Thursday, October 13, 2011
On an idyllic summer evening Firoze was taking a gingerly stroll in the small garden in front of his apartment building. The sun was about to set, but the air was still warm and humid. Watching butterflies hovering over the rich bed of yellow-red marigolds, he was lost in his own thoughts when a female voice interrupted him.
Firoze looked back and saw two women walking towards him, one clad in burqa, covering head to toe; only her eyes were visible. The other attired in a simple green cotton sari.
From their dress they appeared to be from a working class family.
As they came closer, the burqa lady asked, “Can you please tell us where the hujur lives?”
“Hujur?” Firoze was surprised, he shot back, “Hujur who?”
The burqa lady tried to explain, “We are coming from the other side of the town, we heard that hujur lives here, somewhere close to this apartment building.”
People from Indian subcontinent often address religious leaders and scholars as huzur.
Firoze was still amazed, “Yes, but hujur who?” “What is his name?”
“The hujur of the mosque in that next block, the Imam.”
It dawned on Firoze that the two ladies were asking him about the man who leads prayer in that corner mosque.
The Big Apple is the melting pot of diverse cultures. This city still keeps its promise with destiny to feed the hungry, and clothe the naked. People who have no acquaintance in America still lands up here thinking that they have a better chance to find someone from his own community, who can help them.
A significant part of Queens has become a mini Bangladesh. Most stores here are operated by people of Bangladeshi origin. Even the local mosques are controlled by Bangladeshi expatriates. Sometime back, the local mosque had hired a man for conducting daily religious services, his name is Mirza Beg.
Mirza Beg came to this country with OP 1 visa. He could not find a job since he did not have any marketable assets. When he first came to the city he did not know anyone. He took shelter in a mosque. The Imam of the mosque was from Pakistan. He felt sorry for the poor man, and took him under his wing.
The Imam groomed Mirza as his assistant. He taught him how to read Arabic, especially as it pertains to Quran. He spent time with him teaching important verses of the holy book. He taught him how to conduct various religious functions, and he let Mirza lead prayers with small congregations.
When the new mosque opened up in this part of Queens, Mirza came to know about it. He approached the local mosque committee. The committee needed someone to perform the obligatory jamat (congregation) prayers as ordained in Islam. Mirza offered to accept the job with a nominal pay, and a place to stay, at one corner of the building. The committee gave him the job, considering that hiring him would save them some money.
Mirza Beg is street smart, adept at village politics. Within a few months he managed to get a large raise by befriending a few members of the mosque committee, and playing them against other members to do his bidding.
Firoze thought the ladies must be asking about him.
He said, “Oh! Perhaps you are asking about Mirza Beg. He is however, neither huzur nor Imam, and he has a name—Mirza Beg. Are you looking for him?”
“Yes, yes,” the burqa-lady spoke with a relieved tone, “yes, we are looking for him.” “Can you tell us where he lives?”
Curiosity took the better of Firoze, and after a few moments of hesitation he asked, “May I know why you want to see him?”
The burqa lady went silent. She was thinking if she should tell a stranger why she wanted to see Mirza Beg.
Surprisingly, she spoke soon, in a slow voice, “I am having a problem pregnancy, I want to see the huzur for his doa (blessing).
Mirza did not finish high school in Bangladesh. Neither did he have any traditional education from a madrassa. His knowledge on religious discourse was limited. What Beg lacked in knowledge, he overcame with his demeanor. His beard is longer than the depth of his religious scholarship.
Some of his beards are turning white, he applies henna on them. This in turn increases his religious stature in the mind of some people. A man who follows the prophet’s sunna must be a pious man, they think. He dresses impeccably for his position—pajama that does not cover his heels, and long shirts, following the tradition of the Imams. His head is always covered in Kashmiri cap. It was not long before he started having a following.
The sweet talking Beg is now a popular man. The working class Bangladeshi men and women of the neighborhood treat him with the respect of a religious scholar. Beg is in high demand in the Bangladeshi community for performing various religious functions.
The new immigrants are mostly poor, and poor people need God more than the well-to-do. Without medical insurances, they mostly depend on pani-para (water over which Quranic verses have been recited), and tabiz (encapsulated written Quranic verses) for curing their diseases. These also come handy, they believe, to help them draw God’s mercy when bad time afflicts them.
Mirza is invited when a child is born, to bless the new child; and he is called when someone dies, to make his journey to the other world smooth. He is called, when one in the family is about to begin a new job, or, something auspicious of that nature. Mirza is a busy man.
People offer Mirza money for these services, and his fortune has changed. He now has rented an apartment, which he shares with two of his assistants, and bought a car. Although he lives only a few blocks away from the mosque he always drives his car from his home to the mosque. The social activities that let him earn extra money, take a toll on his working time too. Now-a-days he often comes late to the mosque for prayers. In a few occasions he even failed to come to the mosque at all to lead the prayers. One of the members from the mosque committee had to perform that job on those times. While Mirza is paid for his jobs, the committee members render the same service freely. Mirza’s friends in the mosque committee see to it that his job is not threatened.
Queens inhabits both working class and upwardly mobile middle-class Bangladeshi expatriates. The old apartment style buildings suit lifestyle of both families and bachelors. Young bachelors mostly share an apartment, two or three sharing a room sometime. This often leads shortage of water in the whole building complex. They also create other social problems. The families try to avoid those buildings where the bachelors stay. Only families live in Firoze’s apartment block. Mirza’s apartment is couple blocks away.
Firoze is an engineer with a bright academic career. His sense of religion is balanced, and as a performing Muslim he often finds himself at odds with other people of the community. Firoze does not have any overbearing respect for Mirza, since he finds him lacking in principle. Mirza’s insincerity in performing his job, his side earnings from community religious services—for which Firoze thinks he shall not charge people money, and his inadequacy in religious knowledge, did not earn much respect with Firoze. In fact he detests the man for his charlatan behavior. There are many stories in circulation claiming that Mirza has taken a lot of money from innocent people promising them to redress their troubles by invoking God’s mercy on them.
What seemed like an eternity, he dwelled in his mind how to respond to these two ladies! He looked at the sari-clad woman; she is probably in early twenties, accompanying the burqa lady, whatever her age may be. Beads of sweat on her face told Firoze they must have walked from a distance. The other woman’s face was hidden, only her eyes were visible. Nothing much to read there at this moment.
At the end the good Samaritan in him won. Firoze did not want a simple trusting person to suffer.
In a clear but concerned voice he said, “If you have any health problem you shall see a doctor. Mirza Beg cannot help you.”
The young girl giggled, making it obvious that she shared Firoze’s view. The burqa lady frowned under her veil. Her eyes expressed scorn. Her displeasure was conspicuous.
A mixed emotion took over Firoze, anger, disappointment, and pity. He did not know these two ladies, and he had no chance to influence them. Moreover, who is he to pass judgment on others?
With a sad voice he said, “Follow me. Let me show you where Mirza Beg lives.”
The two women followed him silently.