Ali Hussain careened around the kitchen, spicing, dicing and sauteing with the ease of any trained chef as he prepared meatballs, pasta and braised lamb shank with rosemary.
His cooking was so fluid, so natural, that one could hardly tell Hussain is blind. He is the owner of a personal chef business he’s named Cookin’ Without Lookin’.
The lavish meal was his way of giving thanks to a group of donors who helped him fulfill a lifelong dream, raising enough money to send him and an aide on the hajj pilgrimage in the city of Mecca – a journey that millions of Muslims make each year and one that is central to the faith. Altogether, 377 people donated close to $24,000.
On May 27, his friend JawadLakhani of Queens called to tell him the news that he would be able to make the trip to Saudi Arabia.
“I was so emotional that I could not hold myself,” said Hussain, a 49-year-old Cliffside Park resident. “I cried. I said, ‘Really I can go? This isreal?’ I am counting the days.
“I am really blessed with beautiful people in my life. Whether Muslim, Jewish, Christian or any religion, all these beautiful people in humanity have helped me in the best ability and the best manner, and I love them all. Believe me, from the bottom of my heart I am saying this.”
Hussain leaves Wednesdaywith a group of pilgrims from New Jersey and New York on a 19-day trip, joining some 2 million Muslims from around the world who will make the pilgrimage, fulfilling a religious obligation that is one of the five pillars of Islam.
When Hussain was a teenager growing up in Karachi, Pakistan, he found it harder to read his teacher’s writing on the blackboard, so he copied notes from friends. As colors faded from his vision, he stroked his shirts and pants to identify them by the feel of the material against his skin. Within a decade, he was blind.
Hussain’s blindness was caused by a hereditary condition called retinitis pigmentosa, which occurs gradually as cells break down in the retina in the back of the eye. He can’t see faces, can’t read or write or perceive colors. If it’s a very bright day, he can make out shadows.
Hussain moved to the U.S. in 1995 after graduating from college with a degree in English literature. “I always had a dream of going to such an advanced and wonderful country and dreamed my eyes would be fixed there, treated there, and that I would be able to see,” he said.
He was disappointed, but never deterred, when he learned his blindness was irreversible. In the U.S., he connected with a close friend living in Louisiana and got a job at a Great Wraps franchise location in a mall. He met his wife, Emily, an Italian-American woman from New Jersey, so he followed her to the Garden State.
He impressed his new bride by cooking up the Italian dishes that she enjoyed, like pasta and meatballs. He loved the joy that food brought to the people around him, so he chose cooking as a career.
Five years ago, he enrolled in Promise Culinary Arts School in New Brunswick. With support from the New Jersey Commission for the Blind and Visually Impaired, the school got talking measuring scales and meat thermometers for the classroom. Hussain got a device that reads electronic files of books aloud. The school also labeled kitchen items in Braille.
Beyond the special equipment, Hussain wanted badly to fit in and do his best.
“I told chef, ‘Treat me like a regular student and be tough. I would appreciate it,’ ” said Hussain, who interned as a chef at a banquet hall in Edison.
The cooking, the learning, the friendships he made – all that made school a comfort and a joy. But graduation brought disappointment when he couldn’t find anyone willing to hire him with his disability.
“The challenges start when you go out in the actual work world and apply for work and go to various businesses. The first thing they see is that white cane in your hand,” he said.
People were kind, he said, but they felt it was risky to bring him on staff.
“They were told I have good knife skills and that I am well trained to handle anything, hot, cold or a stove, but their answer was still the same,” he said.
About a year ago, Hussain set up his chef business and Cookin’ without Lookin’ website.
When he’s working in the kitchen, Hussain’s blindness seems like an afterthought. He feels, tastes and smells his way through spice racks and produce shelves. He chops onions with the ease of any practiced chef.
“If you were to stand next to me and see me washing, cooking, prepping, at end you would say, ‘Are you really blind?’ ” he joked.
He starts with the freshest of ingredients, in stores where friends and employees steer him to the items he needs. On a recent shopping trip in Paterson, he carefully checked the skins of tomatoes for insect bites and soft spots, he felt onions for firmness, and he smelled red peppers for freshness.
‘I feel so blessed’
Salim Patel, the director of the SMILE Organization in Passaic, said he knew Hussain as a client at the charity, which helps those in need. The group helped Hussain get aid after the state made cuts to a program for the visually impaired, Patel said.
He also steered Hussain to community and social activities. Hussain became part of the “fajr” group, a gathering of friends and “foodies” who visit mosques across the state for prayer and then go out to eat.
“Part of having access to services is making sure to create pathways so they can engage in the community,” Patel said. “A lot of it is giving people an additional support network. We can provide social services that help people, but the most important help we can give is broader access to a support network. It takes a village, you know. We want to make sure everyone has access.”
Friends in the informal club heard Hussain speak about his dream of going on hajj, so they decided to chip in and send him. When they went online to seek support, Hussain’s story spread fast and donations came in swiftly. One woman from Atlanta, who didn’t want to be identified, donated $5,000.
The organizers stopped the fundraiser because so much came in. Hussain has asked that any extra money be used by SMILE to help others in need.
Aman Ali, a friend who lives in Manhattan and who promoted the fundraiser online, said the effort would also raise awareness in Muslim communities about helping people who are visually impaired or who have other disabilities.
“We thought it was important to create this conversation, and we thought it would send a beautiful message that we love our sisters and brothers with disabilities and we support them and love them and we want to do everything we can to help them,” he said.
Hussain said he used to dream about visiting the Kaaba, the cube-shaped building in Mecca that Muslims believe was built by the prophet Abraham and his son and that is considered the holiest site in Islam.
“Now I understand, and I know the meaning of this dream. Yes, my call is coming and I am going now. It’s amazing,” he said.
All Muslim adults are expected to participate in the hajj, which is among the Five Pillars of Islam, at least once in their lifetime if they are physically and financially capable of making the trip.
“This is a once in a lifetime, especially for me being legally blind and thinking of going to hajj, taking this sacred journey for pilgrimage to Mecca. I always dreamed and I always really wanted to go there,” he said.
“I’ll be 50 in November. At this age, it took me this long for my call to come,” he said. “That is very special. It means a lot to me. It means the world to me. I feel so blessed.”
He cries when he thinks of the people he has never met who are helping him to live his dream. He said he will pray for them and their children. He hopes he can return the favor, helping others whenever he can.
“Other than my eyes, I can do anything for anyone, so why can’t I help others?” he said. “I don’t even consider myself being visually impaired or blind because God has given me senses. God has given me everything, and I am blessed with everything. I am able to help and I will help, whatever it takes.”