Dear fellow Muslims,
Salaam Alaikum. May this holy month bring you much blessings and the taufiq of reflection and self betterment resulting in a chance to get closer to Allah (swt).
The following are musings on my recent visit to India (Mumbai, Calcutta and Kargil). Due to the nature and the unique experience in Kargil, this posting is rather long but I will, Insha’Allah, not disappoint. The wonderful photographs are too many to upload on this email and I fear not all will be able to download them. I have therefore, uploaded them on my website www.comfortaid.org. Please visit and enjoy the Iftaar distribution and beautiful Kashmir scenes as I found them. This piece will not do justice by itself, no matter how I try to make the reading appealing, so please, please view the accompanying photos on the website.
As I may have previously indicated, this form of narrative communication is to bring to perspective the glaring difference between our worlds; it is not a complaint against the hardships that I regularly encounter during my trips. These, I will bear happily for the pleasure of Allah (swt). What I try and do, is convey my exact thoughts and feelings, so that I may transport you, the donor, to the projects you have invested into. Insha’Allah, this will be so.
I am happy to tell you that the Ramadhan Iftaar appeal this year went beyond my best expectations. We were able to aid over 1,600 families, a 60% increase from last year! As in previous years, my fears of falling short from a commitment to 1,000 families were unfounded. You were absolutely generous; may Allah (swt) accept your sacrifice and reward you.
Iftaar distribution – Bengal:
I land at wet and soggy Kolkatta after a bumpy ride from Mumbai; after enduring a delay of three hours. The ride to the orphanage is typical of Kolkota traffic; chaotic, confusing. At least the monsoon clouds are shielding the sun and for now, I am not sweating and an enthusiastic escalation of my heartbeats. We have arranged Iftaar distribution for about 180 destitute families near an ancient imambargah and the place is crowded when we get to it. The rains have made the dirt lane leading towards the mosque into a muddy mess and a delicate but futile dance to find firm footing ensues. As the sun sets rather early in Bengal, we perform our salaat before distribution.
The food packages are lined up in the hall, ready for distribution. After much pleading with the crowds that are getting rather unruly, we manage get a semblance of order. I soon realize this is going to be hard labor. It is back breaking work, hunched down, pouring thirteen different items into various ill fitting sacks the receptions have brought along.
We finish up after about two hours; I am drenched in sweat but with sweet satisfaction that I am personally able to provide this service. Desperate for a shower and clean set of clothing, we set off towards the orphanage, a short distance away. I want to walk but the rains have started up again and my hosts employ a human rickshaw after much reluctance on my part. Personally, it is mortifying to have a human being as thin as a stick pull two or three people any distance. My host dismisses my sentiments, insisting that we are providing a means of income for the guy to feed his family. Still, the sight of a straining fragile looking back and thin legs give me the creeps and I am glad when we finally pull up at the orphanage.
Bengal Iftaar Distribution
Bengal Iftaar Distribution
You will perhaps recall I made a decision to establish an orphanage in Bengal back in June, 2005. Alhamd’Allah, with your support and generosity, it is now up and running with 14 orphans taken in thus far, including 2 from newly converted families. Al Imaan Foundation provides the administrative and logistic support while we the financial. Comfort Aid International commitment is US$1,000 per month and I ask for your continued support. Out of this amount, I have donor commitments for $750 so am running $250 short a month. Please consider supporting one or more orphans at the rate of $50 / month or more. This amount includes food, clothes, school fees, follow up tuition, medical care and above all, emotional love and support to the orphans and the confidence that we care and will fend for his well being. I cannot begin to tell you the progress we have already made in these three months.
