Thursday, August 3, 2017

A Slaying Too Close To Home / No, seriously! – Amirali Somji

A Slaying Too Close To Home

Many of you will recall the name Wasi Muhamadian, perhaps, since I have mentioned him several times in my past Blogs that pertain to Afghanistan or CAI activities in that country. Wasi is the CAI Country Manager for Afghanistan. His father, Ahmad Ali Mohammadian, son of Mohammad Mahdi, was murdered while reciting his magreeb salaat at a mosque in Herat, Afghanistan on August 1; a suicide bomber killed 28 others and maimed scores.

I have met Agha Ahmed Ali several times; a proud, dignified man of few words. I have stayed at his house in Herat and prayed at that same mosque that was attacked. The dangers that CAI Trustees are exposed to are genuine, and this slaying brings these risks very close to home. I can almost feel the explosion, and it’s palpable, very real. There is tremendous satisfaction and humility is the work we Trustees do in such countries, yes, but it does not take away the real fear and uncertainties of such beastly and senseless killings.

I hold Wasi, whom I have known for over ten years, in the highest regards when it comes to akhlaaq, nobility, and hospitality. I put mine and other Trustees and visitor’s life in his and fellow compatriot Basheers hands when we are in Afghanistan, thirty-four times already. I have yet to encounter better generosity or warmth anywhere worldwide, and I am certain those who have accompanied me will attest to this fact. Such manners and nobility are not innate, rather, they are handed down through honorable parental guidance and upbringing. Agha Ahmed was, obviously, such a parent. Please join me in praying for his martyred soul and that of others that lost their lives while in the worship of their Lord.

No, seriously! – Amirali Somji

Africa has always intrigued me – tribalism, the clicking language, slavery, speared warriors, Pharaohs, and mummies, the jumping Masais. These curiosities and imaginations are somewhat quenched via yearly trips to Tanzania, my de facto motherland, and many hours on Wikipedia. During random conversations with Yusufali of CAI, he tells me about his plan to build schools on the ‘other’ side of the continent; I am at first skeptical, but still, want to be part of it and somehow wiggle my way into a trip with him and his team.

My past visit to Afghanistan with Yusufali has taught me a thing or two about him – (a) nothing is impossible if you try earnestly hard, and (b) never take no for an answer. Yusufali somehow manages to make things happen in faraway places, where even pronouncing a city’s name is a challenge (Ouagadougou anyone?). Here’s how my personal, and borderline crazy, adventure panned out:

I meet with fellow visitor’s uncle Mushtak Fazal and Murtaza Bhimani for the first time, when they pick me up at 2 am in Dar. Not much is said at the time because we don’t know one another or maybe the elders are sleepy? At the airport in Dar, they both decide against checking their bags, which I find strange, but hey, I’m well-travelled and know what I’m doing, or so I think.

Our connection time at Addis Ababa is cut short due to bad weather and barely make it to the next flight, where Yusufali and Sohail patiently wait for us to board. When we finally enter, there is a sign of relief on everyone’s face, and our expedition officially commence. First stop – Burkina Faso.

Day 1:
We land at Ouagadougou and are immediately received by our host, Cherif Aidara – the son of a chief, originally from Mauritania, now living in Senegal, together with Senator (no, seriously!) Mohammed Elhaj. They whisk us into a room where a national police officer sits and manages to sort out our entry formalities fasta-fasta.

The elders know something I didn’t – my bag never makes it! I am assured it would become available within 24 hours and Ethiopian Airlines came through by sending it via another airline in less than 12. Excellent service, and valuable lesson learned.

Our hotel in Ouagadougou is a massive concrete structure built in the newer part of the city – a gift from the late Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi. On the day of our arrival was another visiting dignitary– the president of Ivory Coast (no, seriously!). As you can imagine, there were over a hundred heavily armed security personnel, delegates, associates, bum-chums, and press on site. At lunch, we saw the Ivorian and Burkina presidents quickly walk in and just as quickly vanish into whatever important things presidents do.

Day 2:
We are driven to the site where Comfort Aid International will potentially build their fourth school in West Africa (the other are in Liberia, Mali, and Senegal). This land has been sanctioned by none other than the Minister of Interior whom we meet at his office (no, seriously!), and who is also very pleased that CAI is bringing education to the poor in Burkina Faso.

Night time activities in Ouagadougou are limited; there isn’t much to do, neither is it very safe, but Sohail and I are famished and insist on eating outside the hotel. Cherif Aidara finds us a lovely Turkish restaurant that is located a couple of hundred meters from the infamous Cappuccino cafĂ© where fanatical gunmen attacked just over a year ago. But hey, the kebabs are fantastic.

Day 3:
We’re off to Bamako, Mali to check on the construction progress of a school funded by CAI but our flight only leaves at 3 pm, so we decide to visit the town market and get a taste of local fruits. Ladies and gentlemen, if you want to see Yusufali in his element, take him to a fruit market – he is like a child in a candy store. We indulge ourselves with oranges, mabungo, and cucumbers, but Sohail pays later that evening, as he battles a combination of high fever and an unruly stomach.

On reaching the airport past zohr salat, we’re told there is no aircraft available, so the flight is canceled for 24 hours. Bummer. Panic quickly grips, as everyone is on a tight schedule; Cherif Aidara steps in to calm us down and assures that the lost day will be made up ‘somehow.' We head back into the city and make do with the rather decent hotel provided by Air Burkina.

Day 4:
After a lazy morning, we find ourselves at the airport once again, with everyone’s fingers crossed. Thankfully the flight is available and on-time. We expect to reach Bamako at 5 pm, but if we are to wait for visa formalities and stand in a queue, we’ll miss daylight and not make it to the site. Everyone is on edge, but Cherif Aidara, for some odd reason, sports an assured smile.

The wheels touch down at around 5 pm as planned, and everything that follows is something that I promise is not a Hollywood script. As soon as we disembark, a short stubby gentleman, who I later find out is the Chief of Police (no, seriously!) guides us towards two fully tinted vehicles that are waiting for our arrival. We’re stealthily driven by big, muscled men in black to the VIP wing of the airport where our passports are stamped in record time.

On exiting the building, two other vehicles put us on the road heading towards the school site, constantly fighting time. Lo and behold, we make it on time with enough sunlight to quickly inspect the school under construction – Yusufali is happy with the progress, things are clearly under control and on track Alhamdulillah.

Mission accomplished
The four days I spent with Yusufali and his able team are a humbling experience. Yes, there is poverty everywhere, including our side of Africa. But there is an entire population on the other side that is in dire need for education. CAI has pledged a school in many West African countries, funds permitting, where basic education is the worst worldwide, and I have seen, first-hand, that they are well underway.

I’d like to thank uncle Mushtak for his intriguing stories, uncle Murtaza for the constant entertainment, Cherif Aidara for the guidance and hospitality, Sohail for being an awesome roommate, the team at Institut Mozdahir International (CAI partners in West Africa) for their efforts, and finally, Yusufali for giving me the opportunity, again, to see his CAI projects first hand.

Friday, July 21, 2017

Kuku Na Chipsi / A Gay Marriage Gone Sour

Kuku Na Chipsi

A trip to Tanzania, my birth country, especially in the temperate winter month of July, bodes well with my temperament. I can see the rapid construction progress of the long awaited new terminal as my Emirates flight taxis towards the current one; it looks beautiful and modern. The arrival hall is crowded, and it takes me a while to pay for my visa and clear immigration. I temporarily lose my suitcase until I realize it has been pulled off the belt and sits waiting for me by the side while I am patiently scouring for it among the hordes of luggage that whirl around the conveyor belt.

Yahya, my usual taxi driver, races his car and miraculously manages to be outside the gates of Tanzanite Executive Suites in twenty-five minutes from the time we leave the airport, a record of sorts. In this period, Yahya fills me in with the usual litany of ailments in his and other Tanzanian lives; cost of living going up, business going down, Mugufuli’s heavy handed leadership causing havoc to people used to accumulating wealth the magendo way… Yahya says nothing about the relatively safe city, potholes free roads, litter-free streets, stable power and water supply, the rapidly rising flyovers that’ll soon ease the traffic snarls …

I don’t want to hear about all the complaining, so I ask him about what fruits I can stuff my face with in the short two-day trip I am here. Yahya’s gloomy face lightens up. He tells me the city is full of sweet citrus machenza and machungwa, juicy pineapples, blood-red leeches and my favorite, the sweeter version of passion fruit, the snot fruit matunda. Ahhh, I can already taste these and my mouth waters in anticipatory delight.

