Monday, March 28, 2011

Pakistan – Reign Of Bullets…and Cricket

This message is for readers of my blogs who, perhaps, may feel I complain too much about hardships in my travel pursuits. I consider myself luckiest bloody person on earth in my role with CAI as she attempts to make a positive difference to worldwide poor, destitute and downtrodden humanity; I would not trade this blessing for any worldly riches. Perhaps. I write my blogs the way I see situations, so you, the readers, may experience what I see and feel. The hardships are all worth it, for me; I only feel sadness that I get to hear countless prayers from widows, orphans and the destitute CAI helps using donor funds, the true beneficiaries of these prayers.

I arrive Karachi from Dubai with much trepidation; this trip was almost canceled because Pakistan decided, at the last minute, to suspend visa on arrival facilities for aid personnel. Frantic string pulls by Brigadier Zamurat Hussein of Husseini Foundation in Islamabad and an exception is made. I am given first class treatment at the immigration, escorted by an official who is waiting for my arrival at the airport. Even so, the visa is valid for 72 hours only and I have to reapply for an extension.

Karachi is dreadfully tense; there are daily target killings between supporters and opponents of MQM, which governs Karachi; the local TV station tells me 52 people have been publicly gunned down last week, in broad daylight. There is also resentment towards the federal government; they have set free Raymond Davis, the American CIA agent who gunned down 2 Pakistanis and a huge demonstration is on the cards for tomorrow. I don’t understand why; Pakistan seems to have humbled a “super power”. When the Americans ordered the release of Davis, Pakistan adamantly refused, starring down the “mighty” Americans. Davis was put through a judicial process, served jail time, paid blood money (was thus forgiven), paid a fine and was released.

After an early morning flight to Multan and an hour’s drive to Kot Addu next morning; I am ready to inspect and hand over 176 homes donated by CAI donors to flood victim. In addition to these homes, CAI donors have also contributed food grains, tents and blankets; for a detailed list, quantity and amounts for Pakistan flood relief project, click here . At Kot Addu, I meet a large delegation of people who have benefited from new homes. Also present is Brigadier Zamurat Hussein, my host and escort for the next 2 days as we drive the length of flood stricken areas of Punjab. In addition, there are 2 cameramen from Al Hadi TV, capturing on camera every small detail; picking a nose or scratching unholy places gets tricky.

Husseini Foundation has done an excellent job with the homes; they are well constructed, neat and sturdy with 100 year warranty for the roof. I wish so much that you, the donors, are present when we give the homes away. I shake hundreds of calloused farmer hands, receive heartfelt prayers and accept countless blessings from victims. Unlike Sindh, where the situation, especially of hunger, is still dire, Punjab looks promising. Ironically, flood waters have revitalized the soil and farmers are all set to have a bumper wheat and cotton harvest, insha’Allah. Miles and miles of tall wheat crop, lush rolling lands unfold before us as we drive through Punjab.

Over 2 days, we have 2 formal presentation sessions with representatives of local government in attendance, one attended by a local MP Rasheed Akber Khan. Khan has survived a suicide bomb attack by the Taliban, even though over a hundred of his constituents perished. He qualifies for official protection, from 4 mean looking heavily armed men surrounding him. This makes me very nervous because these are exactly soft spots that attract suicide attacks. I try keeping a healthy distance from him but my hosts keep drawing me in as a mark of respect. It is a very nervous hour that passes listening to him speak in Saraiki (local Punjabi dialect) to about 300 people in attendance and I am much relieved when it all ends and we depart for Dera Ismail Khan to catch a flight to Islamabad.

There is an average of 2 target killings of minority Muslims in Dera Ismail Khan daily. We are strongly cautioned by our very kind host Kaiser Abbas, not to stop anywhere until we get to the airport. No breaks; no prayer stops or bathroom break stops. The situation is so dicey even our driver is not told we are flying out from Dera Ismail Kahn airport until the last minute. Alhamd’Allah, there are no incidents and we reach the airport, say our noon prayers; we depart for Islamabad late in the day.

