Ask the travel planners and they will tell you how organising a trip to conflict-ridden Iraq isn’t quite the same as booking you a fancy Mediterranean cruise. But for 48-year-old grandmother Zubaida Vana, it’s all in a pilgrimage season’s work.
Zubaida, a Bohra Muslim from Elliot Road, had spent her life as a homemaker focused on bringing up her two children until she discovered her inner mojo and found some inspiration at home to go where others fear to tread.
Since 1996, when she organised her first trip to Iraq, Zubaida has led pilgrims to the battle-scarred country 53 times. She remains the only tour operator in Calcutta, and among just a handful in India, to regularly take groups of 40 to holy places in Iraq, Iran, Israel, Syria and Kashmir.
“Main yeh bahut shauk se karti hoon…. Isiliye shayad mujhe koi dar nahin hai (I do this very passionately…. That is probably why I feel no fear),” Zubaida tells Metro, dazzling with her smile.
The turning point came in the early Nineties, when a family friend who had been organising such trips suggested that she start her own travel business in Calcutta.
For most women of that generation from her milieu, such advice would have been more a tip for trouble than a call to a career. Not for Zubaida, who saw in it the opportunity to do what she always wanted to: see the world.
“I got a lot of support and appreciation from my father and my businessman husband,” says Zubaida, who got married at 18 after completing high school and is the only one among four sisters to step out of the confines of domesticity.
So was it that easy for a homemaker who had never worked before to start a travel agency and organise trips?
“Because I was a housewife and wouldn’t go out and meet people often, I was quite nervous at first. The thought of organising a trip for so many people, getting their visas done and taking them to a high-risk zone like Iraq was nerve-wracking. But I wanted to take up the challenge. I wanted to see if I had it in me,” recalls Zubaida.
She started small, her first foray into uncharted territory being a trip to Gangtok for a group of women. Soon, she had gathered enough courage to think big.
Zubaida knew that people from her community were eager to visit the holy cities of Karbala and Najaf, located deep in the Shia heartland of southern Iraq, but didn’t know who to approach for a group trip. She was eager to step in but would they believe in her, a woman in a veil with little experience?
“I doubted if anybody would be willing to come with me. But I managed to gather around 14 people and that first trip was a success. I now take groups of 40 along and remarks such as ‘You are a woman, how will you manage alone?’ have been replaced by ‘We will go only if you accompany us!’,” reveals Zubaida.
Much of her success stems from her attention to detail. An iPad, iPhone and a BlackBerry keep Zubaida company as she spends a part of her day trawling prospective destinations online and connecting with contacts there. When not on tour, she runs a side business in traditional embroidery.
Over the years, Zubaida has also become a repository of travel anecdotes: from using sign language to being bullied into going bottoms-up with a mug of black coffee!
“In the 90s, we would travel to Iraq via Jordan by bus because Iraq had been declared a no-fly zone and all its airports were sealed. A nine-hour road journey would take us 30 to 35 hours because every few hours we would be stopped, frisked, grilled and our blood tested for HIV/AIDS,” recounts Zubaida.
Then there are the routine tour tasks ranging from getting all the passports stamped to arranging for food, water and the medical needs of her entire group.
In the first year, language was a bigger hurdle for Zubaida on a trip to Iraq than the prospect of trouble. “Nobody there speaks Hindi, Urdu or English. Only Arabic, which I didn’t know. The first year, I somehow managed with sign language and by scrawling on a sheet of paper. On returning home, I picked up books and taught myself Arabic,” she says.
Zubaida took only eight months to learn to converse in Arabic, which was akin to a weapon to fight prejudiced Arabs or combat any verbal harassment.
But why opt for a place like Iraq when she could have stuck to more conventional (and lucrative) holiday and pilgrimage spots? “Because Iraq has some important religious sites that people want to visit but there is nobody else in the city who would organise it for them,” says Zubaida.
After 17 years of organising trips to conflict-ridden destinations for pilgrims from Calcutta, Guwahati, Patna, Coimbatore, Vizag and Dhaka, Zubaida feels the risks of travelling to these places are sometimes exaggerated.
“People think there are continuous blasts, deaths and a lot of poverty there (in Iraq) but that isn’t entirely true. Yes, 12 out of 24 hours in a day there’s no electricity. But Iraq, which was 20 years behind us until a few years ago, has made progress. In the last two years, I have noticed flyovers and gardens coming up. Pilgrimage spots are being renovated and hotels are being built,” she points out.
Since the Baghdad and Najaf airports resumed operations in mid-2000, travelling has become easier too. Some areas continue to be in the grip of conflict, so Zubaida chooses safer zones such as Karbala and Najaf.
“Fortunately, I have never had to face any grave situation in Iraq, though I have witnessed blasts and firing in Israel and Syria. Recently, there has been a travel ban in Syria,” she says. “It’s all about fate and luck. If one day it’s peaceful, the next day something might erupt. You never know until you are there.”
Zubaida, who relies on her presence of mind to beat trouble, is strict with her travel group when it comes to following restrictions. “I tell them not to leave the hotel without me if there’s trouble brewing on a particular day. I have a few Iraqi friends willing to help but I haven’t required any major intervention till date,” she says.
While the challenges are many, her calling card as a tour organiser remains confidence. “Leke gaye hain toh waapas leke hi aayenge (Since I have taken them there, I will bring them back safe),” Zubaida declares.
Her message to other women: dare to dream.
“I was lucky that I didn’t face objections when I wanted to take this up. I feel proud thinking that despite breaking the norm, people kept me in their good books. I wish more women would come out and create their own identity. It’s never too late,” she signs off.
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