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Spellbound In Charleston, West Virginia May 26, 2011

Posted by ctwayfarer in Human Societies, Travel.
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Charleston, WV

Charleston, West Virginia (via Angie @ Flickr, by-nc license)

In the ebb & flow of those passing, special winter days, few things were as regular an occurrence as the local gyro place taking an equally special order by yours truly. By now, I was an addicted fixture at the place. At least once a week, come hailstorm or sleet. For they made what was in my opinion, the closest thing to authentic Shawarma I’ve EVER had in America. The experience is like trying to cope with what passes off as proper Idli or Dosa among blissfully ignorant crowds in Delhi. Or ‘kachche gosht ki’ Hyderabadi biryaani at some wannabe restaurant in Jackson Heights, New York City.

The order was standard just as it was unique. No french fries. It didn’t matter that they were for free and made absolutely no difference to the bill. Unusual for any place, America included, you agree? Before long, this side-serving was replaced by a generous box of free, healthier salad, made especially for me.

It wasn’t everyday that a doctor would pass by this corner of NJ‘s sprawling suburbia, right across the Hudson. But for me this was home.

“At least for now,”

as my inner voice would often remind. Oh how familiar! “Home” is something that I have always had a hard time defining. Nothing perhaps could exemplify this realization best than that classic, eventful moment when a piqued nurse at a hospital in South India inquired if I was Anglo-Indian. Of all people! But let’s set aside the extreme pleasures of that digression for later.

The Caucasian restaurant owner and I first ran into each other when I was busy scouting the area looking for Halal eateries. This was one of a handful in the vicinity and I explained what an enormous advantage going rogue Halal was for his business. “Your market reach is wider. Smart decision!”, I conferred. Like a lot of smaller restaurants during the rocky economic times, I could tell that his obviously sounder business instincts had also driven him to become a larger chain’s franchisee rather than start an independent business on his own and risk competing with the big dogs.

He had begun to understand that I was doing some heavy duty travel in relation to my work. And that for all intents and purposes, my “home” was like an airport terminal. Somewhere to stop, re-fuel and take off again to yet another destination. Between orders we’d often share what each of us knew of different places on my itinerary. Given my fluent Amerispeak, by now I realized that a lot of people in Umricaland found it easier to accept an answer like “Baltimore” than say a foreign South Asian locale to the oh-how-so-innocent question, “Where are you from?”. And he was no exception. And so it was. I was from Baltimore. Period. No elaborate migratory life histories.

It’s all actually sort of like that clip from The Pink Panther, where Inspector Jacques Clouseau is painstakingly informed by his sidekick, Gilbert Ponton, about the occupations of Ponton’s forefathers.

“And Before That?”

Clouseau: And you are?

Ponton: Gilbert Ponton. Detective, second class. I’ve been assigned to work with you.

Clouseau: And what qualifications do you have for police work?

Ponton: My family’s done police work in Paris for nine generations.

Clouseau: And before that?

Ponton: We were policemen in the surrounding areas for 200 years.

Clouseau: And before that?

Ponton: Immigrants from various countries in Europe all involving police work.

Clouseau: And before that?

Ponton: Farmers.

Clouseau: Hmm. So you are a little lamb who has come to Clouseau for to learn.

I tend to keep the threshold lower in cutting to the ‘Farmers’ stage.

“So where next?”

Charleston, West Virginia! You think the weather’s going to play ball? Look at all the snow & wind around. Flight leaves at noon via D.C.

“Well … they say the really rough weather is not coming until later in the evening. Looks like you’ll hopefully scrape through.”

“Phew! I just hope so! So what do you know about the town?”

“Small. Gorgeous. Great restaurants!”

I recalled reading something similar in the orientation material I’d received by email prior to the scheduled meeting. Promises of a “four season” climate and that great places to eat were always within near reach, no matter where in the city one was located. Of course, “near reach” to someone used to New York City meant walkable or a hop across by public transport. The rest of America, as I learned over time, had other ideas. Pervasive burb life was equivalent to living like a hermit in self-exile, where a car was necessary for even the most trivial of chores. Sometimes even for milk or bread. Talk about going rural.

So anyway, the meeting was scheduled for early morning. And I’d planned to get there the evening before. Given the uncertain weather, I now understood that matters were going to get a little close. There was an immutable deadline to meet. Even if it meant having to para-glide a la George Steinmetz or take the less intriguing but equally exhilarating bullock-cart, just in case the orthodox forms of transportation bailed. No compromises. Life. Or death.

As in Houston or Tabuk, taxis weren’t exactly ubiquitous like say in New York City or Bombay. Finding one to the airport involved making laborious phone calls well ahead of time. I was already beginning to miss the carefree spontaneity of waving hands and hailing cabs and autos off the streets of say Jeddah or Hyderabad. Oh how peculiar those honks of desperation from Jeddah’s Ujra (أجره) – drivers at the mere glance of a potential patron!

Ghar ki murghi, dal baraabar (گھر کی مرغی دال برابر) as they say.

La Guardia was approximately forty-five minutes away, the booking lady had explained on the phone. Was this the same airport from that trip I’d taken two years before I wondered, as the cab driver at long last deposited me on the curb, a good FOUR HOURS ahead of departure. TSA antics be damned. For whatever reason, my mind was re-learning the at-once, labyrinthine layout of the place. Perhaps it was the endorphin-soaked, mind-altering state that usually accompanies my journeying, beginning with the day I think “where next, what next, when next …” and lingering loooooooong thereafter.

Each airline, in general, had a different building allocated to check-in their customers. After the usual shenanigans, thankfully minus the officially sanctioned nude-scans or “junk”-groping, I picked a comfortable seat near the departure gate. In hand, as if by instinct, a 17 ounce (more on the Metric v. American naming related confusion in later posts inshaAllah) bottle of drinking water from a store beyond Security Check. Gone were those days of being able to carry drinking water across what can now be accurately described as the zone of the living dead. Not that the zombies didn’t exist then too. But things were still much less extreme back then.

The terminal was eerily at ease. Not the usual hustle-bustle from previous trips via LGA that came to mind. And oh yes, nothing at all compared to the frenetic crowds at JFK or O’Hare. Add a little lounge music and one could very well imagine oneself relaxing in a spa. The announcements were calm too. The voices at a measured pitch. Perhaps it was this ambiance that resulted in me escaping the announcement an hour before scheduled departure, that my flight was all of a sudden – CANCELED.

There was now a new departure gate. A new flight number.

Thankfully, strolling along and exploring airports between flights had been a favorite pastime from childhood. Bombay’s international terminal was special. As a toddler and compulsive drifter at the place, I had once actually strayed away and gotten lost from my parents. Only to be miraculously found again. Alhamdulillah. Mom still recollects the horror as if it was yesterday. I, of course, can’t recall the drama. I guess the other distractions used to keep me pre-occupied.

Anyhow, so later on an idle walk, I caught the announcement in text, displayed on an arrival/departure information screen. A Flight Information Display System or FIDS, to be exact. And realizing that not much time remained, darted towards the nearest airline official for a new boarding pass.

By now my carry-on was half filled with the thick paper of tickets & boarding passes from all my recent travel. The yielding shell had begun to feel like plywood.

As I boarded, all I could think of was relief. The weather wasn’t misbehaving, Alhamdulillah. But you see America’s climate can be tricky. So this satisfaction didn’t come out of some superficial reflection. One had to think deep in order to fully appreciate one’s destiny. In America, traveling often entails negotiating multiple storm systems, each governed by its own time table. Meeting my deadline meant that not only had I to take-off & evade the looming windfall in the Mid-Atlantic & Northeast, but also hope to God that any pre-existing storm system in the Mid-West died down by the time the connecting flight was scheduled to land. I’m always impressed by the hardiness of the travel enterprise in America in this regard. Airlines are pretty quick to reschedule and re-route passengers in case of inclement weather. Often by the side of the boarding gate. If this were India or Arabia, nothing would work. Not even fisticuffs and bodyblows with airport managers or airline supervisors.

