Meet Dawood

Posted June 30

Day: 293

Distance covered: 40,552 kilometres (25,198 miles)

Subjects found: 80


I've been in the habit of making predictions about each of the people Moreno and I search for - which ones will be easy, and which ones more challenging. When it came to Daoud, the Malaysian imam, I couldn't have been more wrong.

We'll find him easily, I said. We find the mosque, and we find the man.

That was eight and a half months, eight countries and 34,721 kilometres ago. 

What's more, his name is not Daoud, but Dawood - he's not Malaysian (at least, not by birth) - and he's not an imam. We were led from the mosque to his money changing business only to be told he'd returned home to the very southern tip of India.

After receiving our Indian visas in Kathmandu, it took Moreno and I five days of hard travelling to reach Dawood, and it was the longest and most punishing leg of our entire journey. It was a race against time - we'd been told Dawood was returning to Malaysia for Ramadan, the Islamic month of fasting, but didn't know when he was to fly.

On crossing the border from Nepal, Moreno and I bought tickets on the first express train from Gorakhpur to Chennai, two of my least favourite Indian cities.

Moreno and I were numbers 498 and 499 on the waiting list. For those of you who are unfamiliar with Indian railways, here's how the waiting list system works: it doesn't. There is no limit to the number of people who can board the train.

Moreno and I spent 43 hours trapped in the sweaty armpit of a train with no air conditioning, broken fans and lights, flooded toilets, and half the population of India.

Bodies lay two and even three to a narrow bunk. They were sprawled across the filthy floor, dangling from ladders, and crammed up near the ceiling. Dark, sleepless faces glistened with sweat, their eyes and teeth gleaming in the gloom.

In Chennai, after a few short hours of blissful sleep, another eight-hour train journey awaited.

Moreno and I found ourselves at the ragged end of exhaustion, at a railway junction past midnight with no hotel rooms. We pushed on through the small hours, taking local buses out to the village where we'd been told we would find Dawood.

We stepped off the final bus at 5 a.m. on the first day of Ramadan, just a few steps from the village mosque where prayers had already begun. Dawood was not there. Some of the local men were also money changers, and knew him - but this was not his village.

Some said Dawood was in India, others Malaysia. There was no response when we called his Indian phone. Moreno and I got back on the bus.

Five hours later, utterly destroyed, we climbed off another bus in another town where we were told we might find our man. We were in desperate need of a shower, a nap, and somewhere to leave our bags - only to be informed that the nearest lodging was 18 kilometres away.

The next bus dropped us at a dusty intersection in the middle of nowhere, with no hotel in sight.

And, at last, Dawood picked up his phone. He was only a few minutes away, and free to meet us immediately. Moreno and I forgot about the hotel, and scrambled into the nearest auto-rickshaw as we were.

Dawood's is a family caught between countries.

His father was working in Malaysia in 1957, at the time of that country's independence, and was able to obtain Malaysian citizenship. Dawood was also able to take a Malaysian passport - at the cost of his Indian citizenship.

His wife and one of his daughters were born in India, while his other daughter was born in Malaysia. Dawood and his second daughter now live in their native India on a series of temporary visas.

I'd carried Dawood's portrait from the Canadian Rockies down the west coast of the United States and across the Pacific. I'd carried it across Asia for almost ten months and 40,000 kilometres, before finally being able to present it to him.

Needless to say, it is no longer in mint condition.

Dawood was surprised he'd ever allowed me to take his photograph. He pointed to the scar running from his temple to his lip, a keepsake from his days in Malaysia.

Returning home alone from the mosque one night, Dawood found three thieves armed with guns and knives in the lodging above his money exchange business. Although they sliced opened his face, stabbed him in the back and took 30,000 Malaysian ringgit (US$9,342), Dawood was able to escape from the window with the bulk of the money.

The experience led Dawood deeper into the Islamic faith, and he began volunteering regularly at the local mosque where I photographed him almost six years ago.

The 58-year-old Dawood, now retired, asked Moreno and I where we were going next. For first time in almost ten months, we simply didn't know: our search was over. After a travelling a more complex route than anticipated, with major detours for the sake of M, P and Dawood, Moreno and I had travelled double the expected 20,000 kilometres.

Dawood offered us all the hospitality of his home - a hot meal, a cool shower and a comfortable bed - and we readily accepted.

'One quick question,' said Dawood. 'What is the meaning of life?'

This week I was interviewed for John Bardos' Jet Set Citizen. You can see the interview here.

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