Thursday, January 18, 2018

Kabul Trials / A Tragic Loss

Kabul Trials 
Next to me sits a lanky Pashtun who thinks little of poking his elbow into my ribs every time he moves his hands to spit the remnants of stinky naswar tobacco from his lips into a plastic cup. And next to him sits a burly American from New Orleans who has already downed 3 pegs of Johnny Walker whiskey and orders another one. I think I am going to pollute this EK640 flight from Dubai to Kabul. The flight is jam-packed so the option of moving into another seat is out. This is going to be my 36th visit to this war-torn badbakth country. I try and avoid going to Afghanistan in the winter – for obvious reasons. It is viciously cold, with no heating infrastructure to fend off the numbing cold that is supposed to penetrate every corner of my well-defended body as soon as I land.

A grumpy immigration officer compares my face with that in the passport, scratches his thick head of peppery hair, blows nauseating cigarette breath my way and mutters something garbled in Dari. I don’t think I have changed so drastically from the photo in my passport until he points to my ear; I get it! He is asking why the earing now and not in the passport photo. I am suddenly petrified; what if he says it’s a different man? I try to explain in my vain Dari that the earing is a very recent addition, for medical reasons. He shakes his head dismissively, looks at the ceiling in contempt and stamps the visa imprint with a vengeance that makes me jump and waves me on irritably. I thank Allah and scoot, breathe easier. These Afghans, Allah must love them, granting almost all of them a thick head of hair. Must be to keep the bheja warm, I suppose. While I have to settle for a Gujarati Khoja Banya gene.

In the adjoining hall, it’s a battle of sorts to register for a mandatory foreign ID card with a government official. There are so many of us, the lone official check no detail in the application; I could have written garbage for all it mattered to him. He is in a hurry to sign all cards with a flourish and stamp them with gusto. Maybe thumping stamps on passports and ID cards keep these guys warm? The next battle is retrieving my luggage from a ton of them dumped in a single conveyer belt from the fully booked Boeing 777-300 aircraft; it’s mayhem, literally. I survive, in a dark mood and am about to start some thumping myself, given a remote excuse.

It is surprisingly quite balmy outside, with heavy smog and I begin sweating through the thick underwear, leg warmers, a thick sweater, a scarf, a hat and a thick coat I have on as a defense. A car backfires; I jump and nearly pollute myself; my heartbeats all over the place. There have been so many suicide bombings in Kabul lately, I am on intense nerves. I suddenly shiver and wonder what in Allah’s name am I doing here. I keep shifting my eyes around along the walk, alert, on guard and thankfully seated in a warm car after I am done greeting, hugging and feeling happy to meet my two guardian angels; Basheer and Wasi yet again. Kabul has not changed a bit, only grimier, the air stinker, dirtier with the cheap gasoline in use and even more, taller concrete barricades shrouding every building worth its salt. The poor in Kabul, and there are tons of them, use everything they can get their hands on as fuel to ward off the bone-chilling freeze at night. So, in addition to the smog from the filthy fuel, the air is now filled with an unimaginable toxic mix that the non-existing winter winds can’t blow away. I have to resort to wearing a face mask from the next morning as I have difficulty breathing.

It’s the investments CAI donors have made in Afghanistan that forces me to come here, sometimes even in winter. The challenges, especially with the very dicey security situation, are immense and there is only so much I can do remote control. This is an enormous undertaking, one that constantly surprises me. With 19 schools constructed serving 10,000 students daily, 6 ultra-modern remote medical clinics catering to 500 patients every day, 150 orphans under CAI care and supervision, I am amazed and humbled how Allah guides us through the mammoth tasks and do justice to the miracle of donor generosity. CAI Afghanistan also has 50 homes for the homeless under construction right now, 50 destitute widows under training to weave carpets so they can become economically independent and various humanitarian food and medical support running.

