[The Egypt-born NGO official Abdullah arrives to Sri Lanka from Switzerland as part of the tsunami rescue delegation but with a private side mission. He hopes to make contact again with his former colleague and fiancée, the Sri Lankan anthropologist Khadeeja, who had stopped corresponding some time ago, on her return home, deep in a historical quest of her own. Most of the novel’s preceding chapters have been devoted to Deeja as she rethinks and rearranges her connections to her home land.]
While Abdullah wandered through the streets of Kalmunai listening to the shocked gasps of his colleagues as they walked through the desolation of the village he replayed the conversation he had with RaushenGul the night he landed.
‘Hello is that RaushenGul?’
‘Yes it is. May I know who is speaking there please?’
Abdullah smiled to himself at the perfect precision of the phrase with a slight Scottish lilt.
‘RaushenGul, it is Abdullah.’
‘Oh! Abdullah!’ He heard the relief in her voice. ‘How wonderful to hear your voice. How wonderful to finally get to see you.’
‘Yes! It is for me too. By the way I texted Deeja that I was coming, I hope she got the message.’
RaushenGul paused. ‘She didn’t mention it to me Abdullah.’
‘May I speak with her then please?’
‘Oh I am sorry Abdullah, but she is not here. She left last morning. She went to the South, Abdullah and I am so worried. I didn’t want her to go but she was determined, she told me she had to find Arjuna because his mother had rung her up and told her that he was...’
‘...Whoa, Whoa,’ Abdullah firmly said. ‘Now just a minute. Hold the horses. Who are these people! Who is Arjoone and what about his mother? And how is Deeja involved?’
‘I can’t talk over the phone Abdullah. It’s too long a story. Why don’t you come over and I will explain.’
After a twelve hour journey, upon arriving in the East Coast, Abdullah prepared to assess the damage caused by the Tsunami and estimate what was needed immediately. He had read his briefing paper on the plane:
For 20 years, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, have waged a brutal insurgency to establish an independent state in Sri Lanka. A 2002 cease-fire stopped the fighting … but peace talks have been stalled for a year. During the fighting, 20 to 25 people died each month … The Tigers generally see Muslims, who make up about 7 percent of the population, as siding with the government. But since the waves struck on Sunday … truckloads of food and clothing have been pouring into the Muslim division from Sinhalese and Tamil areas. The people hope … the tragedy will lead the country to unify. For now, what shows is not so much unity as grief and exhaustion that have overwhelmed old divisions...
Now as he walked through the devastation nothing prepared him for what he saw. It was worse than a war. It was obliteration of entire communities. It was hundreds and thousands left homeless, destitute, and in shock. It was a disaster of Biblical proportions. Abdullah remembered a quote he had read in the Quran many years ago. We then opened the gates of the sky pouring water, and we caused springs to gush out of the earth. The waters met to effect a predetermined decision.
It rang through Abdullah’s mind as he was shown street after street of rubble that was once the established residential quarter of the area. Over and over again he heard the stories. There were tales of horror, tragedy and miracle. Every family had lost at least one person. Some families were wiped out. Tales of babies being ripped from their mother’s arms, of daughters seeing their aged parents float away battered by the debris, of women beating all odds and rescuing their children and clinging on to barbed wire just to survive were recounted endlessly. His heart constricted as mothers told him that it was as if the sea was determined to have their children and once they were taken, then the sea abated. The sea came, they said, as if it were a forty-foot serpent that towered over coconut trees. It came with silent menace, black with anger. Some fathers said how they sat in fishing boats far out at sea and could only watch the destruction that the Tsunami caused to their village and families. At the end of the day Abdullah was heartbroken.
As he lay sleepless on his bed he thought about Deeja and knew he wouldn’t be able to sleep that night. He lit a cigarette and walked out onto the balcony of the guest house. He watched groups of men running about, organising the burials for the dead, unloading the goods at the mosque and talking in low whispers.
Kalmunai was a Muslim town and Abdullah was secretly glad that he was sent here for in his heart he was a closet Muslim with all the misgivings and doubts that sometimes assailed him.
