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.

Friday, August 26, 2016

Mast Maula Musaafir

Was it fun?

This is a question someone asks me the other day, after I complete a seven-mile run. It is a question frequently asked by many who I encounter. I guess it is out of politeness and a conversation starter perhaps, because nobody really cares a hoot if I run seven or a hundred miles, yes? Many runners will simply say yes, but I am always at a loss as how to respond. It is never fun in the literal sense, obviously. The feet hurt like hell; the lungs gasp for air, and the unceasing wish is for the torture to end. Soon. I question my sanity sometimes for repeating this routine for the last twenty-five plus years, pounding away around 1,200 miles every year. That’s over 30,000 miles already, more than the distance around the world by about 5,000 miles! It is only when the adrenalin hormone kicks in at about the mile three mark that the ‘feel good invincibility’ perception gets going. Yes, it’s fun then, I suppose. It’s a fantastic way to keep the weight off and be able to eat the kinds of food I love. More importantly, running helps me meditate for almost the hour it takes me to complete the seven miles, think over life’s challenges and focus on possible solutions.

Runners, according to a Runner’s World magazine study, have a different mindset than most sedentary humans, only because the running process releases unique rousing hormones that affect the brain’s discerning process; one reason, according to the magazine, runners perceive pain only at a much higher threshold. Runners also tend not to take regular pain medication, even at an advanced age, and the dying process is more tolerable.  I can vouch for the pain medication but will have to wait for the dying part.

This lady, who asks me if running is fun, hails from Holland and surprisingly, to me, a Muslima.  I meet her in Mumbai some time ago at the same hotel I always stay in, The Leela. She is almost sixty, fit as a fiddle, and on an adventure of a lifetime. Her husband, a goora, leaves her for a much younger woman. But instead of lamenting and mourning over the jilt, she waits until her only child, a daughter, marries and then she takes off. Dipping into her savings and a generous divorce settlement from the wayward ex-husband, she buys the finest bicycle money can buy and begins cycling, not looking back. What’s so special about that, you ask? Well, Raihana, her name, has no destination! She pedals away on her bike wherever and whenever she desires, with no planned destination. She stays back in places she likes and moves on when she tires. She has been all over Europe and is now in India, planning to tour Asia until she runs out of money or drops dead.

These people are called Mast Maula Musaafir in Urdu, a phrase I pick up from a Bollywood movie, I believe. I envy Raihana for weeks until Allah slaps me around silly and reminds me that He has bestowed me many similar favors. He cannot present all His creations the same adventures, but His giving is always there, in varied means. So I wind up the envy and look at the opportunities Allah has bestowed upon me with Comfort Aid International. It is impossible for CAI to have achieved the levels of success without His helping hand. Period. 

As I turn the last few chapters in my life, I want to dedicate my efforts towards two critical goals within CAI operations - orphan care and education opportunities for the poor and destitute. CAI has about 460 orphans that directly or indirectly benefit from continues CAI donor support. Since Allah has repeatedly admonished us regarding the care of orphans, this benefit must continue or even expand. As I must have earlier asserted, my third novel will, insha’Allah, publish in about a year. Chocolates From My Beloved (title subject to change) will insha’Allah raise US$100,000 (hopefully more) towards the care and upkeep of these orphans. I want you to purchase an EBook copy of this novel for US$50, or a print version for US$100. You will have tons of fun reading it, but even if you think the book stinks, you will have done a splendid deed. So look out for excerpts of the novel coming your way soon insha’Allah. All proceeds (100%) of the book sale will go towards this cause.

An uneducated community is shameful and unacceptable. I assume I am greedy when I ask Allah to grant CAI at least twenty-five schools before I die. Why? He gifts thirty-eight so far! And the restoration of three dilapidated schools in Zanzibar, one in India and two in Pakistan. Now, I want Him to grant CAI at least twelve more for a total of fifty. I’ll be one satisfied banda then. I promise!

Imagine, the existing combined student strength of CAI donor schools is about 23,000 any given time. Even if we don’t count new enrollments from this cycle, that’s 23,000 children with a first-time education opportunity. That’s 23,000 humans, as parents, who will never allow their children to be illiterate. Assume, at a minimum, that 10% of these students break through and attain university status. Think of the potential! It takes but one or two of us to change the world and the human mindset…

CAI, with your continued help, can achieve this feat, and I can die having fulfilled my desire. I am not selfish, honestly. We’ll face Allah together, you and I, hand in hand. On the Day of Judgement and beat our chest in unison with pride, our heads held high. We were so-so in following your commands Lord, but we were mindful of your orders regarding the orphans, we’ll plead. And we were mindful as well, in educating Your creations, Allah. So that they could break the cycle of poverty and live dignified lives in Your service.

The orphans and widows and school children will all attest to this fact and Allah, who is Just, quickly Pleased, extremely Forgiving, abundantly Generous and eternally Merciful must keep His promise and gladly open that almost unattainable Door.