Friday, May 18, 2012

You 'Muslim' Dog!

In thirty-two odd years that I call United States home, I can remember only two incidents of bigotry that have really upset me.  This is remarkable, living in Texas, which has its share of dogmatists and especially after the events of 9-11.

The first time, when I am strapped for funds, putting myself through University of Houston, TX, by working the graveyard shift at 7-11, eleven PM to seven AM six days a week with twelve course credits at UH.  I am sweeping curb area outside at about 2AM when a dark Buick pulls up and a ‘man’ enters the store and buys beer.  I hand over change to ‘him’ with a ‘thank you Sir’ and ‘he’ explodes.  Sir? (s)he shouts, groping at breasts, did you call me Sir?  Confused, I look up and offer a nervous Umthank you ma’am?  (S)he looks like a man,  masculine tenor and face, close cropped hair and a shadow of stubble on the face.  (S)he stares at me, mutters something unintelligible and exits the store.  The car leaves but comes crawling back in about thirty minutes and I immediately get a feeling of trepidation; I worry hard. 

Sure enough, a man comes out of the vehicle clutching a firearm; my mouth goes dry and my heart starts beating erratically, to the tune of a paagal tabla player.  I have never seen a gun, ever; the one this man totes looks black and menacingly ugly.  I start reciting the kalema and soora Ikhlaas (this has worked like a charm, for me, every tight spot in my life) repeatedly.  The bandana clad man, tall, heavy set with budging muscles sets the ugly thing on the counter, it’s barrel facing me.  Why did you insult my girlfriend? He rasps rapidly, almost whispering, making it hard to understand him.  I have now broken into a sweat but my soora is ongoing in my head.  I am really, really sorry Sir, I plead, praying this dude really is a Sir this time.  I made a terrible mistake; I did not intend to insult the lady.  Please forgive my ignorance.  I…’

‘Oh, shut up, you f------ brown n-----, hisses the man, picks up the gun and storms out.  The Buick backs out with tires screeching, nearly hitting my parked beat-up car and goes flying out into a deserted Gesner Road.  I run to the washroom at the back and empty my busting nervous bladder.  I call the cops, only to be advised I work a very dangerous job at a very dangerous time of day in a very dangerous city.

The second incident happens last Tuesday, May 15 at about 11AM, at an Indian Hindu operated store, House of Spices in Longwood, FL, suburb of greater Orlando.  As per opening hour of operation stated on the storefront, 10:30AM, I am there on the dot and wait until 10:45AM.  When the owner still has not shown up, I leave to finish other errands, quiet flustered since this is probably the third time these guys have tarried.  When I return just after 11AM to the smell of hing and incense sticks and the humming of bajans, I irritably but politely suggest to the lady they should change the opening time in the storefront to 11AM since it is the actual time they open, she becomes instantly, understandably, defensive.  The conversation goes somewhat like this, in Hinglish:

It is not that we open late every day, you know?
Well, Ma’am, this is at least the third time I come between 10:30 and 11:00 to find the store locked.
Aree, we cannot have perfect timing, you know?
Yes I know and understand, Ma’am.  All I am saying is you change the time to reflect the actual time you open, so your customers will not be inconvenienced…
Aree, pan I told you we are not late every time, you know?  Sometimes there is heavy traffic, you know…
Well, Ma’am you run a business, customers like me look at the timing posted in your store and the Internet to plan our shopping…
Aree Baba, she folds her hands, if you feel our timing are not suitable for you I request you not to shop at our store.
Flabbergasted, I open my mouth to protest but she cuts me off.
Aree, I told you, nai.  I have just opened the store and you are the first person to enter it, I don’t want a bad start to the day.  Please leave.

Stunned, I leave, my mind is already thinking of an alternate store I can shop for Indian spices when a man, presumably the husband, follows me outside.  He accuses me of being impolite to the lady, I refute the allegation, he threatens to call the cops, I offer to call them for him; he wags a finger very close to my face.  The man is puny, does not have a gun on him so I do not feel threatened.  I laugh an ugly, sarcastic laugh and open my car door to leave.

If I ever see you near my store again, you Muslim dog…

This statement is like a prolonged power jolt through my body, which tenses, ready to lash out at the filthy slur.  The man must have sensed the fury in my eyes for he scurries close to the store entrance, sudden fear in his eyes, eyes that move this way and that.  I swear this is a very difficult moment for me, to control a blinding rage, follow him inside the store and do some severe damage to his unholy crown jewels.  Suddenly alhamd’Allah, a calm overcomes me and for some inexplicable reason, I laugh again, get inside the car and drive away.

In anger or jest, I have been called by several unholy names in the past, worse than a dog, but never with a Muslim tag.  That really hurt for a moment but Allah (S), kept my honor and dignity intact by not lowering myself with a verbal or physical response that would shame my religion.

My efforts at shaming the storeowners by better akhlaaq response of protest phone call campaign from a united community is wholeheartedly supported countrywide, save for individuals whose response is predictable this day and age; look at worldwide Muslim disunity and you will understand my point perfectly.  Astonishing. Illogical. Unconscionable.  Fortunately irrelevant.  Islam and Muslims will survive them.

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

London / Paris

When as a teenager in 1979 I got a chance to visit London for the first time ever, I turned blissfully bliss.  Why, slap me silly! London?!  My entire childhood, elementary and high school bias was for the very Great Britain.  Sister Mary Fabian, the headmistress nun who would never smile but easily turn a most hardened criminal to shaming tears with her vicious whining cane, Sister Isabel, our music teacher with whom I was hopeless in love with at a ripe age of nine and others who shaped my early inquisitive mind were all brilliantly (snotty) British.  My early fantasies rotated around characters from Enid Blyton’s Famous Five’s mesmeric adventures and kinds of sumptuous tea scones that were impossible to imagine.  Romeo and Juliet, Hamlet, Macbeth were tragic Shakespearian plays that my late, alcoholic English teacher taught me to love were all British.  So you will not fault me for rearing to set foot in London. 
Bah, what a let down, I felt so cheated, after years of infatuations and lofty visions!  I remember the immigration officer sneering at me as he scanned and rescanned the then easily forgeable visa in the hope it was a good forgery so I could be packed off to Dubai; he was disappointed.  London weather in April is the pits; absolutely miserable.  The sky was gray, British faces were all gray (skins trying hard to awaken from a long hibernating winter?) and to top off graying matters, most people wore gray coats, maybe long winters dull all sense of color.  Needless to say, I spent a miserable wet, cold week as a tourist, trying to understand underground tubes, scurrying for hard to find warmth and warming up toilets seats before sitting on them so I would not freeze my tush (that’s buttocks for you British English speakers).  My only comfort was Southhall, where I saw people with (permanent) color on their cheeks and fanciful sarees.  And the guard at Buckingham palace, he actually batted eyelids although my attempts to make him smile / laugh were all alas, futile.
I have been to London several times since then of course, with corporate America, staying at five star hotels, moving around in warm vehicles and eating overpriced food.  More recently however, as CEO of Comfort Aid International, I have had the privilege of being the guest of Fatema and Nazir Merali who live in Northwood, Middlesex.  This couple are the most kind, hospitable, humble and generous people I have had the good fortune to meet and associate.  They are totally devoted to many humanitarian causes; especially my favorite – CAI; I would be at serious disadvantage had it not been for their total devotion to my cause.  As is the case with all locations CAI operates, I firmly believe my Imam (A) makes all arrangements for CAI and London, with these and other individuals, is no exception.
I arrive in London to run few errands for CAI this time but more importantly, at the invitation of Ahlulbayt TV who want to air CAI activities, especially in Afghanistan.  The weather is lousy; wet, blustery and cold, not easy to adjust after balmy 91F in Sanford, FL.  Nazir Bhai is at the airport as usual and we hop off to jooma salaat at the robust Stanmore Center; it’s the same, busy, rumors swirl like rotating Dervishes, an elder member (may Allah bless and guide him) perches atop a table with a watchful eye, gathering ammunition for his next admonishing email; I meet many familiar friendly faces.  A few days later, I get an email stating that President of Stanmore Jamaat has resigned; the Dervish’s whirls had some credibility, after all.
