Sunday, April 30, 2017

No Worries / Pathani Hugs

Flying three hours from Mumbai to Dubai and another fourteen to Melbourne, Australia is tasking, especially for a young lad like me; take my word for it. Unlike my last visit to this mammoth country where I was grilled for almost two hours for stupid reasons, I am pleasantly waved through immigration and customs without being asked a single question or my passport being stamped. I must be turning more likable as I age, I suppose. My hotel is right across the terminal so I just walk across and I’m a happy camper.

Recovered from jetlag, I sit at a desk at the hotel room and watch aircrafts come in to land and take off. Beyond the airport runway, there is nothing but expanse of rolling green meadows; feels like I am somewhere in the UK, except I am thousands of miles away from anything British. There is something missing with this picturesque background however and I can’t seem to figure it out and this bothers me. It takes me almost a whole day to realize it’s the missing cows and horses that are absent. Duh!

In the few days I have been here, I am sure Australia, or only this airport hotel perhaps, has been invaded by everything foreign.  I’ve had a Bosnian check me in the hotel, Sri Lankan and Punjabi maids clean my room, met a Sikh hotel handyman who fixed an errant light switch and a Lebanese waiter serve me breakfast. I’ve had a Syrian cab driver take me someplace, met people from Pakistani Parachinar, Hazaras from Afghanistan and an assortment of ethicalities from other Indo / Pak regions. This place would make the UN proud.

Aghaa Mohsini, a highly religious respected and leading personality in Afghanistan, had once suggested I come to Australia and remind the sizable Hazara community in Australia not to forget their responsibility towards their historical countrymen and their pitiful plight. So, I am hopeful they’ll open their hearts (read pockets) and sponsor one of the many projects that CAI is actively pursuing in Afghanistan. Unfortunately, at least in Melbourne and Adelaide, I find this community divided and teetering. I get an earful from almost all ‘leaders’ (there are quite a few), about how divided and disorganized they are. Parents and community elders lament a lost generation of Hazaras who have very little or no empathy or need for historical religious or cultural affiliation. It is left up to the Indo / Pak community to take the lead.

A prominent tireless member takes me around and I get to see a 100% halal McDonalds. Wow! I wish Maaha Zainab had these treats growing up in the US. She always wanted those fries and I would deny her, afraid they’d be fried in dubious oils. I feast on chicken or lamb sharwaarmas at Ali Babas right across the street in the airport terminal. There is also a Nandos here. All halal. Yum. I get to hear No Worries, Mate in several accents. It’s a standard phrase in response to civility -  thank you or sorry or excuse me…

There are some very motivated individuals who are trying to get Melbourne their first school and there is good news as I visit with them. Their purchase of land for an all-purpose community center including a school and prayer hall has finally been approved.

I have a blast with the Pakistani Parachinar community in Melbourne. These hearty and brave Pashtuns, almost all boat refugees struggling in their new country, give me a grand time with their babble and generosity. Originally from Afghanistan, they have adopted cricket with a passion and have regular battles within and outside their close-knit community. Rain, which can be plentiful in Melbourne, is but a tiny irritant; cricket must go on. They treat me to barbecued quail, a delicacy I last enjoyed when traversing through the flood plateaus of Pakistan Punjab during the devastating floods a few years ago. When they drop me at the hotel late in the night, they are deeply offended when I offer them a goodbye handshake.

What! A handshake. We are Pathans, Brother, we hug. We’ll give you a nice warm hug to bid you temporary goodbye. Because we’ll certainly meet again, insha’Allah.

Uncaring that there is a line of cars patiently waiting to move forward, I get a warm hug from the trio who have come to drop me at the hotel. After a presentation at the better organized but a tired looking Panjatan Center the next day, I head to Adelaide, home to over 20,000 Hazaras.

I am of unqualified and absolute conviction that Allah is the best guide and He proves this repeatedly, unfailing, in people who help CAI take on some very daunting tasks. Two Pakistani Hazaras, who I have never met nor heard of before are at the chilly Adelaide airport to receive me. These two, may Allah bless them abundantly, take care of me and take me around to various centers so I can showcase CAI worldwide activities. One of them, a qualified maulana, the resident aalim, even cooks me a fiery lunch. Now, this is novel; I am accustomed to serving maulanas, not the other way around. This group has an ambitious plan for a center, a school and a cemetery that is doable and CAI will insha’Allah look for ways to publicize the project.

Now in Sydney, I am in the care of Zain Sherrif and Sheykh Jehad, who are setting up various presentations at some of the 65 centers available in Sydney. This city, as Melbourne, is diverse, with pockets of very strong Afghani, Lebanese and Iraqi communities. The availability and choices of halal products are plentiful and restaurants serving halal food abound. I am in the midst of profound happiness and gaiety, since all the centers are commemorating the birthdays of three wonderful and holy Aimma (a) personalities born in early days of this holy month of Shabaan.

One of my task here in Australia is to set up an independent NGO with people who share common CAI values. It’s a tall task but well worth the effort, since CAI needs to grow in order to help struggling communities combat illiteracy, ignorance and the ensuing poverty worldwide. Compliance issues will dominate the task but I am sure, with Allah’s blessings, your duas and well wishes, we’ll prevail. Insha’Allah.

Friday, April 14, 2017

Indian Summers / Jamun Ice-cream

Summers in Mumbai are hot and steamy, but Allah has bestowed many advantages and mercies in this furnace-like weather as well. The tropical fruits I so lovingly covet mature in the sauna, so they ripen and sweeten. The results are spectacularly delicious jackfruits, jamuns (Java plums), papaya and the king of all fruits – the mighty mango; I gorge, naturally. I can’t seem to have enough of Natural Ice-cream’s jamun concoction – heavenly divine. Also available is the evil-smelling durian at some select specialty stores, golden and stinky, like a skunk; I make a wide berth from these stores.

I must spend some days here in Mumbai for my annual medical exams, to ensure the deviant cells in my body are disciplined by the medication, diet and vigorous exercise I must endure, and are behaving themselves. The doctors and nurses prod and check, their faces deadpan and their answers to my questions non-committal. I fidget and rebel, want to scream in frustration at the seemingly unending tests they demand. But then I look at others in the same room, much worse off than me, some in pitiable situations, so I shut up and do immediate tauba. I am so happy once the tests are over I feel I deserve a treat. So, I tell driver Sarfaraz to take me to the nearest Natural Ice Cream center for a jamun ice cream cone. Again. The poor guy is now so used to my strange and eccentric behavior, he shows no surprise nor complains.

There has been a dramatic change in the politics of this great country since the last time I was here, three months ago. The BJP reign supreme, unseating and routing the ailing Congress and other regional parties in state elections historically deemed impenetrable. With these landslide wins, the bolstered saffron agenda gets into second gear. The current contentious debate in the country is about beef, or the lack of it. Utter Pradesh, the most populous state in India, and the world’s most populous subdivision, where abattoirs do brisk business and employ hundreds of thousands, mostly Muslims, suddenly close shop, almost overnight. There is a fiery CM leading the State now, and he breathes the Hindutva agenda. This trend is gaining momentum, with only a handful of remaining states that allow beef sales and consumption. So, if you fancy a juicy steak, have your fill before flying to India. Seriously, should you get caught eating beef, if you can find or afford it, you’ll be cooling your heels for quite a while in an Indian penitentiary; I hear they aren’t very comfortable.

There is a hue and cry when an Indian cab driver is roughed up and assaulted somewhere in Australia for no apparent crime except he is nonwhite, I reckon. The Indian media goes ballistic, with every TV channel clamoring for an inquiry and apology from the Australians. I try and make sense of the fierce debates on the tube, with panels of ‘experts’ all screaming to be heard above others, yelling in unison, not giving others a chance. I can’t understand a word in the hubbub, but it sure is funny. If you ever feel down when in India, just turn on to one of the TV channels, the ‘debates’ and how the guests conduct themselves will lift your spirits. Sure, that racial assault is categorically wrong, and I condemn it with all gusto. Almost simultaneously, there is breaking news that an African man from Nigeria is severely thrashed near New Delhi, while the police stand by and pick their noses. Perhaps? I see the poor guy’s image, covered in bandages, at a local hospital, with a friend seated next to him, weeping like a baby. This attack follows a pattern of other similar assaults, many severe and life threatening. But the ‘debates’ and the ‘experts,' although denouncing the attack, are much more subdued.