I fly to Karachi the next day and extend my expired visa for another 72 hours, courtesy again of Brigadier Zamurat Hussein; it pays to be an ex army man in Pakistan. Large sections of Karachi are shut down; traders protesting the killings of 9 people just outside Sadar yesterday.

Accompanied by Afzal Fazal, chairman of Faiz e Qaim Trust, I fly to Bahawalpur next morning; we are to inspect 2 schools in poor areas, run by this Trust. I spend a restless night at a seedy hotel room where mosquitoes, my real terrorists, reign. Next morning, it is a 30 mile drive to the school. When I enter the very modest Al Abbas Primary School in Alihwan, Basti Saadat, I am showered by rose petals, so many, one or two decide to reside in my mouth; I spit them out. I meet very, very poor, emaciated but smiling children who put on a brief play in my honor. They have also tried to wear their best for my benefit.

Then I notice a 6 or 7 year old bony girl without shoes, desperately trying, and failing, to hide dirty cracked feet from my eyes; I am so shocked, speechless, I cannot think for a moment. I try to see if any other children are similarly attired but find none. The poor girl avoids my eyes; I feel (irrational) anger rise up in me at the apparent unfairness of her situation. I question the school principal, but he just shrugs his shoulders in embarrassment. Then tears come and I stupidly weep; not exactly sure why, but emotions bubble up at the memory my own comfortable childhood, perhaps. I request Afzalbhai to give 2 sets of uniforms and a pair of shoes to each of the 152 students as personal donation. CAI, will, insha’Allah construct a library, provide a water cooler and support other refurbishments the school urgently require.

The other school, Al Murtaza Secondary School, Hateji, Potla Baqar Shah is slightly better endowed; children have uniforms and appear healthy and well nourished. Here as well, I am showered with rose petals; for a brief moment am terrified I might me getting married. Again! The children put on a delightful comedy drama for my pleasure. CAI will facilitate a library and a water cooler for harsh summer months here as well, insha’Allah.

Later in the day, we leave for Karachi from Rahim Yar Khan Airport. In Karachi, there is great ruckus outside the airport; youths in motorbikes with huge Pakistan flags creating peril and nuisance for traffic, celebrating Pakistan’s cricket win against West Indies in the semi finals of the world cup. Hassanbhai Aloolo of Husseini Foundation treats me with excellent barbecued chicken as we update each other with ongoing CAI supported projects in Pakistan. I depart Karachi for Mumbai via Dubai next morning.

Click here to view excellent photos of my trip to Pakistan.

Monday, March 21, 2011

A Mast, Mast Drive To Sirsi

Sirsi, in Uttar Pradesh, India is about 160 miles east of New Delhi, which takes a whopping 7 hours drive to reach in one of the most bizarre traffic conditions in terms of bewilderment. Comfort Aid International has had the good fortune of building a fine boys orphanage, complete renovation of a rundown school and I have just concluded the purchase of a property that will house about 50 girl orphans here shortly insha’Allah. This will be CAI’s 5th orphanage in India (3 boys and 1 girl already up and running). It has been my Indian experience the gentler gender almost inevitably get the short end of fairness, be it education, marriage or orphan care. While there are several orphanages that cater towards boy orphans in India, girls get second hand management; thus this endeavor.

On this particular trip, reaching Sirsi is not so bad, other than inevitable traffic chaos in bumpy, beat up roads. The orphans, when we get there, are happy, excited to see us again, garland us with flowers, an honor so readily accepted in India but one that makes me acutely uncomfortable, still. Mosquitoes, my bitter nemesis, welcome us as well, hundereds of them, even happier than the kids; I take considerable pleasure in quashing them whenever the opportunity. So it is waving around, slapping and striking myself silly that occupy my stay outside the treated room where we sleep. Allah Himself must have thought my behavior peculiar in prayer at the neighborhood mosque later on that evening, dancing like Michael Jackson, trying to keep clouds of mosquitoes at bay.

