So, it’s my birthday, again. These damned events seem to hit the pedal to the metal, accelerating unrestrained, as I approach the day when I will fall permanently asleep. But it is not an ordinary day, this year, however. I turn 65, you see. Time to think about Medicare and social security and arthritis painkillers and constipation and prune juice. But it is more special because, this year, my Georgian birthday March 8, falls on the Islamic date of my favorite Imam Sajjad (a)’s birthday – on Sha’ban 5. So, it’s a special day for sure. Thank you all for posting the kind wishes on my Facebook timeline. With my travel schedule, it’ll be impossible to respond individually.
Birthdays, like other milestones, are an opportunity for reflection. Of achievements and missed opportunities. A few years ago, when looming death was a distinct possibility, I refused to become a shell, withdraw, and succumb to darkness. I had lofty dreams to realize before I kicked the bucket. CAI had just crossed the 25-school constructed mark and 50 was not an unrealistic target. I refused to wallow in self-pity, defied medical pundits and alhamd’Allah am 65 today. Healthy enough to complete a grueling trip to Madagascar, now heading to Orlando and then jetting off to the Philippines next week, all to ensure donor-funded schools are on time and budget, the doodoo be damned. CAI has just committed to its 70th school. That’s about 35,000 disadvantaged children getting quality education any day of the week. Now, what bounties of Allah can we deny?
Talking about birthdays, let me tell you about death as well? I lost a 42-year-old niece in a car accident in Orlando on February 24. Farha Yusufali was struck down by a vehicle while she was crossing highway 434 in Longwood after a day’s hard work at Apna Bazaar. Farha died on the spot, leaving behind 4 heartbroken children and a distraught larger family. She would have been 42 on February 28 (she was born on February 29, 1980). Although she had a challenging and sometimes troubled last few years, Farha had spunk and daring that unnerved me, yes, but also awed. It’s tough to have a daughter-like figure who I have cradled in childhood snatched away in the prime of her life. RIP Farha.
Our reliance on technology comes into play once more. I’ve landed at JFK in New York on a bone-chilling morning. I have less than 2 hours to dash to immigration, clear customs, and make my connecting flight to Orlando on another unrelated airline. It can be done, for sure. But we have an ailing person on board that suffered a heart attack en route from Dubai. He was attended to by fellow traveling doctors in the air but paramedics on the ground must see to him first. That takes 30 minutes and I dash to clear immigration and customs, certain that the Delta flight to Orlando will close before the 1-hour window.
The immigration officer at the Mobile Passport counter waves me through without touching my passport or scanning the QR code on my cellphone; my facial image on her screen informs her I am harmless and entitled to return home. My one checked bag awaits me at the baggage carousel since I am late anyway, and US Customs and Border Control are not interested in me. I make it to Delta Airline check-in counter 2 minutes and 3 seconds before time. Yikes!
I recite my zohr salat seated on the flight to Orlando and the guy sitting on the middle aisle gets his blood pressure elevated. He digs his elbow at his female companion on the widow seat and gestures at me while I pray.
Are you a Moslem? He asks after a while when I am finished. He is a hunk of a man with a beefy face, cheeks made scarlet by the 2 cans of beer he has already downed.
No, Sir, I respond. I’m a Muslim.
He smiles tightly, not amused.
Moslem, Muslim, all the same. Tearing at each other, everywhere, never at peace. And then praying in public. You should do your worshiping rituals at home, man. It makes us uncomfortable with what you just did. This is America. You know what I mean?
Leave the guy alone, Tony, says his lady, don’t be rude and make a scene. Please?
It is my turn to color. I want to stay quiet and let the comment pass but that is not me and I would not be able to be at peace with myself afterward.
Well, Sir. What I did is not anything illegal. I did not infringe in your space, nor the comfort of your seat, and the last time I checked, this is a free country to pray in any manner I choose. And yes, I am a tax-paying citizen of the United States, so that should preempt your next question. Have been for the last 40 plus years. Lots of it. If you have a problem with my reciting a prayer seated in my seat, you call the flight attendant and make a complaint. Perhaps she can reseat you?
Will you quit, Tony! Hisses his friend and slaps him on his hand. She leans over, her oversized earrings wobbling dramatically, and smiles at me, straining a cake of face makeup in the process. Please don’t mind him, Sir, she says sweetly, he’s having a bad day. You carry on and pray. He will bother you no more.
The people in front, behind, and across my seat have heard my irate comment and turn to gape at us. The guy across from me, a lanky white guy, makes eye contact, winks, and gives me a thumps-up. He then reaches out to shake my hand.
Yes Sir, don’t mind the likes of him. You right, ours is a free country and you did nothing wrong. You pray if you want to.
I smile him my thanks and recite the asr prayer. Tony looks like he has swallowed a bee and shuts up, closes his eyes, and takes an unsettled nap.
I’m in Minneapolis, MN, to visit sister Nazma and family. When I land at 17:00, it is 10F outside, enough to freeze the soosoori in my bladder. The following morning, it’s minus -3F. That’s minus -19C! I’m certain the founding fathers of this city were brain dead when they decided to make home here. And Hussein Walji and Shabbir Yusufali to follow their steps later?