Battered lives, generous spirit

Rasheeda Bhagat | Updated on December 14, 2011 Published on March 31, 2011

Hope and prayers: An Iraqi woman in front of a Shiite shrine in Karbala: Photo: Pervez Bhagat   -  Business Line

A lavish spread of the West Asian delicacy Baklava   -  Business Line

An Indian pilgrim buys fruits at a local market   -  Business Line

Two young boys mind a roadside attar shop.   -  Business Line

Travelling through three Arab countries — Iraq, Syria and Jordan — in 10 days last month, was a different experience in terms of name and religious identity. For somebody who has never worn her religion on her sleeve, after 9/11, travel in western countries, particularly the US, invariably comes with questions marks — sometimes stated, sometimes not — at the Muslim name.

But in each of these Arab countries, the first reaction on hearing my name was: “ Subhanallah (Glory to Allah). You are a Muslim? Welcome.” The very articulate and handsome tour guide in Petra, Jordan, went a step further: “Do you know how lucky you are to be a Muslim?”

But what really warmed the heart was that whether Iraqis, Syrians or Jordanians, all of them invariably ask if you are an Indian or Pakistani, and on finding your nationality exclaim: “Hind? Welcome,” placing their palm on their chest in that typical Islamic gesture of warmth, friendship and welcome.

The Facebook generation

The non-violent demonstrations at Cairo's Tahrir Square by young and savvy Egyptians who used the Internet — particularly social networking sites such as Facebook — to mobilise public opinion to oust Hosni Mubarak, have electrified the Arab world from North Africa to West Asia. Transiting through Bahrain Airport to Najaf, in Iraq, which houses the shrine of Imam Ali — Shia Muslims' second-most important religious leader after Prophet Mohammed, I saw people riveted to Arabic channels telecasting protests in Yemen, Bahrain, Libya and the Tahrir Square in Baghdad. (Now, of course, both Syria and Jordan have joined that list.) The experience was the same at the restaurants and shops in Karbala and Najaf in Iraq, and Damascus in Syria. In fact, at some shops in Damascus, as the Libyan turmoil in its nascent stage was being telecast with heated Arabic commentary, the shopkeeper just shooed us away without even giving us a look. Apparently dreams and prospects of liberty and freedom from oppression mattered more than hard cash!

At Internet cafes in both Najaf and Damascus, I saw youngsters animatedly checking posts by their friends on Facebook. Interestingly, in Damascus, several Net cafes announced their presence with prominent displays of the Facebook and Twitter logos at the entrance. Inability to converse with them in Arabic was extremely frustrating as very few of them, particularly in Iraq, can speak English. At the most I could manage to get one of the youths glued to his monitor to tell me in English how much I had to pay the man at the counter.

A Pakistani in Najaf

So, on hearing the words “ Aap pachas rupiye de dijiye (give him Rs 50) in chaste Hindi/Urdu at a Net café in Najaf, I swung around to find a fair, bearded youngster surfing the Net. Shabir Ali is from Lahore in Pakistan, and is training at the Islamic seminary near the Imam Ali mosque. The 23-year-old hails from a lower middle-class family, and has been here for two years. “My education will take seven years; I am very serious about getting real knowledge of the Quran and Islam, and I hope to go home once during that time,” he said.

The situation at home, he says, “is not good at all. There is a lot of enmity between different groups of people. And whoever works for the right cause… for religion… is killed.” He is certain that Saudi Arabia is behind the violence that had torn Pakistan apart, and is playing a “vital role, along with the Government of Iraq, to continue the bomb blasts in Iraq.” One could clearly see the Shia bias against the Sunni Saudi Arabia here.

Shabir Ali's argument is that through engineered violence “the Iraq government wants to tell the rest of the world that Iraq is the most dangerous place in the world. Millions of dollars are being spent to tarnish Iraq's image. They actually don't want foreigners/westerners to come here and see for themselves the reality. When there is no development, no education and anarchy reigns supreme, politicians can make a lot of money.”

