When will this all end? When will the powers that be take the fight to the original land of these lunatics? 

Allah knows best.


Thursday, June 8, 2017

Amna Naqvi – The Unwanted Daughter


There is very little joy in Amna Naqvi's (alias) tender life of eight years so far. All she knows as the daughter of a peasant farmer is an arduous and dreary existence; a daily routine of early mornings, drawing water from the backyard well, sweeping dirt floors, washing clothes and shaping stinking, still wet, sometimes still warm cow dung, swarming with gleeful flies and parasites, into Frisbee-sized discs and slapping them to the cowshed wall for drying. And in the afternoon, after a lunch of leftover rice and watery daal, helping her mother in the kitchen, rolling out chapattis and preparing dinner for a hungry family of seven.

Amna is unwelcomed by her father, Abul Fazl (alias), from the moment the midwife declares the arrival of the baby girl. Abul Fazl, a slight, sinewy, skinny man with a permanent scowl on his face, grunts angrily, curses his karma and storms off from his place on the charpoy outside the hovel from which, moments ago, his wife of thirty years moaned away the painful pangs of childbirth. Amna is a late, errant addition to the family, a surprise to both the parents and her siblings. The parents already have four children, born almost in regular succession, sexes likewise divided. The first two girls are already married off and are now mothers. Abul Fazl had to work hard and long, even go into debt, to come up with the dowry demanded for them. He rarely thinks about his daughters now, seeing them once or twice a year when the family gets together for the two greater Eids. In his ignorant mind, daughters are burdens who almost broke him financially and made life hell for him when he despaired of a lineage. He blamed his wife for the shortcoming; it must be her weak womb that was the culprit. He thanks Allah they are no longer his crosses to bear.

The following two boys, likewise uneducated, are healthy and active, useful labor for the land that the family rents and coaxes to produce wheat and sorghum and corn in rotation; they share the yield with the landowner as land rent. The elder son has recently married and is already a father of a daughter, another catastrophe in the mind of Abul Fazl. But that is not directly his issue, so he does not fret too much about it. The idea of educating children is alien to him, never crosses his mind. The nearest schools are almost ten miles away, another planet away in the mind of a rural UP peasant, and where would the money to educate the boys come from? So, the kids go to a local imam bargah and get their education from the mullahs. For Abul Fazl, that is plenty. He needs his boys in the fields, not in some classroom. As for his girls? Well, daughters from decent sayyed families do not go to school. They stay within the confines of the mud walls and take care of household tasks and serve the men who work in the fields. And when decent rishteys come knocking at age fourteen or fifteen or sixteen, why, they are married off. Jaldi-jaldi.

The parents, the two sons, the bahoo, the infant and Amna live in a semi-permanent mud and straw house in the village of Sayedpurah, UP, on the banks of the river Yamuna. Halwaana is the collective name given to a cluster of five villages. The inhabitants are mostly sadaats from the Rizvi and Naqvi heritage. There are no formal schools for miles around, so the residents are mired in illiteracy, ignorance and grinding poverty that repeats itself with each successive generation. Some of the financially better-endowed families do send their children to school by bus, but not the gentler sex. They are ‘protected’ and disposed of at the most opportune rishta.

When the young bride bahoo, Amna’s cousin, a khaala’s daughter, joins the Naqvi's after marriage, she brings her trousseau as dowry.  She is born and raised up closer to New Delhi, where secular schooling is possible, so she is somewhat literate.  But even then, it is restricted to rudimentary training, and she is betrothed on the day of graduation at age fourteen. Included in her trousseau are copies of fading comics and Bollywood filmy magazines that she shares with Amna, who is instantly glued to them. She understands nothing of course, but the images paint a picture in her imagination. Of a world far removed from hers, of beautiful people and glamourous clothes and an unimaginable lifestyle. She gets to know Shahrukh and Salman and instantly falls in love with them. Her Bhabi claims she had been to the movies and seen both the heroes, larger than life, on huge screens; Amna’s imagination goes wild; there is no power in her village.

Recently, there is excitement in the village when Comfort Aid International (CAI) and Al-Imaan Charitable Trust (AICT) win over the heart of a donor to construct an elementary school within walking distance of the five villages. But the plans are shelved when the donor backs out for personal reasons, the primary one being that the area is too remote for them to be directly involved. A valid and understandable justification, perhaps? Amna’s imagination, hopes and emotions summersaults with the developments.

