Half The Faith

The office building I once interned in houses state of the art serviced offices, bedecked with the functional yet chic elements to create an environment that makes work fun and easy. It’s tall height is dwarfed by the gigantic Burj Khalifa that stands bang opposite to it like its big daddy. My story, however, does not revolve around the times when we feel larger than life, rather when our vanity goes down with prostration to the giver of life.  The building has a prayer room just big enough for a few Muslims to practice their daily prayers on time and in between the office hours. It is during during these times that I always met Shafi-ul-Islam – a young, soft spoken man from Bangladesh.

He seldom prayed with the congregation and would studiously stand by the sides of the abolution (washing) area and wipe the water that had splashed onto the seat. To ensure that the washing area was clean before the next group of men used it, he would swipe the floor even if it meant that the men had to patiently wait. When the meticulous yet repetitive and seemingly boring ordeal was over, he always had time for a smile and words of greeting. Even as I finished praying and wore my shoes preparing to leave, I would always notice him stand in an alert position with the mop by his side in one hand as if he’d made it his friend. There was something awkward about him standing this way, smiling and waiting for me to leave every single time. I then realized that he waited for me to leave so that he could continue swiping the water from the floor without splashing it on me. I was once late for prayer and found only myself and him in the prayer hall. He was in the middle of his prayer and I remember thinking to myself that he must have finally arrived at his optimum-tidiness and separated from his mop for a few minutes.

There is great emphasis on maintaining cleanliness and keeping the prayer area free from impurities. This discipline is something that I noticed even in the mosques in India – a country not particularly reputed for its sanitation and waste-disposing facilities. This order and spruceness is not made possible by waving a magic wand, but by the efforts of the brush, the hands that guide it and the man who is determined to guide his hands to task. Some volunteer to the job occasionally, while others are hired to dedicate their services in helping the worshipers in attaining half the faith. It was sometimes embarrassing to come across these ‘cleaners’ in the mosques of India. Embarrassing because many of them were frail and old, rigorously scrubbing the floor while I left the mosque having prayed with the age and comfort on my side.

We live in a time when parents pass on values to their children and teachers impart morals in the guise of stories. We have at least have lived in moments well before our ‘mistakes’ and ‘experiences’ could get the sobriquet of being a teacher. Stories and scriptures that emphasized the importance of cleanliness, for instance, is something I remember from school days. My parents explained the significance of cleanliness in the Islamic faith and philosophy with the popular axiom – “cleanliness is half the faith.”

On another occasion, my teacher shared the story of a stained window that led to the viewer’s perception that her neighbour’s clothes on the clothesline were perpetually soiled. The folly does not always lie in one’s character, but the frame of reference, the window of perception that one uses to know and understand a fellow being. Dirt, in this story of the stained window, was not the literal impurity welcomed with soap and water, but rather it is an unlikely hero that rose from the dust to provide wisdom. It’s the philosophical process of scrubbing your attitude and cleansing it off the stains of judgement and prejudice.

What I chose to portray through my encounter with Shafi-ul-Islam is a path where literal cleanliness intersects with philosophical purity. A nexus where faith meets morals and values. Had there not been people who volunteer to get their hands dirty, practicing a religion which is particular about cleanliness would become a challenge and most worshipers would look only after themselves in their endeavour to reach the desired level of tidiness.

It is men like the one in my story who don’t just take on the onus of such community service, but also give us the opportunity to scrub our thoughts clean of ignorance and appreciate small things. It helps us to philosophically cleanse the tiny window through which we try to view a world which in actuality is much larger than our lives spent in vanity. Many times, we are too engrossed in the faith and forget to dedicate a thought or two to those who facilitate its practice.  If cleanliness is half the faith, then indeed, Shafi-ul-Islam is a humble, smiling face of that faith.

Shafi-ul-Islam – He smiles wider than in the picture

When Thoughts Took Off

airportTwo weeks ago, I was stranded at the Jakarta Airport for almost a day with an unconfirmed ticket. Along with the flights going full, there was my mind willing to squeeze one thought after another with a willingness to process observations. I’ve read and heard of people making the most of their experiences at airport and taking to pen and paper to immortalize the moments. Of the most notable, certainly, is Alain De Botton’s ‘The Art of Travel.”

Here are a few thoughts that kept my mind occupied at the airport despite my eye-lids failing me often –

1 – I understood why many people celebrate the success of an expedition with a travel partner. While travelling is a fun and adventurous experience that keeps you occupied, some circumstances eventually make you realise that man’s happiness is a reflection of the company he shares. A traveler’s misery can reduce greatly if accompanied by a trusted comrade who shares the discomforts in times of uncertainty.

2 – I understood the wisdom in the Islamic teaching of giving Zakat (alms) to a traveler to help him/her financially. This charity can be addressed to both Muslims or non-Muslims. While a man may live a comfortable life with community support back in home, he could face unforeseen difficulties during travel. Though a man would like to flow like the stream, he may be forced to remain stagnant like the pebbles underneath. The reasons could be many – the traveller may have prepared for limited number of days with limited money, the currency he carries – though abundant – may not be accepted for exchange, he may have been robbed during travel and so on. Act of kindness is not affixed to national priorities to help fellow citizens, rather it lies in your heart which understands a traveler in need as a brother in humanity.

3 – When there’s a technical glitch in an aircraft mid-air, the pilot does not lose his cool and manhandle the control. That’s an option that would not make it to the pilot’s conscience and common sense, leave alone a manual book. A passenger is no less a pilot in ensuring a smooth travel for his co-travellers. Either a traveller could be peeved with a  situation to the point of making the discomfit contagious, or he / she could empathize with the situational demands and cooperate with those who work to rectify the issues. During the testing times at the airport, I came across a bunch of crass, rude, loud and indecent passengers who faced the same situation as me and others. Their uncivil behaviour with the staff of the airline suggested that travel methods of the modern world have failed to command their respect and dignity for the humankind. With the fear of stereotyping, I couldn’t help but wish that such people be limited to their ancestral vehicles marked by camels and horses. Even then, I wondered if an unsettled camel would have to be at the receiving end of their ire and whimsical nature. When you lack a travel companion to comfort you, it helps to adopt all your co-passengers and staff as if their comfort depends on the words that leave your tongue.

4 – Economic  differentiation does not fail you anywhere, including the airports. Passengers are divided into Economy, Business or the First Class, and with the new schemes of Frequent Flyer Programmes (FPPs) – into Platinum, Gold and Silver. We have internalized differentiation based on wealth, and are never surprised when we are not necessarily treated the same as our co-passenger.

My stay at the airport has to it a poignant build up of some unfortunate events in the history of civil aviation. And another fact – as real as economic discrimination –  stares us in our faces. However rich we may be as an individual and as a traveller, and how so every the airline’s services may have favoured our clout, an unfortunate accident would leave us as a trivial residue in the same debris that constitutes every other passenger – be it from the Economy, Business or the First Class.

Maybe the best of human values can be applied every day, in or outside the airport. After all, the most celebrated of all travels, is the journey of life.

Thank You UNESCO, friends in Bali, and that passenger who cancelled his flight

Rafting on the Ayung River

Rafting on the Ayung River

I suffer from massive post-Bali blues as I write this post. For someone who’s recent past has been marked with minimal activity, the period between the 20th and 30th of August, 2014 will certainly be one of the memorable times spent in some useful activity.

Writing on the learnings from the Asia Pacific Youth Training in Media & Civic Participation which was followed by the Global Media Forum in Bali would require a separate post altogether. This post is a gratitude to the people I met and interacted with at Bali, members of UNESCO, and as the title suggests, a passenger who indirectly helped me reach home.

Up until this training programme, UNESCO to me was a subject of a few articles I read, part of college notes in the last semester and a twitter handle I followed. I had, however, read about its goals in development of societies and recognition of cultures. This training programme gave me a first hand experience of its ability to gather admirable youngsters from various parts of the world on a common platform for exchange of ideas and experiences. Any university could do that, but it is UNESCO’s ambition to put youth at the forefront of substantial work that justifies its heavy investment in a programme of this kind. Thank you Charaf, Mikel, Ailsa and others from UNESCO for giving me this opportunity, and also Niwa and Iman of the Young Future Leaders group for tirelessly taking sessions during the training.

Working for the Youth Newsroom was an awesome experience, and I extend my gratitude to the editors who worked on my articles. I also thank Nick, Mr. Michele Zaccheo and Mr. Noel Boivin for supervising our efforts.

People are becoming increasingly mobile these days and very few live in a bubble. If the young are set to become ‘global’ citizens of tomorrow, their success depends greatly on the kind of people they meet and interact with who don’t belong to their countries. During this programme, I met people from more than 20 different countries. While I could not spend enough time interacting with each representative equally, I would like to thank them simply for representing their nation at the platform. Your stories have helped me and others build a reservoir of information about places we have not visited so far. Some youngsters are already inspirational and have dome great work in the field of development. I would like to thank everyone for sharing their work with us and giving us a lead on what could be reproduced back home to address local challenges.

I would like to particularly thank the host participants from Indonesia who played their part in upholding their country’s hospitality and kindness. Honestly, I’m not sure if Indians would go far into gifting souvenirs to their guests. You guys are certainly the future and I hope the next time I come to Indonesia, I meet at least some of you again.

I spent a lot of time with some great desi (a world usually used for Indians and Pakistanis) friends. Meeting, interacting and spending time with those lads from Pakistan, I honestly feel sad for those millions of people from India and Pakistan who have never interacted with each other, and worse, wish that an interaction never takes place. The only way forward for a peaceful world is greater tolerance between the two different countries who are rich in culture, tradition and history – things that they ironically share with each other to a great extent. While politicians from our respective countries spill vile at each other, UNESCO could be at the forefront of insulating the youth from such hatred and providing a common ground for interaction and brotherhood.

Lastly, I would like to thank the passenger, who I obviously have no clue of, for cancelling his ticket for Emirates Airlines flight 357 from Jakarta to Dubai. After being stranded at the Airport, I could replace the passenger on the flight and finally head home while flights flew full capacity.

Thank you all, once again. Hope all of you are back home safely and resuming from where you left before this training programme.