Tuesday, February 19, 2013

A Trip To Bloody Insanity – Final

Most of today is a wait in anticipation of what is to come. Karachi streets are empty, young kids play cricket instead, on roads that are usually crammed with traffic and people. Rows and rows of shops and businesses are shuttered shut. I visit a protest rally near Mehfil e Khorasaan where women and men sit under the sky and listen to fiery speeches by speakers and ulemaas.

We keep tabs on events unfolding in Quetta. The death toll has now climbed to eighty seven with apprehension more are still under the building rubble that the powerful one thousand kilogram bomb brought down. Ghastly scenes of the mayhem are played out on TV screens accompanied by mournful music that simply adds to the sense of helplessness I feel. And scenes of protests in major cities; Quetta, Karachi, Islamabad, Hyderabaad, Rawalpindi, Multan, Hangu, Parichinaar...

Are we going or not, is my repeated question to Hassanbhai who consults with Shaheed Foundation medical head Sarwar; we decide to go, the flight is at seven next morning. There are underlying doubts however, with everybody involved. Our sources in Quetta say the city is paralyzed, movement virtually impossible. Most worrying is our trip back to Karachi on Wednesday. What if flights are cancelled, very possible with only PIA flying to Quetta. What if the airport closes down, a distinct possibility if the Hazaras demand for military intervention is not met; they have refused to bury the dead.

After Zohr salaat, over lunch at Hassanbhai's house, the straw that breaks the camel's back is via a cellphone call. Roads leading to Karachi airport are now closed, there is an attack in Peshawar that kills five soldiers and others, more dreading, a real possibility cell phones are to be cut beginning tomorrow; a precautionary move by authorities, a move that has been effectively used previously. The trip is dead; Hassanbhai decides the risks are unacceptably high. Bitter disappointment is an understatement.

As my return trip is back to Mumbai three day later, I cancel the ticket and plan to return to Mumbai via Dubai tomorrow, insha'Allah. What a bummer, but I bow to Allah's will in this matter. My visit to the shaheeds and their families is simply not to be. I pray my intent suffices for these tragically affected mazlooms and CAI donor's generosity in helping the wounded get treatment goes some way in mitigating this aborted trip.

I am sitting in my hotel room; it is nine thirty after magreeb. Naushad, who treats me to a super Chinese dinner, has just dropped me off. As I settle to check my emails, there is boom of an explosion; close, very close, my room's windows shake. My heart leaps to my mouth. A bomb? I hear sirens screaming. I peek out to see people running. I call Hassanbhai who advises me to stay put and watch the news; he will call if a need arises to evacuate the hotel. The screaming sirens are incessant, deepening my jumpy disposition. Indeed, there is breaking news of a massive explosion at two separate areas of Karachi, one very, very close to my hotel. What now? Pray I can get to the airport and depart Pakistan safely. I may return to this country insha'Allah, when the proposed tallest building in the world is completed.

You may want to help CAI assist the wounded get treatment outside Quetta, in Karachi. Please contribute if you can at www.comfortaid.org, choose Pakistan Violence Relief option after clicking 'Donate' button.


The principal sacrifices in this line of service to humanity are not mine, but that from family. They are ones who live with uncertainties of my whereabouts and safety, my absence from home, remotely monitored school / madressa / homework or routine domestic issues. I publicly acknowledge these selfless forgoes and pray they are abundantly rewarded, in this and afterlives.

I also want to publicly thank all at Husseini Foundation / Shaheed Foundation of Pakistan, in Karachi and Islamabad who arranged everything that made CAI services possible. I want to especially thank and acknowledge the services of Hassanbhai Aboolo, who made things happen and selflessly ran around receiving and dropping me at the airport. Especially the risks he took for my evacuation to Dubai on the trip to the airport, which at times seemed virtually impossible.

Monday, February 18, 2013

A Trip To Bloody Insanity – Part One

A trip to Pakistan is always a frustrating challenge certainly, but with intertwining interesting episodes that can leave me in tears or giggling incoherently. You may have read my earlier episodes of forays into this badbakh country, so I will spare you a detailed repeat of much that occurred during my most recent trip but the flight from Mumbai to Karachi on February 14 is noteworthy.

