Apr 242008

During the month of Ramadan, my American colleagues and the staff ensured that observing Muslims in the office were served their Iftari in the executive dining room. In deference to those fasting, no coffee or beverages were served during the morning briefingsI spent the best years of my life in New York City.

I was young. I was broke. I was a Pakistani and a Muslim.

I didn’t know the difference between uptown, downtown or cross-town.

My lawyer was Jewish. My accountant was Jewish. As was my dentist.

I ate kosher food, attended bar mitzvahs, celebrated Christmas, Channukah and Divali with my Christian, Jewish and Hindu friends.

They in turn joined me in celebrating Eid and Thanksgiving.

In all this time, I never once heard or was subjected to a racist remark or was discriminated against because of my faith or my ethnicity.

When my younger son was born, the circumcision was performed by a gentle and caring Jewish doctor of the Lennox Hill hospital.

When my father fell ill — he was attended to by two of New York’s finest doctors — a Doctor Tierstein and a Doctor Mattis. Both men endeared themselves to me and my father by going beyond the clinical side of the association as caring and humane individuals. Both men are Jewish.

I recall that when my father and my cousin Sajjad Sipra (later to become Justice Sajjad Sipra) were returning to Pakistan, I went to see them off at JFK. As we entered the terminal, we noticed about a dozen shalwar kameez-clad men in turbans standing in a row — offering their Maghrib prayers — smack in the middle of the walkway.

My father, a hafiz-e Quran, immediately joined them in prayer. By now the small congregation in this impromptu mosque was causing a minor traffic problem. Passengers had to go around them to proceed to the various gates.

One agitated passenger voiced his irritation at the detour by telling the security chief who was standing watching the worshippers with a bemused look, “This is no place to say their prayers!”

The security chief, a burly Irishman, put his hands on his hips (John Wayne style) and growled back: “It is now, sir!” The congregation consisted of Pathans from Pakistan’s North Western Frontier and Afghanistan.

But that was then.

During the month of Ramadan, my American colleagues and the staff ensured that observing Muslims in the office were served their Iftari in the executive dining room. A ritual that was invariably joined in by other fellow Americans of Greek, Swiss, Indian and other European extractions. In deference to those fasting, no coffee or beverages were served during the morning briefings. Lunch was always a discreet affair in the confines of the staff lunchroom. There was no executive order or memo from my offices for this voluntary respect for the sanctity of the Muslim holy month. This, despite the fact that there were only three of us of the Islamic faith in the whole organisation.

When some years later, according to my then Public Relations advisor, I had “arrived”, I wanted to acquire a private jet. Which I did. I requested the FAA to grant me a specific number for the aircraft. Which they did. The number was N-786 followed by my initials. Imagine the blow to my vanity when my initials became “Mike Sierra” instead of my real name!

When I further wanted to personalise the plane with an appropriate Quranic verse, I turned for help to an Egyptian calligrapher from New Jersey. My two captains, one from Oklahoma and the other from Texas supervised the transfer of the calligraphy on to the fuselage of the aircraft with reverence. I will never forget the remark from the chief pilot when I translated the verse for him. “Well,” he drawled in his Texan accent, “with God as my co-pilot I guess there is going to no hanky panky on this bird!” — putting to bed all Hugh Hefner-style fantasies forever.

On occasion, one lunched at the 21 Club and played host to clients and or friends at this exclusive oasis of American corporate power.

I recall that on one particular evening I was dining with Costas Gratsos — the CEO of the Onassis group of companies in the United States, when the late Christina Onassis also dropped by.

Over her Blue Point oysters, she noticed that I was nursing a glass of Perrier. She looked up at me and enquired:

“You don’t drink?” When I said no, she flatly stated: “I don’t trust men who don’t drink!”

After that kind of a remark, I felt I had nothing to lose, and much to Costa’s discomfort, I replied: “I am not here to ask you for your hand madam, I am here to charter one of your ships!”

The look that I got in return told me that whatever chance I may have had of doing business with the daughter of the late great Greek tycoon was now about to meet the same fate as the oysters that had been in her plate. After what seemed an awfully long time, she burst out laughing and in between an exchange in Greek with Costas, she said: “Ah! You don’t need to drink. You have a sense of humour!”

The next morning, I received a handwritten note from Costas Gratsos: “Christina says to ‘tell my Pakistanian friend that any vessel of the Olympic fleet is at his disposal…if he still wants it.’ I am informing Monte Carlo of her decision.”

But then there was also a postscript: “Do me a favour: the next time you want to dine at the 21, let me know. I’ll make sure I’m not there.”

Accompanying the note was a bottle of Ouzo!

Mahmud Sipra is a best selling author and an independent columnist. He can be reached at sipraindubai@yahoo.com

Courtesy: Daily Times, 24/4/2008

 Posted by at 7:43 am

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