D.C. was somewhere I was looking forward to. Just recently back from using BWI, I’d wondered what Dulles was like. They belong to the same metro area you see. And yet, D.C. with its proverbial “beltway“, was in a class of its own. The two hours before the connecting flight to Charleston should serve as ample time to explore I thought. So what if I couldn’t actually step out and examine the Library of Congress – the largest library in the world. This was the closest I was going to get to such stuff for now and I had planned to spend the time observing, reflecting and enjoying. But these hopes were dashed when I was informed upon arrival that my scheduled connecting flight too was suddenly now – CANCELLED!

Blimey! Two canceled flights in a row? That can’t be coincidence, can it?

Inner voice:

“No wait, it can. Given clustering in random systems. You know that, don’t you?”


An airline lady later informed me that ALL flights to Charleston from the airline were cancelled. You read that right. ALL flights. That can’t be good, I thought.

“That’s weird. All flights?”

“Yea. This IS weird. Really weird.”

“Is it a weather problem?”

“It sounds more like a mechanical failure problem. Don’t know.”

She frantically tried to find me SOME way to get to Charleston. And at last booked me for a flight via Chicago – on a DIFFERENT airline!

“The plane leaves in about 15 minutes and is waiting to depart from another terminal.”

Easy for you to say!

“Take this ticket. Run towards the shuttle waiting by that departure gate. Hopefully you’ll get there fast enough to check-in by the aerobridge, get a new boarding pass and board. Good luck!”

My endorphins and catecholamines were at their peak. Quadriceps and hamstrings braced to perform.

To my pleasant surprise, the shuttle operators turned out to be desis. Smiling Bengalis actually. I was in desi English mode now. Explaining the urgency of my situation. They whisked me right away describing how to find the departure gate.

“Don’t worry, you’ll get there alright,”

said one reassuringly.

Phew! My relief at reaching there on time was clearly apparent to the lady at the check-in counter. I couldn’t help wonder if the connecting flight to Charleston from Chicago would eventually get canceled too. What a worrisome streak that would turn out to be IF that happened.

I caught sight of an interesting encounter on the plane. To my front-right was a female desi from Umricaland. Aisle seat. Gaudy getup & immodest pompousness. I’d seen a similar one before, on a separate journey, absorbing herself in a recent issue of Cosmo.

What is it with mankind’s obsession with the urge to display I wondered, reminded of that lovely show from childhood, Keeping Up Appearances. I guess it comes with the wealth. When fragile statuses are painstakingly achieved and must not only be safeguarded but fortified at all costs. Although I had encountered a few women obsessed with the fashion phenomenon in the Subcontinent, the proportion was waaaay higher in Arabia and America. Tahliya (تحلية) street in Jeddah not only serves as a race track (often illegal) now and then, but is renowned for its elite shopping malls and their “high society” feminine clientèle. Theirs, a life DEFINED by the latest gossip on Oprah Winfrey and Stardust. And then on the other hand for some folks, it represents a way to stand out. Or to make a mark of some kind. But this can be done without the lavish spending too I think. I, for one, still smile at the bell-bottoms from family photo albums of the ’70s and ’80s. I think those outfits were SO cool. Wallahualam.

So along comes this visibly perturbed desi male. Now one could tell he was from Desiland. Dravidian, I thought. Oh, the uncomfortable, hesitant glances and avoidant, pressured speech. In Urdu, I’d express this as takraar (ٹکرار). He needed to get to the window seat. Between the pleas and counter-pleas, the spectacle was just too much! My sympathies were with the poor guy. I could sense his accomplishment as he found his way in. There seem to be BIG disparities in shyness levels between Arabian Arabs or Desiland desis and Arabs or desis who’ve been reared in Umricaland. Of course, when things aren’t face to face, there can be a lot of immodest tapori -pana (टपोरीपना). Surprisingly, on either side of the gender divide. A paradox that I’m always piqued by.

Touchdown. Chicago’s O’Hare was BIG. As I had imagined it would, based on earlier travel. And teeming with hordes. I needed to grab a bite. Those hunger pangs couldn’t be staved off for longer. All I’d had since early morning was an apple. Leaving my NJ abode at 7 AM combined with the hypomanic state associated with the intricate deadlines of travel meant that my stomach couldn’t handle more. I had decided to eat something fulfilling in Dulles. The sudden change of plans had now begun to have its toll.

Living out of a suitcase once, at a hotel opposite a Subway in Baltimore, had taught me something. Their tuna sub is absolutely heavenly for the Halal and fitness conscious. A bunch of friendly, Gujarati Brahman (ब्राह्मण) Hindus had taken up the franchised business.

“We don’t get too many customers interested in the vegetable patty …

You bet! Heck, just THINK for a second. Bacon AND eggs for BREAKFAST?! Sheesh … America probably has one of the highest meat consumption rates in the world.

… As you can imagine, we are all Shakahaari (शाकाहारी). Qasam se (क़सम से). We understand having to live with dietary codes and stuff.”

As the days had passed, I’d gradually begun taking to tuna rather than the vegetable patty. Much to their disappointment I’d imagine. But they were always forthcoming with their offering of cheese. When I would decline, mindful of the unneeded fat, one of them would say:

“What? No cheeJ?”

There is something peculiar about the Z sound in many parts of India. Jal Jeera (जल जीरा) in Hindi actually comes from Jal Zeera (جل زیرہ) in Urdu. But since shudh (शुद्ध) Hindi does not have these sounds in the alphabet, people accustomed to nothing but pure Hindi or Sanskrit get by, calling Zindagi (زندگی) – Jindagi (जिंदगी), Zabardast (زبردست) – Jabardast (जबरदस्त), Zulm (ظلم) – Julm (जुल्म), KHushi (خوشی) – Khushi (खुशी), Qalam (قلم) – Kalam (कलम), MurGHi (مرغی) – Murgi (मुर्गी) and the like. How Phool (پھول) – Fool (फूल), Phir (پھر) – Fir (फिर) come about is a different story. Be it an Arab calling PepsiBebsi (ببسی) or an Englishman calling ‘Uud (عود) – Uud, regardless of what people I’ve encountered, I have found that old habits die hard when it comes to speaking “foreign” sounds. I’m always fascinated by Punjabis who write in Shahmukhi in this respect, since they depict sounds like the ण of Hindi in the shape of the ن of Urdu. There are no diacritics as in French to distinguish various pronunciations. And whether to pronounce the ن like a ण or like a न really depends on learned context and practice.

So anyway, I was now a hunter in my own version of The Amazing Race. In search of a tuna sub. Thankfully O’Hare did have a Subway, unlike Philadelphia’s airport, where on a separate journey, I had to make do with vegetarian Chow with tofu at a Thai restaurant. This Subway was hidden in an alleyway. But I had at last discovered it.

As I savored the food I began to prepare for the meeting next morning. Skimming through papers and emails. Reading people’s bios. Anticipating mindsets. And mentally putting to practice all the tips on business behavior I could think of.

The time had arrived. Little did I realize that my flight to Charleston would be on a mini-jet that looked like a Cessna. I’ve actually been on a propeller-driven aircraft once in South India. At a time when Air Deccan was the new kid on the block, utterly revolutionizing air travel on the cheap. It had gradually become renowned among friends and family for apparently using end-of-life aircraft that would occasionally skid off of runways or randomly burst into flames on the tarmac. Its original reputation growing in unexpected ways. Of course things have changed radically since then. And the thrill & charm had never really faded.

The mini-jet was going to be a different, first-time experience. Extra carry-on luggage had to be checked-in “plane-side“, as was the term. You could tell that Charleston was really off the beaten track. Despite being a State capital. Infrequent flights. Mini-jets that carried around 20-30 passengers. And manned by 2-3 people at most, not excluding the lone flight attendant. It’s a strange feeling, to walk up a stair-case that’s been pushed open, precariously dangling by the carrier’s side. That feeling is somewhat hard to describe.