The orphanage is still under massive renovations to fix years of decay and neglect. The orphans, unfortunately, have to be moved every time the contractor wants them to, which is often. I have to share a toilet between 14 orphans and 2 caretakers. Food is cooked on a single stove and water is hand carried 3 set of stairs. Alhamd’Allah however, we are blessed to have such dedicated caretakers. Amjad, the administrator, seems to have ten arms or more. From waking up the children at 4:30AM, to supervising prayers, teeth brushing, bathing, breakfast, preparing for school, walking to school, grocery shopping, hair cuts, medical needs and the many other tasks is done with a ready smile and unconditional love for the kids. This is not for 2 or 3 kids like our homes; this is for 14 of them! Above all his responsibilities, he is very cognizant of the treatment to these children, realizing they are orphans and the onus for fairness and equity lies heavy on him. His efficiency and patience is nothing short of absolute and amazing miracle.
It is both gratifying and frustrating to see how very far the little we sacrifice can go in poverty. When the children came to us, they were thin, dull and drab. We already see profound change; they look healthy and happy. The most profound change has been in their education however. I list 2 case histories that you may find interesting:
Ali Amin is 8 and hails from a remote village of Charghana (learn about this village from my past musings on Bengal) on CAI website www.comfortaid.org. Mired in abject poverty to begin with, he got deeper distressed when he lost his father. Moved to desperation, his relatives persuaded the mother to enroll him into the orphanage. Without any prior formal education, Ali was enrolled into school where he ranked 318th after his first test in 3 weeks; I personally collected Ali’s 8th week exam results where he is ranked 53rd. Although his English is poor, Ali does remarkably well in Math and Science.
Talib Razi is 11 and a bright kid with a knowing and easy smile. He went through considerable pain and suffering after losing both parents until a local Mawlana rescued him and brought him to the orphanage. Talib learns very quickly and is quick witted, having picked up a growing English vocabulary to be able to converse decently with me. He reminds me instantly of my own younger son, who is 12. Talib jumps from 96th overall after 3 weeks in school to 16th when I collect and review his 8 week report.
Imagine, if we were to salvage the life of even a single orphan, to be able to provide his life with an opportunity to break away from the gripping clutches of grinding poverty, it would be worthwhile to have gone through the sacrifice. More importantly, this act may, just may, act as a savior on Judgment Day.
Orphanage in Bengal
There is so much I have heard about Kashmir; its breathtaking beauty and lakes, so much seen from movies, the gardens and flowers and so much learnt from the tragedy of war that I am both excited and apprehensive at the same time. The flights from Mumbai to Delhi and on to Srinagar are uneventful, except for the yummy vegetarian food served by the local airlines of India. Don’t miss it if you ever travel to India – they are a real treat. We have a 4×4 waiting for us on arrival and proceed immediately towards Kargil, some 160 miles away. Two things are immediately very apparent; a refreshing nip in the air and the ever presence of Indian military. They are everywhere; every fifth person is an automatic weapon totting military man. Every turn and checkpoint that we pass (and there are several) out of the airport is manned by at least 20 of them. When I question our escort, he just shrugs and rolls his eyes to the heavens.
We travel and steadily climb until, approaching a curve, we are stopped by a military patrol. He is just a teenager, barely 18 and with a curt movement of his automatic machine gun, orders us off the vehicle. I am nervous, for I have not brought my passport and foreigners are not allowed in Kashmir without prior permission. I have noticed that however hard I try and mingle with the ‘Indian’ population when traveling to India, I always stand out. It may be my clothes or mannerism but I think it probably is the way I speak that gives me away; I keep my mouth tightly shut. While the ‘kid’ soldier goes through the vehicle quickly and thoroughly (he is obviously an expert), his commander walks around and scrutinizes each of us thoroughly and spends an uncomfortable minute looking hard at me. Reciting sura e Ikhlas in my mind, I stare right back at him; he eventually looses interest in my not so pretty eyes and we are allowed to proceed.
