Friday, May 26, 2017

Afghanistan, My Turn – Mohammed Bhayani

Most places we think of are defined by perceptions and personal experiences. Such is mine about Afghanistan, as I prepare to visit it with a team of Comfort Aid International Trustees, to see firsthand some of the amazing work being done in changing lives of orphans, widows, the sick and the destitute in the badbakth country. I am setting out on this journey with my brother Shaida (Bhaijaan), Sohail Abdullah of New York and Murtaza Bhimani of Dar es Salaam. To be honest, I kind of already know what to expect from the voyage. I am warned of the rough rides on unpaved roads, the sub-standard living conditions, unforgiving winters and blistering summers. About the danger of Taliban attacks, the nature of some Afghan customs and just the mere fact that the rest of the world sees Afghanistan as a high-risk locale to be in. Just a week before we are set to arrive, the US military drops a missile known as "MOAB- Mother of All Bombs" to destroy a terror site. My wife makes it seem like she works for BBC, as the news is relayed to me seconds after it is posted online. She ‘speaks’ her mind of her clear apprehension of my upcoming trip. Bhaijaan has narrated numerous stories of his first trip with CAI three years ago and that I should mentally prepare for no western type comforts. May 4th, we fly out of Houston to Dubai, stay a night with a friend, eat and rest, as if this will be my last meal.

We land in Kabul, Afghanistan the next afternoon; standing six feet tall, I stick out like a sore thumb. Most men on board our flight have long beards, many up to their chest, dressed in Afghani kurta-pajamas, white turbans, ruffled faces that apparently have never used sunscreen in the winter or summer to protect their weathered skin. The new Kabul Airport already looks old, but not shoddy. Immigration is a breeze with fingerprint scanners and cameras, like most international airports; we are out in ten minutes. Here I meet three individuals, may Allah bless them and their families, who define and exemplify believing in a mission, committing to it, and acting upon it. I have heard fantastic tales of Basheer, Wasi, and Assef, of course, the men with boots on the ground that make the impossible, possible. As we walk out of the airport, they welcome us with smiles and hugs. We drive to Wasi's place, where we stay the night with his family. We meet Sohail and Murtaza, both ‘veterans’ to this country, two other gems who vigorously put their comfortable lives aside for CAI.

We set out the next morning on a six-passenger aircraft to Nili, the provincial capital of Dykundy. An hour’s journey by air, which can take upwards of 24 - 36 hours by road, depending on the time of year and security conditions - flight, please. We land on a challenging single unpaved landing strip of this miniature airport in this tiny city. As we exit, our amazing one in the world driver Sher Hussain waits to drive us for the rest of this seven-day trip covering seven remote villages. Grabbing a healthy breakfast of eggs and tomatoes, our first leg begins with an eight-hour roller-coaster drive towards the first CAI medical clinic in the village of Kity. I'll cover the basic ambiance of our drives, which comprises upwards of sixty hours of driving in probably the most grueling and dangerous ‘roads’ in this world; without exaggeration. I’m not doing myself a favor by thinking about time; unpaved roads become a norm; dips in the dirt are like an encore every five seconds, we drive not above ten miles an hour, even though the van seating eight passengers revs as if we are. I look at the speedometer thinking I'll feel the passage of time quicken if I see a healthier speed; it doesn’t happen. It certainly requires a strong stomach, good company, and tons of patience. This is the primary challenge during the entire journey. Because the rest of it is sheer beauty. Everywhere I look, as we drive up and down different mountains terrains and through small and large rivers, I see nothing but beauty.

On reaching Kity, we stop at the temporary medical clinic before heading out to the new larger permanent clinic under construction. To witness a modern building in an area surrounded by mud/straw homes speaks wonders to the dedication and hard work of CAI in making it happen. The new facility has an OPD, maternity, pharmacy, vaccination, living quarters for staff, full-fledged bathrooms with heated water and a water well for potable water. The living quarters makes me want to make this my remote weekend getaway, that's how nice it is. We walk around this new construction located on top of a mountain with beauty surrounding every aspect of this land. The clinic will serve more than 30,000 people in a 3-hour walking radius. The next morning, we audit the current temporary clinic, inspect the patient log, pharmacy inventory, the cleanliness of the rooms and general maintenance following, CAI guidelines. After meeting with the staff and listening to their feedback, we take leave. This process is repeated at the clinics at Ahngar, Gazbiri, Dyroos, and Uzmook.