The approach towards Charleston, reminded me of the climb towards Ootacamund from many years before. Charleston tucked away in the exquisite Appalachians whereas Ooty nestled among the absolutely spectacular Neelgiris (नीलगिरी). In my life, any hill town would always come to be compared with Ooty, or Udagamandalam (ऊदगमंडलम) as it is now known in Tamil. Such was the indelible mark the lovely “hill station” had left upon me. Uff, the delicious mangosteen I had had from the place! That taste still lingers on my tongue.

The “Appalachians” were of course named after a Native American tribe. It still fascinates me how Turtle Islanders have gradually faded into the background in America. As many as 500 diverse tribes. Passing random towns you would easily find this or that memorial dedicated to random wars fought by Caucasians such as the War of Independence, Civil War, Spanish American War, WW1 or WW2 but rarely would you come across stuff commemorating Native American history. The battles that were fought against the colonizing peoples, the many inter-tribal skirmishes one gets to read about in books. All of that seems largely invisible today. On America’s streets, it’s as if history subconsciously begins with “Independence Day” in 1776. And this undercurrent psychologically feeds, to an enormous degree, ideas of what it means to be “American” and how “otherness” comes to be defined. Attitudes get subconsciously molded to congrue with skewed stories, artificial groupings and imaginary “facts” about peoples and cultures. Sort of like the fake “nationalities” that have grown out of Sykes-Picot in the Middle East, the bewildering offshoot that is Uruguay or the many tribals who’ve been forgotten by the urban middle-class of “India“.

The “Neelgiris” (नीलगिरी) as I had earlier learned were equally interesting. Named, as the locals explained, after the carpet of fragrant eucalyptuses that cover them end to end, their leaves lending the mountains a magical, bluish hue. Or so went one legend behind the name. Someday inshaAllah I’ll have a travelogue about this captivating experience in one of South Asia’s most important Biosphere Reserves.

As the plane descended across an ocean of breathtaking peaks, I realized the airport was on a hilltop! Cool! Picture a cone. With the tip chopped and leveled off. That in a phrase was Yeager airport. The runway looked more like a cliff, that would suddenly give way to hundreds of feet of vertical emptiness as planes seemed to take off right at the edge. The arrival lounge like a large dining hall with a single half-sized luggage carousel thrown in. No restaurants that I can recall. Just a couple of vending machines for snacks. The experience reminded me of Tabuk’s tiny airport back in the day. Size-wise, the similarities were quite glaring. My shuttle driver was on his way, the hotel informed.

Yeager Airport

Yeager Airport (via Sarah Cooper @ Flickr by-nc-sa license)

Our way down from the airport was filled with thrilling curves and electrifying hair-pin bends. It was Winter and long after sunset. I could only imagine how the scenes would be like during Spring. But even now, it seemed as if the elegant silhouettes of trees lining the slopes, bent down and reached out towards us as we maneuvered along the narrow moonlit streets. As if to welcome a wanderer’s arrival. I was for a moment lost in my own El Dorado.

The driver also explained how the Winters aren’t usually severe in Charleston. Surprising, given the mountainous terrain, I wondered. But he quickly pointed out that with the crazy blizzards blasting their way through much of America that year, the townsfolk had had their own share of heaps of snow to deal with. Which reminded me of the snowblower. A captivating piece of machinery that brings respite to no wonder how many couch potatoes who get stranded in snow every year in America. Extreme weather coupled with an inclination to live the temperate life 365 days a year, cost America untold sums in energy spent and environmental damage. Quite unlike the ice-dwelling Eskimo & Inuit people who’ve actually been able to go along with the weather as far as possible rather than battle it, thereby making a substantially lower ecologic footprint.

He mentioned a few interesting tidbits on what people can do for fun. Skiing was obviously high on the list, with places such as Snowshoe and Winterplace not very far away. Of course depending on the seasons, one could also raft, camp, hike, cycle or – trail run, which would be my idea of fun. The city lights reflecting off the  Kanawha river as he pointed out the singular Cultural Center & quaint Capitol building, seemed such a mystic sight. It would be amazing to loiter around its banks or take a dip for the heck of it I suggested to the driver. To which he said:

“Naa. With all the mining and stuff, that river is goddamn polluted.”

And so I had come upon a dirty secret. Like a wayfarer randomly stumbling upon the horrors of human sacrifice among the Mayan people inhabiting otherwise plush, serene ancient Central America. Very Apocalypto like indeed. If polyandry was the Todas‘ secret in the Neelgiris, Charleston’s secret was the present day surface and deep mountain mining. I had read and heard a lot about “mountain top removal” on the news before. But never actually paid close attention. That stuff was now all coming back. I was to later watch a moving personal life story on the environmental and health repercussions of this mining industry. How sad, I thought.

Despite being a little remote, Charleston did have its share of memorable concerts and “Broadway” shows, the driver explained.

Staying in America, by now I had understood that if cricket was the Subcontinent’s passion, here that position went to football (not soccer), the Superbowl being a DEFINING moment in the lives of millions of people, breaking records each year for being one of the most watched events on television screens. In either case though, I find the obsession with watching others stay fit while giving a damn about oneself quite paradoxical, providing an interesting model to study psychological defense mechanisms. Although there wasn’t a home team to root for at the NFL, he explained, people made do with college football.

Charleston, perfect for the outdoors

Charleston, perfect for the outdoor life (via Mike Beaumont @ Flickr by-nc-sa license)

He also mentioned how the entire town’s population was itself about 60,000 with roughly 200,000 who would commute in daily from outlying areas for work.

By the time we’d reached the hotel, it was already over 9 PM. In the fourteen hours journey, spanning five States, not including the ones I flew over, I had clocked 2000 odd kilometers. All I could think of was hitting the bed and being on time for the early morning meeting the next day. There was enormous power in that six inch tuna sub. Subsistence until the 7 AM meeting involved just a handful of snacks. Or perhaps it was the “fight or flight response” that had taken over. Allahualam.

I felt like doing some last minute mental preparation and so timed my alarm for around 5 am. Just to go over key points that might come up during conversations later. I was aiming to perform you see. The schedule of events was supposed to end at roughly 1 PM with lunch.

As we talked about the medical facility, the junior physicians-in-training & faculty informed that it was the largest tertiary care center in the area. Responsible for the welfare of hundreds of thousands people from far and wide. The cases one would come across were reflective of the diverse pathology of the region’s inhabitants. From infectious disease to cancer.

One of the really interesting facts learned during a presentation had to do with smoking and respiratory disorders. It turns out that West Virginia for some reason, has some of the most lax regulations on tobacco. Tax rates for cigarettes and cigars being some of the lowest in the country. And thus the dirt cheap costs to the end-user. Not surprisingly, smoking is of epidemic proportions in West Virginia compared to States like New York. Occasionally even influencing the migratory patterns of people, especially for smokers who live off of small savings and who might be scared to miss out on the dope for the higher maintenance elsewhere. Knowledge about health and fitness isn’t exactly prevalent in the region. Taboos associated with smoking are weak. And like the unscrupulous mining, lifestyle related health problems such as lung disorders from smoking and obesity from improper diets are a big challenge. Isn’t it something to have all this beautiful terrain perfect for fitness & outdoor activity and yet not be able to derive benefit, I thought.

Meeting with house staff, I was delighted to stumble upon an international physician-in-training from South Asia.


“Oh where are you from?!”


“Oh! Where in Pakistan?”

I could hardly contain myself. I’d come to learn a LOT of stuff about the Subcontinent over the last couple of months and was eager to absorb more.

“Up North.”

“Oh you mean the North West Frontier?”

“Actually I’m from the Kashmir area.”

“Wow. Awesome. So nice meeting you!”


