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.

Friday, February 16, 2018

Pilipino Pilipili, Marawi – Painful Experiences

Sometime in May 2017, the city of Marawi, Philippines, in the Muslim south, ISIS militants lay siege, causing death, mayhem, and destruction to the people of the city. In the aftermath of the counter-assault by the Pilipino army, thirty percent of the city saw almost complete obliteration. Those who were able to escape found refuge in the town of Manus. About 100 people, under the leadership of Khairydeen Dimasangca, found sanctuary in a remote village about an hour’s drive from Manus. Since their community and prayer hall in Marawi were completely destroyed, CAI funded emergency shelters for 6 families cum prayer hall for the displaced refugees in this village, and this is where I am headed. I want to inspect the center for compliance reporting, listen to the unceasing pleas from the affected families and see if and how CAI donors can further assist.

Welcome to the Philippines, Sirrrr, singsongs a pert immigration officer at Manila airport, baring crooked choppers that are covered in braces, and delicately, neatly, stamps my passport. Uber takes me to the hotel safely and in no time. The hotel and adjoining eating places have no halal food so I have to stick to unhealthy pastries and coffee to pacify a persistently growling tummy. Filipinos love their pork; it’s into everything, even in the fish they broil and fat they fry in! Early next morning, accompanied by Khairydeen, I take a 90-minute flight to the Ozamis airport in the South. Once on land, for breakfast, to be very safe, we have boiled, instead of fried, eggs, accompanied by the tiniest green pilipilis I have ever seen. Unbeknown to me, I am biting into deadly local chilies, known to make grown men cry in anguish if not consumed minutely, carefully. The effects are instant; I am on my feet, on fire, hopping about as if in a crazed ritual dance, much to the amusement of some customers and the crackling old toothless owner of the unkempt cafeteria, who erupts into uncontrollable mirth at my vocal display of agony. I worry about the effects it’ll have coming out later; toilets in the woods of Philippines are very rudimentary, at best.

Driving to the village reminds me of rural Malaysia or Thailand, the landscape is very alike. Tall coconuts and mango trees abound and the vegetation is lush green. I lose internet connection soon and become fidgety. Although this area is far away from ISIS infested Marawi, we are still in an area which is still under former rebel territory, controlled by the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF). Indeed, the MILF and Philippine government were fierce rivals until very recently. To underscore this reality, Khairydeen points to a MILF flag fluttering from a coconut tree.

It is off limits to the military from here on, he points out to me, MILF rules apply here. They used to kidnap Western foreigners for handsome ransoms. He laughs dourly, but I feel a pang of apprehension nevertheless. I may not look ‘foreign’ with dollar signs about me, but some unthinking or hothead renegade fighter might fancy a grab anyway. As if sensing my anxiety, Khairydeen smiles at me reassuringly. Still…

The sanctuary Muslim village is no more than a ragtag collection of drab timber homes on stilts, very common to SE Asia. This is primitive living, where people exist eating what the earth grows and domestic animals have no growth hormones or antibiotics fed or injected into them. The CAI sponsored center and refuge has 25 individuals living in it, sharing one bathroom and a toilet. The community of a few men and many women have gathered in the prayer area to meet and greet me. They relate stories of woes and litany of complaints and requests. Although I am seasoned in these matters, I still feel anguish and melancholy at their plight. These people were, until a few months ago, happy and prosperous, most with their own flourishing businesses. They minded their own business, took care of their families, educated their kids and practiced the very moderate and peaceful creed of Ahlebeyti Islam. And one day, it was all gone, to rampaging hoodlums disguised as Muslims.

All I can do is sympathize with them and promise CAI will try and get aid for exceptional student’s college or university education. They say they want no handouts, they want to work and appeal to CAI for a loan for about $25,000. They will acquire a coconut farm and work the trees. This will provide instant employment to several of the men and be able to readily sell the product in the market, repaying the loan in about 6 years. CAI will try to find donors willing to invest in this very worthy project, insha’Allah.

Spoiling the serene background of our meeting are several roosters, who feel it their duty to loudly crow away incessantly; it is maddening after a while. Aren’t they supposed to do that at dawn only? I feel like chopping one’s head off and having it for lunch. Well, my wish is granted, since a super meal follows, with coconut milk flavored chicken, shrimp, vegetable stews and local sticky rice; I have a feast of sorts. Since there is only one flight a day to Ozamis from Manila and the village has no hotels, I have to drive 4 hours to Cagayan de Oro for my return flight to Manila. After spending 2 working days in Manila, surviving on vegetable pizzas and more boiled eggs – no pilipili, I head back to Mumbai via Bangkok. It has been a positive experience in the Philippines, my third time here. I find Filipinos laid-back and amiable, ready with their smiles and exaggerated R’s, so that a simple Sir becomes Sirrrr.

Contrast this experience to the incident in transit at Bangkok airport, on my way to Mumbai, where my carry-on bag is flagged for extra scrutiny. I think nothing of it and open it for inspection to an obese, dour female inspector. She opens my toiletry bag and without uttering a word, tosses less than half tube of toothpaste into a bin. I feel blood rush to my face and want to protest but bite my tongue. She then rummages through my bag and pulls out my power-bank. She examines it minutely before that too, follows the toothpaste into the bin. I protest spontaneously, loudly, drawing the attention of armed security officers sitting nearby. I complain to Miss Unreasonable, in a more controlled manner, that she cannot confiscate an innocent power-bank without telling me why. Not allowed, she growls in a heavy accent, irritably waving me away, not unlike someone shooing off an irritant fly. I don’t budge and insist I speak to a supervisor. She grins evilly and pushes my bag to the concrete floor, spilling and scattering the contents on the floor. 

We are the center of attention to perhaps over a hundred people waiting in line behind me and the idling security officers who all burst out laughing. I break out into an icy sweat, my fingers ball up into fists and I am milliseconds away from tearing into the grinning mass of wobbling lard in front of me. I am hardly, ever, prone to violence; I prefer shutting off people who offend me from my mind; its easier and takes less emotional effort. But I swear I am about to pelt her face. She senses the impending punishment, for her face changes into that of fear, disbelief. I am convinced Allah saves me from a dire situation that instant, for the anger suddenly drains from me. I crouch down, recite Soora Ikhlaas in my mind, recover my stuff and quietly leave the security hall.

Away from the hall, two Australian girls who were behind me in line catch up to me and roll their eyes to the heavens. What a bloody son of a bxxxx, one of them says. I am glad you did not do anything rash to her. You’d be cooling your heels in a stinky hole someplace otherwise.