It’s Deepawali, or Diwali, the festival of lights for almost 1.5 billion people of the world population, almost 15% of us. I remember it as a festive period growing up in Tanzania where we joined our Hindu friends in lighting up firecrackers and eating delicious sweetmeats full of ghee and sugar. Our neighbors on the ground floor were Hindus, and they’d send up a tray of these to us. Mama would not touch them, but I had no issues polishing the tray clean by the end of the day.
So, the firecrackers popping off outside my apartment and lighting up the sky with vibrant colors here in Dar es Salaam bring back a lot of memories of my upbringing here in Tanzania. They are loud and non-stop for an hour, causing an upset to the usual tranquil air of my neighborhood at this time of the day. When the first set of boomers pop off, it scares the crap out of me, and the neighborhood dogs who go bananas, and the car alarms that go into a chorus of complaints, and the lunatic beggar across the street who lets out a startled fart and a series of evil expletives.
Not that the firecrackers were so explosive and seemed to reach the very sky in our times. They were pretty tame sparklers that we could hold in our hands safely with some boomers that lifted off to the tallest building in Tanga, about three floors high perhaps? No aerial fireworks or ‘bombs’ of today that shatter building foundations. I had no money to buy any of course, so I joined Vijay and Kishore, my pals from school and they’d let me hold one sparkler if they were in a generous mood. They were not too pricey then, either, but every fifty-cent sumni counted for me; it was a choice of spending from my very limited pocket money – a week’s worth of fried muhoogos, or several bowls of fiery rojo-rojos, or a firecracker going off in the air; I obviously chose the former.
Today’s fireworks can run into millions of dollars, of course. All major cities compete for the most bang on New Year’s Eve, every year, even in countries where the tradition was alien until recently.
The opening of Masjid Al-Hayy in Sanford, FL a few years ago witnessed fireworks worth thousands of dollars going up in smoke. The grand mosque cost upwards of several million dollars so what is a few more thousand dollars, siyo? Who cares that this is alien to Islam? But that is unfair of me, perhaps? The grand opening was the apex of a long and complex labor to bring a beautiful house of worship to the community.
Dubai burns enough fireworks dollars, masha’Allah, to feed the entire country of Afghanistan for a week. I know of three girls, ten and below who are forced into marriage recently to animals five times their age because the girl’s families have no food to eat. I wish I can fly to them and inform them that the world has so much money, but not for you girls. You can go live as sex slaves to beastly animals for the rest of your miserable lives. Fireworks, grandstanding, beating Guinness World Records of this and that beats the lifelong alleviation of misery for you hapless girls. Who cares? But that is unfair of me, perhaps? These firecrackers bring fame and name and tourists and more dollars to the country.
In India, firecrackers pollute the air so much; you can wheeze for breath to death. State governments try to ban the ritual, but the people, radicalized by religious fervor and tired and fed up with COVID-19 restrictions, shrug off the ban and fire up the atmosphere, anyway. As long as the innate urge to uphold traditions is met, government orders be dammed – who cares? But that is unfair of me, perhaps? Firecrackers ward off the dark and evil spirits and are a religious symbol for the overwhelming people of the country.
There are other firecrackers, not for religious rites or fame and fanfare, but in people’s minds. These bangers are beneath beastly. The fuse pops in the mind, and off goes a bomb, in mosques, hospitals, in public markets, causing unspeakable carnage and misery. In Afghanistan, we are dealing with a combined total of 122 families whose sole bread earners are cut to pieces in two weeks for no reason other than being from a religious and ethnic minority. These families are now virtual beggars, at the mercy of others’ pity and benevolence. But who cares? Wait, perhaps that is unfair of me to muse as well? As long as the firecracker idea in the head claps in tandem with a warped ideology, the value of a heathen is lesser than the sheep he barbecues.
Wishing all the Hindus of this world a happy Diwali.
The firecrackers have stopped, and we are tranquil once more. Laying on my bed, I work on my novel for a while and fall asleep. My nightmare begins.
I see myself at the Sakina Girls Home / CPES school facility, perhaps the most beautiful school building in all of Kabul, Afghanistan. An armed Talib mans the gate, but I walk past. I am invisible to him – I am a dream, remember? The facility, built with painstaking effort, and financed by our worldwide donors, looks tranquil since its dark. The fifty orphan girls and one hundred orphan boys are asleep. It’ll be bubbling with laughter and banter once day breaks, and the classes begin. Our girls and boys will be joined by about two hundred financially unchallenged kids who pay to come and study at the school since it imparts quality education.
It’s a solid structure, unlike many newer buildings in Kabul that fall apart within months of commissioning. There are fully equipped classes, science laboratories, a fully stocked library, a computer lab with laptops, and an indoor gym. I’m walking towards the admin block of offices when I hear voices. Male voices. I stop, confused. This building is a no-go for men since we have fifty girls and their teacher/guardians with them all the time. My heartbeat starts dancing erratically.
In Dr. Assef’s room, where he monitors the orphan’s health is an unkempt-looking Talib, lounging on the carpeted floor talking on the phone. He has a pockmarked face that shows spots even through a dark wavy, coarse beard. His hair is long and unwashed, for it gleams with accumulated scalp oils. By his side lies a sweat-stained turban which was once white. He is talking in Pashtun, their native tongue, but strangely, I can understand every word of it. I tiptoe to the door and enter. The odor of unwashed feet and body odor hits me like a brick wall, and I gag.
Baradar, he says into an ancient cellphone, this place is very comfortable. I’m staying with the infidels, but they are treating me royally. Free lodging and food. Good food. There are some lovely maidens here as well. Most of them are too young, but others have nice Hazara features. Maybe I’ll ask one of them to come, and we’ll have a short nikah?
No! I scream, no, no! But no sound comes – I am a dream, remember? You can’t do that. I lunge at the man, but I can’t seem to move; my feet and arms feel like lead. All he does is open his mouth wide and grin at the ceiling, exposing a large pink tongue. I’m so terrified that I start sobbing and screaming. But the Talib laughs. The more I scream, the louder he laughs.
I wake up bathed in sweat, my heart thumping, and my mouth dry. My cellphone is ringing. It’s daughter Maaha Zainab calling from Florida.
Papa? Papa! Why are you not answering your phone? I got worried when I did not receive your customary message of salaam before you go to bed!
I plop back on the bed and recite Ayat kursee. It is most difficult to go back to sleep.