That night as he lay on the narrow bed in the small room of the makeshift guest house, Abdullah stared out into the black sky through the small window. Why didn’t Deeja tell me? He wondered. Why did she keep silent? She was all alone going through this and she didn’t think fit to tell me. Why? We were going to get married. I cannot understand it. Abdullah knew that things were different now. He had been concerned when Khadeeja had stopped communicating with him but he merely put it down to pre-wedding jitters and did not want to invade her space.
How stupid of me! He thought. Here I was thinking I was giving her space and she must have thought I abandoned her. Not bothered enough about her to even pursue or insist that she talk to me about what was bothering her. I hope it’s not too late now. I hope Deeja knows that I love her whoever she is, wherever she is from.
At dawn Abdullah heard the call to prayer:
Allahu Akbar, Allahu Akbar, La ila ha illallah... he took his ablutions and walked down towards the mosque.
Religion had never been important to Abdullah. He had been born a Muslim but that was all. His family practiced Islam in the spirit rather than in the ritual and by the time he entered University, Abdullah had stopped praying altogether. He didn’t know what he believed in. He knew there was a God but whether it was a Muslim, Christian or any other God was of the least interest to him. But now, after seeing the devastation of the Tsunami, Abdullah needed some spiritual help and while walking towards the mosque together with a couple of hundred men all walking in the same direction he felt a sense of peace and brotherhood.
Abdullah didn’t know how to pray but he fell and rose and knelt and bowed with the congregation like a wave that obeys the rules of nature. He murmured fragments of prayers from his childhood and except for the imam’s utterances that swept over the worshippers and the swish of the movement of their clothes there was utter and total silence. It was one of the most beautiful moments of his life. Standing there with a community that had been crushed by the power of nature and yet radiated a sense of peace and acceptance of God’s will.
We have forgotten this, thought Abdullah. In our sophistication, in our effort to live life to the fullest, we have forgotten the basics.
After prayers while giving salaams to his neighbours, Abdullah faced the first of many questions that were to become a daily routine for the next few days.
‘Where are you from?’
‘What is your name?’
‘How old are you?’
‘Are you married?’
‘What are you doing here?’
As the days passed, Abdullah worked feverishly to bring some order to the devastated community. He would call RaushenGul every day but she too had not heard from Khadeeja and was worried about her.
‘I have asked some cousins to go down South and look for her. They are leaving early tomorrow morning,’ she told Abdullah. ‘If I hear of anything I will let you know.’
Abdullah turned to concentrate on his work. More than thirty six hours after the Tsunami hit, the government was unable to activate an adequate relief plan. And by the time he arrived, Abdullah realized that most of the aid coming in the form of food, medical supplies and equipment were donated by individuals and local groups. The response had been overwhelming but there was only so much the citizens could do. The hospitals, the few that were still standing were overwhelmed and dead bodies stacked in neat rows were beginning to putrefy. The stench was unbearable. The mosque decided to bury the bodies.
Abdullah watched as a group of men who had appointed themselves as the burial team and who had travelled all night from Puttalam situated right across the country on the West coast, began to dig the trenches. With white bands around their heads and white handkerchiefs across their faces they looked like spiritual Jihad fighters about to go into battle. Where are you Khadeeja my love? Is it the same where you are? How are you? Are you alone? Do you think of me? Life is so short. I am so stupid for letting you go. Don’t go my love. Just don’t go.
There were eight trenches dug. About twenty feet in length and six feet deep, the trenches took all day to prepare. In the night they buried the dead. With murmured prayers and candles and incense dotting the sand, the men loaded the mass graves with bodies. It was not a time to ask about religion or ethnicity. They died together so they will be buried together, the Imam told Abdullah. It is important that they are at peace now. All souls with Allah.
The next morning he made out a list of supplies with the mosque authorities. Abdullah began to write while they listed their needs.
Medicine- Panadol (adult and children), bandage, cotton wool
Kitchen utensils and cups
Clothes for kids
Underwear for women
Occasionally amidst his work his mind wandered: Khadeeja why don’t you call me? What is happening with you? Why are you silent? Have you found him? Do you not need me anymore?
Then they gave him their lists of the displaced
|Chenaikuiruppu Ganesha Vidyalayam||2000 families|
|4th colony school||3000 families|
|Kalmunai Patima College||5000 families|
|Natpatimunai Sivashakthi school||3000 families|
The list went on and on …
Oh my love are you going through the same thing? Call me? Please! Call your mother if you don’t want to talk to me? We haven’t heard anything from you for days. I’m worried. I want you to find your brother. I love you so much. Oh Khadeeja, what has happened to us?
At the office Abdullah had his first meeting. ‘First,’ he said, ‘we must open rehabilitation centers for children.’
‘What about the temporary shelters and health facilities?’ Siva his assistant queried worriedly.
‘That is already done, Siva. Concentrate on what needs to be done. We have been told that other international organizations are already in the area and they must have seen to the basics.’
‘Don’t be too sure about that Mr. Abdullah. I have heard reports that further up the East Coast the UN agencies are not to be seen. So let’s go in expecting nothing to be there.’
‘Ok, let me check on that after this briefing. But let me continue with this now. Our priority right now is the women and children. We have to look out for children who tend to be neglected by their families who they themselves are in a trauma state. We need to create a safe place for children so that the women can concentrate on the rehabilitation without the burden of children. Siva will you take Kumudini and see to that?’
‘Ok Mr. Abdullah.’
Khadeeja, listen. Please. Just give a quick call my love. We can talk later. Just let me know that you are OK. Don’t do this to me. To us. I don’t understand what is happening. Please. Just call me. Talk to me. Please.
‘Mr. Abdullah. Mr Abdullah,’ an agitated hand waved in front of Abdullah’s face.
‘Yes Kumudini?’ Abdullah recovered his attention quickly.
‘I think that the center should have lots of toys and if we could have some money for paint to put in some cheerful colours, I think that would help as well.’
‘Excellent idea Kumudini,’ Abdullah embarrassed at his distraction was pleased with the quiet intelligent young woman who had joined the team at the last minute. ‘Don’t forget to give some special attention to girl children. They are in danger of being forgotten as they may not be as vocal as boys or act aggressively to get attention.
‘Yes sir. In my previous job we were told that sometimes we think girl children are without problems because they are silent but they suffer a lot from depression.’
‘That’s right Kumudini. Also look into setting up a few counseling groups for the women. I think they may be more effective than the standard ‘one to one’ trauma therapy that the guidebooks talk about. We should focus on ‘domestic violence’ as well as it is a known fact that during times like these, domestic violence reaches unprecedented levels in a very short time.’
‘What do you mean Mr. Abdullah?’ Siva inquired with a puzzled look on his face.
‘Well, when we were working in Turkey, we found out that a month after the earthquake around 80% of the women were facing domestic violence. There were many reasons for it. Men tend to be more aggressive as a result of the trauma; shrinking living space, unemployment, drinking etc. being among the major contributors. We must not forget also that sexual abuse of children can become a huge problem. Resources are scarce. We must make sure that efforts and materials do not get wasted due to lack of co-ordination. Sundari and Krishna, will you both take over the co-ordination center. Contact all the NGO’s in the area. Introduce yourselves and explain the project. Get back to me at the end of the day with the preliminary information.’
‘Ok sir,’ they chorused as they left Abdullah who continued sitting in the room looking out of the window, his mind already elsewhere.
Khadeeja where are you? Why have you gone away? What has happened? What about us? God! what is happening? Look after her please. Keep her in your care.
In the evenings Abdullah would walk around the village, speaking a few words here and there to the people. He began visiting the mosque every night after Isha prayers and had informal chats with the Imam over a simple dinner of roti and dhal.
One day he asked, ‘Imam Shahul Hameed how do you explain all this? What is the meaning of this tragedy? Most of them were poor people. They had suffered immensely during the war and now this? How do you explain it? Where is the just God that we are taught?’
Imam Shahul Hameed looked quietly at this man whom he was just getting to know. He took Abdullah’s soft hands within his callused and rough palms and began.
