Monday, January 24, 2011

Adnaan Saami...I presume?

Emirates Airline 202 bound from New York JFK is bang on time today, a few minutes early even; no routine, vague excuse of a tardy inbound flight to contend with. These airlines must think we travelers are pretty dumb and gullible; as if we care ant’s ass if their inbound flight was late. Anyway, we board the flight and I try make myself comfortable settling down for the long 12 hour torture to Dubai; as comfortable as economy class will allow me, that is.

I am nicely satiated after a wonderful dinner of barbecued salmon at the Emirates Lounge and at peace with myself and the world. I plan to sleep if possible; adequately tired and pleasantly achy from my 6 mile run in crisp 36˚F Orlando, FL weather, calm winds and the road almost to myself this Sunday morning.

I am busy reading a novel, waiting for others to board and take off when a shadow falls over my book and I look up to see Adnaan Saami’s scowling chubby face, glaring down at me. Startled, I do a double take, as do others, seated and standing around me, congesting the area near my seat. The last photos I have seen of this lift karaade singer was a few months ago, in tabloid pages of Mumbai Mirror, all slim and trim, in bitter marital acrimony with his (ex) wife, Sabah, having lost considerable fat. Wow, seems the guy can’t keep his taste buds under control for too long. He is as huge as before, with a massive gut preceding his body.

You are sitting in my seat, he grumbles.

Affronted, I glare back. I am not! I say. I am very territorial; I know my seat numbers all right.

He fumbles around his ill fitting coat, breathing hard, presumably looking for his boarding pass, pulls out the stub and sticks it right under my nose. There, see? My seat!

Ordinarily, in dealing with rude and unreasonable people, I can stand my own and can take good care of myself. But this guy is a giant and even a soft punch on my pretty face could do a lot of damage. So I glance at the boarding pass and smugly say, Not your seat! This seat is 67C, which is mine, yours is 67B, next to mine. Look at your boarding pass. He peers at the stub and a sheepish look crosses his face. Shit, he wails, shit. That bitch of a woman. I asked her 3 times for an aisle seat. Shit! I was hoping he would apologize to me for his rudeness first…

This outburst has everybody around us even more fascinated; something to write home about, Adnaan Saami having a fit. He extricates his massive gut from his coat, throws it and a carryon into the storage bin above and proceeds to park an even heftier butt into the seat next to mine; I (and others) look on, curious and quite alarmed. I am curious as to how the poor seat will accommodate that entire butt and if it miraculously does, alarmed as to how I am going to spend 12 hours sitting next to all that blubber. The seat protests for a second or two then relents, and Adnaan (and others) sigh in relief. I feel like crying; a rim of fat has overflowed and sits comfortably on the armrest, pinning my arm towards one side.

I am now livid, there is no way I am going to sit for 12 hours in this position; I get up and try to draw attention of a cabin crew while others gawk at the whale seated next to me. A giggling striking young teenager squeezes past the line waiting to proceed further inside this Airbus A380 and croons Adnaan, Adnaan! I love your voice, can I have an autograph please? Adnaan scowls at her, I am not Adnaan or a singer, leave me alone. You think I would be flying economy if I was him?

Eh? I do a double take again; the girl is not convinced however, bats her eyelids at him then makes a giggly retreat. He looks like Adnaan Saami all right, at least the one in the lift karaade video I have seen. Does he have a twin? I don’t care, I want out, Saami or a twin; I am not going to be compressed like a card box.

A Pilipino crew finally makes it to me and I take her to a discreet side and begin to tell her about my predicament; she cuts me off in mid sentence. Don’t worry Sir, I already know of the situation and understand, we will not let you sit there. The flight is quite empty and I will sit you where you will have a whole row to yourself. Just wait until cabin doors close and I will re-sit you. I could kiss her; so delirious with relief.

I return to my seat and gingerly park myself in my partly usurped seat; Saami or non-Saami has conked off to sleep and snores away, his head nodding, as if in exited agreement, with every intake of a noisy breath. This gives me (and others) the opportunity to observe him. Some debate if he is indeed Saami, others discuss his voice and (mis)fortune with women and one even tries to take a photo but I and my savior stewardess shoo him away; my face does not come cheap.

Things settle down and I wait to be reseated; even look forward to it as I will be able to stretch out for my sleep. Just as speakers come alive with the announcement that doors have closed and we are bound for Dubai, this guy lets out a snort and a fart so loud and foul, I jump up and scurry for cover towards the rear of the aircraft where safety and comfort that a gold card can afford await me.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Sunday gripes.

I am in a foul mood, perhaps because I am headed to the US tomorrow and will have to spend about 20 plus hours in the air to get from Mumbai to London to New York to Orlando, not counting stopover time. There is another, shorter route through Dubai but incredibly, all cattle class seats to the US from Dubai on Emirates are full for at least a week; business class is available, but I will have to raid and rob the Bank of India branch nearby to make that possible. I usually plan my travels way in advance but this trip is unplanned, abrupt. These bloody Emirates, they have really captured the market with acute logistical finesse and fantastic on-air service. No wonder their Canadian and European rivals find their behinds roasting over live charcoals. My mood is made darker by Kingfisher Airline informing me there are no seats with extra legroom available, so it will be a standard seat. Shucks!

Don’t know about you, but it’s getting harder traveling long distances now that I am a getting grayer and wiser; I adamantly refuse to say older. Huh, if I was getting ‘old’ I could not outrun majority of you men out there twenty years younger. Talking about graying, strange no, I am getting threadbare gray on my scalp, robust gray at the sides of my head, but bloody even healthier gray on my chest, nose and even ears! It seems providence has decided to take hair from top of my scalp and transplant them to these body parts!

Yes, I was talking about the impending trip which may have soured my temperament this fine Sunday morning here in Mumbai. Is it that? It can’t be the weather, as I savor waning days of my stay in this country; January can be a wonderful time of year to be in Mumbai. Calm comfortable days, pleasant cool nights and relief from noise pollution as thousands of air conditioners take a sabbatical in my neighborhood. Of course mangoes and apple custards and jack fruit are all gone now, still, you can’t beat the wonderful pleasant (brief) weather that currently prevail here.

Maybe it’s the price of gas, now raised 11% in 2 months, the damage this will do to the 4 – 5 thousand rupee earner. Maybe it’s the price of onions, skyrocketing to heights she feels she is bloody gold, so indispensable her need in Indian cuisine. Why, one newspaper carried a report about an irate husband getting ready to dismember his 30 old marriage because mama watoto curtailed the quantity of it in her cooking. No, it can’t be the onions. Then it must be the daily, unrelenting headlines of government officials in one corruption scandal after another, for amounts so colossally large, it makes my mind tizzy just counting the zeros. Perhaps Indians need nerves of Tunisians; take charge and bring about a change with corrupt, looting officials. But perhaps I am just sour at the obscene amounts of cash tossed around at the recent IPL auction for current cricket players. God, why didn’t You make me a cricket goddess?

This inflation nightmare is eating into royalty as well, I read in papers. Why, the queen of England (again, why is she a queen in the first place?) has agreed to share her gigantic Buckingham Palace with grandson William so money can be saved. Should not be a problem; I am sure Kate and William will find ample crooks and corners within 818,218 square feet to enjoy a hearty honeymoon and a happy life after.

Oh never mind all my moaning and groaning above, my mood has just changed for the better. I just got a call from Kingfisher Airlines; the representative all exited and out of breath. Kingfisher has upgraded me on the Mumbai to London sector! Business Class? I turn equally exited and breathless, so we communicate each other’s excitement over the phone for a few seconds. I am puzzled however, for I am but a lowly silver member in their frequent flier program; so far. Yes, yes, she says, you have been upgraded to first row in economy with plenty more leg room!

Can I return to my gripping? Perhaps I can write about more inflation woes? No? Well then, can we talk about more upbeat newspaper reports? About this guy’s penis being eaten by a rat in jail? Or a bus driver caught driving with a women sitting on his on lap? Or…

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

5 Days In Iraq – Through My Eyes

Maaha Zainab, Alihussein, Tasneem and I are blessed with a visit to Iraq immediately after this past Aashoora in Dubai. Tasneem and I have been to Iraq earlier, under Goddamn, sorry Saddam Hussein in 1998, sailing from Dubai to Basra and overland to Najaf, Karbala, Bagdad, Samara and Kadhemain. It was a memorial trip, leisure one, even if tainted with fear of Saddam’s goons stalking us most places we went.

The flight from Dubai to Najaf via Bahrain is delayed by over an hour, but we make up by a shorter break in Bahrain. Najaf airport, a modern warehouse really, is deserted when we land; the immigration / customs process is painless. The officers and security men all smoke, in open defiance of signs to the contrary; this is the norm all over Iraq, men (and a couple of women I saw) smoke and smoke – a lot. We are met and assisted by our agent, Ali Shamsi, a smooth talking Iraqi who has plenty of right connections in Iraq; it is obvious from his employee’s subsequent behavior Ali is a man not to be messed around with.

The drive to Karbala is uneventful, the landscape not very much different from Afghanistan, a country I often visit. Private cars are not permitted within 3 miles of the twin shrines of Imam Hussein (A) and his brother Abbas (A) so we change from our vehicle to a taxi and then, the final mile, walking, our luggage on a hand propelled taxi cart. At the final security stop, we run into turbulence. A cagey cop, young and brash, pockets our passports once he sees we are ‘Amriki’. The guide who Ali Shamsi has assigned us protests, the cop is unmoved. Our luggage is thoroughly checked, passerby’s into the shrine vicinity that go through a routine, bored check glance at us curiously, then hurry along. We are made to walk about half a mile to security headquarters for further scrutiny before another young cop, after profuse yakking over his walkie-talkie, apologizes and lets us go. I guess us Americans are not very popular, even in countries we supposedly liberate.

Our hotel, Bab ur Rehma, a stone throw away from Haram of Imam Hussein (A) is small and cramped but modern enough, rather ornate. There are however, no towels and our room is not cleaned the entire 3 days we stay there. ‘Insha’Allah soon’ and in ‘5 – 10 minutes’ is the standard response I get whenever I ask. When I protest firmly, loudly, we are unceremoniously given a few damp, smelly towels, obviously used; I give up.

We visit the twin shrines that evening; a blessing obviously, but also a delight and wonder and amazement at Allah’s compensation to His servants who fell on these holy grounds over 14 centuries ago but now stand high and proud; a beacon for all humanity against all injustice and oppression. The experience, again, is unreal. Much has changed from last time; the shrines have become more comfortable with plenty of lush Iranian carpets to cushion long stays or cold marble floors. The crowds are orderly, perhaps 90% from Iran, until I get closer to the actual place of burials when they become almost unruly, an elbow to my rib and head and Zainab squeezed so hard she bursts into tears. I see Iranians, Turks, Indians, Pakistanis, Nigerians…all lost in awe and pleading with the holy personalities there. Some are so caught up in emotions, they weep and wail openly, some repeatedly kiss the gold and silver, some rub their bodies, jerking around as if suffering from epilepsy against the doors, the floor, the shrine itself, oblivious to the cries of guards to let go, give others a chance…

The municipal authorities in Karbala are super efficient (listen up Mumbai!). With crowds that visit the city, peaking at almost 14 million during Arbaeen, it is a miracle indeed city services survive at all! I am told everybody visiting can be fed free here every day, even at peak periods. Indeed, I see lines and lines of people waiting patiently for a hot meal. These same poor people sleep under the sky at night below heavy, warm blankets made available by the city. The streets next morning are clean and a pleasure to walk through. We have a grand tour of Karbala - Til e Zainabia, the various shrines, sons, friends and companions of Imam Hussein (A), Khaimegah, river Furaat, home of Imam Saddiq (A) and of Imam Mahdi (A).

We leave very early, at 5AM, for Samarra next day. It is super cold, maybe just at freezing as I notice frost on our vehicle. Both the driver and guide smoke inside the car. When I protest, the driver gives me an option – Either I smoke, or fall asleep; so I shut up. After quick Fajr salaat stop at Aun / Mohammed, the gallant sons of Zainab (A), we drive the 120 kilometers to Samarra. There are so many security checks along the way, I lose track after counting 25. Just a quick look inside by a bored policeman who then wave us through. Very heavy, unruly traffic slow us down as we approach the outskirts of Bagdad (déjà vu – Mumbai?). The security is more thorough as we near Samarra, with our passport checked and bomb detectors on overtime. At the shrine of Imams Naqi (A) and Asghari (A), where there are numerous checks and re-checks, our guide urges us to hurry up; he seems nervous. The work on destroyed tombs of the Imams (A) is in full swing, with construction works curtailing a complete, satisfying ziyaarah. A fully armed security guard overhears us discussing the number of security stops along the way and tells me there are 120 between Samarra and Karbala, one after every kilometer. Our return to Karbala via Kadhemein is at 8PM. Exhausted, we eat dinner and crash for our drive to Najaf tomorrow.

Thankfully, the drive to Najaf has only 2 checkpoints, sign of less insurgency. We see the majestic dome of Imam Ali’s (A) shrine; an emotional visit for Zohr prayers follow, then time spent at the courtyard in contemplation and meditation with this great noble and holy personality – a very lucky treat indeed. The hotel is great, even more ornate but with excellent buffet meals; the choice of salads are amazing. Popular as well; there are people staying here I know from elsewhere who I meet. After Fajr prayers at the Haram under numbing cold and breakfast next morning, we tour Masjid Sehla, Masjid Koofa, Masjid Hanana, Masjid Koomail and the shrine of Abudhar. Our last night in Iraq, we say Magreeb at the Haram and then shop for gifts before packing up and readying for our uneventful flight back to Dubai via Bahrain the next day.

Iraq seems on the mend actually. The grinding poverty I saw in 1998 is not evident and people seem well fed, decently clothed and obviously have disposable funds, because they overwhelmingly smoke. Business booms, mainly form zawaar trade and the construction industry is thriving, with hotels and homes coming up all around. I am disappointed not meeting Aagha Seestani; his office informs me they need 5 - 7 days prior appointments now. I am met byAli Shamsi at the airport who gives me my bill which is US$700 more than earlier agreed. Stunned, I argue but it’s no use, he insists it is a misunderstanding; I pay up. Not a big price to pay for the opportunity to be with my Imams (A) but the episode does leave a bitter after-taste in my mouth in otherwise 5 delightful days in Iraq.