Thursday, March 18, 2010

Lost lives...insecure lives.

Kabul, Afghanistan - Friday February 26,2010

Six heavily armed men casually walk towards the entrance of Park Residence Hotel and as casually, pump several bullets into the heavy set middle aged guard sleepily guarding the entrance on this calm and sedate Friday holiday. They quickly overpower and kill 2 other guards just inside the iron enforced gates and then run into the open compound of the hotel and set off a number of explosions so powerful, the entire facade of the building comes crashing down. The assailants proceed to gun down anybody that moves; but there are not many guests out and about, sleeping in perhaps on this Muslim Sabbath. The obvious leader of these assassins, a tall, powerful, fully bearded man with shoulder length hair, kicks in the reception door and in Urdu, demands to know what rooms Indians occupy. The night clerk, terrified out of his wits, trembles violently, unable to speak; he gets shot dead. Frustrated, the leader commands his team to explode more bombs.

After the Afghanistan Defence Forces finally kill the attackers and mop up this latest onslaught on Kabul, 18 innocents lay dead, 9 Indians, mostly doctors working in the Indian Medical Mission serving Afghans desperately in need of medical attention.

Kabul, Afghanistan – 2005, 2006, 2007

After spending my first trip ever to Kabul at the (un)Insaaf Hotel in 2005, freezing because of no heat in the rooms and either boiling water or ice water options in the bathrooms, Park Residency Hotel was an oasis of relative comfort, not too far away. The rooms were fairly large, well cleaned and food, catering to many Indians who preferred staying here, fairly palatable. Security, with heavy armed guards manning massive iron doors and frisking everybody coming in was seemingly (apparently not) adequate and assuring. Sayyedna Mussawi, Gulambhai Virjee, Aliakberbhai Ratansi, Mohammed Somji, Mohammed Dewji – all of us will remember this hotel very well.

Kabul, Afghanistan, March 12 - 15, 2010

I am in Kabul, this my 14th trip here on behalf of Comfort Aid International to inspect and complete final formalities for opening of Imam Hussein (A) High School at Daste Barchi, a sprawling Hazare slum on the outskirts of Kabul. I am staying as a guest at the home of our engineer Wasi Mohammed, who is insisting this; he feels his modest home the most secure for me, considering what happened to Park Residence Hotel just 3 weeks ago. I am reluctant to impose on Wasi’s modest means, especially after he makes a whole room, nice and warm, available for me, but he is right, it is a “right” neighbourhood and I will be safe, insha’Allah.

These are long days for us; the entire team work throughout the day and late into the night to make sure everything is covered for the grand opening on June 3rd, birthday of Lady of Light, Sayyeda Fatemah (S). There are several issues to be resolved (this being Afghanistan, not surprising), but looks like we will overcome them, insha’Allah. The school building itself is turning out very beautiful maasha’Allah; I can find very little, if anything, to fault with the construction of the building; this is unusual, for I tend to be exacting, a perfectionist, a pain.

It is while we are returning from dinner that we chance drive by the now shell of Park Residency Hotel. I request Wasi to stop; he hesitates, unsure, uneasy. The area is shrouded in darkness and looks eerie; Wasi stops and I get out, viewing the destruction that is so apparent. The building is covered up to hide the blackened shell, there is nobody around and I can make out the collapsed front fa├žade. How must it have felt for the guests that were slain that Friday? The guard whom I knew well, the demure receptionist, the bellboys…? How many Fridays have I and those that accompany me sometimes slept in that very same spot…?

I say a prayer for those that perished, some faces so fresh in my mind, I can see their expressions vividly. I know Wasi is getting anxious, nervous, so I hurry back to the relative safety of Wasi’s neighbourhood.

Monday, March 8, 2010

You give me bad gas, My Baap…

My distant relative, a pious man of advancing age, regards me with watery eyes, his mouth struggling to cope with overflow of paan remnants so when he speaks, his speech is incoherent and I have to pay special attention to understand him. This relative, (I can’t pinpoint how we are exactly related, but he has bandaged together a relationship from my mother’s family from Kilwa of yore, in Tanzania), let’s call him My Baap for convenience sake, is a man with great exposure to worldly affairs, since he has travelled far and wide. He has made good money, a businessman lucky enough to have started early when Dubai was still wearing business pampers.

My Baap is visiting Mumbai for a health physical, wants to make sure he is hale and hearty so he can enjoy his wealth in old age. Not my words, he told me so with a knowing, cheeky wink and a twinkle in his eyes. Now, I know he has a wife in Dubai (a second marriage, for the first abandoned him a while ago) a fine one, who has been with him for a considerable time. Is he insinuating more unions, I wonder, alarmed? I dismiss the thought, probably my imagination working overtime? All the tests are within acceptable levels considering his age and doctors at Kokila Ambani Hospital here in Andheri have given give a clean health chit with the caveat that all the encouraging results can very quickly deteriorate if he were to continue his paan guzzling (and disgusting, I might add) habit. He is paying me a courtesy call, he says, because we are related. Somehow...

