May 2015


Post 191.

Syed Abdul Aziz’s story intrigued me.

Not only because he was my great, great-grandfather, not only because he changed destinies in that crossing from Calcutta, but because he was known to have come from Afghanistan.

I was intrigued by how little is documented about Afghans who dissolved into the homogenous identity now known as Indo-Trinidadian, who nonetheless appeared with insistent counter-narratives amongst handed-down family lore in the Muslim community.

Who were these Afghans? Why did they come? What routes did they travel? How could we, as their descendants, tell a tale from the new world to challenge contemporary global stereotypes?

What was the significance of the fact that Aziz sent his daughter, Ayesha, my great grandmother, to school in the first decade of the century, raising her to be literate in Arabic, Urdu and English? What is the significance of her living, working and praying in her orhini, never in hijab?

This daughter of an Afghan born, Muslim leader in Trinidad could tell us about an authenticity and tradition different from modern fundamentalist versions. And, what would that mean for me, and for other family who long defined ourselves by this legacy?

As I traced Aziz’s steps, seeking proof in colonial documents, each finding led to more questions, and I began to think less of his migrations than of my own rollercoaster of emotions as the old photos I hoped to scour were in some unidentified location in the Princes Town Regional Corporation, or as I finally, in sha’allah, reached the knowledge trove I sought.

Euphorically, I sat in Maulaana Mustapha Kemal Hydal’s balcony, my insides fluttering in Freeport’s breeze as much as the photocopy he held of Aziz’s auto-biography, written in Urdu, more than possibly in Aziz’s own hand, and given to Kemal by his mother’s uncle, Aziz’s son Yusuf. In all my searching for any of Syed Abdul Aziz’s own possessions, finally, this single page.

It says that Aziz was born in the Hazara district in the ward of Mansehra in India, said Kemal, who translated the page himself.

I was aghast. The planned book project falling from my fingertips like crystal shattering.

Yet pieces that had made no sense immediately fit together, such as why Aziz’s indentureship record said he was from Lahore, and why he held a post in the British army, with a monthly pay of 14 rupees, meals and uniform, in the second Anglo-Afghan war.

The family is Husaini, extending through 30 recorded generations to the Prophet Mohammed, said that single page. They left the Arabian peninsula in 728 C.E., settling in what was then India and is now Pakistan.  No, said Kemal decisively, Aziz was not Afghan.

Marveling that one piece of paper could so dissemble my constructed sense of self, and wondering at how I spectacularly failed to anticipate this risk of journeying into the past, I struggled to accept that every reference I found, in books, on websites and in theses, all confirming the Afghan connection, was based on repetitive citations of an original misrepresentation. But, how could this be the first time we are hearing this, my mother skeptically asked, and why then did Ayesha herself talk about her father as Afghan?

Again, answers begetting questions.

That same day, as I was about to become more Indian than ever before, I learned that my father’s great grandfather, who came from Hyderbad, said his family was originally from Afghanistan. So too, an ancestor of my father’s mother.

Now wary of oral and published histories, even official records, I’m left with Afghan origins on all sides which I’ve no idea how to verify.

Could I be more Afghan than Syed Abdul Aziz himself? How ironic, even absurd. Such plot twists are not for the faint-hearted as I pursue this story’s final word.

*May 12, 1862 is Syed Abdul Aziz’s birthday, 153 years ago today.

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Post 190.

Election season. Hard-to-meet politicians on the street. Shaking hands and influencing people.

You decide you won’t let it be that easy. Too much injustice out here. You want to know exactly what this politician promises to do. You’re clear on your issues and you’re clear that these issues deserve serious answers.

So, you not staying quiet. Let politician skin teeth some next time. You rewriting the campaign script to show what people really saying. Families bawling. So you not feeling to be nice, but you plan to be powerful, not impolite. Now is to hear the people, not hush them, to earn each vote with honesty and humility. You not going to be dismissed because you defending rights.

Anyone who has ever been frustrated by long-term, avoidable, injurious governmental failing can surely identify with being so fed up and angry.

Now imagine that that same politician starts feeling badgered by you because he won’t answer your question, and it’s clear you not giving up or getting intimidated.

Annoyed, he calls you “an idiot” and “a little piece of shit”, and threatens, for others to hear, that he could “slap her ass…just for the fun of it”, that he could have you stripped by “some of my women”, because you keep interrupting his media interview with your demands to know what he’s going to do about so many mothers dying from childbirth.  He tells you to “shut up” and “eff off”. His later press release claims you provoked him into such violence. Shame.

Now imagine your name is Sherlina Nageer and you are confronting Guyana’s Minister of Health, Dr. Bheri Ramsaran, to hold his government accountable for providing safe, professional and respectful sexual and reproductive health services to women, a struggle being fought for decades and not yet won. You see exactly how fighting for women’s rights risks abuse, threats and intimidation.

Now, imagine this story is yours. Maybe because the tragic loss of first time mother, 24 year old Keisha Ayers, who died days after a C-section in Mount Hope hospital was finally too much. Maybe because it finally happened to someone you love.

Wouldn’t you then hope that the way that the politicians deal with ordinary citizens, the way that powerful men speak to women, the way that mothers are mistreated in the health system, the way that women’s deaths fail to provoke high level public recognition and response, is seen for what it is, drawing solidarity from all citizens across our region?

In 2013, Barbados had two maternity related deaths. One in 1100 women faced risk of maternal mortality. Jamaica had 40 deaths, but 1 in 540 women faced risk of maternal mortality. Trinidad and Tobago had 16 deaths, and a 1 in 640 chance of maternal mortality. Guyana had 40 deaths, with 1 in 150 women facing risk of maternal mortality, the highest rate in the English-speaking Caribbean. It matters that those numbers are falling, but that matters less than the women still unnecessarily dying.

Amidst our own wrong-and-strong election season, Sherlina Nageer, Trinidad and Tobago sends our solidarity to you in Guyana. As the petition written by young Caribbean feminist organisations, Code Red for Gender Justice and Womantra, stated, “We call on our state managers to denounce acts of violence wherever they occur. We caution our politicians throughout the region that their silence on these offences against its citizens speaks volumes to their commitment to gender justice and the rights of women. If they will not speak out due to a lack of political will, we will speak out in the knowledge of what is right.”

Sign the petition at: https://secure.avaaz.org/en/petition/All_Caribbean_people_Solidarity_with_Sherlina_Nageer_all_womens_human_rights_defenders/

On Wednesday 29 April, Ramsaran was fired: http://www.stabroeknews.com/2015/news/stories/04/29/ramsaran-fired/