Tuesday, December 27, 2011

A Hairy Affair

‘Hair,’ my marhoom friend Shafiq Allaina, who was blessed with thick, almost unmanageable mane of wiry hair once disclosed at a Banyani saloon in Tanga, Tanzania, ‘is everything. Without hair, a person is inadequate, almost like a man without manhood.’ The Hindu barber, with a pate as shiny as a simmering desert wasteland, nodded his head sagely, strangely; Shafiq was a generous tipper.This was when I was about sixteen, a very impressionable age, and this fact, from apparent experts, filled me with indescribable dread.

The hair on my crown, you see, was thin and fine, especially at the tips. Any attempt to grow it fashionably long and over the ears, like then Bollywood actors, make me look comical, at best. The locks above both ears had minds of their own, they changed course and ascended to the heavens in defiance of gravity, instead of coming down to earth. No matter what and how much I tried, these tips were hell bent to frustrate me. No matter I spent an inordinate time in front of the mirror taming them, using water, expensive, high-priced sprays (there were no fancy gels then), various (smelly) oils and even spit, my hair stayed rebellious. If there was one issue we siblings clashed about the most, it was my time spent in the bathroom, in front of the mirror, disciplining wayward scalp hair. So I stayed in fashion sidelines, forced to content with fine hair cut well above the ears. Jeetendra from Bollywood would have been most disappointed; his most ardent devotee not even able to match his hairstyle, let alone pursue maidens around rose shrubs in tight fitting white pants, white t-shirts and matching shoes.

At about age twenty-one, dread was replaced with terror, absolute panic; not only were my scalp hair disobedient, they started abandoning me. Not one or a couple here and there, no-no, this was exodus. They came away in clumps on my towel after a shower, they clouded the white bathroom sink when I combed standing over it, they lay glinting with mischief on my pillow when I got up in the morning and they dropped on to my shoulders unannounced; I began wearing dark shirts, much to Mama’s annoyance, ‘It’s not Muharram yet, you know, and I’m still alive!’ She’d quip. For me, it could have been many Muharrams put together; such was my anguish. I feared the worse - no girlfriends, no marriage prospects, people calling me baldie, or taklo, or worse. If the time I took in the bathrooms was lengthy before, it was now eternities.

I tried fighting back against nature; buying the most expensive shampoos available in markets, stood inverted on my head for hours on the advise of my gym guru, applied raw egg yolk before going to sleep, rubbed fresh lime juice on my scalp…alas, the hair kept a-falling. All this did was deplete my savings, give me frightening headaches, have Amina Bhabhi look at me suspiciously when she saw the soiled pillowcases and kept my young nieces and nephews a fair (odor-free) distance from me. I would not allow anyone near my scalp, touching was sacrilege, would invite instant and furious rebuke. I hated the wind outside so the windows of my car never left their closed position, much to Mama’s ire. The mirror, any mirror, many mirrors, became my constant buddies; I disappeared to washrooms and cursed the fallen fuzz I met but blessed and prayed for long(er) life for those that hung on.

When I proposed marriage to a maiden at a very tender age, she accepted, much to my shock and surprise; poor her, little did she know she would soon be forced to defend her future husband’s desolate scalp with couplets like ‘koon kehta hai mera aadmi ganja hai, chaand pe khabhi baal dekha hai…?’ I was much relieved however.

Marriage revived by hairy fortunes – somewhat. Much latter did I learn hormones and hereditary played an important role in my scalp’s fortunes. With pressure off and hormones under control, my hair fall steadied and even spurted back some, so I enjoyed few years of respite from the battle. But I was on always on guard, however.

Then came Rogaine and hope for men’s vanity, mine specially, brightened considerably. I smiled more readily (which made my boss and coworkers look at me oddly), sang in the shower (which made my ex-wife eye me with suspicion), walked with a spring in my step (which made others warily yield way) and kept all windows in my car open in Minnesota winter (which almost gave my ex-wife a scary pneumonia, sinuses that she still may very well be suffering from). This euphoria lasted until an exasperated dermatologist looked at me in the eye and told me to stop being a fool, wasting money and dabbing into the unknown. He assured me my scalp and remaining hair were fine and opined that although Rogaine did help (some) men re-grow (some) hair, it also worked wholeheartedly in wholesome growth of hair on shoulders, the back, ears and buttocks as well. I swallowed hard, painfully, felt the floor spin and open up, swallowing last hopes of saving my hair.

It took hairdresser Maria, a divorced Hispanic mother-of-two from Austin TX, to finally install confidence in me. She was reasonably priced (you will not believe the money people pay for a haircut in Austin), very good, quiet attractive and worked a fair distance away, but both my nephew Sibtain and I patronized her. She would trim my hair short, the military way and then admire her labor lovingly. She once remarked I had a perfectly shaped head, which made me blush silly but when Sibtain revealed I was single and she made known her interest in dating me, why, I giddily floated in fluffy clouds. Wow, if an attractive gal like Maria was interested in me, who cared about an ever-expanding barren scalp?

Maria lost interest fast-fast when she found out alcohol was not part of my lifestyle and temporary marriages were not part of hers. ‘Santo hijo de MarĂ­a!’ she exclaimed, ‘even if I were to agree marrying you temporarily, I would have to be sloshed as hell…sober men are so very boooooring!’

After all this, it is now fashionable to sport a shaven scalp, ha!

I wish you lots of ready, happy laughter for 2012.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Baby Sultana's Eyes - The Aftermath

I seem to have kicked up a Minnesota style blizzard regarding my latest Blog - Baby Sultana's Eyes. Some people, mostly 'family members' imply, no, accuse me of fabricating a fairy tale, ha! Some say I used 'unpalatable' words like prostitute and brothel while others opine my description of (possible) Sultana's beauty excessively vivid. A lot more (enlightened and selective perhaps?) readers emailed compliments for a blog par excellence, not only for my writing style alhamd'Allah, but also, more importantly, portraying stark realities of life, especially concerning women of India. Regarding Baby Sultana's Eyes, strangely, the critics overlook my core message; a pitiable, seemingly impossible life saved, liberated, a lost soul returned to Lord’s worship, a budding life salvaged.

The story of Baby Sultana is absolute fact, like all subjects I cover in my Blogs; for imaginative inventions, I (try to) write fiction. Yes, I use vivid descriptions, only because the reader can image and taste events as experienced. If Zulaikha was a prostitute, what else can I write, she was not one? If she worked in a brothel, well, that is fact. If I found her face kind of familiar and exceedingly beautiful, it would be very silly and peculiar to describe her ordinary or otherwise, yes?

Now, I can choose to stay quiet and keep such memories and experiences to myself or write about mundane issues that 'censor' realities and this, perhaps, would make everybody happily hunky-dory. Alas, this is not my cup of tea, not my preferred nature. I write, and will continue writing insha'Allah, any and all subjects I believe makes life interesting, especially about people that have made an important impact, positive or otherwise, to my life. Just like my trip reports, I cover all (three) sides of a coin, the good, the bad and evil; of countries and mankind. This motivates, I believe, how we (can) play our part, however little or much.

I sincerely request all you who find my blogs unsavory to please use the "DELETE" button - liberally; I will most certainly be offended, not! Just spare me grief and (especially) do not question my right (or style) to write. Poa basi.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Baby Sultana’s Eyes - Final


I encourage her to leave the brothel, but she is scared of Khaala and the consequences; Zulaikha might have her face disfigured by acid by Khaala’s goons. I accompany her to a local but foreign affiliated and funded NGO for battered women who refuse help initially, but quickly change their minds when I assert myself and firmly tell them I will make it my business to propagate their existing attitude on my return to the US. Zulaikha gets shelter, few (used) clothes and one hot meal a day.

I see Zulaikha very frequently, at the spot in Chopatty Beach, for meals at restaurants and at my place in Bandra. Mrs. D’Souza goes berserk with surprise, consternation, disgust and ‘I did not think you were like this’ comments. Arguments follow, some heated, but I prevail in the end when I threaten to leave and demand return of prepaid rent and deposit. She relents then, but insists I keep my bedroom door open all times Zulaikha visits. I give Zulaikha (some) money with which she keeps her paan habit alive, warning her no further support if there is any ganja involved. I also visit the smelly, crowded and filthy alley at Grant Road where her life as a prostitute played out but cannot muster the courage to actually enter the building.

Zulaikha expands dramatically, rapidly, from a slim, trim girl to a chubby, plump woman with a healthy glow that all expectant mothers develop. Alarming is her vivacious appetite for food; she wolves down everything in sight and more, leaving my wallet uncomfortably thin. With no occupation, her presence at Mrs. D’Souza’s residence is by nine in the morning, sometimes even before I return from my morning run. She declares I am nuts I run, is wowed by my sweat-soaked attire; this concept is alien to her and suggests the spent energy would be better served pursuing other activities instead. Her early arrivals cause considerable disquiet for Mrs. D’Souza, who grumbles nonstop but still serves Zulaikha butter tea with cookies and freely dispenses advise on healthy pregnancy and childbirth.

I finish my book research by March 1995 and get ready to return home to US. I break this news to Zulaikha who takes it quite dramatically; she disappears. When she does not show up for three days, prompting a protest from Mrs. D’Souza even, I go look for her, rather concerned. She is neither at the shelter nor at the brothel; I ask a prostitute a street away from the building. Looking me up and down, lips revealing stained red teeth, she huskily tells me ‘She disappeared few weeks ago, maybe she has a aadmi, her child’s father? She’s expecting, you know? I’m available Hero, nothing in here.’ She pats her stomach, indicating a flat gut; I shudder and make a hasty retreat, with her cursing in Marathi at my rapidly receding back.

I find Zulaikha exactly where we first met, sitting on the bench at an almost empty beach. Her mouth is full of paan and a glazed look tells me she is high on ganja. As gently as I can, for I am not a very tolerant person to stupidity, try and explain all the horrible effects ganja can have on her child. I assure her I will be in touch from Texas, will help her pay the very subsidized nursing home bill where the NGO has registered her baby’s delivery and also help with money for the baby once born. ‘But what about the baby, Sahib, where will I keep her? What will become of her, growing up at a brothel where I will return after you leave? Why can’t you adopt her and take her with you to Amrika if you don’t want me. I will eek out an existence here, but not my baby. Please Sahib, marry me, I will make you the happiest man on earth, I know how to please a man, what makes them happy. Please Sahib…’ My heart hurts.

