by Abdulmalik Merchant
Editor and Publisher, Simerg.com
I was born in Mumbai, India and moved with my parents to East Africa, first to Mozambique, and then to Tanzania. Subsequently, I spent a number of years in London, England and in Salt Lake City, United States. After that I lived in Edmonton, Ottawa, Philadelphia, Burlington and Vancouver. I currently reside in Ottawa. Simerg is my passion – not my full-time occupation. I work in the IT industry as a consultant.
To be a journalist has been my dream since childhood. I have particularly fond and vivid memories of exposure to “journalistic activities”. In my younger days in Dar-es-Salaam, Tanzania, I would cycle to news stores or vendors nearer the downtown core to acquire my own copy of the “Sunday Nation” and the “Sunday Post”, published in Nairobi, but widely popular in Tanzania. “The Standard, Tanzania”, was home delivered – originally “The Tanganyika Standard”, it became “The Standard” when Tanganyika and Zanzibar merged to become one nation, Tanzania. Although long nationalized, “The Standard” could not shed its colonial origins. Perhaps, it needed a name change. And this occurred years after President Julius Nyerere (“Mwalimu”) introduced African Socialism and Ujamaa Villages in Tanzania. A highly publicized competition was held for the re-naming of the newspaper and providing it with a new identity. I entered the competition but my entry of socialist sounding names – “The Socialist Standard” and “The People’s Daily” was not successful. Simple “Daily News” was the winning name.
“Throughout his years in office, I had the opportunity to admire the steadfastness and integrity of purpose Mwalimu applied to Tanzania’s development challenges,” the Aga Khan in a condolence message to the Mwalimu’s wife
I was also intrigued and excited by newspaper circulation numbers and wars, and followed the Tanzanian dailies as well as the Kenyan “Nation” and “Taifa Leo”. My parents, Alwaez Jehangir and Alwaeza Maleksultan Merchant, were constantly engaged in Literary pursuits, including the publications of weekly and monthly community journals such as the “Ismaili Crescent” and “Read and Know”. I would accompany my dad to “The Standard” printing offices whenever special souvenir editions were to be published to match the high quality of “Africa Ismaili”, edited by A. M Sadruddin, which was published in Nairobi.
I would relish being in the midst of the editors and journalists as we would walk through the corridors leading up to the printing manager’s room with proofs of text and photos. Adarsh Nayar, the photographer, Trevor Grundy, Philip Ochieng, once with “The Nation” in Nairobi, are some of the names I recall who worked for “The Standard” in Dar-es-Salaam. Mansoor Ladha, an Ismaili who also worked for “The Standard” had a scoop with an exclusive and a very interesting interview with the present Aga Khan sometime in the late 1960’s. Issa Muhammad Shivji, who used to tutor me in mathematics, wrote some brilliant essays on African Socialism. I remember also an excellent Ismaili freelance photographer, whose name I believe was Bahadur (?) Khaki. He died at a very early age from a motor car accident while crossing Upanga Road.
“Ismaili Crescent” or “Read and Know” ‘pinja (fifty) cent’, I would call out at the steps of the Jamatkhanas as I tried to increase the sales of Ismaili community magazines. I proof read the (English) articles alongside my dad. Then many years later, in London, my proposal led to the publication of Ilm magazine, which I co-edited for a number of years before I moved to the United States.
Salt Lake City was a truly inspiring place – I think any spiritual centre and capital of any faith enforces the connection that you have with your own faith. In East Africa, we tended to take for granted the beauty of nature – the wonderful Indian Ocean, the magnificent National Parks, the stunning Rift Valley and the majestic Kilimanjaro. In Salt Lake City my appreciation for the beauty of nature was considerably enhanced. Seeing the New Moon in the night sky on my way home to a nearby suburb, Sandy, would make me aware that a new Islamic Month had just been launched.
On the Nights of Chandraat (New Moon) my heart would be filled with happiness and joy – I would recall the words of the 48th Imam of the Ismailis (Imam Sultan Muhammad Shah or Aga Khan III) on the significance of this night and this set the stage for my special prayers for the remainder of the evening. Denver, Phoenix and Las Vegas were hundreds of miles away, and I would take the peanut flight (literally $17.00 and served peanuts only) from Salt Lake to Denver on specific occasions like Navroz and Imamat Day. The Mukhi would be at the airport to pick me up and host me at his hotel. Salt Lake City was the place where I was truly awestruck by the gift of nature – The Wasatch Mountain Range, the Great Salt Lake, the Canyons.
“Do you like small cities or large cities?”, I am often asked. I have no preference per se, but settling in a new, unfamiliar territory is not intimidating to me. But of all the cities that I have mentioned, where I have lived anywhere from one to ten years or more, my favourite remains Salt Lake City. It enriched me and instilled in me self-confidence like never before, with a strong belief that Allah is everywhere. This spiritual centre of the Mormon faith, with its mighty temple from where every other coordinate and street name and number sprung out, exposed me to the ethic of the Church, one of which was a very strong and powerful emphasis on voluntary services, done with a sense of commitment, pride and enthusiasm. It reminded me of how this spirit of honorary service was a very integral and powerful force in the Ismaili community, based on the teachings of Holy Quran, the Prophet Muhammad and the Imams.
“Voluntary service to others is viewed as an integral part of daily life in the Ismaili tradition, never as a burdensome obligation or an elective activity. Service is a means for each individual to actualise Islam’s ethics of inclusiveness, of compassion, of sharing, of the respect for life, and of personal responsibility for sustaining a healthy physical, social and cultural environment.” Princess Zahra Aga Khan, daughter of His Highness the Aga Khan, speaking in Edmonton, Canada, 25th August 1998.
The Mormons took pride in simple things – “the Tabernacle’s acoustics are so good that you can distinctly hear the noise of a pin fall even if you are sitting at the back of the hall.” The pressures of conversion were immense too – but I would politely say: “you can tell me about your faith but I should like to tell you something about Islam.” Their response “We don’t do the conversion. It is the Holy Ghost….”
The internet and the world wide web opens many doors and opportunities for everyone. The accomplishments of Ismail Mail is remarkable. And Ismaili.net has been around, I think, since the advent of the world wide web.
With some little extra time to spare, I felt I had to get into some kind of activity related to “journalism”.
The thought of interviewing individuals struck a chord with me and this is why Simerg has created “Voices”, a page dedicated to interviews with diverse people from all around the world. It certainly will fulfil my childhood dream. In addition to “Voices”, I plan to add contents in other areas such as Literature, Arts, and Culture. In fact, a special page “Literary Readings” has also been added as of March 9th, 2009.
I look forward to your interest in this blog. Please submit your comments and thoughts to firstname.lastname@example.org or in the appropriate pages in this blog.
Abdumalik J. Merchant
Date updated: Sunday, August 28, 2014 (photo captions).
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