Thursday, October 25, 2012

Swirling Mavurungos

Tanganyika and Zanzibar tolerate a tenuous marriage; it was dicey to begin with, the honeymoon was briefer than most human unions of today, but most love evaporated almost immediately after dictator Abeid Karume was assassinated in 1972. Although the mainland has prospered relatively well since Nyerere’s disastrous policies got finely shredded, the archipelago lags much behind in several key areas. Most Muslim Zanzibaris want a divorce from the bigger, more powerful, ‘secular’ mainland neighbor, but geo politics, potential oil wealth and egos make rational thinking or decisions challenging. A violent and sometimes bloody civil unrest now ensues.

My (CAI) interest lies in bettering educational opportunities for poor children who are mired in poverty. So I find myself in Dar es Salaam once more, waiting to fly to Zanzibar, give away donor sponsored desks and inspect major repairs to few dilapidated classrooms.

Our contact from Zanzibar calls and advises Murtaza Bhimani not to come; the situation is tense, with riots breaking out in Stonetown and other places. Hmmm, this is a predicament, our non-refundable Coastal Air tickets for tomorrow’s flight have been purchased, after today’s cancelled flight by Precision Air; I have very limited time in Tanzania. Murtaza and I are not going to the archipelago to sunbathe; for that, we have been blessed with permanent, natural suntans. Surely it cannot be much worse than Afghanistan; we decide to go anyway.

The on-time early morning single engine Coastal Cessna208 13-seater aircraft takes seventeen minutes from takeoff to touchdown from Dar-es-Salaam to Zanzibar. It is a daladala type affair; a twenty-something White pilot enters the aircraft, slams the door shut, turns around and in heavily accented English says Hello, I am the pilot, keep your seatbelts fastened, there are three emergency exits; here, there and there. He turns on the propeller that sounds like an igniting Mumbai rickshaw and hits the gas pedal; we are off. That’s it, no mention of floaters, even though the entire flight is over water; I guess if we go down, it’s all over.

The vibes outside Zanzibar airport are calm but eerie; I can tell there is matata in the air. Our hired driver, Mbanja, is waiting, says not to worry, he will skirt around hotspots. But we do encounter burnt out tires, broken blockades and a burnt motorcycle. We later learn it belonged to a policeman who was captured, tortured, fingers chopped off and summarily executed, body then thrown into a ravine.

We spend the whole day inspecting CAI projects of school repairs and taking on additional ones, mainly repairs of sagging classes that are about to flop. Zanzibar schools are in pitiable conditions; teachers supplement salaries of unbudgeted staff and contribute towards shoddy repairs and maintenance. Alas, we can’t deliver the promised 30 desks (each seating 3 students) of 140 ordered; the man responsible is not willing to ‘risk my life for few desks’ is how he puts it angrily, ‘I told you not to come!’ These will, insha’Allah, be delivered as soon as the man is willing to step out of his secure home.

We pass through troops manning roads in armored vehicles on our return to the airport. The flight is event free, same daladala service. A hippie looking pilot with dirty long tresses in shorts swaggers to the aircraft, gives us a thirty second routine and we soar to three thousand feet, landing in twenty minutes, past a waiting Emirates Aircraft wanting to depart, our tiny daladala gets priority over arrogance; what a nice change, no? I am sooooo happy!

Rumors swirl about potential mavurungos in Dar tomorrow, after Friday salaat; there are some today. Sheikh Issa Mapondo, a fiery Wahaabi cleric has been arrested for inciting violence but his followers want him released. Our Khoja Jamaat becomes proactive on Friday, flashing warning on overheads for members to take care, not venture to sensitive areas of Kariakoo or City Center; the US Embassy is usual overkill mode, dire portents galore on her website. Friday comes; the young Imam at our Khoja Jamaat is in a hurry, Jooma khutba and salaat break time records. True, Kariakoo burns in the afternoon and there are other mavurungos elsewhere. In a very ominous development indeed, the police fail to quell the violence and calls in the army for control, the first time ever.

Amongst all these uncertainties, we Khojas worry and fret over the cloudy future these mavurungos augur. But we must partake our noondus and mishkaki nevertheless, so I join my friends for a feast this Friday evening and enjoy. For now at least, the mavurungos are a distant memory.

Rough Kiswahili translations:

Daladala – Shabby, unkempt sharing taxis driving at unsafe speed
Khutba – Religious sermon
Matata - Mischief
Mishkaki – Barbecued beef cubes
Noondu – Barbecued beef hump-fat, bad for the arteries, divine on tongue
Salaat – Prayer
Mavurungo - Riots

Friday, October 19, 2012

An Appointment With An Imam (A)

It has been some years since my last visit to Mashaad and I am dying to go visit my Imam (A) again. But the Iranian government is adamant it will (unfairly) not issue an American a visa, come what may; not even for a zawaar. Stumped, I turn to the Iranian ambassadors to India and Ainaznat, through sefaarish of some well-known people; nope, nothing doing. An aalim tells me maybe the Imam (A) is not ready or happy to receive me; my deeds are not up to par, perhaps? Affronted, I get bloody mad. And even more determined to visit Iran. Adds he has been to visit more than twenty times. But why? I want to ask, bewildered, surely the Imam (A) would want you to give others a chance? I bite my tongue instead. 

So I apply for a visa using a redundant Ainaznat passport instead, something illegal under Ainaznat law, again using sefaarish of some prominent individuals who assure the Iranians I am not a spy, just want to visit the Imam (A) and his sister (A) in Qoom; I am reluctantly issued a fifteen-day visa. Yippee! So I buy a round trip ticket from Mumbai to Tehran and am on my way.

The Iran Air aircraft must at least be thirty years old, if not older. A stunning stewardess in proper hejaab greets me on boarding at Mumbai. Lo! Perhaps I died and went to heaven? It is difficult to avert my eyes, for she is exquisitely beautiful, mashaa’Allah. The Boeing 747SP is fat and ugly, but comfortable. I am given a seat right in the middle of some twenty teenage girls returning to Iran after a rugby tournament in India. They are excited, rowdy and brash. They speak very little English and I, very, very kam kam Farsi. As I try to converse, they are coy at first but become fascinated to learn I live in the United States and come up with a ton of questions; mostly demanding to know why we treat Iran so unfairly, I obviously have very few answers. But they relax and smile when I tell them I am going to visit Imam Reza (A). To a roar of giggles and laughter that make many fellow passengers gawk at us, a (very) bold girl asks me what happened to my hair, then feigns a faint when I joke my barren pate is due to strains of multiple wives.

The pilot starts in the name of Allah then recites my beloved dua-e-Faraj, ending with a request for durood; to which the almost entire aircraft responds enthusiastically, loudly, suddenly arousing emotions that bring the sting of instant tears to my eyes; wow, what an incredible feeling! In reasonable English, he gives us the routine and informs us we have about fours of flying to do. Along the way, I offer my zohr / asr salaat (my way, without hostile stares or sneers, like other ‘Muslim’ airports) in a special salaat room, kid around some more with the teenagers who can’t seem to sit still for even a minute and eat violently bland food; my saliva is more palatable. When we land at Imam Khomeini International Airport in Tehran, there is pandemonium to exit the aircraft as the teenagers tussle with others and amongst themselves. It is only when their admonishing supervisor comes along and threatens them with I know not that things calm down and I make my way to immigration; there is one counter for foreigners and six for Iranians. When I finally face an officer, he takes his time scanning my borrowed passport; I tense. What you do in Afghanistan? He inquires softly. Visiting the country, tourist, I respond, hopefully. Very slowly, he raises sad, incredulous eyes towards mine and we study each other. You take me for a fool? they seem to be asking. Shaking his head (in disgust?), he mutters something in Farsi, then stamps my passport, hard; I am through! My nephew, Salim Yusufali, a nine-year student at a hawza in Qoom, picks me up and we are off to keep my appointment with my Imam (A).

The three nights and two eventful days I spend in Iran are a blur; a whirlwind of visits to many shrines with the climax of finally being in the presence my Imam (A). The next day, Mashaad is choked with zawaars, being a makhsoos day, one possible date of his martyrdom. In all my visits to the shrine of Imam Reza (A), I get to touch the holy zaree only once; it was, for me, impossible other times. Throngs of people throw themselves at the entrance, many weep and lament openly, wail as loudspeakers relate the tragic event; most act like thugs, pushing and shoving their way forward. Reminds me of boarding a Mumbai train at peak hours once; I have bad memories of an elbow almost breaking my nose then. Iranians cling to the shrines and are unwilling to let go, give others a chance, unlike their Iraqi counterparts at Kerbala, Najaf and Kadhemain.

Vehicle traffic in Tehran, Mashaad and Qoom is bloody murder; ancient cars crawl, stop, jerk, and spew noxious fumes from leaded gas into the already polluted air, making breathing, for me, a laborious task. Even if outwardly not wholly sincere, most times, most Iranians are extremely polite, courteous to a point of annoyance. Like in Afghanistan, they greet me once when introduced and then repeat the whole process as I sit for discussion or inevitable tea. It gladdens my heart, however, to hear terms like Khoda-barkaat (when paying for grocery or taxi fares), Boro-be-kheyr (go safely), Salaamat-baashi or Zinda-baashi (live in peace), for common everyday encounters.

The respect to an aalim, even a foreigner, is much valued. Salim is treated with utmost respect; a hired taxi (with passenger) stops and gives us a ride to the haram, refuses money but requests salawaat instead, people excuse themselves for sitting or walking ahead of Salim; he is stopped several times for a quick sharee question at the haram. Wow! The hejaab, alas, seems to have taken a beating. Five years ago, I saw women (outside Qoom and Mashaad) wear the hejaab midway on the head; it has further receded to only cover the rear one third now. Perhaps our cousins the Bohri Muslims exert an inordinate fashion influence to the women of Iran?

My meeting with A. Misbah in Mashaad is a lesson in patience and calmness, a virtue I seriously lack. This A. Seestani’s representative has a lot on his shoulders, from running hospitals to orphan, widow welfare to advise on religious rulings and hundreds of requests from throngs of people crammed in his sparse office. Although I am given priority meeting time, there are always interruptions, from people and the telephone. A. Misbah never falters in his calm demeanor, listens to all with absolute respect and does not say ‘no’ to any requests, however trivial. It is a maddening affair, for me, for we have a lot to cover. I would be a screaming wreck, in his shoes, and died from hypertension long ago. Perhaps multiple greetings and asking the health and welfare of everything under the sun can be eliminated...?

I am happy I kept my appointment with my Imam (A), happier to see how proudly Iranians have been able to cope with seemingly all cards stacked against them, with a barrel of a gun perpetually at their heads. Happier still, I proved the aalim wrong; my Imam (A) will always welcome, never deny, however under-par my deeds may be.

I may come again insha’Allah, my Imam (A), but for now, I will endeavor to uphold the values of your sanctified name and mission in this world by doing what you would want your lovers to do and behave.

Saturday, October 6, 2012

All Is Vell?

I was married to India once, but settled on divorce later, opting for a Muttah affair instead. A wise decision, no?

I wait at Kabul airport for a flight to New Delhi India, having just concluded my 22nd visit into Afghanistan. Bushed I am, from lack of sleep, exhausting, punishing schedules visiting very remote CAI projects over seemingly impossible roads. But even more draining is simply fretting over ghastly security situation in this badbakth country. The uncertainty of non-existing logistics and repetitive, apathetic, mundane security measures in place take a relentless physiological toll.

Indian Airlines is predictably late; I end up sitting next to an Indian man with a full head of hair, a bushy mustache but even bushier hair sprouting from his ears that are neatly combed back; I do a double take and rudely stare at him; he seems not to mind, even smiles and wags his head – the universal All is vell Indian greeting. Aren’t ear (and nose) hair supposed to be trimmed back? Intrigued, I look up his nose; nope, no groomed locks up there. I stare at the ears some more; does he sometimes shampoo and braid these tresses you think? I revert to brooding over the appalling conditions of our widows and orphans I leave behind; next few days will be exceptionally difficult, adjusting to ‘normal’ life, leaving the misery of destitution behind while I indulge in privileges of relatively fine foods and comfortable sleep.

India seems not to have changed much since I was here three months ago; superbly raggedy, contrast between the super affluent and indigent even more robust, power plays of dirty money and dirtier politics healthier. Heartening are all ongoing CAI projects; the orphans are good shape, our Sirsi school keeps on expanding in size and quality, grand opening of Phanderi Girls school for the poor on budget and schedule next March insha’Allah.

Going by local newspapers and television, dirty underwear of Bollywood brats are all-consuming events. Sharuk Khan’s farts and Kareena Kapoor’s impending marriage (doesn’t matter she’s been sleeping next to an ugly mug for years) to Saif Ali Khan make headline news. No matter women are abused, raped and exposed to lopsided (cultural and legal) benchmarks in India every day, most people can’t defecate in decent privacy, rural roads are in horrid conditions, the comic, alarming strains of most potbellied policemen’s uniforms, politicians skim away more money in one day than a laborer will earn toiling for a year. It is not really important a Chief Minister still reins over a State after masterminding mayhem, rape and slaying of thousands of Muslims; a decade ago. Nope. Salman Khan’s dreary, stupid, on and off love saga with Katreen Kaif, however, must reach the masses. Is it a coincidence these Bollywood terrors have Muslim names?

In India, a person is deemed worthless, worthless, worthless if born dark skinned; but overwhelming Indians are. TV commercials peddling fair skinning concoctions would want to make most Indians cry in revulsion and despair; the makers reap in the immoral rewards. Indians consume Gudka, a cheap, noxious intoxicant and cancer-causing blend with a passion; tax revenues are all too important for it’s control or eradication. It is a poor man’s fix anyway, by Allah, who cares? Gudka spit is the brand-new paint technology, decorating walls, walkways and roads of Indian cities.

I complete my rounds of CAI projects in Sirsi, UP and am driving to New Delhi, about five hours away. With no Muslim restaurants around, I stop for a break at a squeaky clean, busy and loud local Dhabba; I can see neat, clean cooks in uniform cooking in the open kitchen; yet, I cannot eat here. This Hindu owned joint has a cordoned off place for Muslim customers wishing to offer salaat. I immediately compare this place to almost all-Muslim owned eating joints at Paala Ghali in Mumbai; shabby, dirty, cooks in dirty sweat-stained waists, with sweat dripping straight off armpits into food being cooked. But I can eat here?

Kishangang in Bihar, another improvised Muslim community in India is depressingly dirtier, with feral pigs roaming wild. CAI donors have built a mosque and now completing an Imambargha here. The place is so poor, with so many women crowding around Aliakberbhai and I, pleading for help, it is a wonder I keep my sanity. Deadly Bihari mosquitos torment, there is no place for succor, especially after magreeb. To keep them at bay, I don on full-sleeve shirts in this very warm, moist weather. Lo, these tyrants follow me to the bathroom and have a feast on my exposed behind; Aliakberbhai gives me a quizzical stare as I discreetly use rough sofa seat to satisfy a burning itch.

In Mumbai, a more ‘civilized’ city of India, I sit outside a Coffee Day outlet to enjoy an iced coffee on a warm day. I feel homesick; miss home but still have a full schedule in Africa and Middle East before I return home. Lost in my thoughts, I fail to notice I am being observed; I start. A girl urchin squats not more than ten feet away, staring at me like a lost puppy. She must not be more than ten or so, thin as a stick, with dirty matted hair; I can smell her unwashed body.

Feeling irritated, I scowl at her and hiss phooto! She budges not an inch, continues staring between me and the icy glass of coffee. Phooto, I hiss again. She downs her head; slowly, deliberately turns around and makes her way between mostly empty tables. Ruuko, I shout at her on an impulse; she turns around to look at me. A waiter hurries from inside, ready with a stick in hand to shoo her away; I restrain him. Instead, I order another iced coffee and instruct the waiter to serve it to the child. He looks at me as if I am insane but moves reluctantly when realization downs I am serious, nose up in disapproval. The girl smiles happily, revealing broken, decaying teeth. I reach into my pocket, the smallest bill I have is Rupees 500 (less than US$10), I thrust this towards her. Her eyes open wide in shock and surprise, she takes a step back and gives me a sharp suspicious look, the smile freezing on her lips. Lailo, I urge her. After a second of debate, she snatches the note and half jogs a few feet away to look back at me; the happy smile returns, I smile back.

The waiter returns with the order to go; he obviously does not want her sipping the coffee at a table. The girl grabs the cup, fumbles with a straw with hurried, unstable fingers, almost dropping it. I go to her and help, trying hard for the odor not to affect me. Once through, the child draws on the straw and devours almost half the content, pauses to take a sharp breath and smiles at me, a head wag follows. All is vell?

Murtaza Bhimani of Dar es Salaam and Abbas Abdulhussein of Orlando accompanied me on the trip to Afghanistan. Abbas will write his trip report shortly, which I will then Blog. Insha’Allah.