Friday, August 25, 2017

Amna’s School Dream Comes Alive / New Novel Update

Amna’s School Dream Comes Alive

I strongly suggest a read of Amna Naqwi – The Unwanted Daughter, so that the subsequent narrative will be a natural transition and make for an easier read and comprehension of the following:

The jarring, uncomfortable, pot-riddled road from Sirsi to Halwaana is over 200 miles and takes over six hours. It tears into my patience and disposition, taking a toll on my already beaten down immune system, since I have already been on the road, traveling from Africa to Asia and Europe and Asia again the last six weeks. The annual Indian monsoon rains have played havoc with the subpar UP road surfaces so the ride is jarring and halting, making mincemeat of my brains. It is a relief when we pull over for a cuppa chai and some snacks at a roadside dhaba.

Zeeshan and his brothers run the rickety dhaba in Jansat town, set amid the busy main road towards Halwaana and eventually New Delhi. It has recently rained, so the atmosphere is moist and steamy, now ablaze with a hot sun, bringing instant sweat to my brows. The four school-desk size tables wobble dangerously as we try and make ourselves hopelessly comfortable. The ear busting toots from trucks and buses and vehicles and motorbikes and bicycles and tractors and bullock carts that ply on the roads make so much tumult, it is difficult to think, even. I wish we had gone to better digs, air-conditioned perhaps, but I am told this is the best we can do for the next four hours, so I sulk and bear it.

My mood has a turn for the better and my lukewarm appetite surges immediately after I try the first spoonful of the concoction served in a small metal plate. It’s a mix of haleem and Taheri chicken biryani, fiery and namkeeni; I finish mine in a flash, yearn for and get more. The next round is haleem, made from blends of lentils and masalas and green chilies. This one is even fierier, made for people with stomachs of steel. I fleetingly worry about my gut’s aftermath tomorrow morning; we have but a single toilet back in Sirsi, but for now, my taste buds are in heavenly bliss. There are several fearless birds that hungrily forage for grains of rice that make it to the floor; I feel sorry for their eventual potty business, but like me, they seem to have thrown caution to the wind and want to enjoy the heavenly delight. I am told that the beef haleem is even better but CM Yogi and his Hindutva agenda has killed that delicacy. 

It is only after my belly is sated that I notice the open kitchen in action. Zeeshan the owner slices onions at a pace that is a blur to my eye, his ten-year-old son, off from school because it is a Sunday, struggles to pound fresh masalas in a stone grinder by the dirt floor while another brother begins preparation to knead dough for piping hot parathas coming up if we are prepared to wait. Zeeshan moves his arms non-stop, slicing onions, stoking the blazing fire that cooks the lentils, serves unceasing customers, handles money and wipes everything – from his profusely sweaty brows, his fingers, the deadly sharp knife, the pots, pans to everything else he encounters - with a damp dirty-looking tattered towel tucked at his waist. The same towel eventually makes it to wipe clean our table top, leaving the air around me with an uneasy odor of foul dampness. I try to drown the uneasiness I suddenly feel with a couple of steamy cups of sweet chai.

The AC in the car helps me cool off a bit as we head towards Halwaana. The village looks exactly like rural India was fifty years ago; green and healthy as far as the eye can see. I am reminded of a scene from the Bollywood movie, Gopi. Why, I expect comely Saira Bano to spring up any second and serenade me with akeele hee akeele chalahe kahaa. Alas, it is not to be, since she is busy nursing an ailing Dilip Kumar in Mumbai.

While arrangements are made for the foundation stone laying ceremonies of CAI’s thirty-fifth global school for the poor, I rest my aching behind on a charpoy under a peepal tree.  Ahhh, what luxuries! There is absolute quiet as birds chirp above. The only other sound is of a mother shushing some infant Jaffer to sleep. I try and close my eyes but hordes of the most persistent flies on earth descend to inflict misery on me. The villagers solve this problem by starting up a generator powered fan that keep the pesky pests at bay. Now, if they could only do the same with the overpowering lingering smell of goober…

The foundation stone for the school is laid and we head home after a late lunch hosted by the villagers. It’s another jarring, uncomfortable, pot-riddled road to Sirsi, over 200 miles and will take over six hours, at least…

So, there you are Amna, CAI donors and Trustees have fulfilled their promise made not too long ago. Your school will insha’Allah be ready sometime next year. You and 600 others from this and surrounding villages can begin dreaming of a better future, as good, strong, moral and more importantly, balanced, tolerant and educated Muslims.

