By Siraj Wahab
Published in Arab News on Thursday, July 16, 2009
Twenty-eight-year-old Indian national Ahmed Fahhad Mohammad Al-Hajri's story is stranger than fiction. It is a story that film directors in India would die for. It is straight out of Bollywood.
Born to a Saudi father and an Indian mother in Mumbai in 1981, Ahmed Al-Hajri has spent most of his life trying to track down his father. His father, Fahhad Mohammad Faleh Al-Hajri, was suffering from acute spinal pain in the early 1980s when he headed to Mumbai for an operation. One of his friends accompanied him to India. The treatment was to be long and hard. The two Saudis decided to marry in India.
They went about it in a legal and Islamic way. Thirty-eight-year-old Fahhad married Salma Khan. The marriage took place in 1980 with the consent of Salma's father, Khair Mohammad Khan, who originally hailed from Swat Valley before the partition of India in 1947.
The marriage was solemnized by Qazi Abdul Jabbar Khan of Bhendi Bazar and it was duly registered. Al-Hajri stayed in Mumbai for some months and then left for Saudi Arabia never to return.
A few months later, Salma was blessed with a baby boy. She awaited her husband's return. Days turned to months and months to years. There was no way to contact Fahhad. To make matters worse for Salma, the address that Fahhad mentioned in the marriage contract was sketchy at best.
Angered by the helplessness and desperate situation of his dear daughter, Salma's father approached the Saudi Consulate and filed a written complaint against Fahhad.
"If he is not going to come back, fine; he should at least give her a divorce so that they could close the chapter," he wrote in his complaint addressed to the Saudi consul general. Nothing came of it.
There was no word from and no trace of Fahhad. Salma kept hoping against hope that he would turn up one day to surprise her and their son. That never happened. In between, Fahhad's friend, who had accompanied him to Mumbai on the first trip and who had also married another Indian woman at the time, visited India and learned about Fahhad's Indian wife giving birth to a "handsome" baby boy. He also was told by acquaintances that Salma had named Fahhad's son Ahmed. The friend did inform Fahhad about the birth of a son.
In any case, Fahhad never returned to India. He told Arab News that he did however try to locate Salma through his employees who visited India every year. He said they never succeeded because Salma had married another man and was no longer at the location Fahhad knew.
When Salma's father realized the futility of waiting endlessly for Fahhad to return, he went to Qazi Abdul Jabbar Khan. In accordance with the Islamic principles, the marriage was annulled. The husband was reported as missing. Salma's father arranged a marriage for her to another man with whom she now leads a comfortable and happy life in Mumbai. She has had more children, and she has basically turned a new leaf in her life after the turbulent 1980s.
Things weren't that easy for the son, however. He would constantly badger his mother with questions about his father. "Who is he? Where is he? Why did he leave us?" he would ask her day and night. His mother would narrate the whole story to him, night after night. "What does he look like?" Ahmed continued to ask, and eventually his mother produced a grainy black-and-white photograph of his parents, which was taken the day after their marriage.
"It is a picture of happiness, and in those impressionistic days it was my lifeline. It held the key to my existence. In that photograph, my father is on the right, and he is looking at my mother, who is smiling. There is just a side view of my father. That photograph was the only tangible thing I had that linked me to my Saudi father," Ahmed told Arab News on the phone from Bisha on Wednesday. "That photograph would eventually help me to connect the missing link in my life."
Ahmed's mother ensured he got a good education. "I did my schooling in Mumbai, and then mother sent me to Lucknow for graduate studies," Ahmed said, "but more than education my heart and mind were set on only one thing - to locate my father. I promised myself to go to any corner of the globe to find him. However, since my mother wanted me to complete my education I did it, and the day I graduated I came back to Mumbai, applied for a passport and started knocking the doors of various travel agents who would recruit people for various jobs in Saudi Arabia."
As luck would have it, it did not take long for Ahmed to get a job offer. "The travel agent said there was a Saudi employer looking for educated Indians for his companies in Saudi Arabia. That was how I was introduced to my sponsor, Khaled Al-Mutairi. 'What can you do?' he asked me at the travel agent's office in Mumbai. 'Anything,' I told him, and immediately explained the real reason for my desperate interest in coming to Saudi Arabia. He was moved by my story."
Al-Mutairi sent a visa for Ahmed as soon as he got back to Saudi Arabia.
"I landed in Dammam in 2003 for a monthly salary of SR500. I was armed with that black-and-white photograph and the marriage certificate and the copy of the complaint that my maternal grandfather had lodged against my father at the Saudi Consulate in Mumbai," said Ahmed. "I thought it would be very easy to locate him. It dawned on me very late that there were hundreds if not thousands of Al-Hajris in Saudi Arabia and that they are spread across the length and breadth of this vast Kingdom."
