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.

Thursday, February 1, 2018

Six Kababs And An (Elaichi Free) Kitumbua

Dar is surprisingly temperate in the middle of summer, when before, in January, I could not stop perspiring, even when idling in the shadows. My Indian Guru, Aliakberbhai Ratansi is finally joining me for his first ever visit to Tanzania, after futile attempts to coax him the last 21 years I have known the man. The drive from Dar airport to town at 6 PM takes less than 30 minutes – a miracle of sorts. The digs at the supposedly smoke-free Khoja musaafarkhana are mostly acceptable; the A/C works, there is hot water and the linen are washed and pressed, even though the pillows reek of previous sweaty heads. Roaches - I think I martyr an army of them in the bathroom - and the repulsive stink of tobacco smell in the corridors are sure put-offs.

I am unsure what it’ll take for us Khojas to behave and respect the common-sense no-smoking policies in place. I have seen this disrespect outside the mosque here in Dar, in Sanford and elsewhere in the Khoja world. Mufadhal type ironfisted penalties perhaps? The privileged ‘democracy’ currently in place has obviously made most smokers in us abhorrently arrogant. The gym in the complex is convenient and functional, if underutilized; in 5 days I spend in Dar, I find no more than 5 people working out early mornings. 

For a ‘poor’ country, Tanzania is faring quite well, methinks. Apart from bellyaching about Mheshimiwa Magufuli’s short-tern-pain for long-term-gain dictatorial reforms, from the Khojas mostly, most Tanzanians seem to be genially happy and at peace. The roads are well maintained, the persistent power cuts and water woes of yore are almost extinct and the rapid transit system works quite well. Aliakberbhai is treated to all the eating places Dar is famous for, including K-Tea Shop, where we gorge on 6 renowned kababs each and share a gigantic elaichi-free kitumbua. Burb. Zanzibar is bustling with tourist dollars, and even crumbling Tanga has more cars on the well paved and litter-free roads than I have ever seen before. Why, it also has working traffic lights – finally! The Tanga airport, with no more than 3 Cessna flights a day, has a cooling A/C, immaculately clean toilets, with running water, pump soap and toilet paper, and a TV in the waiting area that displays clearly. My, my, what luxuries.

Tanga, for me, holds a special place in my heart and memories. Although I was born in Arusha, it was Tanga that nurtured my physical and intellectual curiosity and maturity. At its sisal producing heydays, the town was booming, and the Khoja community numbered into several hundred; the general Asian community into numerous thousands. It was a vibrant place to be in, and people made decent money. Sadly, during the unwise Ujamaa policies of Mwalimu Nyerere, the founding president of Tanzania, the Asian business community prospered, even more, taking advantage of trading in hoarded magendo commodities. I was one of them and the guilt of earning and prospering on the sweat of poor Africans leaves me with a sick feeling every time I think of it or visit my birth country. The racist condescending treatment towards the Black African I aped from my elders is shameful and reprehensible, and I can only pray they will be compassionate towards me on the Day of Judgement.

We drive to St. Anthony’s (now renamed Changa) elementary school, the premium school to be studying in during my times. Funded by the Roman Catholic church, it was run by the ironfisted Irish nun Sister Mary Fabian, not at all shy in applying her vicious bamboo cane liberally on our tender skins. The school looks dilapidated and small; the headmistresses, Stela Kyimo, has a litany of wants, from a water-well for potable water to a fresh coat of paint. The church next to the school is where ‘girlfriend’ Clara, a product of a Portuguese father and Goan mother, led me one day from where I innocently tasted the holy communion from a larger than life priest who placed it on my tongue.

I visit Popatlal Secondary School, where Mr. Ismail, my English teacher, instilled the love of reading and literature and writing in me; I owe him momentously. I was heartbroken when someone mistakenly informed me that he had died but elated to learn he is alive, staying in an old people’s home in London; I will visit him in March, insha’Allah. There are so many overwhelmingly good memories from my days in this school that I am moved to tears. Mr. Chaudry, the Sikh headmaster then and now at 82, another dictator in my life, is ailing. His tyrannical behavior made me hate him then, but I realize how much he loved and cared for us, not unlike any parent. His hardball disciplinary tactics made a man out of me, and others, I’d like to think, something our current teenagers sorely need.  The cricket ground I and other classmates labored to flatten under Chaudry’s stern command still looks in decent shape and I recall myself as a 16-year-old running up to deliver a medium paced swinger that clean bowled ace Tanga team opening batsman Olavo for a duck.

And sadly, I visit our Khoja mosque, once filled with worshippers for any given namaaz but now with no more than 5 people in attendance for zohr or maghrib. But they are all present for dinner at the birthday commemoration of Lady Zainab (s) later that night. The biryani niyaaz cannot go to waste, no? I do get to meet several childhood chums I went to school with, so close then, now awkwardly separated by oceans of growing up experiences.

The final day we are in Tanga, I go for a long walk early in the morning, all the way from the claustrophobic hotel room near the Khoja mosque to past Changa school, 2 plus miles away; it takes me 30 minutes. This is the route I had taken in all my years at Changa, hiking to school early morning and walking back home late afternoon. The dirt and stone pathway, the crumbling courthouse and the stone giraffe have changed not one bit in all these years. I suddenly feel old and depressed, sense the weight of time pressing on my shoulders. Along the way, I meet preppy young girls and boys, happy, in innocent laughter, chatter, and mischief, with bag packs bobbing on their backs, going to my school; I wave at them and smile. Taken aback at the sight of middle-aged Asian in running shorts, a T-Shirt, and running shoes being friendly, they quickly recover and reciprocate with giggles and smiles.

Shikamoo, they call out in respect for elders in Kiswahili, shikamoo! Jambo!

I shake their hands and a crowd of kids gather around me; they too, want to shake hands; boys laughing brashly and girls giggling away uncontrollably. The clouds in my mind lift at the innocence and cheerful faces that call out to me and happy hormones surge through me. So, I talk to them in almost flawless Kiswahili, telling them I studied in the very school they were now going to, more than 50 years ago. They are astounded, yet again, and squeal in happy surprise, hopping up and down, full of questions. I stay with them all the way to school, asking and answering questions and teasing. They reluctantly wave me goodbye as the school bell tolls aloud.

This is what life is about, then, the new will replace the old, in a better way, insha’Allah. I feel much better, so turn around and sprint back to the hotel, receiving startled stares from those out and about early.

CAI donors will grant a water well for Changa school soon, insha’Allah. And the Abul Fadhl Abbas School in barabara 16 will be equipped with a full-fledged library, a computer lab, connection to continuous water supply, 4 functional toilets and a coat of paint. We’ll make this the best elementary school this side of town. Insha’Allah.

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.