After about 30 miles, with a stop for ASR prayers and chai, the road narrows and is no longer paved. It is now 2PM and traffic into Kargil is one way only – going in. The lanes climbing up are so narrow, it cannot accommodate traffic in both directions. It is getting cold and I put on my sweater which is already proving to be inadequate, I was not prepared for this; it is still September after all! We finally stop for Magrib at a small town where there is a mosque under construction. Sadly, the construction is halted dues to money problems. It is perhaps freezing with a wicked blowing wind to add to my misery when we disembark and have to perform wudhu with the freezing water outside. After whudhu, my mind tells me to move inside for salaat but my legs refuse and I am momentarily paralyzed with the biting cold. With a tremendous effort, I stumble inside a cozy room for prayers and chai. Later, with a proud and toothless grin, the age old imam of the mosque informs me that I have just prayed at the second coldest place in Kashmir.
The final five hours of the drive towards Kargil are the most magnificent and the most fearful crawl, inching forward very, very carefully. The beauty of the mountains is breathtaking with an almost full Sha’baan moon. I have never seen the moon so splendid; it seems I can reach over and touch it! But the road is treacherous; solid mountain on one side and sheer drop of perhaps 5,000 feet on the other. One wrong move, a patch of loose gravel or a slippery turn will be the end of us. I keep my eyes closed but the urge to take in the beauty is as intense; I am simply awed at the splendor of it. Mercifully, after about 10 hours from the time we left Srinagar and 160 miles, we drive into the beautiful town of Kargil.
Our ‘hotel’ is the Hawza Ja’aferia, established some 20 years ago. A small meeting room is set up as a bedroom for me and Aliakberbhai of Al Imaan. At least it’s warmer in the room but we request and receive thick blankets. We eat a late dinner and then its sleep time for us and I knock off easily.
A little history about Kargil: Some 500 years ago, our Marjas from Iraq sent in tableeghi ulemas all over the world. Some, like Syed Abbas Shigari, Syed Ali Hamadani and Syed Mir Shamsudeen Iraqi ended up in Kargil. The outcome is a thriving and very, very proud, almost exclusive community of over 125,000 strong. The entire town is populated by believers; the entire city, including the District Commissioner (whom I met over dinner once). Don’t be surprised if you have never heard of it; most Indians outside of Kargil don’t know about it either and are surprised to hear of my experiences. The people of Kargil are dirt poor, but of very proud stock. I have been around the world and have worked with the poor and destitute and know the attitudes and mentalities that accompany poverty. Kargilis, however, are very different. They will starve, and accept, if offered, but not openly ask for charity. They live in an extremely harsh environment, cut off from the word for up to 6 months a year. Food has be earned and stored for winter in summer, school is shut down for 3 months, and chicken meat is hard to come by. The mentality is of complete submission to Allah (swt) and the survivor of the fittest; for nature dictates it cannot be otherwise.
Morning comes fast enough and we are up and about in a hurry, hampered by the biting cold. We are assigned a young fellow, Nassir who is at our beck and call all through our stay of 4 days; a very jovial fellow, with a constant and easy smile on his face. We are to visit the Jafferi Academy of Modern Education, an English medium school set up about 20 years ago. We enter the school to find about 800 students lined up in the middle courtyard who, at an invisible command, thump their feet to rapt attention at our arrival, giving raise to a cloud of dust that settle on my not five minutes ago polished shoes. Ah, well. Our host sits us on chairs and we face the students; I am immediately filled with an unknown sense of overwhelming pride. All the girls, from the youngest to the oldest, are in impeccable hijab. Again, at an invisible command from somewhere, 800 voices are raised in salute to a supplication we know so well; the feeling is indescribable and I am bursting with bubbles pride; never mind the bloody shoes… Very, very emotional stuff.
I am not too thrilled at the competence level of its academic staff, however. But the school operates at a bare minimum and has severe budgetary constraints, so they get what they can pay for. Its most urgent needs are a modern laboratory and library books; I promise to find a donor. The cost for both is about US$3200; interested anyone? Next stop – an orphanage in waiting?
