Sydney / London Diaries
Alhamd’Allah, Sydney is sunnier and a bit warmer than Melbourne and Adelaide. At first glance, the city resembles any others in the US or Canada, with wide roads, traffic snares and a downtown with skyscrapers. Except they ape the British and drive on the wrong side of the road. I get the privilege of being taken around by Zain Sherrif, a long-term resident of the city, and who knows the different center’s leaders very well. The centers are alive with people, where celebrations of the holy month of Shabaan are in full swing. I also meet up with a dear friend, Sheykh Jehad, who helped CAI raise funds for Sakina Girls Home in Afghanistan by flying all the way to New Jersey in 2014. And then I meet Ali Hussein, originally from Myanmar (ex Burma). Ali Hussein is the founder member of Bellfield College in Sydney.
The college, a considerable distance from Sydney proper is remarkable in many ways. It is gracefully nestled among a suburban wooded residential neighborhood, so it is an ideal setting for learning. It is the first secular Shia school in Australia, I believe, and currently has a student strength of about six hundred-odd children from various communities. What makes this fact unique is the diversity of students; Hazaras, Iraqis, Lebanese and an assortment of Indians and Pakistanis; some Khojas, even. The contrast and confidence in these children compared to their brethren they left behind is remarkable and startling. These kids, overwhelmingly refugees who escaped turmoil, violence, and persecution from home in very trying circumstances, sailing in ships from Indonesia to Australia, have now seized the opportunities of education as the only way towards genuine freedom. My heart twinges in pain as I compare their good fortune to the plight of ones still trapped back home, who I meet every so often in my role with CAI, with so little hope and so much pain.
The road leading towards the establishment of this school has been an arduous one that Ali Hussein has bravely navigated. With meager resources, a hostile local civic council, a skeptical community, headed by religious figures who know nothing about running a school but are liberal with demands and advise, the team at Bellfield now have an institution that I am very impressed with. The management, staff and Ali Hussein should be very proud of their labors. The schoolchildren are probably the best-behaved ones I have met in the Western world.
I pray that Bellfield College sees nothing but progress and growth as its planned expansion towards sixteen hundred students in the very near future is realized, insha’Allah.
A very jaded Punjabi-looking Immigration officer in London, with an extensive and wholesome nose, tragically punctured with an even more tired-looking nose ring, asks me to remove my cap, barely glances at my invisible mane of hair, asks how many days I want to be in the Queen’s country, does not wait for a response, stamps my brand-new passport twenty-two pages from recent activity and waves me away, as if I am an irritant to her boredom. I fume. What a dingbat! Why couldn’t she have stamped it bloody orderly, like the British are supposed to? I want to give her a mouthful, but the person next in line is already breathing down my neck, so I move on. I am in a bad mood, I guess, having flown fourteen hours from Sydney to Dubai and another seven to London.
London is a city always worth visiting. I have a home away from home here with Fatima and Nazir Merali, whose hospitality has no limits in generosity and kindness. They treat me with such extravagant royalty, the Queen would burn with envy, even. This Merali house is blessed with the tastiest and sweetest fruits I am lucky to gorge on, from papaya to melons and mangoes to daaram, and whatever else is in season; a heaven on earth. These are some of the people Allah has gifted CAI, who go out of their way to facilitate and host me in my travels; may Allah bless them abundantly. Now if only the weather will warm up and unfreeze my tush; golly me, it’s already May, and the thermostat at the airport flashes a chilly 9C (48F).
I am here for a few days to attend the wedding of the daughter of an officer, a gentleman and a friend, Nassen Valji of BETA and for the ever-demanding compliance issues related to CAI worldwide projects. Several visits to the Khoja Stanmore center is mandatory, of course. Here is where I can sometimes connect with people I meet after forty plus years. Childhood school or madressa mates from Tanga and Arusha from back home in Tanzania. Also mandatory is the fiery Zanzibari mix from Azad’s shack; the guy is now probably a hereditary icon in the annals of London’s Khoja history?
There is no dearth of halal restaurants in London, of course, so I am treated to good food and better company. Walking the streets of this ancient city, observing the diverse humanity mingling therein, with all religions and intertwining cultures, I am convinced humanity has hope. Real, solid opportunity for a peaceful and progressive future, even with the current global upheaval of gloom and doom that prevail. As a racial and especially religious (read Muslim) minority individual, living and visiting ‘Western’ democracies for almost forty years, I find my hosts practicing Islam without being Muslims. Yes, there are isolated incidents of intolerance, made notorious through social media, but that is to be expected. Especially when we take upon ourselves in sporting ugly looking unkempt beards or exaggerated adornings not mandated by our religion. I shudder to imagine what the scenario would be if the roles were reversed. Politics aside, minorities have been, are, generally welcomed and a vast number of us have, are assimilating, no, prospering in these adopted countries. The situation is never ideal, but what, in life, is. Insaaniyat is still, perhaps now a bit diluted, the underlying ethos.
I am glad to leave London and return home via a very warm India; it’s been too long.
Now, if you can spare fifteen minutes, I encourage you to watch the flowing clip. I promise you will be enlightened, at a minimum, insha’Allah.