The only way to do justice to my visit is to cover in detail some aspect of my experiences. Just like the roller coaster drive up and down the mountains, I feel the same turmoil of emotions - grateful, pampered, privileged, humbled, and none of them. "Which of your bounties will I deny?" I see a woman on a donkey coming towards a clinic with the husband beside her. A kid lays in the mother’s lap because of malnutrition. Old men lining up to get their aching bones checked out. And many UTI cases because of hygiene issues. Each of the five clinics averages forty / fifty patients a day, seen by a single doctor. The drive shows the many health challenges of people living in these remote areas. And reminds me of how ungrateful I've been in my life at times. I see a woman and child sitting on top of a mountain miles from any visible village, just sitting and gazing over the grandness of the mountains. I came across a man lying in the middle of the road, sunburnt and exhausted. I think he is dying, but apparently, he's just resting, regaining strength to continue his trek on foot - we are miles from the last town. I almost laugh at how easily he regards it as something very normal. It's impossible to imagine living the way I do and how wasteful I am. But every time I enter one of CAI clinics I forget all that retrospective mess. We stay comfortably, are served good food, beds and a place to shower.

The second village we go to is Gazbiri, the newest of the clinics, just starting operations. It is their first operational day in the temporary digs, and the conditions appall us all. It is small, cramped, with flies everywhere. And yet, we have the whole village standing in line to welcome us, a feast for food, and show gratefulness. Because before this facility, they had no medical care whatsoever! Ahngaar is one of the most challenging areas to access. The views are breathtaking as I look at the vista. The clinic faces challenges, especially when it comes to accessibility, but there is a much better permanent location finishing construction soon insha’Allah. Dairus is the best example of what a permanent clinic looks like - beautiful, well maintained, five- star compared to the surrounding dwellings. With the construction of a new CAI sponsored school for kids nearby, I can't wait to see photos of the finished product. The kids are currently studying under a dilapidated and dour looking mud structure. I get to pray underneath the open sky in the morning where I see majestic mountains, starry skies and two joining rivers. It easy to forget where you are and what the people are going through, with such beauty surrounding me. Going to our last stop, we head towards Uzmook. But before that, we stop over at the governor’s place for a meeting and a feast. Uzmook's new clinic sits in the middle of a beautiful farmland surrounded by jagged rocky mountains.

When we return to Kabul the next afternoon, it feels we have left a country within a country. Bustling shops, tall structures, fast foods, colleges, local bazaars, etc. The next day we visit Sakina Girls Orphanage (SGH), and CAI Private English School (CPES) built and operated by CAI. The kids we meet at the school are amazing; I just want to eat them all up. Next is the SGH in the basement of the building hosting fifty of the loveliest girls I have met. May Allah bless everyone involved in these projects because there are no words to describe the work that is being done here. The girls are all happy and eager to greet us, and we get to spend a little time with them. Since Shabaan 15 is almost upon us, an orphan hand us a poem she wrote in English for the Imam (a). It’s eloquent and well thought-out as she reads it out, but I can feel her emotions in every word; there isn’t a single dry eye at the end of it between the four of us.

I fly out to India the next day, leaving the misery, hardship, and hopelessness of thirty-five million humans behind. I have an option of freedom, of living in the West, with relative freedom and security; they have so very little. For a country torn by war over the last decade, I leave Afghanistan with nothing but gratitude and love.

I sincerely thank Yusufali, Basheer, Wasi, Asif, Sohail, Murtaza Uncle, Bhaijaan and the rest of the team of CAI for giving me this opportunity. May Allah bless you guys and your families.

Friday, May 12, 2017

Sydney / London Diaries

Sydney / London Diaries

Sydney Diary

Alhamd’Allah, Sydney is sunnier and a bit warmer than Melbourne and Adelaide. At first glance, the city resembles any others in the US or Canada, with wide roads, traffic snares and a downtown with skyscrapers. Except they ape the British and drive on the wrong side of the road. I get the privilege of being taken around by Zain Sherrif, a long-term resident of the city, and who knows the different center’s leaders very well. The centers are alive with people, where celebrations of the holy month of Shabaan are in full swing. I also meet up with a dear friend, Sheykh Jehad, who helped CAI raise funds for Sakina Girls Home in Afghanistan by flying all the way to New Jersey in 2014. And then I meet Ali Hussein, originally from Myanmar (ex Burma). Ali Hussein is the founder member of Bellfield College in Sydney.

