Land Of Lychees / Nasty Najaf
Land Of Lychees
A break of a few days after my trip to Tanga and I find myself on my way to Madagascar. For a change, Kenya Airways is on time from both Dar es Salaam and the short layover in Nairobi, even amid the rainy season in East Africa. The easiest way for me to get to Antananarivo from Dar is to fly north to Nairobi, and then south over Dar again; I espy the spectacular Kilimanjaro’s majesty on both sectors. The Kibo Peak is covered with dense snow, and that’s such a relief since the last time I noticed most of the peak was without the white stuff.
S. Hanif is at the rowdy airport in Tana to receive me. With his contacts, I am out of the airport within thirty minutes even though three flights have arrived at about the same time and the immigration hall now resembles a fish market. S. Hanif is the head of FCRA, the local NGO CAI works with for humanitarian projects in the country. He cautions me to be ready early tomorrow as we have a long drive to remote Manakara.
Manakara is home to a splendid school sponsored by BTC (UK) and CAI donors. It is some 360 miles south of Antananarivo, about 55 minutes by air. But the well-wisher who had gifted a private aircraft to S. Hanif the last couple of times has the bird employed on business this time so we have to drive. It is a long, winding, and hard drive through savannah and dense jungle, made more difficult by impossibly savaged roads and unruly drivers. With stops for toilet breaks, salaat, and meals, we can manage about half the distance and we must stop to sleep at a shuttered hotel where a reluctant caretaker gives us some beds after some begging. My eyes snap shut the moment I lay my woozy head on a dubious pillow in a room that I can barely maneuver in; I do not even have the strength to brush my teeth. The last thing I hear through the paper-thin walls dividing the rooms before I die for the night is someone snoring explosively in the adjacent room.
Madagascar is rich in natural resources, from minerals to food and exotic fruits. These resources have been and are raped and exploited by successive corrupt governments and the rich businessmen who corrupt them, including the Khojas. The fruit in season now are lychees, millions of them, glowing red against the lush green foliage. The sight is incredible. Rows and rows and rows of the fruit, in tresses hanging high and low for anybody to pluck and suck on the honey sweetness from the fruit – subhaan’Allah. Needless to say, my companions and I get drunk on them once we reach Manakara and the school facility. FCRA owns about 50 trees of this fruit so there is no stopping us – burb. The lychees retail at about $1 for 10 kilos when in peak season. I recall buying the Honduran variety for US$40 for a 5lb box in Sanford, Florida.
I visit Najaf frequently, for CAI compliance reporting requirements of four countries that Abdulkarim, our competent manager proficiently takes care of. The visits have obvious bonuses built in – the opportunity to pay my respects and salaams in Najaf and Karbala. Sohail Abdullah, the next CEO of CAI joins me for the 3-day trip, which also includes an inspection of a tract of land for a possible school project less than two miles from the haram of Imam Ali (a).
Najaf is a frazzled and nasty city, made worse by shoddy new construction and utter apathy towards civic order, by all who have the obligation towards its upkeep. Beginning from the airport where the immigration officer inspecting my passport has a lit cigarette spiraling toxic smoke in his cubicle. The streets are littered with plastic bottles and bags; these swirl with the winds and land up on date trees. The odor of sewer hits my nose the moment I step out of the airconditioned car at the entrance of the haram of Imam Ali (a) – this riles and deeply saddens me every time I am here. How can we tolerate this affront to our most prized Imam? It is close to Ayyame Fatema (a), so the lane leading to the haram is decked in black banners. A group of teenagers gleefully rehearse the rhythm of ma’tam to the beat of a drum, oblivious to the fallacy of their actions. Groups of people gather in clusters, weeping and lamenting, pledging their love for the Lady of Light (a) and her trials, one led by a mere teenager whose hairdo should shame his parents; it repulses me. The sides of his scalp are shaved and the hair on the top points to the heavens, reinforced by gleaming gel. Yuk.
The rooms at the Khoja musafarkhana are small, clean, and functional. The food at the diner is mostly unappetizing – chicken and daal swimming in oil; the service is above par. We opt for the Yemeni mandi at Hadramout for lunch and must take a nap to digest the feast – burp.
Sohail and I complete our compliance requirements with Abdulkarim, distribute lifesaver warm blankets to orphans, and then head to inspect the land for the future school. I’ve never been more ashamed of what I see and encounter. The land is merely less than two miles from the shrine of Imam Ali (a), yet the roads that lead up to the place are revoltingly filthy. Heaps of rotting garbage are carelessly strewn everywhere, attracting throngs of flies, with ponds of murky, stagnant, and smelly water close by. Torn garbage bags scatter refuse along crumbling inner roads, casually discarded by people living in haphazard homes constructed on surrounding hilltops. I have no words to describe the filth we see. Are these the same people I encounter at the haram, clamoring at the shrine, crying, and beating themselves in their adoration for Imam (a)?
More horrors await us when we leave the main road and enter the wasteland where CAI has been offered the land to construct the school. The school is supposed to support orphans of 400 homeless widows whose homes will soon be constructed by another NGO. I immediately smell the death of rotting flesh. Heaps of rotting skin and guts from sheep slaughtered at a nearby abattoir have been dumped on the wasteland as far as my eye can see. Rationale tells me that I must be having a nightmare, that what I see cannot be true. But I’m awake and my eyes don’t lie. Then I observe the rotting carcass of a cow, recently dumped, its body still relatively intact, maggots and decay working hard on erasing it. Dumbfounded, Sohail asks why it’s there and we are told that it was probably an ailing animal so it was abandoned here to perish. I am too stunned to say anything. Then we see the remains of more cattle – seven of them. Creatures of Allah, are sick, so they are left here to die, under a merciless sky. And we dare to lament the cruelty of Karbala?
Needless to say, the school project is dead.
Everybody knows that Iraq is a debilitating corrupt country. With the oil money, aid coming from outside and the money brought in by the pilgrims, the city of Najaf cannot clean its streets or pick up garbage. Yet, with a barely functioning airport in Najaf, a brand new one is under construction between Najaf and Karbala. More cash to make heavy bellies heavier. How much crasser can humans get? A Muslim, a Shia, one who professes their love for the Imams (a) resting in that land. Shame on you Najafis. Shame on you Iraqis. You do not deserve them.
There is a simple fix to this, of course – from the pulpit. One edict by the ulemas about the sins of such obscene filth, and the many evils of smoking, including the sheesha, and the city could be cleaned, saved, and revived. The apathy of ALL scholars, alas, is inexcusable. They are indifferent to the uncouth behavior around them, smug, wrapping themselves and their noses in abas to ward off the evil stink as they gingerly skirt around puddles of filth to hurry for dars.