Thursday, March 29, 2018

Empowering Women – Success, Finally!

Emirates flight EK219 from Dubai to Orlando appears to be on time, so I make my way through security where a uniformed kid who still seems to be weaning off his pampers tells me I can’t take the empty bottle I use for bathroom hygiene onboard. Ah well. Aboard, I wait for an elderly Indian woman blocking my way to the window seat to step aside. She is obviously struggling with her carry-on suitcase, and before I can offer my impeccable manners to help, she looks up at me snappily and chides me in perfect Hinglish.

Well, young man, don’t stand there and gape at my struggles. Help me, na?

Flustered and stung by the unfair accusation, I quickly help her store the rather weighty suitcase above. I’m only being nice because she called me young man, mind you. She offers me no gratitude, but slumps into the seat next to mine instead, moping her brow. She’s going to be my neighbor for the next 15 hours; I groan inwardly. There were so many pretty ladies around at the boarding gate earlier, and I was hoping I’d get one sitting next to me so the flight would speed by in interesting discourse perhaps; no such luck. The ancient thing next door regards me unabashedly for a while, and I squirm in my seat in discomfort, but then smiles her thanks, the creases of age on her face disappearing momentarily. Then she does something quite odd for an aged Indian woman; she asks a hovering steward for a double whiskey. He, like me, is taken aback, him blinking rapidly. He recovers, smiles and tells the old hag that the bar will open only after takeoff.

Well, I need the whiskey to calm my nerves, else I get mighty cranky, and that’ll set off unpleasant results. I doubt this young man next to me will appreciate that eventuality.

She looks at me and winks; I have no idea what she’s up to. But she can be as cranky as she likes, as long as she continues referring to me as a young man. They compromise that a glass of champagne would suffice until after takeoff. I groan again. Now, I’ll have to put up with the offensive smell of rotting grapes and barley. I’ve never taken to the odor of alcohol, even with over 30 plus years of service in corporate America, in management positions, where the use of this intoxicant is rampant and readily acceptable. I needn’t have worried so much. Except for a rather robust and angry fart during takeoff, which she beamingly blames on the lack of the whiskey, the champagne does seem to mellow her, and the whiskey afterward puts her into snoring slumber almost the entire trip.

It’s going to be boring 15 hours flight, again, with only my crosswords and writings to provide some cheer. The Emirates movies are all repeats, the better ones; I’ve watched almost all of them. An attractive neighbor would have been excellent company, but this one is gone to the clouds, snoring her champagne and whiskey gently away. Sighing in self-pity, I settle down to read the local media, which informs me that UAE has been ranked the happiest city in the Middle East. Fantastic. Another ceaseless laurel in the hat of this blessed country. Right next to the happiness report, another reporter is telling me that a salesman has been arrested for groping a woman. Hmm. I don’t wish to exaggerate, but I’m almost certain I read of at least a couple of groping incidents in UAE every day. The ones that get reported, that is. I wonder how happiness is measured. The people of UAE must not be too happy if they resort to regular groping, would they? Hmm. A perky brunette stewardess breaks my weighty contemplation on this grave matter with a phony smile, false fluttering eyelids and all the rest - she wants to know if I’ll have dinner with Emirates. At 2 AM? I shoo her away. I’m not hungry, plus I’ve had a mighty heavy hard-to-find-in-Orlando ndeezi-mbeechi at sister Sabira Somji’s earlier. The brunette makes a face, wounded by my rebuff, and tries her luck with the sleeping mummy next door; all she gets is an annoying snort.

I’m coming home after somewhat feverish three weeks that takes me to the CAI project at the Rohingya refugee orphans in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh (read report here), to freezing, windy London, UK and then to the SGH construction project nearing completion at Sirsi, UP, India. India is where CAI activities took off some 21 years ago and Sirsi, in particular, holds a special place in me. This is where about 1,000 financially challenged students from varying rural backgrounds get an opportunity for a quality education. It is also where I’ve butted heads with ancient, unjust mindsets against girls, denying them the right to education and opportunities otherwise made readily available to men. CAI, through me, have consistently pushed to put the gentler sex on an even playing field with the men. This exercise is exceptionally challenging, daunting and exhausting, and I still face some unrelenting hostility along the way. So, I am ecstatic with the following two milestones events at the Sirsi school.

