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A Visit to Havana, Cuba: Day #1 Part #1: First Impression !




A city and a country frozen in time.
It jaw-droppingly transports you back to times your weren’t even born…in the 1950s and at places to even 400 years back. And leaves you stunned and mesmerized at the same time.

What a marvelous kaleidoscope of colors Havana, Cuba is in every sense of the word- from people to places to music to artwork to landscapes, to cuisine.

My first impression is of two Havanas- one for the tourists and the other for the local Cubans. The tourist areas mainly in the City centre are pristine, chic and modern. The old colonial and baroque buildings that now house museums, and some hotels have been restored to their fullest glory.

In aesthetics and class they beat any North American city. The residential quarters which mostly have the influence of French and Spanish architecture even in their derelict state leave you awestruck. With their receding glamour they still stand tall with beauty and grace, as if patiently awaiting for good times to restore them to their old glory. Most of these old quarters of Havana have been declared a Heritage site by UNESCO, so are being slowly preserved and looked after. Thankfully.

What matches beautifully with these colonial architecture are the vintage cars from 50s and earlier. That was the time of prosperity in Cuba when these cars were imported in large numbers. Once embargoes pushed them against the walls, little or no new cars can be 9mported. There are Dodges, Cadillacs, Chryslers, Buick, Fords, Chevrolets, Volkswagen and even Ladas(from Russia) from yesteryears plying on the road. Lada mostly used as personal vehicle by above average locals, I am told, is a status symbol for their, and their spare parts are imported from Russia and Panama.

Like the tourist-local divide in buildings, the old luxury cars have also been either refurbished and repainted into bright neon colors to cater to the tourists, while the austere Ladas or Volkswagens remain in old form, and used by locals for personal use.

Damned are these embargoes by the US and the Western countries, that Cubans remains stuck in mid 20th C with economic challenges.
What these wretched imperialist bullies could not put an embargo on is the zest for life and happiness of ordinary Cubans.
No Cuban child has delayed their childhood, waiting to play with American brand of plastic toys ‘Made in China’. LOL. Their playfulness finds simple, yet creative ways to make the best of their childhood.
No Cuban youth have waited to for flashing brand new Lexus, Toyotas, Mercedes Benz or even Hyundais to impress their prospective girlfriends and take them ‘for a ride’- both in letter and in spirit. Their old, 1950 models Volkswagen or Ladas, are enough to do the job.
No Cuban lover has waited for good economic times to take his beloved for a date in Western chain of restaurants (LOL), nor has a single one of them waited for deeper pockets to propose to their girlfriend with a DeBeers Diamond ring or gift her with an exotic Herme’s Birkin or a Prada handbag.
No Cuban woman has waited for Chanel or MAC cosmetics to make themselves look pretty (LOL). They still manage to carry themselves gorgeously, with minimal resources. I personally found every single young Cuban woman very well groomed and stylish. ❤
No Cuban foodie has awaited franchises like McDonald’s, Pizza Hut, KFCs LOL to load themselves with massive calories from comfort fast foods or colas. Their own cuisine is exotic and authentic enough to not miss these useless calorie bombs that we in rest of the world have got hooked on to happily.
The obesity in youngsters here is hardly visible(though am not sure of stats). Just second day here, and we have enjoyed their seafood especially Shrimp caserrole, local black bread, Cuban coffee, guarapo( sugarcane juice) and Cuban ice cream. Since we don’t eat Pork, our choices remain limited. Locally produced Bacardis flow in abundance almost every few hundred meters.

Cubans 🇨🇺 are welcoming and warm. I am sure it is far more than just because they are a tourist economy. Not one single request to take pictures or ask them questions was turned down. And for sure, they open their hearts if they come to know you are a Canadian. 🇨🇦 Couples walk hand in hand in the open streets, kiss more freely than Americans get free healthcare. 🤣🤣🤣

We walked into barber shop to click picture, made video of kids playing football, walked to a wine bar to watch live music. And we were received with smiles. Being pushed against the wall and isolated by the world does hurt ones self esteem. But they have learned to live with dignity despite all the isolation. Embargo has done zilch to the spirits of Cubans.
Bravo these people with a heart ❤ larger that the size of their enemy country United States of America.

Contrary to the ignorant advices we got from those who never visited Cubs, it is an extremely safe place with only minor crimes that may impact the tourists.