But his “heart bleeds for Iraq's youngsters. After America's attack on Iraq, hundreds of thousands of people, mostly men, have died. They were bread earners in their families.” The result was that young boys had to be pulled out from schools and colleges to bring home some money. “And anyway, padhey tab jab ghar ke, mulk ke, haalaat theek ho (they can study only when things are fine at home, in the country).

Iraq's youngsters, he adds, are very bright, and once given the right education and skills, have the potential to take this oil-rich nation to dizzy heights.

“But look at the state of the country and its people today,” he says, pointing to the dust-covered, potholed and decrepit narrow lanes and bylanes around the glittering Imam Ali shrine. “ Kehtey hein ki kisi mulk ya kaum ko dekhna ho tau uskey rahbar ko dekho (Judge any country or community by its leadership). But look at the corrupt and autocratic leadership that not only Iraq, but also Pakistan, has produced.”

Hospitality and trust abound

And yet, the kind of warmth and hospitality you see in Iraq, or Damascus for that matter, is amazing. And more than hospitality, it is trust that reigns supreme in this part of the Arab world. The fruits here have Mediterranean magic and are the sweetest in the world. A tall glass of juice costs a mere Rs 10 in Karbala or Najaf — Indian rupees are accepted at most establishments near the Shiite shrines where Indian pilgrims abound — and once you are served at the crowded juice outlets, the onus is on you to pay up and walk on.

Trust in the customer abounds even at the numerous street shops in the bustling Shaam Bazaar in Damascus, close to the Umayyad Mosque that for 200 years housed the head of Prophet Mohammed's grandson Imam Hussain after he was martyred in Karbala in the 7th century and was later buried in Cairo. You may have to haggle over prices, but there is little or no checking on what or how much you pick up. Certainly there are no CCTV cameras on street outlets.

The abundant hospitality and large-heartedness can be really experienced at the hotels and restaurants in these countries. Whether it is Iraq, Syria or Jordan, the starters… the salads, table olives, breads, and so on… are spread out on your table with a rare lavishness. As in the rest of the world, food prices here too have shot up, but there is no economy in the size of the portions. It's more a generosity of the heart and spirit than the pocket.

Outside the Shiite shrines, where large families were camping overnight and distributing mouth-watering food in disposable containers to the family members, a group of Indian pilgrims stopped to comment on the fresh fruits and vegetables that dominated their diet only to be promptly invited to join the feast.

Took the mind back to end-2003 when, in Karbala, a tea-seller in ragged clothes on a street corner queried us on our nationality. On learning that we were Indian, he gestured an elaborate welcome sign, and refused to accept any money saying: “You come from a great nation; you are our guests.”

Not much has changed as far as the Iraqi people's fondness, respect and fascination for India is concerned. Inside the Shiite shrines, young women quiz me about film stars Shahrukh Khan and Amitabh Bachchan, prompting their mothers/aunts to chide them gently about thinking of films in such holy places!

On the streets, more than once I was asked to give names of Indian heart surgeons who can operate on Iraqis with cardiac problems. There is both hope and admiration for India here.

And yet, many of these Arab nations, particularly Iraq, have seen so much of violence and conflict, particularly after the US-led invasion in 2003. Watching the complaining, wailing women, the men beating their heads and breasts and chanting loudly in Arabic as they paid their homage at the Shiite shrines in Najaf and Karbala, one wondered at their traumatic lives. Were the complaints related to the loved ones lost in the never-ending conflict? What boon or favour were they seeking from the darbar of Imam Hussain or Hazrat Ali; was it liberation from their corrupt and despotic leaders or end of violence and trauma that has devastated their lives not only post-9/11 but also in the Saddam era?

Weighed against their problems and sorrows, our existence in the recently scam-tainted India seemed blessed several times over.

A chance meeting with a religious leader in Najaf brought this nugget. Imam Ali, the Prophet's son-in-law, who was assassinated in a mosque in Kufa, about 10 km from Najaf, once said addressing his people: “This land of Kufa is so clean, pristine and rich. But you will not be able to reap any benefits from it. It will generate only blood, and more blood.”

Could anything be more prophetic? Eventually, he himself was assassinated in the Kufa mosque in the holy month of Ramadan.

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Published on March 31, 2011
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