As I have earlier stated, life in Kargil is harsh and hard. If you are not up to it, you will perish and this fact was reinforced by my visit to a newly established orphanage for girls. All of them have lost their fathers somehow and some have been further abandoned by their mothers after remarriage. The rented place is woefully inadequate, this is immediately apparent. Two small bedrooms for 14 orphans! As soon as I set my sight on the girls, I am overwhelmed with emotion and pride once again; it is impossible not to! I challenge any of you to come out of there with an unshed tear. They are so beautiful, all with pink cheeks and dark, liquid eyes, between the ages of 3 and 6, all of them in hijab. We are treated with recitation of duas and poetry. These orphans have decorated their humble, dark domains with flowers and candles; it is neem e shabaan.
I am absolutely certain that you share my protective feelings for orphans; you have proved it again and again by being very supportive and generous with past orphanage projects with Zahra Boys Home in Mumra and the newly established orphanage in Kolkata in Bengal. Alhamd’Allah, these are now running smoothly. Can I dare venture for one more in Kargil? Am I being too ambitious? Am I flirting with donor fatigue? These thoughts and uncertainties torment me. But then I think of the girls and their plight haunts me so I will try once more.
Here is an appeal – I want to establish the orphanage along the lines of Sakina Gils Home in Antheri, Mumbai (read about this orphanage on www.comfortaid.org ). However, I will not proceed until I have solid commitments from you. I am looking for $75,000 pledged over a one year period. This amount will cover the construction of a stand alone, self fulfilling orphanage, and will accommodate 50 plus orphans; free land has been promised by the DC of Kargil. This is possible; if anyone of you can pledge whatever amount to be paid over a year, please consider this investment. Don’t worry about the amount, however small; collectively, it’ll add up. Khums money is acceptable so is general sadka and general kheiraat. If I have the pledges by end of December, then I will commit to the venture during my next visit to India in January 2006. Keep in mind that I will not visit Kargil but once a year insha’Allah, due to the remoteness and expense involved. I visit my other projects every quarter as they meet my budget and time criteria.
With deep disturbing images of these orphans making whirlpool sandstorms in my mind, I am exposed to hundreds of explosions from firecrackers all over the city. Kargilis celebrate with cheap but gay décor and firecrackers pops all night long; sleep is hard to come! Due to extreme weather conditions in Kargil, all jashans are held during daytime hours, even in Muharram. Here, in the wilderness of mountains most splendid and magnificent, where beauty and harshness mingle, the praises of Allah (swt) are commemorated and practiced in the true spirit of Islam. In the 4 days I will spend here, I will not hear 1 stanza of music (impossibility elsewhere in India), I will not see 1 cinema hall, for there are none, and I will not see a single female under the age of 4 without a proper hijab. Kargil, I think, is the last frontier where Islam has survived in its original form. Alhamd’Allah, Allah (swt) has made it possible for me to visit both Iran and Iraq; Kargil is something else.
The next day is Shabaan 15 and waking us are firecrackers at five in morning! We gather after breakfast downstairs in the massive hall that is the core of the Hawza, where seated about are at least 50 ulemas, and 1,000 others to commemorate the 15th of Shabaan. It is happy and upbeat atmosphere, with gay decor everywhere. It is reported that there are about 500 theologians concentrated in the Kargil area. There follows sermon after sermon in praise of Allah (swt) but in Balti tongue. Just before the last sermon pre ASR and lunch, a deranged man comes running towards where I am seated and starts shouting at me. Pointing towards my exposed arms and head, he waves about frantically, babbling, a wild and terrifying look in his eyes. I am numb with fear and confusion and it must alarm others as they spring towards my rescue and subdue the man. I learn that he was a religious student before he lost his senses and was objecting to my short sleeves and bare head. I wear the sweater and borrowed prayer cap and keep it on throughout the rest of my stay.
