The baraaza area outside HIC in Sanford wears a forlorn look, the cold and wind making it uncomfortable to socialize. Usually it is busy with people chatting, smoking or smacking lips (or spitting) with Mehboob’s paans; the rising smoke from beedis, cigarettes (regular and the modern E) reminding me of choma kuku dhabas around the Khoja mosque in Dar es Salaam. I have to satisfy my nicotine itch before I venture in so I light up, all lonely.
At one corner of the center, I notice a teenager, huddled shivering inside a parka, smoking away. We make eye contact and he waves a salaam my way; I reciprocate. He ambles over after a while and stands by me. I smile in camaraderie, since we have both poisoned our lungs and polluted the air.
‘Are you Yusuf Uncle? The Kisukaali guy?’
Surprised, I nod, hiding my ire for being called ‘uncle’; a title that gives me (severe) allergies. We chat for a while. I have seen him around sometimes but do not know who he is. I am about to enter and welcome him in but he refuses.
‘No Uncle, all that does not interest me, same old, same old.’
Intrigued, I pause and look at him sharply.
‘Aw, come on, we’ll still learn something and get some thawaab.’
The guy snorts contempt and then laughs.
‘No Uncle, I’ll fall asleep, like the rest of you, except you’ll have your eyes wide open, glass-eyed and I’ll probably start snoring. There is nothing I will learn that I have not heard before. It’s all like a broken record...’
Now I become a little more irate.
‘That’s not a nice thing to say, young man. It is a majlis in memory of our Aimaas, yes? Isn’t that plenty reason to sit and listen?’
The young man lowers his gaze and shakes his head.
‘Sorry, Uncle, I don’t mean to be mean or disrespectful. I am here because Dad feels bad if I don’t accompany him. But I feel very estranged in there; almost all of us are far removed from what is said in there. Sorry.’
Now I am even more intrigued, so I play hooky as well and chat with this young man, about the same age as my own son. So we light up again and he opens up to me. I feel he wants to shed some load off his shoulders, so I encourage him to speak. This, he does.
‘You see Uncle...’
I stop him and ask him to call me Yusufali instead of Uncle. He looks confused for a moment but then smiles.
‘You are all right, you know Unc... sorry, Yusufali?’
I nod and smile encouragement, so he continues.
‘Do you see boys my age in there? Maybe one or two, no more. Even the good boys,’ he gestures quotation marks with his fingers, ‘they are out, helping make tea or cleaning up. You know why?’
I say nothing, wait for him to continue.
‘Because they have no connection with what is being said in there. I attended all the lectures when I was younger, my dad forced me to. But then I rebelled, when I realized all that is being said is repeat. Really, Uncle! Oh, sorry, so sorry. I am made to feel guilty for being a Shia. We always seem to be on the defensive, trying to prove our beliefs against Sunni accusations, over and over and over. It is non-ending! Abu Bakr did this; Ommer did this or that, the Fadak fiasco... There is not one Shia who disputes the facts regarding the atrocities meted out on the Aimaas. Not one. All these are facts that we have accepted. We grieve for them, we hurt for them. Fine. Why the need to prove it over and over again? I can understand it being related to us once, twice, thrice; but every lecture?’
For someone so young, I am struck with the depth of grasp he has on the complexity of subject matter.
‘You know what my mind thinks about? Perhaps I am different. I think about ISIS and their atrocities to humans in the name of Islam. I worry about my future in this country because of these animals. The general public does not discriminate between the terrorists and us. The tag of Muslim is like an enigma, a real problem. Especially in my potential employment when I graduate. With all that is going on, you think a Muslim stands a chance against other competitors? I worry about my mother and sisters wearing hijab in a public place. You think us harping about the Sunni Shia divide will help us in this bread and butter issue?’
It is getting quite cold out here; the majlis in well underway inside, but this kid has me captivated.
‘You know what my friends are up to? You’d be surprised, shocked, even. They are more worried about Madonna falling off the stage. They are interested in girls, how to win over easy college girls, or boys.’ He must have seen me flinch, for he nods energetically and continues. ‘Yes! Boys! They drink beer on weekends and some even do drugs, disguised in sheeshas. Tell me Yusufali Uncle, you think the subject matter discussed in the lectures inside,’ he jabs a thumb towards the centers wall, ‘will interest or hold them? Guide, correct or reform them? If we people are supposed to lead this community after you guys are gone, I despair.’
Jeez. This guy is a shaana, talking about me kicking the bucket already. The kid has some pluck.
‘I am not trying to say all that is being said is not true, sure it is. But it is a broken record; way overdone for sure. We are not going to achieve diddly-squat by making the same issues our theme song. If we must do it, let's not do it in front of the choir. If we feel brave enough, let's take it to the battlefield. But we want to do it in the safety of our mimbers. Surely Sir, Islam, our beloved religion, is much, much, more than this?’
Huh. I do my hujjat to the kid, advising him that history shapes the future, it’s important. I try and explain that zaakirs have limitations, they do their best, research and prepare and do us a huge favor by coming and giving the lectures. If nothing else, we should respect them for this effort and sit through the lectures. The least we will accomplish is thawaab for the reverence we pay to our Aaimaas.
But I can see the kid is not convinced and people are coming out with steaming cups of tea and kabaabs. They come out and start complaining about the cold and the wind. I head inside for some warmth and tea and kabaab.
Note: I am certain some zaakirs reading this Blog will take offence, so I sincerely offer my apologies. My aim is not malicious; Allah is a witness to this fact. The kid might be off track somewhat, but his thinking should resonate with anybody willing to think outside the box. And surely Allah knows best.