Thursday, January 31, 2013

Under Siege

Radical Muslims besiege a minority Muslim community in Sampang, East Java, Indonesia. One man is murdered, their homes burnt down and when they seek protection at a local stadium, food and water supplies are either cut off or severely restricted. Most Indonesian Muslims are very tolerant of beliefs between various sects. Jakarta, for example, is safe and one can practice any faith without fear. Sampang is a stronghold of very radical Wahabees and Salafees who will not tolerate other sects. Direct orders from the President of the country to stop these atrocities has had little affect as local authorities balk at moving against a powerful radical clergy that is set on bloodshed and mayhem.

I am now in Jakarta, waiting to fly to E. Java tomorrow insha’Allah; you may find my narrative informative perhaps. All names used in this narrate are, for obvious reasons, aliases.

Day one:

Emirates Airlines out of Dubai is severely delayed due to thick dessert winter fog so the eight hour flight has now become almost eleven hours; with almost thirty hours travel from the US a day earlier, I have begun to loathe airplanes. The brand new Boeing 777 bumps and bobs through thick dark clouds before breaking through and landing. Customs and immigration is a breeze; I find the towering figure of Sheykh Hussein (SH) greet me outside. He drives me to The Grand Melia hotel as we discuss strategy for aid relief to the besieged Muslims in Sampang. Born and educated in Iraq, his English is rudimentary, but Kiswahili from a stint of tableegh in Tanzania is reasonable so we can communicate. SH is unsure of what to expect once we get there, if the military will allow us to meet the victims, maybe too dangerous, so they might deny actual meet, but he is certain we can get relief supplies in; he has good local contacts who are ready to assist. The Grand Melia, when we do locate it in the concrete jungle of Jakarta, is a massive place and one can easily get lost in her belly; the rooms are impeccable and spacious.

Day two:

Although reasonably priced by South Asian standards, the hotel’s laundry, food or telephone prices can easily give Bill Gates severe belly cramps; I avoid them all. Breakfast next morning is fit enough to serve many kings and their harems, many times over; I am so perplexed for choice of exotic cuisine, I make many loops around the tennis court size food court before giving up and settling for a good old omelet. I sleep again and wake up refreshed enough to run seven miles at the very modern hotel gym. A sumptuous dinner with others at a nice restaurant hosted by a Pakistani businessman concludes my day. I am hitting the bed early; my mission to Sampang begins at six tomorrow morning.

Day three:

Lion Air takes us to Juanda in Surabaya, E. Java where we meet up with three members of ABI who have made it their commitment to help the besieged Muslims cope with the situation. All three speak no English; I am clueless about native Bahasa Malayu, but all can speak Farsi, which I comprehend. We drive with Habib, Mukhtaar and Faheem towards the island of Madurai and the village of Sampang. It is a three-hour maddening drive through heavy traffic; I dose off and on. We stop for salaat and terrific barbecued fish at a roadside dabba type restaurant. I take out a sandwich bag full of supaari and offer it to the others; SH recognizes what it is instantly. Ahaa, poopoo, he says, let me have some. The others try some as well but make distasteful faces immediately. It tastes like wood, says Habeeb, you are eating wood? I (defensively) assure them it is good for digestion; they all smile and nod their heads with skeptical, tolerant patience, not unlike a mother indulging on an insistent child.

Sampang is a sleepy village; I see nobody about as we near the small stadium where the displaced community is housed. The clouds suddenly darken and it starts pouring. Lo! Does it rain, does it rain! The stadium has tin roof; conversation is almost impossible. The one hundred sixty odd community members gather to greet us. There are about a hundred men, each one takes turn hugging and kissing me three times; when were you kissed and hugged three hundred times?

The stadium is divided into a male and female section by a simple curtain. These people, poor farmers, have lived like this for five months, uprooted from their ancestral homes and lands. Their homes have been destroyed; razed to the ground. They have lost all important documents; ID cards, birth certificates, deeds and titles to their lands and homes, everything. One man is murdered, another’s stomach slit open, the women harassed and children tormented. What is their crime? They have converted from mainstream Sunni Muslims to a minority sect of Shia Islam. Their outraged majority neighbors, influenced and heavily financed by Wahaabi and Salafist movements from overseas, bribe the Supreme Council of Ulema in E. Java to declare them heretics. Their leader, Taher Mulk, is arrested and charged with attempting to preach a ‘deviant’ religion; he gets a four-year jail term.

Indonesians are a happy people, generally. They smile and radiate a joyful aura most times; you cannot but smile back. These particular people have lost their propensity to smile, the children too. I face a group of unsmiling faces etched with sorrow when SH thrusts a microphone in my face and orders me to address them. What can I say? I tell them I come with greetings, prayers, care and concern of their global brothers in faith, of whatever support we can muster. A couple of men begin weeping, which makes me miserable so I abruptly conclude. I survey an ‘abode’ in disarray; washed clothes hanging everywhere, doused cooking fires, strewn personal belongings in heaps, dirty bedding... There are widespread diseases, especially among children, one with typhoid. Children have severe rashes from reused clothes diapers un-hygienically laundered, non-balanced diet of mostly rice.

A line forms, men with bottles of water, all request SH, a ulema by profession, to recite duas and blow on the water. I meet the mother and wife of imprisoned Mulk, the widow of murdered man, the knifed man who shows me his gruesome injuries on his stomach...I have very little I can say; I hope my facial emotions will do the talking. There is a group of youngsters in this community who swear they will not go back on their newfound religion and adamant they will return to their lands if the government will not intervene, even if it means bloodshed or death. I meet Nusrat HM, a Shia-convert Malaysian, UK based filmmaker and writer who is attempting to make a film on this situation. She strongly advocates a massive worldwide petition to the Indonesian government to change her political inaction; that is the only way to resolve this issue peacefully; else there will be bloodshed. I inform her this has already been done but she says it is not enough; we need a minimum half million signatories, with many countries participating. This she says, will kick start the government into fair action. Since the downpour is not letting up, we make a dash to the car, but not before three hundred hugs, kisses and almost sixty minutes later.

We put up at an apartment hotel in Surabaya where we discuss aid strategy over dinner. Indonesians, like most SE Asians consume tons of rice, a must at every meal. They also smoke away like a runaway locomotive; acrid plume of robust clove tobacco that permeates through skin pores, detectable enough in pee. I mean everybody puffs away; perhaps this is the only way to let off building steam?

CAI donors, with active support, notably from BETA Charitable Trust in the UK decides on following three month aid package:

  • A doctor to visit the stadium every week.
  • Medications.
  • One meal supplement per day, including fruits and vegetables.
  • One meal supplement per day for school going children who live with relatives or friends outside the stadium.
  • Diaper supplies, three per infant per day.
  • Private hospitalization for Ali Akber, the infant with typhoid.
  • ID card replacement so they can eventually proceed to reclaim lost property.

This aid package is about US$25,000; you may want to pitch in?

Since my eyes are drooping as it is past midnight, I say my goodbyes and hit the sack.

Day four:

Although very tired, I am unable to sleep, perhaps an omen of disappointments that await my day ahead. I am up at three, typing this urgent report. Eyes smarting from lack of sleep, I eat breakfast, keenly anticipating a meeting with Taher Mulk in his prison cell later today; ABI members have promised a robust attempt, sure a modest facilitation fee to the prison officer will do the trick. But it is not to be; the officer has taken his Sunday off and all attempts to get his junior to agree for a meet are bitter disappointments. We return to Jakarta in the afternoon.

CAI needs your help in a petition drive. Please, please, pretty please:

1. Mail, fax, email the following petition to the nearest Indonesian Embassy / Consulate.

2. Please request, cajole, beg or force your friends and family to do this as well.

3. Forward this appeal to everybody else you know who may not be on my mailing list, Muslims, non-Muslims, atheists...; this is a humanitarian issue that all humans can relate to.