It takes me all day to calm Zulaikha down, this girl-child with whom I have so bonded and grown much fond of. I insist she return home to Muzafferpur, which is the only viable solution, an option she has steadfastly before rejected. I very firmly insist return to any brothel is not a choice, under any circumstance. It takes a while, a whole week, but she finally relents. However, she makes me swear on the Quraan she sometimes sees me reciting, that I would return to see her baby, and I concede. She says she will name the baby, if a girl, Sultana, after my long-lost first-born; claims she loves the name and as gratitude and love for her Sahib - me. In return, I make her promise she will begin reciting regular prayers, so she prays sometimes in my presence, a nervous, shy beginning but more assured as her Mama day draws near. Baby Sultana is born a preemie, arriving five weeks early, on May fifth, but healthy, thank Allah. Mrs. D’Souza agrees to keep mum and baby for three month after delivery, only if I pay her the usual rent; I accept.

I return about three months later, in June, when Mumbai is oppressively hot and humid, heralding the coming of monsoon rains. Zulaikha frets on the phone before I arrive, saying she is not convinced I will return, complains she does not want to travel with the baby during the rains and train tickets are hard to come by, so please hurry up. My first sight of Baby Sultana is a heart tug, especially when she clasps her tiny, delicate fingers to my finger and doesn’t let go. But a blast of shock is when she opens her eyes and looks at me; the hair on my hands leap erect, my heart palpitates. Cat eyes, a copy of her Mama!

I meet Zulaikha and Baby Sultana twice again, on my regular visits to India, in Mumbai; they take a train all the way from Muzafferpur. Zulaikha stiches clothes for a living from a sewing machine I purchase for her; she reconciles and lives with her now widowed father and married brother; both younger sisters are married. She has kicked her ganja habit, she tells me, but still indulges in homemade paan, baring red stained teeth and tongue as evidence. Baby Sultana is two when I last meet her, a replica of her Mama, babbling non-stop, coyly warming up to me when I shower her with gifts from the US. When I tell Zulaikha of my pending marriage in July of 1998, I notice hurt and sadness in her eyes. ‘Now you will forget about us Sahib, your wife will consume your life from now on.’ When I protest, she quips in defiance ‘Bah! I know…I am a woman. But don’t you worry; there are men who want to marry me as well…I have several rishteys pending. Perhaps I will accept one…’

The girl disengages our eye-talk and moves to sit next to the Arab man who pauses in his squabble with the Filipino salesgirls. He looks at the girl, I imagine, with love and tenderness, and then does something quite alien to his custom and culture. Very briefly, but assuredly, he reaches around and grasps the girl’s shoulders, whose face is expressionless still and addresses the Filipinos, ‘Show something nice for my wife, something very beautiful…’ The man glances at the (apparent) older wife, who has paused in her destruction of merchandise to glare at him. As if touched by live wire, the man let go his grip and gently, lovingly, whispers something in younger wife’s ear, who continues being expressionless, then resumes his tirade against the Filipinos.

I still stare at the girl, heart thumping and desperately hope she will engage in eye-talk once again; with all my heart, I force her to look at me, but I am to be disappointed. I leave, but with a heavy heart and worried, tangled thoughts. Can it be possible? Is it her? So young, not even sixteen, married to an already married, half-dead, apparently wealthy, stingy buffoon? Can it? Those exclusive eyes, are they Baby Sultana’s? Zulaikha’s Baby Sultana...?


Baby Sultana’s Eyes - Part One

In Dubai recently, at Emirates Mall, browsing for nothing in particular, I notice an Arab family of five, with a nervous maid (Indian, Sri Lankan?) in tow at a department store. Why? The scent. And racket. The whiff of exotic oud coming from this group is overwhelming, but peculiarly, alluring as well, so I linger close to them. The father, an overweight man with a budging belly and a hooked nose, harshly discusses prices of purses and shoes and clothes and designer sunglasses with a couple of harassed Filipino salesgirls, who clearly show sings of fatigue. He gestures wildly, making the worry beads on his fingers crackle and jerk wildly, as if they, too, share his temperament. The salesgirls warily keep on stating prices are non-negotiable, but this fact makes no impact on the man, as he persists with negotiating a lower price.

The obvious wife, a short squat woman covered in black except for face, sits on a chair and rummages through boxes and wrapping without care or courtesy, discarding them and demanding more. Two daughters, very much replicas of their mother, except with gold and diamond jewelry flashing on their fingers, matching glitter on their abaayas, join in gleefully, jabbering in union so I am unable to tell who is listening to whom. A boy, apparently the son, almost dad’s duplicate, as obese, remains aloof, lost to the cellphone world, either texting or gaming, I cannot tell. The maid hovers in the background, ignored. It is, however, the third girl in the group that stands out and grabs my attention.

This girl is exquisite, lean and with a face that makes me stare. She is veiled in beauty and silence, watching the others with measured reserve. I doubt she is from the same family, but could be wrong, certainly don’t look Arab. Blatantly, I admire her demure, lowered eyes, delicate jawline, soft tilted nose and the full curve of firm, fresh lips. Unlike the other two girls, she is almost devoid of makeup, save a trace of lipstick on her full lips. Elusively, the face looks kind of familiar.

I know I should move on, not gawk, but the girl’s fascinating face consumes my attention. Then this girl, she must sense me staring at her, for her attention shifts and dismissively glances my way and away. I am about to rouse from my trance when her eyes suddenly revert my way and we lock eyes. It must not be for longer than three seconds, at most, but feels like an eternity that we speak of I know not. My heart skips a beat and then accelerates; I feel my breathing quicken. These eyes, I have seen them somewhere. My mind immediately processes stored data and retrieves a similar set of eyes. The eyes that briefly, intensely, warmed my heart, from a very long time ago, the eyes of baby Sultana…

Way back in December 1994, when I am in Bombay (then, Mumbai now) researching for my first novel, I chance upon meeting a girl-child on Chopatty Beach off Marine Drive. I have spent an entire day at Central Library, so my mind is full of ideas that need processing and ponder. I therefore decide on a nice long walk, with fresh cool(er) winter sea breeze to give me just that, before putting my life to peril on the Western Railway Line to Bandra, where I live as a paying guest at a kind hearted, albeit grumpy Goan widow, Mrs. Maria D’Souza’s house. It is a pleasant evening, the weather comfortable and the brisk ocean breeze feels good on my face and (then) hair.

Although a weekday, there is plenty of activity all along Marine Drive; middle aged men jog, desperately tying to rid disposable guts, housewives doing the same for hips and thighs, walking but complaining as well, about wayward children, ever increasing price of tomatoes, shocking developments of favorite serial drama, elderly men reading newspapers or worrying about retirement stock market portfolio and couples chancing upon opportunities for intimacy. The ocean growls, swells and crash at the restraining walls, as if venting anger at being stopped in her high tide march. The vendors; chaiwallas, maikaiwallahs, maalishwallahs, madafuwallahs and the beggars, all look up hopefully as I near them, only to divert their hopes to someone else as I walk unseeingly by.

It is almost twilight when I reach Chopatty Beach, which is packed with crowds out to enjoy the mild weather. The evening rush hour traffic jerks forward, stops, jerks, stops; BEST busses ply by spluttering dark toxic fumes. The roads, however, belong to motorbikes, young men with wives or girlfriends plastered to their backs, zoom in and out of the serpentine queue, making headway with every nook and space that open up. I am about to hail a cab to Victoria Station (now renamed a mouthful Chakrapathy Shivaji Station) when I notice a young girl sitting on a caste-off wooden crate, sobbing. She is clearly in distress, her head lowered on her laps and the back rocking in convulsion of grief; I, and others, hesitate for few moments before moving on. One half of my conscience tells me to return and ask if she needs help but the other half cautions otherwise. I retrace my steps and find her sitting up, staring at the distant water with puffed up, watery eyes.

She is no more than eighteen, very pale, much paler than any Bombaite I see, wearing a mismatched faded salwar-kurti. Before I can say anything, she glances at me, averts her face and says, ‘Phooto loafer, I am not for sale.’ I am so stunned and hurt, I am unable to speak, but glare at her for a moment before abruptly turning and walking away. I am so mad (and sorry) at myself, standing on a curb trying to flag down non-vacant cabs that I don’t notice her by my side, talking to me.

‘Maaf karo Sahib, I was rude to you; so sorry. You look to be a decent man and I should not have said what I did. I am very upset, I have had very trying few weeks.’

I am so mad, I want to lash out at her, give her an earful but before I can open my mouth, I see tears in her eyes and my anger evaporates. These eyes, they are different. I am used to black eyes that all Indians have; hers are almost colorless, like cat eyes, and it gives me an uncanny feeling looking at them. Warily fascinated, I ask her the reason for the tears and she tells me.

Zulaikha Bahadoor is a prostitute, and eight weeks pregnant. She tells me this as we sit side by side on a cement bench on Chopatty Beach, facing a robust high tide of the Indian Ocean, eating roasted peanuts and drinking hot chai. She is from the state of Bihar, brought to Bombay by her cousin brother who promises her a sewing job, something Zulaikha is quite good at, at a garment factory. Mired in poverty, with her father desperately trying to raise enough dowry to get the eldest daughter in the family married, Zulaikha is easily lured away; the promised five thousand rupees a month is a lot of money, enough for her family to live comfortably and her mother treated for crippling arthritis that ails her.

They take a crowded train, Zulaikha tells me, from her village in Muzafferpur to Mumbai, which takes almost two days. Once in Mumbai, the cousin takes her for a ride in a black taxi to an isolated place two hours away. There, outside a row of rotting warehouses, she is traded to a group of men who take her in and rape her. They do things to her she cannot tell me, and hurt her in ways she never knew possible. After some time, she does not care what they do, as long as the hurting stops. A few days later, when the ‘animals’ tire of her, she is brought to the red light district near Grant Road where she is sold again and put to work servicing men; drunk, smelly and uncouth men who use her body. There are a few exceptions, gentlemen who treat her tenderly and tip her over and above what is paid to Khaala. This extra money makes it possible to indulge in paan, mixed with a dab of cheap ganja supplied by Rafeek, a local pimp and pusher. The paan eases the taste of filth that customers’ leave on her tongue and the ganja eases the torment of memories; that of her village, ailing mum and family.