We roam in day light and in the dark, and feel no major risk. Yet being a super cautious person, Ismail is making sure we stay in safe limits and keeping a check on, “Ammi don’t give out too much information in your interaction with locals.” My boy he is.
Every moment here is beautiful, but Ismail and I often talk of how much Fasih would have enjoyed if he was with us too. May you be happy wherever you are, you are being badly missed Babloo.
Missing my Fatima, Abdullah and Rahma too.
This was just the first impression..

Lots more on Cuban history, revolution, cigars, their art, music, museums, Earnest Hemingway home, its exemplary healthcare, human stories, need to be explored and shared in days to come.

Tala’a Al Bardu Alaina… by Um Kulthum


It is a myth propagated by the ultraconservatives that music is haram in the faith.

Another myth propagated by the ignorant is that the songs in praise of Prophet Muhammad PBUH are sung as a biddat( innovative distortion) only in the South Asia and not in the Arab world. On the contrary, my favourite naats are in Arabic and they are called Nasheeds.

Having lived in Saudi Arabia, for nearly 2 decades, and travelled extensively in the Arab world from Egypt to Syria to the Gulf, the overload of beautiful music I have enjoyed is beyond the scope of this post.

Here I wish to share the FIRST EVER Arabic song in recorded history which was sung in 622 AD in Madina when Prophet PBUH entered the city, and he was overwhelmingly welcomed by the Ansars ( the residents of Madina). The singers lined up were women, who played Duff( a hand drum) and sang in his praise.

The lyrics say: Tala’a Al Badru Alaina…The white full moon has arisen….

The one shared below is the modern original version sung by none other than my favourite Arab singer, Um Kulthum, for the film The Message.
The video also gives an overview of how the welcome scene may have looked like 1400 years ago.

This is my utmost favourite, and the catchy music still gives goosebumps and serves as a reminder of the hundreds of trips to the tranquil city of Madina from Makkah in our 19 years stay there and numerous weddings we attended in the Arab world.

In a typical Arab wedding even today, the bride-groom are traditionally received in the wedding hall by women singing this very song.

طلع البدر علينا Oh the white moon has arisen over us
من ثنيات الوداع From the valley between hills
وجب الشكر علينا And we owe it to show our gratitude
ما دعى لله داعWhere the call is to Allah
أيها المبعوث فيناOh you who were raised among us
جئت بالأمر المطاعComing with a word to be revered
جئت شرفت المدينةYou have brought to this city nobility
مرحبا يا خير داعWelcome best caller to God’s way


EID MILAD UN NABI

Do listen to the song, the music and the powerful voice.
Does it feel as a beautiful piece of music as it feels to me?

Ammi’s Pandaan


I have many pleasant memories of this pandaan from my childhood.
Papa used to eat pan and this pandaan was a functional part of our house.
However it had a different look then. It had a silver qalai(coat) on all the pieces of this beauty, as it sat on the outermost edge of the kitchen slab. Fresh crispy pans that Ammi bought regularly from her trips to Jama Masjid area, wrapped in wet cloth were placed on the top tray. A sarauta (beetlenut cutter), missing here also shared the space on the tray along with pans.
The containers under the tray all had their specific contents:
The two mini handias with the flat spoons were for Choona (white) and katha (brown) pastes. The tiny spoons were applicators for their contents on the pan. I even remember how Ammi bought dry solid katha and then cooked it with water to melt it, which finally was transferred in the little handiya.
The two big canisters housed- chhaliya(betelnut)- one as full rounded nuts and the other cut into small pieces by the sarauta. The third canister contained saunf(anise). The thin canister in the middle contained tobacco leaves.
Each time papa wanted a pan, either ammi or sometimes Papa himself followed the process of ‘making a pan’ applying the contents in the following order- choona, katha, chaliya and tambaku- and finally the whole pan was folded into a conical form called gilori.
Interestingly the only person who ate pan was papa. Ammi made them several times in a day, but I never saw her eating herself. We kids also never seemed interested in trying one.
When I was in high school, papa decided to give up tobacco. He just left it cold turkey. Pandaan still remained functional. But some years down the road he realized pan was unhealthy and he must cut down if not stop it altogether. So the pandaan was wrapped up and he chose to get a single pan in a day from the panwala.
This pandaan from 1930s that came to our household in Ammi’s jahez(dowry) in 1964 was carefully packed in a plastic bag and kept on the topmost shelf in the kitchen.
With tarnished and dull look, the pandaan rested on the shelf for about 25 years. Out of sight is out of mind and we all forgot about its existence.
About 15 years, as my siblings renovated the kitchen, this pandaan again came down on the kitchen slab. I happened to visit them during that period, and the sight of an ugly big ‘thing’ brought back the memories of its heydays.
Seeing my interest in it, I was chosen to be the next owner of this treasure by my siblings and Ammi saying, “You treasure such things.”

I brought it with me and it became a part of our desi decor in Makkah. As we moved from there it was dumped in a carton for almost a decade. Periodically I looked around for a trusted person who would repair it, refurbish it and can bring out it’s original copper instead of the silver enamel.

Today, on the last day of 2019, the person who agreed to follow my instructions, and did this job chose to come himself with the finished form and proudly present it to us, tell us how precious this piece is, and most importantly to inform us how much personal efforts he has put in to bring this pandaan to a new life.
The sight of this sparkling gem not just made my day, but also made me feel accomplished in life. 😀
I hope the next decade also brings such wonderful outcomes and happiness for us and for you all.
Happy 2020 folks !

India is Secular- Kisi ke Baap ka Hindostan Thori Hai


Born, raised and educated in India, I learned how live secular values and co-exist with people of all faiths, race and cultures not just in India, but abroad. My political scientist parents told us that as we will grow up, whatever religious prejudices that exist will be gone.
Alas that was not meant to be !
Previous two decades( which began with anti-muslim riots in 1992 post Babri Masjid fall), we have seen all my parents’ prophesies and confidence in Indian secularism regress from confidence, to doubt, to fear and to a shattered dream today.
Citizenship Ammendment Act is a testimony that the gagging of Indian secularism is deliberate by design, not by default.
However, the incredible Indian student uprising against CAA, that began with 3 girls in Jamia Millia, and has now spread like wild fire across the globe is not a surprise to me. This is the only way you can respond when you feel your secular existence being strangled by fascists. I know Indians of all faiths who breathe secularism and will fight back till their last breath.

This is my India I was born, raised and educated in….so proud of my cousins, friends and all compatriots who are fighting oppression from the frontlines against CAA & NRA.


For the naive, who may need to educate themselves of the serious discriminatory intent that has been deliberately inserted in the Act and why are decent Indians outraging against it, can browse through these brilliant infographics for a quick understanding:

The poster below touched me the most. Perhaps this is a great lesson for people of all faiths, on how too shoo off the bigotry and divisive hatred of their own religious rightwingers.

I am a Hindu, not an a**h*le

The emotions are high and the willpower is unshakable.
Hear these powerful couplets by Rahat Indori which eloquently convey the indomitable resolve and anger of every secular Indian.

Agar khilaaf hain hone do jaan thodi hai,
Ye sab dhuwan hai koi aasman thodi hai,

(If they are against us, let them be, its not our life,
Its all a smokescreen, they are not open skies).

Lagegi aag to aayenge ghar kayi zaddd mein,
Yaha pe sirf hamara makaan thodi hai,

(If the fire errupts many houses will be engulfed,
There is not just our house in the vicinity here)

Main janta hoon ki dushman bhi kam nahi lekin,
Hamaari tarah hatheli pe jaan thodi hai,

(I know the enemies are no less adament,
But are they living on the edge like us? )

Hamaare munh se jo nikle wahi sadaqat hai,
Hamare munh mein tumhaari zubaan thodi hai,

{What comes out of our mouth is the truth,
Our mouths dont have your tongues(that lie)}

Jo aaj sahib-e-masnad hai kal nahi honge,
Kiraaye daar hain zaati makaan thodi hai,

(Those who are in power today, will not be tommorrow,
They are mere tenents here, they are not landlords)
.

Sabhi ka khoon hai shamil yahan ki mitti mein,
Kisi ke baap ka HINDOSTAN thori hai !!!

(Every Indian’s blood and sweat is mixed in this soil,
No one (community/faith) is the sole proprieter of Hindostan).

Story #8: Good Touch Bad Touch


YOURSTORYTELLER

is a social enterprise that creates digital talking comics based on true stories and raises awareness on the triumphs and struggles of common individuals.
We will be bringing digital stories based on or adapted from true stories, highlighting an important social issue in each story.

Story #8: Good Touch Bad Touch

Do you think it is right to inform children about ‘Good Touch’ and ‘Bad Touch’ at a very early age? 

We teach our children to be safe from fire, from falls, from strangers, from other hazards, but we often fail to teach them how to be safe from body harm( from sexual abuse).
What is really worrying is that the statistics of sexual abuse in children are high- 1 in 3 in girls and 1 in 6 in boys before 18 years of age. Scary fact is that 90% of the perpetrators are known to the children.
Sexual abuse is a confusing concept for little kids. They feel awkward of certain actions of adults, but do not inform their parents/loved ones about them. Long term xhildhood sexual abuse has devastating consequences as they grow up as adults.
Why do parents avoid sharing with children the idea of body safety? Most think it is too early to tell them about sexual abuse without realizing that this is the age when they are the most vulnerable. Also, not teaching them skills to protect themsleves from abuse actually makes them more vulnerable for sexual abuse. It is never too early to empower children on how to confidently stay safe from sexual abuse.
This story is a small attempt to empower children in simple and easy way on body safety.

Story #5: Talaq (Divorce)


My daughter often remarks, Men of my generation are better and more supportive than men of your generation. They value their wive’s careers and are less fussy to help them out at home.” 

My response to her almost always is, “There definitely is a section of educated young men who think and behave much different from their father’s generation. Many of them are sons of educated and career women (like me), who raised their sons to respect women.”

The above conversation holds true for only a very limited section of our desi society. Vast majority of men and women are still the flag bearers of patriachy and believe in subservience of womenfolk.
In the pretext of faith or culture, patriachy would not have been so deeprooted, if there were no women allies to it.
Not just allies, women are often the most vocal advocates of ’empowerment of men folk’.

Hear here a recent example of Ms Khan, a renowned matchmaker, who went ballistic on a TV show blaming women for everything wrong in this society:

 

For those who dont understand Urdu, I will translate verbatim the blatantly outrageous statements she makes  in her loud and reprimanding voice scolding young girls:

  1. “DONT use your tongue. Dont wag your tongue. Keep your tongue under control. If a woman controls her tongue, these things( marital discords) will not happen. Things escalate when the woman becomes “moonh zor” (bold) and tries to dominate over husband and mother in law. In our times we were told that when husband comes home, you must take care of his shoes and clothes,  the griddle should be hot to cook fresh chapattis, and the curry should be ready. What is this? “I am not going to cook chappattis?” Why? Then why did you get married?”
  2. She continues in English: “If you are not capable of cooking chapattis, then you better dont get married. If you are not capable of taking care of your children dont get maried. You will have to bear EVERYTHING. Unless and until you are not a PROPER WOMAN…”
  3. “Women should keep their mouths shut in front of their husbands( she puts a finger on her lips). Women are wagging their tongues a lot in front of their husbands, whether they are from rich family or poor or middle class. YOU SHOULD NOT OPEN YOUR MOUTH UNNECESSARILY.” 
  4. The anchor asks, “But Mrs Khan,  it is not always women’s fault if the matter reaches upto separation?” to which Mrs Khan interjects her, “These days it is women’s fault. They watch TV serials and learn from there. I have seen how my maid talks to her husband. Poor husband quietly listens to her. Look how this woman of even LOW CLASS speaks to her husband.”

Not surprising at all, but men were not even part of this conversation on marital discord.

YOURSTORYTELLER

is a social enterprise that creates digital talking comics based on true stories and raises awareness on the triumphs and struggles of common individuals.
We will be bringing digital stories based on or adapted from true stories, highlighting an important social issue in each story.

Coming to #YourStoryTeller, I am sharing here a true story of my own cousin, who followed exactly what Mrs Khan had recommended, “Dont wag you tongue, in front of your husband.” 
She even quietly tolerated a lot of taunts and verbal abuse from her mother in law.  Whenever I asked her, “Tum jawab kyun nahin deti?” (“Why don’t you reply back?” )

Her answer would be, “Baaji, yeh manhoos tarbiyet jo hai ke susraal mein jawab nahin dou.”  (“This damned upbringing that I am not supposed to answer back to my in laws.”).
Thus she laughed off many such bitter narrations of what she went through day in and day out.

The psychological abuse went on for about 4 years….

What happened next?  Please watch the true story TALAQ (DIVORCE):

I am proud of this cousin, who is now an independent career woman.

My advice to young girls would be to:  Marry men who respect and understand gender equity and both spouses need to understand that marriage is a partnership, not a boss-subordinate relationship.  Otherwise follow as Mrs Khan said, “stay single” and focus on your life & career.

Indo-Pak Cross Border Weddings- an Advice to the Bride


 

Many girls from all over India and Pakistan write to me about their love stories across the border and their wish to marry & live happily ever after. Just two days ago we celebrated our 29th Wedding Anniversary. So I think it makes me quite qualified to give some pearls of wisdom to the new daredevils. 🙂

Since in a vast majority of cases it is the girls who move to the other side, here is an open advice to these girls :

My first pearl of wisdom to you:
“If you think there is a genuine love between you two, go ahead and take the plunge and embrace the pain that comes as a baggage. But  before you decide, first meet him in person and ensure he is the same person who you have known on social media.”

Secondly, I want you to know there are realities beyond honeymoon:
“If you will live in India or Pakistan, you live in an alien land where you will always be under moral pressure, simply by default of being a woman, because our societies, on both sides, are swamped with misogyny, just as our cultures and faiths are deeply immersed in patriarchy. In our cultures, we marry in a family, one husband cannot be the only one you will deal with, even if you are his Laila and he is your all too supportive Majnu.”

Thirdly but most importantly be well informed of what you are stepping into: 
“Read and inquire as much as you can about the other side- both pros and cons. Know that the practical challenges that you will have with the bureaucratic red-tape are inevitable even if everything else in your personal life is going like the Bollywood style Veer-Zara. Sania Mirza-Shoaib Malik star couple are a wonderful example, but they are not to take inspiration from. Ask ordinary couples in such marriages of how things are like. But none of their story will be exactly like yours, post marriage. Like any ordinary couple, it will be a constant struggle. Be open to unexpected pleasant and not so pleasant situations.”

However, once you have decided to go ahead, here are a  few tips for your safety: 

1. Try to see his country as your home too. Love and befriend its inhabitants too. Do not live like an alien. Belong there.
2. At the same time do not lose any love and respect for your country of birth. Many will say, “You are still so “Indian/Pakistani”. Tell them “So what? I belong to both the places.”
3. Try not to be cynical about his country. Learn to be objective and honest about flaws and positives of both sides. Trust me, both places are no better or worse than the other. Blind patriotism will not bring peace within your four walls or lay breakfast on your table.
4. Best bet is to make it a taboo in your household to discuss Indian Pakistani political rhetoric in a partisan manner. Don’t expect a man who so loves you today, will not taunt your nationality sometime years down the road and will still not understand why are you so ‘touchy’ about it. So better shut these doors before they even open.
5. Keep yourself financially independent. Do not submit every penny in the name of love and family. Because that will disempower you. Try to keep some money/assets aside( openly or quietly) in your own name.
6. Do not stop visiting your family back home. Visas will be difficult, but you have to be very very persistent and persevering to not give in. Try your best. Ask for help from anyone who can help.
7. When you have kids preach them to be objective and not be partisan with either parents or their families.
8. Keeping a passport of your country is very challenging in India-Pakistan relationships, but in current times, its easier than 30 years ago.
9. Create your own circle of like minded friends in your adopted homeland. Don’t just depend on your husbands friends wives as friends. At some point of time you may feel that your personality, intellect and values are not similar to  your spouse’s, and hence making your own group of like-minded friends will give you a space of your own.
10. Pursue your profession or work and hobbies in your adopted country as you would in your own country. There is no reason to give up work. It will help you build confidence and be financially independent.
11. Keep in touch with groups like Aman ki Asha  on social media and fellow Indian-Pakistanis locally, who will understand your situation far more than the local locals. These friends work as a peer-support group and as a deterrent for abuse and exploitation at home.
12. If possible, and if going gets tough, try to move as a family to a third country, or at least have an additional passport of the third country. It is not the easiest thing to do, I realize, but will give your kids a choice.

Wish you all the best,

Dr. Ilmana Fasih,
A proud Indian-Pakistani.

indopakcake

Educate a woman and you educate an entire generation…


Recently a photo of a 25 year old Afghan girl Jahan Taab from  a remote poor village Oshto in Daikundi,  went viral when she was taking the college entrance exam called Kankor Exam while breast feeding her child. Later it was confirmed that she has passed the exams and wants to go to college to study Sociology. Photo credits are given to an invigilating lecturer Yahya Erfan. He was so moved by her determination that he posted the pictures on his facebook. Link here

“She got up from her desk when her baby started to get fussy. She sat down on the floor, breastfeeding the infant, and kept filling out the answers to the test.” (Buzzfeed).

She reportedly told the lecturer Mr. Erfan that she is worried about the cost of education and that the University is 8 hours from her residence. It is the power of social media that a Go-Fund was created to support the cost of here higher education.

More about JahanTaab

 

 

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Needless to say, girls’ determination to study is never an issue. The key barrier is the systemic patriarchy in the garb of cultural mores or religious edicts.

Patriarchy is such an omnipresent barrier that hinders women in all communities and all economic strata one way or the other. And here is where the role of men becomes extremely important in bringing about women empowerment by dismantling the walls of patriarchy.

Here I must share my own story too.

(Bear in mind I am an urban educated woman with a strong will power. But even then, had it also not been the supportive men in my life, I may not have sailed through various systemic hurdles that patriarchal infrastructures create at every nook and corner of a woman’s life). 

In the early 1990s, as an Indian medical graduate I had to go through a written and a clinical exam by Pakistan Medical and Dental Council to be certified to practice in Pakistan. I opted Karachi centre. When I received notification for the exam it said the exam will not be held in Karachi as there are no other candidates. The exam will be in Peshawer.

Since I lived in the Middle East, I was supposed to travel with my kids to Karachi where my in laws lived. But before I could even know and panic about how I will travel with kids to Peshawer, my husband first took an emergency leave from his hospital, and then informed me that we are all travelling to Peshawer. 

My husband Fasih and I, with our two kids- a toddler and a 6 month old breast feeding infant landed in Peshawar. It was a 3 day long exam- with a written paper and clinical exam.  From day 1, my husband sat in the lawn of the examination centre, with two babies, as he dropped me for the exam. I would come out to feed the baby every few hours in the breaks.

Funniest incident in the whole saga was when my daughter cried, “Papa potty.”
He ran with the baby in one hand and the toddler in another to the washroom.
As he entered the male washroom the guard said, “Take the girl to female washroom with her mother.”
“BUT mother is busy in exam.”
“Then wait.”
“But this baby cannot wait. She has to go urgently.”
So the guard let him take her to the washroom. And while holding the infant in arms he helped the toddler finish the job and clean her. 
Finally they came back to play and sit in the lawn again. 
And then he smelt the baby has soiled his diaper. He ran again to the same wash room.
The chowkidar got annoyed, “Ap pher se as gaye?” (You have come again?).
Fasih: “Smell this diaper.”
The guard laughed and commented, “Aur parhao biwi ko.”(Let your wife study more).

After day1 the entire examination team knew about my family and when I went from each viva and clinical exam, from Internal Medicine to General Surgery to ENT to ObGyn to Ophthalmology, first thing the professors asked was how are the husband and babies doing? 
Second question they asked was, “Where have you graduated from?”. 
On reply “Lady Hardinge Medical College in New Delhi” every single one of them began the viva with the comment, “So do we really need to test your knowledge?”
No bragging but I passed with the top position. 

The head examiner was Prof Zakaullah Beg who was my husband’s professor in his postgraduate life. He himself called Fasih on phone 2 weeks later in Karachi to break the news.

Moral of the story: Empower a woman and she will make her husband, family and entire community proud.

Samra’s story: When marital abuse did not break her


First published in Express Tribune, Pakistan on June 10, 2013 : http://blogs.tribune.com.pk/story/17620/samras-story-when-marital-abuse-did-not-break-her/

 

Attending the graduation ceremony of students at the prestigious University of Toronto, my daughter pointed out Samra Zafar, saying

“She topped in Economics and she is a Pakistani!”

Samra was flanked not by parents, but two daughters, aged 12 and seven. I wanted to know more about her, and hence invited her over to our house next evening.

At home, while sipping tea, Samra shared her 14 year journey with me and I was absolutely floored by her story.

In 1999, in Abu Dhabi, Samra was a brilliant 16-years-old student of grade 11, dreaming to go to a foreign university to pursue higher studies. Her only fault was that she was tall and extremely good looking – she was a dream bride. Hence when the proposal from a ‘well settled boy in Canada’ arrived, it was difficult for her working class parents to refuse. Eldest of four daughters, the parents thought this would give her a great opportunity to go aboard and pursue her dream, under the safety of her husband and in-laws.

The in-laws reassured their support too.

However, once married and in Canada, things changed. She was told,

“The atmosphere in high schools is not good, and hence it is better to not be thankless and stay happy at home.”

Samra refused to give up though and completed her high school courses through distance learning.

Despite being a mom at the age of 18, she excelled in her high school exams and got accepted to the University of Toronto. Her husband, however, refused to support her and his good financial status left her ineligible for university loans. She tried to convince her in laws for three years but to no avail.

It was not just her education; she was under strict vigil all the time. She was not allowed to leave the house, had no cell phone and was not allowed to learn how to drive. She never had a penny on herself and was constantly abused and neglected.

Samra had not visited her parents for five years. The first time she went back was when her father sent tickets for Samra and her daughter. When she was leaving, she asked her husband fora meagre $10 so that she could have some coffee and buy some chocolate for her daughter during their transit stop at Heathrow Airport. He just snarled at here and said,

“Ask your father for that too.”

She had left and did not intend to come back, but her husband begged her to return with a promise that he would change and that she will be allowed to study this time; he said that he realized he could not live without her. Reassured, Samra returned, only to know that once she got pregnant the second time, the physical abuse was to became worse.

Samra stated that,

“A bruise on my upper arm was a permanent fixture, as in every bout of anger, he would grab my arm really hard and squeeze. Often he pushed me, pulled my hair and spit in my face, even in front of my daughters.”

Again disheartened, she went back to her father’s home, pregnant with her second daughter. Within a couple of months her father suddenly fell ill and passed away. Samra recalls the day before his death and the advice her father gave her when he said,

“My life is uncertain, I may not live to look after you. You have to be strong and pull yourself out of this. I have always envisioned seeing you at the top of a world ranking University.”

Things had changed. Her mother was alone now and had two other unmarried daughters to support.

Samra, accepting it as fate, returned to her husband. To earn her own money, she began baby sitting in her house. As consolation to continue her work, she would give her husband some pocket money from which he would buy his cigarettes and a share to her mother in law, too, to earn their approval.

In 2008, she applied again and got accepted to the University of Toronto. This time she did not have to look to her husband for financial assistance, as her child care business could enable her to pay her own fees. However, this led to escalation of physical abuse. She was instructed by her husband on a daily basis,

“Don’t talk to your male professors, don’t talk to anyone on campus and don’t go to the library.”

The abuse was so severe, that she had to take a break after the first year. Several times she had suicidal thoughts and her self-confidence had completely shattered. That led her to a meeting with the Psychological Counselor at the university campus. She attended the sessions in secrecy and there she was informed that what she was going through was a typical cycle of domestic abuse. And that it was not her fault, or her destiny to bear it.

She reveals;

“It was my daily routine to beg my husband and ask him, ‘Why do you do this? Why don’t you love me?’”

And all he replied with each time was,

“Because you deserve this.”

The psychological counselling at the university, gave her the strength to get back to university. By the second year, the abuse had become worse but she had been told that she could call 911 if need be.

“I will call the cops, if you hit me again.” She uttered once, while her husband raised his hand. That is what triggered him to say,

“Talaq, talaq, talaq.”

(I divorce you, I divorce you, I divorce you.)

Samra says,

“I was shattered, and I did not know what to do next. If I left the house, I would not have childcare income. How would I continue to study? I had two young girls to support.”

Samra’s husband and in-laws ran from pillar to post to get Fatwas to invalidate the divorce. Samra laughs,

“Once my mother-in-law even brought a person for the necessary Halala to rectify the Talaq.”

However, by now Samra had, despite many weak moments, gathered enough strength to move out of this cyclical abuse and face what came her way.

She shifted to a residence at the university campus. Her husband and in-laws then tried threatening her; they said either return or they would malign her in the local Pakistani community of her ‘living’ with men at the university. Her husband often told their daughter,

Do you think your mother goes to university to study only?”

