A dying tradition kept alive by children

Published August 8, 2022
Children distribute water at a sabeel set up in Saddar. — Fahim Siddiqi / White Star
Children distribute water at a sabeel set up in Saddar. — Fahim Siddiqi / White Star

KARACHI: The eyes of young occupants of a small tent in Saddar lit up all at once on seeing this scribe approach them. The tent is a sabeel (or refreshment stall) offering water and cool summer beverages for free in pretty colourful plastic glasses to passers-by.

While little Shahzeb Ali, Abdul Wahid, Mohammed Zeeshan and Hamza Ali look on, Haji Ahsan Ali, the eldest among the boys, nags for monetary donations after offering cool beverages.

“Oh come on,” he argues when met with the shaking of the head. “How do you expect us to run this sabeel without your valuable donation?”

Shahzeb Ali and Abdul Wahid are also looking up hopefully at the prospect of getting some much-needed donations.

Sabeels are set up with the advent of Muharram

“We get a variety of excuses whenever we ask for donations,” says Shahzeb. “Some say that they will surely give us some money after they get their salary, some say they don’t have small change on them,” he adds.

“Others tell us that they will pay a visit to their bank before giving us some money. Yet others make an excuse of going to the nearest ATM. But we don’t get to see them again,” says Abdul Wahid.

Mohammed Zeeshan and Hamza Ali inform that they are all cousins. Before them, their older brothers or other cousins were responsible for the same stall being set up here by their maternal uncle.

“Our uncle pays for the basic tent and decorations, along with the plastic glasses. We set up the stall on the first of Muharram and start offering cool glasses of water from the second of Muharram,” says Zeeshan.

“From Muharram 8, we will offer cool sherbet, too, which we will be doing throughout Ashura,” says Hamza Ali.

The uncle, Syed Sultan Shah Naqvi, then approaches the stall. “I set up a sabeel here, at this very spot, every year. Earlier, it was my other nephews who helped me decorate it and run it. Now when they are busy elsewhere, I have their younger brothers. The children are here every day in this heat offering cool water to passers-by. In return, if they ask for donations, please don’t frown at them,” the uncle smiles.

“My older nephews will also be seen in action on Ashura day when they will be supervising the cooking of 20 cauldrons of haleem and as many cauldrons of biryani,”the uncle announces with pride. “And the money for all that food, to be distributed for free, will also come from the money collected by the young ones,” he adds.

The sabeel in Saddar was one of the first ones to be set up in Muharram. Though sabeels are a dying tradition now, some can still be seen in neighbourhoods like Liaquatabad, Malir, PECHS, etc. They are all usually set up by children who go around asking their elders and neighbours for donations. If they happen to live in a densely populated area, or in apartment buildings, all the better, as then they can collect more funds from more donors without doing much legwork.

Many times, it has also been seen that the children, despite being annoying and a nuisance, are also helped in kind. For instance, someone’s Baji would freeze ice cubes for them, another Apa would wash their water coolers before refilling them with different kinds of sherbet or squashes or grind dried fruits to be added to the milk.

There is also no specific community involved in all this work. The kids hail from Sunni homes as well as Shia homes. Some are not even Muslim as Christian, Sikh and Hindu children are also invited by the Muslim children to come and join them. The more the merrier. And more kids also mean more volunteers to ask for more donations.

Published in Dawn, August 8th, 2022

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