1990: A JAMAAT CHILD REMEMBERS
This Thursday marks the 27th anniversary of, in the splendid words of David Rudder’s “Hosay,” “the night of the day when the prophets died” because “a man opened a door and showed us our other side.”
And today marks the first anniversary of an as yet unsung event, the prison break which eventually claimed the lives of three people: Hassan Atwell, mysteriously slain in East Port-of-Spain; police constable Sherman Maynard, shot dead as he sat in a police car in front of the State Prison, and murder accused and Jamaat-al-Muslimeen member Alan “Scanny” Martin, gunned down by police on Charlotte Street in front of the Port-of-Spain General Hospital as he sought to make good his escape.
To mark the two albeit tenuously related occasions, Wired868 presents a chapter of Memoirs of a Jamaat Child, an unpublished work of non-fiction. Its author is Otancia Noel who, having spent her formative years on the Compound in Mucurapo in the decade leading up to 27 July 1990, knows the Jamaat-al-Muslimeen and its personalities intimately:
Sunday afternoon. It’s the vacation and we, the children, are all at home on the Compound with nothing in particular to do. We have hopscotched and moralled and ketched till we want to hopscotch and moral and ketch no more and still the day is only half gone. Nobody has planned it but we have drifted on to the front lawn and are lazing around, talking loudly and absentmindedly picking the flowers that decorate the Compound.
The Imam, serious-faced, dressed in white from head to toe, has emerged from his vehicle and is coming up the path that leads to the masjid. I am sure he didn’t actually say that but he looks to me so much like the giant in Jack and the Beanstalk that that is what I think I hear.
“FEE-FI-FO-FUM. Where all you get those flowers from?” He points at us and then wags his shahadah finger. “Come, come, come, you all know we don’t destroy the plants.”
Now, he places his left hand on his waist and, cocking his head to the right, he continues to wag the admonishing finger.
We freeze. He looks at us for what seems like an eternity in hell, then he lectures us about keeping our surroundings looking nice. He tells us how hard Sister A., his wife, works on keeping the plants nice for us to admire, not destroy.
“Go on now,” he tells us, “and find something more productive to do.”
We thaw. Scared children become frightened chickens and we run helter-skelter away from him, clucking and squawking in genuine fear. Not me to venture up that beanstalk ever again.
The Imam had a knack of putting the fear of God into us, well, into me. “How many great men in the Olympics Games do you ever see playing pitch?” he used to ask us over and over again, making no attempt to disguise his complete contempt for our game. “Have you ever seen a game of marbles played at the Olympics?”
The questions were always a prelude to the seizure of our marbles. He clearly disliked playing pitch and he would ritually take away our marbles. It was only years later as an adult that I stopped to ask myself why this was so. I came up with the answer that maybe somewhere along the way he had lost his marbles.
I was already an adult too when I was eventually able to control my instinctive reactions around the Imam. As a child, I had, we all had developed the habit of standing at attention whenever we saw him strutting proudly through the yard like a peacock and giving him the salaams loudly to ensure he heard us. If I was merely thinking something wrong, I would immediately stop.
I would do that even as an adult. And I have been reliably informed that I am not alone in that regard…
But I have another memory of the Imam that comes back to me from the early days. He is again serious-faced, he is again dressed in white from head to toe but this time he is not at home; it might have been Eid but it definitely was Friday kuthba. He is on the minbar in front of the assembled Jamaat and he is expounding his philosophy of family life.
“He who is best to his family,” he is saying, “is best amongst you.”
It is a hadith of the Prophet (peace be upon him) and the Imam makes a habit of quoting it in almost every sermon.
“I,” he beats his chest hard, “I, I am best to my family. Ask my wife and them. And I have more than one.”
“I have never hit a woman,” he declares. “I am a lover not a fighter. But no man worthy of the name ever hits a woman. I want the men to listen to me carefully and take my advice: NEVER”—in his mouth, the word seems to have three or four syllables—“hit your woman.”
“When you come home and your wife’s mouth swell up, whatever the reason, don’t cuff it down, kiss it down. Kiss it and say, ‘Honey, doudou darling.’ Like me. Ask my wife.”
He chuckles loudly. “Mamaguy yuh wife, love yuh wife. Be a lover; it’s good for the soul.”
It goes down well with this captive audience.
“All these children here,” he liked to point out, embracing the whole congregation with a massive sweep of his arm, “I grow them up; they are all my children.”
Then singling out for special mention someone who had perhaps not been as regular a follower as the Imam would have liked, he would say. “I don’t see you around the way I used to. Do you know what happens when you stray you from the protection? Bad things, very bad things. It’s NOT a good idea to stray far from home, far from the protection.”
The Imam loves weddings and, if the occasion happens to be a wedding ceremony, he is in his element. He warns the new husband against ill-treatment of women in general and of his wife in particular.
Calling for salt and sugar or honey, “Feed your husband some sugar,” he would say to the new wife. To the new husband, he says, “Feed your wife some sugar.” That done, he says to the wife, “Now feed him some salt” and then to the husband, “Now feed her some salt.”
“What’s my point?” he would ask the gathering rhetorically. “This is to show that we will have good times, sweet times, and hard times, salt times. And we have to take the good with the bad, the sweet with the salt and keep it together at all times.”
He delighted in making a show of the exchange of rings. “Now put your wife’s ring on her finger,” he would direct. Almost always, he would object that the husband was in too much of a hurry to get it done.
“Oh gosh,” he would object, “it’s not a race! Take your time. Put it on nice and slow. Do everything nice and slow and whisper sweet things to your wife.”
Often that comment would bring simultaneous peals of laughter from the Imam and the whole assembly. And squeals of delight in some quarters.
But I have never heard the type of murmur which suggested to me that someone in the congregation was anything but amused. And I have often wondered just how many of the Imam’s soldiers genuinely heard more than select parts of his message or understood that message. I know I distinctly remember wondering more than once whether Yasin was really just an imam. Was he not an amir?
Once, when his young daughter had broken her arm, the medication the doctor prescribed for her was not available in the country. No problem. The Imam had all she needed and more flown in on a helicopter. It reminded me of the most likely apocryphal story of a businessman whose daughter had got into trouble in the water and got a call from someone who told him that they were giving her artificial respiration.
“Artificial?” he exclaimed. “Artificial? Give her the real thing! I’ll pay for it, whatever it costs.”
No, half-measures didn’t work for the Imam. For him, no half-picked duck would do; it had to be the whole hog, the real thing or nothing.
“A larger-than-life Godfather,” one early Jamaat convert would describe him when he finally saw the light, “Jim Jones without the suicide.” Another long-standing member but an elder this time talks about power and greed being contributory factors to the changes that negatively influenced the Jamaat.
“But more than power and greed, I think the Jamaat-al-Muslimeen leadership lost their way,” he said. “Sometimes, you just get lost on your own path and I think that that is what happened to the leadership; it can’t be anything else. It got lost along the road.”
The third snapshot comes from his house. We have been invited to have breakfast with him, perhaps because S, the wazir of finance on the Compound, has brought him some unusually good financial news.
At or near the top of the characteristics Yasin demands in his followers are loyalty and honesty. S scored full marks in both of these areas and the Imam often, even in some Friday khutbas, spoke highly of his trustworthiness and loyalty, frequently referring to him as “my friend.”
His name in Arabic means “one who is truthful and trustworthy, a trusted friend.” It is a name, all agree, that sits easily on S’s shoulders.
It was S who handled all the Jamaat’s finances, signed cheques and official documents and generally kept the books. He is a man who, without a dollar of his own, given ten million dollars to keep, would not touch a single cent of the money in his possession simply because it belongs to someone else. Call on him for it today, tomorrow or ten years down the road, he will have your money intact, secure, in the exact amount as was given to him; S lives up to his name.
So the invitation was probably the reward for some piece of financial wizardry for which the Imam was grateful. I remember only too well the feast that was laid out for us, well, for us to share in. Close your eyes on the way in and you could think you were in the Presidential Suite at the Hilton. There was an array of what looked to my eyes like shiny new cutlery and silken tablecloths and napkins and food fit for a king.
Pictures are worth a thousand words and this was a picture-perfect family and a picture-perfect breakfast.
But those were the days before cell phones and, therefore, cameras were in almost everyone’s hands and only X-ray pictures showed a man’s heart.
Even nowadays in the post-Photoshop era with all the technological advances of the last quarter-century, pictures still cannot reveal a man’s tortured soul…
Editor’s Note: Click HERE to read Part Two entitled “The unravelling: Pyrrhic victory, greed and the corruption of power.”