Tuesday, March 27, 2012

The Miracle Of Giving - Sirsi, UP...Bad link to photos fixed!

I got an avalanche of protests from several about the link to photographs on this writeup not working. It's now fixed; click here.

Pole saana.

Ali Yusufali
Sanford, FL

Monday, March 26, 2012

The Miracle Of Giving - Sirsi, UP

Sirsi is in Uttar Pradesh, India, some six hours drive east of New Delhi. It is a poor mid-size village, mostly Shia Muslim, mostly farmers. When I was first driven there in the company of Aliakberbhai Ratansi of NF some five years ago, I complained nonstop. It was a hard drive, very bad roads; the place, when we got there, full of mosquitos, hotter than hot, power cuts ruled supreme and the place was generally depressing. In a pretty four-acre compound, there was a run down school, a run down mosque, a medical clinic and grimy staff quarters. This was a project obviously in decline, had seen better days.

The primary concern, for CAI, was the school. Aliakberbhai, known for his ability to turn hopeless education institutions around, had inherited the school when it was at its bottommost point and could not sink lower. Student enrollments were declining dramatically; the school was in debt, teachers’ salaries unpaid, staff moral was pathetic and overall situation in ICU. What inspired CAI to act was level of poverty that prevailed in Sirsi; with intense and proper care, the situation could be turned around. An opportunity for our children’s education was paramount; letting the project die was not an option.

With a lot of hard work, especially from those on the ground at Sirsi, namely Asgharbhai Shah, financing from CAI donors and Aliakberbhai’s administrative acumen, Sirsi Bahman School is the best school in Muraghabad and I am so proud CAI has been an integral part to her revival. Here are few facts about our school:

. Enrollment increased from 400 to 1,210 within 3 years.
. 14 new classrooms constructed, clearing hallways of students.
. Complete renovation of dilapidated school building; from a dim grimy structure to beautiful, all-tiled, bright and airy classrooms.
. 24 brand new computers added to a first ever computer lab.
. Added a physics, chemistry and biology lab.
. Added a library.
. 7 brand new buses added.
. Obtained board certification from UP to prestigious CBSC with affiliation to CBSE Board. Principal Syed Abbhan awarded the best educationalist in Muraghabad, UP.
. 400 plus very poor students study almost free; these would have not attended school otherwise.
. 200 poor students study at subsidized fee rates; these would have not continued without this subsidy.
. The school now has a waiting list of students from affluent families ready to join.
. The school has positive cash flow standing.
. An oasis of opportunity for our children, to pursue a quality education and relief from cycle of poverty, especially for our girls.

These school activities opened up other humanitarian opportunities at Sirsi:

.. A brand new beautiful purpose built boys orphanage.
.. A brand new girls orphanage.
.. Economic empowerment loans for many in milk producing animal husbandry.
.. Economic empowerment loans in transportation industry.
.. A 50 home project for very poor and destitute Sadaat families with preference to widows.

Please click here to view some delightful photos from our community in Sirsi.

This Sirsi project is sure testament of how donor funds can benefit an entire community - a very proud CAI / donor undertaking.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Lies, lies, lies!

I meet Habeeb at Dubai Airport Terminal One Lufthansa lounge; we begin chatting, killing time before flight call. The conversation develops to be extremely intense and dramatic over the course of about seven hours it takes us to get to Frankfurt, Germany. Habeeb (can’t remember his last name, something ending ‘pour’?) was born in Isfahan Iran, to a middle class family of carpet traders. A well-groomed, well-versed man of about fifty, he now calls Frankfurt Germany, his home where he has several retail carpet outlets all over the country; he is transiting in Dubai from Iran headed home. I am headed home to Sanford, FL transiting in Frankfurt.

I always find Iran / Iranians interesting, the revolution of late seventies / early eighties and dramatic world limelight she dominates influences my (and yours, I am certain) opinions and economic wellbeing. So I ask Habeeb about his take on current Iranian affairs and leaders, especially in regards to my (adopted) country, USA; I get a mouthful.

Khomeini, says Habeeb, was a world-class leader, with balls not equaled in modern history. I loved him, he was my hero and I miss him, Iran misses him. It has been downhill for Iran after Khomeini, only a miracle can save it now. Ahmadinejad did have some promise, it was nice to see him make some of you bloody khod-khah (selfish), monaafekh, (hypocrites), haaram zadeh (bastards), Americans squirm, but he has lost his mantle, caught up in struggles from where it is hard to see him come out a winner.

I want to protest the use of cuss words for a country that has, for me, given (gives) generously, where I am generally free to worship the religion I love, where I live in peace and security, where my family and I have a home; but it is almost two in the morning, I have long flights ahead of me, I want no arguments, I let it go. Habeeb however, has other ideas. He switches seats so we can be together and to my horror and dismay, orders wine as soon as we are airborne, laughs at my discomfort.

Aagha Ali Jaan, Habeeb laughs, you are not an old fashioned Muslim, are you? He flutters fingers in the air like a frantic butterfly, makes a dismissive sound only the Iranians can; thucth. I was like that some thirty years ago, like you perhaps. This, he raises his wine glass and twirls its bloody content, is jaam. It relaxes me, gives me company and is never disloyal. Never. You should try some, Aagha Ali Jaan, you will lose the troubled look that marks your face so prominently. If looks could kill, I would be a mass murderer; this look stops Habeeb cold, so he sobers and shuts up quickly, albeit briefly. The silence lasts only until he returns from the bathroom.

The current leaders of my great country (Iran, he means, not Germany) are a bunch of bloody ahmaks, nincompoops; all of them, all they yearn is power. Usurped power, at any cost, to hell with the consequences. But my people, aaaaah, my beautiful, gullible people, they are the real Aryans, the king of lions. They can take on any power in the world, including yours, the great lying, arrogant, servant of Israel’s poop, the U.S.A. Alarmed, I eye him nervously; has the wine taken hold of his emotions already? That was pretty nasty, what he just said. I keep quiet and close my eyes, hoping he would take cue and let me be.

Do you like it in the US? I mean you are not an American American, your roots are not from USA, right? Don’t you feel you are living in a monaafekh country as a Muslim, obviously a practicing one? I sigh, open my eyes and keep my face averted from Habeeb, only because the stench from his wine tainted mouth is offensive. Since he asked and been rude with his opinions, it is my turn to give him an earful.

Well, I begin; I do like it in the USA, very much. It is a country that welcomed me with open arms, made it possible to complete a quality education and appreciated my services afterwards with ample rewards, way beyond what I expected. Even deserved, sometimes. She does not look to see my skin color or national origin and more importantly, for me, the free practice my chosen religion. Yes, there are positions, especially on Middle East that conflict with my own, serious ones, but these I am unable to influence as an individual, so I use the ballot box to try and alter them. Not the most effective way perhaps, but it is the one I can lawfully exercise. No, I do not feel I am a hypocrite, not at all, just as I do not believe you, born in Iran now living in Germany hypocritical. I doubt Iran would have been as welcoming when I needed these opportunities.

Habeeb makes a face; thucth, that dismissive sound again. Please do not be angry, Aagha Ali Jaan, I am just so very frustrated with the whole Iranian situation at the moment, you know, with war looming; very bad for business. Brilliantly orchestrated lies that Western countries, led by the USA, is dancing to, intoxicated on power plays manipulated by the Zionists. Lies, lies lies, all lies, aired by Badmaash Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) and others! And the tragedy is, these lies get readily consumed the public in the West. You know what I talk about, don’t you? If you eat good, wholesome foods, you supposedly get healthy reasoning faculty. How can you guys, sorry…sorry, how can the American public not see through such falsehoods? You Americans do eat wholesome food, don’t you?

Hmmm, what to answer? Well, I am not a politician…

Aw, come on, Ali (Aagha / Jaan dropped?), that is a copout response, you know very well what I am talking about. You Americans elect the strangest leaders. That idiot Bush, the younger one, brains stunted by all the pork rinds in his genes. He appoints a supposedly very intelligent black woman who uses her brains to lie. Her lies during Iraq war…have you seen anyone so ugly? A face with teeth the size of piano keys walking around with a smile matching that of a prized horse from Aga Khan’s finest collection… Now, you have crappy Clinton, whose husband was a believable liar at least, open her mouth and a stench permeates with rotten lies she shamelessly speaks. A first class hypocrite as well, what gall! Condemning China and Russia for vetoing UN resolution on Syria! What jerks! America has vetoed over 200 UN resolutions that condemn Zionist Israel, from cold murder to usurp of land! And you say the US are not liars and hypocrites? I thought you are an intelligent man, Ali.

Ears ringing with insults, I find my blood pressure rising and want to lash out, retort. But I pause, reflect. Apart from silly personal insults he used, there is merit perhaps to Habeeb’s rant; I cannot honestly defend his accusations of hypocrisy.

My friend, I say as calmly as the irritating din from food being served will allow (why would anybody care to eat a steak at two in the morning anyway?), at a micro level, these issues do not affect my living in the US, as a Muslim. As I said, there are issues regarding my government’s foreign policies I may disagree to, but there is very little I can do except work with my Senators, Representatives and educate them about my feelings. I might not get immediate results, not even in my lifetime perhaps, but this is the only lawful way I can express my opinions.

Perhaps, says Habeeb as he attacks a slab of meat and replenishing his wine glass, perhaps. The sharks from your country and the UK, another Zionist ass-kissing country are closing in on Iran, ready to shed innocent blood. It won’t be so easy, mark my words, Ali. We’ll take a hit all right, but we have balls of steel, hardened by all your sanctions, and you guys are soft, very soft and comfortable. And very exposed.

I roll my eyes up to heavens, fully recline my seat, blanket up and leave my neighbor to his steak, wine and anger.

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Saira's Story

This saga is of nineteen-year-old Saira Ashrafi who CAI donors sponsored towards software programming courses sometime in 2010. Daughter of a clerk earning less than US$200 per month, Saira contacted CAI for help continuing her education. When she did not submit 2nd year progress and exam reports, I wanted to know why. She remained elusive however and I spent quite some time tracking her down. When I did meet her in Mumbai recently, I was shocked to see not the teenager I had first met, but a woman matured way beyond her age, about eight weeks pregnant; and a widow. You may find the following narrative disturbing perhaps, my choice of words uncouth perchance. So be it, I make no apologies; Saira's saga is fraction of what girls from illiterate homes in India endure; there are, to me, no better, alternate way of putting Saira's anguish more aptly. The following frightfully frank conversation took place at Costa Coffee on Yari Road, Andheri W, Mumbai between 1 and 3 PM on Saturday February 18. The words are all Saira's, presentation mine. All names have been altered.

After seeing her brand new husband's body carried off from the hospital morgue for rituals and burial, Saira returns to her parent's house and tries to sleep, but slumber is elusive. She caresses her belly and wonders about the growth of life taking hold within; will it be a boy or a girl and immediately, fervently, wishes for it to be neither. She wants to pray for it to abort, but has lost all faith in God, so she cries instead, something she has done a lot past couple of months....

Saira is third child to poor parents whose ancestry originates in Utter Pradesh; two sisters precede her. After fervent prayers to God and beseeching every saint known to her parents, Saira is rewarded with a brother, triggering intoxicating joy to her father and immense relief to mother, a plain, obedient women who deems questioning a husband's actions, however irrational, deviant.

When Saira is old enough to realize brother takes precedence to all available resources in the family, she takes it in stride, when older sisters are yanked from school and married off, barely teens, she prays hard her future does not hold a similar fate, but when her father announces there is no money for Saira to continue studies after high school because he has to save for his son's (enhanced) education, Saira rebels. This rebellion serves to harden her father's convictions; educating a girl only makes it harder to marry them off.

A friend introduces Saira to CAI; we agree to fund tuition fees if Saira's grades stay at current B average or better. Happily, diligently, she pursues a diploma in computer programming that will have her easily employed after three years. She returns home from school some eighteen months later to be told by an agitated mother to get ready and wear her finest; there is once-in-a-lifetime rishta, the (elderly, unmarried, live-in) sister of the boy is coming to officially ask for Saira's hand in marriage. Everything is agreed and arranged, this is just a formality; they want it all done before Muharram begins. The boy's side has not asked for anything in return, nothing, can you believe your luck? Aree, they are even gifting your father a brand new motorbike! Now be a good girl, hurry up and get ready fast-fast; they'll be home by nine...

Saira's protest is stifled by the iron fisted father and a teary, pleading mum. The months between rista, magni and nikkah are a blur of events where Saira feels detached from reality, surreal and utterly crushed and defeated; eyes and heart that do not stop weeping or hurting. The 'boy' Shadaab is an overweight manager of a wholesale food supply chain, chain-smoking, gurka chewing man twenty years her senior. Jilted by an earlier engagement due to his weighty issues the ex fiancée felt he was too slow is tackling, Shadaab promises Saira he would lose the weight, stop smoking and guzzling gudka; he does none to the day he dies.

To his credit, Shadaab, albeit in reprimanding mood most times, is an attentive and doting suitor, buying her gifts of stifling clothes and expensive candy Saira does not, cannot wear and has no appetite eating; her brother and sisters take on that task. As promised, father gets a swanky new Honda Hero motorbike. On wedding day, decked in oppressive feeling gharara, garlanded by flowers that seem to choke her, a worried Maulana has to ask her at least five times before Saira can croak acceptance for the nikkah recitation to begin.

On nuptial night, after Shadaab mauls her and promptly falls asleep, Saira, sensing a thunderstorm, opens her eyes but realizes it is only her husband snoring; she covers her ears and grids her teeth. When the racket does not lessen in about ten minutes, she gently prods the massive belly laying lopsided by her; Shadaab simply grunts, farts violently, changes sides and resumes snoring; Saira begins crying softly.

Tears of frustration, despair and self-pity wash over her as she sobs, stifling the sounds with a fist in her mouth least her husband of few hours will rise irate and lecture on proper wifely behavior yet again, an art he has remarkably, progressively improved since magni. It was not supposed to be like this, this hurried up affair; for Saira had dreams, very different dreams. Dreams she would graduate, become financially independent, fall in love, wed.

Within weeks of marriage, medical tests confirm her pregnancy and Saira recedes into deep melancholy; she has dreaded this exact situation, had insisted no pregnancy until after graduation. Shadaab had countered there is no need, he needs to be a dad soon-soon, he is not getting any younger. As a matter of fact, he wants as many kids as possible. No need for Saira to work, he earns enough and has saved up plenty. Shadaab rants at her despair, complains to his sister and her parents; they confront her with tongue-lashings and reprimands. Saira contemplates suicide.

The angel of death has different ideas however, Shadaab croaks instead, simply does not wake up one morning after a night of fierce arguments between them. A massive heart attack stop his heartbeats; the doctors blame overweight, overworked heart and smoking as reason, the sister in law openly cries murder and much to Saira's distress, her parents, too, look at her with reproachful eyes.

Looking straight into my eyes, startling me silly, Saira asks if an abortion would be an option. I am so very despondent for this girl, beyond words, numb, unable to react for quite sometime. What can I say? I am not in a position, not qualified to judge or advise in this extreme, delicate situation. I do warn her, however, that Islam considers abortion a heinous sin. I offer to pay for professional counseling, continued support for her to complete education and monetary support for her baby. After some thought, Saira says she is too muddled up to make a concrete decision, wants time to weigh her options, discuss with parents if she has their support going forward.

I tried my best, will follow up when I visit India next May / June insha'Allah.

Friday, March 2, 2012


With 2 weeks to kill before a (very uncomfortable) foot long stent can be removed below my kidneys in Mumbai India, I decide to visit CAI projects in Tanzania, specifically construction of a completed modern physics / chemistry laboratory at Jeffery School in Bukooba.

You may find the following narrative (and accompanying photos) informative.

Dar delights
Dar airport is not as crowded as I have found her in earlier summer visits and the air-conditioning system at the airport, although lethargic, does provide bearable relief from the stifling heat outside. An imposing immigration officer, twanging bad American accent to foreign passport holders, hurries me through visa formalities and I, remarkably, clear immigration and customs in 30 minutes. Now, luggages go through a scanner for customs so bottlenecks, questions and bribes are much minimized.

The pains, frustrations and complaints from (Khoja, mostly) residents living in this city can be longer than most monthly grocery lists; Tanzania Revenue Authority harassments, spiraling inflation, rampant bribery, anemic infrastructure, power woes, water woes... My observations are somewhat more optimistic however, perhaps due to extensive exposure to state of affairs in dismal countries such as Afghanistan etc. I find Dar progressively modern, with new handsome buildings mushrooming everywhere in the city, roads relatively well maintained, clean and traffic no worse than Dubai, even. Walking the city center around the Khoja mosque after magreeb, I feel safe, strolling through placid beggars lounging around shuttered shops amid drifting, overpowering odor from barbequing pits of sidewalk restaurants.

It is summer here and, for me, a feast of fruits. I go bananas, literally, when my eyes set on all the exotic array of fruits on sale; pineapples, mangoes, jackfruit, soursop (ramfal), zambarao, kungus (and thanks to Liyaakat Alloo, the badaam in it as well, something I eat after a gap of over 30 years), shokeshoke (lychees), apple mangoes, papaya, madafu, passion fruits, bananas...I want to eat them all, I eat them all - burp. Then there are different exotic foods that only original Tanzanian ingredients can stand up to a heavenly palate. Nundu, mushkaaki and kuku ya kuchooma at Mambos and Muchachos, of course; there is sanene (crispy fried grasshoppers), dagga with ugaali, matoke; fried and with nazi milk, KT Shop kebabs, mandazi, kitumbooa - I want to eat them all, I eat them all - burp, burp. I tell ya, I am alarmed at my ballooning midriff (no jogging permitted until after follow-up surgery) between all the fruits and food I consume on this trip, thanks to my good friend Murtaza Bhimani family generous cooking.

Banana country
Bukooba, when I get there, accompanied by Murtaza Bhimani, flying Precision Air landing on a hardened dirt runway, is refreshingly cool, for me, although Bokoobans lament the summer heat. This is banana country, with plantain groves everywhere I see. It is a quaint little town, quite neat and clean. I am told Bukooba had a budding, wealthy Asian community once and this shows in the handsome houses of worship of Muslims (Shia and Sunni), Hindus, Sikhs and Ismailis next to each other. All Ismailis have migrated out, so the Jamaat Khana is now a high school run by the Khoja Shia community, necessary to stem the migration of her community for want of higher education facilities. Irony no, non-Ismailies could not set foot in Jamaat Khanas ago... It is here that a CAI donor sponsored a new modern laboratory. I am much impressed by the progress of the school and the efforts to expand it.

We are guests of current President of Khoja Jamaat, Murtazabhai Visram, a highly energetic and dedicated person to the community. Murtaza Bhimani, who was born in Bukooba, reveals in nostalgic memories of his growing up here as we tour the town. There is a strong Catholic Christian missionary movement in the area, with many imposing churches getting ready for a papal visit later in the year. Stuffing myself with fruits and food, including introduction to sanene (crunchy crispy grasshoppers), 5 pounds heavier, we head back to Dar and get ready to drive to Tanga next day.

Tanga tangle
Although I was born in Arusha, I spent most of my adolescence in Tanga, once even more thriving than Dar; I have some amazing memories of her. Joining me in the taxi are friends Murtaza Bhimani and Sadiq Merali as our extra careful driver Yahya tries to avoid the ever-omnipotent traffic police in futility; we are stopped 7 times. One time, the cop checks everything; documents, insurance, medical kit, fire extinguisher... Everything is in order; he throws up his hands in disgust. If you keep everything straight, what are we supposed to eat, he grumbles. Well, quench my thirst instead... give me something. Yahya parts with 2 thousand shillings. Haraam sadeqa, he grumbles.

In Tanga, we put up at Inn By The Sea, a deteriorating Bohri owned hotel near Raskazoone, easily compensated by the sea, scenery, mind blowing sea breeze and tranquility; I have a wonderful relaxing 2 days of recuperation. I visit all places that have influenced my life. Saint Anthony's Elementary School, Popatlal High School, our (diminishing with robustly squabbling members) mosque, childhood homes I lived in, the grocery shop I successfully ran as a teenager, cinemas I frequented on special Sundays, grounds I played cricket and volleyball, where I went swimming on Sunday mornings after salaat, and to Raskazoone wearing (limited) swanky attire - to gawk at girls ... I gorge on food, of course; famous nylon bajeeas at Blue Room where, as a teenager, I used to look in through the (still unchanged) window front, mouth watering, tummy rumbling, because I did not have money to go in. I thank Allah (S) again and again for the wonderful opportunities He has bestowed on me, especially the then hard times, so I can fully appreciate the current blessed ones...ah, what memories, yaar! Zindeghee ke safar me guzar jaate hai jo makaam, whoo phir nahi aate...

Much, much heavier, cursing my seemingly evaporated self-control, I depart back to India for the stent removal and much more pressing CAI tasks that await me. Burp.

I encourage you to visit these photos, especially ex-Tangawalles; I am certain you will enjoy.