Iram Fatema - First Female Principal:

Sayeda Iram Fatema takes over as the Principal of our school, leading over 1,000 students and 40 plus staff into a brighter and progressive future, insha’Allah. Iram Fatema has a solid academic background and years of experience as an educationalist. She’ll have to fight her battles, of course, and lead a team deeply ingrained in male dominance and superiority. With the solid support of the school management and unwavering backing of CAI, I am confident Iram Fateme will prevail and progress insha’Allah. We all welcome Iram Fatema.

Noorien Faridi – Student Turned Teacher.

Noorien Faridi joined the school as a student in Grade 2, when she was 8. The school had only three grades during that time. Her father, the sole earner at home, died at a rather young age, so even the nominal fees the school charged then, was a mighty challenge. But with a progressive thinking mother and supportive relatives, she prevailed. A diligent student, she proved her mantle and graduated from high school and with help from Al Imaan scholarships, pursued a 3-years college education, and a year of teachers training. Noorien was roped in by the very school she did her elementary education as a teacher’s assistant and was recently promoted as a full-term teacher for grades 6 – 8, taking on average class sizes of 40 rowdy students, an intimidating prospect.

Noorien requests to continue her studies and wants an MBA as part of her credentials. She is a lively, bubbly girl and I see a bright future for her, either here in Sirsi or further up. We all welcome Noorien Faridi.

Thursday, March 15, 2018

A Day With The Rohingya Orphans

The mosquitos at Shahjalal Airport, Dhaka are deadly. They are fat, feisty and ugly, but amazingly agile, and seem to dodge my attempts to squat them dead easily; I can almost hear them laughing at my duds. Still, I manage to murder a number of them, some with my holy blood splattering the laptop screen as I try to work, furiously scratching myself silly at the same time. I later learn that a Malaysian Airline aircraft had to return from the takeoff runway because one of the passengers developed last-minute hysteria due to the rampaging mosquitos in the aircraft. Imagine! The terminal is busy and noisy, as the staff of local airlines tries to control the haphazard check-in process.  A pretty but bored Bengali woman sits across me, yawning away, trying to sell pricey Gulshan properties, but has few takers. She takes an interest in me as I battle the mosquitos but that too, is boring after a while, so she resumes the incessant and wide yawns, baring jagged teeth my way. An ear itch seems to bother her, so she cones a piece of paper and uses that to get relief, then pulls it out, peers at the harvest and takes a sniff; I look away…

I am waiting for a local flight that’ll fly me to Cox’s Bazar, where CAI donors have adopted 140 refugee orphans. I’ve been to Cox’s Bazar before, of course, several times. I’ve crossed into Myanmar (Burma) a few years ago from here, smuggled in to distribute food to the persecuted Muslims when the Burmese Army first began their systematic ethnic cleansing of the Rohingya minority.  And then twice last year when CAI Trustees visited ‘hell on earth’ as we scrambled to appeal for and distribute the aid that went a long way to lessen the pain and mop the tears of these wretched children. I reach Cox’s Bazar on time, drive the 2-hours to the squalor camp where Kausar Jamal, CAI partner in Bangladesh welcomes me. Since it is magreeb, salaat is our priority.

To state that Kausar has done miracles with this CAI project is an understatement. The school/refuge for the 140 orphans is a technology oasis of sorts in the camp, with Wi-Fi and cameras that can monitor the school from anywhere in the world. The premises are spotless, well maintained and most importantly, for me, mosquito-free; I am happily impressed. Kausar has paid for 140 khatna circumcisions today, so there are remnants of children waiting for their turn in brave apprehension for the impending cut. I can’t stand to see the actual slash, so turn away from the room. We spend the evening in strategizing future tasks, audit and compliance reporting for the CAI aid sent. For a place in the midst of a squalor camp, the sleeping arrangements are A class – comfortable beds, a cooling fan and clean bathrooms. I sleep soundly.

I wake up to a cloud of fog that shrouds the entire camp, hampering visibility. The smog is made worse by thousands of wood fires that start up as the field wakes up to another day of misery. Kausar and I take a walk after salat to inspect CAI donor sponsored project that supplies potable water to about 9,000 people daily. The water has been a blessing and a curse, since fights erupt almost every day between those blessed with ready supply and ones who have to walk a considerable distance for a bucket of murky water. So, CAI has decided to extend the project to incorporate another 10,000 people with new deep-water wells, distribution pipes, and storage tanks. This project should complete by March 2018 insha’Allah, funding for which is in place.

