An encounter between a Yemeni and an Indian

These are difficult times. At a time when the news is buzzing with the latest incident of a bomb blast or a terrorist attack somewhere, lost in space are moments that draw out the real human spirit between people.

One such event came to my attention during a chance meeting between a Yemeni and an Indian, both long-term residents of the Kingdom. The Indian, an IT specialist working on several large projects, stopped by a shabby shack in a locale in Jeddah that was reputed to serve the best kunafah (Arabic dessert) in the city. The shack was manned by an elderly Yemeni with a young assistant who could have been his son. The long line of customers attested to the popularity of this run-down joint, with the sweet aroma of the desserts being prepared from scratch.

After having placed his order, the Indian gentleman loitered about by the cash register where the old Yemeni sat dispatching orders to his young assistant who was busily preparing the dishes. While waiting, the Yemeni asked the Indian where he was from. “I’m from India. Do you know about India?” was the IT man’s reply. “Yes,” said the Yemeni. Beaming with pride over the knowledge he possessed, he replied, “An Indian is the head of Google. Indians very good, very smart,” he added.

The Indian was momentarily at a loss for words. The appearance of the elderly Yemeni sweet seller gave no indication that he knew of a world beyond his little shack. And yet here he was, spouting a fact that not many learned people could possibly know or care to remember. As he drove home with the sweet delicacy safely ensconced in the seat next to him, the Indian reflected on the brief interchange with the Yemeni. Here was an elderly man who probably never opened or read a book in his life, possibly not out of choice but because of life circumstances. And yet the Yemeni displayed an acumen and was abreast of things around him, a fact that amazed the Indian as he told me about his encounter.

India, I explained, is a well-known entity to the Arab world. From a historical perspective, Arab traders had successful enterprises with the Indian subcontinent for centuries. Imam Al-Bukhari, the Islamic scholar and author of the hadith collection Sahih Al-Bukhari, regarded by Muslims as the most authentic of all compilations of the sayings of Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him), crisscrossed the Indian subcontinent on his way to Makkah in the 9th century from Bukhara.

In the 14th century, Arabs controlled the trade with India and trade routes in the Indian Ocean including the east coast of Africa, followed by Portuguese sailors who discovered other trade routes. In the 14th century, the renowned voyager Ibn Battuta, recognized as one of the world’s greatest explorers, visited India, Africa, China and Europe, which during his time was the whole known world.

Indeed, India is no stranger to the people of the Arab world who have marveled at the progress by this great nation made of people from so many different religions and backgrounds. India is not a Hindu nation. It is a secular nation made up of Hindus, Christians, Muslims, Sikhs, Buddhists and a host of other faiths and beliefs. This mixture has contributed to its greatness and has produced some outstanding architecture that has stood the test of time. From the 10th century Hindu temple complex at Khajuraho in central India, to the famous icon of Muslim presence in India- the Taj Mahal- India has reveled in its diversity. The Golden temple or Sri Darbar Sahib in Amritsar was founded in the 16th century by a Sikh Guru, while the Christians of early India founded Marth Mariam Catholic Church in Arakuzha, Kerala.

Christian organizations in India have raised alarm at the rise of violence directed toward people of their faith by extremist Hindu nationalists in recent times. Perhaps encouraged by the lack of a heavy-handed response by the BJP government toward such violence, Hindu mobs in many states have been organizing and attacking people of other faiths. It is important not just for the people of India, but also for its friends that India remain on the course of its secular destiny. Just as a great nation like Germany in the 1930s was reduced to rubble by the rhetoric of fascism, so could be the destiny of any other nation which chooses to adopt an atmosphere of intolerance alien to its democratic constitution.

We wish India well as it proceeds on the course to further prosperity.

The author can be reached at talmaeena@aol.com. Follow him on Twitter @talmaeena