The Land Of The Imams – II
Since my last Blog riled the fiery feathers of a solitary fan because I used a supposed curse word (shit), I have decided to be super-nice and script only the nicest of words for Sohail’s and my second leg of our current trip; from Afghanistan to Iraq via Dubai.
Doodoo pain – again
While Dubai Immigration is accommodating to flights coming from the US and let us leave the airport for repose on our way to Kabul 10 days ago, they will not let us leave without a COVID-19 test this time, although we have an all-clear negative one from Kabul taken two days ago. We are told not to leave our hotel rooms until we get an all-clear text message. Our hopes to visit the kabrastan and Sohail’s desire to feast on Dubai’s delicacies the next eighteen hours are dashed. We are on pins and needles the whole time, waiting for the test results so we can leave the hotel room; it never materializes. This is so strange since Dubai is known for its technology-fueled efficiency.
Clearing immigration in Baghdad is so much faster than Najaf; we are out in about thirty minutes, met by our larger-than-life-and-size guide and host Abdulkarim Laljee. Abdulkarim is a gem of a human, not only as a host but as a super-efficient administrator with a can-do attitude who makes the seemingly impossible tasks happen. Here, too, like Afghanistan, the COVID Doodoo is taken lightly with almost 100% Iraqis without facemasks. As a matter of fact, the ‘health’ expert checking my COVID-19 test result seems least interested; perhaps he does not read English? He looks at my American passport and waves me through.
The drive from Baghdad to Najaf is about three-plus hours. The next three days are sunny super-warm while the nights can get chilly. It is a constant battle, for me, between a sweater and t-Shirts the four days I am in the land of the Imams.
A private session with the Imam
We stay at the Qasr Aidur Hotel, a stone’s throw from Imam Ali (a). It has bigger rooms and has a new wing. More importantly, it is 20% cheaper than the adjacent Khoja musaaferkhaana. We are up early the next morning – I have a meeting with the Imam, and want a private session with him.
The outside of the haram is busy, with more crowds milling in the compounds than worshipping inside. There are many more women than men, crowding the sidewalks in what feels like a rowdy family picnic. I see chunks of rotisserie chicken with pita bread and an endless amount of black tea consumed. It is noisy, people shouting out across heads of family or clan and unsupervised children racing around gleefully; all this at 04:15 AM. Some uncouth men and women uncaringly smoke away, callous that this is the Imam’s domain. A teenager, lain on a blanket, is lost to his headphones as the muezzin begins the fajr azaan; he may be listening to dua-e-Sabah, but I have my doubts. It is impossible to practice any social distancing; I am the only one with a mask on.
Inside the haram, the comfortable carpets from yore are removed, perhaps because of the Doodoo, and the marble floor is cool and hard to pray on; strangely no congregational prayers are offered. I make my way to the Imam’s tomb after fajr salaat and my heartbeats start their wayward dance; it’s a familiar feeling, happens every time I am here. Two coffins seeking blessings before internment are carried in, a leading caller shouting out the kelema. Then, as usual, we have some clowns acting up. A Pakistani Malang, with unkempt hair to his shoulders, parks himself cross-legged, smack in the middle of the main entryway, eyeballs lifted to the heavens, making a nuisance of himself and creating an immediate bottleneck of people trying to get in or exiting; folks try and skirt around him. Such an irksome buffoon, methinks.
It is easy to reach the tomb; the crowds are much thinner and more behaved than in the past but I still have to keep moving. I find a reclusive spot and spend some private quality time talking to him and unburdening some of my more pressing issues; I feel much lighter when I eventually make my way out.
Hadji? / Yalla Bouy
There are perhaps a handful of guests in the entire Qasr Aidur Hotel so the breakfast area is left to us to eat without having to worry about the Doodoo. The distance between the hotel and the car is a ten-minute walk, due to security measures in place. We are accosted the moment we leave the hotel by persistent imps trying to peddle anything from safety pins to luggage locks or cheap cigarettes. They, like almost all Iraqi teenagers, even those with slim pickings of hair, have their scalp hair shaved on the sides, so the top resembles a mop. I pay them no mind but they stick persistently, like the buzzing flies, touching, pleading. I still pay them no attention.
Hadji, one calls out. Hadji, hadji.
Everybody calls me Hadji here; I hate the title.
I ignore him. Frustrated, he tries one last time.
Hadji… He stops. Yalla bouy.
That’s his way of saying goodbye?
We head towards Nasiriyah; one of the reasons we are in Iraq. CAI donors sponsored the drilling of a deepwater well in a poor community in Nasiriyah earlier this year. Together with a desalination plant and a purification system, this project supplies potable water to about 10,000 people including about five hundred orphans living in the vicinity. We are to do a compliance check on it. It’s three-plus hours to Nasiriyah, with several checkpoints along the way and we are stopped at the first one thirty minutes later.
Usually, Abdulkarim and the driver Mohammed are very good at Allah Khaleeq and Rehme Allah waledeiek and this is all it takes to see us through the various security gates across Iraq. Not this one. The officer is a tough nut with a stubborn streak written all over him. No matter what Abdulkarim says, what strings he tries to pull from Najaf, the dude does not budge. He is not ready to risk two Americans crossing his turf and get kidnapped or worse. He says no, but eventually relents and says he will turn a blind eye if we go through back roads. It will not be his head on the line if something did happen to us. So, we head back to Najaf and then take the back roads to Nasiriyah with no issues.
The next two days are a blur of car drives – to Karbala, Samarra, Kazimayn (lovely inexpensively priced Khoja musaferkhana here), Doodoo tests, a lunch feast at Abdulkarims, fighting pollution, the heat, the intense sun. I think we overdo the schedule and pay the price later on. The return home is uneventful except I fall sick in Iraq, while both Sohail and Abdulkarim succumb to the CORONA-19 Doodoo and test positive. They are both well, alhamd’Allah, and in isolation. We pray for their rapid recovery insha’Allah.
Zahra Hussaini – A Runaway CAI Success Story
I met Zahra Hussaini in 2011 when she was a fresh face of ten years at CAI’s Sakina Girls Home for orphans in Kabul. Zahra was full of spunk, even at that early age, and spoke surprisingly reasonable English even then. I remember asking her what she would like to be as an adult and without batting an eyelid, said she someday wanted to be the President of Afghanistan.
Zahra is an orphan, who lost her father to an unknown disease while their family was in Iran, escaping the Taliban massacres. On her return to Afghanistan, she was accepted at SGH, flourished, excelled in all her subjects at the CAI sponsored and run CPES school, especially English. She had to leave the orphanage at eighteen, like all others at that age but CPES just hired her as an English teacher for junior classes.
Instead of receiving aid, Zahra now earns a decent salary, supports her mother and siblings, and will soon enroll in a Business Management program on a full private scholarship. I am so ecstatic and proud of this young lady and pray for her continued success. Future President of Afghanistan, perhaps insha’Allah?
Zahra Hussaini – Sohail Abdullah recently took the photo below of Zahra outside SGH/CPES where she studied and grew up in until recently.
The views and opinions expressed in this Blog are entirely mine and do not reflect those of Comfort Aid International or her Trustees.