The dirt lanes between endless ghettos are now firm because it is the rain-free ‘winter’ season. The evil smells that revolted me in the past are much curtailed as more toilets have been facilitated. But the tarpaulin and bamboo sheds are still heart wrenching to see. And once the rains start from April, the lanes will become squelchy and source of untold misery once again. I meet kids brushing teeth with charcoal using their fingers; people hack out filth from their lungs, a toddler defecates in front of me and then plays with his poop, no sign of its mother. Weary mothers queue up with pails at dry water spouts waiting for the power to resume so they can fill the water from the well. Makeshift shops sell cheap candy, chips and tiny packs of masalas; a ‘restaurant’ has sprung up in the dump, selling greasy parathas and a deadly-looking concoction of some meat and chickpeas. Improvised mosques are aplenty, from which emits the humming chorus of Quran recitation by children. Grubby kids, some buck-naked, roam around with glassy looks in their eyes. I try to smile at them, but they look at me as if I am batty, as if questioning any reason to smile. It is a wretched, miserable place and despondency sets in me just as the rising sun begins to lift off the fog. I may be skirting with blasphemy, but I would have easily preferred death to this situation. Kausar and I agree upon the locations for the 4 x 8,000, 8 x 4,000 and 12 x 2,000 water storage tanks to supply the additional 10,000 people CAI donors are helping.

On the way back to the shelter, I meet few smartly dressed kids running ahead of us. These are some of the lucky 140 orphans that attend the CAI shelter/school. They not only get nourishment, clothing, medical care and all else for a comfortable life but some quality activity as well. They get a haircut every month; their uniforms washed and a shampoo bath twice a week. They arrive at 6 AM, watch cartoons till 8, eat breakfast, attend Islamic class for 45 minutes, and then they study English, Math, and Burmese (Bangladesh authorities will not allow them to learn Bengali) until 12 before they get a nutritious lunch. Their day ends at about 2 when they must return to their hovels so that the CAI facility can clean up and get ready for the next day. The one downside to this service is that our kids have now a chip on their shoulders – they look cleaner, better fed, smarter dressed and have acquired a badass attitude against other non-school going camp children... Can’t win all the time, can we?

I spend most of the day with the orphans, breaking bread and attending classes with them; it is a beautiful experience to see them in much better spirits than before. Children rebound quickly, so the heartbreak and trauma they have been through are diminishing, and we pray for their very best future, insha’Allah.

Mr. and Mrs. Jamal and daughter Farha have been instrumental in successfully planning, developing and executing this sometimes-insufferable project; they have put their hearts into it. CAI is indebted to them for their commitment and grit in getting the orphans the support they are entitled to. Thank you.

View the many wonderful photos and a video of my visit to the camp. Here is another video that highlights the dismal state of affairs with these woeful people. Warning - this clip is, to me, graphic and highly distressing.

Thursday, March 1, 2018

Dubious Hadiths – And A Dilemma

I am a resident of a chowl dwelling near Malad, on the outskirts of Mumbai. It could be any low-cost housing that dots every major city in India, the location is not important. I live in a 15 x 12 feet nondescript dump with my wife, 2 kids, and my elderly parents. The parents sleep on a sturdy bed with a lumpy mattress in one corner of the room and the rest of us slumber on the floor, on makeshift beds made of thin foam pads that fit nicely under my parent’s bed during the day. There is a crude improvised kitchen at one end of the room and meals are eaten on the floor where we sleep at night. A claustrophobic cubicle mimics a bathroom outside and communal toilets are down a smelly alley.

I wake up every morning at fajr, say my prayers, eat a hasty breakfast that my dutiful sleepy wife makes and I am off to work, fighting traffic on my mortgaged bike. I park it under a flyover bridge with thousands of others and half run to catch the train that’ll take me to work. It is the survival of the fittest getting on the train. Thankfully, I am tall, well built and muscular, so I have an advantage over most of the crowds who scramble to get inside the not yet stopped train. Sometimes, especially in rainy monsoon season, I have to wait for a second or even third train before I can fight my way in. This exercise is a deathtrap, for I have witnessed more than a dozen deaths of poor guys who slip and fall hanging out of the overcrowded cabins.

I work as a call center manager and my job is to manage people. I am responsible for 30 employees who report to me. But I do very little core work of answering the phones that explain dumb Europeans or Americans who have called the toll-free number where to locate the power button on the new computer they have purchased. My job is to monitor and ensure that the employees are in their stations on time, that they answer the calls as meticulously trained, speak in the acquired ‘Western’ accents and give out aliases, never their actual names. The customer at the other end must never get the inkling that they are talking to an Aasha or Dinesh somewhere in India.