She is crying, she says, because she is very desperate, has run out of paan-ganja money and the craving is intense. About ten days ago, she feels dizzy and throws up poori-bhaaji immediately after breakfast, right in front of other eating sex-workers, under the ever-watchful eyes of Khaala, who promptly whisks her away to a shoddy lady doctor who pronounces her very pregnant. When Khaala insists on an abortion and Zulaikha refuses, Khaala slaps her, swears she will not feed another mouth for free and stops Zulaikha from taking on any customers. Although this is a great relief, the paan-ganja stops as well. When she begs Rafeek for some as loan, he demands her body in repayment, something Zulaikha finds loathsome but says she might succumb to if there are no alternatives.

Once again, the two sides of my conscience debate, giving me conflicting advise. Zulaikha has obviously, cleverly, caught on to my vulnerable side and she exploits this, with life tragedies and tender pleas. Alone in Mumbai, recently divorced, with solitary research and writing only to occupy my time, I swallow hungrily, bait, hook, line and sinker. Although I am awfully tempted, and Zulaikha very willing, I am never intimate with her, prompting her to accusingly question my manhood. I give her my reasons, but these are neither relevant nor important to this saga.

To be continued...

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

The Ultimate Sajda

'O Land Of Kerbala, My Son Is Innocent...'

This is the lament of Sayyeda Fatemah (A) today, as we commemorate the spilling of holy and innocent blood of her son, Hussein (A), his family, relatives and companions in Kerbala, Iraq, some 1,400 years ago. Hundreds of millions worldwide will grieve, shed untold tears of anguish, inflict pain on selves and share the agony of this superb human being who surrendered not only his life, but that of his entire male family, save an ailing son. Hussein's (A) martyrdom set the stage for his family to be looted, taken captives, paraded uncovered and imprisoned in most inhumain ways. In doing this, Hussein (A) gave root to the most powerful movement for worlds oppressed and downtrodden; that of revolution against tyranny and injustice. All this for, and only for, the pleasure of Allah (S); nothing else mattered.

Hussein (A) will prostrate today, his final one, this from the heir of all prophets. What a sajda, however! A sajda which surpasses that of Adam, Ibrahim, Moosa, Issa and Mohammed - peace on them all. A sajda that is uncompromising against an onslaught on Islam, an adamant refusal to bow in front of tyranny, brutality and subjugation. A sajda that reignites the want for long extinguished human dignity and self-respect, a sajda that today fires up oppressed masses in countries from Morocco to Bahrain, and beyond. For the return of human dignity and justice that will continue to passion up people to rise up and really live. Live with dignity and justice, live a little bit like Hussein (A).

So I (and like minded people in today's world), dedicate my life to the mission of this blessed personality, the inheritor of Allah's religion on earth, grandson of Prophet Mohammed (S), son of Ali (A) and Fatema (A), brother of Hassan (A), brother of Zaynab and Kulthoom and father to nine other infallibles (A).

O Hussein (A), because of this sacrifice, I will educate myself, so that:

1. I will not accept subjugation, injustice, degradation or humiliation, from no matter who or how powerful the culprit.

2. I will submit only, and only to the will of Allah (S), as enlightened in His book, the glorious Quraan and follow laws laid down therein by His Seer (S) and the Aaimaas (A).

3. I will conduct myself as a proper Muslim, my behavior criteria much above other individuals.

4. I will cherish and lament the memory of Hussein (A) through Zainab (A) and Sajjad's (A) powerful gift of majaalisis of azaa in dignity, appropriate for their mission. I will certainly not follow rituals and will definitely not spill blood (mine or anybody else's) in Hussein's (A) sanctified name, no matter what and how much (some) learned or popular aalims preach to the contrary.

5. I will simply ignore 'aalims' who misuse the pulpit to insult other faiths (sects) or personalities and focus on mending my moral blemishes. I will propagate the mission and mention of Hussein (A) by concentrating on his virtues and qualities rather than other's vices and evils. I firmly believe your lovers (current and ones that come later, till the Day of Judgement) will cherish your memory, as promised by the Prophet (S) until your holy blood is avenged by the Mahdi (A).

So here is my salute, my intense salutation and sacrifice of my life, easily, to you, O Performer Of The Ultimate Sajda, on this catastrophic day of Aashoora. My profound salutation to your sons, sisters, brothers, cousins, nephews, nieces, friends and companions who laid their lives in your cause. My intense and profound salutation to the severe thirst and hunger that gripped your young children; for the intense pain and hallowed blood that was shamelessly spilled from your sacred bodies.

And by doing ALL this I may, perhaps, be able to salvage (some) redemption and intersession from your mother, Lady of Light Fatemah (A).

Sunday, November 20, 2011


Some five years ago, Nazim Mirza, a destitute peasant farmer from Mursheedabad, WB India, moves to congested and grimy, smelly community of Matia Bruj, Kolkota in the hope of work and a better life for his family. He staggers around Matia Burj, followed by his frail wife and two very young daughters for a few days, surviving on handouts and sleeping on pavements. He is in luck, for he gets employed as a grocery store worker, albeit for a measly pay. Finally, after much struggle, Mirza has some money; the family can eat one hot meal a day.

Mirza is illiterate, has no idea about contraceptives, and couldn't afford any even if he knew about birth control. So Mrs. Mirza gets pregnant, yet again, and gives birth to an underweight but relatively healthy baby boy. Days later, Mrs. Mirza dies due to complications of the child's birth and severe lack of blood; the poor lady just did not have any resistance on her and gave up the will to survive.

Blinded with grief and over his head with the care of three children, Mirza struggles, leaving them with an uncompromising but accommodating Wahabi neighbor while at work. The Wahabi couple offers to buy the boy, Mirza refuses at first, struggling within his community for help. Desperate, he relents in the end, selling the infant for approximately US$200.

When I get wind of the situation, I am livid and immediately offer to 'buy' back the infant; a donor agrees funding, I intend to send him to one of CAI orphanages in India. The Wahabi couple refuses. We offer to double, triple and even up the offer ten times; they will not budge. The transaction is legal; all 'adoption' documents airtight, the courts will not intervene. Fearing Mirza will sell his daughters as well, CAI steps in and moves the two girls to Sakina Girls Home in Andheri, Mumbai.

I had the good fortune of meeting the two girls during my recent visit there on Eid day; click here to see their photograph in their Eid attire. Both Sabah, 13 and Roshni, 11 are doing very well, alhamd'Allah. They have a secure home, have three square meals a day but most importantly, they get a quality education, an opportunity for a brighter future insha'Allah. The girls have no contact with Mirza.

One more service for the pleasure of Allah (S). Thank you donors, for it is your sacrifices that make these orphanage services possible.

My Afghan Escapade – Zuher Somji

While I jump at the opportunity to accompany Yusufali on his most recent adventure to Afghanistan, his only condition that I write about my experience afterwards is a rather daunting task; something that ace Yusufali has been doing for more then a decade!

After a short and restful flight in Dubai, we fly to Kabul and land in a backward airport that I am told is a brand new structure, donated by the government of Japan. If that is a brand new structure, what must have been the state of the old airport?

We wind our way down several exit security checkpoints, curbside vendors and even an outdoor kebab place before we meet our hosts Wasim and Bashir; two engineers who are extremely kind, cultured and thorough gentlemen, obviously highly educated. We start our drive from the airport to Wasim’s house. OMA, if you think Indian traffic is bad, this is an experience in the ultimate trust in the Almighty, with cars weaving in and out at breakneck speed, with sudden jerky stops throughout the entire trip.

Squatting - a science that I need to quickly relearn from my childhood days. Probably the only time I question what I am doing in Afghanistan; how to hold the minute torch in the airless, dark outhouse, where to fold and lay my pants without them getting soiled, the balancing act, the unavoidable evil stench filling my nostrils, how to avoid all that icy water splattering on my feet while trying to wash… And oh, that stench of accumulated feces in the pit, my, my, my!!!

Doctor Asif, coordinator of two CAI run medical clinics in Afghanistan, joins us for a meal and I am thoroughly impressed with the humility of all these learned people. The delicious meal prepared by Wasim and Bashir is spoilt only by Yusufali's sharp, probing and pointed questions on CAI operations logistics administered by these three men.

We wake up at 4 AM to go to the airport for our trip to Nili, passing through numerous (rather rude) checkpoints at the airport before being ushered into a 6 seat Kodiac aircraft that flies us through an uneventful but beautiful (in a very harsh way) flight to Nili. That is the easy part; next came a torturous 12-hour drive to Khajran, our trip dotted with punctured tires and getting stuck on an impossible rocky river bed. Kudos to our rented Toyota Prada, she behaves like a mountain goat with strength of an elephant. We reach Khajran late at night and make our way to the hut we are to spend the night, in the remote spot of a mountain valley.

After an excellent hospitable dinner we retire without either changing, brushing or any care for other hygiene. Early next morning, after a meager breakfast, we head over to visit the site CAI has plans to build a school on. Lunch is not in the cards the entire grueling drive of around 100 miles that takes about 12 hours; there is no civilization along the way. We snack on stale naan from last night; surprising how everything tastes good when you are hungry. We call on the current schools where girl students get educated in wretched conditions, under the open sky; that's where the gratifying part of all this torture comes in play. Just the thought I could be a part of something that would somehow help in a truly altruistic fashion is overwhelming. After discussing details and confirming the project as a go, we clamber back into the car for another torturous trip back to Nili.

After another night of Yusufali’s constant visit to the outhouse with all related preparations and commotions of fumbling for a torch and stepping on others fast asleep, we plan a trip to the local hammam for a much needed bath but this is foiled by another punctured tire, without a spare. After witnessing verbal floggings Yusufali subjects Wasim and Bashir for not taking the necessary precautions to get the tire fixed beforehand, we creep back to the house to prepare for our flight to Shabarghan and another onwards 12 hours drive to Belkhaab.

When we reach the airstrip and our aircraft arrives, the pilot informs us there is only 30% chance of landing at Shabarghan due to cloudy weather (it has to be a visual landing). Sure enough, above Shabarghan, the pilot says landing is not possible; thick clouds below cover the land like a sullen ocean, we ascended up and head towards Kabul; Yusufali is bitterly disappointed. CAI has a brand new school (her 9th) to officially open, but we are resigned to Allah’s will. 10 minutes later, the 26 year old American pilot says he sees a clearing ahead and maneuvers the agile machine this way and that; we land in Shabarghan 15 minutes later. I experience similar achievements several times during our trip; seemingly impossible situations eventually become promising! I can only attribute this to the Almighty; He helps those who help His cause, no?