Ahmed worked in one of Al-Mutairi's hotels. Coincidentally, the firm that supplied ice to the hotel was named Al-Hajri Ice Factory.
"I was delighted and thought the ice-factory owner might turn out to be my father, and if not he would certainly have some clue to my father's whereabouts. I promptly produced the photograph for the ice-factory owner. He didn't recognize anybody in it. It was not he."
After a few more attempts, it dawned upon him the task was not easy. Four years passed, and he was soon losing hope when a friend of his suggested that he take recourse to putting an advertisement in Arabic newspapers. "I did just that," he said. "Not a soul responded."
A little later, Ahmed befriended a Passport Department official who would frequent their hotel. "Once again, it rekindled my hope. In the complaint that my maternal grandfather lodged with the Saudi Consulate in Mumbai, there was a mention of my father's passport number. Surely that should reveal all the contact details of my father," thought Ahmed. A few days later his friend came back without good news. "He said there were no records for that number. It seems Saudis get a new passport number every five years. Those were not the days of the computer when everything would be centralized and all data available at the click of a mouse. The old records were not there, or maybe they were there - but not in the Dammam passport office."
In a last-ditch effort, a Keralite friend suggested that he report the story in a local newspaper read by Keralites. "I never thought it would succeed, but my Keralite friend said since Keralites have a huge network spread far and wide across the Kingdom they would certainly know the Al-Hajri he was looking for. My report was published in a local Malayalam newspaper. One of the Keralites in Riyadh read it and held his head in his hands after reading it. 'Mushkila, mushkila,' he muttered. 'What mushkila?' asked his sponsor. He narrated the whole story to his sponsor and showed the picture that accompanied the article. One look and the Saudi sponsor said, 'Oh this is Fahhad Al-Hajri from Bisha.' He immediately called my father and explained everything. My father was in Riyadh at the time. He promptly sent my brother to find out all my details. When my stepbrother turned up that night at the hotel in Dammam, my heart was pounding. It was a bittersweet feeling. I was the happiest man on earth. I was about to fulfill my lifelong quest. The dots that could never be connected were about to be connected. My life was about to be complete."
Ahmed's voice chokes as he narrates the details of that night. "My father basically asked me three questions. What is your name? What is your mother's name? And what was your grandfather's name? I told him everything - the name of the person who had solemnized the marriage and the area in Mumbai where the marriage took place. My father asked me to pass on the cell phone to my stepbrother and told him, 'Yes, this is my son. He is your brother; bring him home.'"
Ahmed said he relaxed. "My job was done. Now, I was curious to see how my father looked. I thought of pestering him with many, many questions that were swirling in my mind. 'Why did he abandon us? What were the reasons? What made him do so?' There were a million things on my mind. The next morning, my brother approached my sponsor, Al-Mutairi. He readily agreed to release me. He was happy for me. 'Mabrook,' he told me. 'Anta Saudi; maafi Hindi,' he said as he bid me an emotional adieu. I then met my father. That was the most beautiful moment in my life." It was what Ahmed Fahhad Mohammad Al-Hajri so long had hoped for.
"One look at him, and all my anger dissipated in one second," he said. "I no longer had any questions. One hug from him, and it was like Paradise. He apologized for his mistake and said there were things that were beyond him. He insisted that he did try to locate Ahmed and his mother through common friends but didn't succeed. That night my father threw a grand party in Riyadh for his near and dear ones."
Ahmed then accompanied his father and brother to Bisha. "There my father threw another party. There was a big celebration. In the meantime, I informed my anxious mother about my father's discovery. She was very happy for me. My father apologized to her, as well. And as they say 'all's well that ends well.' My father now proudly introduces me to all his friends as his long-lost son from India."
Having realized his fondest dream, Ahmed is now with his father in Bisha. He still has an Indian passport. The Al-Hajris have approached the Ministry of the Interior to process Ahmed's Saudi citizenship papers. "It will take some time ... there are too many bureaucratic procedures to be completed," Ahmed says.
In the meantime, his stepbrothers, stepmother and stepsisters treat him like a prince. "They pamper me a lot," the soon-to-be Saudi said. "My father is 68 years old now and is retired, but his stepbrothers are well settled running their own businesses. I have picked up a smattering of Arabic. Conversation is no longer a problem. Acceptance in the family was the most important thing, and that happened very smoothly." The only thing that Ahmed misses other than his mother is the spicy Indian food. "Arabic food is bland; I need spicy Indian stuff," Ahmed said. "I am getting used to the Saudi food now."