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Indian oasis

For close to a century, an Indian Muslim family that has roots in Saharanpur in Uttar Pradesh has been looking after an Indian hospice in the old city of Jerusalem. In this extract from his latest book

Navtej Sarna 

While the high politics of the Mandate era was being played out, while Sheikh Nazir Ansari abandoned one wife to marry another, and then yet another, the daily business of the did not stop. Gradually, the 'pile of stones' that Sheikh Nazir [a police inspector's son from Saharanpur] had found on his arrival there began to take shape with the assistance of the rich Muslim princes of India.

The Palestine Post of October 1934 records the visit of the nawab of Rampur, Muhammad Raza Ali Khan, to Accompanied by his begum and sundry valets, ADCs, a staff surgeon, a nursing sister and other household members, the nawab housed himself at that newly built icon of Jewish Jerusalem, the King David Hotel. He could well afford to - The Palestine Post noted when reporting the visit that he was one of the richest princes in India, whose state library was famous for its ornamental manuscripts and magnificent collection of portraits from the sixteenth to the eighteenth centuries.

On 21 October, the nawab accompanied by his entourage visited the Nabi Musa shrine outside the city, Jericho, the Dead Sea and then headed towards Herod's Gate and stepped inside the Indian zawiya [shrine built around the residence or grave of a holy man or woman] to be warmly welcomed by members of the Palestine-Indian Association, headed by Sheikh Nazir Ansari. The nawab and his entourage were given a full tour of the hospice and briefed on its historical significance. Sheikh Ansari, no doubt, explained to them the plans that he had for repairing and expanding the premises. The nawab's help was sought for the fulfilment of these plans. According to the Post, 'he readily agreed, undertaking to pay for the rebuilding of four rooms to be named "Raza Manzil".'

An announcement placed the amount of grant at five hundred Palestinian pounds but, for some unfathomable reason, the first instalment that he issued was for an amount of 223.50 pounds.

Nazeer (son of Sheikh Mohammad Munir Ansari, director of the Indian Hospice) has unearthed for me two documents that show how the work was done. First in 1934 the director wrote to the engineer in charge at the Awqaf headquarters, saying that they had received money from the nawab of Rampur and intended to add a building. A drawing of the proposed building was attached and clearance was requested at the earliest. And in 1935 the contract for the job was awarded - not to the cheapest applicant but to the best contractor.

Today the contains the visitors' room of the hospice. On one side of the room stands Sheikh Nazir Ansari's ornate writing desk on which a visitor's book is placed. Sheikh Munir or Nazeer never fail to have the name, address and impressions of every important visitor to the hospice recorded in these On the walls of the room are framed photographs, photographs of the early hospice at the beginning of the twentieth century and others which document the visits of many dignitaries to the institution in more recent years. Similarly the Usman Manzil, through which one enters the hospice today and which houses its working office, was built with funds received from the Nizam of Hyderabad.

Clearly, by the thirties, Sheikh Nazir had become a prominent notable of the community. Heading the Palestine-Indian Association and being an active member of the Supreme Muslim Council on the Haram must have added to his stature, as also his close association first with the Grand Mufti himself as well as the leaders of the All Indian Khilafat Committee. In the small personal cabinet of the director of the Indian Hospice, the one with the chequerboard floor of black and white, sharing the wall with photos of Mahatma Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru are those that show Sheikh Nazir with the two Ali brothers. All this enabled him to act almost as an honorary consul of India. Several letters can be found in the records of the hospice whereby he recommended travellers for entry to other countries, standing guarantee for their reputation and good conduct. In fact, in a minor way, he was following in the tradition of consuls of several European countries - French, German, British, Russian and Austrian - who had wielded considerable influence, and enjoyed demigod status in during the Ottoman Empire.

'Whenever he went out he was accompanied by the ten or fifteen hajjis who stayed at the hospice. They were like his bodyguards. He was a big man in Jerusalem,' recalls Sheikh Munir with a faint touch of pride.

An attestation dated 17 August 1935 signed by one Syed A. Rafique, MA Cantab, Barrister-at-Law with an address of Star of India, Calcutta, says it all:

Indian Zawai [sic] under the able guidance of Maulavi Nazir Hassan Ansari, is a standing testimony of the fact that great works for the betterment of the Muslim community are nearly always founded on the personal sacrifice of an individual. In this case it happens to be a man of a distinguished family who renounced the ease of his own home and undertook a voluntary role to serve the Muslim community. The Zawia from being merely a name is now a living institution giving its services without asking any questions to whomsoever of the Indian Motherland, who cares to knock at its door. Rich and poor here are treated alike and no effort is spared by Mr. Ansari in making his guests feel at ease and at home…

And the pilgrims kept coming. Years later, in a letter dated 11 October 1949, Sheikh Nazir would write: 'In 1939 when the war broke out, the pilgrims and visitors stopped coming to Palestine from India. Before that from 1924 to 1939 average 2000 (two thousand) pilgrims and visitors were visiting Jerusalem and staying in ' In fact an earlier document - the register of foreigners in institutions in Jerusalem in 1883 - notes the presence of 1530 Muslims, 'dervishes and others' in the in the Bab Hutta quarter which compared favourably with 487 North African dervishes and pilgrims and a later 1905 entry of ninety-four Afghan and Uzbek dervishes and pilgrims.

To take care of the pilgrims, the sheikh received ten Palestinian pounds per month from the Special Fund of the Ottoman Empire for running charities. This payment would continue till the end of the British Mandate in 1948 to be replaced by a payment of one pound from the same fund but paid through the waqf department of Jerusalem. In addition there was the donation of four and half kilos of bread daily from the Khaski Sultan Takiya. This was replaced later by a payment in cash. In an old document that details the disbursements to various institutions from the Turkish financial allocation in the year AH 1205 (AD 1790), it is mentioned that the amount disbursed 'from the waqf of the Turkhan Bek (may his soul rest in peace) for the Indian Hospice of Sheikh Farid Shakarganj is 30 assadi gersch.' Somehow the hospice was able to make ends meet with these resources, plus, of course, the contributions that the pilgrims would sometimes make.

I probe the sheikh's memories about the pilgrims.

'I don't remember from the time of my father,' he says. 'But I remember from after 1948… They would come from India to Basra by boat. Then from there to Baghdad and then to Jerusalem by buses. They would be on their way to the Hejaz, to Mecca and Medina for the hajj. They would bring everything with them - children, folding beds, bedrolls, tents, chawal, dal, even stoves and kerosene oil, all the way from India. Five or six of them - a family - would take one room and one corner of the room would become a kitchen. In the courtyard, here where we enter the hospice, women would be washing clothes like dhobis. Somebody would be speaking in Punjabi, some in Bengali… This place would become like a small village.' Then he lapses into Urdu-'Idhar khana pakana¸ udhar kapde dhona…'

'They would continue on their hajj from here or come here on the way back. By bus. Earlier on, my grandmother used to tell me, they travelled from here to Mecca by camel. It used to take them about two months. They would hang their folding beds on the sides of the camel from the howdah. But sometimes we got richer pilgrims, say from South Africa. They did not bring their beds or food and these had to be provided for them.'

Searching through the snippets of The Palestine Post that Nazeer has now been assiduously putting in plastic sleeves, I come across a story titled 'On the Road to Mecca'. It is dated 13 February 1935, a day when, according to the same paper the Meteorological Station in Jerusalem (situated, as the report says, 757 metres above sea level) recorded a temperature of 16 degrees at 8.00 a.m. and a moderate south to south-westerly wind with a whimsical prediction of 'perhaps light showers later'.

A bus load of British subjects on their way to Mecca stopped outside the General Post Office. They were in white robes, some with white turbans, others with brown headgear. They numbered about twenty men and women. Most of them hail from the regions north of Bombay, and they had traveled by sea from Karachi to Basra, thence overland to Baghdad, and Jerusalem.

The simple story of their months long journey was told me by the leader, a tall hajji with a shred of green peeping from beneath his turban. He spoke a few words of English as we stood in a queue inside the post office buying stamps. He had just chartered the bus to take them to Amman, he said. They had finished their pilgrimage in Jerusalem, and after a stay at the Indian Zawia, they were off for the holy cities of Hedjaz.

'My friends have been saving for years to come here,' he pointed to them seated patiently in the bus flanked by a crowd of curious sightseers. 'They are peasants and shopkeepers, they are poor but they are of the true faith, I myself am a hajji of Mecca.'

I told their leader that they might find it difficult to leave Amman on their way southwards because of chaotic communications.

'Allah will provide the means,' he said resignedly. 'We have been a long time on our way and we have seen many cities and many things. It is Allah's will that we should reach Mecca in good time.'

One distinguished visitor to the hospice in 1937 was the sultan of Kano, a province of northern Nigeria, on his way back from Mecca. The Palestine Post of 28 March that year reported that the sultan was received at the railway station by the mufti and the important sheikhs of the Supreme Muslim Council and proceeded to stay along with four of his ministers and his son at the Indian Hospice. The Post proceeded to explain that Kano is a province of over two million inhabitants, situated 'roughly between the Niger and the Lake Chad'.

Sheikh Munir has only a faint memory of that visit. 'I was only as old as Faris,' he says, pointing towards Nazeer's son, who is trying to climb the olive tree in the courtyard.

There is another intriguing entry in The Palestine Post of the same year. It is titled 'Sultan of Bahara in Jerusalem'. Sultan Tahir Said al-Din is said to have come from India with one hundred and fifty of his followers. In India he is supposed to have two million Muslim adherents. I can only conclude that the reference is to Sultan Taher Saifuddin of the Bohra community. 'At the Jerusalem station,' the report continues, 'he was welcomed by the Mufti and other Sheikhs of the Supreme Moslem Council and a number of Arab notables including Ragheb Bey Nashashibi. A troop of Arab boy scouts paraded in his honour and there were two bands from Moslem institutions…' The sultan was reputed to be 'a man of great wealth' who had made 'substantial contributions to the religious and political funds of the Arabs of this country', which perhaps explains the warm welcome at the station by representatives of both the rival factions of the Palestinians. There is no mention of a visit by the Bohra sultan to the Indian Hospice but given his Indian background and the likely presence of Sheikh Nazir Ansari among the members of the Supreme Muslim Council in the welcoming party, it is likely that such a visit took place. There is nothing in the hospice that marks any contribution though.

Author: Navtej Sarna
Publisher: Rupa Publications
Pages: 182
Price: Rs 500

Printed with permission from Rupa Publications

First Published: Sat, August 23 2014. 00:24 IST