The Emirates flight from Dubai to Baghdad lands forty minutes earlier than the scheduled time so Abdulkareem, my larger-than-life host in Iraq is still on the way driving from Najaf. The wait for my visa on arrival to be processed takes almost an hour. Sitting in a crowded hall that is cooled by an antiquated air-conditioning system feels suffocating at best. My cellphone says it’s 113°F outside; I start fanning myself with my boarding pass, the only utility I have handy. A thin, pale-faced British (I think, with the sound of her accent) woman with a narrow-pinched nose and a pained look on her flushed face sitting next to me utters words of profanity under her breath; they are not nice at all. An Emirati man sitting on the other side of me hears the foul word and stares at the woman in distaste and ire. He too, is irate at the non-working air conditioning system. He has a nice-looking family accompanying him, with a teenage son lost on an iPad, playing an unwinnable game. His wife, I assume, frantically fans her face with her abaaya, desperately trying to save her increasingly crumbling makeup. I eventually head out into an unforgiving oven outside and to a warm but pudgy embrace from Abdulkareem – I am in safe hands.
Why would I want to be in Iraq in the middle of summer, you ask? Compliance matters, in the four countries that CAI is actively supporting humanitarian projects – Iraq, Lebanon, Yemen, and Syria. All these are administered by Abdulkareem from Najaf and I’m here for my regular compliance audits. More importantly, like-minded education-inclined donors are interested in setting up a secular school in a poor but upcoming community in Najaf’s immediate vicinity, catering to 400-plus families, mostly single mothers with children. Schools and education opportunities for wanting children are music to my ears so I am excited to hear about the proposed project. If the project fits with CAI’s exacting standards of quality and compliance, why, we’ll be looking at CAI’s 85th global school in Najaf sooner than later.
Najaf is the same dreary and drab city I visit semiannually. It is a plastic wasteland with discarded plastic bags and water bottles swirling with the gusts of furnace-like winds in a dipping sun to the west. I am appalled and embarrassed that anybody with the fanatical love of Imam Ali (a) would choose to keep his resting place so filthy. The Khoja musafarkhana, a stone’s throw from Imam Ali’s (a) shrine, is a desolate but welcome oasis; I think I’m only one of a handful of guests here today. The place is petite; I knew that. But the room assigned to me is smaller than a cleaner’s closet – I start hyperventilating at first sight of the bed and bathroom. The management quickly assigns me a ‘regular’ room when I squeal, which is nice enough, except it feels like I am put into a straitjacket when I poop the next morning. I think the hotel next door is a better bet for more ‘healthy’ people. And for a varied diet instead of bland, oily butter chicken and tasty daal-fry almost daily. Mashaa’Allah, the Khoja’s like their chicken and daal fry.
My two days in the country are spent on audit matters, ziyaraats, battling foojo, fighting cigarette smoke, avoiding sweeter than sherbet tea, and land inspection. I go for maghrib at the packed shrine the first day. It is impossible to get near the Imam (a) without keeping my marbles intact so I greet him from the top of other people’s heads and grab a fast-diminishing spot for maghrib jamaat salaat. Vaapi. An Iraqi man elbows himself next to me, proceeded by his belly and I am now squeezed and bothered. I grind my teeth, control a desire to glare at him, and finish the jamaat salaat distracted. His phone goes off at the tail end and he digs into his pockets frantically, fishes out the flashing cell phone, and peers into it with one hand while completing the three final takbeers with the other. I hear him calming an agitated and cantankerous female voice at the other end. We all have priorities, nai?
The crowds give me no chance of getting anywhere close to the main zaree of the Imam (a) after salaat, and I do not want to battle for it either. I plan to come early tomorrow and head out back to the hotel. Cigarette smoking is a curse anywhere but it’s a debilitating menace in Iraq, religiously ingrained into every male and many females of this blessed country. A case in point – several teenagers light up as soon as their feet step out of the haram, even before they have collected their footwear. A mature man, with a thick peppered beard, lights up a cancer stick while totting an infant, standing in line to collect his footwear. I stare at him from behind in disbelief, barely restraining the urge to step up and tell him what a moron he is. The infant, allured by the glow of the stick, reaches out for pain but its idiot guardian realizes his folly and quickly jerks his head away, averting the impending disaster in the nick of time. Ya Allah, please temper our love for Imam Ali (a) with common sense!
After a hectic day of audits and compliance affairs the next day, some R&R is warranted at the best Yemeni mandi restaurant in the world. Visit Hadhramount Yemeni Restaurant at your peril, however; I had to be assisted out of the place after eating so much flavorful and melt-in-the-mouth meat. Double burb. It’s to Karbala the next day to say salaam to the two matchless heroes of Islam. Astonishingly, the city has gone through a miracle of sorts from the last time I was here about four months ago. The place is spotless; no litter, no plastic bags or bottles, the streets are well-maintained and clearly marked. Abdulkareem says it’s because of the new Governor of Karbala, who is tyrannically adamant about order and hygiene. So, I am right! It is the total focus, the unrelenting and unyielding desire for perfection that makes the impossible, possible. Even in Iraq!
I inspect the land for the new school on the last day before I head out to Kadhimayn and Samarra. It’s set on a fifteen-acre plot that will be a sanctuary for the four hundred homeless widows who will soon have a home here, about 1.5 miles from the haram of Imam Ali (a). It’s a desolate, frightening, scorching plain now, awaiting a miraculous transformation soon, insha’Allah. Abdulkareem drops me off at the ailing Baghdad airport and I head to Dubai and onwards. I’ll be back soon, insha’Allah. The new school project excites me by leaps and bounds.