Addicted to running almost every day, I take to an empty field outside the orphanage next day, running laps, the boys watch me as a novelty. Later, I visit several homes of very poor people that have requested a proper house. This is perhaps the most unpleasant, saddening and depressing part my role at CAI; the wretched conditions of homes, pathetically hopeful look on faces of applicants and the sheer will it takes me to be detached and impartial in making a final decision. Most of these poor families live in narrow winding roads so close to each other I can see clear a neighbor changing his kameez and smell, together with that of urine and shit, pungent onions, garlic and masalas being changed into curries. I watch a grandmother, perhaps, of a little girl carefully spread newspapers on the pavement immediately in front of an open air bakery and make her squat over it. The girl obediently defecates, is cleaned up. The grandmother carefully, neatly, folds the newspaper, and then unceremoniously discards it into an open sewer nearby. I approve 6 homes to be built, each costing about US$2,000, the maximum CAI budget from donors will allow.

Later on, I spend time with the boys and conclude the deal on the new orphanage late at night. Early next morning, I depart for New Delhi for my return flight to Mumbai. The first hour of drive is eventless but then we are stuck behind a traffic snarl that is miles long. There is chaos as every driver looks for a nook to cut the other off and gain a miniscule lead. Nobody moves on either direction and nobody knows why, the driver speculates a fiery crash of vehicles up ahead. We finally inch along only to halt once more on an extensive bridge spanning the Yamuna River. I watch a pack of red assed monkeys chatter excitedly, perhaps mocking our helplessness and taking great delight at it. When the traffic does move, it is pure selfish mad rush, absolutely no curtsey shown or extended, by anyone to anyone. After about an hour, we cover the length of the bridge, only to stop completely once more.

A massively potbellied cop rests his feet on a latchi alongside an encampment, watching on goings with a bored expression. He yawns wide, then decides to pick his nose, coming away with scant valuables. Instead, he empties a sachet of tobacco into his upturned mouth. His interest perks up when he sees a tractor trying to break through the chaos by driving up a steep pile of dirt by the side of the road, sensing an alternative way through the fields beyond maybe. The cop puckers thick lips and lets out a stream of red tobacco juice, raising a cloud of fine sand at his feet. Then moving swiftly, surprisingly for a man with a pregnant gut, walks up to the tractor, clambers over it and slaps the bewildered driver silly. The cop completes the punishment with a sharp cruel twist of a scarf on the driver’s neck, then, sweating from the workout, returns to the resting spot and resumes his latent position, wiping sweat from his face.

When the traffic eventually clears, we find absolutely no cause for the snarl; abruptly, the roads clears; the driver floors the gas pedal. We stop at Bismillah restaurant, an open air affair famous for her biryani and clouds of very annoying flies. I settle for tea and delicious, fresh baked naan to the background of ear splitting Bollywood songs. Something about a Munni being defamed and some mast, mast pair of eyes tormenting an admirer…

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Happy birthday to me!

It is my birthday today, the Georgian one. I like my lunar birthday better, on Shabaan 5th; birthday of my 4th great Imam Sajjad (A). I sit at my desk and ponder over remarkable 54 years that have passed by; try and humor excited 10 year old Maaha Zainab’s futile attempts to keep a baked birthday cake hidden from me. She takes her birthdays very seriously, expending incredible amounts of energy in broadcasting the day way in advance, preparing for and celebrating it grandly.

I think I wore off birthday thrills pretty early in life, as soon as I realized it took a lot of money throwing the kind of parties my classmates invited me to; these created dilemmas and eventual heartache. My Mamma, Allah bless her soul, would have none of them, for she had very little money to spare, especially not on birthday gifts. So I would sulk until some solution was found; predictably repackaging of rare unused gifts to the family, even if it was a kitchen gadget, absolutely useless to the birthday boy. Reputation intact, I would go to the party with head held high, knowing the gift would be opened well after I was safely back home. When it was my birthday next, Mumma would cook something nice to take to school and there would be cake to cut at night. It was useless hoping for a party; no amount of sulking would warrant that expense.

Once though, in grade 3 (4 perhaps?), feeling brave, I invited Clara (I don’t remember her last name now) to our home for a birthday party that I impulsively invented in my head, thinking she would decline, obviously. Clara was a product of union between an Englishman and a flashy but kind Goan lady. Fair and incredibly beautiful, I (and many, many others in my class) had an overwhelming crush on her. She went home, talked about it with her Mum and next day, gave me shocking news that yes, she would come. This situation created a myriad of very sticky scenarios, the most critical being colossal loss of face in class and making a miserable fool of me in front of the most desired girl in my class.

I threw a tantrum that shocked everybody at home; I wanted to have a birthday party. There was no way I was going to be a laughing stock of my class, especially with Clara involved. Mamma and others would not budge; no party. I cried, sobbed and made myself sick and miserable in the process; still, no relenting. On the fateful day, I refused to take a cake my eldest sister Kaneezbai, may Allah bless her soul, baked me; hurting her feeling to no end. I was on pin and needles all day, trying to find a way and weasel out of this quandary; no solutions readily came to mind.

Sure enough, exactly at 5PM, the time I had invited her, Clara, a neatly wrapped gift (2 brand new tennis balls to play cricket with) in her hands, was dropped off at our very modest home by her Mum, promising to pick her up by 7Pm. I remember clearly, I could have fit the whole morning cake in my sister’s mouth, the way she gaped. But bless her soul, like the angel she was, took matters under control. The same cake was given an ice over, (by Sabira, my other sister, I think) homemade snacks, always plenty at home from Mumma’s business stock came to play, neighborhood children urgently summoned and we had a party! Why, I was the envy of my class the next day, with Clara gushing in her praise for the party; I was on the top of the world, drunk with glee.

Teenage life did bring some cheer during birthdays, with improving family economics and regular pocket money to burn. Nowadays, it is a date on the calendar; a few emails, some text messages, several Facebook greetings, fewer phone calls…wait a second, Maaha Zainab is jumping up and down beseeching me to come to the dining table; she has decorated the cake and five lit candles dance on its iced surface. I’d better go, Tasneem and Alihussein are also waiting, to sing and clap happy birthday.

Sunday, March 6, 2011

The Shias Of Sri Lanka – A Tentative Beginning.

Muslims in Sri Lanka number about 2 million, 10%, concentrated mostly in the east of this exotic island. There was a time when Muslims dominated business and commerce, especially in Jaffna, but war by LTTE saw atrocities against them. Scores of Muslims were gathered in mosques and grenades thrown at them; those that survived had their throats slit. So they scattered, impoverished, leaving behind everything they owned. Almost every Muslim I met expressed happiness and satisfaction with the defeat of LTTE.

The Shias of Sri Lanka number no more than about 2,000, concentrated mostly in the east of the country around Walachil and Calcuda in Batticaloa District; there are also some in Kandy and in Noorelia as well. None of these were born into Shiaism, but have reverted after reasoning and research, especially after the 1979 Islamic revolution in Iran. Though mainstream Shaafi Muslim populace of Sri Lanka is ripe for accepting madhab of Ahlebeit (A), progress has been tentative at best due to a host of reasons, mainly lack of support from Shia countries and institutes that matter in these field.

My contact point in Sri Lanka is Az Zahra Foundation headed by Sister Zaveeni and her husband Haaris Jamil, both committed to the service of humanity and very strong in their love for Ahlebeit (A). I am in Sri Lanka to oversee relief aid to flood victims of devastating floods in eastern part of the country. This will be done through Az Zahra Foundation, for they have humanitarian aid experience and credibility of several years.

