Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Which favors of Allah can I deny?

Cambodia is on my list of countries to visit for quite sometime and by the abundant grace of Allah (S), I recently go there.  Not only because Cambodia is an exotic country that has had a bloody and turbulent history, yes, but importantly, it is 7% Muslim with a blossoming Ahlebeyti Muslim minority of 500 families, about 3,200 individuals. These Muslims live and thrive along side Buddhists in relative harmony, a rarity in these days of global intolerance and conflict.  You may find the following narrative quite interesting.  Perhaps.


As Thai Air descends from the skies to make a near perfect landing, Phnom Penh (PP) looks like any other Southeastern Asian city from the sky.  An aging immigration officer fumbles with his keypad, peers at me, gives a toothy grin full of gold teeth, mutters and chuckles to himself, shaking a bald head; the man would be worth a lot of money dead with the price of gold these days.  Studying, comparing my pretty face on the printed visa with my passport mug, he takes my fingerprints, still muttering and chuckling, stamps my passport and lets me leave, flashing all them bling-bling’s again; this is one happy dude.  I am surprised at the efficiency of the airport; out with my bag in about thirty minutes, not bad at all.  A wall of moist air greets me as I leave the air-conditioned terminal; Phnom Penh (Cambodia in general) is perhaps the muggiest city in this planet.

I am driven to my hotel in an ancient Jaguar the driver tells me in reasonable English is 1981 model.  After a drive of about 30 minutes in early morning traffic through city streets that resemble a cleaner image of Mumbai, we arrive at my hotel, The Pavilion.  I am blessed and fortunate to have stayed in the snazziest of worldwide hotels in my life; this US$50 per night hotel beats them all in terms of class and service, minus the opulence.  I am treated to a tall glass of fresh passion juice, not the watered down version, mind you. This is all passion juice, with all it’s passion still in it, pulp and all; am I in paradise or what?  A pretty petite girl shows me around and takes me to my room, which includes an ornate mosquito net over the bed.  Then she points to an organic shampoo bottle in the bathroom, stops, glances at my scalp, covers her teeth and giggles nervously.  Sorry sah, not for you, sah, giggles some more…happy people, these.

Which favors of Allah can I deny?

The room is large, with every conceivable modern amenity I would want, even a small-enclosed terrace with a mini jungle of flora that boasts of a jackfruit tree with young fruit on it, perking my immediate interest.  Let me tell you about the tropical fruits of this country.  My four days in Cambodia is a delight in thanking Allah’s bounties, verses of the holy Quraan foremost in my mind as I gleefully indulge in fruits that defy imagination; will it be like this in paradise?  Mango, pineapple, guava twice the size of a cricket ball, papaya, watermelon, star fruit, banana, rambutan, leeches, mangosteen, custard apple (seetaphal), sour sop (ramphal), jammun, boori, coconut madafu, passion fruit and others I cannot identify, I am breathless.  And evil smelling durians…I give them a wide berth.  I taste a new variety of jackfruit, a mini version; split one side of the fruit, spread the skin wide and out pops a bunch of about 6 – 7 plump golden meaty juicy pleasure; I gleefully gorge in ecstasy…no stickiness, no mess. What blessings of my Lord can I deny!?

Mansoor Suleiman and Redha, a student from the local Hawza that Mansoor runs in PP come to meet.  We meet at a charming mini-forest with a swimming pool and open-air restaurant right inside the hotel lawn.  Mansoor is a product of Hawza, now back in Cambodia, struggling to establish a centralized point of worship and reference for Cambodian Shia Muslims; Redha is a Buddhist convert studying at the Hawza.  It is very rare to meet a Buddhist convert; he has come with Mansoor because he can speak some reasonable English.  

There are Shia converts primarily in PP, Kampuntisila about 120 miles to the West of PP and Kapunchan, about 180 miles to the East; we plan to go to Kampuntisila tomorrow, Kapunchan the next day and final day I reserve for myself, I want to spend a day cycling outside PP in Muslim fishing villages I see advertised in a local tour pamphlet; our plans are set.  After a so-so dinner at a Malaysian restaurant, I retire early to the company of a single mosquito who makes my sleep impossible. I get up, sit still while it comes sniffing at my super-fruity sweet blood then quash it to a tiny bloody pulp with a smug smile on my face, Yusufali blood is not for free; I sleep like a baby.

Since I have eaten so much last night and out of habit, I go for a run along the Mekong riverfront very close to the hotel. Although poor, Cambodians are cheerful, clean, lively and industrious people, up and about with me, many dancing away calories to the tune of music from a portable radio.  There are a few foreigners I see running as well, mostly Whites, probably aid workers with the UN.


Majority of Cambodians commute on motorbikes, the streets are full of them. Even though traffic is heavy, unruly and confusing, there is very little honking, vehicles very courteous with motor bikers. As we head towards Kampuntisila, I am full of curiosity and banter with Mansoor who has wisely brought along an icebox full of bottled water, soft drinks and more fruit. About thirty miles into the drive, the air-conditioning conks off and we come to a full stop.  A vehicle has hit a motorbike with recently married couple on it, both lay dead on the side of the street with people gawking, including Mansoor, who leaps out to aid; it is alas too late.  We somberly continue in silence through thick jungle and arrive at an eerie sleepy village of Kampuntisila.

We meet with a small group of remaining elderly individuals at Kampuntisila, majority of men are in the fields, sowing rice in preparation of coming monsoons.  There is a small Wahhabi mosque here, built by Gulf donors but strangely, our Imam leads prayers.  More importantly, a madressa is coming up next to the mosque; donated by a single donor from Singapore and the madhab of Ahlebeyt (A) will be taught here insha’Allah.  

Upon return to PP later that day, we stop at the Hawza run by Mansoor; a pitiful rickety wood structure that is the school, sleeping quarters, kitchen and dining area, sleeping area and a library all in one. Sixteen students from Cambodia, Vietnam and Laos study here, which could have been a huge language problem except all Muslims in these countries speak a common tongue called Cham.  The problem is Redha, the Buddhist convert who speaks only Khmer, the Cambodian language, so it is juggling between translations.   The facilities are woefully inadequate but they make the most of it.   They eat rice most everyday and a lot of vegetables with fish or chicken couple of days a week, cooking the food themselves.  CAI has sponsored Iftaar for the whole month of coming Ramadhan for these students, insha’Allah.

After a super seafood dinner at a local halaal Cambodian restaurant, I am zonked out, under a mosquito net this time


The drive to Kapunchan next day is uneventful except Mansoor gets lost a couple of times so he hires a guide to take us inside the village.  It is amazing; right in the middle of dense jungle is a Muslim community with about 250 Shia families.  A resident welcomes us, takes us to his home and we pray Zohor salaat.  This is Allah’s blessing, no? Right in the middle of dense jungle, I can say my salaat in complete tranquility amongst my brethren. Remember, Cambodia was a killing field not so long ago and three million plus humans were massacred here.  

There has been a death in the village so the entire place is busy with burial preparations; I go to pay my respects as well.  We converse with the hosts and discuss their unique problems; they want a mosque sponsor.  These people are not poor by any means; they have proper homes and own land that grows rubber trees from which they reap a reasonable livelihood.  I let them know a mosque is house of Allah so they must put their recourses together to build one.  Perhaps I am too blunt, for the conversations get suddenly subdued.  I don’t think I leave the village a popular man; we return to PP.

Phnom Penh

My final day in PP turns out to be quiet lively.  I am picked up at the hotel after breakfast and taken to a tour office and provided with a bicycle, then with a couple from New Zealand for company, we follow Maman, our 22 year old guide through streets of PP coming to life.  All we have to do making a turn in the busy morning traffic is indicate intention with a wave of an arm and cars give way; try doing this in Mumbai or New York for that matter, I’d be chatting with munkar nakeer.

Maman leads us through a wonderful morning of cycling around sleepy fishing villages and small farm, few Muslims owned.  Maman speaks good English, except a lot, is very eager to tell us a lot of things about her country.  Like an eager child, she demands attention and babbles away like a parrot eager to please a master. Attached photos of this day will reveal a thousand words; a superb reward on this side trip.  Alhamd’Allah.

A massage?

Another treat visiting SE Asia are inexpensive massages; alas, Pavilion offers these but masseuses only.  I request for a masseur; they have none.  In the evening, I go strolling out in the bazaar full of commerce; I concentrate on the fruits in a local food market and come upon a spa offering massages.  I stand studying the various massages offered and prices when out comes a very feminine teenage boy; the following is our conversation, ballpark:

Hello Sir!  You Indian, no?  Long eyelashes bat my way.
No, American.
A shrill giggle.  Oooooh nooooo!  Uuuuuu Indian.  Veeeeery nice, Indian, American, Cambodian…veeeery nice. High pitched feminine voice; warning bells chime in my head. 
I nod my head.  Yes, very nice.
You like massage?  Cambodian massage, Thai massage, Indian massage?  Very niiiiice, very cheeeeep, very goooood. You feeeeel very relaaaaaxed.  Good for uuuuuu.
Um, you have male masseur?
Eyelids bat rapidly; the smile turns into a wide happy grin.  Meeeee!  I am maaaaan!  I give goooood masaaaaage!  
I look him up and down uncertainly and decide to pass; I shake my head no.
Disappointed, the grin suddenly turns into a thin line and the high tone becomes a whisper. You like boy? Virgiiiiin!  Ten years onlyeeeee!  Five hundred dollaaaaah, very cheeeeep, only for uuuuu!  Good priiiiice!
I recoil and take a hurried step back, looking around to make sure there are others around; there are plenty, none paying us attention.  I feel I have been slapped.
No, thank you, I say and turn around, walking away as fast as I can.  The guy switches to Cambodian and hurls shrill, feminine sounding angry words at my retreating back; I begin a trot.

