Friday, September 30, 2016

Afghanistan X 33

I have covered India, United Kingdom, Nepal, Morocco and Senegal on this trip thus far; UAE and Afghanistan await. So I am not to be faulted when I land in Kabul feeling a bit jaded. Sohail Abdullah, my fellow CAI Trustee from New York, accompanies me on this leg of the trip and we clear immigration and customs to the care of our Afghani hosts, Wasi and Basheer. This pair will be with us for the next nine days, at our service. We will stay at their house, eat their food and partake of their simple but some of the most jovial and generous hearts in this world of ours.

The first couple of days is spent in CAI operational audit and compliance issues in regards to aid to projects in Afghanistan. CAI expends more than 50% of its budget in Afghanistan. This is necessary because this country still stands out as the most deserving for donor funds in places CAI can safely and legally serve.  Kabul is the usual hubbub of undisciplined traffic chaos, heavily barricaded and concrete fortified buildings with swarms of security personnel toting automatic weapons on the ready. Of all places in Afghanistan, I am most edgy in Kabul; too many people have lost lives and limbs here. The streets are peppered in black banners and paraphernalia; the city is getting ready to commemorate the events and tragedy of Karbala. This shows the tenacity of Kabul’s minority Hazara (Shia) peoples for their religious identity, in spite of several massacres against them.

On Day 3, we take a 5-seater single propelled Kodiak-100 aircraft to Nili in Dykundy Province, one of the poorest and deprived places in the world; our miseries begin. As I have previously stated, many times, a visit to remote Afghanistan requires a balanced emotional mind, a very strong stomach, endless patience and the stamina to sustain a harsh environment and a grueling grind. After very briefly witnessing the nuptial rites of 100 poor girls sponsored by donors of CAI, after gifting 14 widows with 5 sheep each for their economic survival and betterment sponsored by BETA in the UK, after inspecting some of the 73 homes for the homeless under construction CAI is funding, we head to Ozmuck Medical Clinic, where we gorge on delicious dried apricots. Sohail gets sick with the runs early next day, on our way to Nili Medical Clinic; I follow suit shortly. It seems the crystallized apricots were dried under the sun in quite unhygienic conditions. For the first time in this, my 33rd trip to this country, I defecate violently under a merciless sun, with massive brown boulders shaped into mysterious forms by the elements giving me dubious privacy. Others have been here before me, for the very same reason, apparently, so I avoid eye contact with their deposits and try hard not to puke; I barely make it.

Sohail and I are doing this twice a year inspection of 5 CAI donor sponsored clinics serving an average of 1,400 sick people per clinic per month who have no other medical provider for relief when sick. I cannot begin to relate the critical difference this service makes to the lives of these hapless peoples, especially to the women, who bear the brunt of the cruelty this land dishes out. We spend hours on end, cooped up in a van that jostles over some of the most rugged and unforgiving terrains in the world, at no more than 10 miles an hour. One careless mistake and we would be tumbling into a ravine of certain death. It is our brilliant driver, Sher Hussein’s incredible mastery of the vehicle and the knowledge of the terrain that keeps us alive. We visit 4 out of the 5 clinics, 3 in Dykundy and 1 in Bamiyan, make spot-checks of operations, and I use my charm and a big stick to enforce CAI guidelines on issues that some choose to renegade on.

We eat unpalatable food or stick to weak green chai and coarse naan until our stomachs scream for succor. Our noses react to the thin air void of any moisture by popping veins and let out blood. My nose fills up with so much guck; I look at the umpteenth napkin with the expelled mess in awe; is all of this from my hooter? The sun shimmers down on the baked earth without relent, and I am awed by the contrast of extremes between summers and winters in this land. With full bladders from hours of bumping along, we stop at a poor dusty village of sorts for zohr salaat and lunch. We are directed up a steep slope towards a mosque and adjacent washroom facilities. Winded by the climb, I recoil from the stench emanating from the toilets. An all mud affair, the three cubicles offer privacy of a simple filthy coarse curtain. But the pits are full, and I recoil again and almost puke at the vile evil I see there. I run out into the blazing sun, to hell with my uncomfortable bladder; I get succor much later, under a cooler shade of a tree at a river oasis, way past the badbakth village.