But these are the very locations that CAI is trying so hard to bring out of darkness into light. We do not seek to make Amna into a doctor or an engineer. Yet. We are working to take the first step. And grasping tightly to Allah’s promise of certain success when we take the first footstep in His way. We at CAI have globally proved this fact thirty-three schools over.

The remoteness and logistical challenges notwithstanding, Amna’s village will have a school. Soon insha’Allah. It is a challenge CAI Trustees and I will take on and given Allah’s help and your support, this project will see the light. So Amna, here’s a solemn promise - although you don’t know the CAI donors, Trustees and me yet, you soon will. Your imagination and aspirations will be rekindled, yet again. You will get a beautiful, modern school where you will see and learn that it is your Allah-given right to a quality education; all you will have to do is reach out and grab it.  Then, and only then, will you love Allah the way He wants to be loved and understood.  You will touch the sky, little girl; Shahrukh and Salman are no contest; inconsequential.

Nothing is impossible.

I have used my imagination to bring certain facts and realities in these villages to an interesting read on the dismal situation in Halwaana. Everything stated in this Blog is spot-on, except for the noted aliases.

Friday, May 26, 2017

Afghanistan, My Turn – Mohammed Bhayani

Most places we think of are defined by perceptions and personal experiences. Such is mine about Afghanistan, as I prepare to visit it with a team of Comfort Aid International Trustees, to see firsthand some of the amazing work being done in changing lives of orphans, widows, the sick and the destitute in the badbakth country. I am setting out on this journey with my brother Shaida (Bhaijaan), Sohail Abdullah of New York and Murtaza Bhimani of Dar es Salaam. To be honest, I kind of already know what to expect from the voyage. I am warned of the rough rides on unpaved roads, the sub-standard living conditions, unforgiving winters and blistering summers. About the danger of Taliban attacks, the nature of some Afghan customs and just the mere fact that the rest of the world sees Afghanistan as a high-risk locale to be in. Just a week before we are set to arrive, the US military drops a missile known as "MOAB- Mother of All Bombs" to destroy a terror site. My wife makes it seem like she works for BBC, as the news is relayed to me seconds after it is posted online. She ‘speaks’ her mind of her clear apprehension of my upcoming trip. Bhaijaan has narrated numerous stories of his first trip with CAI three years ago and that I should mentally prepare for no western type comforts. May 4th, we fly out of Houston to Dubai, stay a night with a friend, eat and rest, as if this will be my last meal.

We land in Kabul, Afghanistan the next afternoon; standing six feet tall, I stick out like a sore thumb. Most men on board our flight have long beards, many up to their chest, dressed in Afghani kurta-pajamas, white turbans, ruffled faces that apparently have never used sunscreen in the winter or summer to protect their weathered skin. The new Kabul Airport already looks old, but not shoddy. Immigration is a breeze with fingerprint scanners and cameras, like most international airports; we are out in ten minutes. Here I meet three individuals, may Allah bless them and their families, who define and exemplify believing in a mission, committing to it, and acting upon it. I have heard fantastic tales of Basheer, Wasi, and Assef, of course, the men with boots on the ground that make the impossible, possible. As we walk out of the airport, they welcome us with smiles and hugs. We drive to Wasi's place, where we stay the night with his family. We meet Sohail and Murtaza, both ‘veterans’ to this country, two other gems who vigorously put their comfortable lives aside for CAI.

We set out the next morning on a six-passenger aircraft to Nili, the provincial capital of Dykundy. An hour’s journey by air, which can take upwards of 24 - 36 hours by road, depending on the time of year and security conditions - flight, please. We land on a challenging single unpaved landing strip of this miniature airport in this tiny city. As we exit, our amazing one in the world driver Sher Hussain waits to drive us for the rest of this seven-day trip covering seven remote villages. Grabbing a healthy breakfast of eggs and tomatoes, our first leg begins with an eight-hour roller-coaster drive towards the first CAI medical clinic in the village of Kity. I'll cover the basic ambiance of our drives, which comprises upwards of sixty hours of driving in probably the most grueling and dangerous ‘roads’ in this world; without exaggeration. I’m not doing myself a favor by thinking about time; unpaved roads become a norm; dips in the dirt are like an encore every five seconds, we drive not above ten miles an hour, even though the van seating eight passengers revs as if we are. I look at the speedometer thinking I'll feel the passage of time quicken if I see a healthier speed; it doesn’t happen. It certainly requires a strong stomach, good company, and tons of patience. This is the primary challenge during the entire journey. Because the rest of it is sheer beauty. Everywhere I look, as we drive up and down different mountains terrains and through small and large rivers, I see nothing but beauty.

On reaching Kity, we stop at the temporary medical clinic before heading out to the new larger permanent clinic under construction. To witness a modern building in an area surrounded by mud/straw homes speaks wonders to the dedication and hard work of CAI in making it happen. The new facility has an OPD, maternity, pharmacy, vaccination, living quarters for staff, full-fledged bathrooms with heated water and a water well for potable water. The living quarters makes me want to make this my remote weekend getaway, that's how nice it is. We walk around this new construction located on top of a mountain with beauty surrounding every aspect of this land. The clinic will serve more than 30,000 people in a 3-hour walking radius. The next morning, we audit the current temporary clinic, inspect the patient log, pharmacy inventory, the cleanliness of the rooms and general maintenance following, CAI guidelines. After meeting with the staff and listening to their feedback, we take leave. This process is repeated at the clinics at Ahngar, Gazbiri, Dyroos, and Uzmook.

The only way to do justice to my visit is to cover in detail some aspect of my experiences. Just like the roller coaster drive up and down the mountains, I feel the same turmoil of emotions - grateful, pampered, privileged, humbled, and none of them. "Which of your bounties will I deny?" I see a woman on a donkey coming towards a clinic with the husband beside her. A kid lays in the mother’s lap because of malnutrition. Old men lining up to get their aching bones checked out. And many UTI cases because of hygiene issues. Each of the five clinics averages forty / fifty patients a day, seen by a single doctor. The drive shows the many health challenges of people living in these remote areas. And reminds me of how ungrateful I've been in my life at times. I see a woman and child sitting on top of a mountain miles from any visible village, just sitting and gazing over the grandness of the mountains. I came across a man lying in the middle of the road, sunburnt and exhausted. I think he is dying, but apparently, he's just resting, regaining strength to continue his trek on foot - we are miles from the last town. I almost laugh at how easily he regards it as something very normal. It's impossible to imagine living the way I do and how wasteful I am. But every time I enter one of CAI clinics I forget all that retrospective mess. We stay comfortably, are served good food, beds and a place to shower.

The second village we go to is Gazbiri, the newest of the clinics, just starting operations. It is their first operational day in the temporary digs, and the conditions appall us all. It is small, cramped, with flies everywhere. And yet, we have the whole village standing in line to welcome us, a feast for food, and show gratefulness. Because before this facility, they had no medical care whatsoever! Ahngaar is one of the most challenging areas to access. The views are breathtaking as I look at the vista. The clinic faces challenges, especially when it comes to accessibility, but there is a much better permanent location finishing construction soon insha’Allah. Dairus is the best example of what a permanent clinic looks like - beautiful, well maintained, five- star compared to the surrounding dwellings. With the construction of a new CAI sponsored school for kids nearby, I can't wait to see photos of the finished product. The kids are currently studying under a dilapidated and dour looking mud structure. I get to pray underneath the open sky in the morning where I see majestic mountains, starry skies and two joining rivers. It easy to forget where you are and what the people are going through, with such beauty surrounding me. Going to our last stop, we head towards Uzmook. But before that, we stop over at the governor’s place for a meeting and a feast. Uzmook's new clinic sits in the middle of a beautiful farmland surrounded by jagged rocky mountains.

When we return to Kabul the next afternoon, it feels we have left a country within a country. Bustling shops, tall structures, fast foods, colleges, local bazaars, etc. The next day we visit Sakina Girls Orphanage (SGH), and CAI Private English School (CPES) built and operated by CAI. The kids we meet at the school are amazing; I just want to eat them all up. Next is the SGH in the basement of the building hosting fifty of the loveliest girls I have met. May Allah bless everyone involved in these projects because there are no words to describe the work that is being done here. The girls are all happy and eager to greet us, and we get to spend a little time with them. Since Shabaan 15 is almost upon us, an orphan hand us a poem she wrote in English for the Imam (a). It’s eloquent and well thought-out as she reads it out, but I can feel her emotions in every word; there isn’t a single dry eye at the end of it between the four of us.

I fly out to India the next day, leaving the misery, hardship, and hopelessness of thirty-five million humans behind. I have an option of freedom, of living in the West, with relative freedom and security; they have so very little. For a country torn by war over the last decade, I leave Afghanistan with nothing but gratitude and love.

I sincerely thank Yusufali, Basheer, Wasi, Asif, Sohail, Murtaza Uncle, Bhaijaan and the rest of the team of CAI for giving me this opportunity. May Allah bless you guys and your families.