Making sure CAI is 100% compliant, transparent and accountable is my job, so is ensuring the 320-student school in Kabul and the 150 orphans are in good care is my primary responsibility. All this requires constant and instant communication, anticipating and crises management, tons of patience (of which I have very little) and some of the best partners who share CAI’s values and goals (of who we have been plenty blessed with). Security of our wards and employees are of paramount importance, so I have to assume the role of a security expert as well, and unfortunately, our school/orphanage facility in Kabul resembles a high-security penitentiary now. Something fellow Trustee Sohail and I vehemently resist but have to implement nevertheless.

I spend 3 days in the icebox and get issues sorted out and am eager to taste warm sunshine and summer fruits of Tanzania, where I am headed next insha’Allah. I’ve accomplished most of what had to be done here and meeting with the 50 orphan girls and 50 orphan boys in Kabul is always a humbling treat and pleasure. But I’m ready to leave nevertheless, in spite of the usual flawless hospitality of my hosts.

It’s a herculean battle to clear the security checks and crowds at Kabul airport on departure; I guess they are eager for some warm air as I am. I get stared at and ridiculed by the powers to be at both the immigration and security desks but must grin and bear it. A man with an earring is a novelty here in Afghanistan; it is considered a sign of gender oddity. Doesn’t matter that abuse of young and vulnerable young boys is an epidemic behind closed doors in the country. I breathe a long sigh of relief when the Boeing 777-300 shudders against the bitter winds and soar towards the warmth of sunny Dubai.

A Tragic Loss
The NGO fraternity world lost a tireless and dedicated man to cancer last week. CAI Trustees mourn the loss of Amir Kareem, CEO of Lady Fatema Trust, UK, in London. I had occasion to work with Late Amirbhai and admired his relentless efforts to better the lives of the poor and downtrodden across our world. We earnestly pray that Allah grants the marhoom maghfeerat and a befitting place in paradise, insha’Allah.

Friday, January 5, 2018

About Fat African Khoja Weddings / PHOOT! And CAI Orphans

About Fat African Khoja Weddings
It’s wedding galore at Masjid al Hayy in Sanford, FL, with 3 marriages in a row, 3 times the artery-busting biryani to feast on, followed by another 3 days of gorging at Tehsina and Ghadeer’s reception held at the Four Seasons and the Ritz Carlton. Tehsina is the daughter of dear friends Sukaina and Riyaz Devji of Vancouver, Canada; wisely, they have decided to hold the wedding reception in warmer Orlando. In time too, because it’s turned chillier than the city’s morgue in Sanford now.

It’s nice to meet up with all the relatives who have come from across the globe for my niece Zeenat’s son Mudassir’s wedding, of course. Zeenat and Munaver Nanthani have put up a great welcome week of feasting and merrymaking, culminating with a barbecue reception fit for the Maharajas. A Motomoto specialist is flown in from Toronto to ensure the beef ribs and chicken Poussin are perfect, no less.  I think I’ve packed in a month’s worth of chicken, beef, and desserts in the 5 days of feasting. No wonder I have a belligerent relationship with my weighing scale every time I use it. I am convinced the stupid thing has a definite bias against me.

Keeping with the Khoja tradition after all nikkahs, I’ve just finished shaking hands and hugging scores of people I don’t know, all the while maintaining a goofy smile until my cheeks hurt. I do not imagine meeting Mullah Mchungu again after his dismal state of health the last time I met him. Then, he was huffing and puffing, effects from years of smoking stinking beedis finally catching up to his waning lungs and he looked like a goner. But no, bless him, here is he, in person, in Sanford, in line, leaning on his danda, flashing goofy dentures at me.

Hah, Kisukaali, he rasps, what is that awful earing doing on you? Had a change of lifestyle? He convulses into uncontrollable guffaws that change very quickly to a flurry of wild hacking that startles fellow merrymakers. Some want to help, but stay away at the conflict of grinning dentures that do not match with a face engulfed in pain.

