Friday, April 13, 2018

Bundu-Bundu Etc.

Back in 1980, when I moved to the US, it was really a great country to make and call my own. I had a well-paying job, was transferred to the US from Dubai by an employer that truly appreciated my worth, with the very prized Green Card in hand, work that I truly enjoyed and peers that accepted me with genuine warmth, even if that was sometimes tainted somewhat with amusement towards an ‘alien’ who was entertainingly different than them. I was merely 23 then and had a bigger attitude problem than I sometimes do now, so could deal with the occasional (generally well-meaning) jibes and put-downs that came my way. There was nothing to stop me from achieving my many tall dreams. Parenthood, self-afflicted marital problems, and a divorce jaded some of that shine off my nose but I could still kick a mean mule and get away with it.

I firmly believe in the institution of the madressa, or Islamic school, that my parents so forcefully made incumbent for me to attend as an adolescent, every single day. I was taught the Quraan, although I now wish I would have spent time understanding the language than just simply learning and reciting the words like a grey parrot from the Congo. In Tanga, Tanzania, the madressa was headed by Haider Rashid of the Mohammedi Cultural Group. He was, bless him, an absolute dictator, and ruled with a merciless mean staff that has many of us peeing in our white pajamas with fear of an oncoming thrashing way before the event. But I still have nothing but praise and prayers for him, for the discipline of reciting salaat and the command of duas he taught me is all credit to his unrelenting and well-meaning efforts.

If it had not been for the madressa and Haiderbhai and his comrade’s efforts in shaping me as a practicing Muslim, I would have been doomed living in the US. Mid-twenties, divorced and successful in corporate America is a deadly concoction that can, will and has ruined many imaans, and I have witnessed this phenomenon personally, with great distress. Alhamd’Allah, I was fortunate that regular and timely salaat made me return back to the right track before disaster struck, every time. Else, the career and personal success and cockiness I had acquired due to Allah’s grace towards me would have surely ruined me.


Now, I get into trouble for stating that I prefer the company of pretty women sitting next to me on long flights (read Blog here) in the last Blog, ruffling the harried feather of a respected community member here in Sanford. So, I am hurrying for salaat to the beautiful Masjid al Hayy when I am arrested by an elderly man stalking me.

Yusufali, ek minute, he rasps and closes into very uncomfortable personal space. I knew your father and his father, both of them, upright people.

I am about to thank him and hurry in but he blocks my way and comes right up to my face, faintly smelling of burnt garlic.

Why then, do you write bundu-bundu stuff in your Blogs?

The bundu-bundu makes his lips purr rapidly and I feel a drizzle of garlic tainted saliva settle on my face. Although I sense blood rush to my face because of the onslaught, my mind goes wandering. Bundu-bundu? Now, I’m sure I’ve heard this expression before, but where? I’m sure it’s Gujarati and I’ve heard it before. The man elaborates.

Why do you have to write about desiring pretty women for company? You do such good work for humanity, why do you ruin it with this bundu-bundu mumbo-jumbo? Hmm?

The saliva strikes again and I take an involuntary step backward. The desire to fish out my hanky and wipe off the dampness is intense but years of ingrained respect for my elders restrain me from the act that will surely offend. But I am mad nevertheless and throwing caution to the wind, I push back, even though it’s rapidly getting close to salaat time and I should be hurrying in.

Uncle, I say instead, isn’t it natural to want a pretty woman next to you, rather than an ugly one? Wouldn’t you rather have someone beautiful for company? What is so wrong with that? I am just being honest with saying what I think rather than thinking about it and being a hypocrite by not admitting the fact?

The man looks confused for a second, makes a face, snorts a despairing mcheee noise so common with East African Khojas, mutters astaghfiru’Allah and stomps off. I redo whudoo and hurry for magreeb.

This silly notion that I am above natural human feelings or a ‘maulaana’ just because I head a progressive and successful NGO must stop. The Blog was an attempt at satire, something to alleviate the malaise of a myriad of terrible human suffering around our world. I wish our maulanas would also read my Blogs; they need to laugh more and smile even more, me thinks. My Blogs can change that, perhaps?


On a more pertinent and serious note, Sohail Abdullah, CAI Trustee and I are bicycling from Ho Chi Minh City in Vietnam to Phnom Penh, Cambodia later this month. This 250-odd mile ride over 6 days is to satisfy a personal long sought itch, but more importantly, to raise funds for CAI’s efforts in feeding the starving and disease afflicted children of Yemen. The grave and the very distressful situation in this country increases terribly in quantum grades and we can only try our best to help out until peace and stability returns, soon insha'Allah.

CAI, in partnership with Beta Charitable Trust from the UK, are very active in helping the population with powder milk for infants, food for the rest, cholera vaccines and other medication. This aid has to continue when we consider the following details:

• 400,000 malnourished children
• 22 million need humanitarian aid
• 1.98 million Internally Displaced Persons

This is not considering the devastation to infrastructure that has been bombed to dust.

Please join us and help out if you can. Allah bless. Find out more about our escapade by clicking here.

Thursday, March 29, 2018

Empowering Women – Success, Finally!

Emirates flight EK219 from Dubai to Orlando appears to be on time, so I make my way through security where a uniformed kid who still seems to be weaning off his pampers tells me I can’t take the empty bottle I use for bathroom hygiene onboard. Ah well. Aboard, I wait for an elderly Indian woman blocking my way to the window seat to step aside. She is obviously struggling with her carry-on suitcase, and before I can offer my impeccable manners to help, she looks up at me snappily and chides me in perfect Hinglish.

Well, young man, don’t stand there and gape at my struggles. Help me, na?

Flustered and stung by the unfair accusation, I quickly help her store the rather weighty suitcase above. I’m only being nice because she called me young man, mind you. She offers me no gratitude, but slumps into the seat next to mine instead, moping her brow. She’s going to be my neighbor for the next 15 hours; I groan inwardly. There were so many pretty ladies around at the boarding gate earlier, and I was hoping I’d get one sitting next to me so the flight would speed by in interesting discourse perhaps; no such luck. The ancient thing next door regards me unabashedly for a while, and I squirm in my seat in discomfort, but then smiles her thanks, the creases of age on her face disappearing momentarily. Then she does something quite odd for an aged Indian woman; she asks a hovering steward for a double whiskey. He, like me, is taken aback, him blinking rapidly. He recovers, smiles and tells the old hag that the bar will open only after takeoff.

Well, I need the whiskey to calm my nerves, else I get mighty cranky, and that’ll set off unpleasant results. I doubt this young man next to me will appreciate that eventuality.

She looks at me and winks; I have no idea what she’s up to. But she can be as cranky as she likes, as long as she continues referring to me as a young man. They compromise that a glass of champagne would suffice until after takeoff. I groan again. Now, I’ll have to put up with the offensive smell of rotting grapes and barley. I’ve never taken to the odor of alcohol, even with over 30 plus years of service in corporate America, in management positions, where the use of this intoxicant is rampant and readily acceptable. I needn’t have worried so much. Except for a rather robust and angry fart during takeoff, which she beamingly blames on the lack of the whiskey, the champagne does seem to mellow her, and the whiskey afterward puts her into snoring slumber almost the entire trip.

It’s going to be boring 15 hours flight, again, with only my crosswords and writings to provide some cheer. The Emirates movies are all repeats, the better ones; I’ve watched almost all of them. An attractive neighbor would have been excellent company, but this one is gone to the clouds, snoring her champagne and whiskey gently away. Sighing in self-pity, I settle down to read the local media, which informs me that UAE has been ranked the happiest city in the Middle East. Fantastic. Another ceaseless laurel in the hat of this blessed country. Right next to the happiness report, another reporter is telling me that a salesman has been arrested for groping a woman. Hmm. I don’t wish to exaggerate, but I’m almost certain I read of at least a couple of groping incidents in UAE every day. The ones that get reported, that is. I wonder how happiness is measured. The people of UAE must not be too happy if they resort to regular groping, would they? Hmm. A perky brunette stewardess breaks my weighty contemplation on this grave matter with a phony smile, false fluttering eyelids and all the rest - she wants to know if I’ll have dinner with Emirates. At 2 AM? I shoo her away. I’m not hungry, plus I’ve had a mighty heavy hard-to-find-in-Orlando ndeezi-mbeechi at sister Sabira Somji’s earlier. The brunette makes a face, wounded by my rebuff, and tries her luck with the sleeping mummy next door; all she gets is an annoying snort.

I’m coming home after somewhat feverish three weeks that takes me to the CAI project at the Rohingya refugee orphans in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh (read report here), to freezing, windy London, UK and then to the SGH construction project nearing completion at Sirsi, UP, India. India is where CAI activities took off some 21 years ago and Sirsi, in particular, holds a special place in me. This is where about 1,000 financially challenged students from varying rural backgrounds get an opportunity for a quality education. It is also where I’ve butted heads with ancient, unjust mindsets against girls, denying them the right to education and opportunities otherwise made readily available to men. CAI, through me, have consistently pushed to put the gentler sex on an even playing field with the men. This exercise is exceptionally challenging, daunting and exhausting, and I still face some unrelenting hostility along the way. So, I am ecstatic with the following two milestones events at the Sirsi school.

Iram Fatema - First Female Principal:

Sayeda Iram Fatema takes over as the Principal of our school, leading over 1,000 students and 40 plus staff into a brighter and progressive future, insha’Allah. Iram Fatema has a solid academic background and years of experience as an educationalist. She’ll have to fight her battles, of course, and lead a team deeply ingrained in male dominance and superiority. With the solid support of the school management and unwavering backing of CAI, I am confident Iram Fateme will prevail and progress insha’Allah. We all welcome Iram Fatema.

Noorien Faridi – Student Turned Teacher.

Noorien Faridi joined the school as a student in Grade 2, when she was 8. The school had only three grades during that time. Her father, the sole earner at home, died at a rather young age, so even the nominal fees the school charged then, was a mighty challenge. But with a progressive thinking mother and supportive relatives, she prevailed. A diligent student, she proved her mantle and graduated from high school and with help from Al Imaan scholarships, pursued a 3-years college education, and a year of teachers training. Noorien was roped in by the very school she did her elementary education as a teacher’s assistant and was recently promoted as a full-term teacher for grades 6 – 8, taking on average class sizes of 40 rowdy students, an intimidating prospect.

Noorien requests to continue her studies and wants an MBA as part of her credentials. She is a lively, bubbly girl and I see a bright future for her, either here in Sirsi or further up. We all welcome Noorien Faridi.

Thursday, March 15, 2018

A Day With The Rohingya Orphans

The mosquitos at Shahjalal Airport, Dhaka are deadly. They are fat, feisty and ugly, but amazingly agile, and seem to dodge my attempts to squat them dead easily; I can almost hear them laughing at my duds. Still, I manage to murder a number of them, some with my holy blood splattering the laptop screen as I try to work, furiously scratching myself silly at the same time. I later learn that a Malaysian Airline aircraft had to return from the takeoff runway because one of the passengers developed last-minute hysteria due to the rampaging mosquitos in the aircraft. Imagine! The terminal is busy and noisy, as the staff of local airlines tries to control the haphazard check-in process.  A pretty but bored Bengali woman sits across me, yawning away, trying to sell pricey Gulshan properties, but has few takers. She takes an interest in me as I battle the mosquitos but that too, is boring after a while, so she resumes the incessant and wide yawns, baring jagged teeth my way. An ear itch seems to bother her, so she cones a piece of paper and uses that to get relief, then pulls it out, peers at the harvest and takes a sniff; I look away…

I am waiting for a local flight that’ll fly me to Cox’s Bazar, where CAI donors have adopted 140 refugee orphans. I’ve been to Cox’s Bazar before, of course, several times. I’ve crossed into Myanmar (Burma) a few years ago from here, smuggled in to distribute food to the persecuted Muslims when the Burmese Army first began their systematic ethnic cleansing of the Rohingya minority.  And then twice last year when CAI Trustees visited ‘hell on earth’ as we scrambled to appeal for and distribute the aid that went a long way to lessen the pain and mop the tears of these wretched children. I reach Cox’s Bazar on time, drive the 2-hours to the squalor camp where Kausar Jamal, CAI partner in Bangladesh welcomes me. Since it is magreeb, salaat is our priority.

