Saturday, April 20, 2013

Careful Dude, You’re On Camera

The terrible Boston Marathon bombing instantly gives me bad jitters; here we go. Again. Lunatics perhaps, probably from a Salafist country in the Middle East bringing their deviant loco beliefs of killings and mayhem so very close to home. Or, it could be homegrown extremists, who bloody know? But I pray hard nevertheless, wishing the murderers not be Muslims, well, at least not with Muslim sounding names; real, practicing Muslims will not, cannot, take innocent lives.

Living a cheery life or commuting carefree is not easy here in the US to begin with; I stick out like a sore thumb, especially accompanied by a Hejaabi family. It is even worse when I fly, something I do quite frequently. Uff! The check-in person at the airport will take twice the time scrutinizing my passport, the security guy will ask me to remove my hat so he can view his reflection on my scalp and if there is a secondary check before boarding, I will be picked out and searched, one hundred percent. I try console myself this is inevitable and good for my own security. Still, it irks me to death, sometimes, to be picked on like this.

It is astonishing how fast and well coordinated the police and FBI work in this country. The bombings occurred on Monday evening, the perpetrators identified by Thursday. Today, Friday morning, I hear refreshing news one of the two identified bomber is dead and by evening, the second one is cornered, and then arrested. Even better news is the guys are not from Middle East, not Arabs and don’t have Muslim sounding names; they are from Chechnya, Russia or Kirgizstan. This, I dearly hope, will go some way in reassuring jittery Americans with jaundiced views on all Muslims; terrorists can be crackpots from any country.

One sure way to reassure general public and cynical people in particular that Islam is indeed a religion of peace, that we am harmless and genuine Americans, and for overall da’wa, is to have a ready smile on our lips all times. So says our good respected maulana Baig at HIC center. Wonderful idea! So I begin going around with a big bold smile on my lips. Mind you, it’s not easy! You try it; it’ll hurt and tax your facial muscles. Until I encounter an irate policeman on a bicycle. I am stopped at a STOP sign, inadvertently blocking his way on a pedestrian / bicycle walkway when he rides up and blows a whistle. Startled, I roll down my window, my smile still intact, albeit a little nervous.

Sir, he says menacingly, any reason you are blocking the walkway?

Um, I gulp and momentarily lose the smile, but bring it back full force, remembering maulana’s advice, ready to bear the pain for da’wa sake. Um, I am sorry officer, I did not realize there was a walkway...

Why are you grinning at me like an idiot for? Please move along Sir, you are obstructing my right of way.

I move all right, fasta, fasta. So do my lips, back to a scowl, easing ache from the need of a permanent smile. I fume; can a cop call me an idiot? I am about to turn around and confront the dude but change my mind. With the current situation, he’d probably accuse me of terrorizing him and have me arrested.

The technology at play in tracking down the Boston marathon culprits is phenomenal, namely cameras; still-mounted ones at every storefront, bank, public office, name it. And cellphones, in our pockets and purses; the handy helpful ones, nearly everybody has one. The probability someone is taking a picture or video at an event any given time is guaranteed, almost. Why, an amateur, helping law officers, I’m sure, recorded the actual bomb going off.

But wait a minute, what about personal privacy! I’m not sure I want my actions recorded on people’s cameras and shown to the world, in case I am nearby an event and get taped or snapped. What if I am picking my nose? What if I am extracting wayward underwear caught between cheeks? Worse, what if I am satisfying an itch down under?

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Righting A Terrible Wrong

I love elderly people; they relate wonderful tales of yore. They are also mirrors, in whose eyes I see my reflection not too distant away; I am, after all, over the fifty hump and rapidly accelerating down. They can also be crabby and vicious at times, some of them. Take Mullah Mchungu for example, who is sitting across me at my home porch, enjoying balmy weather and puffing away at an Indian beedi, like a taxed locomotive taking on a steep mountainside, his menacing walking cane laid nicely nearby. I have heard rumors he has used the cane for more reasons than walking or support, but I have been spared, alhamd’Allah. Thus far. I know uncontrollable coughs and inevitable phlegm will follow the beedi, so I have placed a used peanut can discreetly nearby, just in case. I can’t have Mullah spewing his chesty discards all over my immaculately trimmed lawn; why, Bruce, the lawnmower would have fits if he found out.

