Tuesday, December 2, 2014

How Ameera Won Her Wars

Once upon a time, some twenty-three years ago, in a place called Bombay (then), in a squalor camp outside the city called Govendhi, in a tiny shack consisting of a single room made of corrugated tin sheets for walls and roof, a frail girl child was born to a middle aged couple; let us call them Soogra and Aslam Hussein; this was their seventh child. Soogra struggled through labor with the help of a local dai, grunting in pain while silently cursing Aslam for making this happen again while he sat outside the hovel, smoking beedi after beedi, cursing his luck and trying to contain the other six kids, all boys, all rowdy and adventurous, from meandering off into the narrow alleys of the shantytown, least one of them fell into the many stinking open sewers or worse, get stolen into slavery of begging.

When the wry dai emerged from the hovel to inform Aslam of the birth and asked him to go purchase some necessary herbal medication and some strong thick barley soup for his weak wife, Aslam scowled at her. What did she think he was made of, rupees? The list of medication was lengthy and in whose care was he supposed to leave the six little rascals? So he begged a neighbor friend for the money and sent him off for the chores.

The baby was named Ameera the next day, after an actress from a Pakistani drama serial that Aslam had an open crush on, much to the consternation of Soogra, who detested watching such dramas. Not only was the glamour and attire the actresses wore unattainable for her, even if only to interest her husband’s meandering eyes, she barely had time to visit the loo trying to cope with her litter of kids. More importantly, being a very devout Muslima, Soogra considered the watching of such serials as haraam. Indeed, did not Maulaana Sadiq Hassan decree it recently so on WIN TV? So she quietly tolerated her husband’s admirations of Ameera on TV with indulgence and forbearance. When Aslam informed her of his decision to name the infant Ameera, she flipped and there was a shouting match that she predictably lost, as the name was officially registered the next day. Soogra never called the child Ameera however; she stuck to her choice of Zainab. So the perplexed child responded to both names, depending on who was calling her.

Ameera, or Zainab, had to constantly battle through her infancy, childhood and teenage years. She was born weak, being the seventh; Soogra kindly teased her that the preceding six greedy boys had used up all her nutrients; there was not much left for her daughter. But Ameera took that jest seriously and fought back. Since Aslam was a lowly plumber earning just enough to get by and pay the hefty interest on long-term loans he had taken over the years to sustain an untenable brood, resources at home were scarce and it was survival of the fittest. Even though Soogra shielded her only daughter from the onslaught of her son’s selfish assaults on available resources, Ameera had to battle for her share. 

Ameera shook off chronic infancy ailments, outdid others in elementary school, even though she had only one school uniform that she washed and ironed every Sunday, even though she had to wear her brother’s faded shoes at the expense of unkind and cutting mirth from classmates, even though she had to do her homework assignments with the aid of a lantern every night, even though she had to beg or borrow from the library pricey books Aslam could not provide, even though, being a girl, cooking and cleaning rested on her shoulders by default, even though both her parents frowned upon her going to high school and were adamant against her going to college at age sixteen, insisting on an early marriage as soon as an inexpensive suitor was miraculously found.  

When Ameera rebelled at that command, there was much disquiet in the house, with daily conflicts and recriminations. It was impossible for the nine of them, now all grown up, to live together in one room. Things got a little better when the two eldest sons married and left home to begin their own families, but seven adults in one bedroom hovel was torture, especially for Ameera, who had her own special teenage girl issues to deal with.

With excellent grades from high school, Ameera was instantly offered admission to a premiere college in the city; if she could afford it. When she was told the amount, at the amazement of the college counselor, Ameera burst out laughing. Mirth that eventually turned into hot tears of frustration and despair. She would not ask her parents, of course. She tried her eldest brother, now working in Dubai, earning a respectable income; he laughed her off and told Ameera to see reason and get married. She did, Ameera almost did. She decided to throw in the towel, get married, hoping the husband she found was an educated and understanding man who would let her continue her education after marriage.