I coordinate and work on my fronts while impatiently waiting for the medical tests to conclude – starving and dying children in Yemen, drought in E. Africa, the misery of Rohingyas in Myanmar…constantly fighting fires. Under ongoing CAI worldwide construction projects are three schools, three medical clinics, an orphanage, 95 homes in India and Afghanistan… Thank Allah for CAI Trustees Sohail and Abbas in New York, Murtaza in Dar es Salaam and Hasnain in Sanford, they all chip in. My book editor berates me for being late, I have missed her submission deadline; she threatens to delay the final manuscript. This will surely be disastrous, for I must raise US$100,000 for CAI worldwide orphanage operating expenses for 2017 / 2018 through the sale of this, my third novel. I plead forgiveness and turn on the charm offensive, implore her to grant me two additional weeks. It’s only after I tell her my orphans will suffer does she relent and reluctantly rearrange her schedule to accommodate my tardiness; the charm too, works. I know.

The pressure piles up, and I feel overwhelmed. Ramadhan is around the corner; like prior years, we must feed the global poor and destitute in 14 countries CAI can do so with acceptable compliance and accountability. With Yemen in the spotlight this year, meeting budget will be a steep challenge. When the cash flow numbers become too ugly to look at, I remember the following beautiful lyrics of a poet:

Na suboot hai, na daleel hai,
Mere saat rabbe Jaleel hai.

Teri rehmatoome kamee nahee,
Meri ehtiyat me dheel hai.

Muje kaun tujse alag karee,
Mai atoot pyas tu jheel hai.

Tera naam kitna hai mukhtasar,
Tera zikr kitna taweel hai.

Google this please, worth repeated listening.

Indeed, with His hand guiding CAI and me, why worry?

The holy month of Rajab sets in…Yaa man arjoo ho le kulle khair. What a breathtaking supplication, no? The well-to-do Khojas of Mumbai prepare to outdo each other in how much calorie-busting gluttonous niyaz they will serve to the already very well fed lovers of Imam Jaffer Sadiq (a). In UP, where the supposed miracle and niyaz related to this Imam (a) is observed by virtually all sects, there is fury that beef is unavailable as one of the mandatory dishes of the yore. A visit to Junnar, about 4 hours from Mumbai, on April fool’s day with Aliakberbhai and we witness the grand opening of a stunning brand new school, sponsored by Beta Charitable Trust, UK.

Wasi, CAI Afghanistan Country Manager, calls me; my presence is urgently required in Kabul, Afghanistan for an urgent legal matter. Turd! I rush to Kabul via Dubai, where the Afghan consulate makes me run through a rigmarole, but eventually grant me the visa, but only after I put the fear of Allah’s wrath into the startled Consul General. I tell him he’ll be answerable to Allah if my orphans are left without shelter, should I not make it to sign the requisite documents. It’s a stretched white lie, but the ploy works.

Kabul is frigid, and I curse the chilly weather every single minute I am there, the entire 48 plus hours. Meeting my 47 daughters at Sakina Girls Home and the succulent Kabuli kababs are my only consolations. I am thrilled to be on the aircraft taking me back to the warmth, organized chaos and perplexing diversity of Mumbai; and some more jamun ice-cream, of course.

I have visits to CAI boy’s orphanage in Kolkata, attend initiation of a new CAI sponsored building for Sirsi’s orphan girls and the book manuscript to finish off before my travels take me to Australia in about ten days. The once destitute refugees from Afghanistan, now active, well settled in Australia and hundreds of thousands strong, must do their part. I am going to showcase CAI Afghanistan projects to them in Melbourne, Adelaide, and Sydney, hoping they’ll sponsor a school or two or a few, for their former, now in distress, countrymen.

I’m on a mission, remember? Fifty quality global schools for those who lack education opportunities, insha’Allah, before moving on. We’ve done 33, almost.

I’ll surely let you know how I fare, insha’Allah.