Playing Bluff with 'religious' men

His legs ache from running, and his shoulders, harnessed to the rickshaw, are sore.

Rabia Ahmed January 20, 2013
Mir Jan lives in my village, Pratistan, between the affluent town of Bundookh and impoverished Mafloos. Like his fellow villagers, he is a poor, illiterate man. In fact there are just five literate men in our village, respected men, and until recently, I was respected as one of them. Our advice is sought in village problems, and we offer it after consulting thick books and pulling at our lips with solemn frowns.

We are paid in cash, but mostly with gifts of meager farm produce, and milk from skeletal cows. Mir Jan is paid by handling our transport, because he ran the only rickshaw in the village, pulling it behind him like a mule on two legs from one end of the village to the other, and sometimes over the sand dunes to other villages beyond.

Mir Jan is no longer a young man. His beard, once black and slick with oil, is now grey - the hair too sparse to absorb the oil. His legs ache from running, and his shoulders, harnessed to the rickshaw, are sore. Soon, he ached all over as he ran, and all night as he tried to sleep. Where once Mir Jan had worried about how to earn a bit extra money to keep himself and his family more comfortably, he began to wonder how much longer he could keep them at all.  He wondered, with every morsel of food he ate, if it was destined to be his last; when he cleaned and washed his rickshaw, he thought,
‘How long will I be alive, like these men?’

Because, painted behind the rickshaw were large pictures of the five of us who could read and write. Almost venerated in Pratistan, our pictures were painted with a faint light encircling each head, and a superior expression on each face.

Finally the day came when Mir Jan could no longer handle his rickshaw.

It was a question, now, of discovering an alternative way of making an income or starving.

Mir Jan spent an entire day in thought. That night he visited one of my fellow literates whom he knew, and in whom he recognised a kindred spirit, and unfolded his plan to him. According to this plan people in the affluent town of Bundookh would deposit their zakat into a designated account. This money would be used to fund projects, especially within Pratistan, which was to be a showcase - to show how well these funds were being used.

In reality, a large chunk of this money was to be siphoned off by Mir Jan and his confederate, the man he had confided his plan to. This man’s participation was crucial because he was well known, even in nearby affluent Bundookh.

The lettered man agreed to lend his support, and they debated a name for the zakat fund, or rather Mir Jan waited in respectful silence while the man consulted his books, and made impressive Arabic sounds in his throat.

After ten minutes, the zakat fund had a name, ‘Tadmeerul ibad’, chosen at random from a religious book, as is commonly done.

"'ul Ibad’ means ‘of mankind,’ the lettered man said pedantically, ‘so because this plan concerns mankind in this area, this name is most appropriate.’

And so the Tadmeerul Ibad zakat fund was set up.

By its means, Pratistan has been given a facelift. Two schools have been constructed, staffed by poorly educated and underpaid teachers; roads that washed away at the first whiff of a monsoon were built, but even the bitumen that remains impresses people used to rutted tracks. A factory now exists in Pratistan.  It produces worthless toys but the villagers like to say ‘I work in a factory,’ when before they could only say, ‘I am a peasant.’

No one questions the scheme with its impressive Arabic title and religious overtones.

Mir Jan’s scheme is so much part of Pratistan’s life, that even to think of questioning it is tantamount to questioning zakat itself, in short, it is blasphemy.

And I have been accused of just this, because I discovered the fraud and spoke up against the scheme. Therefore tomorrow, at dawn, I die.

I questioned ‘Tadmeer ul ibad,’ because I was surprised that a zakat fund could have a name that meant ‘Destruction of Mankind.’

I wonder what else is out there camouflaged by ignorance, protected by illiteracy, and who else will die for questioning it?

Read more about Rabia here 
Rabia Ahmed The author is a freelance writer and translator.
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