Michael and me

Wonder how I forgot to put this up. It was published in November 2006.

An Iraqi in India
By Farzana Versey

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.

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