Amongst these trails and discomforts, there are fleeting moments of hope and cheer:

* The banter among all of us in the van is jovial and Afghans laugh. A lot. Perhaps this is their way to keep lunacy at bay from the sadistic madness ravaging their country?
* I observe Dr. Zia at Daryoos clinic check and treat a raggedy adolescent with severe allergies. The poor teen is obviously in pain and discomfort, does not have the 30 US cents for the registration fee, which is immediately waived, of course. There is so much relief and hope in his earnest face that my heart goes to him. My eyes prickle in pain at the thought of the teen’s plight if this CAI medical clinic was not in place? After the exam and medication, the teen leaves, clutching the medicines to his chest, as if they are priceless treasures with a much more relaxed expression on his face.
* We cover the distance from Nili to Yakawlang in 35 minutes with the Kodiak. The same distance will take 23 hours in Sher Hussein’s van.
* We get to exercise late in the day when the burning sun declines to the West! We climb small rock mountains on which, perhaps, no humans have ever walked.
* We lay the foundation stone for CAI’s 19th elementary school in Afghanistan at Dayroos. Construction starts immediately.
* The Afghan terrain from the 5-seater aircraft is spectacular and breathtaking. The pilots, both seemingly young enough to be yet weaned away from diapers, purposely fly us through looming mountain passes so close, my buttocks contract in anxiety and fear, only to relax as the aircraft quickly tame the air and treat us all to Band Ali below. These are a cluster of lakes bluer than the sky, believed to hold medicinal properties and a tourist attraction. Some believe Imam Ali (A) did make it all the way here, thus the name.

After spending another day taking care of housekeeping issues at the CAI school and orphanage, I leave Kabul and Afghanistan for the 33rd time in nine years. I or others in my team will be back, of course, insha’Allah, to do what CAI does best.

Friday, September 23, 2016

J U I C Y?

Flying from Orlando to Dubai on Emirates Airlines recently, I encounter a Kuwaiti family who are seated in the same cabin as I. There is the elderly mother, in hijab, abaaya actually, who converses with me in flawless English, and her two daughters. One’s married and has two children, twins, both undisciplined terrors who give the rest of us a hard time the entire time they are awake. Their father snore-sleeps most of the time, waking up long enough to shovel food into his mouth and make such a commotion chewing, he sets my teeth on edge. His harassed wife, with an on–off hijab, tries but convincingly fails to control her two appalling boys, who run riot in the cabin.

It is the other daughter, the unmarried one, that has stirred my interest. She is in her late teens, attires in designer clothes, knows she is pretty and has her nose up in the air in a manner that’ll make the Queen real proud. I imagine I see something appallingly distasteful printed across her behind at the gate while boarding but blame it on my tired eyes. However, I want to be certain it is my eyes that are the culprit and not the surreal quip, but the young woman has her nose firmly stuck to the screen in front of her, engrossed in a movie, I think. Her Mother warms up to me and talks about the now hard economic realities in Kuwait, what with the strained economy brought about by the unruly oil prices. She tells me her family has cut back on domestic help at home, from six to four; her distraught breaks my heart into a billion pieces.

We both pray when it is salaat time and discover we belong to the same madhab. She tells me they are treated well in Kuwait, have no issues with discrimination that we all read and hear about in other Gulf countries. All the madhabs are generally genial towards each other and also intermarry plenty, until more recently.

The daughter, with the stiff upper lip, let’s call her Mariam, is a problem child, her mother whisper-confides in me after lunch, rolling her eyes to the heavens. Mariam’s father, she says, is too lax with her, spoils her rotten, allowing her to come all the way to Florida for college education.

Ya Allah, she sighs. How can a father’s heart agree to let a young daughter travel and live so far away from his eyes? I cried and lamented in protest for days but you men are too soft-hearted and dumb when it comes to your daughters.

I want to protest but feel it would be futile to change the lady’s perception of us men, especially me. I have a teenage daughter and she definitely holds no such sentiments about her father. The lady is just blowing off steam, I assume, as she has found in me a willing ear.