Once inside another Prado, we drive on to Belkhaab, another 10 hours away. The drive is made easy by some excellent, tasty mishkaki, nundu and Kabuki pulau at a dingy restaurant along the way, although Yusufali attributes this to my constant ability to snooze in the forever jostling car on roads so bad, it can make you want to scream in frustration. Once in Belkhaab, we have a halfhearted dinner and settle down to sleep, ready for the opening of the school tomorrow.

In the morning, for the first time since leaving Kabul, we have the opportunity and luxury of a hot, steamy bath. Uhh, uhh, man, is this a treat or what, ridding my body of all the dust and grime; and a smell no better than a sheep’s unwashed behind.

The school is going through final finishing touches but Yusufali declares it open anyway, after much lamentation and barbs towards the engineers, who clearly are uncomfortable at the reprimand. But it’s a beautiful school and I marvel, wonder at the effort that must have gone into constructing it in one of the toughest terrains and hostile environments I have seen ever; I was born and raised in Africa, so I should know.

We return to Kabul and I get a glimpse of massive Imam Hussein (A) School built by CAI. It is dark when we get there and the building has no power supply but it certainty looks huge. I am told 3,600 children study here and will grow to a maximum of 4,100 by 2012. Our return to Dubai is soured by a distressing 7 hour delay by Fly Dubai airline at cramped Kabul airport terminal; a drama in itself, but that is another story.

Afghanistan is a tough, tough country, certainly not everybody’s cup of tea. One has to have a strong stomach, a strong mental attitude and tons of patience to be able to do just about anything. Complicating this dilemma is the precarious security issue to grapple with. There are nervous moments when we learn of a suicide attack on an American military bus that tragically kills 11 of our countrymen. Even more unsettling is news that the incident happens less than a mile from Wasi’s home, where we are to spend the night before departure to Dubai.

The overwhelmingly majority of people in this country are poor, dirt poor, especially the Shia’s who were (and still are to a certain extent) persecuted and discriminated against. For most Afghans, it is the survival of the fittest; you either adapt to the harshness or perish. Afghanistan can be beautiful as well, in a harsh, cruel way; the snow-covered mountains can be breathtaking and her people, especially in the mountain heartland where we were, are exceedingly striking.

In life, living in the West, there are so many things we take for granted, are not aware of the plight of millions that do not have their basic survival needs fulfilled; so we have absolutely no right to complain. I am certainly grateful for the opportunity to see and experience my escapade to Afghanistan.

Zuher Somji – Sanford, FL

Yusufali’s comment:

Zuher overlooked to write about the hospitality of our hosts at Khajran. Seeing we are obviously uncomfortable with using super icy water, they arranged for nice warm water for our bathroom use. What wonderful, considerate, thoughtful hosts; the feel of warm water on an exposed freezing behind is indescribable; simply divine.

View wonderful photos here.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Midair Tamasha

My recent trip to Afghanistan has been grueling, one of the most taxing I have experienced. The return flight from Kabul to Dubai has been delayed nine hours and we had been caged within the tiny departure hall of the airport without food or refreshments all the time. By the time I reach Dubai, my onward flight to Mumbai is gone and both FlyDubai and Emirates are hard-nosed, unwilling to accommodate me further; I waste three hours at Dubai airport. A three hour flight has now cost me over fifteen horrendous hours. Exhausted, frustrated and disgusted, I buy another ticket and am on Jet Airways aircraft to Mumbai next day. It is an uneventful flight until midway, when a pitiful but hilarious midair tamasha ensues.

There is this middle-aged man sitting in the middle seat, a woman is at the widow seat and I am seated in the aisle. Drinks are served and the man, who later introduced himself as Kwaja, orders a whiskey with Sprite and downs it in one clean gulp, orders one more and exhales disgusting whiskey fumes all around. He orders a third drink during lunch and then promptly nods off to nap, snoring gently. Midway into our flight, Kwaja jerks awake and whispers that he has to urgently go to the bathroom, as if I am interested or care; I let him pass.

Kwaja is all exited when he returns to his seat; face aglow, eyes agitated and wagging his rattail like hair side to side, a generous double chin working overtime.
‘Did you see him?’ he breathes on my face, while I unsuccessfully try to avoid the fumes.
Eh? ‘See who?’ I ask.
‘Aree baba, it’s Ranbeer Kapoor! He is sitting in the seat after ours, on the other side, the one with sunglasses.’
‘Randhir who?’ I ask. The man was not making much sense, must be the whiskey.
‘Aree yaar, where are you from, baba! It’s Ranbeer, not Randhir! Ranbeer, Ranbeer Kapoor, the actor! You know? Rishi Kapoor and Neetu Singh’s son. The hero. You think he will sign an autograph for my girlfriend? She finds him real cute.’

Number I, since when was I his yaar? Number 2, I couldn’t care an ant’s ass who this guy is; I have absolutely very little interest in spoilt, overpaid, jerky Bollywood brats. I vaguely notice them on the screen when Tasneem and the kids sit watching movies that defy even the most illiterate human intelligence. Number 3, why was he traveling coach? However, it was good to know this ‘hero’ was experiencing the discomfort of cattle class. Curiosity getting the better of me, I crane my neck to look anyway. Yes, it looks like the kid I have seen on the tube, hiding behind dark, awful looking sunglasses.

But it is not only Kwaja who notices this dude, others have now begun clogging the alleyway as well and pretty soon it becomes a fiasco. Men, women, children, especially teenage girls, thrust all kind of paper, napkins included, towards the clearly uncaring hero, demanding autographs. The guys is unmoved, nose buried behind a glossy magazine. But Kwaja still wants an autograph for his girlfriend so I have to get up and let him through again; I hope the look on my face tells him I am not too exited by his behavior. Not that he cares, as he dashes out, stepping on my toes.

The food service crates from the front cannot move back, a white man, Russian, I think, from his accent, losses his patience and loudly demands he be let through; nobody pays him attention. He turns to a very pretty stewardess and demands she do something else he will wet his pants; the poor harassed women turns a deep scarlet and gestures frantically to a colleague at the back, who can’t get through as well. An old woman, leaning on a cane, returning from the bathroom at the back complains she is tired of waiting and must sit; a man vacates his seat nearby and she gratefully collapses into it.

I am getting increasingly alarmed the situation is getting out of control with the congestion, commotion and flaring tempers when the captain turns on the seat belt sign and like a teacher reprimanding unruly children, demands everybody to be seated; anybody not complying face arrest at Mumbai. The aisle gradually clears, albeit reluctantly. Kwaja returns to his seat, mumbling and grumbling, clearly crestfallen, the double chin wobbling like a turkey going to slaughter.

Thankfully, we land without further incident. As soon as the aircraft leaves the active runway, the hero is whisked up by the cabin crew, frayed torn jeans and scruffy tee shirt all, to business class and made to sit in a crew seat. A young girl, a Gujarati no less, no more than twelve perhaps, jumps up from behind and dashes forward screaming ‘Ranbeer, Ranbeer, Jaan…’
‘Aree, Ghadereeni,’ screams her mum, ‘beseeja, beseeja…’
The aircraft brakes, the girls stumbles, hits her head on an armrest and falls flat face on the floor; some people snicker, including our Kwaja. The sari clad mother, almost all her flabby midriff showing and dancing, yanks the stunned girl up, smacks her a tight, sharp slap and drags her back to their seat.

I see the hero again at the baggage belt, woodenly staring at the rotating loop. But he is well protected now, three baton wielding hawaaldars surround him, making sure he is not molested further. Again, I feel some satisfaction these super idols have to wait for their baggage, just like us mortals.

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Sanford Musings

So Muamar Ghadaffy bites the dust, pulled out of a sewer casing like a rabid rat, dragged through the streets of his hometown, beaten up like a criminal, shot through the head, body unceremoniously dumped into an animal meat chiller and his people sneer and jeer in the backdrop. Surely he did, at one point or another in his life as a Muslim, read the Quraan and learn about the endgames of tyrants in pat history? Did he, even as recently as ninety days ago, even imagine this disgusting finale to his life? Allah (S) has a definite plan for such people; He is, after all, the best Planner, no? So there you are, glorified soul of Moosa Sadr, the evil spilling of your innocent blood avenged! Khalifa, Saleh, Saud, Assad…take keen note.
Isn’t it interesting how Allah, in His infinite wisdom made two very opposite commodities so alluring to humans? Gold, shiny and beautiful, you can hold in your hands, gives you a heady feeling of power and wealth. And oil, ugly, yucky, smelly and slimy to feel, gives you a heady feeling of power and wealth. Both these commodities making the world go aaahhhh, aaahhh, both these commodities responsible for so much bloodshed and death, the powers to be using both these commodities to make the world go ghoool, ghoool…


The Florida heat and humidity is history for the year and fall cool and comfortable days are here. Sweaters and coats are out and the nippy morning weather makes for a labored awakening for salaat and run.
Fauja Singh, bless him, became the oldest man ever to have run a marathon, at age one hundred. What a wonderful inspirer! I go running on the shores of Lake Monroe yesterday, in crisp fifty degrees Sanford weather. My doctor in India has advised me to cut down on my running; I am getting older, he says. What backwaas! I usually run about eight miles four times a week but with Fauja Singh’s feat at the back of my mind, I did ten yesterday; I am still nursing the inevitable aches and pains. I hope I can do a quarter of what Fuaja Singh did even ten years from now, IF I am around.


Finally, after five months living in Sanford, I cave in and attend the famous baraaza at La Fontana restaurant. My host Hassanain Aloo fails to show up, but the rest of the crowd more than make up for the hospitality with food, chatter and the matoosi. OMA, these matoosi’s would make even a seasoned sailor cringe in embarrassment. The word Kh…yo is so liberally used, it makes me dizzy. I realize they mean no harm, really; the word is so frequently and cleverly applied to East African Khoja conversation, however, it can loosely mean Son of a gun!
It can however have rather startling consequences. A long time ago, in Mumbai India, a prominent head of a local charitable organization overheard this word from a visiting respected East African Khoja and he picked it up. He then repeated the word several times at a meeting with another East African Khoja philanthropist. Needless to say, his organization did not get much funding from this particular donor.
The food is served at La Fontana is East African Khoja nostalgic; fried kebabs and fried mohoogo flow freely. This particular Sanford group love their food and have large appetites, mashaa’Allah; they eat and eat some more. I am advised meat pulao and samosas are in the cards for breakfast after fajr salaat tomorrow. Breakfast is served at the Sanford Center every Sunday and exotic dishes like khichroo, paya and even biryani is given due respect.


I lost my dear paternal aunt in Toronto, Cana yesterday, the only sister of my father and last remaining sibling; she lived to be over ninety, mashaa’Allah. Soora e fateha, please?


