Sunday, July 27, 2014

Alvidaa, Ya Shahru Ramadhan

We bid adieu to this special month; only a couple of days remain. Alhamd’Allah, most of the world was in agreement regarding the start of Ramadhan; I pray the same luck (and rational) prevails for Eid day. The annual debate, controversies, innuendos and general mayhem regarding the new Eid moon is becoming...well, kind of old.

A lot occurs this month, here in Sanford, FL and thousands of miles away, in Bangladesh. I promise me not to travel this month, come what may, but Allah had other plans for me, and He is the best of planners, of course. So I have the honor and privilege to travel to Chittagong, Bangladesh. Here, about 100 miles from Chittagong, languish hordes of Rohingya refugees in pathetic conditions. Shunned by homeland Myanmar (Burma) and spurned by neighbors Bangladesh and Thailand, these hapless people face unbelievable sufferings. CAI donors, in a small way, are able to feed the hungry and destitute so some of them can eat a decent iftaar. My iftaars certainly become unpalatable thinking about the grass-eating children I meet at the refugee camp. You can read my full trip report and view photographs of this relief effort here.

The month, as always, speeds by fast-fast. My apprehensions of long fasting days, especially for our younger ones, are misplaced. The wholesome HIC iftaars (although I now have nightmares of monster chickens looking to chop off my head for consuming them almost every day), the duas, lectures, amaals and superb management and executing all these are worthy of praise, certainly. Why, members of MC escort ladies to HIC center under the comfort of umbrellas, even, on a number of thundery days; I am much impressed. No such luck for men, however; we drench. I only wish the HIC potholes can be permanently repaired so they do not resemble some urban roads of Uttar Pradesh. Not to mention the overworked sinkhole behind the building. Aaayoo! The emitting repulsive whiffs can easily drive even the supremely pious into gudka and nicotine frenzy; reminds me of Pala-Gully of Dongri at once. Never mind though, Johnny fondly remembers of his reminiscent time spent in Dongri.

HIC management thoughtfully facilitates Ping-Pong and dartboard games at the center, so the Center is abuzz with both children and adults in frenzied competition until wee hours of the mornings. The baraazas after lectures are robust as usual; the discussions and food will be sorely missed after the month departs. Asante saana, Hassan Tall and Ali Budho; you guys make our baraazas so much more comfy. Now if only the MC will arrange for a well-ventilated covered baraaza shelter (we don’t want to give the Sanford fire marshal nervous moments with all that smoke emitting between what a real man smokes and the juvenile e-cigarettes stuff), do we? The daily Florida summer showers seem to time the blessed event bang-on after iftaar. Maybe Mulla Mchungu can be motivated to put up the request next time he is here; his smelly beedis can be a good excuse...

While we celebrate and feast, our eyes shed painful tears, hearts blister and blood boil at the atrocities in Gaza and Iraq. Will there ever be an end to this mayhem? Will the oppressed in Gaza ever breathe free? Are we forever condemned to watch innocent children blown to pieces by bombs or innocent necks slaughtered because of religious affiliation? How much more can these tortured people take? Is this life worth living, with these images? For us? For our children? It is a feeling of utter helplessness and suffocation not being able to do anything. For me.

Here in Sanford, we at HIC have the good fortune having Sheikh Jaffer Jaffer (Sheikh JJ to me) from Brampton Canada visit us for two weeks. Wow! What a refreshing change, from the regular mundane aalims we routinely get. His lectures on the beautiful names and attributes of Allah and how we can apply them in our lifestyles are both simple and practical; no complicated philosophical over-the-head humdrum from this guy. His one lecture rebuttal on the controversial issue of religious (Islamic) pluralism lays to rest (in peace, insha’Allah) all arguments, I should hope. Bravo Sheikh JJ, I wish we had more of your kind amongst us. It’s a shame we missed the opportunity to lock your services in some years ago. I am sure I speak the sentiments of a vast majority of HIC members in saying kareebu saana. Any time.

So, alvidaa ya sharu Ramadhan, I know we have not done justice to your immense sanctity and not taken full advantage of your immeasurable blessings.

Bachein toh aglay baras hum hain aur yeh ayaam phir haazir hae. Jo chal basein toh yeh apna siyaam aakhir hae.

Eid mubaarak, insha'Allah.

The Chief Minister’s Assassin – A novel

My novel (print version) has sold almost 320 copies so far, with fantastic reviews. Not bad, really. Those interested can now purchase a copy for US$20 (proceeds still benefit CAI’s worldwide orphanage projects).

Here is my guarantee – Order a copy and if you don’t like it, I’ll refund the purchase price of $20. No tension.

A copy can be ordered from:

Me in the USA –
Fatema Alibhai in Canada –
Sabira Somji in Dubai –
Nazir Merali in the UK –

Murtaza Bhimani in Tanzania –

Saturday, July 19, 2014

The Forgotten Rohingya Refugees

This Blog is long, depressing and several photos herein may not be palatable to some, so if you are not up to it, please press the delete button now. Otherwise, I hope you find it interesting and insightful about the Rohingya refugees of Burma, how they have been persecuted, tormented and abused, both by the Burmese and Bengali governments. And how the world has simply forgotten them. Because they are resourceless. And Muslims.

Reports of unbelievable misery and destitutions among the Burmese Rohingya refugees have been coming in all year long. I (CAI) want to go and help through Myanmar (Burma) but severe restrictions by Burmese authorities on visiting the refugees make the prospect daunting, at least. My travel schedule for the next 6 months is packed, so when the possibility to bring (some) relief through Bangladesh comes through, and what better month than Ramadhan, I find myself in Dhaka after an exhausting 33 hours voyage from Orlando – Newark – Brussels – Mumbai – Dhaka.

While it is pouring buckets at Mumbai airport on takeoff, Dhaka is dry, steamy and oppressive; the heat blasts me on exiting the terminal. The first sight I face outside the airport is not very encouraging. I see a raggedy middle-aged woman casually walking among the hordes of people at a traffic light we are stopped at, except she is buck-naked. Yup. Not a stitch on her. I start violently and glare at the taxi driver, accusingly, as if he is somehow responsible. But he is lost in his own world and seems, like the crowds outside, indifferent. Oh Allah! I have been to the poorest countries in this world, including Dhaka before, many times, with corporate America, but have never encountered such a distressing sight. Surely someone should cover her, even if she is obviously demented? This entire trip is mired in queasy thoughts of this woman.

I spend a day recuperating from severe jetlag and meeting with the Bangladesh Ladies Welfare Association through who CAI funds the education of poor students, assist destitute widows and feed the hungry, auditing use of funds and making sure the accounting and record keeping is all acceptable. I head for Chittagong on day 4. I can easily observe the divide between the have and have-nots in this country at the airport. An elderly woman, draped in a fine white saari, a glittering diamond brooch in her hair with a matching nose pin, snout up in the air at least 2 centimeters above any worthy queen, with a pucca upper lip, barges through the line waiting to board and everybody, without a peep, gives way.

Chittagong is another sauna, with sweat popping all over my body even sitting still in the shade. The ride to my hotel is snail-speed, with numerous traffic snarls; the 18-mile ride takes 2 hours. We reach the hotel at magreeb so I accompany my hosts to the local imambargha for salaat attended by a ragtag group of poor people. A very simple iftaar of fried fritters and plain daal follows, evidence of the economic state of this community. The daal is scooped out of a bowl with fingers; I pass. I retire early as I have an early start to the refugee camp at 5AM tomorrow morning.

The ride towards Cox Bazaar some 100 miles away is through lush forest and spotty farmland. My hosts nap all the way but I can’t sleep, so I spend my time admiring the scene outside, marred by horrid tuk-tuk and bus drivers who think they own the narrow roads. I need to pee real bad so we take a pit stop. The urinal is an open toilet where you expose your butt to the world, squat and pee. Nobody really cares or looks but still. My butt is for me and mine to admire; I finish my business in record time.  

The mood in the vehicle turns tense as soon as we near the Kutupalong refugee camp a few miles from Cox Bazaar. Bangladesh, strangely, has severe restrictions in place, both in meeting and aiding these people. Not even a Bengali is allowed into the actual camp. We meet Aalam, a local grocery store owner and social worker with a soft spot for the refugees, certified honest by my hosts. He looks at me dubiously, shakes his head and is honestly brutal. Too flashy, says he, this man sticks out like a sore thumb. He looks like a villain from Bollywood with that shaved head. Please ask him to keep his cap on. Now, only if had worn a sarong... I bristle at the translation.

Aalam takes us to his humble home, serves us strong tea and we brainstorm how to enter the camp and help without ending up arrested. He makes me very nervous, whispering and jittery, getting up every now and then to make sure his neighbors are not listening in; I feel I am partaking in some criminal activity. Chicken and ducks come in and out of his living room from the front yard at liberty, nobody makes any attempts to shoo them away. Aalam and my hosts decide it is too risky to take food inside the refugee camp. One, it is illegal. Two, we’d have a riot in our hands. So we decide to print numbered vouchers that a team of volunteers will distribute to the most needy in the camp. The refugees will then exchange the vouchers for 10kg of rice, 3 liters of cooking oil, 2 kg of sugar, 2 kg of different lentils and some powdered milk. Makes sense to me, so I quickly agree to the plan.

But I still want to see the camp and meet the refugees, learn their plight first hand, let them know we care. My insistence makes Aalam even more restless. He shuts the door to the house, which becomes instantly hotter and we all sweat some more. Shombov na, not possible! He hisses, over and over again, baring beetle nut stained teeth at me. Too risky! I’ll tell you what, I can call my contact and see if a few of them can come up here and you meet them behind the house, in the cowshed, the neighbors must not see you meeting them. They will cause trouble for me after you are gone. I readily agree.

So I meet some of the refugees furtively, elderly widows mostly, say a few words of comfort and give them enough money to buy and cook a few days worth of decent food. Then, under the cowshed, with the smell of cow dung clogging my nose, I talk to a few refugees who have been tortured. The following words are Mohammed Abdullah’s, a fifty something, half blind emaciated man.

My name is Mohammed Abdullah. I used to live in Arakan (Muslim lands in Burma) with my wife and 5 children in the Buchidong Ikab village. I inherited some land from my father, which I tilled. We had 2 cows, some goats and chicken. The authorities began our torment by requiring us to register our animals with them. Then we had to inform them whenever there was an animal birth and the number of eggs our chicken hatched per day. The army come over one night and told me I had to move, the land was not mine. When I tried to prove my case, one soldier poked my right eye with his rifle; I have completely lost the use of my right eye; it’s useless. But I still did not leave, although my wife pleaded that we do. This was my land, we lived off it. Where would we go? What would we eat? A few nights later, some Mog (Buddhist) people came to my house. They took me outside, laid me on my back and prepared to slaughter me. They had a knife on my neck when my children threw themselves on me and pleaded with the Mog to spare me, promising we’d leave. The Mog gave us five minutes to leave; we left, taking nothing with us. We walked to the river and crossed over to Bangladesh and to this camp. We have been here 2 years with nothing to do or eat. I try and offer my sweat and get a few Takkas some days. Other days, when I do not work or beg, I bring home wild grass growing by the sewer stream and my wife cooks that with some salt and pepper. We eat that. But my children complain of tummy aches from eating that.

I am so shocked and stunned by this narration; I am speechless for a while. There is nothing I can say or do, so I give him some money. That’s the easiest thing to do, no? The guy starts weeping and falls on the ground, then attempts to touch my feet in gratitude. Repulsed, my heartbeat on overdrive, I jump back and yell at him to stop. Had not my heart and stomach hardened to such cruelty from human on human I have seen for so long, I would have wept uncontrollably.

Emotionally spent, I want to return to Chittagong as fast as the car can drive me. But there is more. Aalam hustles us out of his house and we prepare to leave. Driving outside the camp towards Chittagong, I rue not seeing the inside. My host suggests bribing a group leader he knows in the camp who would be willing to look the other way while we quickly toured one side of the camp and took hurried photos; I refuse. It is against my principle and CAI policy to offer any bribes. Period. I am not sure what happens next, but the group leader materializes like magic and my host talks to him. There is quick and sometimes heated debate between them. I am sure there is a monetary deal, but this information is not shared with me.  Finally, it is decided the group leader will accompany me inside. I am his uncle from Pakistan on a visit and I should talk in Urdu only. There is a risk, but I do tawakkal and agree.

I have been to refugee camps before, so steel myself for the inescapable distress. But it is always difficult and painful to see what I witness. Thousands of people, mostly women and children, with the vacant look of despair, languish all around squalid conditions in a sprawling barren land. The houses are all wood and stick, protected by black polythene sheets. There are no toilets so stark naked children defecate everywhere. Half of the children are buck-naked; their uncircumcised penises swing wildly as they play in the filth. These children are Muslims, I ask curiously, why are they uncircumcised? My host snorts contemptuously, rubbing his thumb against two forefingers. No food, where will they find funds for a kathna? The stench revolts me as the sun beats down on the treeless landscape, soaking me to my undies.    

