Land Of My Imams / I Am So Upset, So Mad
FlyDubai is a terrible airline. It has modern aircrafts and all, but an unfriendly crew and lousy service. It is as if they know they play the second fiddle to their cousins at Emirates and the resentment shows. Flying economy, nothing is free. Since the exit seats on Dubai – Najaf flight are unoccupied, I ask a stewardess with a cake of excessive rouge on her sagging cheeks if I can sit there. The lady, bless her, either Egyptian or Moroccan, bats false eyelashes my way and wags a finger with (fake?) fingernail the size of her pinkie and says no, not unless I pay for it. The blazingly red painted fingernail mesmerizes me as I follow its sideways movement; I wonder how she picks her nose without snapping the talon?
Lucky me, I am going to the land of my Imams (a) – Iraq. Not for the regular ziyaara, but to open CAI’s 43rd worldwide school and commission a water well project that will provide clean, potable water to about 3,000 families currently drinking and using contaminated water – the meeting with the Imams (a) is a soopa bonus. Abdul Kareem Lalji, a towering personality, in length, girth, and generosity, awaits me at the airport. He has been and is an invaluable asset to CAI in critical admin support for projects in Iraq and Yemen. After appeasing the right channels to allow me through immigration with a not-so-kosher visa, we drive to the city center.
Day 1 – Najaf
The streets of Najaf disappoint at once. They look and smell crummy, certainly unbecoming for the resting place of my beloved Imam (a). The smell of raw sewage is enduring and revolting throughout my stay in Najaf, and the visit to Karbala as well. The streets are unkempt and tacky, and the leaded cheap gasoline fumes spewing from smoky vehicles nauseate me; I know I’ll be sick soon. I am repulsed and angry at this treatment of my Imams (a) by the Iraqis. Where is the money from producing and selling 3 million barrels of oil (a day!) at a median price of $60 plus the last few years going?
The walk to the Khoja musafer-khana is long, due to security concerns which do not allow unofficial vehicles anywhere near the harams. I pass through a bazaar, where it seems every other Iraqi is puffing away and the other half slurping diabetic inducing sugar laden hot tea. The Khoja musafer-khana, very close to the haram is comfortable enough. The rooms are small but clean and everything works, including a reasonably high-speed Wi-Fi. The food is okay for a Khoja palate, starchy, oily and spicy, with very little choice in variety. I guess I should not be overly finicky for US$70 per day, including the 3 meals? Khoja brats run amok late into the night, causing so much ruckus, I feel the urge to go and give them some tough love. I see very little logic in bringing these brats to places like Iraq, where they are no more than nuisances for their harassed mothers (the dads sit around and gossip about stock bazaar and intoxicate on gutka) and others, including in the harams. Since it is almost magreeb, I pay my respects to the Imam (a) spend some quality time with him afterward.
Day 2 – Basra
Since the musafer-khanah rightly does not offer physical activity facilities, I have to contend with pushups and skipping rope before a greasy breakfast of spicy egg burji next morning. I am momentarily fearful the din from the rope will rattle the sleeping below my floor but they seem to be fast asleep, recovering from the turmoil of the rampaging brats.
I am being driven to Basra, where CAI donors have paid for the drilling of a deepwater well, desalinating and purification plant; I am to commission it. I am attired for a cooler Iraq in November, but it turns out to be uncomfortably hot by 10 AM. It is a 4 plus hour drive to Basra through some desolate territory. Since it was Arbaeen of Imam Hussein (a) a few days ago, black banners adorn congested city streets. Large billboards portraying images of Imam Ali, Hussein and Maula Abbas (a) stare down on me; I squirm; especially at the one which has Imam Ali (a) brandishing the massive Zulfiqar, with a full-grown lion at his feet. I wish the Iraqis would make up their minds how these Aimaas (a) looked like, since they differ so much? Also fiercely frowning down at me is Muqtada Sadr; I quickly avert my eyes. Just in case?
The flares from oil rigs in the horizon signal Basra at magreeb; we are received by a village elder of a clan, who, after salat, brings out a display of lavish hospitality that would make any royalty worth their salt squirm in their throne. A dinner spectacle that takes 4 people to carry 2 trays piled with cardamom-flavored rice, topped with the carcass of a roasted sheep; I am instantly put off. What saves me from hunger is the celebrated Iraqi roasted barbecued fish split open, like a book and floured with garlic, roasted onions and tomatoes. Burp.
Our host has commissioned his 2 wives to cook this gala dinner in my honor, who dismisses my gratefulness and protests with an airy wave of a plump hand, burps loud and smiles away benevolently. With the neighbors, his 7 children (all sons) and other relatives, we manage to eat less than a quarter of the food that is served. This is followed by fruits, cooked dates flavored with sesame syrup and sherberi sweet tea. I know that my personal trainer in Mumbai will be so utterly disappointed in me.
We discuss the commissioning of the water well tomorrow and he gives me a long-winded saga of water woes in the area that is now relieved by this water project – Rehima-Allah-waledek and Allah-khaleq; may Allah bless your parents and may Allah make you wholesome. These 2 phrases. I think, are ingrained in every Iraqi’s vocabulary from the time of their birth. It is a common blessing that is uttered by everybody all the time, many times too casually.
My host wants to know how many wives I have and is perplexed why the Khojas, generally, are content with a single spouse. He advises me to remarry, and not worry too much about the consequences of feuding / harassing spouses. They’ll eventually end up settling down, competing for your attention and love and leave you alone. It’s the Iraqi way, the Muslim way, the way of our Prophet and the Aimaas (s). I can only look up at the concealed heavens.
It is indeed gratifying to see the water project operating, pumping abundant water to the poor villages that have thus far been drinking contaminated water. 150,000 liters is available at any given time of the day.
Day 3 – Al Kifl and Karbala
CAI donors have sponsored the 43rd worldwide school in Al Kifl, some 25 miles from Najaf; it is my honor and privilege to cut the customary ribbon. There is a nip in the air as we fight our way through the usual undisciplined traffic of Basra, breathing in lead. At the school, the elated villagers are out to welcome us in force. They slaughter a sheep at my feet as I cut the ribbon, the gushing blood misses my sneakers by a whisker. After the traditional speeches where I roast under a relentless sun, I get to inspect the building. It is not up to my very high standards, but this is the best they can do. CAI will insha’Allah work with the school to bring the standards up in the future, IF they dance to our tunes in regards to upkeep, maintenance, and quality education. For now, the 400 odd students will get instant relief of a modern school with desks and opportunities for an education.
Heading towards Karbala, the driver seems to be in a mighty hurry. The speedometer touches 100, 120, 140 and then 160; I break out into an even bigger sweat. I yell at him to slow down but his wife has just had a new baby and he is on fire. Ah well, being buried in Karbala is not that bad, no?
The rest of the day is mine, to visit the holy land of Karbala and spend some time visiting with my beloveds. What a wonderful treat! I only wish the area around these sacred places were cleaned up. Near the shrine of Imam Hussein (a) a bursting sewer manhole has overflown, leaving a degrading sight of utter disgusting muck on the narrow street, and a revolting pong, drawing thousands of gleefully buzzing flies. I am so upset, so mad.
That night, while the brats downstairs still torment us with their tantrums, the lead in my tummy revolt and become, temporarily, violently sick. Alhamd’Allah, the ailment is transient and I recover soon enough.
I am so mad.