Lessons Learned From Amazing Teachers at Razia’s Eden

A Celebration of Nature

I had this epiphany while helplessly watching old avocado trees inevitably accept their slow demise. From what I know of the trees, we were both in our fifth decade, but most of them had seen and lived better days long before I got acquainted with them. They were already in need of convalescence before I undertook their care but sadly, failed to do so. Phytophthora cinnamomi, a distant cousin of the water mold that is blamed for the Irish potato famine, has decimated many quinquagenarians, 40+ feet tall avocado trees in California. It has caused them to wither and suffocate to a slow death. At the grove, this process took 8 months and many trees dried out into a brittle, weak twig. I observed the process of necrosis as an active yet helpless bystander. Time was not a healer in this incident. The old trees finally fell, seemingly exhausted from the struggle to retain their dignity and composure. The tallest and most majestic of the tree also withered. I wondered, perhaps it couldn’t continue to bear the weight of its living.

The many inhabitants of this tree, some insects, animals, birds, microbes, and fungi, slowly but sequentially devoured it to sustain their life. When the tree was alive, it had also consumed sunlight, water, minerals, and all it needed to thrive. It laid decaying and decomposing, a reminder that all must come to an end, and better still, all must return back to the basic molecules of life; leading me to the ultimate question! What is life? What is my life’s purpose, and what will become of me?

The thought is a little disturbing that I too will be consumed and devoured by a collection of living beings that will thrive on my physical remains while I return back to where and to whom we all belong. The irony is not lost on me but it’s the reality and the shame of taking a life to sustain my very own that reminds me to respect all that is living and all that has been created is equally important in the eyes of nature. Life in every form must be respected and needs to be acknowledged to be understood. Our judgment of what’s important and what’s “necessary” is based on the myopia of what we think should be prioritized by what “we” believe that we need for our own survival. As if I, we, humans, matter any more than the dying tree or the root rotting fungus that is simply trying to complete its life’s purpose. Mortality is finite for a reason. No one has an upper hand except for the Creator. The complex relationship between nature and its inhabitant is trivialized by our limitations of all that we can see and conceive. The answers to our questions are not hidden, we simply have not developed the intellect or earned the right to solve what we think are the mysteries of life.

Among my beautiful companions at the Razia’s Eden, I observe the ritual of a mostly harmonious balance between apoptosis and regeneration. I observe the fragility and resilience of life. Each day is a celebration, hope for a better tomorrow, and a reminder of the lost past. Each day an unheard cry for help, a silent battle between life and death. Each day a birthday, and each day a funeral.

Despite the drought and challenge of climate shifts, which has surely taken a toll, I am happy to say that majority of the avocado trees have survived even with my futile intervention and are blooming into a verdant colony. I don’t call them “my” trees as they all belong to nature and are my chosen responsibility, and not a possession. Those that have passed on, have left their offspring behind in the shape of a seed or a graft that keeps their legacy alive. They sacrificed, suffered, and sustained to create a better place for the next generation, but most of all they left without any expectations or burdening their next generation. Each visit, I am reminded of my insignificance, again and again. I surrender and accept all there is, just as is.

Razia’s Eden after last year’s rain.

Each hour I spend among them, I am reminded that all of God’s creations are equally interdependent and interconnected. Sometimes, despite repeated denial, I submit to the fact that we are all part of a food chain in a world of “eat and be eaten”. Perhaps that’s my rationalization for not feeling guilty about my omnivore palate. I have been nurturing plants of all kinds, cattle, goats, sheep, pheasants, pigeons, quails, partridges, chukars, francolins, guinea fowls, ducks, chicken, and many other Galliformes to appreciate their sheer beauty and consume them should I feel the desire to. I also raise them with love and as an untampered, healthy source of nutrition. This effort is an admonition that sharing life with all living beings is a responsibility. Especially the ones that I have chosen to place in a menagerie. I take pride in preparing their feed and watching them respond to my presence among them.

They have surprised me in more ways than I can count.

At Razia’s Eden, I have many nonhuman companions. Some slithering legless ones with rattles yet, others that are bipedal, along with 4, 6 & 8 legged. I often see a few that have many more legs than I have the patience to count. I am completely illiterate when it comes to the fluency of their language, but I am well versed with their sounds, expressions, actions, movements, courting behavior, and emotions. Their calls are very discernable. I pay attention to their calls of joy, laughter, cries, complaints, disagreements, in a cacophonic mosaic vocabulary that is honest and perhaps longing to be understood. I have been listening to my companions without knowing a single syllable of their language. I have numerous ethnicities of chicken and they are all as colorblind as can be. Just proof that there is no such term as a pure breed. They are all pure and proud of who they are. Each one has its own accents, demeanor, and a unique mannerism of speech. The roosters are indiscriminate lovers, while the hens are as discriminate as they can be. Roosters are probably the most aggressive of the whole lot, yet every now and then a mother hen shows them who the real puppeteer is. There is a social order to the coop and every new chicken has to go through the challenge of being accepted. It has to earn the right to be among the privileged or be an outcast. As such I now have multiple colonies of chickens who will welcome guinea fowls into their mix but would leave a newcomer chicken into a featherless, bloody mess if I don’t separate them. So much like humans, we accept others but so vehemently reject our own who are even a tad bit different from us. Despite all my efforts, myself included, I believe many of us treat other species better than some of our own species.

Earlier this year, my 2 Boer goats delivered 5 kids. One of the moms died due to the complications of birth along with a newborn. What’s ironic was that the mother goat that died, was extremely aggressive to other baby goats. She displayed punitive behavior when the other babies tried to nurse from her and would often butt them away. But her two babies only survived because the remaining mother goat generously and lovingly nursed the orphans along with her own offspring.

Sharing is caring!!.

All four are fine and neither display any emotional scars nor physical ones. Just as humans, some are givers and some are takers, some just want to take care of their own, some share in all they have, while others see everyone else as competition.

Aisay na dekhyay, pyar ho jai ga

This is another affirmation that compassion or humanity is not reserved for the two-legged primates who choose to destroy and consume all else. Despite it all, a character of abundance and scarcity is strictly not human, but a character of the living, irrespective of the form. My Silkie hen is just that cute as seen below, and she undoubtedly

Silkie breed standard - Scrumptious Silkies
What salon? I was born this way! Silkie Chicken

is the Mother Theresa of all chickens. She is the most amazing mother to any chick that was hatched by her. She is loving and takes on all chicks from other birds I have, whether they were hatched in my incubator or through her surrogacy. Newborn chicks imprint just after hatching; I have placed several 3 or 4 days old chicks to her brood and she accepts them, cares for them as if they were all her own. While I have many hens that simply chase and even injuriously peck the “alien” chicks away. Her heart is as warm and soft as her fluffy feathers. There are many hens who care for all the chicks they hatch regardless of who laid the egg, but very few will take on an orphan or those they did not hatch.

Happy Mother’s Day
Beauty Runs In My Family
Those who say beauty is in the eyes of the beholder, obviously haven’t seen me.
Surkhaboon ka Sardar Temminck Tragopan
Siamese Fireback with an Attitude
Crested Polish Chicken

Then, there are my boisterous polka-dotted Guinea fowls. They love to collectively greet an intruder with their sound alarm. I am not sure if they recognize the bucket of food more but they do greet me when I visit them. Their beautiful feathers are mesmerizing, one can stare at them and be lost in their mysterious beauty. They are curious and skittish at the same time. Very bold birds and fiercely protective if sitting on their eggs or with their hatchlings. I simply love their gait and their friendly gestures. They can raise a ruckus if they sense any danger. It’s hard to believe I began writing this last year when the rains had created several new creeks at the grove but they are all dry now. The last few weeks have been colder than usual and many deciduous trees have dropped their leaves. After a year of vigorous growth in every possible direction to soak up the sun’s warmth, light while blossoming and fruiting, they dropped all their leaves baring their branches. I wonder if they also shed their ego and bare their soul in this yearly practice. Do they get stronger each time like the stalwart mulberry tree that has grown to be over 25 feet in the last 5 years? Perhaps its their Ramazan that helps them cleanse their soul and reflect on the past. The persimmon, jujube (baer), cherry, almonds, apricot, peach, apple, pear, plum, and figs have all begun their journey to rebirth. I can see the new shoots peeking on the tips. Their blossoms will fill the air with fragrance and colors that will change the landscape. Even my stubborn, misplaced Mangoes have started their bloom while the citrus and cherimoyas are still loaded with fruit not knowing what to do while they wait for the spring weather to arrive. While in Karachi it behaved as an evergreen, the falsa has grown to a towering bush of over 10 feet and appears to have become deciduous. Most of the leaves are gone. I can see it getting impatient and ready to sprout new leaves, with each passing year it has lost the characteristics of a tropical plant. What an adaptive being. Many of these tropical plants have begin shed their foliage with extreme hesitation as if they are afraid of tomorrow, but they overcome their fears, only to begin a new cycle with more vigor than the year before. This year tulips and wild flowers were early and abundant and the honeybees love to visit them.

The beehives at Razia’s Eden have added to the barakat of Razia’s Eden. They visit even the flowers that don’t offer them any pollen. I know their presence and hard work would result in a lot more fruits. I watch them hover from a flower to another, and another. Once can see the family resemblance to the roses in apricot, peach, plum, apple and pear blossoms. The flamboyant flowers tempt the bees with their nectar but brush their anthers laden with pollens, gently and tenderly. The soft petals create a velvety carpet on which the bees, the ladybugs, ants and aphids all take turns to seek shelter. The circle of life is also a circle discovery. Each creature leaves a trail for another to follow.

The rebirth has not been limited to the flora. The four-legged have also been busy adding to their family. So far 5 new members have joined the family in the last 6 weeks. The score is not even close. Girls 4, Boys 1. December and January are the months only the black belly sheep give birth while the other breeds will give birth later in the spring. I can tell that these offsprings are in much better shape and health. They were up and running within hours of their birth. The mother ewes are stronger and are far more experienced than last year.

I will post and write some more with the arrival of spring. It will be a busy time at Razia’s Eden.

A tribute to a mentor, a friend, a teammate, a coach and always a teacher.

I woke up to the news of Brother Geoffrey’s demise via Dhushy’s text message that he had received from our dear friend Edward (aka Papps) in Malta.  I forwarded it to some DLS friends, my brother Salman, Najmi, Faizi, and a few more. My heart sank with the realization and hesitant acceptance of what is an inevitable truth. I lost both my parents over a decade ago, but this one, though different, is equally painful.  A visceral gut reaction emerged wanting to be in Malta, to bid him the last farewell, to share the moments of his return to the soil and the Creator, and to be a possible pole bearer for the giant of a man, who taught so many of us the meaning of tough love.  As teenagers, we were blind to what our hindsight has provided us with now.  Looking back, we all realize, he helped shape our future and he didn’t know it or ever took credit for it. He was a man of the cloth and lived his calling with and without the collar. A strong man, with dignity and integrity. A role model who never imposed his morality on any of us.

We had so joyfully connected with him on what would now be for many of us a memory and a treasure of a video call.  That zoom call has become our first and last visual connection with him after 40 years. Selfishly, I am glad that we had an opportunity to let him know what he meant to all of us in his lifetime.  We celebrated his life from across the world and thanked him for his passion, his care, his dedication, and most of all his love.

We shared our time with him on the soccer field, the basketball courts, cricket and hockey fields, at the table soccer, and when he played table tennis. We reminded him of his tuck shop days and his “Cat Stevens” collection.  He was a quintessential competitor and played every single sport without any discrimination, just as he treated us all without any discrimination.  During the call, he humbly admitted to his competitive nature and got a bit emotional with the love he felt from all of us. We learned of his struggles and his perseverance through his challenges. He was teary-eyed as we spoke of those of us who have left this world in their youth. Perhaps this was another reminder of the fragility of life. His voice, his smile, his piercing eyes that said more with silence than words, all of them are now a faded memory.  I will treasure his memory and the email below till my dying days.

From: Francis Scerri <geoffreyc55@gmail.com>
Sent: Tuesday, March 23, 2021 2:55 PM
To: rehan@triforest.com
Subject: Re: How are you?


I can’t but say thank you to you all for getting in touch. I was overwhelmed by all the sentiments expressed. My sole commitment in life has always been to the kids who were entrusted to my care. To see with my own eyes and to hear how well you’ve all done is music to my ears. Although I am proud of playing a part in your life, there is something that you must keep in mind. You were born with wonderful potential. You need to thank God and your parents for this. My job was to try and present opportunities for your development. Thank God we have been a success story and I am so proud of you all!

With regards to your writing. I was impressed with your sense of community displayed in your narrative. I agree with you that nationality and religion should not be obstacles to the appreciation and worth of who we are. I never had a problem. You guys were a gift from God as far as I was concerned and I can say that the fifteen years I spent with the boarders were the most exhausting but happiest years of my life. For this I need to thank God and your parents for trusting you in my hands. At times I would sit back and wonder how I ended up with so many foreign students and so many different creeds. Once I asked a muslim parent who I knew was deeply religious, why he had trusted his two children to my care. I who was a committed Christian. You are a man of the Book and you are a good man. That answer I have always treasured.

I need to thank you all for the gift of yourselves. You gave meaning to my life.

For the sake of accuracy. We played hockey in Paola and not Rabat!!!!! Always a teacher I’m afraid!

How does one deal with such a loss? Like all my deceased loved ones, I will mourn his departure while the loss is fresh, but I will miss him always.  He made a difference in my life, and perhaps I speak for many De La Salle boarders, who were treated justly, learned the value of fair play, sportsmanship, and camaraderie, but most of all we learned to accept each other despite our differences.  He embodied so much more than words can express. 

How do I come to terms with a loss of a lifetime and generations? I think with a smile, gratefulness, and appreciation for whom he was.  He would want nothing less.   I pray for his soul and feel blessed that he touched our lives.  His legacy was brotherhood.  Though all the brothers at De La Salle had an impact on us, but he was the “Brother” who helped create a brotherhood among the boarders who are living in every continent of this globe, in every color, creed, religion, and ethnicity that was present at De La Salle.  His spirit will remain with us, and the jingling sound of his keys will ring in our hearts like the church bells that toll across Malta on Sunday mornings.

Goodbye, dearest Brother Geoffrey/Francis Scerri.  You played a great game, and though you lost a few rounds and were a tough loser, you won the heart of every soul that you touched. July 11, 2021 will remain a day of remembrance for all those who love you.

May you Rest in Peace. We love you beyond words and your legacy will remain.

Iftaar, like no other…

If the first Ramzan started during the summer holidays, it would almost be 6:00am when most of us would go to bed after sehri. By 10:00am the humidity and Karachi heat would set the tone for the day. In between prayers, interspersed with reciting Quran, or sleeping, the goal was to maintain enough strength to last till Iftar.  Waking up in a sweaty kurta, late in the morning, I was always tempted to brush my teeth but worried that I would swallow some water during a gargle rinse. I would soak my parched tongue with extreme caution as to not let any drop of water go through as I performed the wudu.

Along with a reverence for what this month offered, and a goal to spend it differently from the remainder of the year, was nowhere more obvious than in the kitchen. With Nanna, Bari Ammi, Ammi and Mami in the kitchen, we were blessed with new versions of Man-o-Salwa each day. I distinctly remember the joyful days with the presence of whole family of Mamoojan, Gauhar Mumma, Aslam Mumma, and Munir Bhaiya at the university home.  The Iftar was a feast of flavors, and gratitude. We sat on the floor, a dastarkhwan (long table cloth placed on the ground) that could easily seat 30 or more with as many as 15 on each side.  A family that large also has a large appetite but there was always abundance of food.  Allah blessed us with baraka that somehow there was more than enough food to be sent to the workers, chowkidar’s family, anyone deserving, neighbors, masjid and any faqir that may happen to walk by. I recall the words of my dearest Ammi, “danay danay per muhar lagi hay beta, Allah nay usko tumhari rizq ka zarya banaya hay”.

Just after Asr prayers, the fervor in the kitchen would change pace. We had a small Bialleti blender that was Baji’s domain.  It was mostly her choice and possibly whatever was available to produce lassi, mango shake, rooh afza with milk or my least favorite banana shake.  Rooh Afza, Naurus or whatever sugary syrup was available would be the drink, but there was no equal to the ripened, soft, sweet khajoor that was the first of the morsel to break the fast.  Rarely, there would be the “amori ka sharbat” charred, unripe, raw mangoes that were partially sour but mildly sweet, and nothing quenches thirst as it did. A cold glass of lemon sherbet, or mango squash just didn’t compare.   