The drive back to Chittagong is long and depressing, as it inevitably is after such programs. I wreak my brains trying to find a way to help the children. Giving food long term, especially with severe restrictions in place, is not viable, of course. So I ask my hosts if a small school, maybe from grades 1 through 5 is possible. There is instant excitement as we discuss such a possibility. The refugees are not restricted in movement from and to the camp as long as the night is spent inside the camp, so yes, it is possible. Aalam agrees to donate land at the back of his house. My spirits lift, somewhat. Perhaps there is a flake of hope? Allah knows best; we can only try. Insha’Allah.

My return trip home via Dhaka, Mumbai, Brussels and Newark is uneventfully, except I get to bring home some fresh malpuas from my 10-hour layover in Mumbai.

View photos here.

Saturday, July 5, 2014

Hurt Sentiments

My previous Blog, Snotty Delights, prompted whiney annoyance from some (Indian) readers, one calling me a 24/7 Indian critic, accusing me of visiting India at liberty and then making Indians look terrible. Sigh... I have said the following before and I will state it again:

I love India, my ancestral home. It is a wonderful country, full of amazing contrasts, in everything – people, food, culture, religions, languages, distribution of wealth and others. I feel at home whenever in India; have lived in Mumbai for three wonderful years. I feel safe in India, more so than any other country I have had the fortune to visit. If my Blogs make Indians look terrible, well, they make me look terrible. No? India is both depressing and comical, at times, for me. Depressing because of the poverty and destitution I closely work with. Within this misery and seemingly hopeless situations are hilarious pockets of miracles, of hope, of comedy, some very hilarious. And so I cry and laugh, not at India, but with her, we both weep and rejoice. Else, I’ll go insane and India would implode.

I write what I observe. Period.

So no apologies.



The British ruled India for about 200 years, leaving behind numerous legacies. The railway systems, the sewer system that unbelievably, still works with the original equipment intact in some places, the excellent administrative mindset, cricket of course and the English language, among many.

The Indians have beaten the British in cricket, handily, both in performance and frenzy. Now, Indians can teach their former masters a googly and doosra or two and make billions in the process. One other area that the British have been soundly beaten is in the Hinglish language. Several Hindi words have crept into the ‘official’ English dictionary already and with the way Indians seem to be exploding in the UK, I won’t be surprised to see English become Hinglish in the next fifty years; too bad I won’t be around to experience the comical evolution.

Several years ago, I moved to Dubai on behalf of my employer, who asked me to go house hunting with a real estate agent. It turned out to be a young Muslim Bohra woman from Surat India, quite attractive and bubbly, with a flair of twisting the English language into sidesplitting comedy that made for very interesting couple of days. She spoke the language well, except she composed and mixed her sentences as she would for her mother tongue – Gujarati; a lethal concoction.

It was a very warm late April day when Nafeesa Emraheemji came to my office and took me around about five different properties that fit my employers rent budget. As soon as she realized I understood Gujarati, she was tongue loose, letting off banter that made me warm up to her, but gave me very nervous, heart thumping moments as well.

When I told her I associated Bohri women with colorful chadoors, Nafeesa snorted in contempt, Huh, I will not let a senile budho (meaning the Bohri spiritual guide stationed in Mumbai, India) sitting somewhere in Mumbai dictate what I should and should not wear. Hmmm, this was definitely something new. But what killed me was the combination of Hindi and English she used. Shit yaar, she’d say to an offending or errant driver who cut her off or Don’t take tension, yaar when I held on to dear life as she made an illegal U-turn on a busy street off Khalid Bin Waleed Street. The next day, we were looking at new construction off Karama. Walking down a street, it was hot and noisy, with construction and vehicle traffic hooting away when we passed a juice store. Why don’t we have a cool drink, it’s hot and very horny here, said Nafeesa. My heart skipped a beat and I looked at her in astonishment, until it dawned on me she was referring to the hooting traffic. Struggling to keep a straight face, I joined her to have a cool drink.      

The Chief Minister’s Assassin – A novel

My novel (print version) has sold almost 320 copies so far, with fantastic reviews. Not bad, really. Those interested can now purchase a copy for US$20 (proceeds still benefit CAI’s worldwide orphanage projects). A copy can be ordered from:

Me in the USA –
Fatema Alibhai in Canada –
Sabira Somji in Dubai –
Nazir Merali in the UK –

Murtaza Bhimani in Tanzania –