Strangely, all risteys that came along stalled and retreated as soon as Ammera’s education background was disclosed; the prospective suitors bolted. Everybody at home was unanimous in reprimand: we told you so. At wits end, Ameera, through a colleague, came to know about Comfort Aid International and applied for a grant. CAI arranged a scholarship / loan package for Ameera to complete her college and this is how Ameera won her wars.

Ameera is now a qualified dentist and works at a reputable hospital in Mumbai. She has repaid the loans taken from CAI. She met her future husband during internship and is now married, planning to start a family soon. Insha’Allah.

The events in this Blog are fact, of course, but the settings and environment is my imagination. All names are fictitious.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Playing God

After an exhausting nine-day trip in Afghanistan, I am in India. Although my body yearns for some downtime after the drubbing from the Afghan trip, I find no respite. Aliakberbhai, who was with me in Afghanistan seems fine; the man can work like a horse and still be able to operate on less than three hours of sleep a day.

Sabira and Hameed Pirbhai from London join us in Delhi for the five-hour trip to Sirsi where CAI has a 1,400 students school, girls and boys orphanages each and two housing projects for the poor. Sabira is here as a volunteer to offer her expertise in training the teachers of Sirsi School in effective methods of teaching. After a day of inspections of ongoing projects in the vicinity of Sirsi, Phendheri, Kunderkey and Naghau Sadaat, Aliakberbhai and I depart for New Delhi for a flight to Lucknow and on to Hallour. It’s six hours to ND airport, an hour’s flight to Lucknow and another five hours to Hallour. I am to do due diligence for yet another school in this poor community, CAI’s sixth in India.  

Thankfully, the road from Lucknow to Hallour, very close to the border with Nepal, is surprisingly very good, if noisy. My body aches for sleep and my eyelids feel so heavy, they shut close involuntarily every so often. But vaapi, slumber is elusive. Indians, generally, love to lean on their vehicle horns; be it a car, truck, motorbikes or even bicycles for that matter. Any major Indian city will drive me bananas with the hooting pollution. Drive through rural India and speeding trucks will come barging down, front or rear, bellowing modified horns of loudest decibels, jerking me through to my toenails.

Hallour is a typical midsize city in UP; drab, dirty, congested and yes, the mayhem of horns rule the traffic. The only nameless hotel in town is not rated, but I have no hesitation of giving it a zero star rating. I have apprehensions as soon as I enter the ‘room’ where masquerading mosquitos gleefully set upon every open skin of my body. So I wear a long sleeve hoodie and a pair of socks, never mind the ninety-degree heat and cook myself. The ‘bathroom’ has no hot water, no shower but a tired looking plastic bucket and a leaky container. The toilet is standard squat issue without a flush so bucketfuls of water must follow a dump and you hope it all disappears somewhere. We are supposed to sleep here two nights but I make a snap decision and inform Aliakberbhai we will complete all the work the next day and leave for more civilized Lucknow; I am having heart palpitations just looking at the dubious ‘bed’; it is a long, long night of praying I don’t get slaughtered by the ecstatic mosquitos.

I am in a hurry to get the project due diligence done real quick next morning. The land donated by the local community is very good and the need for a quality school, especially for girls, very urgent so I approve the project; work will begin immediately after Aashoora insha’Allah. A modern, quality school, CAI’s sixth in India, for 1,000 plus children, double storied, with scope to expand if all goes well, insha’Allah. If we are able to educate even 10% of these children to their full potential, it is worth the investment insha’Allah.

A six-hour drive back to Lucknow and a night stay at a three-star hotel does wonders to restore some of my vigor. I sleep in a mosquito / insect free air-conditioned room, poop in a sparkling white commode, use a toilet paper and take a hot bath in a glass enclosed free flowing shower; what blessings, yaar! It is back to Mumbai the next day.

On my return back to Mumbai from Sri Lanka a few days later, Wasi Mohammediyan and Basheer Razaee, CAI senior staff from Kabul arrive for a three day intensive course on US statutory compliance matters. They have been confined to Afghanistan and Iran all their lives so a visit to Mumbai is like travelling into extraterrestrial territory, both exhilarating and fearful. The crowds of Mumbai, the honking traffic, the noise, the smell, the perpetual movement of a city that never sleeps overwhelms them. But they seem to be falling in love with the spicy Indian food, especially one at the Bohri Muhalla in Dongri where we devour barbecue delicacies right off the grill.

After the training, I take them to see some of CAI’s India projects in Mumbai; our school, SGH orphanage, Al Zahra Boys Home in Mumbra and several houses for the very poor under construction at the Govendhi slums. It is here, in the slums, where both Wasi and Basheer seem shell-shocked at the extreme degrading poverty and squalor of the place that the enormity of what CAI does hits me, again. We have just inspected three poor sadaat homes under construction, walking in dim alleys, not wide enough for an overweight person to walk straight, where the sun never shines and open sewer takes six inches of the lane. They are impressed with the modern tiled home in midst of filth but are happy to be out of the slum proper. I can see them shudder as we pass piled up garbage where children openly defecate and then casually walk away, the mounds of shit immediately covered by swarms of flies.

Aliakbarbhai, as usual, is unaffected by all this; its not even a distraction for him. He is busy, attentively addressing poor people wants for houses, mostly women, beseeching Aliakbarbhai to add them to the ever-growing list of eligible applicants. I can only envy him, his patience. This scene is repeated everywhere we go, throngs of people in need, begging, wanting, demanding...  I can take it so much before loosing patience. CAI has funds for 81 homes for this particular area; the needs and demands are in the thousands. Aliakberbhai extracts himself from the milling crowds after promising more homes when funding is possible.

This is the most frustrating and difficult role I play within CAI, playing God, literally. The need for worldwide humanitarian work in immense, our resources limited. Who am I to decide who gets what? Sure, I can do all the due diligence I want, implement all the safeguards and transparency possible. However, I am human after all. Feed a computer credible data and it will spit out a plausible result. What about a heart? Emotions? Perceptions? How do I handle these? I feel terrible when it is I that has to decline a distraught widow and her children shelter just because she is born non-sadaat. When she is more deserving than an equally deserving sadaat. How can I play God? These choices despair and leave me in a dour mood for days afterwards.

Why do I share this with you? As stated earlier, many times, I seek no sympathy. I declare I am bountifully blessed to serve in this role, would not trade for anything material in this world. This narration is for you to understand and appreciate how we at CAI spend your money. It is not the case of sitting in an air-conditioned office and directing funds to far flung projects; rather, to be physically there, in the midst of bewildering challenges, to feel the need and pain of being poor and destitute. I pray these Blogs accomplish that insha’Allah.

Saturday, October 4, 2014

I Feel Like Weeping For Joy

I am in Mumbai, in the middle of my current trip, taking me to four countries and several worldwide cities and villages. To Dubai and Mumbai and New Delhi and Kabul and Yawkawlang and Sacheck and Punjab and Lego and Oozmuk and Nilli and Dayaroos, back to Kabul, on to New Delhi again and Sirsi and Phandheri and Nawghawa Sadaat and Kuderky and New Delhi yet again, and Lucknow and Hallour and Lucknow again and Mumbai again. I leave today for Colombo and Nurelliya, return to Colombo and Mumbai again, then return to Sanford via Dubai and Chicago mid October insha’Allah. Quite a mouthful, no?

The following is a short narrative on the Afghanistan trip only; hope you enjoy it:

I am in Afghanistan; Aliakberbhai Ratansi of AICT Mumbai or RK (because he has an uncanny resemblance to the late Raj Kapoor of Bollywood, grey eyes and all) and Sohail Abdullah (SA) a CAI Trustee from New York join me this time around. This is my 27th trip to this badbakth country in the last 7 years and much has changed since then, but yet again, a lot remains the same. Kabul has greatly improved of course (except for occasional bombs that explode and kill or maim the innocent), thanks to massive foreign aid money; airport services are prompt, the streets are nicely paved and power cuts are not as frequent. The local CAI team receives us at the airport and we are whisked away to the comfort, superb Afghan hospitality and relative security of Wasi’s home, CAI’s Country Manager in Afghanistan. While RK and I are seasoned visitors here, SA is a rookie, full of awe and tons of bewildering questions.

