City Hangout – Zaki Cybercafé, Nizamuddin Basti

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Cyber Rats

Discovering globalization, halal style.

[Text and picture by Mayank Austen Soofi]

To be in a multinational crowd, you need not go to Maurya Sheraton’s lobby. Just head straight for Zaki Cybercafé in Nizamuddin Basti.

Tucked in a crowded lane, up an uncomfortable flight of 12 steep stairs, the moment you enter Zaki, you are overcome by claustrophobia. Two boxy rooms, eight assembled computers, four telephone booths, plus a third room serving as a sexologist’s clinic. But we will limit ourselves to the cybercafé.

This is what you would see and hear here: mullah-like figures talking in BBC-esque English; black Africans in jumpers and jeans; fair-complexioned Kashmiris in T-shirts and capris. All men. They are either logged on to or chatting on Russian-language social networking sites or speaking Pashtun on microphones.

Who are these exotic foreigners and what are they doing here?

Owing to its famous dargah, Nizamuddin Basti pulls in pilgrims and tourists from all over the world. Some stay in guesthouses here, and when they must make a phone call or e-mail home, they come to Zaki.

“But most of my clients are from the markaz, not the dargah,” says Mohamamd Ajmal Khan, the café owner whose youth is disguised in a long beard. By markaz, he is referring to the next-door world headquarters of Tablighi Jamaat, an apolitical Islamic organisation. It is puzzling that despite not being a Sufi-friendly brotherhood, the Jamaat set up its headquarters in the vicinity of Delhi’s most famous Sufi shrine, especially as the austerity-preaching Tablighis look down upon the grave-worshipping, qawwali-singing Sufis.

The Tablighi headquarters attracts Islamic missionaries from countries like the UK, USA, Germany, Holland, Malaysia, Indonesia, Nigeria, Sudan and South Africa, most of whom patronise Zaki giving it an international feel. But it’s the local flavour that makes this café so entertaining. When the local boys are not exchanging locker-room jokes here, they are downloading Hollywood films for the sake of ‘scenes’. One young man was crushed to discover that Kate Winslet’s The Reader had no good ‘scene’.

Try eavesdropping as the boys chat with girlfriends on Skype. Most of these friendships are made on the Internet with foreign women. On microphones, the boys speak their best ‘I love you’ angrezi and the girls from Indonesia or Morocco or Uzbekistan or Maldives, presumably as fluent in English as our boys, respond with their workable I-love-yous. The mix is great fun.

Where On the lane leading to Karim’s, Nizamuddin Basti

Where On the lane leading to Karim’s, Nizamuddin Basti