I surmised that he came from Gilgit-Baltistan. An area that I’ve long been fascinated by. Flashes of Galen Rowells’ photography (amazing what the legendary husband-wife team managed to do during war-time), AJ’s recent special on artificial lakes & flash flooding, the relationship of the region to China & Central Asia with the Karakoram highway – a road trip along which still remains unfinished business to get to someday besides taking the TransSiberian from Kiev to Vladivostok that I’ve also been thinking about – , “FANA”s role in shaping the political posturings both within and between India and Pakistan as recent as the senseless war in 1998, the ethnic makeup of Muslims in the region with the Shias, etc. and MUCH MUCH more just kept coming back. And here I was. Face to face for the first time in my life with a gentle soul from the very region, that I’d only heard or read about!

My subconscious:

“Observe the behavior. So desi like!”

I’ve had encounters with lots of people who’re ethnically from the northern portions of South Asia. And it amazes me how desi even the Pathans or Balochis can be like. The attitudes. The tastes. The social mentality both in the private and public spheres. Take for example the propensity for politics & public life to be governed by internecine riots and the ever-looming threat of force & violence between social herds. In Urdu, I’d call this phenomenon dunge fasaad ki siyaasat (دنگے فساد کی سیاست). I find little of this proclivity among present-day Caucasian folk in America. Meeting different peoples, you really do get the feeling that there IS such a thing as mass psychology. Every herd governed on a macro level by its own peculiar set of poorly demarcated caprices and an easily distinguishable mind-set (ذہنیت). I’ll save more on this topic for a later post inshaAllah.

So yea. There really is just SO much similarity. Between Telugus, Bengalis, Punjabis, Pakhtun Pathans, Hindkowans and Kashmiris there are many enchanting differences (take for example, the Telugu’s peculiar fascination with thunderous foot-stomping dances or movie-stunts that defy laws of physics), but equally captivating overlaps too. If only people paid closer attention.

I guess there are many many flavors of desi-ness and matters can quickly get hazy. And it often becomes hard to put a finger on things. I’m always fascinated by this intriguing amalgamation. Like an ocean wave that cycles between coming forward and then suddenly receding out of reach, just when you THINK you’ve grasped something as FUNDAMENTAL as what it means to be desi, are you forced to confront the utter futility of man’s efforts to classify. Our meek efforts to organize, group and bin stuff that is at its core SO rich that it defies every clumsy scheme we keep coming up with, SubhanAllah. From Bengal to NWFP and beyond, to the farthest corners of the earth, the faces, the languages, the literary works, the cuisine and all of it seem to blend SO seamlessly across manufactured boundaries, SubhanAllah. Mankind’s mucking around is no match for Allah’s work. I’m frequently reminded of the ayaat:

وَمِنْ آيَاتِهِ خَلْقُ السَّمَاوَاتِ وَالْأَرْضِ وَاخْتِلَافُ أَلْسِنَتِكُمْ وَأَلْوَانِكُمْ ۚ إِنَّ فِي ذَٰلِكَ لَآيَاتٍ لِّلْعَالِمِينَ

And of His signs is the creation of the heavens and the earth and the diversity of your languages and your colors. Indeed in that are signs for those of knowledge. [Quran 30:22]

يَا أَيُّهَا النَّاسُ إِنَّا خَلَقْنَاكُم مِّن ذَكَرٍ وَأُنثَىٰ وَجَعَلْنَاكُمْ شُعُوبًا وَقَبَائِلَ لِتَعَارَفُوا ۚ إِنَّ أَكْرَمَكُمْ عِندَ اللَّهِ أَتْقَاكُمْ ۚ إِنَّ اللَّهَ عَلِيمٌ خَبِيرٌ

O mankind, indeed We have created you from male and female and made you peoples and tribes that you may know one another. Indeed, the most noble of you in the sight of Allah is the most righteous of you. Indeed, Allah is Knowing and Acquainted. [Quran 49:13]

And yet how frequent man’s sightlessness to the true purpose of these variations. How impassioned the delusions of grandeur. The quarrels. The hatred.

Coming back to Charleston, I realized that one of my fellow contestants was from Bengal or बंगाल . Specifically, Dhaka. Or Dacca. Or دکّا . Depending on who pronounced the word.

From East Bengal to East Pakistan to Bangladesh, the labels have changed so much. To me Bangladesh meant among other things, great sea food & the majestic Sundarbans (सुंदरबन) where the enchanting Bengal tiger from Valmik Thapar‘s Land of the Tiger roams. At the time, I had also recently learned of two interesting phenomena that even today huge swathes of thankless urbanites in the Subcontinent seem to be blissfully unaware of.

First, the annual flooding during the monsoons, at the Delta of the confluence of the Ganges/Ganga (गंगा) and Brahmaputra (which by the way, is called the Tsangpo by the Chinese. The naming controversy can still cause bad blood between the governments of India and China sometimes) and the cycles of mass-scale destruction that they bring along. Imagine. Just when you’ve barely survived one nightmare, the prospect of holding certain knowledge that your only piece of land for subsistence is doomed to take another hit, already on its way, just around the corner. People flee to face hopeless destitution. And have no choice but to return when it’s all “over”. Rinse. Repeat. The consequences of this endless cycle have been movingly portrayed in Pilger’s eye-opening film, An Unfashionable Tragedy and an equally heartrending short-documentary by Doctors Without Borders here. And of course, for one reason or another, Bengal’s inescapable bond with food crises is historic, with legendary accounts, such as that of the great Bengal Famines, that come to mind. There’s something to be learned about the human spirit & resilience from these stories. And cause for renewed thankfulness for Allah SWT’s many bounties, as reminded by this Hadith.

Second, would be the seldom talked about Bangladesh-India barrier, where some of the most despicable acts of xenophobic violence occur on a regular basis. I guess the caste-mentality is hard to break in this part of the world. ‘Come close, dear cheap workers, but never so much that you forget your low-life status.’ In a lot of upscale households in India’s growing cities, “Bangali” and “Bihari” have literally become cuss words. And events like the Nellie massacre go to show how fragile outward cordiality can really be in South Asia. Things boomerang at the drop of a hat. Deep love and fervent hate continuously oscillating with mind-numbing unpredictability. It’s like a severe case of Borderline Personality Disorder on a mass-scale. I’ll save more on this topic and Bengal for later inshaAllah.

So this guy told me how he was married with kids and had a family to support. Poor soul. Not being able to practice medicine yet, for lack of an American residency, he was making do by tutoring newly landed international physicians preparing to take licensure exams. I had actually seen cases where international doctors were forced to take up non-clinical work, once even coming across an ex-clinician who had now become a meat-shop owner and his tragic story. Such is the hard life a lot of international, fully qualified physicians go through in the pursuit of striking gold.

We talked about various aspects of desi-nesss, the rampant slyness among interviewers in America’s job market and the calibration this often requires on the part of interviewees who might not be used to the phenomenon. Compared to regions like the Middle East, promises carried faaaar lesser weight in a low context culture such as America. You soon begin to develop a newfound appreciation for the phrase, “a man of his words”. There’s something hopelessly depressing about the ease with which people flip on each other. From siblings, to spouses to whichever interpersonal relationship you can think of. Fidelity is paper thin. Not that such problems don’t exist in the Middle East or South Asia, but the proportions seem to be waaaay higher in Umricaland. And it’s all perfectly ego-syntonic.

It was roughly 2 PM and I had just finished a luncheon with a bunch of house staff at my hotel. Without taking the risk of having to veer off into a lengthy lecture on Halal dietary codes and stuff, I had decided to order French onion soup for myself. Little had I realized that with it would come a huge blob of cheese on top. Oh, the love story that is Cheese and America! It’s like one cannot exist without the other. America is cheese. Cheese is America. No grocery store is complete without a specially designated “cheese” section. It finds its way into all kinds of stuff, from snacks and sandwiches to fast food pizzas and burgers to even main course stuff such as Lasagna or Fondue. A Punjabi lady I had once met, remarked how she and her Caucasian colleagues would sometimes have heated arguments about which smelled worse in their unventilated office during lunchtime, her Indian masalas or their American cheese. Insulting either one was a sure-shot way of hurting that group’s tribal pride and honor. Achieving the same effect as hurling hard-to-remember profanities at each other.

I had gently pushed the blob towards one corner of the bowl as it still lay floating on top. Delicately scooping the rest of the soup from one side and finishing it up. I still recollect the acrobatics with smiles and feel glad that I didn’t end up making a fool of myself at the table.

French Onion Soup

French Onion Soup (via Wendy @ Flickr, by-nc-nd license)

During the lunch, the junior physicians mentioned how people preferred Charleston to Morgantown, which had been virtually overrun by boozing college party-animals and how the rougher terrain there caused irritating traffic problems. West Virginia, we discussed, was also regarded as “the  southernmost Northern State and the northernmost Southern State” given its relationship to the Mason-Dixon line and one physician suggested that there were elements of “Southern”-ness in its culture such as the characteristic accent a lot of people have. I was to later also learn of a highly peculiar system of public transport at the place known as the Morgantown Personal Rapid Transit.

I’d had maybe five hours of sleep since my journey began in NJ the day before. Battling the drowsiness, I now realized that there was another deadline approaching. My return flight via Charlotte, North Carolina was departing at 4 PM. Two hours left! My Bengali co-traveler and I exchanged good-byes and went our ways.

Returning to Yeager, I realized how much it resembled a cardboard box or some kind of lost cabin in the woods. No queue at Security Check. The few TSA agents there loafing beside a single X-ray machine. Descending towards the departure lounge felt like walking into a basement. The number of boarding gates perhaps limited to five. Looking out the windows I marveled one last time at the sight of peaks jotting up from the horizon. The sun grazing their edges on its way down as the day was approaching its end. And I took notice of a couple of military aircraft in the vicinity. Wonder what they were about. The free internet was so refreshing! I’m still awed by it all.

The flight out to Charlotte was again on a mini-jet. As we approached, the peaks gradually gave way to flatter grasslands. A lot sunnier than America’s northern latitudes. Very beautiful and picturesque. All New York City had to promise was MORE chilly weather. Oh, the dread!

Charlotte’s airport was a lot bigger than I had imagined. And rolling with activity too. I spent a good three hours exploring, thinking about venturing out into the city someday. Perhaps for a photography assignment.

3500 odd kilometers (courtesty gcmap.com)

Thankfully there weren’t any more flight cancellations. And finding public transport after arriving at LGA was not hard. By the time I’d reached my “home” in NJ that day, it was already 10 PM. So far, I had done roughly 3500 kilometers, give or take a few. And was soon to hit the bed, satisfied over a job well done. Alhamdulillah.

The Appalachians of Charleston have now been etched into memory. And haunt as do the Asir & Hejaz ranges of Al-Baha or the Neelgiris of Ooty.

© ctwayfarer @ Contemplations In Transit


Maladies of Muslim Societies in America – I : Intro April 3, 2011

Posted by ctwayfarer in Life's Lessons, Muslims, Travel.
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Making a diagnosis

Making a diagnosis (via chaparral @ Flickr, by-nc license)

As I struggle to complete a number of assignments set for myself before academic burdens take sway, I’ve procrastinated for far too long in order to get on top of this important topic. Part of the reason was deciding whether or not to write a single post as opposed to a continuing series. Since the subject is vast in scope I’ve decided on the latter. It would do more justice for me to elaborate on details and incorporate new observations as I continue to experience them.

Why is this important?

Well firstly because in my opinion, you might say as a doctor, you can’t treat a problem without coming to a truthful and accurate diagnosis. In my travels and experiences in various regions of the world, I’ve observed that a lot of times, thought suppression plays a key role in allowing maladies to fester among populations. When people prefer to stay in denial and would rather not confront their demons and engage in wishful thinking, this gives rise to assessments of things that don’t match in their severity with facts on the ground. And America and regions similar to it are no exceptions. You see like for many denizens in India going about their daily lives, the America of its dwellers is an America of their silver screens. An America of the mind. Illusory, filled with all kinds of bedazzling spectacles and promises and an America that the American as well as the Indian villager, each lost in his very own catacomb, finds for the most part all good and dandy.

I think there are times in history when matters have to be handled minus the sugar-coating. When a tumor needs to be called a tumor. No matter how hard such a fact might be to swallow. Without such honesty it is hard to devise proper solutions.

As for the risk of sounding holier-than-thou, let’s face it, patients still find use for their doctors even if they have unhealthy lifestyles. I guess the following hadith, demonstrates the value of this process too (quoted in part, emphasis added):

Bukhari Volume 2, Book 26, Number 797 (also found in other places):

Narrated Abu Bakr RA:

The Prophet delivered to us a sermon on the Day of Nahr. He said ” […] So it is incumbent upon those who are present to convey it (this information) to those who are absent because the informed one might comprehend it (what I have said) better than the present audience, who will convey it to him. […].”

I’m no murshad. And nor should you be some mureed. Allah SWT knows best what faults lie within us all and may He grant us all the hidayah to overcome them. Ameen. Sometimes I feel like I ought not to speak. At other times I think the lid needs to be blown off.

My second reason is that for many Muslims, including those who haven’t yet reached its shores, Muslims in America represent some kind of panacea for the Ummah‘s problems. The fountainhead from which a future renaissance might spring forth to be absorbed like sponges by the rest of mankind loafing around in the backseat. Popular sites like Islam-Online (the English version of which, for some reason, is now basically in shambles), MuslimMatters, MSA listservs, etc., where-from I myself at one point in my life used to draw assessments, give to rise to a profound selection bias that serves to perpetuate this misjudgment. Also because many young readers in the world, succumbing to environmental pressors, have dumped their own languages in the pursuit of English and are thus left with a limited number of options, often foreign, in order to make sense of their native surroundings. Given these conditions, it is no wonder that for some of our arguably deranged eschatology experts, “the sun will rise from the West” is interpreted in this rosy-eyed manner, that ‘the sun’ here refers to Islam and ‘the West’, places like America.

In the end, what is hoped to be achieved is a better understanding of where sections of the Ummah stand in places like America. Our individual and collective failings. And lessons to be drawn and to be applied to local problems, no matter where in the world we are. And for those of us who still have any glimmer of hope left, a starting point to build a list of things-to-do with our short, transitory lives. In the interests of maintaining a little balance, I’m going to start a series in the near future on some of the positive aspects of US Muslim societies insha’Allah.

The Milieu

You’ve heard it before. But let’s just go over the basics once again. US Muslims fall broadly into two groups: those whose history stretches waaaaay back – Turtle Islanders, Caucasians who came in from Europe and elsewhere and African-Americans and other groups – and those whose history is more recent – economic migrants from all over the world, from Japan to Argentina.

In the first category, African-American Muslims, who have had historic struggles with slave trade and destitution stretching continuously to the very present, I’d say have played the most prominent role in US history.

As for the second category, we find that America represents the grass that’s greener for huge swathes of underprivileged Muslim people (way better off than those who’ve migrated to Europe, as Tariq Ramadan confirms). While it’s true that for many, from an economic perspective it represents a step-up from their present circumstances, I think the tendency is to paint it all in one giant brush-stroke, dark green. Very dark green. Heaven on earth, in short. Nuance is lost. And what surprises me is that this tendency sticks long after that fateful migration has taken place. Muslims who’ve immigrated to erstwhile Turtle Island, will desist taking a critical appraisal of their environment, the many pressures and pressure-valves it presents and their own role, as khalifas, in helping shape its future for their own betterment and of those around them. You could argue that some of these traits spill over into Muslims of the first category too.