All is not lost.  When I arrive back at The Pavilion, still flustered and bathed in sweat, the front desk girl has good news.  A masseur (a real man this time) has been ‘borrowed’ from another hotel; I can have a sixty-minute deep tissue massage for US$20.  I shower and then give myself up to an hour of absolute bliss.  

Which favors of Allah can I deny?

Note:  CAI will, insha’Allah, sponsor the building of first Shia masjid in Cambodia (Phnom Penh); land has already been purchased.  This masjid / center will cater for new Shia Muslims from Cambodia, Vietnam and Laos.  Those interested in taking part in this great mission may contact CAI @ infor@comfortaid.org.

Monday, June 18, 2012

The Devil And His Bride

Deport, deport! Screams the immigration officer from behind the glass divider. Where is your work permit for Afghanistan? He keeps asking.  I try explaining that I am in Afghanistan to visit a friend, but my plea is ignored by overdone exasperation and threats of deportation. So while I ponder on the thought of being sent off within thirty minutes of having landed in Kabul, the immigration officer realizes my confusion and offers me a wink - this could mean either of two things; he likes me or maybe he likes Benjamin Franklin; I wasn't in the mood to let go of either. So I stand there smiling at him, expecting to be escorted to the departures terminal for a quick return to Dubai; he stamps my passport instead and throws it at me and yells, Go Afghanistan!

For those who do not know me, my name is Amirali Somji and I am Ali Yusufali's (AY) nephew. I had the pleasure and good fortune of accompanying AY, Dr. Afzal Yusufali (DAY) and uncle Aliakber Ratansi (AR) to Afghanistan for an eight-day expedition through what I will remember as the un-friendliest terrain on earth. We visited seven cities / villages, took six external / internal flights, drove endless hours and slept very little during the eight-day escapade.  The following is my version of the experience:

I won't bore you with explicit details of every place we visited; mind you, every village was packed with pleasant individuals, tormenting drives from one site to another, the wonderful people I met and got to know, and the sad situation of Afghan people - this entire experience is something that I will cherish forever, taking it with me to my grave.  I will, however, highlight the more significant and candid events as I feel those are the ones that will make you want to do what I did; visit Afghanistan to see very real changes being done by CAI for those destitute in abject poverty.

A wonderful gentleman by the name of Wasi receives us at Kabul airport.  Those who follow AY's blogs, may already know of Wasi as the local representative for CAI and a civil engineer by profession.  To me, he is one of the kindest people I have ever met.  He hosts us at his beautiful house where we pray, talk, indulge in mockery and banter, then finally feast on a wonderful meal.   Kabul, with all its grime is spring bloom, full of beautiful roses of various colors and fragrances.

Later that night I find out we have a flight to catch early in the morning to Nili.  Waking up early isn't an issue normally, but the amount of snoring that transpires in the room the first night is incredible!  I feel trapped in the middle of elderly men who can simply not control their vocal cords all night long. My sympathies to all their spouses :).

Early next morning, with wobbly feet and droopy eyes due to lack of sleep, and many, many security checkpoints later, we arrive at Kabul's domestic departures terminal.  As I gaze at our mode of transport, the world collapses around me.  It is a KODIAK six-seater aircraft, no larger than an American SUV; looks like a toy I would buy for Hadi, my son.  I have a fear of flying you see, and while I am able to control my fear on 747's and A340's, I am absolutely terrified of small aircrafts.  I am convinced today is my last day on earth and start texting my wife while trying to maintain a straight face in front of my fellow travel mates.  I cross my fingers, toes, legs, everything...and pray.  Gulp.

After what seemed like an eternity (60 minutes of shut eyes with my jacket covering my face), we arrive at Nili airport (no tar, no tower, no fencing) and everyone is excited to drive up to our first site visit.  Instead, we're told 'someone' would like to meet us; the Governor of Dykoondi Province office has summoned us all for a meeting.  Hmmmm...  We drive up to a reasonably large concrete structure and are asked to enter the 'main office'. Yup, the governor himself wants to see us.  We exchange pleasantries via translators, sip tea, exchange more pleasantries, leave. 

After a grueling 5 hours drive on the most treacherous roads known to man (seriously!) we reach a valley with what looks like a sea of people gathered around a fairly new mud-made building which I am told is the clinic we are to inaugurate. These people have walked for miles and miles along the same terrain our 4x4's were finding difficult to handle.  We are welcomed to a loud salawaat as we walk in; the official opening of its first and only medical clinic overjoys, overwhelms the villagers. Can you imagine? These people are so poor and secluded from normal life, they had no idea what a medical clinic looked like until CAI builds them one.  Sad, no?

After several ceremonial procedures at the facility, meeting management, its employees and processes, we are ready to retire for the night and are treated to some Pakistani chai-patti made by AR who refuses to sleep without it. After lights-out, sure enough, like zombies in heat, the orchestra of snoring begins. 

Personal lessons learned so far:

1.   The Afghan dust is so fine; it finds itself everywhere... yes, there too.
2.   Balancing on an Asian toilet isn't an easy task, especially if you carry a belly.  Either get rid of the belly or properly practice squatting.
3.   Bring earplugs.

(Very) early next morning, we quickly set off for our next site that is in a little village called Diaroos (loosely translated in English as The Devil and his Bride) for the opening of another CAI sponsored medical clinic.  En-route, we are asked to pass by the "White House" of Nili again as our friend, the Governor is to accompany us.  As we wait for him to arrive, we quickly look for some garam naan to keep our bellies from rumbling like rain clouds.  The Governor arrives; so does half the Afghan army (okay, so I exaggerate).  There are so many guns, grenades and armor, it would make any grown man feel woozy.  We are told the security is necessary as we were to pass through a Taliban controlled territory.  My bowels start their mischief.

Driving though the mountains is ridiculously uncomfortable, but it is a pleasant journey; I say 'pleasant' because we weren't being blown up to bits. We got to stretch our legs once in a while; just cause they carry AK47's and could probably eat you for breakfast doesn't mean they don't need to pee, right?

Diaroos is a depressingly poor town. The clinic is not up to AY's expectations; I can see the disappointment on his face.  Wasi begs patience; the clinic got rehabilitated just two days ago out of nothing.  Regardless of snags, just getting the clinic off the ground is an achievement in my books. The logistics behind the actual construction, materials, labor, supplies, etc. must be a nightmare - the closest town where these items may be available is mountains and miles away.   The doctor has already seen over 160 sick people in 2 days, including a woman in labor who, in our presence, shielded by about 5 other women, staggers towards the clinic in agony, having walked about 3 miles.  We find out later she gave birth to a baby boy.

We retire at the residence of Agha Hashemi where we feast on more rice and meat - again.  I am told the toilet is outside the actual property so I pace myself accordingly.  I sleep without peeing, changing, brushing...nothing...YUK!  I am sure there is a lot of snoring that night but I am too tired for it to bother me this night. 

We fly (again on another toy plane) to Yakawlang to check on more CAI projects - a beautiful mosque in Bamiyan and another medical clinic in Sachek.  The mosque is massive and sits dangerously close to three massive rocks that look like they would tip if one pushed hard enough.  But we are told they haven't moved in about a century.  Phew!  The Sachek clinic sits at the bottom of a scenic mountain area (obviously!).  After a few hours of inspections and a LOT of medical checkups by DAY, AY and DAY drag AR and I into a climbing a rather steep scenic hill behind the clinic.  We manage to climb halfway, then AR and I decide it's too much effort, so sit instead, smoke and enjoy a beautiful view of the village from high above.  DAY, AY and Wasi carry on up.

Personal lessons learned so far:

1.   No matter how tough you think you are, guns are scary.
2.   Small aircrafts are not that bad after all
3.   Garam naan is amazing!

We leave for Bamiyaan the next day.  After a hot shower at a local hamaam there, we head off to another CAI funded project - a mass marriage ceremony.  100 poor, underprivileged couples are seated in perfect order, basking in 30C degrees plus heat for the speeches to end so they can feast and begin their journey of life as couples.  One particular groom who catches all our attention is exceptionally uncomfortable.  Every time any of our eyes land on him or his bride, he tightens his grip around her shoulder and adjusts her veil to a point where I am convinced she will suffocate.  If you look at the pictures accompanying this Blog, you can clearly see all the brides covered in full hijab head to toe, so there isn't anything to see really; just an insecure young lad perhaps. We later learn that afternoon one of the brides had collapsed due to dehydration and / or fatigue; hmmmm, maybe the same lady?

Next stop is Char Bagh in Sarepol. We arrive at the airport an hour early because the charter company confuses us for another party.  So we end up waiting at a small cafĂ©, entertained by a young (and loud) Afghan-American who is convinced America is raping his rich country; I too have the same feeling.  We reach Mazar-e-Sharif and immediately drive to Char Bagh where we are greeted to louder salawaats as we enter a CAI funded school for girls.  As more speeches ensue, I drift off for a minute and am amazed at how CAI is able to accomplish so much in areas where even million-dollar NGO's find it difficult to operate.

There is a lot more we do; for example:

  • Distribute sheep to 40 underprivileged widows of Sarepol.
  • Visit a massive housing project where CAI is pretty much helping an entire village of refugees relocate from shoddy UN built shelter tents to livable mud-houses with rooms, doors, windows and in some homes even a small garden.
  • Visit an area that was recently shattered by flash floods, killing a large number of residents. 
  • Meet an unprecedented number of individuals who would all have a sad story to tell, expecting CAI to help.
  • Inaugurate 7 (out of 14 dug) water wells in various parts of Bamiyaan.
  • Visit a brand new girl orphanage in Kabul funded by CAI.

So what does all this means and matter?  Why did I bother visiting in the first place?  Why does it matter to "know" what CAI does on the ground? Trust me, it matters.  Many of you may already be active donors that makes CAI a wonderful organization; however, what y'all don't know is how wretchedly difficult it is to actually get things off the ground and materialize projects from design to completion, be it schools, clinics or water wells.  I now understand where those hard earned (and donated) dollars are being used...and by God, they are being used in the best possible manner.

Thank you to Wasi, Bashir, Dr. Asif, Dr. Afzal, uncle Aliakbar for making this trip a wonderful experience.  In case I have not mentioned anyone, please know that all of you there were instrumental in making my trip one amazing experience. 

Finally, thank you uncle Yusuf, for encouraging me to tag along with you on this trip (and for bringing me back alive).  It has changed the way I look at life around me; I now appreciate running water, electricity, food and even a Western toilet a whole lot more than I did before.  May Allah give you a long life so you can keep serving him in your signature valor.  Now if only all of you guys would please consult a professional for your snoring problems. 

Amirali Somji - Dubai

Please click here to see some wonderful photos.

Monday, June 11, 2012


I arrived here in Mumbai after sleep deprived eight days in Afghanistan (trip report and photos by accompanying Amir Somji coming up shortly) where it was numbing cold in Bamiyaan but scorching hot in Mazaar.  But Mazaar weather was a treat compared to New Delhi and Sirsi, India where temperatures came close to 50C.  This is a whopping 122F; as close you will ever come to sweat dripping from your undies.  The heat saps any energy you have the instant you step out in the sun.

It has been raining all day here in Mumbai, the first showers of 2012 monsoon season, so I know the short trip of thirty minutes to the airport will turn out to be double that - at least.  It remained thankfully dry the first three days I was here so could run my errands and enjoy seasonal mango madness and for the first time ever, splurge in jamun fruit ice cream from Natural Ice Creams – what a treat!

I am at Ramee Guestline Hotel in Juhu, Mumbai waiting to be taken to the airport for my flight to Phnom Penh, Cambodia, my first time there, insha’Allah.  My mood has soured however; just received news a poor man CAI was trying to assist with kidney disease just passed away.

For those who follow my Blogs and have asked for updates:

1.  I have no contact with Zulaikha Bahadoor (Baby Sultana’s Eyes) since I last met her and Baby Sultana some 14 years ago; I believe she did remarry and lives somewhere in Bihar, hopefully happy.

2.  I have also been unsuccessful in contacting Mir Mohammed Mirza (Mirza's Dowry Dilemma); he seems to have resigned his job with Indian Railway and retired; returned to Hyderabad?

3.   I do make contact with Saira Ashrafi (Saira’s Story) and do not have good news.  Saira refuses to meet me, declares she is not interested in meeting a Mullah (meaning me…how rude!).  She proudly tells me she had an abortion with help from a ‘Christian’ aid group, has discarded the hijab and now works as an information technology developer making ‘very good’ money.  She advises me to be more ‘modern’ (?), help girls like her without a ‘religious’ tag.  I thank her and hang up.

4. Abdul Raheem’s home and business in the slum area around Chakrapatty Shivaji International Airport (A Toilet With Tiles) has been demolished; the entire neighborhood is a large track of flattened land devoid of any structure or humanity, indication of imminent construction activity.  I pray Abdul got his high-rise apartment promised by the government; with or without tiles in the toilet(s).