4. Please get your local communities involved (jamaats, centers, mosques; WF, NASIMCO and COEJ perhaps?), all over the globe, wherever this Blog reaches. We are a minimum three hundred million strong assembly of Ahlel Beyt (A); half million signatories should not be an issue insha’Allah.

5. This issue may not be your priority or passion perhaps and that’s okay. But if we let these forces of intolerance win, I despair what can be possible in rest of Indonesia, once a bastion of tolerance and love, even, towards Ahlel Beyt (A).

Please click here to view few photos of my Indonesia visit.

Here is the petition:

To: Mr. President / Indonesian Embassy / Consulate,
    (Your country)

Dear Mr. President, Mr. Ambassador / Counsel General,

This petition is regarding the displaced Shia community in Sampang, E. Java. We call on your country to:

n To ensure the displaced Shi’a community has immediate access to essential services such as food and clean drinking water in their shelter;

n To guarantee the safe, voluntary and dignified return of the Shi’a community to their homes, according to their wishes, and to provide assistance so as to enable them to rebuild the homes that were damaged or destroyed;

n To investigate reports that the local government authorities in Sampang District have been involved in the intimidation of Shi’a followers to renounce their faith;

n To ensure all those involved in the attack against the Shi’a community are speedily brought to justice in proceedings which meet international standards of fairness and that victims are provided reparations.

[Your name]

Or simply click here to sign the petition.

Other emails you can use:

President of Indonesia -
Indonesian Amb. to USA -
Indonesian rep to UN -

I realize similar petitions have been made before but we need an overwhelming, sustained one. I have promised this community I would make this attempt for them; they are hopeful, patient. But they will resort to forceful return home if everything else fails; this will invite violence. All I need for you make an attempt – that is all that Allah requires from us, He will take care of the rest. This community is desperate and hope is their only viable current option.

Everybody makes choices in life – the challenge is living with them.

Monday, January 21, 2013

Trekking In Addis Ababa - Final

Continued from Trekking In Addis Ababa - Part One...

We have caught the attention of a couple of ruffians however, who ask us for money; Alan refuses. They follow us for a distance, ignoring Alan’s request to be left alone; I get nervous, as we are in a desolate place. Alan flags down a passing military police car and complains about one kid who Alan says has threatened us. The police officer walks over to the kid, asks a few questions, but the kid is arrogant; denies it with a wicked grin on his lips. There is a swift crack of a slap followed by a vicious kick in the groin from a heavy boot and the kid doubles over but remains on his feet, face emotionless; I feel agony in my groins. With a vice grip on the wrist, the officer yanks the kid, hauls him into the back of the truck, turns, apologizes to us and is gone. Was that necessary? I admonish Alan. This is what keeps our country almost crime free, Mr. Ali, worry not your head about it. The kid will be taught a lesson and let out. Still, ouch, ouch. I sleep like a baby that night but not before thinking and worrying about the kid with a painful throbbing groin.

Day two begins with a downpour but clears up by the time we begin the walk; this day is tougher. With hands free of umbrellas under a warm sun, we begin trekking up a steep and rugged national park at a good pace. There are countless monkeys, deer and some signs of bear activity although we see no bears; the bird life is plentiful however. The park guide we have hired tells Alan there are lions and other wild animals as well, but they are seen in the dry season, so not to worry. The punishing accent is four hours long, three thousand four hundred meters up. It is much cooler this high and the air thin, breathing quite labored. With so many Muslims in the country, nobody gives me a second glance when I offer my salaat. Lunch is lamb chops and hummus from a Turkish restaurant – delicious. I want to climb to the apex but the guide advises against coming down in the dark. Disappointed, I reluctantly follow them down; we make it in less than three hours. I am dog tired by the time I reach the hotel. Saalat, bread cheese and a mango later, I am dead to the world.

Day three is a duplicate of day two but different as well, with rain in the morning but clearing up nicely as we set out; I feel blessed. We drive to the south, leaving the mountains behind. The trek is through villages and farmland, all savannah country, so there is no climbing. But I get to interact with a lot of local people, which is fantastic. The country is blessed with abundant rain and very fertile soil. We pass mountains of fresh harvested potatoes and tomatoes, ready for the market. Oddly, Ethiopia, with all these potatoes and tomatoes, has not a single potato chip or tomato ketchup plant; it’s all imported.