America poses several challenges for healthy living. And not just for Muslims. But as khalifas you’d expect to see some kind of effort being put into doing something about it by Muslims. And it really is saddening to see that like Muslims elsewhere in the world, US Muslims are lost grappling with themselves, let alone showing their neighbors what to do. With rare exceptions, it’s all pretty much go-with-the-flow.

For starters, let’s just focus on the economic system. Ruthless and unfair capitalism guarantees a workaholic life. If you don’t put in your 110% and do extra hours, there’s a good chance that someone else will. And because greed drives everything, despite namesake laws that exist to dissuade employers from this unscrupulous behavior, there’s a good chance that you’d get fired to be eventually replaced by a new workhorse. If it’s in your taqdeer to get a severance package, you might be able to weather the ensuing storm until you find new employment. Those who don’t, find the pink slip treatment a lot harder to bear. There’s that 30-year hundreds-of-thousands-of-dollars-worth mortgage to pay off. For that’s what owning a home costs in Umricaland. And then there’s the 2-3-year tens-of-thousands-of-dollars-worth car loan (reliable public transport in the US is virtually non-existent except for pockets here and there. The automobile corporations made sure of that). Unpaid credit card bills. Four kinds of income taxes to deal with depending on where one lives. Day-care. College. Healthcare insurance premiums (sorry, ain’t no such thing as free public healthcare here). Food & utility bills that run into the hundreds. Crippling costs of living in short.

Workaholism demolishes not just the individual but family life as well. The individual finds no time for developing a complete personality. No time for books. No time for exercise. No time to pursue a hobby like art. No time to dwell on current affairs and peer behind 30 second soundbites on news channels. No time to learn history. No time to do justice to his part in the decisions his political shepherds make. And so on. As for the family, BOTH spouses will feel obliged to work to make ends meet. While they’re at it, neglected children will develop a deeper attachment with their daycare providers rather than their parents. Until ultimately by the age of 16, most will want to live away from parents. They call this “emancipation“, you see. Ironically, Kaplan Medical’s book chapter1, Social Life in the US (a must read for anyone interested in US social life) states that it has been statistically found that spouses find more happiness when they’ve sent their children away. I guess they’ve used an odd definition of happiness. Or could it be that the threat their kids will report them to child protection services for doing their job, finally at last ceases to loom over their heads? Or could this just be a reflection of how depressingly standards and expectations about kids change with successive generations? Allahualam.

For new migrants coming from societies where kids form an important social support mechanism for the elderly, this comes as a profound culture shock and something to come to terms with as their children are influenced by social pressures in public schools. These social pressures also include things like fornication, STDs, teen pregnancy, drugs, guns, crime, gambling, boozing, you name it. One obscure but shocking statistic from this article is that nearly HALF of all Muslim college students have at one point or another taken to alcohol. Such a shame! This kind of decay really gets in their faces when the more God-fearing US Muslims look for spouses. Under these circumstances, I find it no surprise that many families prefer to find for their kids spouses from their lands of ethnic origin.

Discontent, abandoned parents ultimately end up in nursing homes at the fag end of their lives.  Some, foreseeing the inevitable, try to plan and make arrangements in advance with their riba-riddled retirement saving plans. Richer ones will find suitable nursing homes that go with their status. Like glass houses. Sparkly. Fragile. Sometimes when you pass by these edifices, with their glowing lights and chandeliers, you wonder what a hollow life it all is. The lengths people will go to to keep up appearances, while remaining moth-eaten inside. Sadly, meeting with parents and family become once-a-year events during occasions like Christmas or the more fake, Thanksgiving (more on its history later for there’s nothing really to give thanks about. Quite the contrary in fact). An occasional phone call or two between siblings and family members the only tenuous threads that remain. People who come from backgrounds that place a strong emphasis on keeping in touch with extended family gradually begin to change their conception of what is normal. From a transitory phase of unease and inner conflict it becomes natural and EXPECTED to meet with close relatives rarely. Anything more than a visit or two in a couple of years becomes just too much to ask. What’s really quite depressing is that a LOT of US Muslims have acquiesced and mentally come to peace with this lifestyle. Failing to understand that some of its origins could have to do with what some authors have called a low-context culture, that deprecates close interpersonal relationships.

While the national average for the failure of marriages is that half if not more are likely to end in divorce, Muslims aren’t far behind with percentages ranging in the 30s. Result? Soaring depression rates and broken lives continually yearning to fulfill some or the other unmet need – physical, economic or psychological – until the day they depart this life, hopefully naturally. And like the rest of America, Muslims swim in debt and interest. For as long as they live, there’s no real mental peace.

From an economic standpoint, it’s not as if Muslims don’t have a choice. They do, to a significant degree. When everybody else happily accepts debt and riba to pursue unsustainable goals in life that have faaaar reaching consequences, the pressures to stay in the game and compete are pretty high. It’s a question of one’s social standing, you see. A question of impressing upon fellow men the image of conformist sanity. There’s a lot of groupthink inertia to deal with. The IMAGE is what everyone’s after. And breaking with the flow becomes a momentous task. It becomes hard to say NO to that large, half-a-million dollar house. To say NO to that gas-guzzling, expensive, first-hand car. To say NO to that extra bonus for the nights spent away from family. To say NO to more unnecessary work life. And so on. It’s all about the FASHION of living beyond one’s means in the end – from an economic as well as social perspective. There’s frankly little surprise in my mind about the fractures that come for free along with this deceptive and costly product that everyone falls for. I mean, isn’t it obvious what to expect?!

Riba and debt are a topic for a future post, insha’Allah. The US social fabric EXPECTS you to have a history with debt. They call this a “credit history“. And with it comes a FICO score. Without it, sometimes landlords will refuse to offer homes for rent. Car dealers will refuse to sell their merchandise and so on. And debt and interest form the bedrock by which new currency is produced. So it isn’t that simple to eliminate in toto.

What brings profound dismay, is that far from being conscious of these issues, confronting them, proposing solutions and implementing them in their daily lives, Muslims in the US seem to have been swept away by the tidal force of this hedonism. Continuously reacting in maladaptive ways and seeing no way out, clamoring to conform as best as possible whilst their shuyookh and ulema, the appointed social engineers of Muslim societies to whom this task has been relegated in the most irresponsible spirit imaginable, chill out with other priorities.

Tisk tisk. Is there any real hope left?



1. Behavioral Science Lecture Notes for the USMLE Step 1 & Step 2CK – Kaplan Medical


© ctwayfarer @ Contemplations In Transit

An Albuquerque Odyssey March 27, 2011

Posted by ctwayfarer in Life's Lessons, Travel.
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Albuquerque (chantal foster@Flickr, by-nc-nd license)

Early January. Another day, another destination’s Aalaw. On the flight spanning two time zones across America’s vast expanse from Baltimore, one couldn’t escape the breathtaking sight of an entire megacity perched among peaks as high as 6000 odd feet. Very Tabuk-esque I thought, reminded of that ancient town at the crossroads of Arabia, the Fertile Crescent and the Sinai. That source of ineluctable longing and incessant pleasant memories from my childhood years.

‘Could this bring it all back?’ I wondered as I sat stunned gazing at the spectacular sight, SubhanAllah. There’s always been something magical about living amongst peaks. And this should be no exception, I thought.
On a high, I could almost smell the cleaner air and my skin began anticipating the extreme variations of temperature across what I felt lay ahead – a highly knobby landscape.

Touchdown; and the airport at once seemed so different to the ones you’d see in a metropolis like New York. Spread out to the extreme, the few passengers there were strolling at a leisurely pace, the building embellished with an interesting blend of modern and ancient architecture incorporating guess what – wood – and paved with brick tiles that would rattle luggage trolleys, one had to walk a football field or two to find ground transport.

Albuquerque, or rather  البوقرق (the emphatic Q occurring twice in the same word makes you wonder if this was an Arabic town lost in some hidden corner in this part of old Mexico’s expanseThe surprising answer came pretty quickly to me later), as I fondly remember it, is situated on a high plateau surrounded by hills. The landscape that my skin was anticipating cruising up in the sky, was towards the periphery I realized. Not here, where I stood eager to catch the hotel shuttle. With a population of roughly 1 million thinned out over its surface like a poorly jammed slice o’ bread, by urban America’s standards البوقرق is in one word, sparse. It is dotted with modest homes in striking contrast to the extravagant suburbia characteristic of places like Chicago.  Distinctly desert, as evidenced by the familiar short shrubbery peppering its barren but warm landscape and with green palm trees to be seen here and there. But this was not the desert I knew back from the Hejaz. This was a high desert. Cooler. Even colder at times, as I was to later find out there had been a massive pileup of, wait for it – police cars – on a freeway when it had its dose of sleet a few days before. What is it with New England towns and their resilience in cold weather I thought. Barely few days later I would be riding a packed bus in the midst of a snow and hail storm between New York and Baltimore, in near white-out conditions!

But yes, the palm trees (struggling with parched conditions as they seemed) were a welcome sight as was the desperately needed sunshine that your body yearned for, coming from storm-riddled New England. New York had just been through a blizzard unprecedented in recent history and those vivid descriptions of office-goers taking to skiing on its caked streets on Amy Goodman’s show were still fresh in my mind. Running (my choice of exercise) in ice, up in the north was risky and something one had to think twice about. America’s woeful healthcare system and costs be damned.

I was here to meet a deadline too I recalled. ‘Oh! I’ve only two hours to unpack, unwind, and suit up! What’s more, I have to iron that freaking suit!’ And then catch yet another shuttle to what was to become in this odyssey my third destination. But coming back to where I stood waiting for the shuttle driver to pick me up, I noticed someone who seemed just as concerned as I was, stroking his wrist watch, murmuring explicatives. Not surprising I felt. For all the superficial courtesy among people in American society, people drop curse words right, left and center like there’s no tomorrow. From the most elite business executives, politicians or pontiffs to the tiniest tots as they are groomed in امریکا ‘s oft lauded network of public schools where peer pressure runs inescapably high, it is – PERVASIVE. One of the many awkward paradoxes I learned about the US in my travels. We took the same ride together to the hotel, exchanging pleasantries along the way. He & I were here for the same purpose we each learned. The driver explained to us about the dirt cheap costs of living, the exciting outdoor opportunities like climbing the Sandias & skiing too if that was our hobby, a couple of notable eateries and you guessed it, for this is Umricaland, pubs and other rather debauched places to hang out. ‘Oh let’s not get so judgmental’, my inner voice jeered. ‘Haven’t you read about such stuff in Arabia or boozing and human trafficking elsewhere in your travels? Heck, you as a doctor have met with such people in the hospital, in that subcontinent located in the derisively labeled “third world”! Silly you!’ You see, traveling, reading and a keen sense of observing things had made half of me a more nuanced person. Or so I hoped, Alhamdulillah. We talked about rumors of the town being famished, as was visible by the seemingly unkempt roads (by امریکی standards mind you), and high rates of violent crime. The driver confirmed that the place was on the crossroads for druggies coming in from Central America. But the weather isn’t as extreme as it is up in the northern reaches of New Mexico he quickly said as if to reassure.

So this was it. NM – the two letter abbreviation that represented so much. Home of the Manhattan Project, billions wasted from the public exchequer personified in five thousand bloodthirsty nuclear tipped missiles lurking somewhere near the airport as I believed I had read some place, and where that science celebrity & demagogue drew his inspiration to bring forth what, in my opinion, is possibly one of the worst books ever published in all of mankind’s short history.

Checking into the hotel wasn’t too bad. My ہمسفر and I parted ways, agreeing to rendezvous shortly. He explained he was Korean. ‘The South, I bet?’ I asked. ‘Yup. You know the North is in lock-down.’ My inner voice interjected, ‘funny how it’s now no longer under the US State Department’s famous list‘.

The room wasn’t too spectacular. In fact I soon found out that besides an unusable toilet by Asian, Muslim standards (more on this in a separate post InshaAllah), it was fitted with an iron that had a broken thermostat! ‘Oh squat! Just an hour left!’ And housekeeping couldn’t make it in time with a new one I was told. ‘Oh Allah! Help!’ Firm in belief, as always, that rarely does Allah SWT not leave solutions out there for the world’s myriad problems, I began to brainstorm. I would plug and unplug the iron periodically. In half an hour I had my suit crisp and ready, Alhamdulillah.

My Korean co-traveler and physician was already in the lobby. As we waited for the driver to take us to that important meeting, continuing where we left off, he and I shared brief summaries of the histories of our ethnic lands of origin. He was originally from Korea. Grew up in Argentina. And went to medical school in New Jersey. He told me that he couldn’t make sense of the division between the North and South.

It wasn’t like the Indian Subcontinent where people slaughtered each other (and do so to this day) and parted ways in the name of, wait for it – ‘culture’, ‘religion’ and worst of all as a Muslim, in a fashion antithetical to the calls for interfaith dialogue and co-existence espoused by the ‘moderate’ and championed Shuyookh of today. (Things like dialogue, co-existence, Da’wah were, it seems to me, the least priorities in peoples minds in the centuries leading up to that bloody chapter in human history. I’ll have a book review and a series of articles on the Subcontinent shortly, InshaAllah. There are many neglected lessons that this history provides for Muslims all over the world.)

No. The Korean drama was different. People spoke the same. Lived the same. Religious differences were rather negligible. It all seemed just so artificial and politically engineered. He explained the Japanese influence in Korea’s history. At which point I transitioned into the Subcontinent’s own bristle with Japan in the Andamans and its North-East during WW2. Moving on to the 70s and therefrom, I asked about what he knew of the Kwangju massacre. Ecstatic at my interest in the area, he inquired how I’d even heard of it! Alhamdulillah, I love reading and remembered an article a famous journalist had written about recently declassified papers from the Carter era. Furthermore, that part of the world, along with Indochina, China, Russia’s Far East and its neighbors, its deep history and those of Muslim minorities living there have always fascinated me. We had a very useful exchange on the imports of Kwangju, how it shaped South Korean democracy, so recent as it is, putting it now on the world stage as an economic powerhouse. He mentioned the varying and contradicting positions South Korea’s presidents took towards the renegade generals responsible for the tragedy. And how people have surprisingly moved on. Sinister truths from the declassified papers about the US vis a vis the massacre left him kind of amazed. I humbly referred him to the journalist’s website. He mentioned how he felt Korea never saw ‘thinkers’ like Gandhi, etc. for some reason. And – we heard a voice – our driver was here and we needed some mental prep before the meeting.

We finally reached that moment of truth. Being one on one with other liquor-clutching physicians in-training who were entrusted to find for their training program, the right recruits amongst the dozens who were there. By now I knew the drill. We were stuck with adhesive name tags that seemed to peel away every ten seconds. As each tag dropped and stuck to the dusty floor in that underlit, jazz-riddled, pub-like hall, I would swoop down and as agilely as I possibly could, pick it up and put it back on again. It was a rather futile and at times clumsy exercise. By the end of the evening, the soiled adhesive name tag wasn’t adhering any more.  I met a senior physician in-training who was from the Subcontinent. She mentioned that her ancestry was a mix of Gujarat and Kerala. But as expected, from meeting with other ‘Western’-ite desis before, her cultural behavior was anything other than desi. In fact she’d just introduced me to her Caucasian spouse. And her adorable fair-skinned infant, as she explained the details of the program. Desis in America are a breed apart from desis in Desiland. As are Koreans, Arabs, Hispanics, etc. I had learned this from experience. One requires tact and cultural insight for these different groups to get along. But more on this in a later post, InshaAllah.