Rural and remote Afghanistan, where the bulk of CAI operations are in progress or operational, is where the world changes back to the Stone Age, literally. SA sits next to the pilot, his IPhone constantly capturing the sights and sounds as we are transported to Yawkawlang in a teeny-weeny Kodiak single propelled aircraft. SA’s greatest concern is for the healthy looking American pilot to survive a medical emergency, such as a heart attack.

SA will share a wonderful photo-blog of the trip with you shortly so I will spare you the intricate details of this tough adventure. I will, however, tell you this:

I feel like crying for joy and hugging a sparklingly white commode when I see one at the Golden Tulip Hotel room in Lucknow. I have delicately, carefully squatted and balanced over a hole-in-the-ground toilet, clutching a lotta in one hand and a torch in another, bearing the humiliation of mosquitos and flies feasting on my exposed behind the last 12 days. I feel like weeping with joy when I get to use a bathroom toilet tissue after having to finger my bum the last 12 days. I feel weepy when I finally get to sleep in a soft comfy mattress inside a centrally air-conditioned room, not having to squat tormenting flies away or wistfully watch a sated mosquito full of my blood elude my attempt at its murder. I feel emotional when I take a hot shower with abundant water, not having to worry about pneumonia should I have to use frigid water in an emergency. I get relief when I blow my nose instead of rudely picking it publicly, since the thin Afghan mountain air made all secretion into a hard crust that was very uncomfortable to keep for long and bled my nose every time I cleaned them. I am delighted I can smell my old self and not the revolting odor of not having washed for days on end. I close my eyes in ecstasy when I take a sip of real hot chai after being deprived the last 12 days. I feel like crying for joy when...

These joys are short lived, of course, when my thoughts return to the misery and hopelessness of the people CAI help left behind. My discomfort and hardships are transitory; these people I am so fortunate to help a bit will be without all the fancies I take so much for granted.

In Afghanistan this trip, CAI commissioned the following:

1.   A water distribution system in Yawkawlang that benefits over 3,000 people which will provide clean, potable water for the next 25 years at US$27 each.
2.   Monitoring of operational Sacheck Medical Click – a wonderful modern custom built clinic that can rival any in a Western country.
3.   The opening of a 400 student elementary school, CAI’s 15th in Punjab.
4.   The due diligence of another elementary school, CAI’s 17th (16th already under construction in Kajraan) in Lego.
5.   Monitoring of the operational Oozmuk Medical Clinic and commission the construction of a tailor made modern all-purpose clinic. The current one operates from mud brick – straw house that freezes in the winter and is highly inefficient.
6.   Commission of one water-well benefiting 120 people costing US$1,400.
7.   Monitoring of operational Dayaroos Medical Clinic. Construction of a modern facility for this unit awaits funding.
8.   Participating in the wedding celebration of 100 poor couples sponsored by CAI donors at Nilli.
9.   Distribution of five each milk and ewe producing sheep to poor widows in Nilli.
10. Monitoring of the new SGH 60 girls orphanage / 300 girls school project under construction in Kabul.


Friday, September 12, 2014

Pay Attention To Your Pee And Poop

Dr. Mosin Jaffer from Miami is visiting us here in Sanford and giving a lecture on good health. It is early Sunday morning, just after fajr salaat, at the Sanford Husseini Islamic Center. Instead of the regular Quraan tafseer after the salaat, we get to hear Dr. Jaffer’s excellent and very useful exhortation on good health. He should know; he is an expert on these issues, specializing in Geriatric medicine and a senior medical associate at many local hospitals. The doctor talks about respecting our Allah-blessed remarkable bodies, eating good, wholesome foods, fruits and vegetables and for heaven’s sake, exercise; all good common sense stuff. It is another matter if the majority of us will heed any of this advise, for there is calorie busting, artery clogging neehaari for breakfast after he is done.

A very good indicator if you are properly hydrated and eating enough fiber in your diet is to keep an eye on your pee and poop, says the good doctor; there are immediate smiles and sniggers from the fifty odd audiences. No, really, he continues, look at your pee. If it is yellowish and not clear, you are dehydrated, drink plenty more water. If your poop sinks in the toilet water, you are not eating enough fiber, if it floats, you are fine. Hmmm, I make it a point to add this ritual to my things to do immediately after peeing and pooping. But the anticipation of enjoying Azeem’s fine neehaari simmering in the kitchen outside dips at this advise. Temporarily.

