FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail

An Iraqi in India

Michael Fathallah is dead, but then there are so many dead Iraqis. So, why do I remember him? I am sorry this is not the right thing to say at such a wrong time, but I just cannot forgive him for having made me drink coffee that tasted like something out of a sewer.

He had gazed at me intently and stated, “You like it! It is our specialty.” Since it was not a question, I was hoping no answer was required. I shook my head weakly as I fidgeted with the chipped cup that had no handle. To make matters worse, he brought out a whole bunch of bananas, saying, “Eat!” I assured him all this was not necessary. “Oh, we Iraqis like to pamper our guests.” Like this?

I began to think about how I should do it. Ought I to just peel the fruit and start chomping on it, or must I do the ladylike thing and break off one-inch bits and pop them delicately in my mouth? My host was getting impatient. “Ok, ok, never mind, but these are good for your stomach.”

Although I was born a Muslim, as an Indian my affiliation with the religion was far removed from the Arabian Nights adventure one was supposed to look forward to in the afterlife. As a matter of fact, the so-called Arab identity was completely alien.

The only Arabs one encountered were tourists who consolidated the stereotype with their white kaftan costumes and veils holding prayer beads in their hands even as they scoured the streets for knick-knacks. Soon, the shops started stocking up on colorful sequined scarves and trinkets that might appeal to their sensibilities. Despite the money, one noticed that they weren’t quite treated with the same respect as even the Caucasian backpackers.

It was during one such story I was doing, about the influx of Arabs, that I got to see the amazing variety of people. Not all of them were sheikhs who arrogantly threw the windows in their rooms in five-star hotels wide open to let in the rain and then offered to pay for the soiled carpets. Many lived in small hotels in nondescript localities; they’d huddle together in corridors, mostly awaiting the fate of a sick relative they had admitted into a hospital. India was a cheap and good option for medical treatment.

A chance conversation had led me to discover the Arabs that had made their homes in Mumbai.

That is how I met Michael one afternoon at his apartment in a lane infested with shady characters — pimps, prostitutes, drug peddlers. I was ushered into a large airy room that seemed to have no furniture. I sat on a low rickety stool and he made himself comfortable on what could have been a cot but was covered entirely with newspapers. He was dressed in pinstriped pajamas — the kind prisoners wear, and a long shirt. He was completely unselfconscious and I soon found myself liking this encounter. Besides, I was getting rid of my pre-conceived notions about Arabs.

He was a practicing Roman Catholic and clarified: “All Arabs are not Muslim.” But he supported Iraqi laws and found the interference of the West, even in matters of laws like execution, disgusting. “Who are they to decide?” he asked.

He had come to what was then called Bombay towards the end of 1917 with a shipload of books and had seen “history written and re-written”. Since education in his country was not upto his father’s standards, he got himself admitted to St. Mary’s School, a respected missionary-run educational institution that even today is considered among the better schools. After his studies, he returned home to Basra and worked as a bank manager. But in 1942, he made the trip back to Bombay to help his brother-in-law with his business and stayed on until his death.

He would spend his time at the Arab School, which would transform into a club in the evenings, and he’d pore over the crumpled old newspapers from Iraq. The events were probably stale, but they kept him in touch with a part of his country. Culturally, did he still feel close to the Arabs? “Of course, I have lived amongst them — a gallant, valiant, hospitable people.”

It wrenched his heart to watch what happened before his eyes in his adopted home. Sleazy action being replayed night after night — apartments that went under the guise of guest houses from where the Arab tourists trooped out in the early hours of the morning, even as they were fleeced of their money and belongings by hustlers.

Michael was extremely protective of the reputation of his people. So, what kept him in Bombay? “For those of us who don’t have unlimited wealth, this is the best place. I can also walk around anywhere in my long night shirt.” He picked up a banana and started eating it.

There were no curtains and a gentle breeze was blowing in from the open balcony. He beckoned me to join him outside. We watched the street below and the hotel across from where silly grins greeted us. He took the fruit peel and threw it on the pavement below. “Look, I have become one of you,” he declared.

As he escorted me to the door, he said, “Come again, please. I can only offer you the best coffee in the world.”

I found myself smiling. I don’t know when the bitter taste on my tongue had disappeared.

FARZANA VERSEY is a Mumbai-based journalist-writer whose columns have appeared in several mainstream newspapers and magazines. She can be reached at: farzanavee@yahoo.com

 

 

More articles by:

Farzana Versey can be reached at Cross Connections

November 19, 2018
David Rosen
Amazon Deal: New York Taxpayers Fund World Biggest Sex-Toy Retailer
Sheldon Richman
Art of the Smear: the Israel Lobby Busted
Chad Hanson
Why Trump is Wrong About the California Wildfires
Dean Baker
Will Progressives Ever Think About How We Structure Markets, Instead of Accepting them as Given?
Robert Fisk
We Remember the Great War, While Palestinians Live It
Dave Lindorff
Pelosi’s Deceptive Plan: Blocking any Tax Rise Could Rule Out Medicare-for-All and Bolstering Social Security
Rick Baum
What Can We Expect From the Democrat “Alternative” in California?
Thomas Scott Tucker
Trump, World War I and the Lessons of Poetry
John W. Whitehead
Red Flag Gun Laws
Newton Finn
On Earth, as in Heaven: the Utopianism of Edward Bellamy
Robert Fantina
Shithole Countries: Made in the USA
René Voss
Have Your Say about Ranching in Our Point Reyes National Seashore
Weekend Edition
November 16, 2018
Friday - Sunday
Jonah Raskin
A California Jew in a Time of Anti-Semitism
Andrew Levine
Whither the Melting Pot?
Joshua Frank
Climate Change and Wildfires: The New Western Travesty
Nick Pemberton
The Revolution’s Here, Please Excuse Me While I Laugh
T.J. Coles
Israel Cannot Use Violent Self-Defense While Occupying Gaza
Rob Urie
Nuclear Weapons are a Nightmare Made in America
Paul Street
Barack von Obamenburg, Herr Donald, and Big Capitalist Hypocrisy: On How Fascism Happens
Jeffrey St. Clair
Roaming Charges: Fire is Sweeping Our Very Streets Today
Aidan O'Brien
Ireland’s New President, Other European Fools and the Abyss 
Pete Dolack
“Winners” in Amazon Sweepstakes Sure to be the Losers
Richard Eskow
Amazon, Go Home! Billions for Working People, But Not One Cent For Tribute
Ramzy Baroud
In Breach of Human Rights, Netanyahu Supports the Death Penalty against Palestinians
Brian Terrell
Ending the War in Yemen- Congressional Resolution is Not Enough!
John Laforge
Woolsey Fire Burns Toxic Santa Susana Reactor Site
Ralph Nader
The War Over Words: Republicans Easily Defeat the Democrats
M. G. Piety
Reading Plato in the Time of the Oligarchs
Rafael Correa
Ecuador’s Soft Coup and Political Persecution
Brian Cloughley
Aid Projects Can Work, But Not “Head-Smacking Stupid Ones”
David Swanson
A Tale of Two Marines
Robert Fantina
Democrats and the Mid-Term Elections
Joseph Flatley
The Fascist Creep: How Conspiracy Theories and an Unhinged President Created an Anti-Semitic Terrorist
Joseph Natoli
Twitter: Fast Track to the Id
William Hawes
Baselines for Activism: Brecht’s Stance, the New Science, and Planting Seeds
Bob Wing
Toward Racial Justice and a Third Reconstruction
Ron Jacobs
Hunter S. Thompson: Chronicling the Republic’s Fall
Oscar Gonzalez
Stan Lee and a Barrio Kid
Jack Rasmus
Election 2018 and the Unraveling of America
Sam Pizzigati
The Democrats Won Big, But Will They Go Bold?
Yves Engler
Canada and Saudi Arabia: Friends or Enemies?
Cesar Chelala
Can El Paso be a Model for Healing?
Mike Ferner
The Tragically Misnamed Paris Peace Conference
Barry Lando
Trump’s Enablers: Appalling Parallels
Ariel Dorfman
The Boy Who Taught Me About War and Peace
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail