De Mullah! De Moon! De Schools!
It’s an oppressively stifling morning here in Dar es Salaam. I’m not sure what happened to the prevailing winds; they’ve stopped blowing now – climate change effects, perhaps? Usually, a stiff cooling breeze from the Indian Ocean less than half a mile away circulates on the 10th floor of my apartment building, driving away the mugginess, making the warm summer heat somewhat bearable. But no winds in the last few days; I feel I can slice through the thick murky air in front of me. The fans do nothing but rotate the mugginess from here to there and I am bathed in sweat in five minutes.
It’s the start of Ramadhan here so my daily schedules have changed. My workouts start at about 4 AM so I’m done with the day’s exercise by the time I eat sehri (or daaku, as the Khojas of East Africa usually refer to the early pre-fast meal). Today is Sunday and the first day of Ramadhan for most of the sane world; I decide to go visit Mullah Mchungu later. I have not seen the old man for months although we go back and forth on WA sometimes. He has complained about me ignoring him so visiting a lonely elderly man, albeit a grouchy one, on the first day of this holy month will, insha’Allah, serve me well.
The oppressive sun nearly blinds me as I step out of my apartment building, but the Mullah stays not far away so I am climbing his ancient apartment (no elevators) in less than ten minutes but am soaked in sweat already. Hameesi, the Mullah’s lifelong caretaker lets me in, smiling broadly, happy to see me. Likewise. I press his Ramadhan gift to his palm – his grin widens, making me feel equally happy.
The Mullah sits slumped on his easy ancient reclining chair, slurping on steaming tea from a saucer. A half-eaten mandazi and a few bajeeas with a bowl of Hameesi’s fiery coconut chutney sit on a stool in front of him; my mouth waters and my tummy rumbles collectively in protest. Hameesi’s Khoja bitings are the best. I must risk a return visit after Ramadhan – on the pretext of Eid? Mullah’s false teeth grin at me so I’m unsure what disposition he might be in. His walking cane is nowhere in sight, the one he has not shied threatening people with, so I say salaam and sit on a hardback chair in front of him with reasonable ease – I can always outrun him if he gets physical at me, sparing injury. The Mullah gulps the last bit of chai and burps audibly; Hameesi is at his side instantly. He gently wipes his boss’s lips, clears the stool, dusts off food remnants of bajeea from the Mulla’s kurta, and straightens the old man by effortlessly lifting him cleanly off the chair and resettling him back; all done swiftly and gently.
Kisukaali, grins the Mullah’s false teeth, sorry, I cannot fast anymore. An empty stomach gives me unbearable acidity and non-stop gas, something I suffer from anyway. So, Aliraza pays the Fidya to CAI in Orlando. I hope you use it for feeding the poor and not stuffing your face. I can’t tell if he’s joking or serious, but I let the remark go and ask him about his health.
Why do you care? I am an old man waiting for the angel of death to come visiting. I wake up breathing, Hameesi here takes care of the rest. So, I thank Allah for gifting Hameesi to me; the guy is pure gold. Try and employ him after I’m gone. He’ll give you manyfold returns. Although he’ll have some income that I will leave him from my bequest.
I’ve been reading up on your travels, Kisukaali, the Mullah says after an uncomfortable silence and him grinning goofily at the furiously whirling fan above. Good job on the schools. Education is the only medium left for our salvation. And sanity.
I do not wish to engage his usual rants, so I just smile and nod politely.
Ignorance is a curse, Kisukaali, a damned curse. Just like old age. Ignorance can turn a man into a brilliant nincompoop. Take the example of this month of Ramadhan. Science informed us with 100% certainty that the first day of Ramadhan will be today Sunday. But an ignorant Bedouin in the desert using a telescope the other way round saw his camel smile at him and thought it was the crescent. Voila! See what I am saying, Kisukaali?
I have no comments, so I stay quiet and smile at the old man and try to steer him to safer topics. Like how the doodoo has finally taken leave in Dar es Salaam and we can recite our jamaa prayers closer together at the Khoja Mosque, like in the past. The guy plows on, ignoring me. I might be the fly desperately trying to escape through the net covering the living room window.
Ah, Jamaa salaat. Another example of more nincompoops. You go for Jooma prayers, right? Here in Dar? I nod, dreading a looming tirade. Tell me Kisukaali, you are supposedly an educated, well-traveled man of some wisdom now that you are a senior at 65. The Jooma khutba is rendered in Urdu, a language that is alien to the modern Khoja, except for the old farts like us. So, the youths get busy on their cellphones and the Africans look lost and try and stay awake. The only ones paying attention are the ones who understand Urdu, but quite a few of them are picking their noses, bored to tears because of the repetitive jargon coming from the podium.
That’s unfair, I think, and open my mouth to protest. It’s easy to sit in our comfort zones and criticize. I want to ask him to offer solutions but fear his violent and unpredictable temper. Perhaps I should leave? I’ve done my civic duty to visit him, surely?
You are chicken, ghadhero, always want to be politically correct. You listen to me, young man. We have a brilliant scholar right here in Dar. A doctor, no less. A superb orator mastered in Arabic and the knowledge of the Quran and a gem of an intellect. He has previously given Friday sermons in eloquent English that everybody can understand and follow. But he’s gone, promoted, hiding behind vague excuses. The Mullah pauses to suck air through his teeth, then plunges on. But he can travel to Iraq and other places, no problem. It was the pandemic first; he feared the doodoo. Understandable, but overdone, in my opinion. Our Imams (a) faced numerous enemies and dangers but did not shy from being with the people. This guy is a man of God, so he should be fearless as well. But he is a normal mortal, not an infallible Imam, so okay, excused. But what now? The doodoo is no more. Let the community at large, especially the Africans, benefit from a meaningful and intellectual Friday sermon instead of a dreary Urdu dogma.
He looks at me. I suddenly feel an intense desire to knock the dentures off his mouth. At least I’ll be able to tell what the guy’s temperament is? This constant grin is bending me out of shape.
This is what educated, prudent, and genuine leaders do. Here is a man who can reform us through his knowledge of the Quran and non-phony hadeeths. What do we use him for instead? We dispatch him to Iraq to seek guidance on how to stop people with inflated egos in our community stop squabbling and bickering and suing each other. As if the holy man in Iraq doesn’t have enough pressing worldly issues on his platter.
I think I’ve heard enough for today and gather myself to leave.
Wait ghadhera, the Mullah orders.
I sit back, alarmed, but on ready guard.
Education expands our perception and horizons and makes us better humans, which is what Islam is all about. Otherwise, we’ll all still be looking for the crescent using tools incorrectly while others have planned exact days and months thousands of years away, now. You keep on building schools, young man.
Hameesi lets me out to the heat trauma outside, an apologetic smile on his lips.