Day one takes me to outskirts of Colombo, to Duwatta where many marginalized Muslims live in shacks that flood every time it rains, not unlike Govendhi and Malaad slums of Mumbai. Residents of this area are either new reverts to Shia Islam or almost there, thanks to the efforts of Az Zahra Foundation. Slowly, surely, they are guided along to the right path and gather at the Jalil residence for Dua e Tawwasul and Komail.

We are off to Walachil early next morning to survey flood damage, a distance of about 200 miles. For a ‘poor’ country, Sri Lankan roads are remarkably good and well maintained, at least compared to other ‘poor’ Southeast Asian countries. Remarkable also, is absence of filth and evil smells I have come across major urban cities of India. Even in the slums of stark poor Duwatta, there is semblance of order and cleanliness, unpolluted by the ghastly, revolting gutter smells of Govendhi or Malaad of Mumbai perhaps. An argument can be made regarding the imbalance (and management) of populations between the two; Mumbai’s 14 million is almost two thirds the whole of Sri Lanka’s 21 million, true; but comparing the economies and GDP of the city and country blows this argument away.

The scenery along the way is fantastic; that of rolling meadows and thick forests dotted with small towns and villages offering an array of fruits. It is good this is not summertime, so tropical fruits like mangoes, jack fruits etc are absent, else I would have been delirious in fruit frenzy that my hosts would probably have found peculiar. Nevertheless, yummy pineapples abound and some soursop (ramfur?); this fruit was no more than 10 cents for a healthy piece not too long ago. Prices have shot up 30 times since its cancer fighting benefits have come to light.

We get lost as we near Walachil some 6 hours later and it takes some frantic calls to get us guided to a guest house at a dairy farm. This area was out of bounds and very dangerous not too long ago under the LTTE. We are in an area rich with cattle farming and management; one company has a charming bungalow that it rents out to visitors. Modern and clean with power, even air conditioners, in the middle of nowhere, this is a pleasant surprise. We lunch on delicious fish curry that is a delight. This is a blessing throughout my stay in Sri Lanka, excellent seafood that is spiced just right. I am to be treated on fish head curry and massive prawns later on at the Jamil residence, a culinary experience that I am hard pressed to equate in the past, ever.

We then survey the damaged homes, a mission most depressing and unpleasant. As with other world areas where CAI has helped the unfortunate, I get a lot of requests from poor people appealing for home building aid. Yes, some homes are in pitiful conditions, but my mandate and budget are constrained for flood victims only; unfortunately, I have to disappoint. 12 homes within CAI budget are identified for repair / rebuilding. However, there is chorus appeal for replacement of school supplies lost in the flood from needy students. These are about 500 students that have lost school books and supplies, are finding it very difficult to continue studies without them. CAI will work towards replacing these for the most poor; soon insha’Allah.

At night, after meeting local leaders in a makeshift mosque (the community lack a mosque, Husseinya or community center) and seafood dinner, we retire as we have further home inspections and a long journey back to Colombo next day. In the morning, we visit a hauza, Man Bul Huda, a massive boarding school donated by foreign donors; Jaaferi school of thought is taught here, smack in the middle of a large Wahabi community. After another seafood lunch, we return to Colombo later in the day, stopping for a light non seafood dinner. I am happy to observe most restaurants in Colombo are Muslim owned with prayer rooms for both sexes in almost all of them.

My last day in Colombo is spent visiting a boy’s orphanage that was formed and donated by an Iraqi almost 50 years ago. I spent a delightful few hours at dinner with the Jalil family that night; Sister Zaveena, Brother Haaris, their daughter Amina and granddaughter Aariana, their son Ashique and his fiancĂ©e Zainab. My trip to Sri Lanka would not have been so comfortable and memorial without the kindness and generosity of this family for which I will ever be thankful. CAI will, in the future insha’Allah, partner with Az Zahra Foundation in service of humanity for Allah’s (S) pleasure.

I return to India next day without incident, no flight delays, crows crapping good luck on me or rickshaw drivers offering worldly pleasures.

