Post 192.

Watching from backstage. Photo by Maria Nunes.

Watching from backstage. Photo by Maria Nunes.

Rustling with energy backstage, dozens of children waited in darkness and silence, as senior dancers with Lilliput Theatre Company performed lines from Malala Yousafzai’s Nobel Laureate acceptance speech. A few girls in front of me mouthed lines as they listened and fidgeted, impatient for their cue.

Malala’s words were starkly humbling. My chest quietly swelled with feeling, over the three nights of this weekend’s performance, every time I heard the young performers quoting her say: “I had two options. One was to remain silent and wait to be killed. And the second was to speak up and then be killed. I chose the second one. I decided to speak up.”

What a lesson for us adults.

When Malala visited Trinidad, I had explained her story to Ziya. I was explicit that Malala had been shot in the head, and that there were men who did not want girls to be educated. “Why?” Zi kept asking, as four-year-olds do, when adults struggle to explain complex situations.

Lilliput’s show now led Zi to seize upon Mighty Gabby’s song, Government Boots, which played just before Zi went on stage. “What are government boots? Who is Tommy?” she started asking, taken with the catchy refrain of “left, right, left, right.”

I explained that the song was telling Barbados’ PM Tom Adams there should not be so many soldiers. “Why?” she asked.

The sound of soldiers’ boots frightens many people. Soldiers hurt people with guns, and some children are forced to be soldiers after being taken away from their families.

Again: “But why?”

Imagine the show, in which Zi played a child bride, making her start these conversations, real ones about girls being forced to marry men they don’t know and boys being forced to hurt people, instead of them all being safe with their families and in schools.

Imagine me wrestling with how and how much to tell her the truth, wondering what constitutes ‘age appropriate’ knowledge when it’s about the realities of children her own age.

Imagine her at night, with her mind effervescing, as all children’s do just as you want them to close their eyes and sleep, with questions about Malala and government boots.

“Do the children see their families again?” she asked. Imagine all this because I only wanted her to grow less shy and more confident, and make friends, by taking a dance class.

But it seems the world doesn’t allow girls to grow up innocent so.

I admired that Noble Douglas and her company compelled parents, past students and more to invest in one way or another in giving our children a chance to dress up and dance to the chorus, “No, no, no.” And there’s one line Zi now remembers from Malala’s speech: “Let this be the last time.”

For me, seeing the whole process, from weeks of Saturday morning classes to rehearsal chaos and finally to a huge cast of exuberant children on stage, also humbling was the show’s determined mix of community parenting, feminism, global politics, children’s rights, Caribbean culture and joyous creativity.

There was a small ‘army’ of mostly women, helping with children, costumes or make up, making me appreciate how much labour matters beyond what is waged and counts toward GDP, making me recognise the sacrifices of women who never saw the show because there wasn’t anyone who equally shared their childcare responsibility, making me want to ask: “But why?” like Zi.

Unbelievably, after all this, all Zi told her school friends about the show was that she had on makeup. I had to laugh. Seems Lilliput also scored in Zi’s world of actual priorities of four-year-old girls.

Me with other mummies, happy and proud that the babies' class got their routine right on the second night after the super cute but chaotic opening performance. Photo by Maria Nunes

Me with other mummies, happy and proud that the babies’ class got their routine right on the second night after their super cute but chaotic opening performance. Photo by Maria Nunes.

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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.

Post 189.

Was it history, luck or fate that led me to 93 year old Abdul Hamid Razack?

I arrived at his gate after a meandering trail ended on the Naparima-Mayaro road, where indentured Indians once held panchayats underneath a seventeen foot wide sandbox tree, amidst ganja smoke and a heady mix of old world origins and languages.

Mr. Razack’s grandfather, Cariman, had left Persia and travelled through Afghanistan, the Silk Road and Hyderbad as a trader, finally arriving on our shores on the first ship from India in 1845, the Fatel Rozack, thus establishing his family name in Trinidad.

I hoped Mr. Razack could tell me about my great, great grandfather Syed Abdul Aziz, who was 21 years old when he arrived at a Macoya estate in 1883, having himself travelled from the Afghan region of Hazara where he was born to Peshwar to study, then later to Lahore and Calcutta before boarding the ship Lee as an indentured labourer.

For me, as I travelled south with Felicia Chang, whose company Plantain is producing a book from our findings, it had been a long day of encountering loss, and not just mine. In the small, lovingly assembled room of decades-old household implements and Qurans, the curator of the Charlieville ASJA museum sorrowfully told us of how many families had discarded or misplaced their ancestors’ papers, photographs and books, not seeing history in our own homes, and how many had passed on before sharing precious, irreplaceable descriptions and stories.

Such immeasurable loss had swept over me as I stood on the demolished site of Abdul Aziz’s home on Princes Town’s main road, remembering the house where my mother would carry me to visit his daughter, my great grandmother Ayesha. Its clean wooden floors, blue-bird coloured walls, light-filled kitchen and back door opening to a sloping hill.

All around me as a child may have been his handwritten kutbahs to Trinidad’s Muslim community, his letters to colonial officials advocating for the registration of Hindu and Muslim marriages, and his own records regarding the East Indian National Association, the Tackveeyatul Islamic Association, the Anjuman Sunnat al Jammat and friendly societies such as the Islamic Guardian Association.

Now, only grass swayed at my feet as wind explored the emptiness.

Like the Lee’s missing ship records only for the year my great, great grandfather sailed or the British Army records that failed to list the names of Afghans who had served, as Abdul Aziz did at fifteen, a search for photos of the house, at the library across the street, left me empty-handed.

Finally, I sat across from Mr. Razack, feeling like searching through the past is not walking a path backwards, but collecting bits of broken fossil, and rejoicing when just two pieces connect, whether because you despair or dream of putting together the whole.

Such was my unexpected joy on Saturday afternoon. It was Mr. Razack’s grandfather who had heard of Abdul Aziz’s Islamic education, and who had helped to arrange for his indentureship to be ended two years early so that my great, great grandfather would be free to become imam at one of the first mosques built in Trinidad, by Cariman, in Iere Village.

There, Mr. Razack and I were sitting together just as our ancestors once had, as they created the trail of artifacts and memories that I fatefully followed right back, 130 years later.

I can only hope more documents remain with my and others’ families than I know. Like Abdul Aziz’s original indentureship record in Port of Spain’s national archive, which one day Zi can touch for herself, such dusty papers are a richer inheritance than gold.