I hear someone call out my name from the crowds behind me on the streets of Dar es Salaam, near DT Roundabout, so I stop to see who it is. A heavyset Bohri man with his trademark cap and an unkempt flowing beard hurries to me, breathing with difficulty, and offers a handshake. Hands and fingers have uncanny ways of getting into unsavory places so I am not too eager to greet people in this manner unless it is unavoidable. I do not want to be rude to this stranger whose smile seems genial, so I reluctantly make an exception and relent, making a mental note to thoroughly wash my hands with Dettol once I get home. I shake a moist pudgy hand – it feels like I’ve just plunged into a lump of moist dough waiting for the yeast within to fluff it up.
Yusufali! You don’t remember me, do you? Saala Ghadeera! He singsongs in typical Bohri Gujarati slang. Come on, Yaar, we were pals in school at Popatlal. I sat next to you and helped you with your poor Kiswahili and you did the same with my poorer English? I’m Shabbir, Shabbir Issajee. Remember me? You really liked that girl from my community, Umulbaneen? But she despised you? Ha, ha. We used to hang out together with marhoom Shafiq and smoke menthol cigarettes. SM’s? Remember? With clear menthol candy? Your favorite? Ghadero, you have not changed a bit. The same face and eyes, I knew it was you the instant I passed by you back there. Except your hair is now gone. Ha, ha.
I stare at the face and am instantly afraid. Am I getting senile? For the life of me, I cannot recall the face anxiously beaming at me. I know I was an idiot and smoked as a teenager. But that’s what teenagers did then – act as adults and try and impress the girls by smoking, no? It is also true that I cherished the taste of Sweet Menthol cigarettes combined with the sugary taste of a clear mint in my mouth. It Is also true I had a huge crush on the comely Umulbaneen seated to the right of me, although she would not give me a second glance. But I am blank at who this man is. Then, just like magic, the face registers in the recesses of my fading memory and I realize who it is. It’s Abbas, the wimpy jester in our small group of friends, not Shabbir. Age, added weight, a bulging gut, the comic cap, and the stringy beard had my memory chips all muddled up. I scratch my scalp and go hmmm.
Shabbir, alias Abbas, was an enduringly pudgy self-conscious teenager, from a wealthy Bohri family. He was an irritant to all of us, bless him, but he used to get tons of pocket money from his mother. So we tolerated him since he would buy a packet of menthol SM cigarettes and mint candies for us to splurge on after school on half-day Saturdays. That lasted until his brother ratted on him at home. Bohri ulema consider smoking a major debauchery, deem it a major sin, and have banned the act (a good directive to imitate for the larger Umma, me thinks), so Abass’s parents were unrelenting in the swift punishment that followed. Poor guy, he lost his pocket money and our friendship.
I am amazed (and happy) seeing him after fifty years, perhaps, but am still confused about the name mismatch. So he grasps my arm firmly and leads me towards K-Tea shop for some snacks when I ask. I have stopped eating at this place for over a year because of a nasty experience with polluted coconut chutney once, but Abbas does not take no for an answer and assures me all pollutants get cleansed in the guts. That explains his belly, I suppose.
So, over piping hot kababs, samosas, coconut chutney, and steaming tea, we catch up on fifty years separating us. Masha’Allah, Abbas has an unsatiable appetite as the kababs and samosas disappear fasta-fasta – I stick to chai from a plastic cup; I don’t trust the washable cups in these cafes anymore. Abbas continues his story, stuffing his mouth at the same time. He fell ill with an unexplained disease after high school and no doctor or treatment could cure him. When he became alarmingly thin, the parents panicked and flew him to Mumbai, India to seek counsel from Molaaji, the Bohri’s spiritual leader based in that city. Abbas says it’s always incredibly difficult to meet Molaajis in person since they are so holy and busy but Abbas’s parents eventually prevailed, penetrating the defense circle with enough donations to allow for a brief meeting. Molaaji looked Abbas in the eye once and prescribed an instant cure. His Holiness commanded the parents to change the name of the wimp from Abbas to Shabbir. That’s it. The name Abbas, alleged Molaaji, is much too powerful for this namby-pamby teenager – the name must be changed to Shabbir. The name Shabbir is equally powerful, if not more, I want to quip, but keep quiet. Who am I to question an aalim, no? I simply scratch my scalp and go hmmm.
But the name change does the trick. The name Shabbir takes firm roots and with it, the feeble hormones in his body reverse course – the new man is what he is today. Shabbir slaps his gut and burps aloud, proving the point. Shabbir is a devoted follower of the leader, (the son of the man who ordered the name change – now deceased), pointing to his cap and beard to prove his loyalty. He is now a successful businessman dealing in the trade of – guess what? Hardware, of course. He shuttles between Dar and Dubai. He is married and is a father of seven kids, the oldest thirty-nine and the youngest nineteen. I look at him in shock. Your poor wife, I say innocently, genuinely feeling sorry for her. Shabbir shrugs his shoulders. Our Moolaji frowns on birth control, he says, so I have little choice. I want to ask him if his wife shares the same opinion as him on this matter, but now that I am much wiser, I simply scratch my scalp and go hmmm.
He has some bad news, however. Before I can ask him about the attractive Umulbaneen from his community whom I liked so much as a teenager, he informs me that she died a few years ago. Cancer complications. ELWER.
We part ways, promising to keep in touch. Insha’Allah.