I wanted Mariam to find a husband and settle down, like her elder sister. She found a reasonable man…

Mother leans over to gaze at her elder daughter and son-in-law, both lost to slumber, him making strange strangling noises; Mother shakes her head; her face registers a look of resignation.

I wish he was more active, more supportive in handling and disciplining the twins. Hanna did not go to college but still helps her father in our family business. My poor daughter, she became a mother too early. And Allah gave her two kids…at the same time… But I guess we can’t have everything we wish, no?

She then inquiries about me, my family, my affairs. I begin to tell her about my interesting life, that I know will take some time, but the lady seems to care not a hoot, is more interested in talking about Mariam instead. So I shut up and listen.

It was okay the first year, Mariam called home regularly and paid attention to her studies. Her father visited her occasionally, as part of his business travels to the US. He seemed satisfied with her affairs and her grades were reasonably good; my heart still yearned for her but I was somewhat assured by her absence, since it is for the good of her future.

I glance at Mariam; she has her eyes glued to the TV screen in front of her, still. I wish she’s get up and go to the washroom or something, so I can assure myself it is my eyes that deceived me earlier.

Then the calls became sporadic and rare, her grades went to the dumps and I began to despair and became alarmed. We tried to get the Kuwaiti Embassy in Washington involved but they said if it was not a life threatening issue, they would not help. Since my husband was in Japan on business, we panicked and decided to come and find out.

Mother stops and looks me over, then looks away, an embarrassed look on her troubled face. She has revealed too much of personal data to a stranger. Perhaps? When she is still quiet after a considerable time, I am disappointed. I am curious, now that she has come so far in describing Mariam, I would like to know more. I smile at her reassuringly next time our eyes meet, let her know I understand about teenagers and their seemingly unexplained bizarre moods and behaviors at times. So after a while, Mother continues her tale.

Mariam makes a female friend at college, a music band leader of sorts, who convinces Mariam to invest in her band. So na├»ve is Mariam, she agrees, parting not only the generous living allowance her father makes available monthly, but her tuition fees for the current semester as well. To cut the long story short, Mother scratches Mariam’s study short and is hauling her back to Kuwait. She can’t wait to confront her husband and tell him, ‘There, I warned you…’

Mariam’s movie finally concludes. She turns and looks at us talking, frowns suspiciously, yawns, stretches and gets up to go use the washroom. Alas, my eyes are fine. They lie not when they first see Mariam’s behind. Right across Mariam’s snug jeans is plastered, in red neon like sign, the word J U I C Y.

After the dumfounding shock and reassurance that my eyes are okay, I worry endlessly, feeling sorry for the hapless Mother. How will her daughter pass through Dubai (or land in Kuwait for that matter) with that kind of slur pasted in such a strategic part of her anatomy? I worry needlessly; she is a smart cookie, Maryam is, and has figured it all out. The aircraft lands in Dubai and a full clad black abaaya is carelessly thrown over the offensive word.

Thursday, September 8, 2016

Trapped In Nepal

I get mighty irked when airlines claim my flight is delayed because their incoming aircraft is tardy. I don’t care an ant’s ass if your aircraft is late. What if my car got snarled in traffic or had a flat tire and I was checking in late? Would they wait for me then? This flight by Jet Air from Mumbai to Katmandu is thus delayed, souring my mood. This is the third consequent time Jet has done this to me, blaming an errant incoming flight, so I am in no mood for the flight attendant’s pleasantries.  Hurt, the poor girl retreats with an injured look on her face, and I feel regret, but my ego will not let me apologize to her until much later.

I am going to Katmandu as CAI has received an SOS from some Afghan refugees who have fled their country due to persecution and are now in dire conditions. Katmandu, from the air, looks lush and serene, very much the same I found it some twenty plus years ago when I last visited Nepal for trekking the Annapurna Circuit. The airport is the same except I can swipe my passport and get an instant fifteen-day visa for US$25. The lady immigration officer is ancient and peers at me with myopic eyes, pasting the entry voucher upside down.

Tourist ho? American ho? Not Indian? Okay, tourist. No hanky-panky ho. No ganja, ho. No teenage girls, ho. Only clean massage, ho. Okay, ho?

