Ismaili Community Welcomes Royal Visitors

After one last, critical look at their immaculate cadet uniforms, Ismaili Moslem students carefully spread a red carpet outside the front door of Overlea Secondary School.

And then they formed themselves into an honour guard. Excitement was running high. Because Princess Salimah, wife of the fabulous Aga Khan IV, was on her way to their school.

As her sleek limousine drew up in front, students and teachers clustered eagerly around the doors, craning their necks to get a first glimpse of Her Highness. High heels, flouncy dresses and sober business suits were the order of the day. Not a pair of blue jeans were in sight...

Gracious, slim, elegantly attired in boots, plaid skirt and blazer, the Begum Selimah, a former British high fashion model, radiated charm and poise as she alighted, smiling when she spotted the eager faces.

Most of the waiting students came from the Flemingdon area, where about 1,100 Ismailis live and the offices of the Aga Khan's Council for Eastern Canada are located.

For this was much more than a celebrity visit. It had deep religious significance. The Aga Khan, a direct descendent of the Prophet Mohammed, is spiritual as well as secular leader of the world's Ismaili Muslims.

No one could resist the Begum Salimah. No one wanted to. And when students, teachers and officials gathered in the library for a reception, she charmed everyone by admitting in her address, that "Speaking at a school makes me scared, so I had to write everything down!"

She reflected the Aga Khan's deep interest in education by stressing its importance in developing a society, urging Ismaili Students to make the most of opportunities open to them in Canada.

And she added with a smile, "There are some who find learning easy, but the majority do not. I was one of those!"

In welcoming Her Highness, Alnoor Dhanani explained that the bouquet presented by Rozmin, Mangalji included flowers from the five continents. A uniquely Canadian gift, an Eskimo Carving, was given on behalf of Ismaili students.

Afterwards the Begum chatted informally with groups of awestruck students and then toured Overlea. Her Highness lives in Paris and this was her first visit to Canadian school. So she was fascinated, especially by the open classrooms and informal atmosphere.

That evening the Begum Salimah appeared again at a formal banquet given by the Ismailia Councils in honour of the Aga Khan and his wife.

Laura Baldwin of Flemingdon Community Centre and myself were among 200 non Ismailis invited.

At first the colour, beauty and majesty of this glittering affair, with its seven course meal, the wines and distinguished guests seemed overwhelming. Cabinet ministers, bankers, court justices, the world of business, university and church, all were represented.

A symbolic event

But I soon realized the event was highly symbolic. As Laura put it, "It was an opportunity for Ismailis to express thanks to the Aga Khan for his help in their settlement in Canada." And others like ourselves were there because it was a gesture of gratitude and love from the Ismailis to the people of Canada.

The Aga Khan summed this up in a moving address expressing his deep, lasting debt to Canada for accepting 6,000 Ugandan refugees brutally expelled by Idi Amin in 1972.

"Canada was one of the first to recognize the human tragedy this represented," he said. He was proud, that although his people had arrived here "with not much more than the clothes on their back," they had established themselves will in Canada, many starting their own businesses.

Gulamali Savji of St. Dennis Drive is one of these - he learned to make donuts at a Manpower course. Now he and his wife work from 5am to 7pm., six days a week, in their own factory, Tinkerbelle Donuts, while their 14 year old son cares for the house after school.

Many Canadian Ismailis also come from Tanzania or Kenya, like Mrs. Mila Velshi and her husband Murad. Mila is president of Tourama Travels and Murad is business manager, with offices in Flemingdon plus three other Toronto locations and Vancouver. All were started since they arrived in Canada seven years ago.

She explained that the approximately 15,000 Ismailis in Eastern Canada are cared for through the Aga Khan's Council offices housed in the Flemingdon Shopping Centre, with the balance of Canada's 20,000 looked after through another in the west. There's a national office in Vancouver and the Supreme Council for Canada, the U.S.A., Europe and Africa is in Nairobi.

"Our Council office here has two staff with volunteers handling portfolios such as health, education, social welfare and economics. In the same location there's the Ismalia Association, responsible for the religious side of our lives, publishing a magazine and operating a religious training school," she explained.

