A Journey For Iftaar With The Orphans Of Syria
I’m heading to Syria once more. My recent visit to aid the victims of the earthquake in February 2023 exposed me to the precarious plight of orphans in the country. Sohail Abdullah, senior CAI Trustee, and I have made a determined decision to put more effort towards educating and taking care of them. This will add a hefty burden to our current budget already caring for about 770 orphans worldwide, but that’s okay. It has not stopped us in the past. If we can transform the life of a struggling orphan child by providing quality education and care, the investment pays off lifelong dividends. It is what Allah (s) commands of us and what His loved ones (a) practiced and would want us to try and emulate.
My Khoji cousin in Dar es Salaam is concerned that I’ll be traveling in Ramadhan again and is aghast that I’ll miss the ‘big’ amaal nights, instead of hitting the prayer mat in seeking forgiveness for my many sins and ills. When I respond that my travels will be doing exactly that and more, and maybe excelling in her rituals, I get an earful about my weak imaan and apathy towards Islamic rituals. When I insist that the rituals are recommended and not obligatory, she hangs up on me in exasperation. I’m left scratching my head. What’d I say wrong?
The only practical option for traveling to Syria is driving via Lebanon, so I am on an Emirates flight out of Dar es Salaam, headed for Dubai, and then to Beirut. The flight is almost empty so I am given special attention and my iftaar is taken care of, long after most others have had their meal. The captain determines that it’s sunset two hours out of Dar, but it’s still bright outside, so I wait some more to recite maghribein salaat. To be able to worship Allah (s) at 36,000 feet, bowing, prostrating, and submitting to His Majesty is such a profound high; I feel so close to Him.
Dubai is Dubai, with all the chamak-chamak that is not gold, but it is a hugely efficient city, and the investment in its infrastructure is amazing. I’m out of the airport and in a cab driven to my hotel under 40 minutes after the aircraft lands. The hotel kitchen closes at midnight so I have to figure out how to eat sehri. I know of an inexpensive Malbari restaurant within walking distance near Deira City Center that I hope will be open at 4 AM, it being Ramadhan. I’ll take the chance. If not, I’ll just have to do with coffee and some cashews I have on me.
I fret unnecessarily. People in Dubai like to eat. A Lot. At all times. The streets are full of delivery motorbikes at the ungodly hour of 3:45 AM. I pass by a delivery man outside an apartment block and ask him if he knows any restaurant that might be open for sehri. He looks around uncertainly and shakes his head no, but yanks his helmet free, opens the storage case on his bike, and pulls out a paper bag.
Here, Saheb, he says in Urdu, his bearded face obscured in the darkness around us, white teeth gleaming, you can share my sehri. I’m not too hungry anyway. You have it.
I take a hurried step back, not in fright but in genuine and embarrassed surprise. I assure him I’ll be able to find something open but he vehemently insists, so I have a bite of what I think was a pakora. It is fiery spicy and my scalp starts perspiring instantly. I quickly thank him profusely, bless his generosity, and head towards City Center. The Malbari restaurant is wide open and busy, with night workers and other travelers like me wanting food. I have a spicy double omelet and a piping hot naan, washing it down with a steaming cup of karak chai. Burp. I am all set.
The flight to Beirut the next day is uneventful, except the hefty dude sitting next to me splurging on braised lamb over aromatic basmati rice and gulping red wine while I fast is a bit distracting; I try to sleep. Lebanon is reeling from economic ills with the Lira in free fall. A US$ was worth 90k a few weeks ago; it now fetches 97k. The Lebanese are hurting mightily, with the middle class virtually nonexistent anymore.
The drive from Beirut to Damascus the next day is uneventful except for the wintery weather which the driver disregards. I was in 90F yesterday and now have to contend with overnight snow accumulations and about 40F. The next few days are a whirlwind of events, visits, due diligence, and compliance management. Abdulkarim Lalgee has joined us from Iraq, without whom we’d be lost.
Damascus may be an old city but rich in history and elegance. We put up in a charming hotel, Beit Alwali, nestled deep in the narrow alleyways of the old city. Very comfortable and modern with amazing decor. S. Rukayya(a) is a 15-minute walk away and S. Zainab(a) 15-minute drive. Both are a blessing, pleasure, and honor to visit.
Food is an issue, for me. Syrians relish meat; lots of it. After fasting for 15 hours, feasting on chunks of fatty lamb is not my cup of tea, although Sohail is all for it. Like most people in the Middle East, Syrians are avid and seasoned smokers. Young and old, they are chimneys in action. We have very little choice for places to have iftaar so walk into a fairly decent-looking restaurant on the way from S. Rukayya (a) after salaat. Seated three tables from us is an elderly woman, her days in this dunya probably numbered, obscured in cigarette smoke. She’s at it non-stop, all the time we are at the restaurant. A harassed waiter, a thin wiry balding fellow, clears and cleans tabletops with a fag drooping from his thin lips. An attractive woman in red alternates between khubs laden with dripping hummus and olive oil in one hand and a cigarette clutched in the other. She shoves the khubs / hummus mix through her shapely scarlet lips while smoke still drifts from them.
We join in to distribute some of the 50,000 bags/cans of infant milk sponsored by CAI donors, in very short supply or non-existent in Syria to poor families with children. It is heartbreaking to meet mothers with thin and ailing children who are unable to afford milk for their kids. One mother blesses us profusely, giddy with relief that her infant now has enough milk to last her at least a month. About 12,000 families benefit from this program.
Then we meet the orphans for iftaar. CAI will shortly set up a modern-day school that will provide quality education, just like the project we have in Sanaa, Yemen for the last six years. A hot breakfast, secular education for six hours, activities, sports, counseling, and a hot nutritious meal before they head home, six days a week to 200 orphans. All other expenses like clothes and medical care will also be provided.
My novels help pay for the education of these worldwide orphans. The last 3 have raised thousands of dollars and all of the money has been used toward their education needs. My next novel, Two Blue And Gold Diamond Earrings, will be published in September 2023.
Click HERE for a few excerpts from the novel for your reading pleasure, tempting you to purchase a copy or two or more. Even if you are not a fiction reader, or do not particularly fancy my writings, please consider pre-purchasing a copy or more (they can be a nice gift?) for the future of our orphans – click HERE to buy, priced at a modest US$77. Allah bless.
Note: My novels are works of fiction from my vivid imagination. Please do not assume that they are related to the work I do for CAI. They are also not religious works, as some had wrongly assumed from my past works – I am no authority on any religion. I love writing which is one way to pay for CAI’s orphans’ education.