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?