Friday, November 25, 2016

Give Me Money And I'll Build You A School

Give Me Money, And I’ll Build You A School


India in general and Mumbai in particular, where I am now, is in crises mode. Prime Minister Modi’s well-meaning and noble-intended, but hasty and ill-planned ban on the Rupee 500 / 1,000 currency notes has bombed. Badly. The poor are panic-stricken, and many fat-cats are left to deal with dirty underwear. It would be so funny ordinarily, to see people with ill-gotten wealth squirm and scramble to get rid of or exchange the worthless paper. The tactics they use are creative, clever and comical; the social media is buzzing with incidents of busted antics. The new pink Rupee 2,000 is snazzy, but most vendors will not accept them; there is no change.

There are several near-riots at bank ATMs, with police latti-charging unruly crowds, with frustrated masses hitting back, making the cops beg for mercy. These cash flow crises have not affected the super-rich, of course. You won’t see them in the stretched serpent-like lines outside all banks I pass by, wilting away under the relentless sun. No Sir. These dudes have alternate arrangements, as their hoarding is the in millions, even billions of Rupees. I hear whisperings that the banned bills can be exchanged for 70% or even 50% of the value…with proper bank connections.

In Bengaluru (Bangalore), an ex-Minister, a devoted father (I guess), spends (you better be seated) Rupees 5 billion – about US$73 million on his daughter’s wedding. CAI helps marry poor girls in India as well; this amount would have paid for 146,000 marriages. Proves wealth does not always equal brains and decency, no?


Some five flying hours away from Mumbai, Singapore remains almost the same as I left it four years ago; super clean, super-efficient and super-pricy. A 2-bedroom 3,000 sq. ft. apartment is a cool three million Sing dollars – about US$2.3 million and a Toyota Corolla is a stomach curling US$60,000. I am here as the guest of JMAS, with whom CAI is currently working on an education project that requires due diligence and compliance work. The infrastructure and logistics of this city-state work like a fine Swiss watch; precise and efficient. Everybody lines up, for everything, no exceptions. You pay a hefty fine for chewing gum, jaywalking, littering, crossing the line…all controlled by thousands of cameras, using state of the art technology. If there were a gadget to detect the inappropriate passing of wind, why, I’ll bet that would have been deployed as well.

My weakness in Singapore is seafood; something all humans must partake when here. On the second day, I find myself free for dinner, so I head out to the Newton Food Center at the end of Scotts Road, about two-third mile away. Since it is Singapore’s ‘winter’, like May in Orlando, and less humid, I walk over. Still, my t-shirt has patterns of vague sweat-shapes by the time I enter the crowded and noisy courtyard with at least fifty food hawkers, each one waving me over; there is enough food here to satisfy all the hungry children in Yemen. There is Malay, Indian, and Chinese food, but seafood dominates. I find a halal stall after some trouble, but I am still cautious. I ask the lady waving me over if the food is genuinely halal.

Mista, she glares me, pointing to her headscarf, I tell you is halal, the sign hea (here) says halal, the goven-man (government) cettify (certifies) its halal, all seafood is halal, I am a Muslima, this sign hea says no pok (pork) no lad (lard), and you still ask me if halal? You are a vely (very) suspicious man, la.

I surrender and sit down to lip smacking, finger licking pepper crawfish, spicy kangkong greens, steam rice and hot Chinese green tea, sharing a common table. Everybody, including the Gooras, discard their plastic utensils and dig in with their fingers, sniffling and sweating the spicy dishes down. The lady gets an assistant to take over, takes a break and comes sits by me, sipping from a steaming cup of tea. She tells me she is resting her tired feet.

I am Singaporean Malay. Where are you flom (from) in India?

No Ma’am, I am not Indian, I live in Florida.

She searches my face disbelievingly, so I add I was born in Africa, but my ancestors are Indians. She is still dubious, especially after I tell her I have also lived in Dubai, Houston, Toronto, Austin, Mumbai, Orlando…

So did you vote? The elections?

Yes, I did.

You voted for Donald Duck?

It is my turn to stare at her. I open my mouth to correct her, say it is Donald Trump, not Duck, when she and the others sharing the table erupt in voracious laughter. The lady snorts and laughs until tears roll down her pudgy cheeks.

I am joking Mista, la, don’t look so offended, la. But you must admit your new president is a cattoon (cartoon), la?

I am not sure if I should respond to the question, so I stay mum and continue feeding my face until I am bloated with seafood; the walk back to the hotel is laborious. As time-pass, I challenge myself to find litter on the pathway I walk; any litter. But apart from fallen leaves, there is absolutely nothing. As I near the hotel, I feel thwarted; not one piece of litter. But my patience is rewarded shortly when my eyes hit jackpot; I see a cigarette butt. I am ecstatic; Singaporeans are humans, like me!


I am in Chennai to meet with my Indian editor, Vandana, at Notion Press, who will be editing my 3rd novel for Indian content. This book, to be published by July 2017, will insha’Allah raise US$100,000 plus, all profits (100%) to benefit the 460 worldwide CAI sponsored orphans. Surprisingly, I have no problem in getting change for my Rupee 2,000 bill for the taxi ride from the airport; I wonder if Tamil Nadu has got their act straighter.

It is while waiting for my Uber ride back to the airport for my return flight to Mumbai the same afternoon outside Notion Press that I meet Danish.  He is 11-years old, a daily wage laborer, shoveling building pebbles onto construction trucks and so thin, I can see the outline of his ribs through his skin. There is a filthy green colored taweez, thoroughly soaked from sweat, that dangles from his neck. I watch him for a while and venture over to talk to him.

He pauses when he sees me approach, breathing heavily. His face is flushed and sweat drenched, a booger dangles from his nose. I feel immediate disgust but force myself to smile at him; he looks at me suspiciously for a second, spits and resumes his labor.

What is your name? I ask him in Hindi.

He grunts, says nothing, so I repeat the question. He pauses again, an irritated look on his face. He looks me from top to bottom, decides I am harmless.

Danish, he says, my name is Danish.

You do hard labor, Danish, I say. Don’t you get tired?

Danish spits again and blows his nose, thankfully dislodging the unsightly bugger from his nose. His eyes tell me how ridiculous he finds my question.

I mean, why don’t you go to school? I ask hurriedly, embarrassed by my stupid question.

Danish shrugs his bony shoulders. He must generate a lot of spit, for he spits once again. He rubs his fingers in the universal sign of money. He says he has no money so has to work to eat, him and his widowed mother and his younger sister. He would love to go to school if he could and become a jawaan in the Indian army.

My Uber drive arrives and hoots, so I hurriedly say goodbye to Danish and sit at the rear of the car, shivering as the cold air-conditioned air hits my skin. I glance at Danish, but he is back at work shoveling, probably dismissed me as a nut case from his thoughts. At an instinct, I tell the startled driver to stop and turn around. He makes a face, but reverses and I run towards Danish, who has stopped work and is watching me. I thrust five 100-Rupee bills in his hands.

Buy your mother and sister and yourself a nice meal tonight, you hear?

I leave, since I will be late battling the deadly Chennai traffic to the airport, an hour away. I watch Danish from the cab again. He is still leaning on his shovel, staring at the Rupee bills, a puzzled expression on his face. I smile inwardly, feeling slightly better.

Give me money, and I’ll build you a school – anytime.

39,000 feet up in the air, somewhere between Mumbai and Dubai:

I receive a WhatsApp message informing that the last avenue I have to get to Yemen is closed; it is simply not to be; my spirits plummet. Although thousands of starved children are receiving much needed CAI donated milk, my wish to personally see the project through has been denied. Everybody says it’s much too dangerous, that risks to life outweigh the benefits. Although I am deeply disappointed, hurt and angry, I have to leave it to Allah’s will. He knows I tried. Very hard.

Saturday, November 12, 2016

Tormenting Tamasha

The flight from Orlando to Mumbai with a stop in Dubai is over twenty-three hours, and jet lag does not let me sleep much last night. Still, it is the wafaat of my Imam Hassan (a), so I have to pay my respects, naturally. So I take the crowded Metro line from the Leela Hotel to Versova and a bumpy rickshaw ride to Zeb Palace Imambargah near Yari Road, not too far away. It is already November, but the city still sizzles at 95F; at least the humidity is contained, as a very trivial and stunted winter season looms.

Bleary eyed, I join others for zohrain salaat, but I am told later that the Khojas of India commemorate the shahadat of Imam Hassan (a) on a day different than Khojas elsewhere; I fume. Can’t we all choose one day and stick to it for heaven’s sake! The aim is to pay respects to our Imam (a) for crying out loud. Isn’t the annual Eid ul Fitr tamasha enough grief?  The mood of worshippers is tense, however, soured by the circus of recent events related to the events in Karbala. Rightly or mistakenly, individual jamaats have opted for the ban of four Aalims from reciting at India-wide Khoja centers. And for some bizarre reasons, the banning of nikkah recitation at Beb Palace as well. I have personal opinions on this trivial and silly issue, of course, but I will keep my lips zipped, for the safety of my limbs and life. The Khojas of India are beginning to have anger management issues. An argument in Gujarat was settled with firearms recently, resulting in deaths and tragedy. So I head out back to the hotel for a possible nap before the start of a very hectic schedule the next few weeks.

As I wear my sandals and walk out, I nearly jump out of my skin. There, sitting in the shade, playing with the lever of his motorized wheelchair, is Mullah Mchungu, grinning at me with his ghastly bleached dentures. I gawk at him aghast, thinking I have perhaps died and am meeting the old geezer on my way to the heavens? No, we are both alive, since I can still feel the sleep deprived dudus in my head. Is this guy stalking me?

After we are both over with the mostly phony pleasantries of how we are and our health and everything else we care not a hoot about, the Mullah tells me he is in Mumbai for knee surgery. He has apparitions of walking again, so he has coerced his son Ali in Orlando to split the whole expense with the daughter in Dar. The surgery is after a few days, so he is grabbing all opportunities to attend as many majaalis as possible since he will be incapacitated for Arbaeen. Like a fool that I must be, I get strong-armed for a cup of tea at his temporary rented apartment close by. With the Mullah’s grandson Sibtain by his side, we guide the wheelchair a short distance to a comfortable looking two-bedroom apartment that the daughter has rented for the surgery.