Mullah Mchungu, from Dar es Sallam, is visiting his son here in Sanford. Regardless of our many differences, I make it a point to invite the Mullah home and we talk; this gives me fodder to chew on what old age may mean for me. Poor guy, he’s had a nasty scare from the tragedy of the collapsed building in Dar; his apartment is but a short distance from Ground Zero. We chitchat a bit about the terrible tragedy over tea and snacks. He says he’s still traumatized by the incident; why, he could easily have been walking under the collapsing debris had it not been a Good Friday, a holiday.

I guess Allah still wants me living with the burdens of my sins haunting me some more, he says.

Ow Mullah, I say in consolation, insha’Allah, Allah will forgive your sins, He is Most Merciful.

I am not so sure, Kisukaali, he says, my sins may not be easily forgivable.

There is a far away look of pain and remorse on his face that jolts me a bit; surely the Mullah couldn’t have done anything unforgivable by Allah, the Most Forgiving? But I am intrigued as well.

Really Mullah, I doubt it, I say, hoping this will prompt him to talk.

Mullah Mchungu goes quiet and very still, as if napping siting. He has done this before, always making me uncomfortable; what to do in this situation? But he deeply sighs, opens his eyes and regards me with teary eyes of age.

Kisukaali, I have a lot of wrongs to right before I die and I don’t know how. And I am so confused by advice I get from our ulemas on how to go about doing it...

I tense immediately, ya Allah, what now? Why is Mullah unloading burdens on me even ulemas can’t help? I am not sure I want to hear more but say nothing, wait for him to continue.

Let me tell you my story, young man, he says.

I perk up and bare teeth; why, he just paid me a compliment. He continues.

I was born in Kilwa, Tanzania a long, long time ago. I knew your family, your Dad especially; you look a lot like him. Your family had a duka across from ours in Kilwa. You were not born then, but I know all your elder siblings. 

I did not have a formal education, only alef, baa, taa for Quraan from a grumpy old Mullah who took pleasure in thumping me for minutest of errors and ka, kha, gha for Gujarati from a grumpier Hindu lady who took even greater pleasure in pinching my underarms, for no reason at all!

I laugh at the depiction but the Mullah is not amused; unsmiling, he regards me solemnly. I shut up quickly, least he decides to use the cane to express his displeasure. He continues after making it known he will tolerate no interruptions.

My father owned a duka selling food rations and knickknacks, cigarettes and lawalawa and soap, you know how those dukas were? Shop in the front, dim and dingy house at the back?

I nod eagerly; we had a similar setup back in Tanga, Tanzania on bara bara kumi na mbili. Mullah pauses, exhorts a hefty pull of phlegm from deep recesses of his lungs and scouts for a suitable spot for disposal. Alarmed, I frantically point at the makeshift spittoon by his side, under his chair; thankfully, it is used. I relax.

My parents had two African boys who worked at the duka and a maid who cleaned the house and helped my mother cook. My father was a great namaazi, forever praying, he installed this virtue in me, alhamd’Allah. But he was extremely hard on the two African boys, Jooma and Hassani, who worked at the shop. The boys, not more than fourteen, fifteen perhaps, worked from sunup to past magreeb, seven days a week, all year round. The only days they got off were Aashoora and half day of Eid ul Fitr. Father paid them next to nothing, I’m not sure he paid them anything monetarily. Yes, they ate at home; chai and dry bread in the morning, ugaali and maharage or mchicha for lunch and leftovers from our lunch for dinner. Some dried fish; discards from meat we cleaned and an egg now and then were the only source of protein they consumed. Father paid for a new khanzu for them during Ramadhan, the rest of their clothes were hand-me-downs from my elder brothers.

The maid at the back of our house fared a little better, from my kinder, softer mother. She worked like a horse as well, mind you. Woke up early, made tea, swept the baraaza, cleaned the house, bathroom and the stinking hole at the back, ensured there was enough hot water for everybody’s bath, water boiled on a charcoal burner mind you, helped make breakfast, cleaned dishes, made beds, washed clothes, hung them dry, ironed them, helped in the kitchen, cut this, chopped that, fetched this, brought that, bought potatoes, onions, meat... from the market across the street and any other chore we could think of. Or invent. Yet Mariyaamu found time to smile and joke and hum and laugh at my mischiefs and sang beautifully with a clear voice as she dried her thick, curly black hair after bathing, using an elongated pronged wooden comb. Since I was the youngest in the family, she mothered me, feeding me regularly and bathing me daily until I was about ten or so; she was very attached and fond of me.

Jooma and Hassani used toilets outside the house, I still don’t know where. Mariyaamu was allowed to use ours, but not during peak times and never, ever share the same soaps, either for bathing or general cleanup. Yet, we had no problem she using her muscle and our soap washing our clothes.

Mullah Mchungu asks for another cup of chai, which I bring. He drinks it noisily then lights up another beedi and pollutes my porch. Predictable hacking and hawking follow, the peanut can spittoon gets further populated.

Years pass and I become an angoota chaap adult. My parents are recalled to their Maker, may Allah forgive their shortfalls. My siblings, two brothers move away from Kilwa for greener pastures in Dar es Sallam where they make a fortune in magendo business, my sister gets married and moves to Canada and I get to keep the shop and make a decent living, also in magendo business, but at a much smaller scale. Nyerere’s policy of ujamaa had ruined the country but created superb opportunities for rich Asians and others with money to make colossal amount of money in hoarding commodities and selling at highly inflated prices later.

I inherited the two African boys and Mariyaamu. Later, all three found spouses from their distant villages. Mariyaamu got pregnant and decided to move back to her village and till their small shamba with her new family. Both Jooma and Hassani wanted to move to bigger cities with better prospects, so we parted company as well. I had been accumulating many sins by stealing from my employees for many years by this time, a habit acquired from my father.

Mullah must have seen me start at this revelation, but he ignored me and continued talking.

By law, we had to pay our employees a minimum wage, you see. Yet I paid them much less, much, much less for the hours they labored for me. But I made them sign, angootha chaap of course, as received all dues. Then I did another terrible wrong. I gave them three next to nothing when they resigned, although they were entitled to compensation for years they worked for my family and I; by law, by rights, humanitarian and Islamic. Not that I could not afford it, no! I didn’t because it was the norm in my community. Africans were ghoolas, kaalas, ghaghas, unworthy of honor or dignity or self-respect; benefits for which we cry foul if denied and are ready to sue in a flash in this country. One after another, in a span of a month, they said kweheri and left; I replaced them easily. I was never to meet any of them again.

Mullah’s eyes are even tearier now; voice thick with emotion and pain. I am perplexed for action, conflicting emotions of repulsion and sympathy creating indecision for me. A sob escapes Mullah’s lips; he pleads.

If only I can somehow mitigate my sins, Kisukaali. The ulema tell me I can pray for forgiveness from Allah and pay Radde Mazaalim as repentance, and I have done this, but I am not content, my heart is restless. If only I can kiss the hands of Mariyaamu that fed and cleaned me. If only I can locate Jooma and Hassani and ask for their pardon, pay my debts, more even, open a business for them, educate their children. How am I to right this terrible wrong, Kisukaali? 

If only...