New Novel Update

Shit! Eat Shit! This is the unpalatable title of my latest novel, my third. The manuscript is edited and ready, and a limited print version will insha’Allah be available immediately after Rabi ul Awwal 17, while the online version should be up and running shortly.

Hopefully you like my writing, and if so, you’ll love this novel, set in India and Dubai. However, even if you don’t, or if you are not a fiction person, I still encourage you to please purchase a copy, since 100% of the proceeds will go towards supporting CAI’s worldwide 460 orphans. CAI raised US$77,000 towards this very worthy cause with my second novel, The Chief Ministers Assassin, so I am very confident we can do at least US$100,000 with this one, insha’Allah. The money supports the orphans in their daily needs but more importantly, provides them with a quality education, invaluable for their successful future. The print version is available for US$100 each and delivered worldwide. You can pre-order a copy by clicking here. Allah bless.

Thursday, August 3, 2017

A Slaying Too Close To Home / No, seriously! – Amirali Somji

A Slaying Too Close To Home

Many of you will recall the name Wasi Muhamadian, perhaps, since I have mentioned him several times in my past Blogs that pertain to Afghanistan or CAI activities in that country. Wasi is the CAI Country Manager for Afghanistan. His father, Ahmad Ali Mohammadian, son of Mohammad Mahdi, was murdered while reciting his magreeb salaat at a mosque in Herat, Afghanistan on August 1; a suicide bomber killed 28 others and maimed scores.

I have met Agha Ahmed Ali several times; a proud, dignified man of few words. I have stayed at his house in Herat and prayed at that same mosque that was attacked. The dangers that CAI Trustees are exposed to are genuine, and this slaying brings these risks very close to home. I can almost feel the explosion, and it’s palpable, very real. There is tremendous satisfaction and humility is the work we Trustees do in such countries, yes, but it does not take away the real fear and uncertainties of such beastly and senseless killings.

I hold Wasi, whom I have known for over ten years, in the highest regards when it comes to akhlaaq, nobility, and hospitality. I put mine and other Trustees and visitor’s life in his and fellow compatriot Basheers hands when we are in Afghanistan, thirty-four times already. I have yet to encounter better generosity or warmth anywhere worldwide, and I am certain those who have accompanied me will attest to this fact. Such manners and nobility are not innate, rather, they are handed down through honorable parental guidance and upbringing. Agha Ahmed was, obviously, such a parent. Please join me in praying for his martyred soul and that of others that lost their lives while in the worship of their Lord.

No, seriously! – Amirali Somji

Africa has always intrigued me – tribalism, the clicking language, slavery, speared warriors, Pharaohs, and mummies, the jumping Masais. These curiosities and imaginations are somewhat quenched via yearly trips to Tanzania, my de facto motherland, and many hours on Wikipedia. During random conversations with Yusufali of CAI, he tells me about his plan to build schools on the ‘other’ side of the continent; I am at first skeptical, but still, want to be part of it and somehow wiggle my way into a trip with him and his team.

My past visit to Afghanistan with Yusufali has taught me a thing or two about him – (a) nothing is impossible if you try earnestly hard, and (b) never take no for an answer. Yusufali somehow manages to make things happen in faraway places, where even pronouncing a city’s name is a challenge (Ouagadougou anyone?). Here’s how my personal, and borderline crazy, adventure panned out:

I meet with fellow visitor’s uncle Mushtak Fazal and Murtaza Bhimani for the first time, when they pick me up at 2 am in Dar. Not much is said at the time because we don’t know one another or maybe the elders are sleepy? At the airport in Dar, they both decide against checking their bags, which I find strange, but hey, I’m well-travelled and know what I’m doing, or so I think.

Our connection time at Addis Ababa is cut short due to bad weather and barely make it to the next flight, where Yusufali and Sohail patiently wait for us to board. When we finally enter, there is a sign of relief on everyone’s face, and our expedition officially commence. First stop – Burkina Faso.

Day 1:
We land at Ouagadougou and are immediately received by our host, Cherif Aidara – the son of a chief, originally from Mauritania, now living in Senegal, together with Senator (no, seriously!) Mohammed Elhaj. They whisk us into a room where a national police officer sits and manages to sort out our entry formalities fasta-fasta.

The elders know something I didn’t – my bag never makes it! I am assured it would become available within 24 hours and Ethiopian Airlines came through by sending it via another airline in less than 12. Excellent service, and valuable lesson learned.

Our hotel in Ouagadougou is a massive concrete structure built in the newer part of the city – a gift from the late Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi. On the day of our arrival was another visiting dignitary– the president of Ivory Coast (no, seriously!). As you can imagine, there were over a hundred heavily armed security personnel, delegates, associates, bum-chums, and press on site. At lunch, we saw the Ivorian and Burkina presidents quickly walk in and just as quickly vanish into whatever important things presidents do.

Day 2:
We are driven to the site where Comfort Aid International will potentially build their fourth school in West Africa (the other are in Liberia, Mali, and Senegal). This land has been sanctioned by none other than the Minister of Interior whom we meet at his office (no, seriously!), and who is also very pleased that CAI is bringing education to the poor in Burkina Faso.

Night time activities in Ouagadougou are limited; there isn’t much to do, neither is it very safe, but Sohail and I are famished and insist on eating outside the hotel. Cherif Aidara finds us a lovely Turkish restaurant that is located a couple of hundred meters from the infamous Cappuccino café where fanatical gunmen attacked just over a year ago. But hey, the kebabs are fantastic.

Day 3:
We’re off to Bamako, Mali to check on the construction progress of a school funded by CAI but our flight only leaves at 3 pm, so we decide to visit the town market and get a taste of local fruits. Ladies and gentlemen, if you want to see Yusufali in his element, take him to a fruit market – he is like a child in a candy store. We indulge ourselves with oranges, mabungo, and cucumbers, but Sohail pays later that evening, as he battles a combination of high fever and an unruly stomach.

On reaching the airport past zohr salat, we’re told there is no aircraft available, so the flight is canceled for 24 hours. Bummer. Panic quickly grips, as everyone is on a tight schedule; Cherif Aidara steps in to calm us down and assures that the lost day will be made up ‘somehow.' We head back into the city and make do with the rather decent hotel provided by Air Burkina.

Day 4:
After a lazy morning, we find ourselves at the airport once again, with everyone’s fingers crossed. Thankfully the flight is available and on-time. We expect to reach Bamako at 5 pm, but if we are to wait for visa formalities and stand in a queue, we’ll miss daylight and not make it to the site. Everyone is on edge, but Cherif Aidara, for some odd reason, sports an assured smile.

The wheels touch down at around 5 pm as planned, and everything that follows is something that I promise is not a Hollywood script. As soon as we disembark, a short stubby gentleman, who I later find out is the Chief of Police (no, seriously!) guides us towards two fully tinted vehicles that are waiting for our arrival. We’re stealthily driven by big, muscled men in black to the VIP wing of the airport where our passports are stamped in record time.

On exiting the building, two other vehicles put us on the road heading towards the school site, constantly fighting time. Lo and behold, we make it on time with enough sunlight to quickly inspect the school under construction – Yusufali is happy with the progress, things are clearly under control and on track Alhamdulillah.

Mission accomplished
The four days I spent with Yusufali and his able team are a humbling experience. Yes, there is poverty everywhere, including our side of Africa. But there is an entire population on the other side that is in dire need for education. CAI has pledged a school in many West African countries, funds permitting, where basic education is the worst worldwide, and I have seen, first-hand, that they are well underway.

I’d like to thank uncle Mushtak for his intriguing stories, uncle Murtaza for the constant entertainment, Cherif Aidara for the guidance and hospitality, Sohail for being an awesome roommate, the team at Institut Mozdahir International (CAI partners in West Africa) for their efforts, and finally, Yusufali for giving me the opportunity, again, to see his CAI projects first hand.