Over a strong freshly brewed cup of tea (not the phony tea bags I use in Florida) and Zanzibar-like fried bajeea fritters, the Mullah steers me towards the very contentious and highly controversial subject gripping the Khojas. That of Kassam, son of Imam Hassan (a) supposedly marrying the daughter of Imam Hussein (a) Fatema in Kerbala before Kassam goes for martyrdom. I have heard and read of the lunatic hullabaloo in the social media, pitting Khojas and ulemas against each other. I am sick of it, want none of it, don’t want to talk or discuss it. I make that very clear to the Mullah but the old man, however, seems not to be least bothered about my sentiments.

Aree Ghadeera, what is your problem Kisukaali? Just because the subject matter is unpalatable and uncomfortable does not mean it’ll go away, will it? We have to confront it, deal with it and settle it. You are spineless. Like the majority of us. Maulana Baqri is right; the silent majority will see the demise of us Shias.

Both the daughter Sabira and Sibtain quietly finish their tea and quickly scram, leaving me staring at a grinning set of teeth fitted in a severe face. I would have given the old hag a fitting response for terming a donkey but am bothered by the lack of sleep, and my thinking is curtailed.  So I keep quiet and pray he’ll rant it all out and I can also escape.

Listen to me Kisukaali, and don’t interrupt. Imam Hassan (a) was an infallible, incapable of error, in acts, advice or judgment. Period, no arguments there. Durust?

I nod a weary agreement.

Now use your Allah-given brains. The Imam (a) supposedly writes a will, requesting his underage son Kassam to be married to Fatema, the Imam’s niece, just before Kassam goes off for battle in Kerbala and is martyred. Don’t you see how incalculably ludicrous this sounds? Have we lost our capacity to think? Do the writers of these stories even think before they pen this junk? Do we hold this Imam (a)’s intellectual faculty so low? Remember now; he is infallible. I don’t care which ulema have written this pathetically anemic story; it does not have logic so should be thrown out. Let us please show due respect to Imam Hassan (s).

But Mullah sahib, I counter, I know all this…

The Mullah clicks his dentures so severely; he almost loses them. But he is quick in recovery.

Listen to me I said, without interruption. Now, few Zakirs, those without proper grounding of rational, digest these stories and recite them from the mimber and the gullible Khojas swallow it - bait, line, and sinker. But, that is not enough, we Khoja’s take it a few steps further. We inject some garam-masala into the story and make it into a tormenting tamasha. So we reenact the marriage ritual, Bollywood style, taking out henna plates and dress up allams as male and females couples in sparkling attires…

The Mullah’s voice goes heavy at this point; he chocks and begins weeping; I am aghast and shocked. I look around wildly, frantically, hoping Sabira or Sibtain will come and rescue this very awkward moment.  Nope, no such luck. I can’t will myself to go to the guy and console him, so I let him be. He recovers after a while, violently blows his nose, clicks his dentures in place and continues.

The argument for this tamasha, by these who do it and the ulemas who support and egg them on, is that we are only enacting what Kassam’s and Fatema’s mothers and sisters would have wished to do for the marriage then. But because they did not have the means to perform such rituals, we are doing it in memorial. It is also a tool to stir up tear-jerking memories; I have yet to hear a better nincompoop argument like this in my seventy-seven years. Fatema and Kassam’s mothers and sisters and cousins, including our very own infallible Imam Sajjad (a) made it back to Medina, yes?

I do not respond, since I don’t want to get involved in this highly combustible war.

Yes, or no! The Mullah roars.

I nod hurriedly. He glares at me for a while, while I stare at the grinning dentures, my heartbeat at odds with its natural rhythm.

You tell me, Kisukaali, is there any recorded history, even a feeble one, that records any of the blessed mothers, sisters, cousins… anyone, even remotely reenacting the marriage of poor Kassam and Fatema, my life be sacrificed for them both, in any way or form? Even in their native Arabic culture? Did they not have every right to, if the event is indeed genuine and the enactment permissible, depict it when they returned home and had the means to do so?

I have nothing to say, the Mullah’s arguments are rock solid. What I think, or say, will not make an iota of a difference in these ignorant superstitions and rituals in our culture, where they cross over to shirk, at the least.

We have so many critical challenges, grave ones, in Afghanistan, in Yemen, in Syria, in Iraq, in Haiti, you name it… Yet, we bicker on irrelevant and trivial matters, tearing each other apart, exhausting our energies. This menace includes some of our divided ‘ulemas’, with their uniformed, opposing, confusing, erroneous and many times comical opinions. As we destroy ourselves, our enemies, rightly, laugh at us and make merry. I can’t get to my hotel fast enough. My sleep is punctuated with the image of the Mullah’s dentures floating in front of my face, trying to strike at a mouthful.