To state that Kausar has done miracles with this CAI project is an understatement. The school/refuge for the 140 orphans is a technology oasis of sorts in the camp, with Wi-Fi and cameras that can monitor the school from anywhere in the world. The premises are spotless, well maintained and most importantly, for me, mosquito-free; I am happily impressed. Kausar has paid for 140 khatna circumcisions today, so there are remnants of children waiting for their turn in brave apprehension for the impending cut. I can’t stand to see the actual slash, so turn away from the room. We spend the evening in strategizing future tasks, audit and compliance reporting for the CAI aid sent. For a place in the midst of a squalor camp, the sleeping arrangements are A class – comfortable beds, a cooling fan and clean bathrooms. I sleep soundly.

I wake up to a cloud of fog that shrouds the entire camp, hampering visibility. The smog is made worse by thousands of wood fires that start up as the field wakes up to another day of misery. Kausar and I take a walk after salat to inspect CAI donor sponsored project that supplies potable water to about 9,000 people daily. The water has been a blessing and a curse, since fights erupt almost every day between those blessed with ready supply and ones who have to walk a considerable distance for a bucket of murky water. So, CAI has decided to extend the project to incorporate another 10,000 people with new deep-water wells, distribution pipes, and storage tanks. This project should complete by March 2018 insha’Allah, funding for which is in place.

The dirt lanes between endless ghettos are now firm because it is the rain-free ‘winter’ season. The evil smells that revolted me in the past are much curtailed as more toilets have been facilitated. But the tarpaulin and bamboo sheds are still heart wrenching to see. And once the rains start from April, the lanes will become squelchy and source of untold misery once again. I meet kids brushing teeth with charcoal using their fingers; people hack out filth from their lungs, a toddler defecates in front of me and then plays with his poop, no sign of its mother. Weary mothers queue up with pails at dry water spouts waiting for the power to resume so they can fill the water from the well. Makeshift shops sell cheap candy, chips and tiny packs of masalas; a ‘restaurant’ has sprung up in the dump, selling greasy parathas and a deadly-looking concoction of some meat and chickpeas. Improvised mosques are aplenty, from which emits the humming chorus of Quran recitation by children. Grubby kids, some buck-naked, roam around with glassy looks in their eyes. I try to smile at them, but they look at me as if I am batty, as if questioning any reason to smile. It is a wretched, miserable place and despondency sets in me just as the rising sun begins to lift off the fog. I may be skirting with blasphemy, but I would have easily preferred death to this situation. Kausar and I agree upon the locations for the 4 x 8,000, 8 x 4,000 and 12 x 2,000 water storage tanks to supply the additional 10,000 people CAI donors are helping.

On the way back to the shelter, I meet few smartly dressed kids running ahead of us. These are some of the lucky 140 orphans that attend the CAI shelter/school. They not only get nourishment, clothing, medical care and all else for a comfortable life but some quality activity as well. They get a haircut every month; their uniforms washed and a shampoo bath twice a week. They arrive at 6 AM, watch cartoons till 8, eat breakfast, attend Islamic class for 45 minutes, and then they study English, Math, and Burmese (Bangladesh authorities will not allow them to learn Bengali) until 12 before they get a nutritious lunch. Their day ends at about 2 when they must return to their hovels so that the CAI facility can clean up and get ready for the next day. The one downside to this service is that our kids have now a chip on their shoulders – they look cleaner, better fed, smarter dressed and have acquired a badass attitude against other non-school going camp children... Can’t win all the time, can we?

I spend most of the day with the orphans, breaking bread and attending classes with them; it is a beautiful experience to see them in much better spirits than before. Children rebound quickly, so the heartbreak and trauma they have been through are diminishing, and we pray for their very best future, insha’Allah.

Mr. and Mrs. Jamal and daughter Farha have been instrumental in successfully planning, developing and executing this sometimes-insufferable project; they have put their hearts into it. CAI is indebted to them for their commitment and grit in getting the orphans the support they are entitled to. Thank you.

View the many wonderful photos and a video of my visit to the camp. Here is another video that highlights the dismal state of affairs with these woeful people. Warning - this clip is, to me, graphic and highly distressing.