View photos here.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Revenge Of A Crow.

I watch a crow on a branch of a massive tree intently, who stares back indifferent. Because my Kingfisher flight from Chennai, India to Colombo in Sri Lank has been delayed three times already and soured my disposition, I pick up a pebble and hurl it towards where she perches, missing wildly. The crow simply hops sideways, seemingly mocking me. I resign to waiting outside the terminal in the building tropical heat and order a cup of machine brewed tea from a food stall.

So I am minding my own business, sipping the hot brew when the crow directly above me (I will not swear it was the same one that mocked me 3 minutes ago, but I know, I just know it is her!) crows loudly and voids her rectum. The aim is almost accurate; my right shoulder. I feel moistness and utter shock, drop my cup, scalding my leg in the process and look up, enraged. I utter a profanity and feel my shoulder, my fingers coming away with white-gray, stinking, disgusting goo; I retch at once.

Ayoo, says a dark fat Tamil man sitting on a massive tree root nearby, giving me a toothy grin and bobbing his head violently, ayoo. This is good luck, don’t mind, my friend. A bird shitting on one is a sign of good luck. Don’t mind, no? I glare at this good natured man; since when were we friends and does a crow qualify as a bird anyway? I am not sure who to strangle first, this Tamil or the crow. Instead, I scurry towards a pay and use bathroom close by, fumbling for change. Thank God I did not check in my bag so I had a handy change of shirt with me. After a bit of clean up and change of shirt, I am a little mollified, feel guilty at being mean at the Tamil (not the crow) and return to the tree to make amends perhaps, but the tree root is now occupied by a harassed mother trying to pacify a wailing toddler. I hurry towards the safety of departure terminal, warily stealing glances at tree branches above to make sure no further good luck omens lurk there.

Colombo airport, when I eventually land there 4 hours late, is a refreshing departure in efficiency and cleanliness from airports India wide. The smart looking female immigration officer offers a charming, hospitable smile and allows me stay for 30 days in her country, free. I am out of the airport and into the waiting hotel vehicle in less than 20 minutes from touchdown, including purchase of a SIM card in the lobby. The roads, although busy, are well maintained, with clear markings in Singhalese. The Village Park Hotel in Watala is shabby but will do for the purpose I am in Sri Lanka; to provide relief to victims of devastating floods in eastern Sri Lanka.

My hosts are Haaris and Zaveeni Jamil of Al Zahra Foundation, a remarkable couple whose foundation is relentless in coordinating and distribution of aid relief to the poor and marginalized in Sri Lanka. It is to their home that I head next day for lunch and a meeting with a section of poor mothers that get educational aid for their children. I hoist a 3 wheeler and off we go weaving through traffic.

I sense, then see the driver observing me through the rearview mirror; he gives me a gaping smile missing several front teeth. From which country, my friend? he asks. Now, this country has just concluded a savage war defeating the LTTE, the only country I know that has eliminated a tenacious terrorist group successfully. Still, the uncertain reputation of my country triggers a safe response from me, India, I reply. The guys eyes light up and bushy eyebrows shoot up, Ah, Katrina Kapoor! Ah, nice girl. Ah, nice sexy body! Startled, I stare at him but respond Katrina Kaif, you mean? Yo, yo, very sexy! Then the nut closes his eyes, as if in ecstasy and crashes into a pothole. Although I receive a nasty jar, I am happy to see him back to reality, driving with open eyes.

Derrick, the driver, wants to know if I am married, if I have children and how many, how old, if I am here on a business; I humor him with vague responses and he falls silent. When we are close to my destination, he asks if I want a good time while in Colombo; gums flash. I pretend not to have heard and hide behind my sunglasses but watch him wearily. A very good time? Gums shine again followed by a lazy knowing wink. Mercifully, we are at the Jamil residence and I pay him off. He looks disappointed and sad, wants 100 rupees more than the requisite fare. I let Brother Jamil deal with him; take refuge inside the house.