Lucky Sohail and I are in the land of the Imams (a) once more, but this time, during the blessed birthdays of Shaban 3 and 4. Oh, what a soopa treat!
Emirates Airline’s stepsister, flydubai, with matching step-sisterly service and attitude, flies us down to Najaf, where we arrive 30 minutes late, with my ears ringing with the loud pinging from electronic games played non-stop for 2 hours by spoilt Khoja brats whose smug parents think nothing about restraining or reprimanding them. Seeing and meeting our larger than life, in size, cheer, generosity and efficiency, Abdulkareem, is an added treat. After the usual delay where Iraqi immigration officers shuffle files and papers to convince themselves their menial jobs are important, we are let go.
Najaf is Déjà vu, for me. I was here last November and the pollution, grime, plastic suffocation, careless and brazen smoking is the same, untouched. The surprisingly sparse Khoja musafirkhana, petite, clean and orderly is a welcome solace from the outside grime. There are security checks everywhere, but the guards at the harams seem a bored lot, for I am almost always lightly patted in my rear end and waved through. Surprisingly, Najaf is warm for early April, although early mornings and evenings are delightfully pleasant.
First stop is to the shrine of de man, one and only, my Jaan Imam Ali (a); it’s a thrill, pleasure, and honor to pray at the haram and spend some quality time talking with him. I pester him about my frustrations, implore him to intercede with Allah regarding my many shortcomings, and convey all the greetings and salaams from others given to me as amaana. I bemoan about the status of us, his lovers, in the cruel world we live in, with the inept and corrupt leaders we have been forced to lead us and whine at the lack of direction and the divine salvation that still remains hidden in my life; pent up tears flow fast and furious. This greatly helps, for I feel peace and serenity afterward.
This feeling of tranquility is soured by fellow worshipers wanting to shake my hands as if they have some miracle shifaa in them, instead of letting me complete the tasbeeh of the Lady of Light in peace immediately after jamaat salah ends. If I make 50 cents every time I am forced to shake hands after salaat, I will beat Bill Gates, easy. Right, left, front, back, across, two deep… Goodness! The stink of unwashed feet and socks embedded in the lush carpets and the shameless lighting up of cigarettes the moment smokers step out of the harem, within the vicinity of the shrine further sullies my mood. As I wait for Sohail to retrieve our safeguarded footwear, a respectable looking pepper bearded man standing in the queue lights up, uncaring that a girlchild is standing next to him. A long pull from the cigarette, the arm goes down and scalds the girl, who howls in pain and protest. I swear out loud and feel an intense ire to slap him silly, to hell with the consequences; but I am in a sanctified place; I can only steam in fury and frustration. Since the food served at the Khoja musafirkhana is the usual uninspiring butter chicken and daal, we head out to an Iraqi joint for calorie-laden kebabs – yummy and unhealthy.
The next day, after fajr prayers at the haram which is at 4:20, we are off to Basra in the south. This is where CAI donors have paid to drill 3 deep water-wells, complete with desalination and purifying systems, servicing a combined population of about 32,000 who suffer acute potable water issues, now resolved alhamd’Allah. It is a 4.5 hours’ drive, time for both Sohail and I to catch up on much-needed winks. Except I have one eye open. The way these Iraqi’s drive, I never know; want to keep an eye open to see the angle of death take my soul, just in case…
Along the way, we stop at Hilla to inspect the CAI sponsored school which commissioned about 5 months ago; unfortunately, the school is off for yet another Iraqi holiday so we can get to see and meet only a few children who live in the immediate vicinity. All 3 water-well projects in Basra are doing wonderful, pumping potable water to thousands of hapless humans whose children frequently end up in hospital from consuming contaminated water; it’s a very gratifying feeling. It’s a shame that outside dollars have to be brought in to provide this service when the country is drowning in black gold, producing 3 million barrels of the bling-bling, averaging US$180 million (at current prices) DAILY. Quite a few deep corrupt bureaucratic pockets along the way to the people, no? Bloody crooks.
Iraq is drowning in plastic, and this is evident along the way from Najaf to Karbala the next day. The unkempt air of the rural landscape coupled with heaps of decaying trash, plastic bottles, and bags swirling in the air makes for a dreary and depressing drive. We go to visit Imam Hussein (a) and Maula Abbas (a). It is their birthdays on consequent days and I’m mighty emotional. Oh, what a treat! I am sure you can imagine this overwhelming feeling that I cannot capture in words.
Also visiting the Land of the Imams is Syedna Abu Jafar us Sadiq Aaliqadr Mufaddal Saifuddin, a tongue twister of a name masha’Allah, the 53rd Imam of my distant cousins, the Bohri sect. These close-knit and prosperous group, with their distinctive attire and mannerism, diehard loyalist, have a sizable presence here with their visiting Imam. They create quite a ruckus and become a nuisance and pain in the tush for the layman pilgrim everywhere he goes. I am all for tolerance and to each his own, but this holy man, bless him, has other pilgrims at major inconveniences. He throws money around, so he gets preferential treatment and unhindered access to all shrines, at the chagrin of others. His enormous wealth ensures his security detail is pretty impressive and he is pampered like an invincible. The guy lifts not a finger, everything is done for him by his eager disciples, from walking on air to wiping his sweaty brows. I’ve heard some of his lectures – impressive. He claims 100,000 farishtas always follow him around, protecting his flocks. Wow! I tried, unsuccessfully, to glimpse these heavenly creatures around Najaf and Karbala; could it be my rapidly failing eyesight? Sigh, I’m mighty disappointed.
Sadly, I must depart The Land of the Imams the next day and head to India. But happy, too, since I won’t have toxic fumes blown at me from multiple angles. And drink tea that is safe from becoming an instant diabetic. I have a hectic few days to inspect a school each at Halwaana Sadat, UP and Kodinar, Gujarat nearing completing stage that needs my attention. For now, CAI is done with Iraq. Insha’Allah. My Bharat is beginning her election grind as I am on the ground; I need your prayers I don’t get caught up in the needless violence that flares up along the rural route I am to travel. I am nervous, yes, but still look forward to the roadside Lucknowi spicy biryani capable of heartburn of epic proportions and knocking my socks off in the bathroom the next morning.