The anticipation of Iftaar would grow along with the thirst and hunger that had been kept in check throughout the day. Irrespective of any of our extended families, whether it was the maternal or paternal side, the quintessential iftar menu was composed of basic few ingredients. For some reason, deep fried food are the highlight of most iftar. Just after Asar prayer Bari Ammi, Nanna, Mami and Ammi would sit by each other.  Either one of them would knead the dough, in a small aluminum trough.  I would sometimes watch Appi join them.  I envied and marveled at their skills. First the small dough balls (peyra) would be rolled, and then with the belan and takhta (rolling pin and board) they would make the most uniform circular discs of maida.  They were all, very well versed with the art and finesse of preparing food.  When they would cut the discs in half, each one would be almost perfectly symmetrical.  Whoever rolled the peyra, would place the disc on tray towards Nanna or Mami, while they bisected the discs, and turned the half discs into a cone that would house the perfect amount of stuffing. This assembly line would produce the most elegantly folded, neatly tucked samosas that never opened up during the frying process. For me, the homemade samosa, stuffed with mildly spiced, salted qeema, coriander leaves, onions, thinly sliced green chilies, and slowly fried on a medium flame to the light brown soft crunch, was the highlight of Iftar. 

Unarguably, channa is the king of all ingredients during iftar meals. Chana came in two varieties. Black “kala” chana and Kabuli chana, typically known as garbanzo, chickpeas, or gram beans is the light tan variety. During Ramzan, every iteration is available and then some. A certain outcome was aloo cholay, but it wasn’t the most sought out dish. The chickpeas flour “besan” is the batter for everything possible deep-fried as dumplings of sorts. Plain pakora (fritter) with onions and chilies, or just onions, battered potato pakora, Mirch (chilies) stuffed and battered and slowly deep-fried, battered spinach, battered spiced mashed potatoes, and baingany, the thin-sliced eggplant lightly battered and fried to perfection along with any other combination possible, makes its appearance at the dastarkhwan.

The kabuli chana may be popular in other households, but the desired variety in our home (and every bihari home) was the kala chana (smaller dark brown variety), that for the life of me I couldn’t understand why it wasn’t called bhoora (brown) chana. Perhaps because it would get darker as it was prepared.  Ghughni, is a spiced kala chana prepared in a thick stew like consistency that is eaten with the raw, shelled, split chana (chana dal) soaked to tender crunchiness, mixed with a perfectly balanced combination of mint leaves, salt, lime and ground black pepper. This would be an essential accompaniment to gughni. The left over gughni would become the ideal pairing for plain boiled rice (bhaat).  The kala chana soaked and deprived of air for 48 hours or so would sprout inch long strands of new shoots and it would be stir fried with a bit of salt and pepper as an additional course. Once in a while the green chana would be used for making qabuli (rice pilaf), but that was served for the dinner after Iftar.  

The wok was the most used cookware and though most of the food was deep fried, I rarely saw any spillage of oil.  Nanna, Bari Ammi, Mammi, Ammi and all my khalas (if present) were the epitome of patience when it came to cooking.  Additionally, the masoor dal would be soaked throughout the day, and then milled on “sil batta” grinding stone, into a paste with perfect grainy texture that would produce a crumbly yet moist sensation with each bite.  Sometimes, these fritters would be a blend of different daal (pulses), and each one maintained its own unique flavor.  Often enough, the besan dumplings would  show up as dahi phulki.  There was“aloo dum” , sliced boiled potatoes in a dip of yogurt, ground up red chili powder and salt. 

The next essential entrée was a fruit chaat (fruit salad) which was mostly sliced banana, guava, grapes, mangoes, pomegranate arils or anything else that was in season.  The kala namak, black pepper, red pepper, ground up unripe-dried-sour mangoes, and sugar all combined with lemon or citrus with a zest that created a concoction that elevated the flavor of each fruit.  I never liked the oranges in the fruit chat and thankfully neither did other family members. If in season oranges would be present as peeled, seeded, thinly sliced, sprinkled with salt and pepper. This was enough to offset the spicy, sweet, tangy flavor of the fruit chaat. I loved the flavors and textures but most of all, I loved the company of the beloved family members who made this meal an expression of love.  It was impossible not to have one of my older bhaiya remove a samosa from the next plate, or take the pakora from my plate while I would go to get sherbet or water.  Such was the right of passage in a family where the love for food, love for each family member, and love for the Creator, fueled our appetite. As the sun would slowly decline on the horizon a likely dispute on the timing of breaking the fast would ensue. Regardless, the first sound of the gurgling loudspeaker from the masjid, even before the call of Allah O Akbar and the dearest baray bhaiya would go for the khajoor. The joy of breaking the fast was only amplified with the joy of being together for this occasion.

Before anyone could reach a point of satiation, the preparation of Maghrib prayers would begin with Mamoojaan or Papa leading the prayers.  Haris bhaiya was always the first to call the aqama as we would all stand shoulder to shoulder to thank the Almighty for the blessings of the day.  This ritual would become the norm for the next 4 weeks as we worked on our transformations and personal growth.  No one gave lectures or sermons, but we learned by watching the actions of our loved ones. Those precious moments were eternally blessed by the presence of my elders and are carved into my memories. 

As the month progressed, we would anxiously prepare for the arrival of Lailatul Qadr. Someone had told me that you won’t hear the stray dogs bark on the morning of the real Shab-e-Qadr, as the angels would come down to your home, so I would stay alert, hoping that I would be the one to solve which night was the most blessed one. Such is a childish notion of salvation. I revered the dua Papa would hold by the Fajr prayer after the 27th night. His hands would tremble and voice would break into a teary plead that Allah may forgive all of us for our sins and digressions. That we continue in the right path and direction, and that our future generations remain steadfast. As I look to my next generations and pray for mine, and their salvation, Papa’s words resonate with each passing Ramzan. May we continue the legacy of our ancestors and create our own that follows the calling we are here for. Ameen.

Longing For The Crescent Moon

Allah O Akbar,   Allaaaaah O Akbar, …..

The melodious call to maghrib prayer begins just before the setting sun.  A continuation of asynchronous series of azan from the nearest mosque to the farthest would linger on as many prepared for salat.  This was the norm all across Karachi, however, the last maghrib of the month of shaban was uniquely special.  Barely after the prayers, quest for the new moon would begin.  The whole family including, children and elders would go up to the rooftop terraces, or to a clear unobstructed site.  With faces towards the heavens and shades of fiery ember on the horizon softening subtly into a darkening sky, eyes would search for any signs that would welcome the 9th month of the hijri calendar.  Shyly through the cloud, the new moon would appear as a bright waxing crescent.  Everyone would raise their hands in gratitude to the Creator that we are blessed with one more Ramazan to wipe our sins, and to start the cleansing of our souls. 

The anticipation of the start of the month of fasting in the early winters implied that roza’s (fast) would be shorter as the sun sets early and rises late.   With little hardship, most of the children would fast all month long.  It was another gift of Allah to provide this shortcut to a self-induced call for awakening.  Despite the cold evenings when the skin on my knuckles and hand would crack with dryness, and the lips would be painfully chapped, the viewing of the crescent moon would change the mood magically to that of joy, piety, and sober reverence.  It was a tradition, a practice, that transformed the following four weeks; it would open our hearts, calm our minds, our souls and prepare us for a month-long state of submission to the Creator.  The summer ramzan was a test of will, endurance and belief.  I can certainly say that faith is probably the strongest force when it comes to fasting for upto 18 and 19 hours.  I have rarely had to fast that long but it is an exercise in humility and servitude like no other.  

The question of “was the moon sighted, would change to the greeting of ramzan mubarak” , and the planning for the sehri (pre-dawn meal) and the Iftar (evening meal to break the fast), would begin almost immediately after the confirmation by the local mosque.  Even though I did not pray regularly, the evening of 1st Ramzan, maghrib, Isha and all other prayers thereafter would become a must. I would change into my Juma clothes, the drawcord (zaarband) in my pajamas had broken so many times and was way too short to tie a loop knot but somehow I always managed.  I was convinced that to welcome this month, I had to change into this uniform of sanctity to display my piety and like a clean slate, donning a starched kurta on the first of the holy month would erase all my sins of days passed.

As if on a cue,  all of us would make intentions to start anew, to lead a more meaningful life, to be kind, to be gentle, to maintain a heightened awareness of our shortcomings, to be charitable and most of all, to become an observant Muslim with a purified heart.

