Thursday, July 25, 2013

Ramadhan In Sanford - As It Unfolds...

Allah (S) is extra benevolent to us folks in Sanford, FL, especially this Ramadhan. Frankly I dread the oncoming month of mercy; long sizzling days of summer, endless lethargic afternoons where the stomach growls and grumbles endlessly, hallucinating thoughts of colluding, conspiring time pieces moving extra slow, being on a short fuse as the sun takes it's sweet time going to sleep. All this not made easy by our non-Muslim brethren slurping Slurpee's, whizzing by in skates and shorts, gleeful, carefree.

The fear is misplaced, of course; Allah (S) grants His own brand of patience and tolerance, the days race by; why, it is sixteenth of Ramadhan already. Where there is supposed to be a blazing sun, we have mostly cloudy days, with abundant afternoon summer sea-breeze rains to cool us off. The fasting times, about sixteen hours long, are not as long as ones in Europe and more northern Americas, so we have an easier time. These pass off with a combination of late nights Baraaza induced sleep, prayers, contemplation, reading, writing and visiting HIC.

Ah, our Husseini Islamic Center, what can I say? This raggedy place is a blessing for sure; for the larger Orlando Shia community, my family, and me. We have continuous days of Quraan recitation, salaat, duas, lectures and iftaar here. It is an excellent place for people of all ages to mingle and catch up. The iftar is par excellence most days, except Dynasty disaster day when I am unsure what I bite into; food perhaps? The lectures, first half by Sheykh Murtaza Bachu, an upcoming young aalim from Vancouver, whose discourses, wholesome, uncomplicated and very practical, are a delight. I hope the next Sheykh, for the balance of the month, is as good or better insha'Allah. Never take the barakaat of parbaaro lightly, I tell ya. On a regular non-fasting Sunday, I see at least forty - fifty people for breakfast after salaat at HIC; in the first two Sundays of Ramadhan thus far, my math ends at seven, max.

There are many new faces at HIC; families relocating from within the US and others moving from frigid Canada and elsewhere. Mashaa'Allah, the Yusufali clan can claim six households already, others in the pipeline. Strength in numbers, I say. I am bullish about the future of HIC. With future Ramadhan programs planned at our brand new round the corner Masjid el Hayy insha'Allah, look out Bathurst, HIC is hot on your tails for number one North American slot.

This almost perfect ambiance of Ramadhan is almost upset by a pregnant woman thousands of miles away being taken to a hospital for childbirth. The headline news of an imminent birth of a 'royal' child is in every Internet news portal, on every TV news channel and every subject discussed on TV talk shows. For days afterwards, this single item dominates news, culminating in the birth of a baby boy, bless him.

People begin discussing his possible name, the shape of his behind, texture of his poop, what school he'll go to, whether he'll retain a full head of hair... Astonished and much intrigued, thinking this must be a very special birth indeed, I do a Google search of family and lineage of the child. Nothing impressive really; tourist attraction for British economy, many sites claim, several label them high class thieves, living life of unmerited opulence and many more are downright hostile, blaming the ‘royals’ for majority of todays ills. Strange, then, this melee I see on TV, yes? I begin to believe the TV hosts and throngs of masses they show are making silly arses of themselves. But its possible my rational is affected by saoom, however.

Balanced media, whose interest in a supposed royal birth is as important as an ant's ass, informs of mayhem in Syria and bloodshed in Egypt. Israel, I think, is the victor of this mess, with both major rivals neutralized. Dubai convicts, then pardons a fair skin Norwegian woman for having sex outside of marriage. Wow, perhaps there is hope then, for so many others, non-whites, from humbler countries, who already serve time for the same crime, you think? Miracles do happen, no?

HIC youth groups arrange barbecue on Saturday nights and the courtyard outside HIC wears a festive look, with free kuku fragrance; why, you'd think you are back outside Dar es Salaam mosque. Baraaza follow HIC programs at Zully Mawai's house, accompanied by to-die-for sakaraat bhajias from Sameer Daw's kitchen, elaichi-free kitumbuas from Aloo's home and other bitings, few nights with full-fledged daaku of Azeem’s excellent biryani or pulao even; these Baraazas sometimes last up to three AM. This is an all-adult affair fortunately; robust mashoozi, matoosi, maawa spitting and smoking prevail.

Now, you might think Baraazas are a waste of time. Perhaps. I get to reminiscence however, with incredible nostalgia, childhood and teenage years in Tanzania. I get to know famous personalities who make up my HIC community; Yusuf Kabana is one of them. I had followed this famous cricketer during his sensational yester years but never met him back home and did not realize it is the same Yusuf Kabana who I meet for jamaat salaat every day; oh, what a pleasure! I also get to learn or discuss, with passion and heated arguments at times, several sharee Islamic laws I am ignorant of; all clarified somewhat by our home based Sheykh Mohammedreza Janmohammed.

This is turning out to be a super month of Ramadhan, certainly better than I anticipated. I had wanted to spend the month in cooler, shorter daylight days of Dar es Salaam but my girl Maaha Zainab turned me down; I am glad she did.

Our CAI's commitment for Ramadhan Iftaar Fund is met alhamd'Allah, feeding over 10,400 poor or destitute families in twelve countries. I am so happy and proud of our worldwide donors. May Allah (S) bless us all, forgive our many lapses and accept our supplications.

Ramadhan kareem and a happy blessed Eid el Fitr.

For my non-Kiswahili audience:

Baraaza - Informal gatherings.
Daaku - Pre-dawn Ramadhan meal.
Kitumbua - Fried sweet dough.
Mashoozi – Flatulence.
Matoosi – Curses.
Parbaaro - Free meals, especially on religious occasions.
Sakaraat – Painful pre-death pains.

Saturday, July 6, 2013

Lost In Lebanon

Day One:
Middle East Airlines takes off from chilly London on time, headed for Beirut, where I am headed to render aid to Syrian refugees on behalf of Comfort Aid International donors. Next to me sits a burly Lebanese man with a massive gut who fidgets impatiently for the seat belt sign to come off, then signals a stewardess over; orders whiskey with soda water. He downs the entire glass with a flip of his wrist, then orders another, then another and more, making me increasingly apprehensive. What if he becomes belligerent, like most drunks do? I need not worry; the guy is dead to the world as soon he consumes a massive lunch, then snores all the way to Beirut.

Immigration at Beirut airport is a breeze; a teenage officer asks me if this is my first visit to Lebanon then stamps my passport carelessly and waves me through. New security laws bar me from using my cellphone, it has to be a local Lebanese bought instrument. The cheapest available is US$100; I decline. The ten-minute taxi ride from airport to Holiday Inn gives my heart palpitations; the driver speeds around recklessly, radio blasting verses from the Quraan. I shout at him to slow down but he cares not, perhaps thinks I am enjoying the torment, for he bares teeth happily and screams Formula One, Beirut style! I walk into the hotel wobbly but thankful I am in one piece.

Beirut is perhaps the most expensive city I have set foot in; I feel like shedding tears every time I eat or take a cab or surf the Internet. Why, a simple breakfast of two eggs, coffee and toast sets me back US$20! For varied reasons, security mostly, I stay in an upscale area, full of trendy hotels, restaurants and shopping, well fed faces. Women wear clothes that seem second skin and streaks of ghastly hair dye highlight even ghastlier hairdos. Indonesian, Pilipino or Ethiopian maids trail behind mothers, pushing infant laden carts. I am handicapped without a working cellphone so very politely, with the widest smile I can muster, beg pretty Preity Zinta lookalike receptionist at Holiday Inn to call my local contact and instruct him to come meet with me. She hmmmms and hmmmms then asks me why I can’t use the phone from my room. Well, I say, because one local call will put me back a cool US$3; she bats kohl laden eyelids at me and makes the call.

Haji Jihad, an instantly likable, soft-spoken man comes to meet me. Ahlan, ahlan wa sahlan, welcome, welcome, he says in excellent English, please don’t look so lost in Lebanon. Thank you for travelling thousands of miles for the sake of humanity; I commend you. What can I do for you, my brother? These compliments always make me squirm, so I uncomfortably shift in my chair. I tell him I want to assess the situation of refugees from Syria, tell him I have heard they eat but one meal a day, tell him CAI will help with food aid, especially with Ramadhan around the corner. I tell him I want to go see and meet with the refugees personally.

Haji is blunt; he scans my face with steel grey-blue eyes and nods. Very admirable, brother, but reality about Syrian refugees is this: The areas they are housed in are rightly, tightly controlled by Lebanese security; I’ll have to get you special permission to go there, which may take days. Alternatively, you can go through Hezbollah... No! I say instantly, urgently. I tell him I do not want to, even remotely, break laws of any country, especially mine; I will not meet or associate with Hezbollah under any circumstances. Haji nods his head knowingly, wisely. I thought so. Anyway, Hezbollah will put you under their own scrutiny, to make sure you are not an enemy and who knows where that will get you, so we’ll forget about Hezbollah. Why not go through the offices of the marjeeya? They are non-political and are actively helping the refugees anyway. Yes, I agree, lets do that.

I am set.

Day Two:
Abu Hyder and his son Mahdi arrive two hours late, carrying gifts of Lebanese pastries, apologizing profusely; their drive from Damascus to Beirut was murderous. They speak rudimentary English, excellent Arabic and French; my Arabic is even more elementary and French language sounds, to me, like a person barfing so conversation is much labored. I can understand them all right but my spoken Arabic is pretty pathetic; I vigorously flail my hands to augment my speech instead.

A grim picture of cold-blooded murder, pillage, rape, hunger and desperation in Syria emerges from horrid tales they relate. Refugees, especially those professing the Shia faith are not only hungry and destitute, but in real danger of being cleansed away due to their faith. Now, they relate a lot of incidents, a lot of atrocities committed by the fighting in Syria (and I thought I have heard and seen it all in Afghanistan and Pakistan). I can’t relate them all here but one I must.

A Shia Muslim couple with two children live in a two-room apartment in Zain Abedeen village. Al Nusra group kidnaps them, butchers the man, makes steaks of his body and places these in a bag inside their apartment. Nusra then releases the wife and kids, allow them to return to their apartment. The wife finds her husbands remains this way, blood soaking through a bag. Abu Hyder relates the wife weeps and beats herself in anguish daily. What can I do Akhi, he laments, what can I do? I help her with food and pay the rent for her apartment, apart from this, what can I do? I feel so numb and horrified; I think I will throw up.

Villages of Halab, Nib al Zahra, Mashad, Al Rabwa, Al Hyder, Zarzooria, Al Mazraa, Dalaboos, Al Raqqa, Ghoor in Homs are besieged, over 19,000 families affected. For about seven months all roads from Nib al Zahra to the nearest town of Halab is closed, too dangerous to travel. The price of bread, twenty US cents then, shoots up to US$1.20. People cannot go to see a doctor if sick. Al Nusra fighters, mostly Chechens, agree to look the other way if a bribe of US$200 - $300 is forthcoming. The government relieves some hunger by airdrops of food and medicines.

Abu Hyder tells me about the good life he lived before the war. A businessman, he lived a generous life, practiced the Shia faith freely, helped the poor and cared for orphans, feeding and schooling them from the wealth he earned. All gone, khalaas, he says ruefully, clapping his hands miserably. Why? Because I am a Shia, what have we ever done, Ya Allah? I am not political, I don’t care who rules Syria as long as I am left alone to earn a living, follow my faith and help others. By Allah, we give water and feed animals before we slaughter them for food, this is basic mercy our religion teaches us. These people slaughter humans? Do animals do this? All in the name of religion? And then take sadistic pleasure in it all? Ya Allah! He proceeds to show me piles of documents with photographs of widows and orphans he is currently helping. He has other children, with giveaway Shia names of Hyder, Mahdi, Abbas, Mohsin and Hawra. Are you not afraid they’ll be targeted by the Al Nusra and harmed, I ask. Abu Hyder regards at me intently for a moment before responding. If I have to sacrifice my children in the love of Ahlul Beyt, so be it.

Later, Haji Jihad takes me to the offices of Grand Marja Mohsin Al Hakeem’s office in the south of the city. Where there is flesh and opulence in the area I stay, it is the opposite here. I see not a single woman without hijab, the place is much crowded, the buildings not so fancy. To one side is a sprawling Palestinian refugee camp and to the right, 750,000 Shia Muslims reside. Syed Hyder Ali Hakeem runs the charitable offices for Syrian refugees from Beirut, relocated from Damascus when it becomes much too dangerous. Like other ulema offices, the Syed is super busy; I am lost among array of amaamas. A relatively young man, soft spoken and calm as a cucumber, he gives Haji Jihaad and me private audience and repeats the same heart retching tales as Abu Hyder. He shows me neat and meticulous paperwork on over 19,000 poor and destitute refugees.

Haji Jihaad informs me there are but a handful of restaurants that serve halaal meat other than South Beirut, ajeeb, but treats me to a sumptuous dinner downtown. Beirut city here is very modern, clean and chic, people are very well dressed and look affluent; the prices of everything certainly reflect this. The traffic is congested but orderly, even if Lebanese tend to be super emotional drivers and can be overtly expressive with hand gestures. Haji Jihad insists he shows me some of Beirut tomorrow. I know he is a super busy businessman, apart from his humanitarian activities, so I protest. Ah, he waves my protest away, you have travelled many miles to come here, you must see Beirut. As for trouble, umm, what are brothers for?

An unsolicited knock on my hotel door late in the evening unnerves me but it is only the hotel manager, felicitating my country’s birthday, bearing me a delicious looking chocolate cake. What a nice touch, makes me proud being an American.

Day Three:
I go sightseeing with Haji Jihad; what a treat!

Comfort Aid International has in place a program to feed 3,000 refugee families with basic food supplies that will last about 6 weeks. The distributions of these relief supplies will begin as soon as procedures, logistics are in place; by next week insha’Allah.