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Keeping Faith, In Expat Land

Expat workers sit outside the Al Zarooni Mosque in Satwa, Dubai to break their fast during the month of Ramadan.

There are millions and millions of expats like me in the Middle East and elsewhere who spend these precious, special days and nights away from their loved ones.  Many of them toil out there in this maddening heat, quietly keeping faith and observing its demands.  


[dropcap]T[/dropcap]hey say books are our best friends.  Having lived and grown up with them all these years, I can vouch for the fact.  If not our best friends, they come nearly as close to being what one looks in one’s friends—easy companionship, loyalty and sincerity. Books help and enrich us in ways we cannot imagine.  Where would we indeed be without books?

However, nothing beats human company and human touch.  No treasure trove of insightful tomes and stacks of edge-of-the-seat thrillers can fill the void of human company.

Loneliness. Is there anything more punishing and debilitating? This is perhaps why the worst of criminals are kept in isolation. Don’t get me wrong. I am almost a recluse by nature and can hardly claim to be the partying kind.  I hate noise and endlessly talking noisy people.  I enjoy my solitude.

Iraqi refugees, who fled the violence in Mosul, eat their Iftar, the breaking of fast, meal during inside a refugee camp on the outskirts of Arbil, in Kurdistan region, June 29, 2014. Reuters

However, there’s a stark difference between solitude and loneliness.  One is enjoyed and cherished while the other state of being is like a curse slowly blighting and ravishing one’s whole existence.

The sense of emptiness and utter hopelessness that inevitably follows wreaks havoc in one’s life.  Many a promising genius has been lost to the world because he or she could not manage to find that fine balance between a happy and productive life and solitude that is needed for creativity.

Nothing great or beautiful is produced without some degree of solitude and isolation. Shakespeare, Ghalib, and Saadi couldn’t have created the magic that they did if they didn’t have solitude. But were they lonely men? One would never know.

Ghalib was a good host and was surrounded by friends and admirers all the time. Yet he may have been very lonely, especially in his advance years. So was Iqbal, notwithstanding his inimitable genius and following across the subcontinent and beyond. He received a regular stream of visitors. But then you can still be lonely in a crowd.

Mark Twain said the worst loneliness is not to be comfortable with yourself. Sir Philip Sidney in his typical chivalrous spirit reassured: “They are never alone that are accompanied with noble thoughts.” Easier said than done though.

Mother Teresa captured the whole trauma and pain of being lost in a crowded world that has no use or time for you when she said: “The most terrible poverty is loneliness and the feeling of being unloved.”

Coming from the distant Albania and serving the poor, sick and huddled masses in one of the most impoverished and crowded cities on the other side of the world, the Mother may have her share of lonely moments.

But she found her refuge in the wretched refuse of society turning her cause into a movement that transformed thousands of lives. Not everyone can be Mother Teresa though.  This is perhaps why she was canonized after her death as ‘Blessed Theresa of Calcutta’ – a saint – in 2010. Not everyone can conquer their demons the way she did.

I’ve always been a bit of a loner, even in the company of best of friends.  The past few years however have been particularly trying. For someone too attached to his calling, being away from journalism has felt like a fish out of water.

One pays the price for one’s big mouth and inconvenient views, defying the tradition of going with the flock and keeping your head low.  But, hey, there are no regrets.  If voicing one’s conscience is a crime, yours truly is guilty as charged.

Amid all this uncertainty though, I’ve had to send my family away.  And now that the kids have settled down in their schools and gotten used to the hustle and bustle of Hyderabad, they are reluctant to head back.

So this is my fourth or fifth Ramadan without them.  It gets particularly depressing at the time of Iftar and Sehr. One misses those lively family gatherings and all the happy chatter that the young generate on such occasions.

I know I am being partial but nothing compares to a Ramadan in Hyderabad.  It’s hard to capture the atmospherics, not to mention its much-loved delicacies like the heavenly Haleem, served especially during the holy month, in words.

But even as I miss and long to be with my family, I cannot help but notice the fact that tens of millions of families across the region and beyond who haven’t had a peaceful Ramadan in years. It is hard to shut one’s eyes to the predicament of fellow travelers across the world.

There are millions and millions of expats like me in the Middle East and elsewhere who spend these precious, special days and nights away from their loved ones.  Many of them toil out there in this maddening heat, quietly keeping faith and observing its demands.

Here ensconced in my luxurious flat and in the comfort of AC, I endlessly wallow in self-pity. And there are those who are out there braving bullets and much more in the 50 degree Middle Eastern summer almost on a daily basis.

While endless suffering and misery have been the bane of Muslim lands for decades, this year is truly turning out to be annus horribilis.  The persecution of Muslims in places like Myanmar has touched new heights.

In May, a shocked Nicholas Kristof of the New York Times wrote of Myanmar’s Appalling Apartheid revealing that what is happening in the Southeast Asian nation is worse than what happened in the racist South Africa.

Kristof merely offers a cursory peek into the hellhole that is Myanmar for its Muslims but it is enough to curdle your blood.  UN Assistant Secretary General Kyung-Wha Kang who visited soon after was shaken by what she saw in Myanmar’s Rohingya camps.  “In Rakhine, I witnessed a level of human suffering in IDP (internally displaced person) camps that I have personally never seen before, with men, women, and children living in appalling conditions with severe restrictions on their freedom of movement, both in camps and isolated villages,” Kang said.

But for much of the Muslim world, Myanmar is a mere blip on conscience.  It’s as though it exists on a different planet.  So does Sri Lanka which witnessed the killing of four Muslims last month. The island appears to be going Myanmar’s way as extremist Buddhist groups led by monks steadily turn the heat on the Muslim minority.

But who cares? The believers elsewhere are too busy cutting each other’s throats to agonize over the suffering in lands far and near. Indeed, from Somalia and Nigeria to Syria and from Iraq and Pakistan to Afghanistan, more Muslims have died at the hands of fellow believers and tyrants than in foreign wars or attacks.  No one keeps the count of precious lives lost in Iraq and Syria or Pakistan and Afghanistan anymore. Most of the world’s refugee population now lives in the Middle East.

Israel bombs at will and gets away with murder and it doesn’t generate even a whimper of a protest from the billion-strong community with world’s best resources at its disposal.  The Ummah that was supposed to lead and guide the world with its message of peace, mercy and humanity itself appears to have lost the way.  As an anguished Muslim intellectual asked in response to my last piece, why is our Allah angry with us? Why indeed? Is there any hope left for us?

These are questions that are far more serious and acute than my selfish loneliness or pathetic little existence.

All opinions and views expressed in columns and blogs are those of individual writers and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Caravan


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