The PIA flight is delayed, not surprising, yes, except this is delayed nine hours. The incoming flight from Karachi had to return back to Karachi after takeoff due to a technical glitch. The replacement aircraft is so ancient, Indian airport authorities decide, perhaps, to hide it at a secluded spot to where we ride a bus that takes twenty minutes. I am so fed up, I don’t care my knees sorely scrape the front seat. Clouds of mosquitos are trapped inside the cabin so we all either clap them dead or slap our exposed skin silly. Lo, I would have laughed my head off in different circumstances, all of us in a bizarre dance of clapping, slapping. When the flight does finally take off, the lights come on and off like at a disco dance floor. The middle of the cabin, where I sit is freezing. When I point this out to a young heavily pimpled airhostess, she simply smiles and says technical problem Ji, sorry. Interestingly, passengers at the rear complain of unbearable heat. Strange no?

The flight stabilizes, we are served a snack and Miss Pimples begins handing out landing cards. I take one look at it, baffled; the landing cars are for India! Another technical glitch, are we returning to Mumbai? Alarmed, I frantically wave Miss Pimples over; she sighs in frustrating and gives me awhat now? look. Ma’am, I say, these cards are for disembarkation in Mumbai, we are going to Karachi, yes? She rolls eyes to the heavens, exhales forcefully, grinds teeth and retorts in terrible English - Sirji, you must to fill it. All passengers must to fill it. It is Pakistani rules. Now, you fill it also, okay? It is my turn to begin breathing hard and grind teeth. Ma’am, I understand it is Pakistani rules to fill in a Pakistani landing card, not an Indian one. Please tell me we are going to Karachi? She fingers the pimples on her cheeks gingerly, regards me in amazement, cocks her head in deep thought; bingo, the nickel drops in place. Startled, she peers at the Indian landing form on my hands, reddens so scarlet her pimples stand out like projectiles, snatches the paper away from me and goes flying around seizing them from other startled passengers as well. She returns presently with correct forms and hands me one, avoids making eye contact; I calm down and breath easier. Not for long. Disco lights come on again when the pilot begins the decent for Karachi, giving me an uncomfortable knot in my belly. A hole in the head would be a better way to go than crashing on a PIA flight like this...

I have not much to do in Karachi except strategize over US$60,000 CAI donors have contributed towards aid to injured and maimed victims of sectarian killings in Pakistan. I do this with Hassanbhai Aboolo of Hussein Foundation who is also coordinating my upcoming visit to Islamabad and Quetta tomorrow afternoon. A fairly new Boing 777-300 PIA departs on time to Islamabad. An English newspaper informs me about a proposed tallest building in the world, to be built in Karachi; I am not sure if I should laugh, or weep.

Zammur Khan, ex Pakistan Army Brigadier no less, now head of HF in Islamabad picks me up from the airport and drops me at a local hotel. I spend next day reviewing CAI donor sponsored projects with him - completion of three laboratories / library at Al Kawthar Women’s College, sponsorship of ten poor students from same college, sponsorship of five poor boys from Uswa Boys College, sponsorship of twelve poor students from Husseini Foundation, completing a water project for a poor sadaat village and completion of two mosques. Just when I get a good feeling of accomplishment seeing donor funds safely committed, a ping on my cellphone informs me a suicide bomb in Quetta has killed four, then ten, then twenty two, then fifty, then sixty four...eighty seven have perished. Most Hazaras, mainly Shia Muslims; I began to despair, my heart shatters.

My despair deepens and I get despondent as devastating images of victims and their grieving families repeat on TV. I was supposed to be in Quetta today but the flight was cancelled so I came to Islamabad first; am planning to go to Quetta Tuesday to visit victims of last months bombing that killed over a hundred and maimed scores others. CAI is working with Hussein Foundation to bring those very critical to Karachi where better medical facilities might save them. Will I go to Quetta now? Is it safe? The bomb was in a public area, near a market, anybody could be a victim. Maaha Zainab emails me to be careful wherever I go; Tasneem’s email says don’t go. I return to fresh violence hit Karachi; Hassanbhai is now teetering about going as well.

Monday dawns ominously over Karachi where a strike has been declared over the killings in Quetta. I want to go visit the victims of earlier bombings but the strike has paralyzed all movements in the city. The hotel I am in has no bread, no laundry services, night staff continues working as replacement staff can’t come, the duty manager looks at me dubiously when I say I am going out... Razamama from HF just called and says we will not go visit the victims; the area is a fair distance, amongst possible protest mobs; mission aborts.

Will I go to Quetta tomorrow? I await Hassanbhai’s advice and decision. Stay tuned.