There are no shortcuts in life but Ramzan offers a shortcut in repentance.  Eleven months of habitual ignorance takes more than 30 days to undo, but this month avails us an opportunity to reset, reboot, and restart.  It starts with the realization that our spiritual voids cannot be filled with acquisition of material wealth, with temptations, with denial, or with pretentious charity.  It is a reflective exercise of transformation, each hour, each day, and each breath.  It is the reminder that just as our ancestors before, this could be the last opportunity for this annual retreat.

With this realization, each intention would become a bit more intense, a bit more honest and a bit more solemn.  The first of the ramazan would begin with the acknowledgement that it could also be the last.  

In Zoha household it was a month of repentance, prayers, recitation, sharing, charity, blessings, remembrance and solemn joy.  In my preteen years, I was convinced that satan was locked up for the 30 days, thus all my mischief (obviously, they were the deeds of shaitan) were going to end by themselves.  My temptations would disappear, and my inner goodness would just spill all over and fill me with blessings and morph me into a momin.  I would walk slowly, making sure I did not (even accidentally) step on an insect,  did not even hurt the mosquito that just bit me. Normally I would have squatted it to a bloody splash, but even a mosquito’s life was sacred while I was fasting. I would restrict my ritual habits and made sure that I stayed true, no matter the consequences, which for me, were, as expected somewhat “punitive”. 

The month of Ramzan brings a community wide change in muslim majority countries.  Deprivation from food takes buying, selling, preparation, presentation and sharing of food to a different level.  Overnight the kiosks with deep woks and bubbling oil, selling Lacha (ghee fried strands of vermicelli) would appear.  Some vendor would set up makeshift kitchen, crispy crunchy ground beef samosa and battered or filled fritters with besan (chickpeas flour), would appear in the evening.  The aroma of clarified butter with fried dough is intoxicating enough, let alone the thought of having it after a whole day of abstaining.  This was the joy of arrival of Ramzan when each bite would be an exercise in gratitude and each morsel a blessing.  Street hawkers would appear with carts of Aseel dates that were sugary sweet and ripened soft.  Almost every household would bring out the dates of Mecca or Medina that had been a gift (tabarruk) from someone who had performed a hajj or umrah.  I recall seeing them at home throughout the year but they were mostly be consumed in Ramzan. 

The first sehri was a festive reunion.  Though Papa was the one who woke Ammi up, she would have the food prepared and at the table with help from Appi and Baji in no time.  With sleepy eyes and drowsy gait, we would all walk towards the dining room that would be filled with extended family members who had gotten up much earlier.  It felt surreal to see them in the middle of the night, though we had just seen each other hours before.  The joy of waking up earlier than others was doubled when you could jump in their warm lihaf (comforter) while they ate.

No Ramzan would begin without Lacha, khajla or pheni.  A form of fried dough in different configurations of thin strands or a flat bubbly, brittle bread.  I loved anything with milk and sugar, but did not like the residue oil floating on milk released from adding pheni or khajla. The dinner leftovers along with an omelet, roghni (buttered) or tahdaar (layered) roti, followed by lots of water, were enough sustenance to prepare for the next day. Voluntary deprivation from food and water is a mental exercise as much as a physical one.  We would prepare for the physical challenge but would learn that the spiritual awakening required endurance of a different level.

Some would be lost in eating when the haunting sound of the city siren would signal an end to Sehri.  Eating time is over.  I would ponder if this is the same sound before the angel Israfeel would announce the end of the world.  For a naive young boy, perhaps it was a precautionary reminder of the lost past, or a gratitude of a new day.  I saw it as a warning that I better straighten myself this time before I have to answer for my sins.  Siren would begin minutes before the Fajr azan and calls  for Pani Piyo, Pani Piyo (drink more water, drink water) would overtake as everyone made sure that all the elders and children were well hydrated for the day.  This was also the signal to get ready for the wazoo (ablution) to offer the morning prayers.  The Jaanimaz (prayer rugs) would face towards Mecca, and we all would join in, wet and shivering while Papa led the prayer.  I loved Papa’s recitation of surah Fatiha each rakat and would recite after him. 

After Fjr, It was just assumed that we would stay up and read Quran.  A race to finish reading the holy book would begin the same morning between the siblings, cousins and friends.  I would barely get to finish the first para when Salman bhaiya would claim that he was on third or fourth juz.  The desire to win the race would tempt me to embellish, only to be reminded that this among many other shortcomings was what I needed to work on.  I did not understand any Arabic, but I could recite parts of the first para with ease. The goal to finish the Quran was another commitment that showed resolve through the long summer days.  Never was the motivation stronger to gain a bonus sawab as it is in Ramzan.  And I would go on reading the verses with little comprehension but immense respect for the word of Allah.  As I look back, I realize this was the first step to understanding the Quran.  Just the familiarity of the verses take me back to the days when life was simpler and heart was purer.  The day would start with the Name of Almighty and while I read the suras, I’d start to imagine what the Iftaar would be like…

It was an island we left behind, but never really left …

My dear companions from De La Salle College, circa 1975 – 1979. Our experiences are shared, though our stories are not.  I wrote this on my return from a visit to Malta in 2017.  The desire to reconnect with those who touched my life in more ways than I knew or they would know has pushed me to share these memories. Perhaps some of you may have resonance with this ongoing tale. I would love for you to add your own recollections and thoughts so we could compile them into something meaningful for all.

Arriving in Malta after 36 years was surreal.  I felt an unexplainable rush of emotions as the plane touched the runway at Luqa International Airport.  I was flooded with the memories of my first visit on an autumn evening of 1976.  My older brother Salman and I bid farewell to our parents in Tripoli and landed in Malta on a Libyan Airways, Boeing 727.  This was the first of many journeys to the island of Malta.  The flight was choppy and barely an hour long, yet it felt like an eternity.  Giddy with childish excitement, I was looking forward to exploring a new phase in my life but I was clueless as to what was ahead. 

After many days of anticipation, preparation, marking all our clothes with ID numbers 553 and 554, we packed our belongings into two brown suitcases. At times, I wondered if De La Salle College was a mythical place that I had concocted with my imagination because all I had seen of it were the brochures and descriptions from my cousin Najmi who had already been a student there. Regardless, I was ready for the adventure. As we exited through the rear door of the plane, I could see the amber evening skies, and feel the chill in the air.  We filled out our immigration forms and waited in a low ceiling hall.  It was full of people speaking languages that I had not heard before.  The lines were long and slow, but that did not bother me.  This was my first visit to a foreign country, where I was to be on my own.  I was clueless about the people, their history, their culture, or their language.  My preconceived notions, and my stereotypes of “foreigners” were being shattered as I realized that I was a foreigner, a minority, and “a no one” here.  It did not matter who my parents were or who my people were. I was just a young boy, coming to attend a catholic boarding school, in a small island, and it would change my life, and all my perceptions, forever.

The immigration officer glanced at me, a stamp on the passport, a nod to move on, and off we were looking for our luggage.   There was no custom inspection and Bro. Mario met us by the baggage control. He was wearing a priest’s collar and a black sweater.  He didn’t greet or welcome us, just a matter-of-fact transactional exchange of information and identity verification. I rarely saw Bro. Mario displaying many emotions throughout the years we were at school. He was a stoic figure and a reserved one at best. We loaded our luggage and boarded the van (that would be the primary transport to all our matches and field trips) and we left for the school.  There were 2 other boys seated in the back, but no one spoke to each other.  As the van moved passed the airport, I noticed the limestone architecture which reminded me of the “suqs” in old Tripoli, a few domed churches on the way, statues of saints and Mary on random street corners, and the winding narrow cobblestone streets that were intercepted with alleys of stairs.  We drove through cities and towns with roundabouts and hardly any traffic lights. Occasionally I would spot a red telephone booth that was reminiscent of the British colonization of this island. They had similar old cast iron red mailboxes that used to be present in Karachi from the partition days. Nothing was familiar, yet that island had a homey feeling. The night had fallen and it was impossible to tell that we were on an island that was barely 96 square miles. We arrived within 20 minutes or so.  I awed at the wrought iron gates, the pillar to the right had the college emblem and in capital letters, DE LA SALLE COLLEGE displayed on the banner wall which connected the two pillars that held the gate.  The van drove down the road past a memorial wall to the formal entrance of the school building.  The door was high, I admired the tall roman limestone columns as we got out of the van onto the marble stairs.  We entered a low-lit, daunting hallway through the large arched door.  We were asked to gather our luggage and wait on what would be later known as the infamous hot bench outside Bro. Martin’s office.   

Five or so hours later life had changed irreversibly.  No Ammi to wake me up in the morning for breakfast, no dishwashing after meals, no waiting for Papa to come back from the university, and not a familiar face in sight.  I do not know when I fell asleep, but I know my heart was pounding with anticipation of what the next day held.  I recited a prayer for the welfare of Ammi, Papa, and all my siblings.  Even though we were in the same school, Salman was with the seniors and they were in single rooms on the other side of the dorms.  I would get to see him only during the meals and sports.  There were several boys in the dorm, but I was alone and lost in my thoughts that had sprung from my recent readings of Oliver Twist. 

Strangely, separation from loved ones gave me a sense of courage, independence, and even strength. I don’t remember being afraid or scared of other boys or the future. They were certainly all taller than I was. What else could one do but accept the inevitable? After all, this is what I had been waiting for months after I had received an acceptance letter from the school.  

I woke up to the sounds of shotgun pellets hitting the windowpane and to the toll of the morning church bells.  A Sunday morning ritual for many Maltese and the first for me. I concocted the images of the hunchback of Notre Dame pulling the ropes. Just like the mosques in Karachi, churches had their own bells and they were never synchronized.  I got up from the warm bed and looked out the window. The skyline was interspersed with red domed churches, the harbor, and limestone bastions in the distance.  I could see the harbor and drydocks. The whole island was a limestone fortress. I watched a couple of men walking downhill with their dogs and their shotgun.  I remember opening the window and picking up lead shots from the windowsill.  Just as I was getting back into the bed, Bro. Saviour came and rang the electric bell.  It was a wake-up alarm or more appropriately a wake-up call; I noticed a few boys who must have arrived after I had fallen asleep.  I woke up to realize that everyone in that long hallway was away from home and their loved ones. The wake-up alarm was pavlovian conditioning that has remained with me to this day. I wake up to go take a shower as an instinctive behavior. It was the beginning of a morning ritual that began with the buzzing sound that jarred us awake no matter when we fell asleep the previous night.  Along with the jingling of Bro. Geoffrey’s keys, I doubt if any one of us would ever forget the sound, I know I certainly have not.  I counted 25 beds in the dorm. There were 13 on my side and 12 across.  Some of my dormmates were Edward Papps, Roberto Christoudis, Karim Bughaighis, Georgio Mallia, Bojan, Jean Camilleri, Vladan, Bilal, Dhushy, Rudiger, Thomas Bauman, Michael Konrad, Johnny Trivitakhun, Ivan Djeorgevic, Slobodan, and possibly Fehmi with a few day scholars.  

I watched the boys with their toilet bags but I did not have one. I just took my towel, toothpaste, soap, and toothbrush to the wash area, brushed my teeth, and quickly showered to get ready for breakfast. I think this was the first time I realized even boys have their own toilet bags for their sundries which I had only seen with adults before. I made a note that I would get one as I did not want to stand out, but no one cared or made any comments. A lot happened within the 15 minutes while I prepared to change, most of the boys had already showered and dressed. A grey-haired bearded elderly man came in wearing a dark chocolate brown robe and black shoes. I rarely saw him without it except for the days he would be wearing the black sweater and trousers with his priest’s collar. He was a capuchin friar. He greeted some of the old boys who were cheeky with him. He was Father Archangel but we just called him “Doon” Maltese pronunciation for “Don”. He had an off-white twisted rope around his hooded habit that looped like a belt and had two knots hanging below. He was a gentle soul. This was my first contact with a Monk. He herded us all out of the dorms and that’s when I realized that there were 3 dormitories on the floor. One across our dormitory and one at the far end of the hallway. Within 20 minutes we were down the stairs, in the same refectory where I ate the night before. There were several boys already in there, and everyone was standing by their table. I walked over and took an empty spot with Giuseppe and Baghdik to the side and Ali Haddar across. Brother Saviour came and recited the morning prayer “our fathers….” and I stayed quiet, wondering if it was sacrilegious for a Muslim to recite a catholic prayer?. Over the years and before each meal, the prayers were the litmus of punctuality. None of us could sit down, let alone touch food, until every boy was in the refectory. Once the prayers were over, many made the sign of the cross, and we sat down at the table. By the 5th week, I could recite all of the prayers before our meals. There was a steaming hot aluminum pot brimming with tea, 4 sunnyside up fried eggs, over a layer of baked beans in the same stainless steel tray that housed the pastizzi’s the night before, a basket of warm hard-crusted yet soft Maltese bread, a tray of margarine, and jam. I ate quietly and was informed that the new boys would be going to Valletta to get our uniforms and related items. I think the name of the shop was Elite where we got fitted for our blazer and pants. Ah… The uniform, a sharp burgundy striped blazer, two matching ties, 4 white shirts, 3 grey trousers, 5 pairs of grey socks with blue stripes, a grey school sweater, and black laced shoes. I didn’t buy the blue woolen blazer as it wasn’t offered to me. That attire would become our identity and a matter of pride for the remaining years.

“Are you excited,” she whispered affectionately, as I felt a gentle nudge from my dear wife. The plane had begun to de-board and I reverted to the Luqa airport and to the 21st century.  Yes, I did feel as if a century had passed since I was in Malta.  We walked up to the immigration desk and the officer simply scanned our passports
.  No stamps, no questions.  The thought of visiting Malta with my family was an emotional one. I wondered if I was sharing my past or being selfish to drag them here. Other than a new country to visit, it may not mean much to them.  It was my history and not theirs.  So much was a faint memory of what now appears as a glorious past, but I wanted to hold on to the past and not let it turn into a broken dream.  36 years is a lifetime and even now, I feel a strong bond, a brotherhood, and an unexplainable kinship with all those who shared their years together at DLS.  I was hopeful that Taimur, Aadil, and Ghazala would enjoy their time here, but I was lost in my past and had to remind myself that it was meant to be a family trip.

As we picked up our luggage and walked to the car rental place, I realized this was no longer the Malta I had left behind.  Globalization and the European Union had made their mark on this tiny oasis of an island.  Besides Maltese, English, and Italian, I heard Russian, Czech, Polish, Chinese, Arabic, and a few other east European languages.  Ironically, other than Russian, I must have heard all of these languages spoken at DLS during my time there.  It was a hot day and there were a lot more date palms, olive trees, and sage brushes around.  This was an unfamiliar flora, that was not reminiscent of the Island I had left behind. It was surprisingly comforting to see the straggling caper bushes on the limestone walls of the various bastions that encircle the island and the prickly pear cactus that was the more common sight.  The caper bushes were still holding on strongly among limestone cracks and crevices just as I was holding on to my past. I recall climbing the bastion walls just to get to the top of the school boundaries to try and get out of school without getting caught by the brothers. The limestone walls had stood the test of time, but appeared weather-worn, and after decades of being away, perhaps I wasn’t much different.    

The airport was still small but better laid out.  You walk outside to the open parking lot to pick up the rental car.  Most if not all cars were manual shifts.  We got in our Fiat and headed out towards Sliema where we would spend our first night.  Driving in Malta is an experience by itself. The roads are narrower than I remembered, the traffic is continuous, and parking is akin to packing sardines in a tin can.  Malta has kept up with its British past and it is the only other country in the European Union (aside from Cyprus) where you drive on the right. Aside from the city signs I had no idea if I was going in the right direction.  What made it worse was that our phones were not working yet, and we had no map to guide us. 

The vague embedded memories of watching out of the slow green buses that took us from Bormla/Cospicua Bus terminus to Valletta started pouring in.  A 3.5 cents fare would take us to the central bus terminus that encircled the triton fountain. You could pull the white string tied to the bell and the driver would let you off to the next nearest stop or as soon as he felt it was safe. You got out at the terminus and walked through the Kingsway.  Maltese buses did not have a number but were color-coded, so you could get on the bus with the right color and eventually get to your destination. Thankfully, none of us were color blind or we would have ended elsewhere…  

While driving, many familiar names of the towns appeared and so did the reminders of the journey that was a Saturday/Sunday pilgrimage, unless we were (grounded) gated.  I recalled the sports fields of Marsa where we played cricket.  Hockey fields in Paola where we won many trophies. The busses were so slow that one could run and get to their destination faster.  The joke was that if they drove any faster, they would fall into the sea by the time the driver would hit the brakes.  I knew, that sooner or later I would find my way as the island is small.  Logic dictates that there would be a coastal road and some that go through the island, so I was comfortable with getting lost.  The island is famous for its labyrinthine streets that I swear are narrower than the cars that somehow go through them.  Driving through Valletta and Sliema, we finally arrived at St. Julians.  After repeatedly asking directions from a few people (and not really following them exactly), we managed to find our hotel.  Parking at the hotel was like threading a needle.  I am only glad I did not scratch that car.  There was an intensity in heat as we got out. The hotel was just across the St. Julians bay and I was looking forward to taking walks by the harbor. Captain Morgan tourist boats used to be docked there, and Jackie worked for them as a tourist guide when I last left Malta.