People visiting us from anywhere outside India is a treat for me; gives me a an oppertunity to catch up with events from many homes I have made over my life in Africa, Dubai, Canada and the USA. So I am happy he is here and mama ya watoto makes him comfortable; serves him tea and goodies from the kitchen.

Anyway, he is in fairy good mood, which is rare, for My Baap is (usually very) strongly opinioned about every Khoja community issue under the sky and rants away at perceived ills within us and any entity that struggles to hold it together. So when he takes off ranting about the massive Imam Hussein (A) School CAI is building in Afghanistan, I am unsurprised, unmoved; amused even, because I either smile or smirk. This sets My Baap up into an ugly mood fast-fast, for his features change, his color change, his voice shrills and he loses composure as a tickle of paan juice escapes and quickly dribbles down his chin.

It is my turn to change color and panic; if that drip from his chin falls on our new sofa, I will not hear the end of lamenting from mama ya watoto. I quickly move to offer My Baap a napkin but he brushes away the paper and proceeds to wipe his chin with his palms and rub them clean together; I cringe.

Why do you insist on taking away our (?) huquuq funds and put them in Afghanistan? He shrills. Do you not know the predicament of your Khoja brothers in Dar es Salaam? They are suffering, I tell you, young man, suffering badly! This economic crises has wiped out a lot of our people, you should be helping them first. There are families who have no house; they live hand to mouth in rented flats. We have medical cases that we have to bring here to India; we have no money for that. Our children suffer poor education, we need better teachers and we need schools...

My Baap, pauses to empty another sachet of RMD (Rooz Marneki Dawa as it is notoriously referred to in Mumbai) into an upturned mouth and wants to litter my not too long ago swept and mopped floor (Nasreen, our daily help would have a fit if she were to witness this brazen act) so I take it away from him and discard it into a dustbin not too far away from My Baaps’s reach and eyesight.

Well, I am not known for patience and political correctness either; rather, I am regularly accused of being frank and very abrupt and I am now hot under my kurta. So while My Baap chews and struggles with the offensive overflow in his mouth that has silenced him momentarily, I go on the offensive.

Uncle My Baap, I say, I am not sure what you mean by your huqooq money; I get these from all over the world. Most of CAI projects are donor driven and they choose where and what projects to support. Charitable spending is like going to the grocery store which sells many varieties of fruit. You may like apples, I oranges, the next person grapes. Nobody has come to me with money and specifically instructed me to spend on needy Khojas of Dar es Sallam else CAI would have done exactly as instructed. CAI can’t do it all; there are many other fine humanitarian organizations that may be helping these very people. In fact, why can’t you take the initiative? I am sure you can do much, why don’t you start something that will help your brethren?

I know I have wounded him for his eyes narrow and he takes deep gulps of air to control him. The tea he has half finished remains, catching a cold and snacks from Tasneem’s kitchen are untouched. I know he is calculating how to respond but I want to cut off this nonsense and give him no chance; he is, after all, on my turf.

Uncle My Baap, I continue, huqooq funds are for all deserving Shia Ithnaasheries, be they in Das es Salaam, here in India but more so in Afghanistan. You moan about the plight of Khojas in Dar es Sallam, have you asked or inquired about why CAI invests in Afghanistan? You talk of economic crises while your Shia brethren of Afghanistan have no economy at all? You talk of widows that have rental homes; what about widows who have no homes, not even rental ones, widows whose husbands were massacred just because of their religious belief? Widows and young orphans who walk for miles just to fetch a pail of water? What about children who have not seen a doctor, no immunization, no medicines, ever! Pregnant women who die together with their unborn babies because there is no medical facility for miles and there is six feet of snow outside? What about villages that have no schools, none whatsoever! Why? Because they belong to a religious minority, like yours! Consider the Khojas of Dar es Sallam lucky and gives thanks to Allah (S) you were not born a Shia in Afghanistan…

My Baap’s chewing has ceased and his face is now cast in stone. He does not look at me, but at his mobile that he dials to summon his driver, asking to be picked up. He gathers his belongings and gets up, still not a word out of him, an attribute unknown for his character, that of instant resort and critic. I feel for him then, not sorrow, but something else, I am not sure what. Perhaps it’s a rare defeat for him, outdone by someone younger, perhaps? Stiffly but surely, he leaves and stops at the door which Nasreen holds open for him, turns and looks at me for an instant. I think he wants to say something, a last word perhaps, but his face has a look of only hatred. He is then gone.

Well, My Baap, you give me gas, bad gas...I have to get it out.