Hameesi, Mullah Mchungu’s grinning native Tanzanian caretaker, lets me into the sparse apartment in the ancient and drab building that is Mullah’s home since he was born in Dar es Salaam eons ago. He points, still grinning, to the still form of his boss, relaxing in an antique hammock type seat that I used to topple from countless times monkeying around as a kid in Tanga. The Mullah regards me with a blank stare as I sit facing him on a stiff-back wooden chair, manufactured probably during the time of Prophet Adam (a). It is only when I am at his eye level to him that recognition sets the lights off in his eyes.
Kisukaali, he says with an attempt at a smile, his voice distorted by the missing ghastly false teeth he wears when out and about.
Aree Hameesi, he bellows, startling me. For such a frail old man, he has a powerful, booming voice. Hameesi appears soundlessly out of nowhere and stands by me, his extraordinary white teeth a marked contrast to the dark, beautiful ebony color of his face, giving me another case of jitters. He hands over the infamous false teeth to the old man and the original Mullah is back, sucking air through the dentures and grinning at me stupidly.
So, Kisukaali, I heard you were in town. Thank you for coming to meet a dying old man…
Geez, not again. This guy always gives me grief about his age and imminent death. I am convinced I will pass before him, at the rate he’s chugging along. It is only my concern for him and good manners that makes me visit with him anytime I visit Tanzania. We are served strong brewed chai and fresh mandazi by Hameesi, who soaks the already lax donut into the Mullah’s tea before wanting to feed him; the Mullah irritably waves him away and feeds himself. We enjoy the (elaichi free) mandazi and the tea treat in silence, until the Mullah breaks it with a full-bodied burp.
Aaaah, he sighs, I wish I could have a smoke. A beedi would be soooo good. My doctor, my daughter, and Hameesi hate me. No smoking rule is enforced in this house like a maximum -security prison. His eyes take on a mischievous gleam. You don’t happen to have a fag on you, do you? Bah, never mind, who am I asking?
He must be referring to my very vehement opposition to any kind of smoking. So, I change the subject and ask him why has he not come to visit his son and grandchildren in Sanford, FL like he does every year. He opens his mouth to speak, but closes it, and his face takes on a visible sadness. I assume I have touched a raw nerve perhaps and curse myself. I should have not opened my mouth about personal relationships. I know the old man has had issues with his son Ali and open, public brawls, even, with his daughter-in-law, whom he refers to as daakan, a witch. I am about to apologize for causing him pain, but he starts to speak.
Kisukaali, he begins, sucking in dentures and grinning at me without mirth. You are family, almost, so I can speak freely. I have only one son, Ali, but he is a nikamma, useless. He listens more to that daakan wife of his then use his Allah given common sense. I despair about his two kids, my grandchildren. The rot of your society has gotten to them too.
My society? I open my mouth to protest, but he shushes me with an annoyed wave of a matured arm.
Aree, be quiet na, ghadhera, let me speak. You know what I mean. No family has escaped the curse of living in the West. The daughter is a disaster. Just like her mother. Kisukaali, you should see the paint on her face. Ya Allah, like a tramp, I tell you.
And then, petrifying me, the old man begins weeping. I am paralyzed with shock, unable to move, while he convulses into painful sobs. Hameesi floats in again, looks at me and shakes his head sadly; It is the only time I see him somber; he walks away, still shaking his full-of-wooly-hair head. I still remain seated frozen while the old geezer collects himself, blows his nose violently with a once white hanky, snorts gunk from his nose into his mouth, plays with the harvest awhile and then swallows; my demeanor changes from horror to disgust.
Ali’s daughter is only 18, but looks like an artificially overgrown and chemically ripened doh-doh mango. She is lazy, will not lift a finger to help, and opinionated about everything under Allah’s sky. The clothes she wears? Why, you’d think she was the fashion page from Vogue; appalling beggar lookalike tattered jeans, multiple earrings, ghastly dyed hair and all… And the son? His butt cleavage and satanic arm tattoo are permanent features, a shining salute to my name and ancestry, no? He already argues with his father about taking on a muttah girlfriend! At 15!
The Mullah almost shouts at me, his pale face now crimson as a moa mango on sale with street vendors outside.
Make sure and pray your children select decent and Allah fearing partners, Kisukaali. Else, their lives will be hell on earth. Ali thought he was a modern hero by marrying for love; all he got are heartaches and a daakan wife who commands a handsome salary so orders him around. He’s lost his children to this dunya in the process, I tell you. Why should I come to visit when all there is to eat at home are ready made and frozen chapattis or pizza or hamburgers? Have you tried eating a pizza with dentures, Kisukaali?
What can I say? I feel miserable. I want to tell this cranky old man whom I’ve grown to care for as a father figure that his problems are not unique. That almost all families struggle with similar malaise, not only in the West, but right here in Dar, where he lives. I want to tell him to let go, and not expect the current crop of teenagers to behave and care as we did. I want to tell him that it’ll all be okay in the end and to try to be happy with what he has in his family, to enjoy whatever he has left of his life… I say nothing of this, of course. I bid him goodbye shortly, not sure that he hears me, or cares.
Hameesi’s grin as he lets me out makes me feel a bit better. I tip him generously, asking him to take good care of his employer. His lips open up even wider.
I try and drown out my sorrows with some K-Tea Shop kababs and chai.