"Every Saturday 300 children are taught by trained volunteers in a course based on the Koran, at George's Vanier Secondary School on Don Mills Road."

"And when we put our carpets down in the school gym, it becomes an instant mosque, and place of prayer for nearly 500 of us."

That happens at Gateway School in Flemingdon, too, where the Don Mills Jamatkhana, probably North York's largest, accommodates 1,100 of the approximately 3,000 Ismailis in North York. A third group meets at Greenland School.

A Manpower-sponsored employment centre also operates out of the Flemingdon office, serving people of any national background. And downtown, the Ismaili immigrants who want to Centre's staff of four advise Ismaili Immigrants who want to go into business for themselves.

But over all is the Aga Khan. A 41-year-old man who became the 49th Imam of the Shia Imani Ismailia Sect of Islam while a student at Harvard, he's responsible for the spiritual and material welfare of more than 15 million Ismailis in a score of countries.

After the banquet I had chatted for a few minutes with the Aga Khan, about Flemingdon, the contribution Ismailis are making, and how our newspaper Contact is trying to encourage inter-racial and inter-faith understanding here.

I was astonished to find a man who radiates not only warmth but spirituality. Someone far from the popular image of fabulously wealthy jet-setter.

Yet the Aga Khan has been called, accurately, an astute, entrepenurial businessman. Westerners who find this baffling in a spiritual leader will be reminded by him that this is not strange to anyone brought up in the Muslim faith. Was not the Prophet Mohammed also a successful businessman?

He once said, "It is not an Islamic belief that the spiritual life should be totally isolated from our more material everyday activities...the Imam, while caring first of all for the spiritual well-being of his people, should also be continuously concerned with their safety and material progress."

That philosophy permeates the Aga Khan's progressive, often innovative ventures. Education is a priority, his schools in Uganda, Tanzania and Kenya are among the finest. Many outstanding Ismailis became that way because of scholarships he provided to leading universities in North America and Britain.

Few realize that the famous ceremony in which his grandfather, the Aga Khan III, was weighed in diamonds in 1946, resulted in the Diamond Trust, making money available for investment in commercial and industrial development in the Third World.

More recently, some 100 enterprises have been launched by the Industrial promotion Services, operating in eight countries where Ismailis live, covering everything from textiles to tourism. The Aga Khan Foundation promotes welfare and charitable projects for the public at large, such as a 700-bed teaching hospital in Pakistan. An academic research centre in London studies subjects related to Ismailism and Islam.

No wonder we find intelligent, well-educated professionals and business people among Ismailis in Canada - doctors and teachers, engineers and architects, secretaries and more.

"Ismaili women are emancipated; with many in male-dominated professions," Mila Valshi pointed out. For example women are civil engineers and architects, pharmacists, doctors." The Aga Khan has said," If you educate a son you educate a man...if you educate a daughter you educate a family."

"We don't practice polygamy either," Mila said, adding with a smile, "Who could afford it?"

"We do maintain our traditions and culture, but our aim is also integration." she explained, again quoting the Aga Khan.

"You Ismailis know perfectly well that it is a fundamental point in your religion that whatever you be, whatever the state where life and honour are protected, you must give your entire loyalty and devotion to the welfare and service of that country."

Adopt Canadian ways

But although they adopt Canadian ways in dress, behaviour, language and education, as devout Moslems, Mila and Murad do not eat pork or drink alcoholic beverages. "These are prohibited by the Koran."

And she told me how Moslems are encouraged to meditate daily upon the glory of God, giving thanks and praise. "Our mosques are often filled at the recommended hour for meditation, between 4 and 5am.

If you visit a Muslim country you'll hear the Muzzeins issue the call to prayer from their towers, three times a day. That doesn't happen in Canada, "but we still pray at those times, here."

The more you explore Ismaili culture and philosophy, the more you realize they share basic human values with every person of faith, no matter what his creed or national background.

Mila Velshi has a favourite saying of the Aga Khan that has meaning for me, and perhaps of you.

"Struggle is the meaning of life. Defeat or victory is in the hands of God, but struggle itself is man's duty and should be his joy."


(Source: Contact December 1978)

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