Kiswahili words:
Baraaza – Courtyard.
Bara bara kumi na mbili – Street number twelve.
Duka – Small shop.
Ghaghas - Derogatory term for a Black person.
Ghoolas – Derogatory term for a Black person.
Kaalas - Derogatory term for a Black person.
Khanzu – A loose robe worn (mostly) by Muslim men.
Kweheri – Goodbye.
Lawalawa – Candy.
Magendo – Illicit.
Maharage – Bean curry.
Mchicha – Spinach curry.
Nyerere – Tanzania’s founding president.
Shamba – Farm.
Ugaali – Inexpensive cornmeal gruel.
Ujamaa – Collective.
Hindi word:
Angootha chaap – Thumbprint

Sunday, April 7, 2013

Tragedy Strikes The Khoja Community

Tanzania in general, the people of Dar es Sallam, worldwide Khoja Shias, but especially the Dar es Salaam Khoja community is struck with terrible calamity on March 29 2013 when a sixteen floor building under construction adjacent to the Khoja mosque complex comes tumbling down like a deck of cards. Thirty-six people lose lives that fateful day, including four young jewel boys from my Khoja community who were playing near the doomed building. I cannot come anywhere close to imagining the horror and heartbreaking anguish parents of these fallen children must still be going through, especially the mothers; needless to state countless duas still pour from all hearts.

The Dar es Sallam Khojas go into high gear immediately; what a splendid coordinated response! Dar es Sallam Jamaat and AF react as a well-oiled machine; I can only marvel at the efficiency. I am glued to FB, emails and telephone for updates, desperately hoping those trapped are rescued. The updates from Dar Jamaat are timely and very useful, marred only by one that describe leader of AF as a ‘Dada’. Apt description, perhaps. For a different occasion, circumstance, venue and medium. I am not questioning the Chairman’s shining hands-on participation and leadership.

What pleasantly catches me by surprise is the response from outside the Khoja community; our cousins Ismailis, Bohris, Hindus and Africans, all bind together in the relief efforts, all very heartening. It is Tanzania as it should be, a kitcro of communities coming together; Nyerere would have been proud? Tanzania, I think, is evolving, as she gets more inclusive to communities outside of core ethnic domains.

During my recent visits to Dar I was always weary of these twin towers creeping up next to our mosque on Indira Ghandi Street. Coming seemingly straight up the earth without an apparent stable foundation gave me the creeps. I would point this out to anyone willing to listen and go out of my way and avoid walking underneath them, what with construction debris and workers making the already congested street difficult to traverse.

While I grieve the loss for so many lives and leave the judgment of culpability of owner / builder / contractor / others to the system / laws (even though perceived inadequate by many) and Allah (S), I must pause and take stock of this calamity. This tragedy hit me home, where precious Khoja children pay the ultimate price of greed, disregard, neglect...whatever. So far, I believe, we Khojas have been securely cocooned by such calamities alhamd’Allah. A building collapsing and killing people in far off India, other calamities worldwide and we can only sympathize and pray for the victims.   

Facebook, Twitter, Emails etc. are abuzz with news and updates of this tragedy, the response from local jamaats and regional bodies swift, resources made readily available, as it should; all good, praiseworthy. The outpouring of support and sympathy come from those who didn’t even know the victims or their families. Wonderful! Why? Because we are humans, foremost. More importantly, my glorious Islam binds and commands me to come together. Even more importantly, the same love that beats in my heart for Ahlebeyt (A) runs in the hearts of victims and survivors. I lost my own. Or, or is it because I am a Khoja?

What would I have done if a building had collapsed next to a Shia Bilal mosque in Dar es Salaam and killed four young African gems? Would my reaction and response match this tragic incident? Why is my vision blurred and (re)action lethargic when that same love for our Aaimaas (S) is stuffed out in others Shias, especially non-Khojas? With a bullet, a bomb blast or a knife slicing through neck. In Afghanistan, Bahrain, Pakistan, Saudi, Syria...?

Yes, I am outraged, for sure. Yes, my heart hurts and blood simmers. But is it with the same passion, intensity and ferocity that match this incident? Remember, the children who lost their lives and their families are only bound to me with the rope of humanity, Islam and more importantly, the love for Ahlebeyt (A). Period. Yet, I feel more close to this hurt and loss. Why? Is it right? Would Allah (S) be accepting of this step brotherly sentiment? Would the Holy Prophet (S), who constantly referred to all of us as his Ummah, be happy?

And Allah (S) knows best.