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Abu Marwan Abdal Malik Ibn Zuhr: ‘Avenzoar’

Abu Marwan Abdal Malik Ibn Zuhr, known in the west as Avenzoar, was

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Gandhi Fellowship for Nation Building

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Shoeshine man adds lustre to image of Kashmiris

Saturday January 08, 2011 02:57:05 PM, F. Ahmed, IANS

Srinagar: Sometimes, the simple story of a man can tell the complex story of an entire people. And that is perhaps so with shoeshine man Shafi Sheikh who has watched events unfold over the decades from his perch at the famed Lal Chowk in this Jammu and Kashmir capital and is described by friends as the archetypal Kashmiri - political, innately courteous and unfailingly honest.

Shafi, 50, has been shining shoes at Srinagar's city centre Lal Chowk since he was 15. Governments have come and gone, but the fate of this Kashmiri, who thinks nothing of spending an entire day scrounging for empty polish tins to help a stranger with her lab experiments, has remained unchanged.

When opposition leader and Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) chief Mehbooba Mufti carried out a lantern procession in Srinagar against the appalling electricity situation here the other day, Shafi simply laughed the incident away.

"If she had been in power, it would have been (Chief Minister) Omar Abdullah carrying out the lantern procession today. Governments have come and gone since I started shining shoes as a boy.

"Today I am nearing old age. After a few years, I might not even be able to work as a shoeshine. If that happens, neither Mehbooba nor Omar would come to my home carrying food for me and my family," he said.

He is a simple man with simple needs. Thanks to the fine job he does shining shoes of office- goers and college students, Shafi says he earns around Rs.100 a day, just enough to keep his family going.

"When the weather is okay, I carry my box of shoe polish, creams and brushes early in the morning to my work place outside the bus stand.

"In these chilling winter days, I usually start my work around 10.30 a.m. since the polish needs a little warm weather to spread out and shine properly."

"In rain and snow, I remain at home as nobody needs a shoe shine in bad weather," he added with a smile creasing his wrinkled face.

Interestingly, Shafi has used his right to vote in each election in the Valley and the diktats of separatists to boycott elections have had little effect on this hardy soul.

"My father was a cobbler in the army. Our family has always voted in the elections. That is a family tradition I continue to stick to," he said.

Shafi said he and his family have traditionally voted for the regional National Conference (NC) despite the fact that various governments that came to power here did little to improve his living conditions.

"Mt father always voted for the NC founder Sher-e-Kashmir. I have voted for Farooq Abdullah and his son Omar Abdullah. We are loyal NC supporters and after generations it would not look nice to betray the family loyalty," he stated.

The political philosophy of a man who has never had a formal education is hard to understand, but his loyalty is unflinching -- to politics and to any cause close to his heart.

When retired engineer Nisar Ahmad approached him for some empty shoe polish tins, Shafi initially simply ignored the request.

But, when the 60-year old engineer told Shafi he needed those empty tins to carry soil samples to the lab where his daughter is pursuing her doctorate, Shafi could not withhold the gentleman within.

"Sir, I have around two dozens of them at my home as I do not throw them away because of their sharp rims which can hurt a pedestrian or even puncture a car tyre. If you come to my home, I shall definitely be able to help," he said.

Shafi entrusted his shoeshine box to a friend who sits besides him on the pavement doing the same job and left with the needy father to help him.

The innate goodness and courtesy of the simple hearted Kashmiri impressed many a passerby.

"How many of us can leave our business at its peak and go to help a fellow human being who might never ever be able to return his courtesy," said Abdul Qayoom, Nisar's friend who had accompanied the engineer for the whole day looking for empty polish tins in a city that has remained plagued for over 20 years by violence and politics.

"This is perhaps the reason god keeps us going. As long as we have Kashmiris like Shafi, nothing would ever be fully lost whatever the upheavals and catastrophes we might undergo.

"The life of this ordinary Kashmiri has lessons for all of us even though he never went to a school here," he said.

(F. Ahmed can be contacted at





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