Price you pay for being different

>> Friday, February 12, 2010

While being different can at times be fun, it can also be embarrassing. Obviously, being the only Punjabi amongst thousands of Malay pilgrims from Malaysia, I looked different.

Let me not talk about pilgrims from other parts the world, even pilgrims from Malaysia were confused as to who and what I really was. What surprised me most was when even Malaysians spoke to me in English thinking I was a Pakistani or a descendant of some desert Arab clan.

One night, while I was sitting on a bench downstairs the hotel sipping a cup of tea, a Malaysian Malay approached me and started a conversation with me in English. I played on by responding in English although I hardly understood a word he spoke. His English was horrendous. This gentleman was struggling his way out trying his best to construct one sentence after the other. Came to a point when I was about to burst into laughter, I told him in Bahasa Malaysia “takkan tak kenal orang Malaysia”? He responded “wow … pandai cakap Melayu huh”. I said “kalau dah orang Malaysia takkan tak reti cakap Melayu” and he went “astagfirullahal aziiiim betul-betul saya ingat awak orang Arab atau Pakistan”.

The episode was hilarious and we both had a good laugh. He really thought I was either an Arab or a Pakistani.

Majority of the pilgrims were confused about my identity. The Pakistanis spoke to me in Urdu and I responded. When they asked me where I was from, I told them that I was from Lahore, Pakistan. The Indians spoke to me in Hindi and I responded. When they asked me where I was from, I told them that I was from Punjab. They believed me. Not that I wanted to lie to them but to save myself time from having to explain to them about the multi racial community and multi lingual citizens of Malaysia.

Like I said earlier, being different can also bring about sticky and embarrassing moments. In Madinah, I was refused entry not only into the cafeteria and on many occasions, refused entry into Hotel itself. The guards used to came up to me and tell me that the cafeteria and Hotel was for Malaysians only and not for other nationals like me.

In Mina, the guard in charge of the Malaysian camp tugged me hard on my arm and tried to boot me out. He refused to acknowledge my name tag, the identification wrist chain and the muasasah’s rubber band that I was wearing. He insisted that I was not a Malaysian. Fellow Malaysian pilgrims had to come to my rescue by telling the guard that, while I looked different, I was a Malaysian. Obviously, he apologized when he realized his mistake but then again I don’t blame him. That’s the price I had to pay for being different.

I had no problems in Makkah since all the employees in Burj Al Abbas (the Hotel were Malaysian stayed) were Pakistanis. They were rather excited when they heard that there was an Urdu speaking Malaysian in the Hotel. I was surprised when the Hotel Manager came to my room and introduced himself to me with assurance that in the event I needed anything, I could count on him. For the next 30 days, I appointed him my agent to get me my cigarettes since there is a ban on the sale of cigarettes in Madinah and Makkah. Only locals know where to go for cigarettes.

The most interesting part was shopping. Prices plunged 50% to 60% as soon as I spoke to shop assistants in Hindi and Urdu. The most memorable story was when I was having my haircut after completing my Haj. The barber told his co-worker in Hindi to charge a Nigerian who had just completed his haircut an extra 100% so that my haircut can come free. I told the barber that what he was doing was not right and I refused his offer.

See how much fun being different can be. Do you dare to be different?


Tabung Haji playing politics?

>> Tuesday, February 09, 2010

If you are someone who can survive on cakes, biscuits and juices, you should go for your Haj through Tabung Haji. The Saudi Government and Non Governmental Organizations keep pumping you with all kinds of goodies. But what about the food catered for the pilgrims?

On the first day of my arrival in Madinah, I did not take the packed food which was delivered by the caterers to my room although my roommates did. My belly was full with the goodies provided by Saudi Government and NGOs. All kind of food and drinks were dumped on us as we left the airport to our Hotel. A big thank you to all involved. May ALLAH bless all of you.

I was tired and as I tried to take a nap, I heard whispers from my roommates about the quality of the food. Some even went to the extent of saying that the food was worse then swine food and some were kind enough to say that they fed their pet cats with better food. I thought to myself – this cannot be true.

However, the same afternoon I was forced to share the sentiments of my roommates. The lunch which was provided in the cafeteria was not edible. The food was the second nightmare I had to encounter after the security guards had refused me entry into the cafeteria just because I looked different. (This issue will be addressed in my next posting).

My roommates were right. The food was horrendous. I just could not swallow any of the food and for the next 43 days I ate out. I checked on the food packs and noted that the food was catered by D’Saji, a FELDA subsidiary. D’Saji is a classy restaurant facing Masjidil Haram and serve Malaysian goodies. How on earth can D’Saji, being a Malaysian restaurant, not know the taste buds of Malaysians? How on earth can D’Saji, being a classy restaurant, serve food which is not edible?

The answer to this question came to me on my final day in Makkah. I received an invitation from a high ranking Tabung Haji official to dine out. He drove my wife, my sister-in-law and me to a sea food restaurant outside Makkah and while dining I popped the question on the quality of food to him.

This was his answer. Prior to 2009 a subsidiary of Tabung Haji Travel and Tours did the catering and beginning 2009 the catering was handed over to D’Saji. The reason – D’Saji was in the verge of bankruptcy and Tabung Haji had no choice but to bail D’Saji out by buying over majority shares in D’Saji. Tabung Haji, I was told, cannot afford to see D’Saji fail as its failure will destroy the credibility of our Prime Minister since FELDA comes under the Prime Minister and Tabung Haji comes under the Prime Minister’s department.

In other words, to rescue the Prime Minister, (I will here borrow the words of my roommates) we were fed swine food and food which even my roommate’s pet cat would not eat. Prior to 2009, no one complained about the quality of food, I was told.

The next issue – are the cooks or chefs in D’Saji that bad. I don’t think so. The reasons I say this is because, over and above the terrible food served, D’Saji also sold packed curries – fish, chicken and sambal for 7 Saudi Riyals per pack. Don’t be surprised – these packed food taste fantastic.

Why then were the pilgrims served food not fit for human consumption and at the same time good food was being sold to the pilgrims? To add insult to injury, the food served to the pilgrims and that sold to the pilgrims were from the same caterers? The answer is simple - while the caterers are paid for each pack served to the pilgrims they also make extra money by selling food to the pilgrims knowing very well that the food served is not edible.

Marketing strategy, politics or an abuse? Your guess is as good as mine.


Should I or should I not?

Since my return from the Holy land, I keep getting e-mails and text messages from friends I made there, asking me when I am going to start writing about the food, transport and treatment provided by Tabung Haji to pilgrims performing their Haj.

Sometimes, I feel that I should just keep mum. But then again, should I? I keep asking myself this one million ringgit question - should I or should I not let Malaysians know exactly what is in line for them should they decide to go for their Haj through Tabung Haji?

Initially I thought I should stop writing after my last posting (Madinah oh Madinah). Atleast those who have not been to the Holy land will know that not everybody walking the streets in Madinah and Makkah are pilgrims. There are thieves too. However, after some serious thinking I decided that I should speak out – to be pilgrims deserve to know.

GOD willing I will start my first posting tomorrow with the most basic issue – food.


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