Disclaimer: All characters are fictitious and the place is partially real but may be a composite
Somewhere across the sapphire waters of the Mediterranean on an island in Greece a young man waits for me to arrive on the ferry.
Life, technology and limitations of stamina have broken the chains of my promise to visit him when in Greece.
It was on my last visit to the island that I met him for the first time:
As I walk around the harbor, I see a genteel, beautiful church, pale yellow in brick and simple in its dome and doors. It is the kind which draws you to kneel in it and ask Allah to join hearts. The kind where prayers have been made and heard, where the walls have absorbed the spirituality of the needy and wanting, irrespective of caste and creed, where the air hangs with promise, and where God is the Creator and has no name.
I walk around the church and it seems to be locked.
I see a group of men working on a half-constructed building. The sun rays fall on a young man of twenty, slim and svelte, tanned from the days in the sun. His black hair tousled and a lock falling over his forehead. This Greek boy could pass for a Pakistani, the thought crosses my mind.
I call out to them in general “ Pardon……..when does the church open” figuring that it opens at a fixed time and hoping that someone knows a bit of English before I struggle with Greek.
The dark-haired boy answers in flawless English with a tinge of Punjabi accent. “ It is closed” he says and comes down the hill of dirt that he and the other laborers are filling and transporting in wheelbarrows.
“ No one comes to the church ………so it is closed” At a later time the receptionist of the hotel told me: “not enough money is given to the priest so no priest wanted to work here” she had said with an apologetic shrug.
The young boy comes down from the pile of dirt, dusting his hands and stands in front of me respectfully as a young traditional boy would stand in front of an elder in rural Pakistan.
We exchange information: we find out that we are both from Pakistan, that he lives with his brother and they both work on the island. He is from the Punjab and some of his uncles live in Athens.
Soon his boss comes and reminds him of his work. He respectfully answers his boss in Greek. “ I will see you at the lunch break” he says and moves away with grace.
He comes during his short break and I offer to buy him lunch, he declines, So far, he tells me he has avoided eating the food of the Greeks as he is not sure if it is halal and clean (Tayyab) I send a prayer for his mother who raised this boy. “ I get off at three please come to where I live and I will cook for you all halal and Tayyab” I am taken aback but decline his gracious invitation.
Hard labor, being far away from home, struggling to live a clean and pure life is not an easy feat. While temptation offers itself like Circe beckoning the unwary Pakistanis and Afghanis down the road to perdition, filled with wine and women and no promises except a ticket to the gate of Hell
“Why don’t you come to Turkey to work and live? “ I ask thinking at least he will have a Muslim environment with an option to pray in a mosque if he wanted.
“ I can’t “ he says regretfully. “ I have to complete five years in Greece to complete my final papers to study at the University.
Pakistani arkadash ( friends) like him and me scattered across the globe, when we meet, it is as if we have met long time lost friends. Just saying that I am from Pakistan opens doors of hospitality, kindness and a kind of a decent comradeship which is difficult otherwise.
He a laborer, I a professional how would we interact if we were in Pakistan? But here on a remote small island of four hundred people, in the middle of the Mediterranean we meet like long lost friends and offer food to each other which is the common glue of Pakistani hospitality. “Takalluf” (the courtesy of first refusal before accepting as a grace for not appearing greedy) is alive and well in both of us as if just seeing each other, our old customs and traditions automatically fall in place.
I ask him if he prays in the large beautiful Ottoman mosque that sits at the harbor welcoming one and all. “ Come to me the tired sailor and laborer……..” it seems to say while offering gorgeous views of the Mediterranean and the Turkish coastline across. It is also a silent sentinel of the fact that once upon a time this island belonged to the Ottomans.
“ The mosque is closed ………..” he says regretfully.
We chat for a short bit, he tells me that he lives with his brother who also works in labor but at a slightly higher position. He comes from a small village in Punjab.
I envision his mother praying long duas for him and his brother at fajr and extra nawafil at maghrib for her children as is the custom of mothers who long for their children abroad but do not hold them back from leaving home. Their prayers float over the seas and engulf their children in a cloak of protection and comfort.
I look at his face, by all standards he would be considered handsome, wiry from his hard labor, confident in his stance which is the hallmark of Pakistanis everywhere, he still has innocence in his eyes. The cynicism of the western Pakistanis who have diluted their faith with acceptance of western values has not yet tainted his gaze.
He relates his day and regrets that there is no place to pray Jumma. I ask him about his Afghan friend and coworker and he regretfully and non-judgmentally says that his Afghan companion does not pray though he continues to invite him to do so.
We move to stand under the awning of a shop as it has started to rain. A huge freighter carrying cement, dirt and a large machine with claws for scooping dirt has silently crept into the harbor dwarfing everything else.
“ I must go as the freighter has come in and we have to unload the material” he says with enthusiasm.
He takes leave of me like a young traditional Pakistani boy would from his elder with respect and affection. He makes his salaam and moves away. Hope, joy and passion for a bright future lightens his step as he moves towards the freighter.
The work ethic is alive and well in this boy and so is his hope in Allah and the focused path of ambition that propels him into foreign lands. I am unsure if he is consciously aware that he is being lightly held in the web of duas of many, invoking the protection of Allah for him.
My technological connection is broken with him via a lost phone number and no other connection. I cannot inform him that I will not be taking the ferry to Greece this time.
It is as Allah wills.
May Allah protect him and all the boys hoping, yearning and working hard in foreign lands.