‘My son,’ he said, ‘the whole of mankind struggles in pain and suffering. Why do people get cancer? Why are children orphaned? While we don’t know the answers for this we do know that God is a God of mercy. He means for his creation to work towards healing hearts. There is a spark in mankind that comes out of tragedy. Every person has a spark of God in them. In times like these, that spark becomes a passionate flame that warms the community. Look at this place. We have people from all over the country, from all over the world. Look at you. You came to us. You and others like you have cared for us, comforted us, wept with us. In the midst of this great tragedy God gave us the most wonderful thing - he gave us hope.’ The Imam paused as he fumbled for a handkerchief to wipe his brow. The little mosque built away from the sea was hot and stuffy, the lone fan circulated sluggishly ahead and the dim lights flickered and brightened with frequent power surges. After a sip of cool water from an earthenware pot beside him, the Imam continued.
‘There was a philosopher who once asked why is it that when a rotten apple is put into a barrel of good apples, the good apples will become rotten but a good apple put into a barrel of rotten apples does not have the ability to make them good. In other words why did God make a world where sickness and rottenness are almost contagious? But one day I realized that even the so called good apple is not really good. It is eternally flawed. Because it has a mortal wound - where it was separated from its source of life - its stem. This is when I realized that nothing - be it fruit, vegetable or man when separated from its source of life is sound. That all are ill and only God is health and wholeness and holiness. But we have forgotten about God. And to the philosopher who was asking about why good apples cannot make rotten apples good. They can - if they are a Buddha or a Jesus or a Muhammad they can. Indeed they can.’
Abdullah felt the tears prick his eyes. He was moved and he didn’t quite know why. It had been a hard few weeks and he was worried about Khadeeja. Not so much for her safety as for her mental well being.
‘Tomorrow then, Imam,’ he said standing up and shaking the pins and needles out of his feet.
‘You are troubled my son. Do you want to stay and talk?’
Abdullah shook his head as he slipped into his sandals and putting his hand to his chest in a gesture of farewell, took his leave of the Imam.
‘May God be with you son,’ said the Imam as he turned around and began to pray.
Imam Shahul Hameed was not a learned man. Not in the worldly sense. His father was an Imam and before that his father. They had lived all their life in the town of Kalpitiya on the west coast of the island and came from an old, well respected but poor family.
When Shahul Hameed was fourteen years old a group of religious teachers came to the village. They were dressed in long white robes and wore white turbans wrapped around their heads and had piercing light brown eyes. These tall strong looking handsome men said they were looking for young intelligent boys for admission to a religious school located in the hills of Pakistan, on the outskirts of Islamabad. There they would be taught all aspects of the religion of Islam, from recitation, interpretation, jurisprudence, customs and traditions to other such important matters. Shahul Hameed, never having left the area begged his father to let him be interviewed by the men, despite the senior Hameed’s reservations.
‘Please Wappa; I will never get another chance like this. Think about it, it’s a chance for me to get a proper education. I can be a good Imam when I return. Not that you are not a good Imam,’ he added hastily not wanting to offend his father. ‘But the Holy Prophet said “Go even to China in search of knowledge.”’
Shahul Hameed’s father scratched his fine head of hair and rolled his tongue against his betel stained teeth and wondered about the proposition. He was a simple man who became Imam only because his father had been one before him. He was well respected in the town and many of the people came to him for advice and guidance. He knew however, that his son was intelligent and inquiring and was destined for things greater than Kalpitiya. It is true; he thought to himself, the world is changing at a great pace. If Shahul Hameed remained in the town he would be no greater than me, or his grandfather, but if he left… if he was taken by these men across the waters to other countries and was taught Islam in all its glory and complexity, why then, he could become a great Imam; he could leave Kalpitiya and join any one of the mosques in the bigger towns - Kandy, Galle, even Colombo.
And so Shahul Hameed was sent to a madrasah in Pakistan. In a matter of weeks he realized that it was going to be a painful and sorrowful mistake. Here among three hundred other young boys like himself, far from home and family brought from countries like Sri Lanka, India, South Africa, Sudan, Malaysia and Bangladesh he found himself in a religious prison. Every waking moment was devoted to the business of learning a religion that did not tolerate any deviations from the straight and narrow path determined by the authorities. The madrasah was funded by the Wahhabi’s from Saudi Arabia who were infiltrating countries with large Muslim populations, indoctrinating them in the stern and rigid interpretation of Abdul Wahhab the charismatic religious leader who supported Ibn Saud in his quest to rule Arabia.
Rocking back and forth reciting the Holy Quran, Shahul Hameed realized that he was not going to last in the madrasah. He disagreed with the whole system that prevailed there - the unquestioning rote, the rigid hierarchy, the intolerance. This cannot be Islam he would retort and each time he queried the system he would be beaten. Sometimes he would be locked up in his room which was no bigger than a cell and given only two chapattis to eat and a glass of water to drink for the whole day. The cell had a grill on the side that looked down into the inner courtyard where he could see his friends walk to and fro between classes and where they would gather in little huddled groups whispering among themselves. Sometimes they would look up at him and wave or mouth encouragement. Then he was befriended by a young South African boy who had come like him on a scholarship.
‘Shahul,’ he would whisper beneath the door. ‘They are coming tonight to make you apologize. Say you are sorry or else you will be beaten.’
‘Even if I say I am sorry they will beat me.’ Shahul Hameed would retort stubbornly. He knew that it made no difference what he did or said, the institute was run by a bunch of sadists who took out their frustrations on the students.
Eventually he ran away and when he was picked up by the police after two weeks of hide and seek he was arrested and imprisoned. After a short time in a Pakistani prison where he was sodomised every day and tortured in a hundred different ways that he did not care to remember, he found himself on a cargo boat to Colombo.
He had left when he was fourteen and the boy who returned at eighteen was a changed man. After a short apprenticeship at the mosque in Kalmunai, he succeeded the old Imam on his death and was immensely popular with the community.
The people soon realized that the new Imam used his education to seek out new and compassionate interpretations of the religion. Not content to be a passive component of the town, he gained a reputation for discussion and was fond of encouraging the youth to debate and probe intricate principles.
Imam Shahul Hameed was an unusual man in his outlook. He took pride in being a Sri Lankan as well as being a Muslim and took pains to teach his community that the duties of a good citizen were as important as being a good devotee. In recent times he would comment on the young men who flooded the streets of Kalmunai at night wearing long robes and sporting twisted turbans on their heads. ‘What is this garb?’ he would laugh gently as they streamed outside his little mosque. ‘It is not our dress. It is the dress of the Arabs. We are not Arabs. So why do we want to dress like Arabs? We must not lose the sense of who we are. We belong to this country that has a proud and rich history. We must not forget our contribution to this country of ours. We have no need to look elsewhere for our heritage.’
‘Look Imam,’ a few of them would retort lightly, ‘this country seems to have no need for us, and we, we are descended from Arab traders do not forget that. So even this dress is part of our heritage.’
‘Come, my son,’ the Imam would reply with a smile on his lips but his eyes were serious. ‘Let us examine that. Do you think the Arab traders came with their wives? No, they did not. They came here and married the women of this land. Our land. So what does that make you, more Arab or more Lankan? Before you answer the question think of where you are? In Arabia or Sri Lanka?’
‘Sri Lanka,’ the puzzled youth would reply.
‘Then, you have your answer of who you are don’t you?’ the Imam said. ‘If this country was good enough for your Arab forefathers, then shouldn’t it be good enough for you my son?’
But the Imam knew he was fighting a hard and losing battle. Hundreds of villagers had returned from the Middle East bringing with them the strict Wahhabi interpretation of Islam that in his opinion broke its spirit.
He knew that they disapproved of him and his beliefs and that it may be a matter of time before an Imam more suited to their purist beliefs would be brought into the mosque and then he knew he would have to leave. But in the meantime, for now, he would try to infiltrate these angry youth with his pacifist and tolerant message. That night as he went into his mosque to pray his Isha he felt slightly lost. ‘Ya Allah! come to me tonight. I need you,’ he whispered urgently.
He was fond of this young African man who came with the Tsunami aid workers. Abdullah was different from any of the foreigners he had come across and was the first African he had met. No, that is not true, the Imam, corrected himself. He remembered his young South African friend in the Madrasah. He wondered what had happened to him now.