Well, I am off to Afghanistan, India and Kenya / Somalia / Tanzania tomorrow insha’Allah. Will blog after I return in three weeks insha’Allah. If the Talibaans and Shabaabs have not had me for kachoomber first, that is.

Monday, October 10, 2011

Sameer’s Muttah Museebat

I am in an exceptionally good mood today, sitting at my desk making headway on my novel when my cellphone goes off, displaying a number that is not registered in my contact list. Hmmm…


‘Hey Kisukaali, vipi? How are you, my friend?’

‘Good, alhamd’Allah, who’s this?’

‘Allah, wacha wewe, you think you are so savvy, travelling the world, you forget your best friend?’

‘Umm, sorry, I do not recall your voice…’

‘This is Gulaam, Bwana, Gulaam Chotaaro! Remember me now, you Jumping Jack Jitentra! Hahahaha…’

I remember him now, that laugh and the name certainly, (changed for the sake of his privacy). Gulaam and I studied Form 2 at Kinondoni Secondary School in Dar es Sallam, Tanzania in 1971 and were inseparable as friends. His dark skin color and somewhat curly hair earned him the nickname Chotaaro. His Dad, bless him, was doomed to earn a even nastier label – Khangaaro. For those unfamiliar with Kiswahili, khangaaro is a (very) derogatory term for phlegm that gets stuck in your throat and is difficult to dislodge. The Khojas of East Africa had (still have?) a nasty habit of ascribing (usually insulting) nicknames to people within their community.

I am unsure why we chose to call Gulaam by the label Chotaaro; I think it had to do with his father marrying a dark(er) skinned, curly haired Arab wife. It used to drive him wild if others called him by this tag, for he would come to blows with anybody that dared, but I was special; I could call him Chotaaro, or anything else for that matter. His Dad had a habit of a rich, prolonged, deep hack followed by loud expulsion of phlegm through our mosque windows during salaat sessions, thus the nickname.

Gulaam hated his hair and would go to extreme lengths to straighten them. He idolized Rajesh Khanna, the aging seventies Bollywood actor and constantly lamented God for not giving him similar tresses. Never mind that Rajesh Khanna eventually went bald and relies on wigs to sustain his faded image, but that’s another tale. Once, Gulaam bought hydrogen peroxide from a pharmacy and used it on his hair, hoping it would straighten the curls, to dreadful results; he was the laughing stock of the entire (unforgiving) school and community because of resulting bad blond hair color, let alone the thumping he got at home. He called me Jumping Jack Jitendra in turn, after another Bollywood actor, for I fancied his crazed jerky jumping, dressed in tight white pants and white shoes around pretty heroines.

Gulaam was the son of an exceedingly zealot religious father, so his upbringing was rather rigid at home; regular on-time prayers, madressa classes, no movies, no loud laughter, no smoking, no staying out late at night…certainly no girlfriends; Gulaam flaunted all these rules. Except for girlfriends, his luck was a zero in this score (family titles a handicap?) His dad and him were thus constantly at odds, with some very public and vivid quarrels at the mosque sometimes.

Gulaam loved Bollywood movies and would to considerable troubles and risks to squeeze hard to come money for movie tickets. He would either sway his mother or skim it from his elder working brother. Aping Rajesh Khanna, Gulaam would break out into a stanza from the latest Bolywood movie at the sight of (fair skinned) maidens; they would squirm and run for cover. Like other friends I had then, we lost contact; I vaguely knew him to be somewhere in Canada but never got a chance to contact or speak with him. Until today.

‘OMA! Gulaam Chotaaro? How in the world are you? Where in the world are you?’ I exclaim, genuine happiness in my heart. OMA, I used to be so close to this guy; talking to him immediately brings about happy memories with him.

‘I am in Vancouver man, (city name changed). I have been following your blogs and always wanted to get in touch, but you know how it is…work, wife, children…’

So we chitchat a few minutes, asking about each other’s life events over last 40 years since we saw each other. But then, suddenly, we are quiet, awkward, run out of things to say and I find this bothersome. I mean we could not stand to be apart more than a day and now, we are spent discussing 40 years of happenings after mere 10 minutes?

‘Kisukaali,’ he says, ‘I want your advise and help. I mean you are kind of religious, unlike me, although Dad was very religious, but he is no more.’ Before I can correct him about the worthiness of my holiness, he continues. ‘I have a problem with Sameer, my son. He is 18, supposedly in college and a huge heartache to my wife and I…’

I get about 10 minute litany of Sameers ills, from defiance, to smoking, to terrible school grades, to bad company, to girlfriends; in other words, Gulaam was describing himself when he was 16, except for the hair (and girlfriends). It seems Sameer inherited his mothers looks and hair; thick, silky, almost blond. Gulaam, you see, ended up marrying a white, blue-eyed Canadian, possibly trying to mitigate his own dark skin, curly hair ancestry. Perhaps defying his Dad’s choice of wife by marrying an opposite? Maybe. Anyway, Sameer’s greatest evils (in his parents eyes) are all his muttah relationships; his exceptionally good looks attract girls like flies to rotting fruit.

‘When he was younger, I persuaded my wife, (a non-practicing Christian) to send Sameer to the local madressa, hoping he would pick up some akhlaaq and discipline. Bloody hell, the only thing this khabees picked up was how to do muttah! Can you believe it? They hid this concept from us very well, but make it mandatory teaching these days! Sameer says he is doing nothing haram, shows me how do it all from a bloody website, can you imagine!’

I laugh, ‘Lucky Sameer,’ I quip.

But Gulaam gets mad, rebukes me for making light a serious matter. He has tried everything, he says, from counseling to several taweez, except whack his son for fear of arrest and imprisonment.

‘At least my Dad could relieve his frustrations by thumping me to a pulp; I can’t even pinch my son, even though the urge is immense.’

He is despondent and his wife so down, she suffers from depression, even. I am quiet for a few seconds, stumped for a suitable response. I am hardly the person for advise on such personal and complex issues of a wayward teenage son. I have my own battles to fight with my teenage son, nothing that comes close to Gulaam and his son, thank Allah, but battles nevertheless; common to all families, I reckon.

I have to disappoint Gulaam in the end; I feel real sad for him, poor fellow. I sympathize and speak kind soothing words to him; offer to speak to our young aalim here in Sanford, perhaps he can recommend a possible solution? He is reportedly good at counseling troubled teenagers. In the end, Gulaam says something that depresses me even more.

‘I think my problems are punishment from Allah for all the distress and heartaches I gave my parents, especially Dad; the shoe is on the other foot now. I think I’ll have to cut Sameer loose; seems it’s either him or us that can be happy, not together.’

I agree, but urge him not to lose hope, have faith, pray much and hope things turn around; through difficulties, Allah always steers us towards better alternatives.

My good mood nosedives.

Still, lucky Sameer.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Shias Of Haiti – A Pitiable Beginning

My 4 Days In Haiti

For almost three years, Ibraheem Al Mahdy, a Christian convert to Shia Islam some six years ago, has been pleading for me to visit his lot in Haiti. He says he reads my worldwide travel blogs, claims I will find lots to do for his pitiful country, painful people, please come. I finally find some time this month and decide to visit for a few days. Here are my travel notes, perhaps of some interest to you?

September 19:

American Airlines (AA) flight 1593 departing from Orlando to Miami is delayed 30 minutes and then another 20 minutes; gloom sets in, I know I will miss connecting flight from Miami to Port Au Prince (POP); I pray that one is delayed as well. High hopes. The (ancient) AA counter clerk bares false teeth in an insincere smile and shrugs her creaking shoulders Ask the people meeting this flight in Miami, they’ll assist ya. Sure enough, the POP bound flight is pulling off as we park next gate. Nobody is there to assist me; I walk a great distance to AA customer service counter. Another uncaring clerk, grinding on chewing gum as if there is no tomorrow, says next flight is tomorrow, at 6:20 AM. Because this was a technical delay, AA will put you up in a hotel, and give you food vouchers. 10 years earlier, I would have blown a fuse, but with age, (wisdom?) and patience catching up on me, I take it all in stride. I go to the hotel, call Ibraheem with the bad news, try to work on my book, see if I can squeeze few dollars from trading the FX market, eat fish for dinner and retire by 9.

September 20:

AA flight to POP is delayed yet again! An aircraft bathroom will not flush so a 30 minutes wait while a technician fumbles in there, whiffing up the unholy scent before we take off. We deplane to eardrum splitting music from a band, looking for money; some put change into a gaping hat. Immigration / customs is painless; I met a happy Ibraheem waiting outside. POP is very depressing, grimy, undisciplined and scary. A short taxi trip of less than 5 minutes to the domestic airport burns a $10 pocket hole. In Haiti, you see, one is either super rich or super, super poor; no middle class, virtually. I could have risked my life and walked the distance, but if I want a taxi, I pay; I could eat at a decent restaurant and dish out an average of $25, or risk my health and eat at a dhabba replica for $3…get my point? Ibraheem and I get to know each other, talk a lot, waiting for a 30-minute 11:45 flight to CAP-Haitian (CH), Ibraheem’s hometown. Ibraheem is 29, single. His grandma brought him up as dad went AWOL after he was born and mum, well, she lost it. His is intense with his religion and talks nonstop about Shia Islam and how positively it has impacted his life.

Tortug Air is a 17 seat Czech manufactured LET410 dual propeller aircraft; we board it to furnace-like heat inside; all of us begin to sweat profusely and robust body odor quickly mixes in with the heat and humidity. When the pilot does show up, he is furious with ground operations. How can you board the aircraft without the captain? He yells; there is not a peep out from any apprehensive of us. The co-pilot eventually comes, strolling leisurely from the decaying terminal building; without another word, the aircraft door is shut, engines started and we have a bumpy takeoff. Even at 27,000 feet, the aircraft remains hot and sticky. It takes a mere 27 minutes from takeoff to touchdown at CH.

Another 5-minute ride in a private taxi outside sets me back $10, airport taxi wanted double. If POP is grimy, CH is shoddier, my temperament gets progressively gloomier; I have to spend the next 2 days in this dump. The hotel is definitely not worth US$150 for a room; TV does not work, Internet WIFI does not work, fan does not work. The skies suddenly go very dark, like it is already night at 4PM and it starts raining. Lo, I thought rains in Mumbai, India were awful, this is evil; for 3 hours it pours, there is blinding nonstop lightning, heart thumping thunder and our room floods. We are moved to a better room, where the air conditioner actually works, TV works, 3 stations, all running American movies. Ibraheem says there is halal food readily available all over Haiti; I am intrigued. His perception of halal food turns out meat that is not from swine family, so poultry, lamb, beef is all okay to consume; he gets an earful from me, a 30 minute lecture on what he can or cannot eat as a Muslim. Poor guy, he looks clearly crestfallen, laments over and over about the sins he is committing; we eat fish.

September 21:

The alternative to pricy taxis is using your legs or a motorbike taxi. I could have walked but it is super hot and humid; just stepping out in the sun saps my strength and I feel immediately lethargic. Ibraheem flags a motorbike taxi and we are off to meet Ibraheems congregation. I am sandwiched between the sweat soaked rider and Ibraheem at the rear. OMG, I have never before prayed so intensely; the guy zips off as if possessed by some voodoo spirit, shrill horn blaring nonstop, cussing everybody along the way; I hold on to the sides of seat for dear life. CH roads are narrow with the entire sewer system running underneath it. Negligence, shoddy work, the earthquake, combination of all these perhaps has opened up huge gapping holes, one wrong move and you plunge into one for a rendezvous with human waste, all kinds; it takes 10 minutes of eternity to reach our destination.

The community worships in an open space up a slippery slope of a mountain, a tricky trek up, what with rains from yesterday mudding up the surface, strong stench of feces and urine creeping up my nose as I exert up. Children greet Ibraheem with Sallam Aleykum, some shout Allah Akber in a tune, probably mimicking the call to prayer that is cried out 5 times a day from the mountain top. I meet a ragtag group of about 20 Muslims, new converts to Shia Islam in various stages of salaat. Of them, Ibraheem, Bilaal, Abudhar and Luqmaan are veterans, Muslims for 6 plus years. They are all absolutely thrilled to meet me, wide, very white toothy grins testament of their happiness. After a 2-hour question and answers session on rules and laws of Islam, I am exhausted. I am not an aalim, all I say has to be translated to French / Creole, back again to English if there are further questions or clarifications. Although Ibraheem speaks reasonable English, it is very heavily accented and that causes frustrations both sides.

To say these people are poor is an understatement, yet they pool little recourses to surf the Internet, reading up on write-ups about Shia Islam. Over 3 years, they have struggled to build a mosque and a sorry looking foundation is taking shape. But they are now elated, I am here, first person to have visited them ever; one even calls me a prophet! Naturally, this is extremely uncomfortable and embarrassing. After promising to find them a donor for completing the mosque, we return to the hotel and wait out the day for our return to POP tomorrow. We eat more fish. But we also eat a wonderful dessert – a tiny green fruit they call Mamonsillo, very juicy and blissfully sweet. I have not seen this fruit anywhere else in the world; for those that know me, do so as a fruit maniac. We get a big bunch for free; a man goes up a tree and brings us some! I wolf down at least 50; Ibraheem watches me in amused astonishment.

September 22:

We stay at a POP hotel that is slightly better, eat more fish (I better not be fed fish for the next 20 years at home), visit an area that critically needs clean drinking water and take in rows and rows of tent homes, people still living in them since the devastating earthquake, pathetic and resigned, a depressing and heart wrenching sight. I am so blessed, have so, so much to thank for, alhamd’Allah.

I return home to Sanford via Miami next day, both AA flights delayed.

Photos here.

Note: You will not see photographs of women in this report – for a reason. I found most women in Haiti provocatively dressed, everything on show; not appropriate for audience of this blog.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Jaane Kahaa Gayee Woh Din?

The earliest childhood memories I have are of my eldest sister Marhooma Kaneez Zehra (Bai), who was by then already a divorced single mother of two. She was not allowed to take her elder with her when her husband’s family earlier kicked her out pregnant. Bai was the pillar of our family after her return home; she was the one who (mainly) raised her son Mohammed, 5 months younger to me, and I. Those formative years were filled with happy, carefree days of frolic and play. Although we struggled as a family, economically, I do not remember a single day we went hungry, not one. There was plenty of food, good, wholesome and delicious that Bai and Mama toiled over charcoal stoves, cooking kebabs, samosas et al, catering for a majlis fateha or a marriage waleemo; their labors (mostly) ran our household.

The bond I shared with my other siblings was (nearly) as strong; we were a total of eight in the family, excluding my father who passed away when I was a toddler and sister Nazma who was married off much too early. We shared everything; joys, sorrows, successes, disappointments, worry. One person affected, others felt, like organs of one body. We shared a two-bedroom home and a downstairs toilet that was also shared with neighbors living there, that gives you an idea of bladder / rectum control powers we possessed in those days. Interestingly, this arrangement got us Razia Bhabhi, for it was calls of nature that fated my eldest brother Marhoom Mohammedreza to see and propose for her hand in marriage later on.

Obviously, I did not expect this bond to last and follow us all into adulthood. There was naturally some slippage as childhood turned into puberty, adulthood and separation, as we married and sought our own livelihood. We tragically lost Bai when she was merely 36, felled by ravaging cancer, her young life relentlessly mired in pain and heartache; I don’t believe I have been more devastated ever since. She was a person totally resigned to the will of Allah (S), steadfast in her faith, selfless in sacrifice and someone you could always go for solace and advise. I am convinced my personal live would have been very positively different had she been alive today.

Growing up in Tanga, Tanzania was, oh, so extraordinary. Back in the sixties and seventies, when sisal prices were at a premium, Tanga was a booming town. Mohammedreza and my cousin Habib Yusufali were managers on two sisal estates of Tongoni and Maroongu, not too far from Tanga town, but way out in the boonies nevertheless. Their more progressive homes (leftovers from the Wazungu managers that preceded them) offered picnic sanctuary for us Yusufalis / Mawjis and the clans would gather there on holidays for family get-together and feasting blasts.

The premium elementary school was Saint Anthony’s Catholic School. Students, irrespective of religion, attended church; I learnt a great deal about Catholicism and was amazed how much common Islam had with it, in principal. Our daily assembly / class prayer began with Our Father, Who Art In Heaven… The Sisters, some of them, were another matter however, probably sexually deprived, one even artfully molested me. It was years later I figured out reasons for her labored breathing as she sat me on her lap; I have never ever been rewarded with so many (wet) kisses for simply getting two plus two right. Except for Sister Mary Fabian, the dour looking Headmistress with an ever-ready bamboo cane she applied quite liberally. The first whack was always the most painful; it took all my willpower not to bawl in front of all the pretty girls. I would run to the stinking bathrooms and moan my ache away.

We Shia Muslims had a budding community, full of traditions and petty rivalry; everybody was nosy about everybody else. A neighbor would probably know what was to be served for dinner at home that night, even before the menu was decided. The mosque has nylon mats for carpets, they would hurt and leave furrows on knees and ankles after salaat; not that we cared, of course. Muharram and Ramadhan were favorite times with so much activity and so, so much more food. I bet no Jamaat can now match the pulau or kalyo-pau or kitchro coming out from Tanga mosque of those days. We reigned supreme during Aashoora and Arbaeen, our Juloos unmatched, with almost the whole town gaping at our beautiful taboot and tazeeyas.

I acquired elementary religious education through fear and discipline at the then dreaded madressa, where fooling around and or indiscipline were dealt with an iron fist. During Quraan classes, the Aagha whopped our feet with the mimbar microphone iron bar for not remembering homework sooras; in dinyaat class, some kids wet their pajamas if the teacher as much as raised his voice in anger or frustration. I realize some of you will suppose this to be exaggeration and if true, child abuse by Western standards. Perhaps. However, I can honestly claim I have achieved life discipline, clean living etiquettes and whatever I know and respect of my wonderful religion as a direct result of these madressa years. So may Allah bless you, my then hated teachers.

Secondary education at Popatlal Secondary School was blissful, even though Ujamaa policies of Julius Nyerere were grinding the country to bottomless ruin and abyss. Instead of studying, we were given a hoe and required to till the shamba at the back of the school. I had to attend multiple practice sessions of traditional dance performance for Saba Saba day, in front of a dreaded Area Commissioner because our grim faced Political Science teacher decreed I shook my behind suitably, like a proper African, better than any other Asian; Asians had to be integrated, and dance was one avenue I guess. I failed Political Science miserably.

But it was also a time when impressing girls was suddenly very important; so smart ironed clothes, gleaming shoes, a slick bicycle, the right haircut (I did have abundant hair then!) and an attitude took on much weight. And time. A trip to Raskazone seafront in fine attire on Sunday evenings could not be missed, nor a new released movie at the Majestic or Novelty.

I fell in and out of love with every girl who dared set eyes on me. Mister Ismail, my brilliant Form Two English teacher, to whom I confided about everything, always struggled with my overactive imaginations, sarcastically suggesting they was way beyond vivid. Unfortunately, Hindi movies shaped our perception to great extent; how we interacted with the opposite sex, what we wore and how we emoted, even. Me, I cried my eyes silly together with Sharmila Tagore after Rajesh Khanna died in Aradhna, laughed like a lunatic when Mehmood went Gantia Kha Ghantia and tried to imitate Jitendra’s every jumping moves of Humjoli. And I imagined myself besides every heroine, of course. Ha! You should have seen the Sharmila Tagore / Aasha Parekh beehive hairstyles on some of our ladies. Ha!

Cricket was a passion, of course; I captained the Popatlal School squad and opened medium pace bowling for the team. So was volleyball, where Tanga Jamaat were champions for a number of years. Swimming at Tanga Swimming Club every Sunday morning rounded off my sports exposure. Tanga Swimming Club still had some snobbish, colonial mentality White customers; it was fun to hurriedly use their towels after our swim and delight at their disgust when they discovered them damp. They complained but no meaningful punishment ensued; the Goan Manager, poor fellow, was caught in the middle of trying to pacify his dwindling White and please non-White customers. We were more in numbers; we won. I lost my dear friend Jaffer at a very tender age, who drowned swimming high tides one morning at that Club.

Upon completion of high school, it was decided I would go to Dubai where brother Marhom Husseinali was already somewhat established. Foreign exchange was very hard to get those days and Asians used (still do) every conceivable, bizarre, illegal ways to get hold of some. An arranged telex was send to my attention advising my son had committed suicide, and for me to rush to Pakistan urgently. An Indian clerk at National Bank of Tanzania looked me up and down, all eighteen years old, shook his head in disgust but processed British Pounds 150, the maximum Tanzania government would allow to be converted for attending to such a calamity.

Two days later, I took my first ever flight from Dar es Salaam to Karachi and then to Dubai. The rest is all history…

Jaane Kahaa Gayee Woh Din?

Thursday, September 15, 2011

The Inquisitive Mind Of Kramer Kramer

In appearance only, Kramer Kramer (real name altered) resembles Christopher Lloyd, the Reverend Jim Ignatowski character from television sitcom Taxi; raggedy, unkempt. My new home sales agent recommends him to me when I purchase my current home. Kramer is a very good handyman, suitable and thorough at almost all work he undertakes at home, from doing up Tasneem’s salon room to minor alterations or additions I want, his finished works a delight.

Tall, overweight, in rumpled clothes, thick hands carved heavy with incomprehensible tattoos, meeting Kramer for the first time is a bit intimidating. But he is an amiable character, once you get to know him, plenty of interesting tidbits to contribute about everything in general as he works along. He is originally from New York area, a staunch White Republican, an ex drugs addict, now reformed, former alcoholic, now sober but alas, a religious smoker. What strikes me most about Kramer is his inquisitive mind, with loads of questions about my background and culture, especially about the religion of Islam.

Listening to conservative radio talk show hosts the likes of extremely unpleasant Rush Limbaugh et al, have predictably, manipulated Kramer’s mind on Islam, so he is full of questions, loads of them. Some of our conversations go something like this:

What is Sharia law? Do you support it?
Well, Sharia law is a vast subject and I am not qualified enough to tell you a lot about it. Unlike US laws, for example, Sharia laws govern all aspects of a Muslim’s life, personal life, business practices, marriage laws, children’s rights, family inheritance and so on…
But do you support it?
I do, of course, as a Muslim, I do.
Hmmm, but we in the USA believe in the separation of church and state…
Oh, Sharia law is not applicable to non-Muslims.

Kramer makes a dour face.

Why are your wife and daughter all covered up? Do they dress up like this all the time? Are they not hot?
No, they are not covered up, they have to be modesty dressed and have their hair covered in front of strangers; they can uncover their hair in front of close family members. They maybe hot at times, but they must follow our religion.
I think women look beautiful uncovered, the less the better.

Kramer laughs out aloud and lowers an eyelid in a lazy, knowing wink.

Exactly why our religion wants them dressed the way they are! Keep them safe from prying eyes, yes?

The sour expression appears once more.

What? From dawn to dusk? No eating, drinking, even water? No sex? You gotta be insane Owlie!!! And your daughter as well??? God Owlie, that is so cruel, that is awful! In Gods name, why?!

We are discussing the holy month of Ramadhan, of course. The guy is so horrified and looks truly alarmed to know we don’t eat or drink during the day, with him gulping down gallons of cold water to replenish all his sweating, working in the furnace-like attic. Americans get tongue-tied with names like Yusuf Yusufali; I can relate many hilarious tales getting my name recorded with American institutions when I first set foot in this country some thirty years ago, but that is another story. So I settle for Ali except Kramer can’t (or won’t?) pronounce that either; so it’s Owlie. Owlie – sounds awful…

It is really matter of the mind. Once you make up your mind you are not eating or drinking until such time, your body adjusts. Why? Well this is a law ordained by God, not only to Muslims, but to Christians and the Jews as well, if you were to follow the Bible and Torah. I think God wants us to contemplate the hunger of less fortunate in this world. It is a month of connecting with God, purging your sins, asking for His mercy… Plus it is an excellent way to cleanse your body; drop some pounds as well.

Kramer looks at me dubiously but cringes somewhat as I look up and down his overweight body.

He is most respectful in and around the house however, always knocks before entering to make sure womenfolk are in hijab and promptly leaves the house when the call to prayers goes off from our prayer clock. He is also most intrigued with the holy Quraan, asks several questions on it. He wants to see what a mosque looks like so I ride in his dump one mile down the road to see Masjid Al Hayy under construction. It blows his mind.

Wow, Owlie, this is beautiful! Beautiful! Man! It is huge!

He shakes his head in astonishment.

You guys are really committed to your religion.

Do I hear a tiny twig of envy in his voice? I invite him to visit our current center sometimes, if he wants.

We have a wonderful preacher, a young guy with a lot of good things to say; he can answer a lot of your questions I could not. But let me know much in advance when you want to visit. Our preacher, although very good, makes many disappearing acts, so we need to plan it out.

Kramer agrees, says he had wanted to visit, even talked to another community member whose home he is repairing about a visit with his live-in girlfriend; she even agreed to cover her hair! But he is now single again, had a huge falling off with the girlfriend, whom he has had to evict from his home.

One day, he curiously reads a wedding invitation card sitting on the kitchen counter.

Hey Owlie, it says here someone dead has invited you. How can a dead person invite you to anything?

Kramer points out the words in the card… Late xxx and Late xxx Requests The Honor Of Your Presence…

I scratch my (barren) scalp, stumped.

Kramer loves dogs; goes on and on about his pet dogs that he says will lick you to death. Now, I am unsure about being licked to death by any animal but I am fond of dogs as well, so is Maaha Zainab. I explain Muslims consider dogs unclean and are not allowed, by religious law, to keep them in the house, the nose is considered unclean, they smell everything. This infuriates Kramer, for he looks at me as if I had assaulted, insulted him.

Unclean, eh? Hmmm…

He wags his head in despair, rolls his eyes to the heavens.

How about cats, are cats allowed?

I respond enthusiastically, almost shout, so happy to share a common animal Islam allows me to domesticate.

Owlie, did you know, cats are even dirtier than dogs? And they, too, sniff at everything? A dog will whimper and let you know he needs to pee or shit and run out to do his business. A cat, they are a nasty. They will either pee or shit on your carpet and stink up a storm…

I scratch my (barren) scalp, stumped, a dour look on my face.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

A Sneak Preview


I was born a manhoos; ill-fortuned is the closest English translation, the verdict decreed by our next door neighbor Ramjanbhai, when I was born. This recount came from Salma, when I was old enough to understand what the word meant. My dislike for Ramjanbhai, and his for me, proceeded long before I understood the meaning of the word. I made rude sounds from my mouth whenever he passed by our house, sounds I heard him let out from both ends of his body constantly, even through the thin, porous walls that separated our hovels, for Ramjanbhai suffered from a severe case of flatulence. My insults drove him wild, for he attempted an assault on my nimble self, only to give up moments later, heaving, coughing, muttering obscenities and curses. He then went complaining about my awful behavior to either Abbu or Salma, but they paid him no mind.

Ramjanbhai was not technically wrong for calling me a manhoos, for I am one really, if you hold those kinds of viewpoints. My Ammi, you see, ceased breathing at about exactly the same moment I commenced life; a bad omen for everybody in the family, more so for our neighbors and almost everybody in our basti who knew my family. Many relatives and some of our neighbors, like Ramjanbhai, who made a fuss every time we met, shunned me. About a week after I was born, a major fire destroyed much of slum settlements just two rows beyond our house and the local government, instead of helping rebuild these homes, brought out bulldozers and flattened everything left standing. The destroyed homes were illegal, said the local municipal commissioner, the local authorities were just polishing up what nature had taken care of. So you see, my birth was not an auspicious event.

My immediate family, except for my dad, did not care and loved me unconditionally, especially Abbu and Salma. Tabu was of a different nature, not prone to much emotion, busy with fashion, boys and Bollywood pursuits. Baarish did not comprehend the meanness of the whole affair. Abbu doted on me, for he saw his future linage in me, the only male descendent worthy of mention, for he had expunged his son from memory. My world of comprehension began with Abbu as I followed him around when he was not selling fruits at the market. Salma fed and cleaned me then, but it was Abbu who meant the world to me. I remember the first time he tried to make me to go pee, when I was about three years old.

'You have to go pee, Salman.'


'You drank a whole glass of sugarcane juice and you been sucking ice all day, you must go pee. I don't want you peeing in your chuddies and on my bed. Then I'll have to wash everything before I say my prayers and Salma will yell at you for making me use up all the water. Hurry up, let's get you to pee.'

'No, no, nooooo...'

'I'll buy you the red lollipop you like...'

We stared at each other; I wanted to make sure I was not being set up. Abbu was a man of his words so this was not a bad deal at all. It's not that I didn't want to go pee, but proper toilets were at least half a mile away and the corner shed we used for peeing stunk real wicked.

'Will Abbu go pee with me?'

Abu looked at me in astonishment but then smiled. 'I'll buy you two lollipops if you go pee, else I'll have Salma take you and no lollipops.'

Salma, although always nice and kind to me, had a temper when things didn't go her way. She had tons of things to do around our house and pee cleaning was not something she had on regular schedule. So I ran outside, tangy taste of strawberry flavored lollipops already on my tongue, ahead of Abbu and dropped the loose cloth piece that served as my training diaper. Suddenly, the force on my bladder was unbearable and I would have let go standing but Abbu pushed me down squatting and I peed and peed, like the proper Muslim gentleman Abbu was training me to become.

Later on, Abbu returned with the two lollipops he had promised and I went pee again, in a controlled manner, squatting like a gentleman, exactly the way Abbu wanted me to. The lollipops were a super treat and I made a meal of them both; Salma gave Abbu disapproving looks as I always fussed at dinner and Tabu sulked because she got only one lollipop. As always, I finished the lollipops and carefully licked all sugar crystals from the wrappings. Abbu always found this greediness strangely endearing and so it was that day as well. He scooped me up in him arms and hugged me, planting kisses all over my face, I twitching and squealing in ticklish delight.

'What did Salmaan do today?'

I said, 'Pee pee.'

Book One - Chapter One

Abbu would swipe dust off from a solid empty wooden crate with a flick of his withered wrist, carefully lay a frayed rag on it and gratefully sit down, easing pain from aging, inflamed joints of his feet.

'Bolo, bolo,' he would shout at the top of his voice, adding to the chorus of cries from others around, 'fresh fruit and subzi, cheap fruit, cheap subzi. Best pick from this morning, tomatoes, only eight rupees a kilo.' Only his voice would quaver with age and not carry as loudly as others around us. Bolo was the first word I remember in my life, even before I learned how to walk.

Before I started attending school, Abbu made sure I accompanied him to the market every morning, placing me atop a wheelbarrow full of fruit and vegetable picked from trees in the backyard or bought wholesale from vending women who sold their pick early in order to return to their villages in time for tilling land or other household labors.

'He will grow up to be a fine man, you'll see, a doctor or an engineer,' he would explain with a toothy grin to anyone who cared to listen, pointing to me as I sat in a smaller version of his chair, only this one was upturned and hallow, padded by cast off rags for my yet to develop bones and softer skin. Actually 'Abbu,' was the first word I uttered and 'bolo' came a close second. By the time I was three, I could repeat that whole pattern of Bupu's sales pitch word for word.

Nobody from my family knew exactly what date I was born. My father was out and about, probably in Surat where rumor was he had taken on a second wife and my mother died before I took my first gulp of air. Abbu thought it was a Friday and he was certain it was either in October or November as everybody was in a buying frenzy for Diwali festivals. I am still unsure of the year but I reckon that's really not very important.

As I mentioned before, Mummy, or Ammi as the rest of my family refer to her, died on the same bed I was conceived. As a child, I always wondered how a person could die giving birth seeing many mothers still alive and felt guilty about Ammi dying on my birthday. I learnt a lot about her from my sister Salma, who went on and on about what a wonderful person she was, how she sacrificed everything for her family and got no peace from her husband, our father. He, I was told, was bekaar, useless, a sot, a drunkard. He worked when he was sober, which was rare, spent money on woman and booze and came home only when he ran out of money and could not find a free bed companion.

My family comprised of two sisters; Salma, the eldest, who was nine years older than I and Tabu, short for Tabassum, four years older. We also had an infant aptly named Baarish, whom Abbu had very reluctantly taken in only when it seemed certain she would die from the lashings of monsoon rains beating upon her frail body. She was left abandoned outside our door one thundery July morning. These ages I am approximating, nobody knows for sure; they could be a year older or younger. Except for Baarish, of course. She was an infant then, probably not more than six months old with lungs, I thought, of a grown up, the way she sometimes bawled nonstop. She would turn crimson crying in colic pain and rage, only to be quieted after agonizing long periods of Salma's cooing and hip bumping, few farts and burps later.

We all lived in a two-room hovel close to a filthy stream that cut right in the middle of our slum community called Naroda Patiya. This hovel had tin roof that leaked profusely during monsoons, flooding the floor, making a mess of everything and leaving Salma in a disagreeable disposition almost the entire three months or so; she did most of the cleaning and was fussy about how the interior of our palace looked and felt, never mind the ruin and decay outside. During the super hot months between March and June, it was an oven, which left all of us near naked and short tempered, especially Tabu, as the heat and humidity would create havoc on her cheap makeup. We considered our two ceiling fans luxury; both antiques that wobbled and creaked dramatically but miraculously, never gave way. We had neighbors across the stream, on the left, right, and above our box home.

The walls were so thin, I could hear Ramjanbhai repeatedly fart and burp from next door, even through the complaining fans. I also heard other sounds that I could only figure out much later in life, Ramjanbhai's son and daughter-in-law making love. Abbu, who slept alone in one room because he was a light sleeper, would bang at the wall and shout at them to shut up while Salma would giggle knowingly. The four of us were packed together in the other room. Our bedroom was reduced even further as a comer of it was used for cooking and stacking dishes. We had no running water so the girls woke up very early every morning and hurried outside with pails to stand in line at the public supply; the water stopped running by the time the sun rose. The bathrooms were outside, a block away; ten families shared ours. We considered it very lucky if we ever found one empty and a wait of half hour or more was not uncommon. Visitors, these were few and far apart, who come to our house were revolted by the stench from the sewer stream outside; I found that odd as a young boy; why, it did not bother me at all.

Abbu, who worked a small garden that we owned at the back of our hovel, vended the yields in a corner spot outside Parekh Brothers, a banya shop at the center of Naroda Patiya market. By the time I was old enough to crawl out of my box seat next to Abbu's, I realized he was much respected and admired, not only for his selling skills, but also for his honesty and integrity. Abbu, you see, hailed from Jamnagar, in our state of Gujarat. He was a son of a zameendaar, a landowner, rich and powerful in his own right. But fate and an emotional heart were unkind to him, for he fell in love with and impregnated a Hindu maiden from Kutch. This act, in his youth days, was like writing a death sentence on your life. The enraged father of girl rallied his community and began planning for Abbu's execution while his father cut him off all assets and family wealth. Abbu escaped with his unwed pregnant 'wife' and ended up in our slum of Naroda Patiya.

In contrast, Akber, my father, or just bekaar admi, as Salma called him, hardly ever worked. The little he earned was spent on cheap brew at dingy haddas and on women. When he did come home, he was always in a foul mood, ready with a quick whack to the back of our heads for no apparent reason.

If it hadn’t been for Abbu, I would never have attended school. Jaffery English Elementary School was about a mile away, in a plot of land that was always impeccably clean and well maintained even though the main open sewer lane of Naroda Patiya ran right behind it, exposing all to a terrible stench and a frightening eyesore. In fact, it was the only building for miles around that had a decent coat of paint. I attended school but there was not much teaching in the classrooms. I sat at my depilated desk that wobbled so much I had to hold it upright most times and listened to our class teacher yell at us, banging a menacing looking cane on his desk to silence the class.

Preeti, only daughter of Harshad Parekh, one of the brothers who owned Parekh Brothers, sat one row ahead of me in class. She always smelled of Lifebuoy soap and coconut oil oozed from her scalp. She was quite clever and snotty, which bugged the hell out of me. She had a nasty habit of turning around and sneering at me whenever she correctly answered a question or when she got all her homework right. I pulled her oily pigtails in punishment whenever she did that. She cried and complained to our class teacher sometimes and I either got caned or was made to kneel in front of the class for hours, glaring at her while plotting revenge I knew I could never follow through.

Two o’clock in the afternoon was my favorite time of the day when the rusty bell in the play yard would clang, signaling the end of classes. I would jump up, not caring if my desk toppled over and together with other children, jam the doorway in a gleeful attempt to flee the confines of the room. I would run all the way to Naroda Patiya Central Market and try to squeeze into the box crate that was now much too small for me. From there, I would then polish all fruits to a glossy shine.

In case you are scratching your head wondering what this is all about, please dont fret. This is a preface and part of Book One - Part One from my second novel (title still being debated in my head) that is slated for completion and eBook publishing (all profits to benefit Comfort Aid International, off course!) end of 2011, insha'Allah. I am looking for feedback really, good and bad, hopefully more good? If you do care to comment, please do so to email kisukaali@yahoo.com. I will really appreciate it.

Allah bless and thank you.

Sunday, September 4, 2011

Khoja Kiswahili Paradise

It is now over three months since I move my family from India to the accusing (towards Cuba maybe?) pinky finger landmass of Florida in the USA. This change has been quite agreeable off course, especially for the children. Maaha Zainab relishes her fifth grade class and new friends; Alihussein is already stressing out with college classes, Tasneem busy messing around with her salon while I try to juggle the forex market. And CAI, off course. Gone are the days of squatting dogs and humans on streets, days of toenail curling pongs, of mind-boggling, undisciplined, punishing, traffic snarls. No frightening drunken Ganeesh parades or nasty (and dangerous) color dousing startles at Holi festival. I do miss the mango madness though…

Here in Orlando, lives my community of East African Khoja’s, a group most unique, in many aspects. You can trace our ancestry well over a hundred years to the general area of Gujarat, in India. The entrepreneurial spirit in our blood propelled us to Africa, where we prospered, many from illegitimate wealth from magendo business transactions, a practice active till this very day, encouraged by governments steeped in contradicting and confusing, corrupt-friendly laws. These laws, resulting in political uncertainty, (some) lawlessness, inept education, health and other infrastructure systems, drove us to migrate again, to shores of Europe and North America. We live here now, as good law abiding citizens (if, when and where short cuts and magendo practices are not quite possible - without detection).

We are a hearty bunch, generally, and nostalgic to everything that is remotely East African, the general area from where we lived before migrating to the US. The desire and will to ape everything cultural from back home is very apparent; from Kiswahili kofia and khanzu worn at the mosque, mbarazi and mandazi served on Sunday mornings after salaat, the Kiswahili language (with quite a bit of colorful matusi at baraaza time) to very strong entrepreneurial desire for wealth and success. Wealth, mind you, that is generously donated to those poor and destitute all over the world.

I was not want of choice for cities to move; I could go back to Houston TX off course, but after living in that gigantic city on and off for 28 years, I was ready for a change. I, however, chose Orlando. People have (generally) good things to say about this particular community in SE USA. The various activities for children at the religious center, including a vibrant madressa, an agreeable warm tropical weather, reasonable real estate market and more importantly, a compatible cultural mindset makes Orlando an ideal choice.

Holy, blessed month of Ramadhan has just ended, and what a delight it was to be able to attend salaat, partake in shared iftaar arranged by HIC, the traditional practice of Quaraan recitation, dua Iftetah and lectures by invited specialists. I did not realize how much I had missed this very Kiswahili Khoja type of arrangements all these years in Texas and India! Now that it is over, Maaha Zainab laments she misses her Madressa workshops; I miss the exotic kitumbua, mkate mimina, kalemati…yum, umh, yum…, no wonder I did not loose the body mafuta I had hoped.

HIC was alive with prayer and activities, beginning with children’s workshops, Quaraan recitation, magreeb / ishaa salaat, scramble for iftaar, short baraaza outside with (almost all) men relishing their first puffs, choice of meetha, khaara or khimaam pan and colorful Kiswahili conversation. One man in particular had a peculiar habit of breaking out in an ancient, loud Bollywood stanza from eras gone by… Lectures followed in English by our own educated Khoja young aalims, occasionally brilliant, at times humdrum and sometimes outright corny; encouraging start? It was heartwarming and huge relief to see Abdul Jaffer on his feet once again after giving us a nasty scare. I missed a week due to commitments towards our starving brethren at Somalia / Kenya border…

The Eid crescent was mercifully locally sighted, so recurrent controversies were avoided, even though the actual day was observed worldwide spanning three separate days! Tuesday for us in Florida, Eid day, was spent meeting, hugging families, friends, and (alarmingly) watching a pile of dollars thin out dolling Eidy to children. It was another (gastronomical) struggle at HIC with neehara for breakfast and (calorie galore) heaps of mutton biryani for dinner; ah, what would we be without the parbaaros. Not that I complain, mind you.

I see a bright future for us Khojas of Orlando. We are a growing community with an intact, traditional outlook, albeit progressive one hopefully. And we are going to grow, no doubt, insha’Allah, what with the massive new Masjid Al Hayy coming up soon, not more than a mile from home.

Yes, the decision to move here to Orlando Florida was the right one. Alhamd’Allah.