Ethiopia is very varied in her people, religions, cultures, languages, but the food is common - the injeera; this food must accompany all meals. The best way to describe this food is the mkate mimina of East Africa, except thinner. On this is poured a mix of gravy with beef, mutton or chicken; like Muslims, Orthodox Christians shun pork. I have insisted on a vegetable concoction so Alan has to cook this meal personally. Earlier, he insists the meat is halal, meaning not pork, but he nods his head sagely when I explain the rituals of zabeeha. 
If you think only Indians and Thai east hot food, think again. Although the food is delicious, it is fiery. My guts complain with burbs and farts all afternoon long. We trek through some dicey thorny vegetation, the vicious thorns long and menacing enough to rip through my clothing and maim blood vessels. We get invited for tea by a farmer and a lady demonstrates an injeera cooking session; not nice. It is on a wood burning stove; I run outside in less than two minutes, coughing violently, with my eyes on smoke fire.

Alan has gotten much attached to me in these three days; he has poured his heart out. He remains single at age thirty-three and to get a suitable bride costs a lot of money. He invites me to dinner at a local restaurant that also features local tribes from all over the country traditional dancing and singing their folklore. I am not too excited about eating more injeera but he sounds so sincere, I hate to refuse him. Mr. Ali, he says, let us have bea today. I tell him alcohol is not permissible in Islam. Yes, I know, but this is only bea, not spirits. No, I tell him, not even beer. He looks shocked. You can’t have bea? But bea is so good! All Muslims I know in Ethiopia drink bea. Not this Muslim, I tell him. He takes it in stride and refrains from drinking beer as well. The traditional dancing is like what I used to see growing up in Tanzania. I say goodbye to him at the hotel and the guy is actually teary eyed; I feel sad. I have two more days in Addis so I ask him if it safe for me to walk about the city at night. Yes, Mr. Ali, very safe. Remember how the police treated the young guy for trying to create trouble? Addis is safe. Just be careful of the night ladies. Don’t let them touch you. If they touch you, you’ll begin to feel nice, but they are probably only after your money. I assure him I will not let them touch me but stay put in my hotel room just the same.

The next two days are spent in the company of Hashim Okeera, who has made Ethiopia his home to advance the madhab of Ahlebeyt (A) in that country. He runs a center for new converts and is struggling with tableegh work elsewhere. There are approximately a thousand Shia muslim converts in the country and I meet some of them. Many of them have been Shia Muslim for years, arguing they are lovers of Ahlebeyt (A) way before my ancestors or me. Remember, a man tells me, Jaffer Tayyaar came to live here way before you Khojas even know who the Prophet (S) was. I visit predominantly Muslim areas with halaal restaurants, a Yemeni one in particular that is super busy with some fantastic Yemeni food. I meet Martha, now Fatema Badi, a convert from Orthodox Christian to Sunni to Shia Muslima; she works as a producer for a local radio station. And many others.

I also meet a group of Khoja community from India and Pakistan who are in business in Addis Ababa. Numbering about a hundred, they have a center for religious activities. Regrettably, shamefully, indigenous Ethiopians Shias are not welcome. A prominent man who owns five different factories tells me his success story over dinner at a fancy Pakistani restaurant. He claims he came to Addis seven years ago with less than one hundred dollars; now, ten million is not an issue. He is ready to assist any Khoja set up shop in Addis, he tells me; every conceivable help, except money.

I visit his home and meet a few more Khojas who share similar stories of rags to riches. But do you guys like it here? What about the social life? Must be hard, after Mumbai or Karachi? Kya bolta tu! Not at all, we are making tons of money and get together every Saturday for mirungi between two and midnight.

So this is the tale of my exceptional Ethiopia trekking expedition. Wow, what an experience, no? I must be one blessed son of my parents!

You may enjoy this trip photos here.