I check into the once fine Tanzanite Executive Suites, a clean, comfortable, familiar and strategically located hotel minutes from the Khoja center and several lip-smacking Kuku Na Chipsi joints within a safe five-minute walking radius. I can, from the entrance of the hotel, already smell the aroma of the charcoal grilling the kukus and mishkaaki and nundu, and it’s not even magreeb yet. I can’t wait.

After a nice short nap, I head over to the mosque for salaat donning my senses delighting ittar. Alas, it is no match for the cloud of kuku aroma that engulfs the entire street leading towards the mosque, and all I can smell are the remnants of charred chicken flesh on me as I join the jamaat salaat. You can’t win it all, I guess.

I have been very fortunate to travel distant lands and sample some of the most exotic fruits and foods from many countries. However, very few, if any, match the flavor and aroma of the ones I eat in E. Africa, and Tanzania in particular. And so, I go on a rampage of culinary delights with fresh fruits served by Roshan Jessa at his office, to various Kuku Na Chipsi outlets and a sumptuous dinner of ugaali and kuku paaka at Murtaza Bhimani’s.

The Dar es Salaam skyline has changed profoundly in the last few years. When Roshan Jessa takes me up to the rooftop of Samora Towers, I am stunned at the high-rise buildings adorning this city. The view of the skyline from up here is astonishingly beautiful. I cannot believe the development progress, especially in housing construction, that Dar has made. I doubt any of us growing up here could have imagined a break from the gloom and doom of the misguided and ruthlessly enforced crippling Ujamaa policies that had compelled me to queue early mornings for everyday essentials, from milk to bread and pine for non-existing butter and cheese. Bravo.

Sadly, I am in Dar for only two days. A much more challenging tour of Ouagadougou (a mouthful, no?) in Burkina Faso and Bamako in Mali, accompanied by fellow CAI Trustees Sohail Abdullah and Murtaza Bhimani, to inspect current and future CAI schools under construction coming up shortly. Joining us will be well-wishers Amirali Somji from Dubai and Mushtaq Fazal from Dar es Salaam.

A Gay Marriage Gone Sour

As I tuck into the fruits and flesh akin to the janna in the hereafter here in Dar, a gay marriage in faraway Vancouver rocks the global Khoja fraternity and causes fissures among the community and leadership, denting, somewhat, some of my culinary pleasures. The haraam act and unwise publicity of the union by the parents of one partner have profound and immediate consequences. That one of the partner’s mother is (now was) the Secretary General of NASIMCO causes tremors, uncontained outrage and a flurry of condemnation. From everybody.

The event is a discussion subject for many a baraaza dinner meets; discussed, debated, dissected, digested and excreted many times over. So much so, that a visiting friend from Brampton, Canada, jokingly introduces himself to the baraaza group I am with thus:

Sallam, I am so and so from Canada, and I am a happily married man…

Funny yes, but sad. Without proper thought and throwing caution aside, a flurry of messages on social media, some in atrocious English, cook up a storm, lynching the parents of the union for partaking in the public gaiety that follows the union. Understandable perhaps? As if our cupboards are without skeletons and we are the infallibles. Then the rage is diverted to the NASIMCO leadership, and to the alleged coercion of the mother to resign from her post. Again, understandable perhaps, given her very unwise deed, except I fret about the legal consequence if the compulsion is indeed a fact.  Given that this apparent ugly episode takes place in the jurisdiction of NASIMCO, individual jamaats, from Africa to Pakistan, incredibly, join in the mob mentality, all with relentless condemnations and unstoppable admonishment. Understandable perhaps, given the severity of events? Resignations follow like a domino effect, and the entire leadership of NASIMCO is rendered history.

The onslaughts from every corner of the world are relentless in the days ahead, with a whirlwind of WA messages, accusations targeting the leadership of NASIMCO and the WF as well. It is a full-blown circus now, except rather painful and not funny as at all. Past leaders, both at NASIMCO and WF are vilified, and wild allegations of improper behavior, including that of nepotism, election fraud, and funds embezzlement is shamelessly leveled, sparing very few. 

Homosexuality, lesbianism, alcohol and drug use and abuse are real, albeit unsavory issues. Yes, the individuals in a leadership role in this instance erred seriously and used severely unwise judgment in publicizing the blunder. None of us are without issues, however, and we should all spend time in profound sajda of grateful and perpetual thanks if our children are saleh. Surely a more respectable response, from us all - one of constraint, maturity, and unity, one befitting from the followers and lovers of Ahlebeyt (a) - should have followed this unfortunate episode?

Allah knows best.