We visit a fairly remote village the next day, chosen due to extreme poverty levels there. Also, for some unexplained reason, many of the villagers are disabled, deaf or blind. I am outraged to discover that nobody has done anything to investigate this abnormality; no government entity, no NGO or a charitable organization. One probable reason is the remoteness of the village. Still, the apparent unfairness of it stings. We distribute Iftaar rations to about 50 families and I am heartbroken that 50 more will go without this year. But Allah (swt) is so kind, He is sooooooo merciful to my efforts, for I get news that evening that additional checks have come through back home and the remaining families can also be accommodated with the Iftaar distribution as well; I am ecstatic! Unlike Bengal, the distribution is orderly and the villagers, very patient. Even the ones we could not initially help took the news in stride and said a prayer for us. Very, very proud and fateful people, these! Photographs will hopefully speak a thousand words.
We are invited to a pre marriage majlis of a prominent aalim’s son and daughter that night and are treated to a different custom and tradition. It makes me squirm to be introduced as ‘honored’ and ‘esteemed’ guest in front of such a huge gathering but such is Kargil hospitality. The foods are different but surprisingly spicy, I had the impression they would be bland. Kargilis eat a lot of meat, they have to, dictated by nature and the heights they live in. So mutton is served breakfast, lunch and dinner; chickens cannot survive the heights and the cold so are rarely on the menu. Yet I do not see a single overweight person! I will see why soon enough when I travel to see a sponsored mosque tomorrow, my main purpose of this visit. Needless to say, I merrily eat and recklessly drink the local water at the wedding reception at my peril that night.
I wake this next day with a strange premonition that does not shake off all day and my stomach is in turmoil. Diarrhea for a visitor to India is as common as breathing; you expect it and hope it is not too severe. Past experiences have taught me to stay away from local water and I am religious that way, sticking to sealed bottle water only. I made an exception last night as I was assured Kargil water is from deep water well, better than any treated bottled water. So it is either the water or the grand dinner that is being unkind to me; I skip breakfast.
We travel through peaks and valleys of Kargil, and navigate some stomach churning turns where signs are posted all along for motorists to be careful. There are numerous memorials set up along the road to honor ones (mostly Indian army personnel, whose presence is ubiquitous), who have tumbled to their deaths into the ravine below. There are signs at places advising us that the ‘enemy’ (Pakistani border is right across the next mountain crest) is watching. Nassir points out places where bombs during the Kargil war landed, deep depressions in the landscape; it gives me the creeps. I cannot imagine driving on these roads. Suddenly, out of nowhere, high, high up on the next mountain top, I spot the minaret of the mosque looming through the fir trees and rocks, magnificent and majestic. A donor has sponsored the construction of this mosque in a village with the strange name of Karkichoo and I am to inspect it. Raising about 2,000 feet from where we are, I wonder how we will get up there; I soon find out.
There are several bridges that connect villages in Kargil, all manned by heavy Indian military personnel and menacing looking mounted guns and rocket launchers. We are stopped and our hosts questioned: who are we two strangers not in traditional garb, where are we from, what is our business, where are we headed to? The officer is unconvinced with the answers and looks at me suspiciously. Aliakberbhai speaks fluent Hindi and Marathi so sets up an easy repot with a junior officer. I stand out, with jeans and a t-shirt in the hostile weather. What make me nervous are the automatic guns that the soldiers casually swing around about them, what if they go off? We are detained for about an hour and a half before word come from a battalion commander on the field phone to allow us through, but we must return within two hours. Aga Mohammadi, the prominent aalim and powerful mover / shaker in Kargil (here is a unique combination!) whose house we visited last night, has been on the cell phone with the authorities in town and permission granted.
Now for some fun and adventure: Because we are not used to climbing these heights, mules have been arranged to take us up the 2,000 feet. It is an uncomfortable trek; the narrow lanes up are steep and rocky, with loose stones and water all over the place and there are deep falls everywhere. I feel sorry for my mule, for he seems to hesitate at several impossible spots, only to be urged up by his master. The relief on my face is evident when we get up to the mosque, for Nassir hoots with laughter at the terror written all over my face during the trek. We meet hundreds of local villagers, including school children up and down this passage who navigate the very lanes with relative ease. It is sheer pleasure to be greeted with ‘salaam alaikum’ by every one of them: playing children, women washing clothes in fresh mountain water, men harvesting ripe apricots, families tilling whatever little plot of land they have. No peeing or defecating in public, an all so common sight all over rest of India.
The mosque is almost done and I am pleased with the work. There have been tremendous collective efforts to have this built. The entire village contributed money and labor towards keeping costs down. Women, men and children all chipped in, lugging cement bags and timber up the mountain from Kargil proper, shaving thousands of rupees in transportation costs. The final exterior of it is beautiful, considering the remoteness and wilderness of the place. It will serve about 170 families from that and surrounding villages. There is no running water or electricity so all functions will be during daylight hours. Truly, Allah (swt) is true to His promise.
It is back on the mules again for lunch at Aga Shaabani’s (our host) modest house even higher in the mountains. We have lunch after ASR but I stick to the delicious ripe apricots, fresh from trees outside. The decent is even more eventful for my mule nearly bolts, scared by bigger horses coming the other way and I am almost tossed from the saddle, but the owner is able to calm the animal down after a brief struggle. Needless to say, I abandon the mule and set about descending on foot, ignoring Nassir’s caution. If not for the very quick intervention of two among several villagers who accompany us, I was to bathe in the freezing waters that parallel and mix with the lanes or worse. For I lose my footing and slip, but the guys are quick, anticipating exactly such an event; I end up with a soggy but very cold and uncomfortable sock and shoe.
I am exhausted by the time we get back to the hawza, but there is trouble brewing. My wife had called and left an urgent message to call back; my stomach lose all resistance and decides to run and run, and some more. Telephone calls out of Kargil are a nightmare; if you get through, it is barely for a few seconds before I get cut off, especially for calls outside India; the military taps all calls and ensures that it is most difficult to converse, especially calling outside the country. When I finally get through to my house after several attempts, I find out that hurricane Rita is on its way towards Texas and residences in Houston and surrounding areas have been advised to evacuate. I am in a foul and troubled mood.
We are walking back towards the Hawza when Nassir asks, ‘Are you having problems with toilets, Yusufbhai?’
‘You know, are you having loose toilets? No?’ He smiles and bobs his head knowingly.
‘What are you babbling about?’ I ask, reddening.
‘You are in a bad temper. This is not your usual self. So you must me having the runs, I think so. I saw you visit the bathroom much times. No?’
‘No.’ I groaned.
‘Okay’, he says bobbing his head happily, ‘then you must be having hard motions then. Constipations, no?’
Astonished by such personal questions, I am about to take offense and chide him but change my mind and explain my predicament to him.
‘Oh, a Sailaab, your home is having a Sailaab?’ he exclaims dismissively, ‘Don’t worry Sir; your family will be much safe. You see, you are under the protection of God. We went much terrible, having bombardment during the war: boom, boom, boom,’ Nassir waves his hands about, ‘nothing happened to any of us. No baba, you have not much worries, Yusufbhai, it will pass and your family and house will be much safe. Put all your trust in Him.”He smiles knowingly and bobs his head, relieved that what bothers me is not, in his opinion, much worse than either diarrhea or constipation. I am so moved by his faith and sincerity that I feel much better at once and instinctively draw him to me in a hug.
‘Yes, Nassir, you are so right. God will make sure all of us all right.’
We return to Srinagar the next morning, starting at three. The decent to the valley below is as treacherous and beautiful. But after a minute long bear-hug embrace, overflowing with whispered duas of protection and wellbeing puffed all over my body by Aga Mohammadi, I am not scared anymore. The Kargilis have installed that conviction in me.
As usual, I earnestly request that you forward this message to as many as possible. It is only through your help that we will make a difference – one person at a time. May Allah (swt) bless your efforts.