Monday, November 30, 2009

Of marraiges and shit cakes

We stop on a side road and Aliakberbhai, a devoted and selfless trustee of Al Imaan Foundation, cautions me to be careful of cakes. Cakes, I ask? He smiles. Yes, he says, cakes, shit cakes. You should be familiar with our terminology by now; he chides with a smile. I gingerly step down and immediately understand what he is referring to. These is human and dog poo-poo everywhere I look and to reinforce the unreality of the scene, two kids of about ten squat not more than ten yards from me, lost in call of nature, oblivious to the passing mass of cars, trucks, motorbikes, bicycles, humans and dogs. The stench is intense; overpowering, but I am well equipped; a liberally perfumed handkerchief comes in very handy.

We are here to visit a poor and destitute family; a young girl is to be married in three days and the family has no money for the marriage rites. I have funds specifically donated for the facilitation of such marriages but I must be personally hand over the money. Not that I do not trust Al Imaan, far from it. This is a personal commitment on my part, so I can experience the moment (and perhaps be gifted by dua’s from the recipient) and as an assurance to the donor that I was present when we made the marriage possible. Were it not for the help we are about to provide, this engaged couple will probably languish in limbo until either the groom tires and breaks off the engagement or the bride’s family goes into ever ending debt through a loan shark.

The father of the girl meets us shortly and I can instantly sense his embarrassment and nervousness; I give him an assuring smile and we follow him into the slums. My eyes are cast down, on the lookout for objects that I need to side step. I am aware of the hub of activity in the narrow filthy lanes we pass; music blaring from shabby, shoddy rooms, children, few stark naked, playing or quarrelling, the aroma of pakodas and other fried foods mixed with the stench from the open sewers. We suddenly enter a one man lane and I bang into the back of Aliakberbhai. The lane is totally dark and I am very nervous; I do not want soiled shoes.

When we reach the shack, we have to climb up a rickety staircase; it shakes violently with every step and I breathe a sigh of relief when we finally make it up. It is a 12 x 12 room, devoid of any furniture save two short wooden stools and a box crate, obviously used as a dining table. A few metal plates and other banged up utensils line up one side of the wall. A skeleton of a woman lies on bare floor on the other side, clearly in pain. I can see her one twisted leg and the grim twist of her lips whenever she turns her head to follow us with her eyes as we take a seat on the stools.

She is a grandmother of the bride to be. What is the matter with her, I ask? She is not well, the son tells me. But what is the matter with her, I repeat? He shrugs his shoulders; he does not know. The hospital needs money before they will admit her, he says, we do not have the funds. I feel immediate anger and the urge to rebuke him for ignoring his mother but cool down as quickly. Hearing the word hospital and doctor brings a piercing wail of mournful agony from the mother and I feel the hair on my arms raise. My heartbeat quickens and I suddenly feel very nauseous and have a sudden urge to leave.

We are given water and offered tea which we politely refuse. Aliakberbhai asks a few questions about the marriage plans and the girl is brought up. She is very young and pretty, only sixteen. She says salaam shyly and I give her the money; Rupees 18,000, about US $500. This money will buy the couple a bed, mattress and a cupboard perhaps, maybe even help in paying for the waleema. Perhaps. More importantly, it will afford the girl respect from her in laws and smoother live ahead. Insha’Allah.

We get up to leave but I cannot stand the agony of the mother as she whimpers on the floor. She is sayyeda and I have some sehme sadaat funds. I give about $75 to her and Aliakberbhai admonishes the son and orders him to have the mother urgently treated. I plead with Aliakberbhai to leave pronto and hurry ahead, but he is unmoved, practical. You might run away from here, but we have four more of such families to visit, he reminds me. I slow down.

When I finally reach my temporary home, the first thing I do is wudhoo and place my forehead on the soil of Kerbala and thank Allah for His bounties, for I cannot erase the agony of the mother from my eyes and ears.

Monday, November 9, 2009

The Shias of Philippines

The lady immigration officer at Manila International Airport in Philippines scrutinizes my passport carefully, then glances at me suspiciously. She has seen a number of visa stamps into Afghanistan on my passport and can’t make up her mind if I pose a threat to her country because of that. She asks me wait and disappears for about five minutes; I can feel the glare of those waiting behind me, holding them up. She is all smiles and apologetic when she returns, says I am welcome to Philippines and whispers she has given me a months visa instead of 5 days I have requested. How generous I exclaim mockingly and she flushes pink, covers her mouth with the palm of her hands to giggle in fake complicity, my sarcasm completely lost on her.

The airport taxi drivers outside the terminal immediately seize upon me, offering me hotel rooms to massage saloons, money exchange to nude bars, teen virgins of either sex to cell phone chips... I hurriedly take refuge in a slightly more expensive airport taxi that takes me through very heavy traffic (and I thought nothing could beat Mumbai traffic!) to my hotel. The Diamond Hotel is surprisingly very opulent, belying the reasonable rate I paid online. The service is incredibly warm and friendly, with everybody ready with eager smiles and anxious to please; you would have to be an Ambani (at least) to get this kind of attention in India, perhaps. I am heavily jet-lagged and want to sleep but force myself to go to the modern and well equipped gym to run instead. Works like a charm as I sleep like a baby afterwards, ready for next day’s challenges and adventures.

Abu Mahdi comes knocking at 10AM; he is not a typical Philippine; rather I sense a bit of Malay in him. Abu Mahdi was given my contact more than 2 years ago and he and another head of a huge clan have been pressing me to visit them. Time and budgetary constraints restrained me until now. We talk for over 2 hours and I learn a lot about Philippine Muslims in general and Shia Muslims in particular. I am stunned to know that there are 25,000 Shia Muslims in the country, most of them in Mandanow Island. These converted to Shia Islam after the Islamic Revolution in 1979 and quite a number of them are Roman Catholics converts. Then, Abu Mahdi won a scholarship to study in Qum; he studied there for over 9 years, returned to lead a budding congregation in Zamboanga. Now, he is the Imam of a crumbling building that acts as a mosque and hawze that caters for 50 taalibs who live in miserable and pitiful conditions. I want to go visit Zamboanga so we go into town and purchase the air tickets to travel there tomorrow. For now, I go to an area of Manila where there is a sizable Muslim presence. Several halal restaurants and Muslim owned stores abound; I forget this is the Philippines for a while.

I am invited to the only Khoja family who have made Philippines their home the last 19 years, that of Shakera and Habeeb Janmohammed. They have a beautiful home in a sky-rise in Makati, an affluent area of Manila. Over an excellent dinner, I learn about life and living in a place of the world both alien and exotic to a Khoja layman. They have no complains; Habeeb has done well in business maasha'Allah, and they have 2 children who are born and schooled there. They give a good insight about the Muslim community, what to expect and caution me about the volatile situation in Mandanow, with kidnappings and sudden, unpredictable gunfights between the MLF, a "Muslim" separatist group and government forces. I become more aware of my surroundings as I return to the hotel but then nothing can be worse thanAfghanistan, right? Abu Mahdi is dismissive about the concerns, tells me I will be fine and that an armed Ahlebeyti policeman will guard me round the clock.

Sure enough, after a stomach curling bumpy 90 minute Philippine Airline flight to Zamboanga City, we are greeted by 5 managing committee members of Ahlebayt (A) Philippine Islamic Foundation, a smartly dressed armed policeman amongst them. We proceed to a modest home of a member for my first authentic Philippino meal ever; a delightful mix of colorful seafood that is superb. I learn more about the community and am quite impressed with the progress in their religious maturity, especially the nurturing of the young ones. Although there is the usual struggle for everyday survival within the poorer members of the community, the lament mostly is for a mosque. We head towards this now for noon prayers. Here, I get to meet the 50 taalibs who get educated and trained in Islamic studies; these are a subdued, varied lot, from different parts of Mandanao. I get a sick sinking feeling when I tour the shabby, rickety building; it is miserable, with 1 toilet being shared by all students.

I sit down with the community afterwards and we chat; I tell them about CAI activities and how we can perhaps help them in education matters in a shared, pooled resourced partnership. I also promise them I will try and spread the word on helping them with a mosque. They are all of the opinion that a mosque as their center will go a long way in consolidating and expanding their community.

Zamboanga is busting, noisy city, but perhaps it’s just me and my advancing age when tolerance for such city nuisances seem overwhelming while seem not to affect others? But all is forgotten, forgiven when we reach a local fruit market. My, what a fiesta of colors! We usually associate (tropical) fruits with Thailand - no contest! Jackfruits, mangastinos, papaya, mangoes, pineapple, custard apples, leeches, others I cannot even name, even the smelly, puke initiating durians abound. I am simply amazed at all these bounties from Allah (S), and delight in buying a lot of fruit to splurge and share. Bargaining is accepted and expected; the vendors are shy but delighted at the mock shock I express at the prices they quote, covering their mouth to smile and giggle, only to come down to serious negotiating of price. The city is a colorful, almost equal mix between Muslims and Catholics with Muslims now a majority due to a very high conversion rate.

I sleep at an inexpensive hotel overnight and go visiting several homes that my new community welcome me in. Some of the homes are literally built into the ocean, on stilts. I have to cross tiny planks, some with fearful rotten cracks in them, about 20 feet long to reach some of the homes and a tiny misstep or error will see me dip into the muck and open sever ten feet below; they jokingly call this crossing at various homes daily "saraat mustakeem" trails. Several of them live in such "homes"; I wonder how the children survive all the hazards. It would take very little for anyone to go flying off into the ocean below.

I visit the home of a Shakir, a slim fragile looking man, a father of 9 whose wife gave birth to their 10th child early this morning. He has no money, he says, to take the wife to doctor, so he assisted in the childbirth and cut the umbilical cord with home scissors. The house is just a few planks of wood nailed together, I see a number of children bundled together in a corner, all paused and look at me subdued. Like their father, they look frail and gaunt. Lack of protein, Abu Mahdi whispers to me. There are no chairs to sit, so we stand and engage in polite chit-chat. But there are books, many books, all in Arabic and Farsi, with religious writings and paintings of Aaeemaas (A) all over the walls.

Then, the eldest daughter comes running, navigating the wooden planks that I very carefully crossed earlier as if they do not exist. The newborn baby, who has gone for immunization shots, has been admitted to the hospital with an infection caused by the scissors that cut its umbilical cord. A gloom falls on the household and conversation is now in hushed tones. The doctors at the government hospital have apparently ordered the parents to bring in certain antibiotic shots but there is no money. I offer to help and the problems for this family get temporary relief.

I leave for Manila later at magreeb, accompanied by Abu Mahdi; we want to visit a large clan of Wahabi converted Shia Muslims about a 2 hour drive from Manila the next day. While we wait for the flight, it is salaat time and I join others in prayers; always a delight. We set of for the town of Meycawayan City, Bulacan early the next morning, about 2 hours away in heavy traffic. I am started to be greeted by about 200 plus people, men, women and children, who line up outside a flea market and loudly recite salawaat as they pump my hand in greeting. These are an extension of one single family, children and relatives of Abulrehman Macalolo, a burly (brave) man with 4 wives. He used to be quite wealthy few years ago, with many businesses. But the menaces of Wahaabi take a toll one fine rainy day. As he sits in worship with his extended family in a makeshift mosque in his village, they are attacked by Wahaabi elements that destroy the mosque, heir homes and kill one young son of his; the entire clan flee for their lives and end up here as refugees.

A sympathetic town Mayor gives them refuge in the flea market, where they open up small stalls selling cheap paraphernalia. They sleep in the tiny stalls at night and use it as a storefront during the days. Even here, they have not forgotten their religion; they rent a small space in the middle of the market, put carpets and prayers mats down and complete their religious obligations; pretty neat. Allah tests them further this year with 2 typhoons that destroy their businesses and wash away their merchandise. The entire family flees, leaving only Abdulrehman and his son in law to keep watch over whatever remained, perched high up in the roof of the flea market until water receded.

They have begun anew, with loan sharks charging about 20% per month for financing their inventory needs. Abulrehman tells me they need help, not aid. Give me karze hasena so that I can escape the loan sharks and help us with a small mosque, he pleads. I will repay you the loans, you, my brother sent by Imam Mahdi (A). He then embarrasses the hell out of me by hugging and kissing me profusely.

I leave them with a heavy heart after a hearty lunch equivalent of machi paka in Dar and the team drops me off at the airport for my flight toDubai.

You can view pictures of my visit here:

Sunday, September 27, 2009

This and that.

Phew, it has been an eventful couple of months since my last blog! What with a very dramatic and eventful trip to strife torn Afghanistan, my two trips to the hospital, holy Ramadhan and its predictable Eid el Fitr moon (non)sighting fiasco, current (very) noisy Navratri days, the never ending schools holidays for the kids and my house torn up for new bathrooms and tiles. I tell you, life in Mumbai is becoming a frenzied chain of events I did not expect.

Afghanistan was scary with bombs exploding everywhere in Kabul and a missile attack at the airport while I was waiting for chartered flight to Bamiyaan. You can read all about it here and watch the photographs here

Two days into Ramadhan and I was struck with excruciating pain in the lower abdomen; pain so intense I thought I was certainly going to die! It turned out to be a single minute kidney stone that would normally routinely pass through but due to a very narrow urethra, it stuck and caused infection and hence the pain. Doctors at Kokilaben Ambani Hospital did a good job to ease the pain but could not reach the stone. So, without telling me because I was blissfully anesthetized, a tube was inserted in via the most delicate part of my body and it stayed there for the next four weeks! So you women who think childbirth is the ultimate pain one can experience, I say you need to reconsider your opinion. It was most distressing because it curtailed my exercise routine.

End of Ramadhan and the exercise to extract a new moon began with predictable conflicts and differing opinions. Eid ended up with disunity all over the Shia world. Families were divided with elders observing festivities on Sunday and children on Monday. I really don’t know; will we ever get it right? It is not a question of disobeying the Marja(s) for that is beyond us. But we must acknowledge that this issue IS dividing us, IS creating disharmony and discord and IS alienating a LOT of youths. We can no longer make excuses like “a minority is making a mountain out of a mole” or “we must respect the marjeeat decision”. Yes, a minority is making a mountain but the majority is really disenfranchised and cannot understand how two well respected and highly qualified Marjas can have differing opinions on a single issue when the sources that derive a solution is one. As earlier stated, disrespect of the Marjeeat is NOT an option but nor is the distinct possibility of losing faith.

Festivals in India can be treats and a (royal) pain where the sun does not shine. Just when I though we were through with the dancing and boisterousness of Ghanesia festivities that tie up the already chaotic Mumbai traffic, we are in the middle of Navratri, a colorful but eardrum busting music and dancing fiesta that makes even normal conversation at home a challenge. I can’t disregard the fiery and finery of costumes, shopping frenzy and goodwill that accompany these events. And the days school off as a consequence; oh my, I hope my kids will get the educational value for the fortune we pay in fees.

And finally my condominium home that is a torn up mess. I agreed, to my horror now, to redo the bathrooms and tiles of the entire place. Little did I even imagine the mess and headache of cleaning up every day and frustration in coordinating the contractor who seems to have his own timetable and opinions. He is grossly unhappy with my choice of non shiny tiles and glittery accessories. He wants me to convert my home into a Bollywood studio…Allah help me!

Sunday, August 2, 2009

The Indian Press - thriving, dramatic and oh so funny!

They did what…?

Ex President Dr. APJ Abdul Kalam of India was frisked and made to remove his shoes for a security check before boarding a Continental Airline flight bound for New Jersey, NY. This happened in April, 2009 and it is now August. An absolute gentleman and a cool dude (although I really think the man badly needs an urgent haircut), Dr. Kalam was unflustered and cooperated with security. Matter closed, or so you would think.

The episode cropped up in the local press last week with vehement horror and affront. The Indian press, prone to irrational bouts of journalistic diarrhea, went basaltic. How could they, screamed the headlines. The gall! Prosecute Continental Airlines, file an FIR, ban them from flying into India…! Eh? The man is an Ex President, not God, he was traveling as an aam admi, not in any official capacity, he did not have a problem being frisked, it was a routine security check and the airline was implementing its security rules. The Indian procedure, if you can term it that, is for an exemption on security checks for ex-presidents and other senior bureaucrats within the Indian government. These are guidelines, not an absolute law.

Dr. Kalam is a highly respected and honorable man, an upright true citizen of India, there is no argument about this fact. Now, consider this just for argument’s sake; what if Dr. Kalam was an ex-president since last twenty years and was now brainwashed and a member of Indian Al Qaeeda? Far fetched for sure, but not impossible, I say. Is a very minuscule inconvenience of being frisked and shoes scanned not worth it?

Come on Indian press, I know you have better and bigger issues to report on. Why don’t you go and pester Kareena or Katreena or other zero sized Bollywood actresses and ask them if they have even a pea sized brain in their beautiful thobras? That will get you better and more meaningful press, no?

Sikhs guarding the queen.

News that England has included two Sikhs among the Queens bodyguard security apparatus made a splash here with TV coverage of the two being paraded for us all to feel proud and happy. Perhaps it’s because I am not a natural born Indian but puckka Indian I am and I fail to see why any Indian should feel proud to be guarding that women. Really. She flaunts jewelry that were stolen from India, does absolutely nothing but go around waving her gloved fingers with a silly smirk on her face and gets tons of money from British taxpayers for it. Ugh!

Airline strike?

Six local airlines have decided to go on a strike August 18 because they are piling up huge losses due to uncontrolled and reckless expansion spree. They say the losses are due to fuel costs, airport fees and government taxes.

As recently as three years ago, these airline CEO’s were fluttering around basking in money, ordering aircrafts left, right and center and paying government taxes. Vijay Malia, the flamboyant Chairman of Kingfisher was of the opinion the sky was not a limit and wanted to expand so fast, the Government had to restrain him as airports were not prepared to handle additional aircrafts. Naresh Goyal of Jet was smugly boasting of newer routs and added San Francisco as a destination. All ordered new aircrafts.

Well, fuel prices soared last year and full blown recession set in and these airlines began whistling different tunes altogether and now threaten to blackmail the government; bail us out or we stop services. My opinion, which isn’t worth an ant’s ass, go to hell, strike (on a day I am not traveling please!). Did the airlines think of giving some of the profits to the government when they were so profitable? Will the government give an aam admi or me a bailout if I cannot make ends meet?

Rakhi Sawant

This actress has the airwaves by their pants; so much so that IBN News channel devoted a half hour prime time slot for the show. An eligible young attractive actress wishes to tie the knot and solicits suitors to woo to her on prime time. The entire nation has been glued to it; my family included. I was requested to reschedule our Thursday dua routine just so an episode would not escape them! The satire involves all kinds of antics that is the talk of town and apparently worthy of special news coverage. Now I hear that the actress will not get married after all, just begin a “relationship” with the successful suitor. The country in tuned on for the finale this weekend.

This show has to be the best self distortion of Indian courtship ever produced, except that the entire casts actually believe it!

I am off to Kargil and Afghanistan this weekend so will definitely not post anything until Ramadhan.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Aftermath of Mumbai monsoons

It is raining in Mumbai - again. This is not headline news, of course, for rain is what you get in Mumbai during July. The whole country sighed with relief when the rains began in earnest, three weeks late, a record of sorts. You will not believe how very, very critical these three month monsoon period is for this city and country. All the water the city uses throughout the year collects at various lakes during this period. Add in the cleansing effect to the grime and filth the city accumulates over a year and the heavy dependence of farmers for agriculture, the importance of an on-time, adequate rainfall becomes apparent. Even then, I read and heard in local media that rainfall will be 25% less than average so get ready for water cuts during the year.

Still, these are trying days, for everything is messed up. My running, of course, is most important. There is a small park right next door to the building I live in, a really nice one. The ten volunteers that man the park are constantly upgrading facilities to make it more pleasant and modern. When I first began running there, it was just a brick track around a grass field with reeds and smelly rot all over. Now, in about a year, there has been a children’s playground, a couple of sheds for warming up and stretching, a shed for yoga and most interestingly, a shed where middle aged women exercises and laugh. Yes, laugh. A loud, infectious and prolonged laughter that seemed startlingly peculiar in the beginning but now makes much sense as stress buster therapy. So, the rain is playing havoc to my running and that makes me sour all day as I have to refrain from eating the stuff I can't burn off the next day. So I decide to take the plunge and run come what may; I do that today and it is really fun! The skies open up midway and everybody runs for cover while I keep on running. They must think I am a nut, soaked silly and still ruining, sloshing water all around. But it is really fun, I have the track to myself, the rain cools me off and I actually clock in an extra lap in the same time I allocate for the running routine.

Then there is the chaos with traffic; it is pure madness, I say! I must go to Dongri, near central Mumbai, every Friday for official work related to the humanitarian agency I head and it usually takes me a good hour and a half to two hours to get there. Well, it took me three last Friday; imagine! Three hours to drive about twenty two miles, I feel like shedding a couple of tears just thinking about the tension during these hours. My driver, bless him, must be the coolest man on earth for he takes all the impossible situations that Mumbai monsoon traffic demands in stride; I would have either had a massive heart attack, a massive stroke from hypertension or simply freak out. There are so many potholes with the rains, it is futile to try an ignore them. Avoid one at the risk of hitting another vehicle or a pedestrian or a beggar or a motorbike or a bicycle or a dog or something and another pothole right next door will be there to greet you, guaranteed. More alarmingly, few of these potholes are gigantic enough to nicely accommodate a small vehicle. I exaggerate, you say? You are welcome to visit the street immediately outside my building, drive maybe a hundred yards and you will find one side of the road entirely caved in. Someone had the good sense to fill the cavity with a trunk of a dead tree else there will be sure tragedy during heavy rains when virtually all streets and highways in Mumbai flood, like it did July 13 and 14. It is beyond me how Brinhanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC) gets away with this kind of service. The complaints and howls of public fall on apparently deaf ears; half hearted attempts are made to redress the complaints with obviously shoddy material and even shoddier workmanship and we have the whole pathetic situation repeated come next monsoons. I hear it is very profitable to be a BMC contractor… Now, we have July 23 and 24 to content with; the highest tides of the year are to occur on these dates and if it rains with any intensity that day, Mumbai is in trouble... again. Just to make things even more interesting will be the total solar eclipse due July 22. This city is quite pragmatic, but very superstitious as well. Should be very interesting.

Talking about superstition, Imam Jaffer Sadiq (A) day fall during these rainy days this year and although I have no problems with people having kheer puri in his blessed name, even though there is no authentic hadeeth to even remotely support the traditions and culture attached to the whole business, the zealous attitudes that comes with it puts me off. You get invited to friends and relatives to partake the kheer puri in this awful traffic. The kheer puri is awfully rich with tons of fat calories but you simply must have it else you offend the host and create the impression you are faithless. Then, watch out, you may be the unlucky one to actually swallow a silver ring or two thrown in the kheer for good luck; I wonder what good luck there is in choking on a ring. I unknowingly move a platter of kheer from its original place to make it easier serving Maaha Zainab at a friends home only to find Tasneem staring at me aghast. Put it back this instant, she hisses, it is bad luck to move any of the dishes from original place once served. Eh? When I thought I had all the kheer to last me a lifetime, Tasneem makes some today and insist we all partake some "fateha". When I complain that we had enough from all the friends and relatives, none of that was from our home, we must make some ourselves is her logic.

Its pouring as I finish writing this piece; I have a flight to catch this afternoon; can modern airplanes float?

Saturday, June 20, 2009

Damascus, Dubai, Dar Es Salaam, Zanzibar, Arusha, Tanga

Maaha Zainab, Tasneem and I have the good fortune to visit our Lady of Light, Seyyeda Zainab (A) in Damascus before we embark on a nostalgic, fast trek, at times fleeting visit to Tanzania, my country of birth. Syria is the same dreary old country I remember from the nineties when I used to fly in for business very frequently. Nothing seems to have changed in the decade I am absent; the same grime and dirt everywhere, the careless attitude of her people and the non ceasing smoking even in the most confined places.

The hotel we put up at is adequately comfortable and very close to the haram. The haram is as beautiful as before, comforting and crowded and sad with tribulation of my Lady (A) seemingly echoing throughout the its marble walls. I spend some time in there and talk to my Bibi (A), pouring my heart out to her and asking for her intervention with Allah (S) and beseeching her blessings. Damascus market is crowded as usual, what with zawaars from across the world flocking the narrow lanes for cheap merchandise and food. We get tired of shawarma and falafil quickly but there are not many choices. The haram of baby Sakeena (A) is spanking new and beautiful; it used to be underground in my days. My heart wants to explode thinking of her crying for her father and literal suffocating to death in that dungeon. I run in the mornings, just outside the haram area; people stop to stare and some loonies drive close to me and hoot; I wonder what they would do if it happened to be a women jogger. We complete the other ziyaarat and are ready to begin our vacation; we are off to Dubai for the first leg. Our mood is soured by problems at Damascus and Dubai airports, Damascus due to confusion over our visas and in Dubai where my name matches a person banned by UAE; what unflattering popularity…

Dubai is hot, super hot; Maaha Zainab does not want to venture out and prefers staying at home to play with Haadi at Sabira's house. She does go to a water park with Fatema and Ameerali on Friday and we are left alone to visit relatives; Papa (Chacha) does not recognize me, Chachi looks frail. We go to the Satwa Imambargha on Thursday night; Tasneem's first visit since 2000. Otherwise Maaha Zainab and Tasneem pig out on halaal Kentucky Fried Chicken and Burger King while I visit my contacts. We go for dinner at Gulaam Suku Suku's place and Maaha Zainab is in heaven when we are served Nihaari, her favorite meat item. I wonder if there is another eight year old in this world that loves meat so much; a pukka Khoja, this daughter of mine!

Dar es Salaam is a pleasure; not oppressively hot, relatively clean and full of memories for me but new and novel for both Maaha Zainab and Tasneem. Murtazabhai Bhimani is at the airport; anxious as we are late coming out due to the delay in getting visas. We proceed to town and are fed by Fatema and her in laws; aaaah, East African food, I am in hog haven! Eating is the most we do for the next ten days we are in Tanzania; mishkaki, nundu, natasha chicken and prawns, shilingi shilingi, matoke, K T Shop kebabs, nylon bajias, chana bateta mix, mihogo (sekeelo and chips and chips dipped in fiery red sauce), madafu, kuku kuku paka, fish paka, papaya, ndimu tamu, oranges, meethi amli, Naaz hotel curry puff, kebabs and meat pies...we eat and eat and eat some more. And we drink; madaafu, kungu juice, passion fruit juice, ramfur juice, lemon juice, orange juice...good thing I have taken my running shoes along and go running almost all days I am on the road this trip.

Its amazing how well Tanzania has come along after the shackles of ujamaa and socialism were cast aside. Just to show you that if you free a human being of silly and useless restrictions, progress, innovation and wealth follows naturally. Walking along Dar streets, I remember the dark days of having to wait in line every day for two liters of milk, or butter, or bread or what have you. The streets are now clean, relatively well maintained, relatively safe, the clocks work, and buildings are actually painted. I can’t say I care for the orange, yellow and even green colors used by National Housing, but they are painted at least! You should come to Mumbai, India where I currently live and see the status of older homes...

We fly to Zanzibar at an ungodly hour of five in the morning and Maaha Zainab is instantly disappointed the aircraft takes off and instantly lands - fourteen minutes from takeoff to landing (yes, I actually timed it). Sleepy taxi owners outside the airport rip us off and charge me USD9 for a 10 minute ride to our hotel, which is okay - okay. Zanzibar is the same sleepy old town I remember from eons ago except there are now a fair number of tourists wandering about. We hire a car and go around town and then to the sorry site where slaves from the mainland were shackled and forced off to far off lands. I feel pretty bad touring these places but my mood brightens considerably when we have miskaki at Forodhani that night. The place is packed with tourists of all races, lost among the many delicacies of Zanzibar. Maaha Zainab and Tasneem are not overly impressed with Zanzibar and relieved to be back in Dar for the flight to Arusha. I must say Precision Air is impressive; their flight schedule is pretty much on time and the aircrafts modern and clean.

Arusha is a delight, as usual, and naturally much cooler, which does wonders to my running time. We spend time with Gulamhussein & family and the Yusufalis of Arusha, Maaha Zainab spending almost all her time with Timmy, a fair fluffed puppy at the Yusufali home backyard. Arusha, alas, has lost the status of a modern town with a population of over 300,000 without traffic lights as a set of these did come up around Njeero Hills recently. The brand new sports club along the way to Laki Laki (where Marhoom Husseinalibhai was the coffee farm manager) is exceptional, especially the lush green cricket turf. Mchawi Wa Radio, Marhoom Bha's business is still around with a different name. Alas, none of the radio workers or bycycle repairman remain. Ah, my teenage days in Arusha...

I always proudly relate to Maaha Zainab about my school life growing up in Tanga, about the wonderful times I had, young and carefree, roaming around barefoot all over town, climbing trees, playing cricket, swimming, fishing, catching tadpoles or just plain getting into all sorts of mischief. So Tanga is a must for us and we hire a vehicle with a driver to take us there. It takes us six hours but the drive is pleasant, roads well maintained and weather fair. The gift lunchbox from Naaz Hotel comes in handy along the way and we picnic in the middle of nowhere along the highway.

I can tell Maaha Zainab and Tasneem are disappointed with Tanga but I am overwhelmed with nostalgia. St. Anthony's, the elementary school and Popatlal Secondary, schools I attended were among the first ones I visit; Mr. Chaudry the strict disciplinarian but very successful and much admired principal of Popatlal is still around, looking the same. Our new mosque, the depilated kabrastaan in Ngamiyaani, Raskazone Swimming Club, Raskazone walkway, Tanga Library, Blue Room...all places with fond memories. But Tanga is on the decay; the once booming town with so much promise is rotting within and losing people. The five homes we lived in are all grimy and sad, other homes in and around town have crumbled, vehicles are few and far and there is resignation in the faces of people that Tanga is dying...

We return to Dar es Salaam by bus as the only airline (Coastal Air) plying the Tanga-Pemba-Zanzibar-Dar-Tanga sector on 5 seat Cessna aircrafts charge USD250 per person and takes the same amount of time to reach Dar as a "luxury" bus; luxury being a relative term. After eating and drinking some more in Dar, we depart for home in Mumbai via Dubai; Maaha Zainab has school, Tasneem wants to begin Yoga classes and I , why, I have to travel some more...naturally!

You can view photos of this trip here:

Saturday, May 16, 2009

A drivers licence please...

I bought a new vehicle in Mumbai, which is an event to celebrate in itself.  Not that I have a desire to drive on Mumbai roads; no Sir, not me, there are better ways to end your life.  I am still awaiting a suitable driver to show up however, so my reliance is on the good old rickshaw.    I can drive stick shift, which my car is, I can drive on the left hand side of the road, where Indians drive (well, most of them), what I can't handle is the mentality of the drivers.  

Consider the following:

1.  Lane dividers are ignored so a three lane road on peak hours will accommodate five and maybe two motorbikes, a bicycle or two and people of course.  Many, many people.

2.  Cars do not indicate turns here, none.  You are supposed the "read" the intent of others and navigate accordingly.  People tell me this comes with "experience".  OK?

3.  Going down a straight, main road does not grant you the right of way; if others from secondary roads have reached before you, they can nudge in and the stream does not stop.  I am always confused as to who has the right of way.

4.  It would be common sense to yield the right of way to the vehicle already in the roundabout right?  Wrong in India!  You have to yield mid way.  I am still unsure why or how or to whom.

5.  What happens if the traffic lights don’t work?  Or you think they don’t work?  I am baffled when drivers wait at red lights that don’t work, or so I think.  But they do work, only I can’t tell the red light because it is so dirty from the dirt, the red does not show!  That knowledge, I am admonished, comes with experience, OK?

What takes the cake in this mass madness is the honking. You must honk, you simply must!  It is a passion with the drivers here, just like spitting. People (and animals) walk on streets so you either honk or hit them.

For you that live outside of India, purchasing a vehicle might be a simple enough task; not so here in Mumbai.  I will not go through the experience with you here; it was painful. What is more painful, however, is getting a drivers license.  I want one so that I can drive short distances in and around the suburb of Andheri, where I think I'll be all right and not be a nervous wreck.  

I ask a friend and tell him I want to get a drivers license. No problem, he says, it will cost you INR5,000 (USD100) greasing money.  I am appalled. Bribe? I ask, a bribe? Yes, yes, says he, yes, surprise apparent on his face.  No, say I, I shall not bribe.  I want one the legal way.  My friend giggles, then he giggles again and then he laughs so heartily, tears stream down his cheeks.  He finally stops when he sees my baffled face, but even then, relapses into spasm of laughter fits now and then. Listen friend, he says, stop being an American in India.  Follow the system and pay the expediting fee else you will not get anything officially until pigs fly.

My wife Tasneem suggests a distance cousin who is supposed to be an "expert" with these matters.  Raju, the "expert agent" comes home and quotes INR3,500 (USD70) for the process, "in and out in 10 minutes", he says, snapping his fingers.  That means an hour in India, minimum; I have the experience, OK?  He makes me give him a copy of every legal document I have and promises to take me to the RTO (Regional Traffic Office) the next morning.  At 11AM, he says, the RTO starts operations at 11AM. 11AM?  What agency starts at 11AM?  They start at 7 in the US, I have heard 9AM in Dubai but 11AM?  Yes, says the agent, they begin at 11AM and close at 2PM, OK?

We are early at the RTO, 10:50AM, so we wait under a Banyan tree where the temperature must be about 35C (95F) in the shade and I begin to perspire.  There is no hint of any wind and the humidity levels get my body working overtime in about five minutes, rivulets  of sweat begin trekking down all parts of my body.  The place where my application will be processed is a tin shed devoid of any furniture.  A lone bored  policeman attempts to fan himself with a tattered newspaper but gives up the attempt soon.  There are people milling around and pretty soon the line is about a hundred people long and growing. As is the case elsewhere in India, the long line disintegrates when latecomers try to elbow in mid-line.  Seeing this, the policeman dumps his boredom and comes out shouting, scuffs a couple of youngsters in the years and the line stabilizes somewhat.

It is now past 11AM and my T-shirt is all a patchwork of sweat, as if an abstract pattern; I am very hot and bothered. Suddenly, there is a scuffle in the line up front and then a fistfight, the line disintegrates and people surge forward to enjoy the fight which is short-lived, as a batch of policeman come running, baton swinging; I quickly take cover under another Banyan tree, a fair distance away.  Raju has disappeared, gone to join the entertainment, I suppose.  Once there is discipline, the police force a new line, away from the shed, away from the shade and right into the blazing sun; the women protest the loudest, the police ignore them.  Raju returns, a sheepish grin on his face.  I gesture at my watch and remind him of his 10 minutes promise; he shrugs his shoulders and says, "this is Mumbai', as if that solves all my problems.

Finally, at about 11:45, a man comes in carrying the blades of a fan and fixes it of the naked housing; the blades begin moving and the crowds stir in hot anticipation.  Chairs are brought in and an officer arrives, sits on a chair and is immediately surrounded by a yelling and jostling crowd.  I look at Raju for any clue when my application will make it through the crowd.  He looks nervous, biting his lips. Suddenly, he grabs my arm and we almost run towards a row of warehouse type buildings with unmanned barred windows where people either mill around aimlessly or sit on concrete benches and stare ahead blankly.  We enter a long, dark room and the temperature here drops slightly but the place stinks of urine and unwashed sweat.  There are desks strewn around but few chairs that are occupied by people either reading newspapers or talking. Raju disappears again.

I wait and look around.  No wonder it is dark, half of the bulbs on lights hanging down from the naked ceiling are empty, the other half are not working.  Same with the fans; half of them are idle, the others whirl around so pathetically, I wonder if they are doing me a favor rotating at all while others wobble alarmingly; I make sure I am not under any of them. Raju returns with a sad look.  "Sir says no, Sirji, you are not Indian, no? So he says no.  I can still do it but it will cost you more, now another USD50" Who is Sir, I ask.  "Sir, you know?  The manager."  In India, anybody in any position becomes a "Sir".  So, a manager is a "Sir", a teacher is a "Sir", anybody’s boss is a "Sir", so you have countless "Sirs" to reckon with.  

I lose my temper for the first time; me a very impatient person - India seems to have tamed me.  I grab the file from a startled Raju's hands and march off towards "Sir's" office and barge through the doors, ignoring a line formed outside. I gasp.  The inside is super cool, cold almost and I shiver involuntarily.  "Sir" has an air-conditioned office! And a nice desk and visitor’s sofa and carpets and a rug and everything is nice and clean and dusted.  "Sir" is just finishing up with somebody and then turns his eyes on me.  He has a handsome face, immaculately trimmed full, dark mustache, crisp shirt with several stars denoting his senior position and a presence of authority around him. I tell him my problem and he listens carefully and asks me a single question; he speaks impeccable English!  He is apparently happy with the answer as he scrawls an authoritative signature.  Approved.

I get another shock as I exit "Sir's" office as the heat and humidity hits me.  Raju waits for me with a sullen look on his face; I have taken away his thunder.  I hand him the approved documents and he brightens up.  "Ok, Sirji, I will have your license by tomorrow 4PM", he says, snapping his fingers.

Yeah, right.  And pigs will fly.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

The blahs and blahs of Mumbai...

Okay, I know it has been a while since I wrote. What with constant traveling and CAI issues keeping me kicking and alive, I really have had very little time to do much writing. A bad habit for aspiring writers like myself, I know, but whattodo yaar? This is an expression I have picked up from my daughter Maaha Zainab, now that she is an expert in Hinglish.

It is appalling the way her American English has gone down the drain; one day she spoke excellent English (albeit American) and now it is all Hinglish, with new acquired expressions and the bobbing of her head added in for good measure. It infuriated me in the beginning, but I am resigned to the fact that children will pick up whatever they are exposed to and that Indians generally will try to speak English exactly the way they speak Hindi. Its okay, no?

Life in India, rural India, the real India, is awfully poor but generally clean, wholesome, tame and tranquil; a delight actually. You can hop on a train and ride to nowhere and everywhere and experience life; the effect will mature and mellow you in no time. Urban India, however, like Mumbai or New Delhi or Channai can be a challenge and an overwhelming attack on your senses. Dirt poor and filthy rich, cattle carts and Mercides Benz, miserable hovels and grand mansions, miserable curs, driven almost crazy with hunger and lice and weekly saloon groomed, obese dogs, rag packers and Vimal designed suits garb wallahs all vie for space in this teeming metropolis called Mumbai.

It is the start of summer here and gets uncomfortably hot and humid by 8AM. Although this has its many side effects, like only 2% of India's population use deodorants or anti prespirants, the benefits of summer fruits are many. Like:

- I got really excited when I got to eat the fruit of the cashew nut; you know, the ones we ate with relish when we were in Africa. Ukwaju is what we used to call it in Kiswahili, me thinks. My God, I thought I was going to die without eating it once more!
- Jack fruit; plump, delicious and aromatic. Many say this fruit is a cousin of the stinky durian, I am not convinced.
- Mangoes, mangoes and more mangoes, everywhere. The Hafoos is the most sought after and sell for about USD1.50 each! This is US Dollars, not Indian Rupees I am talking about. It is safe to assume that only the top 2% - 3% of urban Indian eat this delight. The poor villagers where these grow simply pluck a ripe one and enjoy.
- There are other exotic fruits that I remember from Africa and do not know the English names: zambarau, khungu, mabibu are some from Kiswahili that I remember.

There are lighter moments in daily life here that can be tragic but intensely humorous; for example:

- I saw a guy squirt a mouthful of pan or gudka juice just below a sign that read: Stop TB, do NOT spit.
- A huge sign that took up an entire outer corner wall reads: XXX Tutorials, we teach you to speak flaunt Flench and English.
- I saw at least 20 people taking a crap together in an empty field one early morning on my way to Govendhi. It was an incredible sight, this assembly call of nature. I wanted to take a photo that I am sure would have won me the photo of the year award or a Kodak moment at least. Sarfaraz, the driver, could not find a place to park and it would have taken us an hour to turn around, more than enough time for the session to end. Perhaps a second group would then take over and squat, I suggested hopefully; Sarfaraz laughed me off. I wonder what kind of nut he thinks I am...

And thus life goes on in Mumbai as I inch towards my destined place six feet underground, hopefully here within the tranquil Khoja Araambagh of Mumbai. You never can tell however, with the Talibaan bent on killing all of us, especially in Afghanistan where I am headed next week. It would be a lonely death, I think, in Afghanistan.

Well, anyway, my blogs are going to take a back seat for a while; CAI is a priority, obviously and then I am hard at working on my second novel, whenever I get that precious free period. So talk at you when I will next time.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Mullah Happy's Fury - Final

Why in Allah’s name is there a need to demean others? Why rile and enrage their leaders and imams, no matter how much we believe they were wrong in the past? Do we not have enough problems of our own? Mullah Happy pauses and lets out a massive burp, smiles ruefully, excuses himself, looks around the now almost empty room and leans forward. Are we united? Tell me, tell me, he almost whispers and I have to strain real hard to listen, let me know of 2 mullah or ayaat’Allahs that agree with each other and I’ll kiss your behind!

Eh? Is this the same genial and carefree Mullah Happy that I knew until today? He looks more and more like a man possessed, accusing his own and betting to kiss unholy human anatomy. He eyes me with look of defiance, a sneer on his face. He has touched on a subject that is very, very dicey, best kept to oneself, not open for discussion.

But Aagha, I start politically; surely the differences between various religious men are trivial, expressed as a sign of healthy democracy within our religion? Surely there is no harm if the differences do not fringe upon Usool e Deen?

Bah! Goes Mullah Happy, bah! You are na├»ve Sir, democracy and all. This is no Amreeka! This is India, Hindustan! Here one Mullah will sell another for much less than the cost of one carton of export quality Alphons mangoes. Have you not seen us put each other down at every opportunity? If one says the sun is very hot, another will object, trying to prove it is not very hot, only hot. We are almost all full of misplaced egos and run after what makes this world turn – money! You know how much we mullahs abuse the masses? He waits not for an answer. You, he says sternly and wags a finger at me, I cringe, you Khojas are so gullible. You think anyone wearing a black or white turban is made of eggs and needs to be treated as such. Or, or, you think we are so good and proper we do not shit!

Mamamia! I am lost for words and need time to digest this strange episode so I signal a lingering waiter for more tea. Mullah Happy takes a breather as well, and goes to the bathroom; not all very prim and proper, I guess.

The tea and Mullah Happy arrive simultaneously; we pour the tea and I sip contently. Brewed tea in a Mumbai restaurant has its own qualities; sweet and instantly refreshing. I eye Mullah Happy as he adds more sugar to his tea ruefully. I wish I had the same metabolism as his; the man eats twice as much as I can or do, unlimited amounts of his favorite Indian burfee and does not exercise a bit yet maintains a perfect figure and disposition. Now that is what I judge unfair; I have to watch every calorie I take in and only just maintain a reasonable waistline due to massive amount of running. I look at my watch and it is almost 4PM; my drive back home to Andheri, a mere 14 miles away will take at least 90 minutes. Interesting and intriguing as this meeting has been, I must start for home shortly.

Aagha, I say soothingly, this has been really interesting chat of ours. Why, I never knew you harbored such feeling and thoughts. But please do not let the opinions of one person upset you so much. Mullah Pain is irrelevant; ignore him. Mullah Happy looks at me despairingly. But you don’t understand, Sarkaar, you don’t! Mullah Pain may be irrelevant to you but he shapes and influences hundreds others! He misleads them; he uses the mimber for his own selfish ends. I want to say something but Mullah Happy holds up a hand. He pokes a finger out.

One. He uses rotten language against Muslim majority and degrades their holy men.
Two. He riles his followers with exaggerated claims about events in Kerbala that have no relevance either in history or logic.
Three. He puts down and condemns anybody that dares to challenge him; he was instrumental in having a pious and highly intellectual lady arrested and deported from India.
Four. He tolerates and encourages bizarre rituals about events in Kerbala. Have you been to Dogri during 10 days of Murarram?
I shake my head, no. You should come and witness the circus here; it will blow your mind! 90% of rituals have nothing to do with Islam or the message of Imam Hussein (A). We decorate horses and pigeons and Allah knows what not. Then we touch them and kiss them and circulate little babies around them and even pray to them. No wonder some call us idol worshippers, I don’t blame them.
Five. He and his lot are responsible for leading our people astray, I hold them responsible.

Mullah Happy takes in a huge gulp of air and stops. He says he could continue for hours but my time is up, I have to leave. I pay for lunch, thank him for his time and company and we part ways outside the restaurant. I am too exhausted mentally to think about anything on the ride home. After few unsuccessful attempts at conversation by Sarfaraaz, the driver, I am left alone and I take a much needed nap.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Mullah Happy's fury - Part 1

I meet Mullah Happy regularly and he is, at most times, a pretty decent fellow, soft-spoken, mild in temperament and outlook. We usually meet every Friday after Juma prayers and today is no exception. The khutba is excellent as usual; he has prepared well, knows his material and dwells on how a Muslim needs to live an upright life amongst non-Muslims here in India and the West in general. An apt subject, one close to my heart and I pay full attention this Friday after Eid e Zahra. And so I comment on it after prayers while we wait to be served our lunch at Delhi Durbaar Restaurant, just a stone's throw away from the Khoja mosque at Palaghalli in Dongri, Mumbai.

Humble and modest person that he is, Mullah Happy looks acutely uncomfortable with my praise for he suddenly demands Did you hear Mullah Pain's lecture yesterday? I have never known Mullah Happy demanding or raising his voice ever before, so it takes me a while to shake off the shock I feel. Mullah Pain is a popular aalim in Mumbai (and elsewhere in India), always seen around during Muharram. Loud, vocal and reckless, he lambastes fellow Muslims who do not share his views at all his lectures, obviously relishing the " waah, waah, waah” reaction from (mostly uninformed and poor) masses. He is controversial old man, been in a soup a number of times, but remains very popular nevertheless.

Well, Mullah Happy, I say, you know I do not listen to him, you know what I think of him. Now what did he say that has you in a knot? Mullah Happy looks at me perplexed and purses his lips. What he said, what he said... he splutters, showering me with drizzle of spit that flies out of his trembling mouth, he used foul language against the gang of three. Again! I smile; Mullah Pain always has something bad to say about the gang of three, this is nothing new. My smile is seen as an affront, for Mullah Happy then does something else he has never done. He slams a bunched fist on the table, making me, the china and condiments all jump; a pickled onion gets a mind of its own and slowly but surely topples over and rolls along the table and comes resting near me, as if for safety. Do not take this lightly Sir,admonishes Mullah Happy, for his type of people are going to destroy us and destroy the chances of Muslims having any self respect in this country!

I am truly amazed at the transformation of this, well, until a little while ago, a pretty docile man. Well, I ask, what do you think needs to be done to control him? Our talk is interrupted by our waiter as he places a whole tandoori chicken, daal fry, mutton botis and butter naans in front of us. Now let me tell you this: Mumbai has a lot of good restaurants, but Delhi Durbaar in Pala Ghalli is unbeatable in taste and price. So for the next fifteen minutes, Mullah Pain is put on a back burner as we attack the spread in front of us in relative silence and enjoy, grunting in pleasure as the taste buds spring to life and sniff, sniff as hot spicy masalaas kick in delicious torment. It is only after the meal and hot chai that I appraise my agitated friend and wait for him to complete his tirade. He lets out a small, surpressed burp and goes on the offensive.

How low can we sink? You know that Muslims in India are a minority and we are a minority of this minority. After all that India has been through last year and more so after November 26, all of us, especially us mullahs need to be extra careful about what we say. And act. We need to be more accommodating and open to the government here, more helpful. After all, thirty plus percent of people slaughtered on November 26 were Muslims. But no! We remain combative and daring, not against ones who we consider non-believers but against our own Muslims.

Mullah Happy is definitely not a happy man today; he is seething with anger and in no mood to take my side remarks or jokes that he (at most times) finds entertaining. I refrain from commenting today and sit back to listen to another majlis.

To be continued…

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Callous Customs - Australia

I am on my way to visit Australia, invited to preset Comfort Aid International projects to various communities in Sydney and Melbourne. It is a long flight this, 14 hours and I am bushed by the time I land at Sydney airport. This is my second trip to Sydney in 18 years, the earlier one very brief of 2 nights and 3 days to attend a conference where I cannot remember doing anything useful. I did attend lots of luncheons and dinners and remember going around Sydney harbor and Opera House. I also remember staying at a super expensive hotel that was very good but not worth the money, but I was not paying the bill, my employer was so I can't say it bothered me a lot. But I do remember feeling a little uneasy because the final bill was hefty indeed.

I clear immigration pretty quickly; the officer hardly seem awake with a bored expression on his face that perks up when he sees several Afghanistan visas stamps on my American passport. And what is your business in Afghanistan? He asks. None of yours, I feel the urge to respond but tell him I am building schools and orphanages. Welcome to Australia says he with a laud thump on my passport and I am through.

There is quite a long line for Customs however; I remember the dire warnings of consequences on the Customs Declaration Card for bringing raw fruits and or vegetables if caught. The women Customs officer who I hand my form to immediately tenses and gives me a hard, sharp look as soon as she looks at it. Come, come she croons in a throaty voice, come, follow me and leads the way towards the back. A discreet sign informs me I am entering a security restricted zone and talking on the cell phone or taking photos are acts punishable by various jail terms; I get the first inkling of dread.

We settle around an inspection table and she asks me to open my suitcase and laptop bag. What brings you to Australia? She asks with an obvious fake smile. Her badge says she's Cathy and she isn’t pretty; pudgy with straining pant buttons and an ill fitting, tight Customs uniform. Her hair is unkempt and her breath emits noxious odor of stale cigarettes. Holiday, as I have stated in my Customs and Immigration card, I say. Yeah mate, I can read, she retorts. So why ask? I want to say but my keep my cheekiness in check and hold a straight face.

Now let me pause here and admit that I am an impatient person by nature; this has worked for and against me in life. What I cannot stand, however, is racism and stupid questioning by racist people in power who want to harass me. This piece of turd was a raciest out and out, she thought she had a possible "Muzlim terrorist" she could scalp and receive a promotion perhaps, who knows.

Anyway, I really lose my cool after about ten minutes of constant and nonsensical line of repeated questions. Why do you want to visit Sydney? She asks for the tenth time and I throw up my hands in disgust. Ma'am, I have already answered that question several times. I am here to visit Australia, as a tourist, the whole of Australia, including Sydney and Melbourne. Well, she shrugs, answer again, grinning, obviously enjoying my frustration. I do as she asks. Then she starts going through my belongings, piece by piece. Another lady, no name tag, excitedly joins Cathy as they sense a "prize" after they discover five SIM cards, one each for Afghanistan, India, UAE, USA and Reunion in my possession. They take my laptop, cell phone and SIM cards away; time passes and I get worried a little. I remember the case of the framed doctor who got trapped and falsely accused, imprisoned and tried by the Australians under Howard's tenure, only to be acquitted later. I worry some more. Emirates Airlines driver who is to drive me to the hotel must think I did not make it and must be preparing to leave...

The duo return, aided by a man in a suit and tie, obviously a senior, who parks half a butt on the examining table and stares at me. The repeated line of questioning continues. I ask for a supervisor; I am told the seated man is a supervisor, a Peter something. Cathy continues questioning: Why Melbourne? Who will you see in Melbourne? Who else do you know in Australia? How do you know them? When did you know first? What are their names? Contact numbers? Address? What do you do? Why do you travel so much? Eh? What kind of a question is this, I wonder; very similar to one I was asked while passing through London to the US a few years ago. I smile. Is it a crime to travel the way I do in Australia? Silence. Tell me again what you do in Afghanistan, demands Cathy. I tell her; again, I help build schools, orphanages and hospitals. Yeah? Where do you get the money to do all this? I shine. From good people all over the world, maybe like you? Would you care to donate to one of my projects? If looks could kill, I would be set in Rigor Mortis long ago. Her chubby cheeks redden dark as she turns and walks off towards where the other two had disappeared some time ago.

She returns after about ten minutes and mercifully, stays mum, going through the rest of my suitcase, occasionally glancing at me sullenly; I sense resignation, defeat in her. I relax. These nuts have nothing on me and I have done nothing wrong; it was going to be all right. I want to pee badly and I ask if I could use a bathroom. Two male officers must accompany you to the bathroom, you cannot lock the door. You still want to use one? I decline and she breaks her sullen face into bitchy smile. After about another thirty minutes, the other women returns with my laptop and phone.

We are all done, she declares, you can pack up and leave. I do that and am about to wheel the cart out when she quips: Have fun in Australia. I stop, turn and look at them and feel sorry for their racist mindset. I restrain a very strong urge to say something very sarcastic and insulting but I bite my tongue and leave, only to find that my ride has indeed taken off.