I have discovered a fabulous grilled fast food chain in London, not to be missed on your next trip – Chicken Piri Piri, yummy!  Nazirbhai’s home treats, friends and relative home cooking and eating outside does very little to compliment my midsection with no routine running I do at home.  Nazirbhai and I restore to brisk walking outside early mornings, which what the English would say is ‘loooovley’…only if it was ten degrees warmer.  London weather continues to be as certain as a thirty years old spinster eyeing an aging suitor; khabhi sun, khabhi rain.  I mentioned that cold weather, perhaps, dulls the mind of color perceptions; it’s true.  Look at all the grey uniform English box homes, lines and lines.  Ugh!  There is hope though; with the influx of minority communities from all over the world, newer homes being built have more color and imaginative contours.
Nazirbhai takes me to visit an old age home he used to own; it leaves me so very melancholy.  I fervently pray all of us depart this world with dignity and in our senses; I would not wish to live a long life.  There are about twenty very old and senile people who have been brought here by their families to live out their remaining days; they look so very sad, the ones in their senses.  Others are gone, lost into dark recesses of their brains, asleep with gaping mouths, staring into space uncomprehending, one perpetually studying her fingernails as if they contain vast uncovered mysteries.  The smell of human decay is overpowering…
The taping of my interview with Ahlulbayt TV goes off pleasantly; the butterflies I feel in my tummy disappear after the first few minutes as Ahmer Naqwi and I chat about beloved CAI and the solid difference she and her donors are making in peoples lives.  It is quite comical; the host with long, luxurious locks and I with a crown shaved just yesterday, radiating overhead studio lighting manifold; I can hear Mujaahid Shariff laughing all the way from Portsmouth.   I leave cheerless London for warmer Paris the next day.  But not before a trip down memory lane with Nazirbhai to Southhall where hot jalebees at Jalebee Junction with a steaming cup of tea can lift freezing sprits and a white face would look odd, bewildered.
I am puzzled when directed to immigration while transiting in Düsseldorf to Paris until it hits me; I am now entering the EU.  Paris is so much warmer than London; it’s a pleasure not having to wear warmers.  I am put up with Sheikh Hasnain, a young resident aalim staying at South Paris jamaat building.  Suburban Paris has delightful parks woven into neighborhoods that are a pleasure to take long walks in the mornings, even if Parisians love their dogs and leave them unleashed, no matter the animals want to misuse my leg for various urges. 
I don’t care how proud the French are about their language, their speaking still sounds like a mouthful of marbles.  Unlike most Americans, who have a ready smile and a friendly hello for strangers, the French are canjoos with exposing their teeth and can be quite racist; I am calledMerde a couple of times.  Maybe tempers are still smarting after Nicolas Sarkozy ate humble pie and the supposedly immigrant friendly Socialist are back in power after twenty plus years?
O’ lala, ah bon, daccord, bien…are words I learn easily.  And Merde.  I forgive them; French baguettes, croissants and pastries are delicious (not startlingly expensive); I survive on them. Paris Metro is perhaps the best I have seen; easy to navigate, fast and efficient.  I was not impressed with Eiffel Tower when we were first introduced several years ago, I am not impressed now; why such a big deal about tons of steel stacked like a steep spiral?   Napoleon’s mausoleum and other monuments are much more grander, something I can relate back to history.
Strolling visits to Muslim areas where of Barbes where Algerians, Moroccans and other immigrants call home are a delight, so is the green eye-cooling Paris countryside.  The weather is very cooperative, cool nights but wonderful warm days.  Until I get to Champs-Elysees; then I get the chills and my eyes water from just looking at the price tags on the world for sale. 
Sabirbhai Sherifou, the new president of South Jamaat, who has invited me here to make a presentation on Afghanistan, is an amiable, gracious host and all goes well.  Magreeb is at 21:30; nineteen hour fasts in peak summer; I shudder to think of spending Ramadhan here in June; this community has my sympathies.
This is nine hundred plus Khoja community who trace their ancestry to early Indian trader community arrivals to Madagascar.  Once they established and flourished, the newer generation moved on to cities in Europe, especially Paris.  Most are professionals, many traders who still alternate between France and Madagascar.  They are a tight knit giving and generous community, even if they remain furiously independent of Urdu and English speaking counterparts in rest of Europe, sticking to Gujarati and French as their means of interaction.
My presentation in mediocre Gujarati goes off well with an attentive crowd of about five hundred gathered to commemorate the wilaadat of Sayyeda Fatema (S) and I depart for balmy Florida the next day.
Those interested in viewing my interview with Ahlulbayt TV click following links: