Monday, May 2, 2011

Ma'salamah Jeddah, October 1937

I wished  Baba (his preferred Farsi term of endearment) would gather us around him and regale us with his adventures as a sailor with the British merchant navy.  Instead, all we had was a silent, faded photograph of him and his mates on the deck of a steamer with a dark funnel in the background.  Two of his mates were on their haunches while Baba and two other young men were smiling, looking crisp and fresh in their uniform of collared top, bell bottoms and ribbon-trimmed caps.  There was a glint in his dark brown eyes and a dimple on his right cheek.    
Baba must have felt as free as the sea breeze that swept the top deck of the freight ship which he boarded in Jeddah, perhaps a few days or maybe a week earlier.  Abah, his father, committed to his daily regiment of prayers and Qur'anic teachings at the madrasah in Ajyad, would never understand his son's dreams of travelling to far away lands, disembarking at different ports of call, picking up foreign languages, tasting exotic foods and drowning in the beat of distant shores.
How different they were, like the sky and the earth! The son with his mind floating in dreams of liberation and the father with his feet firmly grounded on the tenets of the religion.  And how those feet must have frozen when Haji Yusoff was told by his dear wife, Hajjah Aishah, that their first born son had packed up his clothes and travelling documents into a slim luggage and slipped away through the side gate of their walled compound. 
Why, hadn't they just unpacked their belongings a few months ago when they arrived in Makkah? Couldn't he have at least asked for their blessings before he took his leave?  Where was he heading for?  There were so many questions rushing through his head.  Had he been too strict with Aji Din?  Should he have spared the rod when Aji Din was a child? 
"Beat him with the rotan when he's stubborn, stop only when he faints!" 
That was his father's instruction when he delivered the young Siddi to his mua'lim.  And how Siddi had memorised the content of the Holy Book by rote learning, his feet numb from hours of sitting on his soles and joining his bony knees to the fleshy joints of his ustaz.  He thanked Allah for blessing him with a sharp mind that there was hardly any need for his teacher to pick up the thin rattan strip that was always by his side.
Siddi was perplexed, but he willed himself to walk to the sink to take his ablution.  The splash of cool water on his hands doused his anger and calmed his anxiety.  Why can't Aji Din be more like his younger brothers, Aji Muhammad and Aji Ishaq?  Where did he learn to challenge conventions?  Will he go through life debating even the most common assumptions? 
Two British sailors in the '30s

He muttered to himself while he shrugged off the irritation which crept up his back like a Syaitan's minion.  He sat down to take a sip of the kahwat which his wife had poured from the coffee pot into the tiny porcelain cup placed in front of him.  Sitti pinched the corner of the helwa, chewed it slowly and kept her thoughts to herself.  She waited for her husband to speak but he was still listening to the voices in his head.    
"There IS god, and that's Allah; not there's NO god but Allah."
Siddi could still hear his eldest son's voice ringing in his ears, while the crowd around him looked like they could have kicked themselves for not having thought of that before.  "That son of yours is too smart for his own good," his close friend had whispered to him.  "You should rein him in before he upsets the elders."
Now, it seemd that his efforts at reigning in the colt had backfired.  Rice had turned to gruel.  He turned to his wife and said,
"Don't worry, I'll get Muhammad to ask the bus and lorry drivers at the souq for his whereabouts."                     

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