I want to abandon him for his ignorant remark and walk away, but the old geezer appeals to me with his eyes so I help him to his wheelchair and maneuver him to one of the easy chairs lining the main prayer hall. The porch outside is chilly and jam-packed, so I sit by the Mullah as he regains his composure.

He tells me he is on his annual visit to see his grandchildren, reminds me his daughter in Dar, not son in Sanford, who paid for the airfare. There is no mention of where the son or grandchildren are right now; I do not ask. I know he has a combative relationship with both the son and daughter in law, especially with the bahoo, who he terms a blood-sucking daakan - witch. He tells me his health is iffy, and that the flight from Dar es Salaam to Dubai and then here nearly kills him. It is only a kind-hearted Indian Emirates Airline air hostess that moves him to a comfortable seat with more legroom that saves him from certain perdition.

Bah, he gripes, what extraordinary extravagant display of wealth, this masjid. He cranes his head this way and that, taking in the beautiful calligraphy of Masjid al Hayy. Bet you this place cost a pretty penny Kisukaali. How much you think you guys paid for this luxury?

I shrug my shoulders and keep mum. Many have commented on the price tag for this one of a kind Khoja masjid in the whole of USA and I do not want to speculate. But the grouch repeats the question and looks at me with steely glassy eyes.

I don’t know Mullah Saheb, I am not privy to the information. I have heard of it costing between 15 to 20 million, perhaps…

I do not get to finish my sentence as the guy literally collapses. I mean he is sitting up looking at all the beautiful decor one second and then the dude doubles down and begins huffing and puffing again. Almost all others have left the main hall so I am left to resuscitate him; I’m scared he might finally kick the bucket. But the geezer is merely playacting, trying to be sarcastic or funny. I am not impressed, and I let him know. But like everything else about this Mullah, he either pretends he did not hear or ignores me.

20 million dollars! Are you guys out of your minds, Kisukaali?! Where do you guys get this kind of money? You…

I stop him, sternly, and inform him it is not our money. It is a gift from a generous donor who wants to spend HIS money in Allah’s way HIS way, so the community gratefully accepted the kind and generous gift. Mullah Saheb looks dubious and skeptical but thankfully shuts up; changes the subject.

So, Kisukaali, I gather it is your nephew that just tied the knot?

I correct him, that it is my niece’s son, Mudassir, that was just married.

Hmmm, I like his style. He has more class than most of us. He wore a simple yet elegant kandoora that looked comfortable and stylish at the same time while most of you looked silly and uncomfortable in a suit and a stiff tie, hardly able to sit on the floor. I also saw him drive up to the masjid in his own car instead of being chauffeured in an expensively rented limo... The guy seems to have more common sense than some of you. He waves his hand around.

It’s useless arguing with the guy so I stay quiet. But the opinionated mind of his will not shut up. As usual, I let him speak and hope he’ll tire out soon.

I observed my daughter in law, the daakan, dress up tonight. She has a pretty face, even though her attitude and behavior stink horribly. The way she kept on applying layers of makeup disgusted me. It’s the same with all our ladies. They have such good complexions, yet apply layers of expensive junk just because…

My cellphone shudders. It’s daughter Zainab, asking where I am. They want to go eat dessert at groom’s and meet the newlyweds. It’s a good excuse to get away but I feel bad leaving the old crow alone. My prayers are instantly answered as son Ali comes running in looking for his father.

Saalo ghadeero, where were you? Berates Mullah Mchungu promptly… Kisulkaali here has been kind enough to look after me while you…

I sneak away in a hurry. Zainab can go eat the desserts. I have a stubborn weighing scale to fight. Unlike Mullah Mchungu, I can’t make it shut up.

PHOOT! And CAI Orphans
My latest novel PHOOT! has done US$34,000 in sales, so far, targeting US$100,000, monies going towards the education of over 550 CAI sponsored orphans. Please consider purchasing a copy so I can meet the target insha'Allah. It's US$100 per print copy available for purchase online at Allah bless.