However, my job gets quite interesting as I get to manage the lives of unique individuals who mistakenly, innocently, assume that, as their boss, it is my responsibility to know the details of their private lives. This morning, for example, Juhi is being super emotional because she had a fight with her possessive boyfriend the night before and is having problems maintaining her accent. I have to be hard on her and tell her to cut the moping out and get back to work, accent and all. Mrs. Dixit will not be in today because her son swallowed a tile from Scrabble last night and almost choked to death. So, I have to cajole Rani from night shift to stay back and earn some overtime, which she is happy to do since she is saving up for her dowry. Roopa and Lata have a fight over the use of a more comfortable chair. Lata dishevels Roopa’s immaculately cut hair so Roopa uses her superior reach and slaps Lata silly. The assault ends up in a full-scale brawl on the office floor which the other staff, especially the men, immensely enjoy. I get them to get cleaned up and back to their phones; I’ll have to deal with discipline later. And so on. Always solving problems and resolving sensitive, sometimes very personal personnel issues.

My employer pays me Rs. 45,000/month (about US$700) for my efforts, working 60 hours in a 6-day week. I’m not complaining, since this pay is considered good money for Mumbai. I have no money to buy a home, so Rs. 10,000 goes towards the hovel rent. After paying the kid's school fees, grocery bills, utilities, the mortgage on my bike, my father’s medical bills and everything else, I save about Rs. 2,500/month. I’ve been saving this amount so I can make enough of a down payment on a 2-bedroom apartment that a bank can consider credible enough to fund a mortgage.

I am from a conservative poor family of 5; 2 elder sisters, my parents and me. My father, a devout Muslim and a retired bus conductor now, led an upright life, of hard work and honesty. Prolonged exposure to exhaust fumes and lead in fuel is causing havoc to his respiratory system now, so his coughing spells are an irritant to us and our neighbors as well. He always struggled to put enough food on the table, but never failed to fill our tummies at the end of the day nevertheless. He skimped and saved and got his 2 daughters married into respectable families honorably. He sold his ancestral home in UP so I could get a convent education; I can read, write and speak English fairly well, hence my job. He means the world to me and I would do almost anything to see his final days pass in carefree comfort.

Lately however, Abbu has been mighty fidgety, especially since he, together with the rest of the family, attend the majalis for ayyame Fatema (a) where this young, striking aalim, citing a ‘hadeeth’ as the source, claims that we are deemed to have left the fold of Shia Islam if we fail to visit the shrine of Imam Hussein (a) once every 3 years. There are other claims he makes, equally dubious and new, to me certainly, in the 43 years I am alive. Referencing ‘hadeeth’, he asserts that 2 heavenly angels in the sky hold up our planet, a claim immediately challenged by my 12-year-old son, at home. Poor boy, he is hushed and reprimanded not to question an aalim by my Abbu and my wife, both who take the word from the mimbar as absolute gospel. The aalim further claims that I am less of a Muslim if my eyes fail to tear up at the mere mention of Imam Hussein (a), doesn’t matter that his are bone-dry. My heart aches and agonizes at my Imam’s (a) trials and tribulations in Karbala and I used to be able to bawl at every masaayeb in my younger days, but the tears have dried up as I age, replaced by undiminished pain and agony; dignified, however, rather than emotive. But this seems to be a no-no in the eyes of this noble aalim.  Anyway, I digress.

My greatest dilemma is Abbu’s insistence on going to Karbala asap, before a hunch of his impending death comes to pass; he certainly wants to die a Shia Muslim. I don’t have a problem with this, but our finances don’t add up. My savings and Abbu’s pension fund at retirement is close enough to muster a down payment on an apartment close to our chowl.  It is a nice development – affordable, within my budget, the kids will not have to change school and my in-laws live close by, so my wife is supported and content. But since Abbu has heard this noble aalim cite the untested hadeeth, Abbu’s mind and heart are made up; he wants to go, come what may.

So, biting my tongue, suppressing the disappointment others and me at home feel, I am making arrangements for Ammi and Abbu to head out for ziyaarat in Iraq. Whether this aalim’s claim is credible or not, I am sure Allah will more than make up for the delay in acquiring our new house with the barakah of Abaa Abdullah (a).

Author: Anonymous. Unnecessary. Unimportant.

Bloggers note: This sage is of 2 different periods, 2 distinct peoples and from 2 separate continents. They are, however, very real, intertwined and pertinent. I have simply used my imagination to marry the two, hopefully, to make room for contemplative reflection.