When as a teenager in 1979 I got a chance to visit London for the first time ever, I turned blissfully bliss. Why, slap me silly! London?! My entire childhood, elementary and high school bias was for the very Great Britain. Sister Mary Fabian, the headmistress nun who would never smile but easily turn a most hardened criminal to shaming tears with her vicious whining cane, Sister Isabel, our music teacher with whom I was hopeless in love with at a ripe age of nine and others who shaped my early inquisitive mind were all brilliantly (snotty) British. My early fantasies rotated around characters from Enid Blyton’s Famous Five’s mesmeric adventures and kinds of sumptuous tea scones that were impossible to imagine. Romeo and Juliet, Hamlet, Macbeth were tragic Shakespearian plays that my late, alcoholic English teacher taught me to love were all British. So you will not fault me for rearing to set foot in London.
Bah, what a let down, I felt so cheated, after years of infatuations and lofty visions! I remember the immigration officer sneering at me as he scanned and rescanned the then easily forgeable visa in the hope it was a good forgery so I could be packed off to Dubai; he was disappointed. London weather in April is the pits; absolutely miserable. The sky was gray, British faces were all gray (skins trying hard to awaken from a long hibernating winter?) and to top off graying matters, most people wore gray coats, maybe long winters dull all sense of color. Needless to say, I spent a miserable wet, cold week as a tourist, trying to understand underground tubes, scurrying for hard to find warmth and warming up toilets seats before sitting on them so I would not freeze my tush (that’s buttocks for you British English speakers). My only comfort was Southhall, where I saw people with (permanent) color on their cheeks and fanciful sarees. And the guard at Buckingham palace, he actually batted eyelids although my attempts to make him smile / laugh were all alas, futile.
I have been to London several times since then of course, with corporate America, staying at five star hotels, moving around in warm vehicles and eating overpriced food. More recently however, as CEO of Comfort Aid International, I have had the privilege of being the guest of Fatema and Nazir Merali who live in Northwood, Middlesex. This couple are the most kind, hospitable, humble and generous people I have had the good fortune to meet and associate. They are totally devoted to many humanitarian causes; especially my favorite – CAI; I would be at serious disadvantage had it not been for their total devotion to my cause. As is the case with all locations CAI operates, I firmly believe my Imam (A) makes all arrangements for CAI and London, with these and other individuals, is no exception.
I arrive in London to run few errands for CAI this time but more importantly, at the invitation of Ahlulbayt TV who want to air CAI activities, especially in Afghanistan. The weather is lousy; wet, blustery and cold, not easy to adjust after balmy 91F in Sanford, FL. Nazir Bhai is at the airport as usual and we hop off to jooma salaat at the robust Stanmore Center; it’s the same, busy, rumors swirl like rotating Dervishes, an elder member (may Allah bless and guide him) perches atop a table with a watchful eye, gathering ammunition for his next admonishing email; I meet many familiar friendly faces. A few days later, I get an email stating that President of Stanmore Jamaat has resigned; the Dervish’s whirls had some credibility, after all.
I have discovered a fabulous grilled fast food chain in London, not to be missed on your next trip – Chicken Piri Piri, yummy! Nazirbhai’s home treats, friends and relative home cooking and eating outside does very little to compliment my midsection with no routine running I do at home. Nazirbhai and I restore to brisk walking outside early mornings, which what the English would say is ‘loooovley’…only if it was ten degrees warmer. London weather continues to be as certain as a thirty years old spinster eyeing an aging suitor; khabhi sun, khabhi rain. I mentioned that cold weather, perhaps, dulls the mind of color perceptions; it’s true. Look at all the grey uniform English box homes, lines and lines. Ugh! There is hope though; with the influx of minority communities from all over the world, newer homes being built have more color and imaginative contours.
Nazirbhai takes me to visit an old age home he used to own; it leaves me so very melancholy. I fervently pray all of us depart this world with dignity and in our senses; I would not wish to live a long life. There are about twenty very old and senile people who have been brought here by their families to live out their remaining days; they look so very sad, the ones in their senses. Others are gone, lost into dark recesses of their brains, asleep with gaping mouths, staring into space uncomprehending, one perpetually studying her fingernails as if they contain vast uncovered mysteries. The smell of human decay is overpowering…
The taping of my interview with Ahlulbayt TV goes off pleasantly; the butterflies I feel in my tummy disappear after the first few minutes as Ahmer Naqwi and I chat about beloved CAI and the solid difference she and her donors are making in peoples lives. It is quite comical; the host with long, luxurious locks and I with a crown shaved just yesterday, radiating overhead studio lighting manifold; I can hear Mujaahid Shariff laughing all the way from Portsmouth. I leave cheerless London for warmer Paris the next day. But not before a trip down memory lane with Nazirbhai to Southhall where hot jalebees at Jalebee Junction with a steaming cup of tea can lift freezing sprits and a white face would look odd, bewildered.
I am puzzled when directed to immigration while transiting in Düsseldorf to Paris until it hits me; I am now entering the EU. Paris is so much warmer than London; it’s a pleasure not having to wear warmers. I am put up with Sheikh Hasnain, a young resident aalim staying at South Paris jamaat building. Suburban Paris has delightful parks woven into neighborhoods that are a pleasure to take long walks in the mornings, even if Parisians love their dogs and leave them unleashed, no matter the animals want to misuse my leg for various urges.
I don’t care how proud the French are about their language, their speaking still sounds like a mouthful of marbles. Unlike most Americans, who have a ready smile and a friendly hello for strangers, the French are canjoos with exposing their teeth and can be quite racist; I am calledMerde a couple of times. Maybe tempers are still smarting after Nicolas Sarkozy ate humble pie and the supposedly immigrant friendly Socialist are back in power after twenty plus years?
O’ lala, ah bon, daccord, bien…are words I learn easily. And Merde. I forgive them; French baguettes, croissants and pastries are delicious (not startlingly expensive); I survive on them. Paris Metro is perhaps the best I have seen; easy to navigate, fast and efficient. I was not impressed with Eiffel Tower when we were first introduced several years ago, I am not impressed now; why such a big deal about tons of steel stacked like a steep spiral? Napoleon’s mausoleum and other monuments are much more grander, something I can relate back to history.
Strolling visits to Muslim areas where of Barbes where Algerians, Moroccans and other immigrants call home are a delight, so is the green eye-cooling Paris countryside. The weather is very cooperative, cool nights but wonderful warm days. Until I get to Champs-Elysees; then I get the chills and my eyes water from just looking at the price tags on the world for sale.
Sabirbhai Sherifou, the new president of South Jamaat, who has invited me here to make a presentation on Afghanistan, is an amiable, gracious host and all goes well. Magreeb is at 21:30; nineteen hour fasts in peak summer; I shudder to think of spending Ramadhan here in June; this community has my sympathies.
This is nine hundred plus Khoja community who trace their ancestry to early Indian trader community arrivals to Madagascar. Once they established and flourished, the newer generation moved on to cities in Europe, especially Paris. Most are professionals, many traders who still alternate between France and Madagascar. They are a tight knit giving and generous community, even if they remain furiously independent of Urdu and English speaking counterparts in rest of Europe, sticking to Gujarati and French as their means of interaction.
My presentation in mediocre Gujarati goes off well with an attentive crowd of about five hundred gathered to commemorate the wilaadat of Sayyeda Fatema (S) and I depart for balmy Florida the next day.
Those interested in viewing my interview with Ahlulbayt TV click following links: