Thursday, April 19, 2012

Land Of Flashy Bosoms, Meaty Thighs

Port Au Prince (PAP), Haiti is not a nice place.  The city is grimy, filthy, mosquito ridden, potholed roads abound, snarled traffic rule and noxious fumes from cheap gasoline can make you instantly nauseous.  It is also a very threatening city, her people on the move, exceedingly belligerent, constantly hustling, looking to score; this brings in food for the day or they sleep hungry.  It is also a very dangerous city where her citizens are not shy using firearms to settle scores, whether for personal rivalry or most often, settle a busted drug deal.

This is my second trip to Haiti within a year; I had spent all my time in Cap Haitian last time however, not PAP.  Within this hellhole of a city live a thriving Muslim community, particularly those that are lovers of Ahlebeyt (A); they number about five hundred scattered in three diverse areas of the city.  Shu’aib Brioche, who has taken a leadership role for the community meets me at the airport and we limp-drive our way for Zohr salaat and then to my hotel in a vehicle that has a bent axel.    I am in agony within five minutes waiting for the room to be cleaned; mosquitoes have a blood feast and I am hopping around like a manic futilely slapping at them; Shu’aib gives me a I told you so look; he did email me, advising a mosquito repellent.  

Halal foods are non-existent in all of Haiti and use of pork and pork products (lard) is so common, it is a challenge eating a doubt-free meal; I stick to broiled seafood, dumping so much hot sauce in it makes the waitress’s eyes pop in unbelief.  He’ll burn his intestines and rear end she complains to Shu’aib in Creole, snatching the bottle away from me.  I spend the night fearful of mosquitos, seemingly invincible creatures kept at bay by noxious insect repellent coils and a furious fan that provide some succor from their deadly stings. 

Next day, I face the full fury of anger that PAP has to offer; from snarled unyielding traffic, impossible roads, filthy garbage blocking intersection to murders.  We are stopped at an intersection for about thirty minutes, moving inches.  Shu’aib asks a cop who shrugs – a man has been shot dead in his car up ahead, it’ll be a while, have patience;I immediately feel pressure on my bladder and the somewhat jovial banter in the car between Abbas (the driver), Shu’aib and I dry up.  I see a man in sitting position in a car, eyes closed, as if he has decided to nap in the middle of the road, only his once white shirt is crimson red with blood.  That night, it is this image that haunts me; even the mosquitos sense my despondency and seem less thirsty.

Shu’aib runs a ramshackle school in a slum area of Tesus Palum Kafu.  Here, amongst the ruins of earthquake, once a drugs and violence infected neighborhood, is a budding elementary school that is making a real difference to the local population.  Within this ‘school’ is a worship center where services are held on Tuesdays, Thursdays, Fridays and Sunday school.  Today, a Monday, like Thursdays, members are fasting and iftaar is being prepared for about ten people. 

Our next stop is in Bellaire neighborhood, just past downtown.  Shu’aib laments that the center there is in ruins, people can’t pray because it floods whenever it rains and the place is inhabitable.  I ask him to take me there; he shakes his head, fear in his eyes.  No, Habeeb (he means Habeebi, actually), too dangerous.  How dangerous?  I ask.  No Habeeb, I can’t risk it.  I insist.  Well, let me ask Jebraeel, the local Imam there.  He jabbers on his cellphone in Creole for a while, glancing my way now and then.  Okay, he says after a while, we’ll go.  But you must hurry, no more than a couple of minutes.  If the gangs find out there is a foreigner come visiting, there could be trouble, they’ll think you have money to give away.  Nothing will happen, most probably, but I don’t want to take chances.  

The locality looks and feels tough, with ‘houses’ no more than cheap tent material for walls and nylon sheets for a roof; consequence of the earthquake.  We park real close to the Islamic Center; Shu’aib and Jebraeel hustle me between lanes of creepy looking homes, to one room made of cardboard and wood slates for roof.  You got two minutes, hisses Shu’aib; I begin taking photos quickly, the guy is making me nervous.  A sodded, stinking carpet is out to dry after recent rains; the whole thing looks very rickety, ready to collapse.  Jebraeel pleads for repairs, promises US1,000 will do the job of keeping rainwater out and the community can start jamaat salaat again; CAI will help in this project, insha’Allah, if I am guaranteed accountability and transparency.  Jebraeel is jubilant and thanks me profoundly, says nobody has been forthcoming with help the last three years they have appealed, not certain governments, nor world organizations in London, Toronto or elsewhere he has tried.  Happy to help.

Shu’aib wants me to visit many more small centers but we make it to only one more, in another part of the city.  The center turns out to be a rented house of a local Imam, Fulton Moosa.  Salaat and other programs are held underneath the sky but we pray zohr in his house; Moosa leads jamaat perfectly, I am much impressed. 

Driving back to Mariawi, by the hotel, I marvel at how much Haiti resembles East Africa, especially Nairobi, except for the filth and guns.  But the women, they are differently different.  The French might have introduced Jesus (A) and Mother Mary to the Muslim slaves from Africa but they forgot (perhaps?) to teach the women Mary’s modesty or the need to wear underwear.  It is difficult, no, impossible to keep eyes averted from these women; lo, they are omnipotent!  One provocatively dressed damsel after another - there is no end.  I complain to Abbas, the driver about this.  He laughs easily.  Our country may not have much to offer but it is a land full of flashy bosoms and meaty thighs he jests.  Not really.  They have excellent mangoes, soursop, roasted corn, plantains...  Since the gang moving with me are all fasting, I resort to these, even the White mango, the most succulent of all in Haiti.  During French occupation, it was illegal for the slaves to partake this most delicious fruit; violators were lashed if caught.  Thus the fruit was named White Mango.

By the time we return to town, it is getting dusk; I retire to my hotel room and mosquitos for company.  I eagerly depart for home next day.

Haiti Muslims are a neglected lot by many in position to help.  In my two trips there, I have seen enough imaan in these new Muslims to get ahead in Islam.  As I have stated, Haiti is tough for sure, survival of the fittest rule.  These new Muslims need guidance, so CAI will work with the new Hawza in Orlando for educational opportunities for two identified individuals.  There is definitely a need for a central center, one that can be used for prayer and educational activities and act as a pivot for the diverse communities.  In addition to Islamic literature in French and Creole (if available?) CAI is committed to getting them this as well, a first for Ahlebeyti Muslims of Haiti.  


Few photos here.  

Monday, April 16, 2012

A Total Dichotomy Of Islam!

It is a beautiful morning outside my house here in Sanford, FL; clear blue sky, not a cloud in the sky and comfortable 70F. I hear birds chirp friskily outside; hear thuds and hammering of final homes being completed in the subdivision. We could do with some rain however, the grass, although still lush green, look stressed out at places, even with twice a week sprinkler watering. Water in Florida is pricey; I learnt this the hard way. My first month’s bill last June was over US$1,200, giving me heart palpitations I thought was Israeel come knocking. But then, everything in Florida is pricy compared to Texas. That however, is another story.

I am on my laptop trying to bring alive a pretty female character in my novel but she stays elusive, like a stubborn, sly maiden convinced her suitor has not done enough justice to his wooing efforts. Just when an creative idea pops in my mind, my cell phone goes off. This early? The display flashes Gulam Chotaaro, my friend from Canada. Ever since we talked after forty years of separation, Gulam has been in regular contact. I have been trying to counsel him regarding his rebellious teenage son Sameer’s wandering ways and misuse of Muttah practices. But it is only nine in the morning here and seven where he lives in the West; this must be serious, so I brace myself for potential bad news.

Vipi Kisukaali...habaari akhee, hujaambo?

The tone is jovial; I relax my tensing nerves, although it is odd for him to be calling for a chat this early on a Saturday. We swap pleasantries; I ask about Sameer; Gulam’s voice sours, becomes instantly quarrelsome.

Do not ask me about that khabees; I ran him off from home after his latest girlfriend’s father came to my house and demanded we keep Sameer’s dirty Muzlim paws off his daughter or else. You know how these Russians are, don’t you? Their women can be stunningly beautiful but their men are ruthless; they go after their enemy’s crown jewels, chop them off! I hope that will teach Sameer a lesson, living as a paying guest somewhere, always on the lookout protecting his jewels, without home cooked food, but I doubt it. His mother cooks tons of food and sneaks them to him.

I feel queasy about anybody’s crown jewels being chopped off, but I also feel sorry for poor Gulam, my heart goes out to him; Sameer has been like a bone stuck in his fathers throat that refuses to budge. But it is not Sameer that Gulam is calling me about this morning; the matter is more spiritual than personal this time.

Have you seen a protest that some Muslim bozos have taken out in someplace UK? Gulam demands. I tell him there are protests by Muslims in the UK almost every day, which one is he referring to? Subeeri, he says, I am sending you the clip now, watch it, you on your computer, siyo? So I wait and then watch a five-minute YouTube clip of very unruly, impolite and downright nasty men in long beards and naqaab-clad women shout abuses at British police and the government, calling for their demise. They swear that “Muslims” will establish a Khaleefat domain over the UK, tell onlookers they will go to hell because they are “unbelievers” and a women protester abuses a bystander, calling her a whore for being dressed the way she is. The video, for me, is disgusting, unacceptable but I play the devils advocate nevertheless.

Well, Gulam, they seem to be British citizens, they have a right to voice their opinions... There is an audible catch of breath at the other end and then silence; I begin to think he has hung up on me, mad. He is mad all right. I cannot believe my ears, Kisukaali, you, uttering this garbage? You? They have a right to spew out this kind of garbage? You disappoint me, Kisukaali, really... I stop him.

Gulam, I agree what these people say is wrong, in action and spirit of Islam. Our Prophet (S) would certainly have not tolerated this behavior. But they and we live in a supposed democracy where this kind of protest is legal. As long as violence is not resorted to, they do have a right to voice their opinion.

You know what, Gulam almost shouts, we Muslims are the problem. Not happy in Gazza, Iraq, Iran, Yemen, Bahrain, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Syria, Lebanon, Saudi, Egypt... So we lie, cheat or beg to get a Green Card or permanent residence in the US, UK, Australia, Canada.... And when these countries, in their generosity, and stupidity sometimes do grant us the right, we rush in happily. Then something happens in our dudu filled heads; we blame them for everything - from being kafirs to whores. We forget we were unhappy back home amongst our filthy, corrupt, obese rulers, the murderers and brilliant thieves. Is this the logic that Islam teaches you, Kisukaali? Gulam is so mad, I can hear the venom in his voice and recoil at the saliva splatter that must be hitting the telephone mouthpiece. Bah! This is a total dichotomy of Islam.

I hear the slam of telephone and the line goes dead. Hmmm, dichotomy...I have heard this word before. I open my online dictionary.

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

A Toilet With Tiles

The area around Chatrapati Shivaji International Airport in Mumbai is not very pedestrian friendly; certainly not a place to unnecessarily walk about. With snarled traffic most times, drivers intent on out-hooting each other, metro and overpass construction, decibel levels that render blood pressure medication useless and a stink that can curl up toenails, it is a wonder to see people up and about. I have no choice, I have to put in my hour of walking exercise, else metabolism in my system take very long stubborn naps.

I navigate another heap of rotting, stinking garbage, paying very careful attention for human or dog poop mounds; they can spring a nasty surprise on unsuspecting footwear. Immediately past this eyesore is a grimy Muslim restaurant with white-capped customers enjoying early morning spicy concoctions of eggs and potatoes and steamy tea. A teenager in filthy once-white waist perches over on a veranda edge tending to a boiling wok of bubbling grease with jaleebis sizzling in agony.

A mile up the road and I walk into slum India, a community of humans packed into ramshackle dwellings surrounded by garbage, grime and a peculiar foul smell that stays with me even as I walk faster, trying to escape it. There are flies that ignore frantic waves of my hands and sorry looking dogs that scavenge near an open nallah that runs along the tarred road I walk; I eye them cautiously, they have rabies written all over them, maybe? When I look up and around, swanky, tall glass buildings sprout all over, catching the glint of a raising sun; The Leela, Marriott, InterContinental, Sheraton…mocking my astonishment, at the fallacy I see.

I think I’ve had enough exercise and want to return to my hotel, a much modest Suba International, shower, have a luxuriously slow breakfast and a nap before heading to the airport and back home to Sanford when I walk into a sort of a maidan, a clearing. To one side is a pukka two-storied hut that stands isolated, in a midst of mountains of litter; newspapers, soda cans, plastic bottles, plastic bags and liners, metal cast-offs, auto and bicycle tires…even a rusting auto rickshaw, long dead. In between the house and trash heaps, sits a charpoy. A thickly bearded man wearing a Muslim cap sits on it, blows on a murky glass held by the tips of fingers, puckers his lips and takes a tentative sip; hot tea perhaps. Trios of chicken peck on the dirt near his feet and not too far away, a half naked toddler with an effusive runny nose plays with dirt.

I pause by the rotting rickshaw to observe the child, busy with a stick that s(he) is bent on interring into the dirt with very little success; frustrated, it begins wailing, there is instant reaction. Aree, aree, abhee kya hoowa, mai aye, mai aye… A young girl, hair covered with a dupatta, comes jogging from the house, carrying a large tub full of splashing water. She places it down, lifts up the toddler, places a series of ringing kisses on his face, removes the vest and immerses the now naked boy into the tub and begins a vigorous rub down with a bar of soap. I wish I had a camera; this would be an interesting shot. I sense a movement inside the rickshaw and nearly jump out from my skin in fright. A young boy, no more than ten, twelve, very dark, sits inside a tiny space grinning at me. We stare at each other, him grinning silly, I trying to steady a wayward heart. The boy juggles his eyebrows, Hello hero, show khalaas, soo rupee, holds out a palm. Astonished and somewhat amused, I turn around and start walking away but the boy is nimble as a monkey, out and blocking my way, palm held out. Show not pree, says he, in Bollywood fashion, ek soo rupee, dedo fast, fast.

Perplexed, I want to ask him why but a short sharp smack on his head sends him scrambling away. The man I had seen sitting drinking tea now stands in front of me, frowning. He is wearing a colorful lungi with a thin fading white kurta over it. Forgive him, sahib, he has lost his manners. Ever since carorpatti kutta tamaasha, Munna thinks he can extort money from strangers. Please ignore him, go in peace. Or perhaps I can offer you some tea?

I sit on the charpoy with Abdul Raheem and warily sip piping hot tea from a not-so-clean-looking glass, hoping all germs have been eliminated; I do not fancy a Mumbai belly on the long flight home. A bashful Zakeeya Bano, the young woman I saw cleaning up the toddler, her youngest brother, serves the tea. Zakeeya Bano and nimble Munna are Abdul’s children, two of nine from two wives, all living in that house behind me. Abdul is a scrap dealer, has been since moving to Mumbai from somewhere in UP. He was dirt poor when he first arrived in Mumbai, spent months living on streets with his first wife and two daughters, Zakeeya Bano one of them, the older one is married and lives in Malad slums with her family. Abdul was among the first ones to claim this piece of property as home, then a strip of marshland adjacent to Chatrapati Shivaji International Airport.

Nobody cared about recycling fourteen years ago; Abdul traded in newspapers, magazines and other paper products, scraped a living. Then suddenly, commodity prices took off faster than fastest jet planes Abdul had ever seen and recycling became fashionable, and profitable. He saw profits and competition escalate so everybody in the family joined in the business and he made money, got a good rishta for his oldest daughter, could afford the dowry for the boy from a decent family. With the savings, he expanded the business, acquired more land by paying off harassing police, sharks and other squatters. And he married, again.

Why, I ask. Abdul looks at me in surprise, frowns, strokes his bushy beard thoughtfully, as if I have asked him a profound question that needs contemplation. Then he smiles, revealing strong white teeth in between peppered whiskers. Arre Ali Mia, why not? I am a man, I have needs, no? He gives me a knowing wink but then his face sours. And I could afford it. Then… His second wife Shabnum Bano joins us, carrying a steel plate each of sweetmeats in assorted colors and savory concoction of fried daals, pea and cashew nuts; Abdul encourages me to take some but I politely decline. When I ask Abdul how he manages living with two wives and nine children in one house; his face darkens some more. Hmmmm, he says irritably, very difficult, that is why you don’t see the first one here…gone maike. He joins fingers of right hand and flaps them, yap yap, all day long, tongue never stops, saali troublemaker. I ran her off to her mother, let her go and yap all she wants there. She’ll be back soon enough, and eat my head again. I suppress an urge to laugh; Shabnum Bano has a smug look on her face.

Abdul, his family and residents of this slum are a worried lot however; their fortunes and lucks have taken a severe trouncing, dark thunderous clouds gather in the horizon and the future looks gloomy. Due to the fall in worldwide commodity prices, recyclables demand is down and prices almost halved. But not police haftas, these increase in tandem with price of daals, always soaring like those aircrafts taking off and landing, forcing a pause in conversation every few minutes. Slow business and police bribery is okay however, not the big anxiety; business has ups and downs, always, Abdul has survived worse times ago. The slum dwellers have been served eviction notice by GVK, the airport developer; they will have to move – in the very near future, perhaps within three months. Why? This entire area will be part of the new airport, a showcase for India to show to the world.

And what do they want to show us, the citizens of this community, asks Abdul. A less than 400 square foot apartment as compensation in some fancy high-rise coming up Allah knows where, when. For this, I had to bribe the government land department at Adheri ten thousand rupees to get a piece of paper affirming I live here. Ten thousand rupees! Can you believe the goondagheeri of our officials, Ali Mia? This is my house and my compound, which I bought and paid with my sweat to the Tamil land shark at exorbitant rates. Now, I have to bribe some haraami so that a piece of paper says it belongs to me. You have to go through this kind of goondagheeri back in Amrika, Ali Mia? I shake my head. Perhaps you can highlight our plight in Amrika? Talk to your Sarkaal? Tell them to urge the government of India not to rob us so much? I want to tell him there is nothing the US can do about his plight but remain quiet instead, it would be too much trouble and I am sure nothing I say will make him feel better.

What am I supposed to do in an apartment, hmmm? Will they let me sell scrap there? They say it will have a proper bathroom and a proper kitchen with gas connections, it will have 24-hour water supply…but I have to pay for it all. Have you seen the price of a gas cylinder bottle lately Ali Mia? The developer boasts that toilets will have shiny tiles in them. What for? Am I supposed to admire my bum’s reflection in them? Bah! Tiles indeed, for a few minutes, in company of filth and smell. I don’t need a tiled toilet for that, I go round the corner and do it there, in the large cesspit. No lines, no waiting. How will the nine of us fit in the toilet all at once, bolo? Want to see or use our toilet, Ali Mia? No tiles, but first class nevertheless, fresh air and lots of space… I must have visibly paled; there is hearty laughter from those gathered around us.

The heartiest laughter comes from Munna who has joined several others that now squat about the charpoy, come to see the pardesi from Amrika, perhaps make them famous and wealthy as well, like carorpatti kutta lot from a different not so distant slum? The group is all male with few dupatta clad women standing at a suitable distance, huddled with Shabnum Bano and Zakeeya Bano, gossiping and giggling, frequently glancing our way. Munna abruptly shuts up when he sees Abdul scowling at his overdone harsh laughter, shuffles away, the earlier whack on his head still on his mind perhaps. Attention on me fades; the group takes over discussing their imminent demise as a community, their future economic wellbeing and most critical, where and when the new apartments with tiled toilets will be available for occupancy.

After a few minutes listening to them, I get up to bid farewell, tell them I have a flight to catch later that afternoon. They are disappointed, but wag their heads in understanding and smile shyly as I shake hands around. Munna stands at a distance, bashful. I go to him and hug him, discreetly fold one soo rupee bill into his palm; he beams, radiates joy. Abdul protests, tells me not to reward the badmaash but relents because I insist. Shabnam Bano comes hurrying, a piece of green cloth fluttering on her fingers. She ties this on my right arm. It is for safety and good luck in my travels, from a shrine of a saint near her village in UP. They troop after me to the main road. Allah hafiz, they repeat several times as I board a rickshaw towards my hotel. I am late; I have a plane to catch.