Samra revealed that,

“After a decade of physical, financial, psychological and emotional, abuse it was only in the summer of 2011, that I finally had the courage to go to the cops and give a detailed, date by date account of the abuse I faced, along with the evidence.”

As a result, her husband was arrested on four counts of assault. Despite two court cases, three jobs and two children, she continued to excel in her studies and became head teaching assistant.

Today, Monday June 10, 2013, at the official convocation of the prestigious University of Toronto, Samra will not only be awarded a Bachelors degree in Economics, but she will also be awarded the prestigious Top Student Award in Economics. She also has to her credit a dozen more awards given to her for her academic excellence in the past four years, including the prestigious John H Moss Scholarship, which is awarded annually to a single student in the entire university (all three campuses). She has also been admitted to the PhD program in Economics at the University of Toronto, with a full scholarship.

When not studying or working, Samra loves cooking for her girls and gives them all the free time she gets.

“We are now the happiest we have ever been.”

I asked her how she would advise other girls who are trapped in the same scenario and to that she said,

“Do not let anyone disrespect you. Believe in yourself. You are the only one who can change your situation. It is not easy, but it isn’t impossible either. I had all the disadvantages any girl could have.”

She refers to the myth of needing a man as a support,

I have no father, brother, son, or husband to support me. But I have done it, all by myself. If I can do it, anyone can.”

Read more by Ilmana here or follow her on Twitter @Zeemana

The King of Kebabs- Behari Kebabs


Behari Kababs !

Which meat loving South Asian  doesn’t relish them ? In fact, Maulana Abul Kalam Azad has called them, the ‘finest’ kebabs in his food memoirs.

I grew up watching on very special occasions, my mother prepare and barbeque these Kebabs very diligently on and with much effort, on a charcoal grill. All I remember was that it was a great hard work. And hence, for many, Behari Kebabs is a delicacy to be eaten in restaurants, as cooking them at home is very cumbersome.

I too believed so, till once, I thought of experimenting them in the convenience of my kitchen, in the electric oven. I made them with wooden skewers, and the first attempt wasn’t bad at all. Second time, it was for a dinner party, and the guests could not believe they were homemade, till my husband showed them the oven, tray and the wooden skewers on which they were made.

I moved on, more confident. Got  custom made, iron skewers that fit my tray size in the oven. As I have moved cities, these iron skewers have obediently moved with me too.

Warning: Instead of red meat, I make them here with white meat, and instead of a charcoal grill, I grill them in an oven. Nevertheless, can assure you, they are a different delicacy in their own right.

Ingredients:
Chicken breasts 1 kg
( each sliced into 4 thin fillet)
Onions: 4 medium sized
Ginger : 100gms
Garlic: One whole,
(peeled into cloves)
Green Papaya: 100gms.
Spices: Cumin, coriander, and red chilli powders, and salt to taste.
Mustard Oil- 1 Cup
Fried Browned onions: 2tbsp
(P.S. Some add yogurt, but I don’t.)

Method: 
All the ingredients except the chicken breasts are made into a paste in the grinder. Pour the paste into a wide bowl, and mix in Mustard oil.

Add the chicken fillet in the paste and marinate them for preferably overnight to 24 hours.
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As they are ready to be cooked, spread out each marinated fillet inside a plastic bag, one by one.
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Once arranged 4-5 fillets, fold to close the open end of the plastic bag, And pound them with a wooden pound to make them softer, and such that the spice paste seeps into the fillet..

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Take them out of the plastic bag, one by one, to mount on the iron skewers. My skewers seen here are about a feet long, specially made to fit my baking tray.

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Mount the fillets on the skewers, piercing the iron rod, through the flesh of the fillets at 2-3 inches apart, then gathering them closer.

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Arrange the skewers on the baking tray adjacent to each other.

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When completed, place them in a preheated oven, at 225 degrees C for 30 minutes.
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Once ready, place a burning coal on the side of the tray, and douse it with oil to bellow smoke. Cover the tray, and close the oven, immediately, for the smoky aroma to be absorbed in the Kebabs.
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When ready, serve them hot, with pickled onions, yogurt sauce and chutneys. Naans and parathas go equally well with these Kebabs.

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The children are fond of taking the left overs to school, rolled in a naan as Kebab rolls.

P.S. The blog has been diligently made for a Kebab loving and Kebab cooking fellow Delhiite Parshu Narayanan. 🙂

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