Amidst all the banter, I met a fellow contestant who came from Syria. I was elated to find someone to speak my rather shoddy Arabic with. But who cares, it was going to be fun, I thought! 🙂 He mentioned that he was staying in a hotel room just next to mine! In fact, for weird reasons, we had a common door connecting them both from the inside. We exchanged a few Arabic words that evening and the next day. Talking about the similarities البوقرق had with Arab landscapes, the fact that so much of what’s in a name gets lost in translation (as Sooria, becomes Syria, Damashq becomes Damascus, Caahera becomes Cairo, etc.) I also further mentioned that my parents named me inspired by a famous freedom fighter and a poet from Aleppo. It was nice to connect with him culturally. Knowledge isn’t just from books, you know. A lot of it comes from on-the-ground experience, meeting with people. A fact that I’d first gleaned reading about explorers like Ibn Battuta, Xuenzang, etc. and then confirmed meeting with Indian villagers who would come to my hospital having no idea of what in fact was India. Where its capital was or what it looked like on paper. Much to their governments’ rattling to the contrary, their India was their village. And that’s all a worried mother or father laboring in their fields ever cared about. Over the years I came to realize that borders are the ultimate bureaucratic hammerheads designed to clobber all manner of human diversity, richness and nuance to eternal oblivion. A fact that’s easily missed by the social herds of which we seem to be a part. Braindeath is the norm you see.

We met with senior faculty the day after that evening meeting. News had just come that there was a shooting incident earlier in the ER of the medical facility perched in this beautiful, yet among America’s poorest of cities (for reasons I suspect similar to this). Poverty and negligence feed a vicious cycle that’s hard to break. And البو قرق I realized was no exception. Another contestant, from Mexico, remarked that it didn’t even match economically with cities back home.

Despite it all, the city has a calm pace and laid back community. Some (in)famous Muslim personalities too whom I’d rather not name. And welcoming, warm hearted people. The challenge in New Mexico is the same as it is in the Subcontinent. Poor healthcare penetrance, lack of education leading to poor compliance with treatments and widespread loss to followup. Heck, there’s even an unwavering faith in “alternative medicine” (what people in the Subcontinent have their own version of in the forms of Ayurveda and Unani). These are areas in which to master skills, that would be essential for any physician wanting to do good for the needy patients there. It was interesting for me to learn about this side of America. In the Subcontinent, the view is that امریکا is like heaven. Tisk-tisk at the all-pervading, hopeless braindeath in our world. May Allah SWT grant us the taufeeq and desire to gain more knowledge about each other! Ameen. It would do SO much to foster peace and understanding in our world.

The junior physicians showed us around the city and talked about, among other things, breweries to check out. To my shock but-by-now-not-surprise one of the first people in the entourage to eagerly ask about the joys of this pastime was a young lady with an Arabic name. I figured Muslim. Wallahualam. (More on failings among Muslim societies in America in future posts InshaAllah. This is a neglected topic that people, who haven’t experienced it all first hand for themselves, will be shocked by. Reading sites like MuslimMatters.org or Islam-Online.net, one gets an extremely rosy perspective on Muslims in the US. Things on the ground are extremely depressing as I’ll elaborate in the future InshaAllah.)

Soon thereafter, my Korean and Syrian co-travelers left to trace their return journeys as did I. It gave me a good feeling that Allah SWT presented me with these opportunities to learn about people and for them to learn about me. Alhamdulillah, I was able to gel-in, speaking fluent American, diligently polished over the course of a few months a couple of years before. And I was filled with humility (knowing how much remained unexplored) Alhamdulillah, being told by my departing Korean-Argentinean-American ہمسفر that he’d never before met someone with such an interest in Kwangju. And my Syrian friend and I wished each other الال‍قا and السلام وعليكم . My interest in the Levant has been piqued ever since. And it has been fascinating learning about the demography of Muslims in the region – the Alawis and other groups.

البوقرق will be hard to forget. Its beauty. Its sunshine. Its poverty. Its social issues. Home to the largest percentage of Native Americans of any State, and virtually devoid of a significant African-American presence for some reason, I would want to be back to explore more someday. And perhaps come out with a decent photo-essay this time around InshaAllah.

© ctwayfarer @ Contemplations In Transit

Lessons From The Stories Of Médecins Sans Frontières & Médecins du Monde March 23, 2011

Posted by ctwayfarer in Charity, Life's Lessons.
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Take My Hand

Take My Hand (via viking_79 @ Flickr by-nc license)

I’ve been meaning to put this down in writing for a while. A couple of weeks ago I stumbled upon a profound discovery. Going over some of the (arguably buried) history of how Doctors Without Borders (Médecins Sans Frontières), the famous humanitarian NGO, formed and then how a couple of doctors belonging to the organization felt it necessary to branch out and create a splinter group called Doctors Of The World (Médecins du Monde), I came upon an idea.

It’s not WHAT tire that meets the road that counts but rather IF in fact the tire meets the road.

For in the end, be it the Red Cross with their confidentiality agreements with governments and troublesome secrecy, the MSF with their bothersome apolitical stance on humanitarian crises or Médecins du Monde with their ideology, no agency is likely to satisfy one’s philosophical aspirations fully (yup, not even Islamic Relief or any other Muslim NGO). It’s not what humanitarian NGO you choose to join that matters as much as what you, as a person, accomplish on the ground meeting with the needy, the destitute & the dying and doing something about it. Those people can’t wait until you’ve figured out what’s wrong with your life as you sit cooped up in a dark den in some corner.

Ultimately, it is unlikely that one’s efforts as an individual, even as part of an NGO, would bring about the profound changes one envisions in the societies they serve. You do what needs to be done, one starfish at a time. Measuring success in individual lives saved rather than fret about the hordes that one might have rescued had things been different. Every life saved a source for continued resolve. Each day a new beginning. And to keep at it no matter how futile it all seems until the very end. After all, such an approach would bring one more solace and inner peace the day they depart this life than knowing that when it mattered most, they could have actually done something and yet did nothing. Something. Anything. Before it was too late.

I’d say it would probably make sense to limit your goals to one or two priorities on the ground. Not more. And think of an NGO, not as some kind of vehicle to accomplish grand objectives, but to value it objectively for what it really is. Just a means to get organized with a bunch of other concerned humans who share those limited priorities.

Thinking logistically rather than philosophically can sometimes reap greater results. Between the MSF and MDM (using them as examples here. pick your favorite NGO groups), wouldn’t it make more sense to ask the question, “how many volunteers?” rather than, “what’s their worldview?” There might be legitimate concerns about ideologies, sure. No denying that. But one has to ask how often do these things overshadow everything else? And how often do we allow ourselves to slip into paralysis by analysis. Sometimes even when the ship to accomplish the mission that we profess to fulfill has long set sail!

An eagle’s-eye view at ReliefWeb strengthens this perspective. Myriads of NGOs – of every color and philosophy imaginable – all working together to save and help preserve the sanctity of human lives. And at the end of the day, individual people doing their tiny bit to get the job done. One person at a time. If the destitute survive, perhaps they would be more likely to sit with you and have a chat about what you think constitutes the essence of life. Wouldn’t you agree?

©  ctwayfarer @ Contemplations In Transit

The next time you think about taking credit for something good March 21, 2011

Posted by ctwayfarer in Islam.
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… in your life or somebody else’s, think about the following:

مَّا أَصَابَكَ مِنْ حَسَنَةٍ فَمِنَ اللَّهِ ۖ وَمَا أَصَابَكَ مِن سَيِّئَةٍ فَمِن نَّفْسِكَ ۚ وَأَرْسَلْنَاكَ لِلنَّاسِ رَسُولًا ۚ وَكَفَىٰ بِاللَّهِ شَهِيدًا

Whatever good, (O man!) happens to thee, is from Allah; but whatever evil happens to thee, is from thy (own) soul. and We have sent thee as a messenger to (instruct) mankind. And enough is Allah for a witness. [Quran 4:79]