Saturday, February 16, 2013

A Trip To Sirsi - Abbas Jaffer

February 10 was a very happy day, a satisfying day. CAI donor funded girls school at Phanderi Sadaat in UP, India was officially inaugurated. A year plus in the making, it is a beautiful modern building that will insha’Allah be an harbinger of a brighter future for the poor girls that will benefit from a quality education.

After few prior aborted attempts, Abbas Jaffer, a CAI Trustee, finally made it to India for the formality. I insist all that accompany me write about their experiences; here is Abbas’s. View photos of school opening here. Enjoy.

After a long flight from NY, I finally arrive at Delhi airport, my first time in India. I am much impressed with the new airport as I work my way towards immigration. I stand in line but begin to wonder about the awkward imbalance; the line for Indian citizens is manned at fifteen counters but only five for us foreigners. There had to be about ten Indian nationals per counter, zipping through, while we were about fifty. My line had a mix of all nationalities patiently waiting, watching bored immigration officers for Indian nationals looking at us, occasionally yawning. After thirty minutes of waiting, I decide to switch lines and fortunately get a line that's moving faster; I zip through and out. I now understand what Yusufali means regarding certain frustrating norms about India that I take for granted in the United States.

Yusufali and Aliakberbhai Ratansi of Al Imaan Foundation who have flown in earlier from Mumbai greet me outside. We settle ourselves in our vehicle and prepare for a six-hour drive to Sirsi. As we get out of the airport, we hit bumper-to-bumper traffic; it's Delhi rush hour. Yikes! As soon as we get to the outskirts of the city, the traffic lightens up and we speed up. There are two immediate abnormities with drivers; they spit pan juice and honk liberally. Interestingly, there are signs behind most trucks that commands Please Horn; this has to be cultural?

After several hours of driving, we make our way to a rest stop, our driver taking a shortcut, driving against traffic for a about half a mile, giving me the creeps. We pray and have a snack. I immediately notice this is a Hindu owned joint but have accommodations for Muslims, I feel there is no difference, they are all Indians. We have masala chai and piping hot pakoras. It’s true; India is an explosion of senses - taste, colors and smells.

We continue driving for few more hours and arrive at CAI supported Bahman English School in Sirsi; CAI has now given this once run down school a new lease on life, completely renovating it to the best, most modern school in all of Muraghabad, winning accolades and awards from the State government. Enrollment has increased from 280 to 1,500 students and is positive cash flow. One third of very poor students study almost free, one third are on scholarships and the rest pay premium fees. We drive up next door to AL Zahra Boys home, a beautiful orphanage constructed by CAI, to a warm welcome from the orphans. I am much impressed; start clicking away immediately.

I retire in a modern room inside the orphanage, made just for guests like me. After salaat next morning, I listen to the boys recite morning duas as they return from salaat at a nearby masjid. After a hearty, healthy, power breakfast, we drive two hours to Phandheri Girls School; crowds wait to garland and welcome us. A rifle is fired in the air in welcome, scaring the pants out of me; an experience I will never forget. We make our way to a welcome stage; several speeches from Yusufali and Akberbhai on importance of girls education follow. We cut ribbons and the school is officially open.

We work our way to a partly CAI sponsored mosque opening in distant Azadnagar after Magreeb where we are guests of honor; more garlands but no gunshots. Whew! We are shown to the stage; after several speeches, some amazing naats and a calorie busting dinner, we make our way back. It’s almost midnight when we return at the complex. Aliakberbhai and Yusufali are still full of energy, making next day’s arrangements and catching up with local staff on activities and administrative issues; I hit the sack.

Next morning, I am invited to address Bahman school assembly next door. Yikes! I have nothing prepared; I wing it, telling 1,500 odd eager students the importance of education, importance of self confidence and be able to be whatever with the education opportunities gifted by kind hearted donors worldwide. I talk about the importance of respecting one another, especially elders, importance of good akhlaq. I later tour the school with Yusufali and am much impressed, mashaa’Allah. We inspect the construction of additional seven in addition to fourteen prior classrooms sponsored by CAI. Yusufali is less than happy with few maintenance issues and makes his displeasure forcefully known... uncomfortable, but necessary.

Next stop is the Sakeena Girls Home, an orphanage, again sponsored by CAI donors, about two miles away. As we arrive at the door of the orphanage, fourteen smiling faces anticipate, anxiously waiting to meet us; I start recording right away to catch the moments. I am so impressed at how well the interior is kept up. It is a very emotional moment; I remember my own Zahra; how we want everything for them as parents. I feel really good, knowing CAI and her donors are doing an amazing job in maintaining the faculty and wellbeing of the orphans.

As we leave, Aliakberbhai gets a call about a Sadaat family in the area that has urgent needs. We inspect the need and CAI approves the repair of a home immediately; another hovel is approved instantly. It's impressive to see them in action in real time as they try to help and support these destitute families.

Back at the complex, I try and relax and contemplate about my two days here while Yusufali and Aliakberbhai plan funding arrangements for the school and other many projects; it's like a marathon! I start preparing for my long journey home and start packing. I can't help thinking how fortunate I am to have experienced what I did these past few days.

I am quite reflective on my long return flight home to New York; think about my experiences, wonder about lives that CAI donors have touched, changed. I think my overwhelming emotions, to be able to serve fellow human beings and the exhilaration I got; I can't wait to go another trip.


Abbas Jaffer - NY

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

My Journey To Islam - Baqer Froeschl

I am born into a Muslim family; a blessing yes, yet, a no-brainer, the choice is not mine and I follow the religion of my parents. I am lucky. So it fascinates me to meet people who convert to Islam, people who are born into religions of their parents, indoctrinated naturally, from an early age, yet convert when life-changing events take place in their lives. One such person I am fortunate to meet is Baqer Froeschl aka Christian Froeschl, an Austrian now living in Jakarta, Indonesia. I have met Baqer in the past, some three years ago but did not have time to converse with him then. Now, I make it a point to talk to him in Jakarta. You may, perhaps, find his journey to Islam as fascinating as I do.

I was born in 1969, in a small town 130 kilometers from Vienna, Austria. My family were practicing Roman Catholics; I went to church regularly, stayed at a monastery and even sang in the church choir. My family were in food hospitality business; my Mum owned a bakery. My father suddenly died when I was ten so Mum was head of household for the three of us; I have an older sister and brother. Since I was helping out in the bakery, the food business came to me naturally so I focused my studies in that direction. It was here that I was first introduced to Islam and Muslims through Turkish immigrants; I admired their disciplined faith.

After graduation in my chosen field of study, I moved to Switzerland and joined a bakery and was in charge of making pastries. This was very hard work; up at four and work through till six. Here again, I met many Muslims. I was young and brash so I did what men in my age did back then; I married and had a son. I also got my masters in the science of confectionary. To escape a troubled marriage, I accepted a job offer in Germany. At about this time, I realized contradictions in my religion, especially when controversies on sexual abuses went viral. Although I was at peace with my God and regularly attended church, exotic religions pricked my interest. 

I was offered a job to run a string of pastry outlets in Jakarta, Indonesia, a place so exotic, I had to open up an atlas to figure out where it was in the world. I moved to Jakarta in January 1997 and was head of Café Bean chain of pastry outlets; it was a roaring success. With malls and general economic activity picking up in the Far East, this was a great success. The economic crises and terrible riots of 1998 in Indonesia forced me to return home; but I was back within five months. I took on a Muslim girlfriend at about this time. Nothing changed much; I still drank like a fish and enjoyed the high life.

Year 2000 changed my life as I decided to open my own chain of stores in partnership with my brother. A good decision; we had six stores by 2005. At about this time, I met my current wife who used to visit my store. She was a Sunni Muslim who had converted to Shia Islam in 2002. She was a good debater and we discussed a lot of religious issues; I was particularly interested in building bridges between cultures and religions, but she had other ideas. She introduced me to Sheyk Farris, head of a local Shia center in Jakarta with whom I formed an instant rapport. We met every Tuesday evenings and I observed the religious rituals of Shia Islam. I then began attending the recitation of beautiful Dua e Komail on Thursdays. The more I dug deeper into Shia Islam, especially her history; I began feeling a pull, a tug in the heart. I quit drinking alcohol.

I attended my first Aashoora, a disturbing, emotional event for me, a very emotional person. The event fulfilled my need for an association to a higher authority and personal sacrifice for human justice; I embraced Shia Islam. I learnt to pray salaat, including tahajjud morning salaat most days. I was blessed with hajj and ziyaarat (during Eid e Ghadeer) with my wife; what an incredible blessing! And peace. I used to go to Bali for relaxation and quiet. But Kerbala and Najaf, for me, had more settling and calming effects.

I am at peace with myself, with a wonderful family in a practicing religion that regulates my life with discipline and purpose. I am also at peace with my mother and siblings who have accepted my new religion and are happy to see me contented and settled.

As related to me on January 28, 2013 in Jakarta.