The weather in Dar es Salaam is heating up as ‘summer’ takes a firm grip. We’ll soon have the best mangoes, pineapples, and the finest cashews outside heaven to enjoy. In my past Blogs, I’ve alluded to the filthy beggar who sits, but most times lies prone on the concrete floor opposite the building I live in, about a five-minute walk from the Khoja mosque in the center of Dar. I used to give him money for food, but when I saw him smoking once, I stopped the cash and offered to pay for a meal from a nearby restaurant instead. But he refused, defiant, and insisted I give him cash; I said no, not too kindly. So he ceased talking to me and gives me a wounded sullen gaze when I pass him by. I haven’t seen him the whole of last week so I am a bit concerned. I make a mental note to ask the askari guard at the shop about him on my way back from salaat.
It’s only a five-minute walk to the mosque, but I’m already sweating and bothered by the time I get there, for it’s a warm, moist evening. Inside the walled compound, before the entry to the prayer hall, a short bald man is in deep conversation with another man sprouting a thick peppered beard, owner of a handsome black amaama, sitting on his head like a crown. What gets my attention and instant ire is the baldie has a cancer stick between his fingers. He sucks at it and blows a plume of smoke, polluting his mouth, lungs, and my immediate environment. The aalim smiles away benignly, wagging his turban the Indian way. I have this intense desire to reprimand him, that 1. He is in the immediate vicinity of a sacred place, 2. He is violating an official management policy against smoking (never enforced) and 3. He is disrespectful to others by forcing them to inhale his pollutants. But the apathy of the other man, an apparent aalim, gives me pause in stirring up a winnable ruckus. Is it not his obligation to reprimand the baldie that it is wrong to smoke, especially when polluting the sanctity of a mosque and violating the laws of the jamaat and other worshipers? While I wait for the turmoil in my head to stomach the ongoing tamasha, the baldie senses me looking at him in hostility and hastily drops the half-finished cigarette on the ground and smothers it out with a scruffy leather chappal. I let my facial expression do the frosty talking to both of them and enter the prayer hall without acknowledging their hasty and guilt-laden salaams.
It is turning out to be not a very good evening for me. The air-conditioning is switched off inside the mosque – to save money, I am told – and the fans swirl at top speed, moving the warm and moist air around. I look for a place and park myself under a fan, getting some relief from the swirling air that cools my sweat-soaked body, and wait for the call to prayer, about five minutes away. There is a hum of activity moments later. We have some important-looking, high-caliber guests, apparently, from abroad. Seated worshippers get up in reverence to propel them forward, giving up their choice spots. The resident aalim strutters about self-importantly and announces that the chief guest will lead the prayers today, not him, and also give a lecture in Farsi after salaat. He wants us to stay and give him a listen.
Then, suddenly, as if by magic, the open windows are shuttered and the churning muggy air turns cool and then cold. The Jamaat management decides, on the spur of the moment, that the visiting guests are not, unlike us ordinary ones in the congregation, to be deprived of a cool and comfortable setting to offer prayers. The special guests cannot be made to sweat away like the rest of us, so the air-conditioners have been turned on full blast. LUKU funds to pay for the air-conditioner will have to be solicited from members somehow. Saving money is not so important when it comes to Farsi-speaking guests from abroad, no? I want to request the guests to please visit Dar es Salaam more often, especially in the summer. We’ll pray in relative comfort together, concentrating on the salaat rather than having to fidget with sweat oozing from rather unholy places. I don’t stick around after the salaat concludes. Experience tells me that the lecture will be a drawn-out affair and the interpreted Urdu/English gets lost in translation anyway, more often than not, so I quickly leave.
On my way home, I don’t have to ask the askari about my beggar friend; I had fretted about him needlessly. I see him sitting in his usual place, looking even scruffier, furiously scratching his matted hair. I pass him by and our glances fleetingly meet, his frostier than usual. For reasons unexplained, I feel much relieved.