So I keep an eye out on my pee and poop for a few days; all looks well alhamd’Allah, we should all count our many blessings, however trivial. Or seemingly disgusting. But then I make a mistake of parting this advise to my soon to be fourteen year old daughter Maaha Zainab. We are driving for dinner of spicy chicken wings at La Fontana (you may be disappointed Dr. Jaffer, but don’t you worry Sir, I’ve been good and had nothing but fruits and vegetables the last five days!), not too far away from home here in Sanford. The immediate reaction is a predictable one; a hand flies up to cover a gaping mouth. Yuck! She squeals, how disgusting! Then she asks me a question that makes me nearly lose control of my car. What if the poop does not sink or float, but hangs in the middle? She is being cheeky, of course, but this quip begs a question lately much on my mind; how open should we parents here in the West be with our children, especially teenagers?

Very open, most child psychologist will tell you. And so I have tried to be that, most accessible. Maaha Zainab can and does confide, I hope, in most issues that confront teenagers. However, these adolescents face a very different world from mine at their age. I was never exposed to such candidness, never to retort in such a manner; there were solid drawn lines of behavior and speech; no blurry lines advocated today.

Our teenage lives in Arusha, Tanga or Dar were lost in more wholesome pursuits; of cricket and volleyball and bicycles, of mbooyu, mango or guava pickings, of Bollywood movies and as a consequence, bell-bottom fashions and the greatest impressions we could leave on the opposite sex. Clogged arteries and pee color or poop density were alien subjects, never even imagined.

It is these thoughts that occupy my mind as I make my way to HIC for magreeb salaat afterwards. The car stinks nasty from food odor we brought back for Zainab’s mom. Want a piece of very good advise? Eat the food fresh and hot at La Fontana, don’t bring it home in the car. The after-smell will most certainly remind you of someone who perhaps needs more fiber in their diet.

Khan Shah Rukh, The Truthful One

Ever since this Bollywood sensation gives an interview stating Islam has no association with terror, the social media goes into a manic frenzy. Every other person is on Facebook, repeating the video clip, over and over again, as if these are words from paradise, no less. The Indian media as well, they can't have enough. Aree, Shah Rukh Khan has decreed terror and Islam are not compatible

Aree Baba, the entire Muslim ulema, those qualified to part with such opinion have bellowed this fact until their throats have conked out.  No! The whole Muslim ummah, 1.5 billion strong, have been trying to convey the same message; yet negligible or no mention anywhere, not even in a lonely black and white print of a newspaper, something very few read in these electronic age.  

But no Sir, if Khan Shah Rukh, a hugely popular, good-looking Bollywood actor with banal, anemic-at-best actual acting skills says so; it must be Gospel. No matter the guy is not a practicing Muslim, no matter he has no formal (or otherwise) education on Islam, no matter he is a drunkard, no matter he is a womanizer, no matter he has bad breath and leading ladies have actually slapped him for blasting garlic fumes at them up close, no matter... 

After all, it is Khan Shah Rukh, the truthful one. He has a hairline that can turn Telly Savalas in his grave and six (or is it nine?) pack abs to earn such credentials, nai?

The Chief Minister’s Assassin – A novel

My novel (print version) has sold almost 430 copies so far, with fantastic reviews. Not bad, really. Those interested can now purchase a copy for US$20 (proceeds still benefit CAI’s worldwide orphanage projects). Only 200 odd copies left, will go fasta-fasta! You will enjoy a darn good yarn, I promise, and help out a very good cause as a bonus.

A copy can be ordered from:

Me in the USA – kisukaali@gmail.com
Fatema Alibhai in Canada – alibhai@rogers.com
Sabira Somji in Dubai – sabirasomji@gmail.com
Nazir Merali in the UK – n.merali@sky.com
Murtaza Bhimani in Tanzania – moraf2000@gmail.com