We showered and changed as we were invited to Jackie’s house for a Maltese feast. Jackie came straight from her work to pick us up. After decades of corresponding, I knew her address by heart and finally got to see it. It was just across the sea with a great view of the bay.  She had prepared almost every possible traditional Maltese
food that we could eat, except for rabbit and lampuki (dorado fish) pies which were not in season. Such is Maltese hospitality that is hard to equal.  Phillip (her husband was overly gracious) and served us Kinnie.  My boys did not like it either and I still had to say that it was an acquired taste.  After 3+ decades of not having it, I didn’t miss it or liked the bitter orange taste. My favorite soft drink on the island was Solera (citrus soda) which is no longer available.  5 cents would get you any soft drink and you could eat as many candies, smarties, and twisties that our pocket money afforded.  Jackie and I spoke incessantly about our friends, teachers, soiree, plays, sports, and related events, till we realize it was getting late. She took us to meet with Emma her daughter who was working nearby. Years of separation were not enough to lessen our friendship and the bond that had been present between us. Despite the lapse in contact for years, this was a reunion that true friends can appreciate. Jackie suggested that we get to De La Salle before noon as the school would shut down for the summer and no one would be there.  My time with her was full of reminiscence.  She was so kind and treated my family with immense hospitality and affection.  I am forever indebted to her for making sure that my family was well taken care of throughout the trip.  On our last day on the Island, she arranged for a private cruise on the traditional Maltese Luzzu. It was an unforgettable treat and a lesson on Maltese history that we will always remember. Jackie and I have had a special bond, she is a friend, an adventurer, a kindred soul, and throughout my school days, a strong adviser whenever I needed one.  For decades, she has been my one and only corresponding partner who punctually handwrote, double-sided letters, on a light blue rice paper stationery, remembered my birthday and made sure that we stayed connected with the ups and downs of our life throughout the years I had been away from Malta. This has been a friendship of a lifetime.  Despite the decades that had passed, a loving strong bond, a fondness, and a respect for each other overflowed every aspect of our relationship and still does. I beamed with a fulfilled heart and I held my tears back as we all hugged and walked out into the warm humid St. Julian night.  She spoke with the boys, and Ghazala and told them about the history of the area. She shared the anecdotes from my teen years with the boys. She reminded me of my carefree youth. We promised to connect later and walked down the cobblestone stairway that connected to the harbor. The Mediterranean was calm but streets were crowded and brightly lit. 

While we walked and watched the waves gently caress the shore, my thoughts had reverted to my teen years. I do not remember when we got back but I was far off in my world that kept on tugging at me. As the school day would end, tea time, sports, showers, study, and supper would be the sequence of the day for the boarders. Supper would start at 7:00 and barely an hour or so left before we would head back to our room for the night. This is when most of us would gather around Brother Geoffrey’s tuck shop. Whether you liked Cat Stevens or not, he played his collection, we’d sing to the lyrics of “Moonshadow, and he ain’t heavy, he is my brother” and so on; this was the place to be.  Table tennis, billiards, chomba (table soccer), and the one and only TV in the hall were all that we shared.  That was all the entertainment one needed and on the tables, the winner stayed till he lost or till Bro. Geoffrey kicked us out.  No democracy there.  Either you won or lost or tried to bully your way into staying.  No consolation prizes nor any sympathies.  We shared the few resources we had without ever feeling deprived.  We watched and laughed at British comedies such as “Mind your language” and made ethnic jokes without malice or discrimination towards each other.  One could curse and swear in several languages and never mean a harsh word to the fellow boarders.  We were all “equal opportunity abusers”.  We loved the diversity and thrived on being fellow sufferers, away from home and our parents.  We listened to ABBA, Alan Parsons Project, Pink Floyd, and whatever else was playing.  It did not matter what color your skin was, what religion you followed, or what your social status was.  We were equal in each other’s eyes and were respected only for our achievements in sports, academia, and our ability to get the attention of the sixth-form girls, most of whom were a bit older than we were.  No one knew who our parents were, what they did, or why they sent us to DLS.  We had to discover and define our own identity and gain respect in the eyes of our peers.  We were just who we were, at face value, irrespective of our names, our beliefs, and our personalities. 

Although the world has fragmented into so many ethnic divides, I had no idea which of the boarders were Czech or Slovak. Which one was Serbian, Croatian, Bosnian, Slovenian, Kosovar or Albanian?  If the war had not broken out, I doubt if my Yugoslav friends would care about their ethnic divisions.  They spoke Serbo-Croat and that is what I thought was the Yugoslavian Language.  It did not matter who was Chinese or Taiwanese, and we had both nationalities at school.  I didn’t know who among us was catholic, protestant, orthodox christian, nor who was a shia or a sunni muslim and we really didn’t care. Neither did we pay much attention to the religious or any other differences, and nor did it matter.  We laughed at the same jokes, shared disappointments, tasted victory and defeat together, teased, ridiculed, supported, encouraged one another, listened to the same music, read the same comics, and very rarely watched an “R” rated movie if we could muster up the courage to get to the infamous ABC movie theatre.  Probably the only thing we all feared after God, was getting caught by dear Brother Geoffrey or disappointing him. 

Despite the jetlag, I managed to get up in time to drive to Cospicua.  Although the roads and towns are well marked, I was sadly mistaken that my memory would lead me to the gates of De La Salle.  Nothing could have been far from the truth.  Cottonera was just the city where DLS was located.  I did not know the street address.  In all our years the correspondence to De La Salle was “Name of Recipient, De La Salle College, Cottonera, Malta”.  That was it! All our letters arrived with just that address. The zip codes did not exist in Malta.

I realized I had never really explored or knew much about the city while we lived there.  We really weren’t allowed out much and on the weekends we all went to Sliema or Valetta. This was a neighborhood that had changed considerably. The milk farmer who was across the boundary wall east of the school had moved There were traditional Maltese limestone homes and condos all around the school now, and the apartments were certainly a new addition as they did not exist when we were boarders.  Though Nannu’s bar remains adjacent to the school gate, the main entrance has been moved towards the gym in the back.  The gates that had brought me in decades ago would not open for me anymore. They were controlled by remote access and were no longer open to the general public.  I walked into Nannu’s which had remained frozen in time.  A beaded curtain and a bar with a display cabinet right across, a low-lit room, and a cigarette vending machine by the door.  The only difference was the price of the cigarettes and the sign of Euro currency instead of the Maltese Lira.  The lady behind the counter suggested that I should go around the school and enter from the gym side.  I drove by, passing St. Edwards (our main rival in hockey and cricket), nothing was familiar.  I arrived at the backdoor with the De La Salle logo on a pillar and guardhouse.  I told the guard that I was here visiting after 36 years.  He was not impressed and said that he did not have the authority to let me in.  On my insistence, he called and spoke with Bro. Martin’s secretary, who approved of our visit.  The guard gave me a badge and I drove past the marble sign of boarder’s residence 1970 and parked just after the school’s main entrance across the Madonna statue up the stairs.  I remembered the white apiary glass box, that was mounted on a stand and used to be located on the side of the statue.  I would open the doors to look for the queen bee in the midst of a crowded hive.  The glass apiary, along with the white marked queen bee were both gone.  The caper bushes that used to hang on the side of the limestone rocks were still there.  It was a visceral emotion that kept on jarring me from past to present and back again. I told my wife and my sons about my first visit and the entrance door. Bro. Henry’s statue still sits on the right side of the door as you enter.   We were greeted by the receptionist who walked us upstairs to the staffroom.  I reverted to the days of my youth and I could hear the old pickup truck that used to deliver the Maltese Hobz. The rattle of the milk bottles around the delivery area of the kitchen.  Brother Edwin repairing some van or car.  As I climbed the stairs I could hear the distinctly familiar voice.

Brother Edward looked at me, and after a moment his face lit up with a smile.  Whether he had mastered the art of deception or remembered me after 36 years, it did not matter.  He looked just as I remembered him. The years of servitude and giving had kept his spirit untarnished.  My respect for this man of the cloth was amplified immensely on hearing how most of the brothers had left the brotherhood and only a few remained from our days.  I was touched by his fondness and affection.  He was appreciative of all those who came to visit him, after all these years. We walked over to the headmaster’s office and Bro. Edward announced my arrival. Brother Martin looked at me with a quizzical face. I smiled at him and mentioned that this was the first time I had come to his office without expecting to get punished. He chuckled and hugged me, then my wife and my boys. He didn’t blink an eye and said “Let’s drink to the old times, now that you are old enough to drink!” We spoke while he reached out for a bottle of spirit and poured a few glasses. I could tell that years of drinking had left a mark on this man who was an enigma then and now. I politely declined as he recalled that I didn’t drink alcohol. He embodied so much of what the school had been and behind the scene, he had been the ultimate politician, a man of God, a true wizard of oz while we all carelessly attended the college. I joked with him that he hadn’t changed a bit, and he teased my wife and said, “He was always among girls ta, too many girlfriends this one” and I replied “so did you brother!!”…

We laughed and he spoke of the changes to the school, the life we had when the boarding school was at its prime, and the days gone by. I learned that Bro. Edwin was now at Stella Maris, Bro. Savior, Bro. Edward, and Bro. Martin were still at La Salle.  The boarding school had stopped operating since 1984 when the Maltese government nationalized most parochial schools and the church schools had lost their autonomy.  St. Edwards is about to be closed, and the funding for DLS now comes as a government-church private hybrid partnership.  The school had added a wing and converted the boarder’s residence into 6th form classrooms.  The kitchen is no longer there, and the dining areas were converted into classes for lower sections. 

Brother Edward recalled the changes as we walked up the stairs that lead to our dorms and the rooms. The stairwell walls now have pictures of alumni students on the wall.  I was able to locate the class pictures from 1975 – 1979.  I found the location of what used to be my bed, my cupboard that I shared with Slobodan. The door was always closed when I lived there. It led into the lab where Dhushy and I made our first stink bomb by mixing Ammonium Sulfate with HCl (H2S) and pumped it under the dorm door.  Mr. Sammut had no clue what happened but I remember the stench was present for hours. Surprisingly, Mrs. Aquilina was in the lab.  She remembered me as Faizul and was pleased to see me.  She was getting ready to retire and was archiving all her old stuff for her future replacement.  Even after decades, she maintained her kind tone of voice. I told her that she had inspired me to pursue life sciences, and she just beamed with pride. Humble as ever, she smiled and continued to pack the labware for her replacement. What is it about teaching that makes it so noble? Where would we be, if it wasn’t for the teachers? Having spent time in many well-funded labs and institutes, I realized the limitations of the small island and its meager resources that were used to teach us the concepts of chemistry, physics, and life in general. She was more interested in what I was up to than speaking of her plans. We spoke about our life in the USA, we remembered old teachers and the students.  We spoke of the changes in Malta and we continued to watch her pack up her belongings as this was also her last day at De La Salle.  She was retiring after 38 years.  I gave her an emotional hug and she wished me well.  One of my classmates Norbert Zahra is the principal of the school now. Brother Edward showed us to the doors of the rooms where I lived for 3 of the most formidable years of my life. All the rooms had been converted to teacher’s offices. The doors were still green on the outside and I peeked in.  It was hard to believe how this small room was more than enough for all our needs and wants. If those walls could talk, we would have an unending conversation. Even in the solitude of our rooms, we were connected. Life was rich and simple.  

Along the narrow hallway with doors on both sides, I recalled the duel with a scream of “on guard” by Sir Thomas Baumann, who would challenge me daily as soon as we got back from classes.  I had no idea who took Julian’s fencing foils out the first time, but they were used repeatedly for the battle to save the honor of some sixth form maiden.  Whomever she was, she had no clue, and though we spilled no blood, her honor was restored each day or as long as Julian didn’t go back to Gozo for the weekend with his fencing foils.  Coming back from school into our room was a time of daily celebration.  15 – 20 minutes to get changed into sports gear, place your uniforms back, drop off all your laundry so it would be back in time for next week, play basketball with the rolled-up socks, and make sure you had a complete uniform for the next day.  All that while getting ready and then heading for tea that would be followed by formal studies with Mr. DeGabrielle, Mr. Cauchi or Mr. Arthur Cachia.  Teatime was always a riot.  The aluminum teapots would be so hot that they could burn your skin, and someone would strategically place them by your elbow so you could get a heat shock. Ali Haddar would begin inhaling the black pepper and start non-stop sneezes just to create a ruckus.  Mr. De Gabrielle would scream and threaten us, but no one really cared.  Jam, margarine, and all the Maltese bread you could eat along with your own (or some poor junior or middle-sectioner’s) peanut butter and Nutella.  Excitedly, we would walk to the study rooms where we were expected to complete our homework and catch up on the next day’s classes.  

There was hardly enough time to complete the homework, but we did because we all wanted to get to the playgrounds.  Mr. Cauchi would help with Mathematics, Mr. Cachia was the most patient of teachers.  He was kind and calmly explained the physics problems. If it were not for him, I would have ended up hating physics.  Through all this, Mr. De Gabrielle just tried to maintain order.  He had the bushiest beard of all.  The sports time would be dedicated to hockey training with Mr. Tortell, while the rest of the boarders played tennis, basketball, football, or whatever one desired to.  Everyone played something and got some exercise.  The time just went by and we loved it.  After the sports we showered, changed, went to study till supper time.  Following the supper, we had free time.  We could study, hang out by the tuck shop, go back to our rooms and visit each other before it was time to turn in. Every now and then we would press our luck and stay past curfew, despite the fear of being caught dead in someone else’s room. The sound of the jingle of bro. Geoffrey’s keys would rattle our soul but we knew it was a misdemeanor we could handle. You learned to deal with authority with respect but also develop a sense of objectivity when your life was on the edge. The creative ways we attempted to become invisible in the tiny room still bring a smile to my face. Bro. Geoffrey had better insights or simply put he had seen it all and saw through our cloak of invisibility. It was always a mystery, whether he would let you go or you would end up being gated, regardless, he was the ultimate disciplinarian, and respected by us all. He kept us all grounded and honest with his silence than his scoldings. He held us all to our highest possibilities and did not mince his words. How I wish we could have more mentors like him? The sadness of youthful inexperience is that we don’t have enough wisdom to know what’s good for us or know the difference between tough love and unbridled abusive authority.

The echoes of my past walked with me into the small room that was our haven… The sink and the overhead mirror cabinet were still there, but the rest had changed. The window in between and the bed with a small bookshelf overhead that housed our comics, novels, textbooks etc… A closet that was tandem with a desk and another one on the side of the bed that was more than enough for our wants and needs had been replaced with a couple of chairs.  A humble orange curtain still draped the window.  I remember placing my hockey sticks and sports shoes behind it.  So much packed in the small room, where I learned to shave using a Gillette II razor.  The time spent there just flew by, I recalled the full moon nights and watching through Tommy’s powerful binoculars that gave me the first views of the moon’s craters.  I listened to American Pie, Lobo, and Simon & Garfunkel’s bridge over troubled water and whatever would touch the soul of a teenager who was full of foolish optimism, love for all, and thought of life as one long adventure.  We had so much to learn from each other yet none of us saw ourselves as someone who had anything to teach.  We were 40 nationalities, cultures, ethnicities, and languages all placed in a limestone sanctuary.  The daily anticipation of going to class, the joys of playing team sports, and the lifetime of friendships that have continued for many.  Most of us are now spread across the globe, our individual and shared experience at De La Salle has shaped our personality and the way we turned out.  I learned so early on that the differences that separated us, just made us unique, but we had a subliminal connection that has kept us tied to our past. We did not know it then, but we are woven together like a rope

I experienced so early on that I had to accept each human, at face value if I wanted to be accepted by others.  I had to let go of my stereotypes, my preconceived notions and accept all mankind just as it was, without reservations, and without being forced to do so. It was a natural outcome of the experiment we all willingly/unwillingly participated in. Probably for most of us, definitely for me, this realization grew into a character strength as I navigated the later years of my life.  I learned so much in those years and it has only been re-enforced.  Being away from parents, and most other loved ones for 3 months at a time, was replaced by a family of peers, who saw you as who you were.  There were no pretensions as it did not matter. There were no popularity contests or any awards.

Now, we are in our 5th and some in their 6th decades of life now.  Many have become grandparents while some have left this world way too soon.  We wonder how we ended up where we are. Many are in the UK, US, and Canada along with the rest of the globe.  It’s not an accident that we found solace in multiethnic, multicultural, and democratic societies. We just couldn’t adjust to a place of little diversity, where despite having a nationality, and ethnicity, we were still a minority.  We would all suffocate without diversity.  It is not an accident that many of us are more comfortable with ethnicities other than our own. Somehow, we all endured in our own ways, and reminisce the time when we were together on a small island that perhaps defined our future in more ways than we know.  

Shamo Miyan Kay Haan

Recollection of a Sunday Morning at Dr. Zoha’s home.

Flavors that remind me of home, my comfort foods, are my childhood connection with my dearest mother.

A soft malleable dough made with “maida” wheat flour, high in gluten and elasticity to stretch just right, is ideal for making a small, round, symmetrical disc, deep-fried patiently over a gentle flame, in a wok partially filled with melted ghee. This is a delicious bread that is laden with my childhood memories. If you have ever had a warm, steaming, freshly made kachori, you would also agree that there is no parallel.

The white soft spongy texture of the dough is impossible to forget if one has ever played with it.  The small black specs of kalonji (nigella) seeds rolled and scattered in the dough would exude a mesmerizing woody toasted fragrance.  It wasn’t a breakfast; it was a celebration.  The aroma of pure ghee (clarified butter) followed the smoke from the kitchen which was active early on Sunday mornings in the Zoha household at 47N, Block 2, P.E.C.H.S, and most other residences in this humble, middle-class, mostly muhajir neighborhood. The kerosene stove would start off with a smoky amber blaze and its signature smell faded into a calm blue flame with radiant heat. It was a dimly lit, small kitchen with two stoves, a mantle, and a sink.  A couple of cabinets to store the pots, pans, and cooking utensils. 

While sitting on the kitchen floor, I would make bird statues with the dough that lay dusted with flour in a shallow aluminum tasla (kneading bowl); I couldn’t roll the “peyra” (balls of dough), round enough, no matter how much I tried. Meanwhile, I would watch Ammi roll the dough perfectly into small flat discs and slip them into melted ghee without a single splash.  The disc would gently sink to the bottom of the wok and in less than a minute begin its rise to the top in the gurgling, bubbling liquid.  Ammi would sift each one, skillfully dripping all the fat back into the wok as the crisp yet soft kachori would be placed in a (chalni) sieve tray so the remaining fat could slowly drip off. I would watch the rest of the nashta (breakfast) being prepared in anticipation. 

My mornings would start with a trip to the corner butcher stand.  A short walk through the narrow back alley, and one could already see a small line to the butcher’s kiosk.  The shop was an open wooden crate, probably 2 cubic meters in size, on wooden posts, with blue plastic netting around to prevent the flies from entering in all directions.  This box of a shop had a sense of temporary permanence that served its purpose, a reminder that like all things, someday, it would disappear without a trace.  A raised platform where the butcher and his assistant would sit with the cuts of mutton, beef, and often a half or full carcass of a goat hanging within his hands reach. I would go as early as possible as he would only have a limited number of goat liver for sale. 

Life was simple, fresh meat, no refrigeration, take it and be grateful.  I would impatiently watch him skillfully section each part, and clean it from the membranes attached to the tendons.  Wanting to lay claim to the prized liver, from behind the line “Bhai!! Kaleji Meri Liyae Rakhna” I would loudly announce my meager presence, speaking out, asserting the butcher to hold the entrails for me.  As if I had any clout, but I had to assert myself here and everywhere.  When you are the youngest in the family of many, this becomes a survival instinct.  The butcher would smile, acknowledge me with a nod, and keep on working.  There was nothing one could do if the person ahead of the line bought the liver.  Once it was sold, it was gone. I had to be an early bird to get the kaleji.

 On my return, I would pridefully display my shopping skills by presenting the liver, kidney, lungs, and the heart that cost less than a single rupee, and Ammi’s approving smile or its absence was enough of praise to know that I had done a good job or if the butcher had duped me.  She would carefully wash and slice the liver using the “Haswa”, a stationary foot knife with a reverse scythe-like blade, that would enable one to cut using both hands.  I later found out that haswa was mostly used in Bihari and Bengali households and was not known among most other muhajir families.  Ammi would adeptly cut the liver into meticulously uniform cubes along with the pink lungs, rings of cartilaginous windpipe, heart, and kidneys.  I would watch her intently.  I loved watching Ammi prepare food.  She had an air about her while cooking, and a finesse that turned every morsel into an explosion of flavors. It remains embedded in my taste buds and my memories.  I believed that Ammi could make even the stale food taste scrumptious, however, it wasn’t unusual for Papa to comment on the lack or excess of salt.  Perhaps it was a tradition, but she never complained about it.  Papa was the ultimate word on if the food tasted good.  Ammi was very aware and confident of her culinary skills.  But her secret ingredient were not the spices, the skillful hands, or her recipes. It was pure love of those whom she cooked for, respect for the food as a blessing, and her love for creating a tasty morsel.  To me, she was an artist in the kitchen and outside.

At times, she would prepare the masala for the kaleji on the sil/batta (grinding stone) and then transfer it proportionally into the hot wok that would simmer the brown paste along with cubed contents.  The paste would be so fine and saturated with a complex aroma that exuded as it was heated in the melted ghee. Each ingredient was ground to the perfect texture to ensure that each spice maintained a balance in taste. This was a labor of love. The alchemy of spices. The smoky flavor of the ingredients would permeate the small kitchen and then flow out in all directions.  While that was going on, she would peel the potato with a small paring knife so deftly that each potato, no matter how bruised and blemished it may have been, would come through as a round yellow sphere that would be sliced thinly so it would cook evenly. Each slice would be uniform and I marveled at her expert hands that went about slicing them without missing a beat.  The potatoes would be sauteed along with caramelized onions, a splash of salt, ground black pepper, and dried red crushed chilies that added a bit of heat but more of a hint of pungency to the fragrance of this concoction that tasted heavenly. 

The sunday breakfast menu was often kaleji, bhujia, omelette, kachori, and sometimes Baji would bring out her stash of balai (clotted cream) that she had been storing for days from the daily deliveries of the fresh milk, or Appi would add with the leftover torai bhujia from the dinner the night before. Rarely some suji halwa with toasted coconut slivers would show up as a surprise.  There were always additional family members who would drop by unannounced.

Chai was served but not to the children. The fluffy quilted tea cozy reminded me of a lihaf (comforter) made for the porcelain teapot. Its unveiling was followed by the pouring of the fuming gold amber liquid, adding a dash of milk and sugar before it was served.  The color of tea would transform into a terracotta cloudy blend, as the tea was passed on to every adult. I never felt deprived though I do not recall ever being offered tea or drinking it.  “Bachey chai nahee peetay” (Kids don’t drink tea) was enough to know that I wasn’t going to get it.   The dark ironwood brown table was adjacent to the bookshelf that held the only radio in the house.  It was a Cossor.  A large box with glowing vacuum tubes in the back and two knobs on each side.  One for tuning and the other for volume.  Radio Pakistan would be tuned to the Sunday morning ritual, broadcast of a family comedy drama “Hamid Mian Kay Haan”.   And 15 minutes of lighthearted comedy would fade into family laughter, teasing, and unspoken expectation of who would get the remainder masala before it got swiped by someone else.  Simplicity and contentment were practiced but not preached.  Abundance was in our minds and hearts. Love for the family and mankind was the only asset that was treasured. We were never poor. Poverty was a measurement of money; and there was certainly a limited amount of that. We were wealthy because there was an excess of love and the presence of unlimited joy.  Food was enough to curb the appetite, to rejoice the flavors, to sustain, but not means to gluttony.  Every day had its ritual and each day was one that was lived in presence.  A house that was barely 100 square meters, was a mansion for a family of 7, and often many more.  Sharing every aspect of our lives in close quarters was the norm and though we all lived in this small home, it was large enough for anyone who needed a place to stay.

The feelings and the taste remain in perpetuity as I look back and remind myself of the blessings that the Creator has bestowed upon me.  Yet another testament to the small butcher’s kiosk that my temporary presence will also fade along with the forgotten memories of the past. 

%d bloggers like this: