Thursday, October 12, 2017

Ashoora Eve At Kasar Bagh - A Distributing Ritual

Ashoora Eve At Kasar Bagh - A Distributing Ritual
Back in India, it takes me almost two days to calm down and begin eating normally, after my highly emotional, haunting and turbulent visit with the Rohingya refugees rotting at the squalor camps in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh. Since I have been away almost all active nights of Muharram, I am eager to pay my respects to the Shuhada (a), so I head to Mumbai’s Pala Ghali, where there are Ashoora eve programs I can partake in.

The Khoja mosque, very warm and steamy, is almost packed just before magreeb; I am drenched in sweat by the end of magreeb salaat. A lecture majlis ends, and another begins; this tribute will continue throughout the night. I leave to meet up with my Indian guru Aliakber Ratansi, who is on duty serving water and hamburgers arranged by his Anjuman. Pala Ghali is shrouded in black stalls lining the entire street, each booth offering a variety of tabarruk sponsored by separate anjumans to the mourners. There are hamburgers, fiery pulao and haleem in disposable containers, super sweet milk sherbet, water in plastic cups…

It has rained earlier, so the streets are wet, slippery and filthy. Aliakber Ratansi is busy dispensing water at his stall, with yet another majlis streaming from a loud TV nearby. The reciter is cautioning his audience about Imam Ali’s (a) advice on applying intellect in life, including the mourning process for his beloved. Paradoxically, the streets are littered with plastic water cups, food containers, snack wrappings and casually discarded leftover pulao and haleem; I cringe at the mess and tread cautiously. The overwhelming diehard mourners, who are barefoot, are undeterred however, and walk about nonchalantly.

Since I am hungry, I wolf down a hamburger and some pulao, using my fingers – no cutlery here – and piping hot chai to wash down all the grease. The pulao is fiery, so I give up midway. The tempo of people, allams and taazias pick up, and Pala Ghali is a struggle to navigate after 9 PM. Aliakber and I battle to walk the short distance to Kasar Bagh, to witness the cumulation of all juloos marches of greater Mumbai.

Whoa, the sight at Kasar Bagh is surreal. The lane leading to the place is a sea of black and even the police, who have a proper security bandobast in place, seem to struggle, blowing their whistles and flailing their arms, as if that will get the uncaring crowds to listen up or disperse. There are, I reckon, over 100,000 people in the vicinity where I am, all jostling for very little space. We make it inside after a struggle. It’s not so bad here, people sitting, eating, smoking, chatting... I observe many Bohris with their traditional kofia, some Sunni wearing color and a sprinkling of Hindus as well.

If the vista outside is weird, the inside of Kasar Bagh becomes utterly bizarre once the juloos begin trickling in. With shouts of Labaik Ya Hussein, the crowds throng in, armed with an armada of allams and taazias, some colorful and tall, others draped in black, but imposing nevertheless. I try and keep track, but lose count after reaching the 200-odd mark. Then comes the impossibly tall, imposing, majestic and dignified allam of Kamar-e-Bani Hashem, Abbas, the Ghaazi of Zainab, and the crowds go wild; my heart contracts in pain and pride.

The reciter, a popular zaakir arrives, people make way. He eventually sits next to me, snacks on a quick soggy sandwich, gulps coffee and lights up a cancer stick. He puffs away like there is no tomorrow, sullying the already tainted blood and sweat filled air I am forced to breathe. A fine leadership example for our impressionable teenagers to emulate, no? He enters the hall to shouts of Labaik Ya Hussein and begins his lecture, stirring up the crowds with an inspirational devotion to the single most core personality that unites the Shia world – Imam Hussein (a) and his supreme sacrifice in Karbala. Labaik Ya Hussein roars 10,000 voices in unison, shaking the very grounds of Kasar Bagh. Such is the stirred-up emotion that my eyes tear, and I, too, am caught up in a frenzied raising of my fist in tribute to our great Imam (a). The lecture on atrocities towards the Ahlebeyt (a) riles up pent-up passion; the crowds want no more talking. Drumbeats thump and cymbal clangs and the gyrating begins.

Round and round the allams and taazias go, picking up in a frenzy. I think it is impossible that more people can enter the hall, but they do and join the circling of the allams. I am unsure why the crowds' circle, but they do, accompanied by the deafening thump of the drums. A terrified zuljana horse, his eyes large, rolling in fear, draped in bloodied clothes, is ushered in and joins in the rotation; people touch him and then kiss their fingers reverently. Hundreds of oud urns bellow clouds of pleasant smelling smoke that shroud the circling crowds. At some point of this ritual, the atmosphere of mourning dissipates, and it feels like a festival of sorts, not unlike the circling of the dragon in some Far East country. Over the roar of ruckus, I ask Aliakber Ratansi about the drums, since I feel like I am in a celebratory Hindu carnival of sorts and not in a somber tribute. He shrugs his shoulders and looks up to the heavens in apparent resignation. Hatele Iranians, he quips.

Kasar Bagh has a legal capacity to hold about 3,000 people; I am certain there are nearly 10,000 plus at some point. A miracle really, considering there are no severe injuries or stampede deaths in all these years. There was a stampede at a local train station just yesterday, killing 23 people, so I am very wary of the throngs that keep on pouring in. Youngsters mostly, wearing white (I wonder why?) enter, brandishing malicious chains and knives and disappear into the crowds. They return a short while later, drenched in blood, swooning, propped up by friends and volunteers. Recovering rather quickly after some water or sherbet, few get busy taking selfies of their bloodied torso with friends, and dispatching them onwards with amazing speed with nimble fingers on smartphones to the airwaves. I want to go in and take some photos of the gore but am scared silly of the crowds and flaying weapons, so stay put.

In the peripheral, some people do maatam in tune with the beating of the drums. An infant tries to imitate his father beating his chest, but lands on his diaper cushioned butt instead. Undeterred and resilient, he picks himself up and repeats the torment. Bless him. I tire at about 1 AM and take a very hard to find a taxi back to the Leela. Mumbaikars have finally tired and are off the otherwise choked streets so the pan-guzzling, continually stopping to spit taxi driver completes the trip in 1/3 of the usual time.

The visit to Kasar Bagh leaves me unsettled, empty, as if I have unfinished business; my heart still burns. Do these rituals fulfill the Imam’s (a) mission? Have I lost the opportunity to reflect, contemplate and develop a source of inspiration towards transformation and reformation in my daily life and behavior, taking lessons from the great mission of Imam Hussain (a)? It is only after I attend a more dignified and much more somber Shaam-e-Ghareeba event at Zeb Palace the next eve, offer my sympathy, sorrow and tears to the mazlooms (a) of Karbala that my heart senses some tranquility.

Note: I taunt, blame, condescend or judge not the events at Kasar Bagh; I am unqualified for that. I am merely relating, without malice, my experience that Ashoor eve. Any feeling of hurt is deeply regretted.

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Friday, September 29, 2017

Visiting Hell - Among The Rohingya Of Myanmar, Again


Emirates flight EK508 from Dubai descends to about 10,000 feet and begins the final approach towards Mumbai’s Chhatrapati International Airport. I am relieved, since I’ll soon be asleep in a comfortable bed at the Leela Hotel, after almost 24-hours on an aircraft from Orlando. Alas, not so fast. The plane lurches, turns course and heads up, up, up sharply, pumping up my blood pressure and making my heart palpitate like the effects from a drunken tabla player. The elderly guy next to me, an Australian, perhaps in his late seventies, utters a nasty profanity and quips to nobody in particular that he has wet his undies. He then laughs wildly, relieved that we’ll still live. The pilot sheepishly announces, after the aircraft steadies, like my heart, that he saw a plane on the runway he was trying to land on, something the air-control tower should have known and warned him. Nevertheless, we are on the ground safely in the next thirty minutes, and I am in bed within an hour of arrival. I need all my strength for my travels to visit with the suffering Burmese Rohingya on the Bangladesh side, in Cox’s Bazar.

To reach Cox’s Bazar, I have to fly to Dhaka, a 3-hour hop from Mumbai. Since there are limited flights to Cox’s Bazar from Dhaka, I have to stay in Dhaka overnight. Not such a bad deal, since I can convince Mrs. Hussein, CEO of the Bangladesh Women’s Welfare Association, CAI’s legal working partner in the country, to come visit me at my hotel so we can plan and strategize the intended aid for the Rohingya. This is not so easy, since the lady is a diehard ritualist for Muharram lectures and it is the 7th night of this sacred month. She relents after I convince her that Imam Hussein (a) would be happier with what we were planning to do. The flight to Cox’s Bazar is a non-event, except I can tell there are some aid workers, like me, who are headed there as well.

The Seyeman Hotel on the beach of Cox’s Bazar is like a fish market, with a steady stream of people wanting a room rendered disappointed. All the hotels in this city are full, thanks to the influx of aid workers and the UN expanding operations. The receptionist regards me warily and raises heavy kohl-laden eyes to the sky when she can’t locate my reservation.  I can only stare at her ears that have been punctured and adorned with at least six bling-blings on each lobe; what a whacko, no? My American passport works wonders, however, for she is quite impressed with it and labors to locate my reservation through the number and eventually finds it. Allah bless the good old US of A; I love ya!

The Kutupalong refugee camp is 30 miles from Cox’s Bazar, close to the Myanmar border. The army is omnipotent as we near and eventually get stopped. There is a quick and fiery exchange of words and eventual money with my chaperone. Since I understand Bengali very little, I think it goes thus: Where are you going and what is your business here? Huh, I am a Bengali and going about my business. Very funny, you cannot go, this is a restricted area. But I live in Cox’s Bazar, and I do have business further up. The guy stares at me hard; I stare back. Who is the foreigner with you? He’s not Bengali…I tense, since I have not brought along my passport and have no other ID on me. The soldier orders me out but a fast-as-a-flash exchange of some takas (the local currency) softens the guy’s heart, and he waves us through.

I have no shame in admitting that I cry at the camp; I cry like a baby. There is not an inch of firm ground to put my foot; it is all squalor. I can feel the germs and disease in the air; it’s all palpable. I walk on shit and wreck my shoes in an instant; I discard them on my return to the hotel. The smell of raw sewage is relentless, and I retch all the time. Everybody hawks and spits incessantly, perhaps trying to rid the rot that settles on the tongue and throat, infuriating me in the process.  Although the skies above are pregnant with rain, Allah makes them wait to relieve their burden. For me, I’d like to think; else I don’t know what I’d do if starts raining now.

The place is packed with young mothers carrying children who rattle coughs and sport thick runny noses. It’s the mother’s eyes; they look at me intently, expectantly, as if I’ll make their despondency disappear; I can only offer a sympathetic and kind smile.  The children’s eyes, they pierce through my heart, rending it asunder. They are vacant, with no emotion in them, as if the horror of what they’ve been through have robbed them of emotions. When I try to call or touch their cheeks, they emote nothing.

There is an urgent need for toilets and fresh water to drink and bathe; the refugees are absolutely filthy and nauseatingly smelly. A raggedy girl, twelve perhaps, squats right in front of my eyes and does her business; I frantically avert my face and take deep breaths, calming the barf that threatens to overflow. I look to the sky and cry again. Ya Allah, what have these people done to deserve this inhumanity? Oh, my Allah, the most Merciful, please, please help them. You are their Maker; You are their Creator; You and only You can change their plight…please!

The local Bangladeshis are excellent, sharing whatever little they have with the uninvited guests. Sheikh Hasina Wazed, the steely faced wily Prime Minister who is initially adamant about not allowing the refugees in her country, has now changed her stance; there are future electoral gains in this perhaps. So posters proclaiming her as ‘Leader Of Total Humanity’ abound everywhere; well, bless her. There are several aid agencies already here; the Turks, Malaysians, Pakistanis, Canadians, even the Russians, all dolling out packs of raw food. But there is no place to cook! There is no dry ground, only filthy stinking squalor mud. Each tarpaulin shanty is maxed out with at least 15 individuals crammed in. The majority, about 65% of these new refugees are women and children, either complete orphans or with a single parent.

I talk to a lot of the mothers, and the stories they relate to me are unimaginably repulsive.  I will describe the following two less violate ones, as some of these stories must be told.

Shahida Begum is only 32 but looks much older. She lives with other farmers in Nainshong village, about 18 miles away, in proper Burma, where her home is surrounded by the Burmese army and farmer husband, 35, is shot dead for no apparent reason at all. She manages to walk to Cox’s Bazar with her three children - daughter Tasleema 7, sons Shahid 4 and Subaid 3 - walking for a week and surviving on grass and appetite-numbing beetle nuts. Now, in the camp, she survives on handouts from aid agencies. Her future is very bleak, at best. I can only beg for some more time before CAI will be able to take care of their health, a warm cup of porridge and some primary education in survival and hygiene.

Kashir is a seven-year-old boy whose leg is hit by a shrapnel detonated from a toy planted by the Burmese army; it is slowly healing but will leave an ugly scar on the leg and years of emotional trauma. His grandmother, in her eighties, is grabbed by her hair as she protests the ravaging Burmese and decapitated, in front of Kashir. That wound will never heal.

I hear so many other tales, even more gory and ghastly, I want to scream for them to stop. My senses and emotional health cannot fathom all they are saying, it will crash, and I’ll end up a nervous wreck. They must be making it all up; a fellow human cannot be worse than beasts. Surely it is their imagination going wild? But this cannot be fiction, collaborated by so many others, in the same detail and fashion. I finally get beat and want to escape to sanity and urge my guardians to take me out of this hell. It takes a while to return to the main road and locate our vehicle. We take off just as the skies open up to torrential rain. My tears start their business again.

Action plan by CAI donors:
Immediate construction of as many toilets and water wells as we can get funds for. A privacy affording toilet costs US$120 and a hand-held water pump about US$270. Two toilets – male/female - and a well for every 15 shanties.
>  Complete medical attention and immunization to at least 100 orphans or children with a single parent. Including a hygiene pack gear with disinfectants and a dental care kit.
>  A large hot cup of highly nutritious porridge every morning for #2 above.
A makeshift school for #2 above imparting language classes, basic hygiene lessons, survival skills and Quraan. More importantly, a sense of belonging and purpose.
#1 above will be executed immediately; the others in about a week, the time it’ll take for our local partners to get a signoff from the authorities. Insha’Allah.

You can view some of the photographs of my visit here. CAI Trustees will be on the ground again October 18 – 23 to inspect and oversee above aid.