There are several instant retorts that come to mind, but I flash her a wide evil grin instead. That makes her instantly suspicious, but there is nothing she can do, so she thumps my passport rather violently and waves me through, a disagreeable look on her aging face. After purchasing a local SIM card and a prepaid taxi ride, I walk out to balmy weather. The taxi driver, a very burly Nepali who reminds me of Gurkha guards, deployed to guard American Embassies or Consulates overseas. He breathes stale breath towards me then inspects me from the rear view mirror, gauging me. I know it’s coming, the inevitable question; I don’t have to wait long.

You from, Sir? Tourist? Business?

I don’t answer, hoping he’d take the clue and leave me alone. No such luck.

You like girls? I have cute girls. Young…

This is not turning out to be a nice day. For me. Do I emit an image of a Casanova? If I was irked before, I am now livid.

No, I don’t like young girls, I like boys.

I don’t think I would have gotten a more startled reaction if I’d slapped the guy. He swears and swerves, nearly misses a motorbike riding pillion. He concentrates in steadying his nerves for a while, clutching the steering wheel and staring ahead. He then laughs out aloud. Once, twice and then non-stop, bawling out guffaws, exposing large eroding stained teeth, shaking his head and thumping the steering wheel in front of him. He laughs until he eventually tires, regarding me through the rearview mirror now and then.

Babre, Sir, you are joking, na? I know you joking. That is so funny…

But I am in no mood for mirth and maintain a deadpan face. He takes the cue and shuts up. Katmandu is not unlike many urban Indian cities; unkempt and gritty, with undisciplined traffic and very unhealthy levels of smog. Signs of the recent devastating earthquake is evident in holes between buildings where structures collapsed, killing over eight thousand people. My hotel is in a nicer, touristic part of town with tons of shops selling cheap junk that bag-pack tourists from the West get conned into buying. Nepal makes, some time ago, a decision to move fifteen minutes ahead of India. Imagine, I have to adjust my watch to be nine hours and forty-five minutes ahead of home; I guess some intellectuals are mere dingbats instead. 

Mohammed Dawood, when I meet him the next day, is an unassuming man of about forty, in deep dilemma. His and thirteen other families flee from Kandahar in Afghanistan and are now stuck in Nepal. UNHCR has recognized all these families as genuine refugees fleeing threats to their lives but will give them no legal status. This means these people cannot work, transact legal transactions or even venture out at night. I meet with six of these families at Dawood’s modest home. We reach the house after going through crowded lanes of people, all in a festive mood for a Hindu festival. Dawood is well known by his neighbors; they greet him affably. Women in gaudy red sarees dance aimlessly to music so loud; my teeth vibrate in protest. Dawood spits in disgust.

Everything here is najjis, all meat haram. We eat meat once a month if there is money, and I have to travel a couple of hours to get halal meat. My children are sick and tired of all this. Still, I am thankful. At least our lives are safe. We would have been all dead if I had stayed back in Afghanistan.

His house is bare, but one room is dedicated to an imambargagh where the group gathers for religious occasions. Dawood, the apparent spokesman for the lot, has learned to weld, works illegally but is paid a pittance for his labors, if at all; his last employer did not pay him at all. All six families have a litany of wants, all legitimate. I am overwhelmed, cannot help with everything, obviously, but CAI takes care of unpaid school fees for all the kids at risk of expulsion for entire 2016. CAI also helps with outstanding rent for these six families present, since the landlords are fed up with nonpayment and threatening imminent eviction.

It is the situation of the children that is painful to see; they are woefully thin, and I see some signs of malnutrition. Their eyes light up when I present them with cookies and cake I buy before I get to the house. Some start tearing the wrappings and eating the treats immediately, ignoring admonition from embarrassed parents; I tell them not to. Ten-year-old Fatemah tells me she is happier in Nepal than Afghanistan; there are no bombs or guns here. I arrange for all the families to eat meat during the coming Eid and more later. I leave them with a heavy heart, after a modest lunch of rice and potato curry.

I am not sure what will happen to these hapless people. The UN will probably eventually resettle them insha’Allah; this is their hope. When, nobody can tell. There are refugees here that have not seen any movement in their status the last three years.