The college, a considerable distance from Sydney proper is remarkable in many ways. It is gracefully nestled among a suburban wooded residential neighborhood, so it is an ideal setting for learning. It is the first secular Shia school in Australia, I believe, and currently has a student strength of about six hundred-odd children from various communities. What makes this fact unique is the diversity of students; Hazaras, Iraqis, Lebanese and an assortment of Indians and Pakistanis; some Khojas, even. The contrast and confidence in these children compared to their brethren they left behind is remarkable and startling. These kids, overwhelmingly refugees who escaped turmoil, violence, and persecution from home in very trying circumstances, sailing in ships from Indonesia to Australia, have now seized the opportunities of education as the only way towards genuine freedom. My heart twinges in pain as I compare their good fortune to the plight of ones still trapped back home, who I meet every so often in my role with CAI, with so little hope and so much pain.

The road leading towards the establishment of this school has been an arduous one that Ali Hussein has bravely navigated. With meager resources, a hostile local civic council, a skeptical community, headed by religious figures who know nothing about running a school but are liberal with demands and advise, the team at Bellfield now have an institution that I am very impressed with. The management, staff and Ali Hussein should be very proud of their labors. The schoolchildren are probably the best-behaved ones I have met in the Western world.

I pray that Bellfield College sees nothing but progress and growth as its planned expansion towards sixteen hundred students in the very near future is realized, insha’Allah.

London Diary

A very jaded Punjabi-looking Immigration officer in London, with an extensive and wholesome nose, tragically punctured with an even more tired-looking nose ring, asks me to remove my cap, barely glances at my invisible mane of hair, asks how many days I want to be in the Queen’s country, does not wait for a response, stamps my brand-new passport twenty-two pages from recent activity and waves me away, as if I am an irritant to her boredom. I fume. What a dingbat! Why couldn’t she have stamped it bloody orderly, like the British are supposed to? I want to give her a mouthful, but the person next in line is already breathing down my neck, so I move on. I am in a bad mood, I guess, having flown fourteen hours from Sydney to Dubai and another seven to London.

London is a city always worth visiting. I have a home away from home here with Fatima and Nazir Merali, whose hospitality has no limits in generosity and kindness. They treat me with such extravagant royalty, the Queen would burn with envy, even. This Merali house is blessed with the tastiest and sweetest fruits I am lucky to gorge on, from papaya to melons and mangoes to daaram, and whatever else is in season; a heaven on earth. These are some of the people Allah has gifted CAI, who go out of their way to facilitate and host me in my travels; may Allah bless them abundantly. Now if only the weather will warm up and unfreeze my tush; golly me, it’s already May, and the thermostat at the airport flashes a chilly 9C (48F).

I am here for a few days to attend the wedding of the daughter of an officer, a gentleman and a friend, Nassen Valji of BETA and for the ever-demanding compliance issues related to CAI worldwide projects. Several visits to the Khoja Stanmore center is mandatory, of course. Here is where I can sometimes connect with people I meet after forty plus years. Childhood school or madressa mates from Tanga and Arusha from back home in Tanzania. Also mandatory is the fiery Zanzibari mix from Azad’s shack; the guy is now probably a hereditary icon in the annals of London’s Khoja history?

There is no dearth of halal restaurants in London, of course, so I am treated to good food and better company. Walking the streets of this ancient city, observing the diverse humanity mingling therein, with all religions and intertwining cultures, I am convinced humanity has hope. Real, solid opportunity for a peaceful and progressive future, even with the current global upheaval of gloom and doom that prevail. As a racial and especially religious (read Muslim) minority individual, living and visiting ‘Western’ democracies for almost forty years, I find my hosts practicing Islam without being Muslims. Yes, there are isolated incidents of intolerance, made notorious through social media, but that is to be expected. Especially when we take upon ourselves in sporting ugly looking unkempt beards or exaggerated adornings not mandated by our religion. I shudder to imagine what the scenario would be if the roles were reversed. Politics aside, minorities have been, are, generally welcomed and a vast number of us have, are assimilating, no, prospering in these adopted countries. The situation is never ideal, but what, in life, is. Insaaniyat is still, perhaps now a bit diluted, the underlying ethos.

I am glad to leave London and return home via a very warm India; it’s been too long.

Now, if you can spare fifteen minutes, I encourage you to watch the flowing clip. I promise you will be enlightened, at a minimum, insha’Allah.

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.