Dr. Mahboubul Hassan has one arm. A freak sports injury as a child forced his left arm to be amputated. He said it was God’s plan for something better in his life.
“Look at me, I’m the best racquetball player in this community,” he said with an earnest grin. “I’m also the best at table tennis. Just watch, after prayer, I will destroy everyone.”
He wasn’t kidding. Once prayer finished, a congregant gets up to unfold a ping-pong table stashed in another room. Mahboubul watches in silence as he patiently waits his turn. His moves are subtle but his results are deadly. He use slices each return with his paddle as the ball to spin on the table in spastic directions. He barely breaks a sweat as the other person frantically wails his arms in hopes to even make contact with the ball.
“Having one arm isn’t a problem,” Mahboubul said. “Whenever there is a hardship, Allah helps you make adjustments.” He grew up in Bangladesh and as a kid loved to play soccer. When talking about his childhood, he constantly repeated the phrase “I was not a good person.” I asked him why he thought so. “ I used to think I was tough, arrogant,” he said. “I went to a good privileged school and I used to rub it in people’s faces.” He also used to adamantly play soccer to the dismay of his mother. That’s when he injured his arm playing soccer in 9th grade.
“The cast that was done was on too tight,” he said. “My fingers started turning black.”
The tight cast cut off circulation in his fingers and soon enough traveled up and down his left arm. It was too late for doctors to correct the botched surgery and instead his arm was amputated. His left arm is now a stump hidden underneath a tucked in sleeve on his South Asian garb. He said he doesn’t see his amputated arm as God punishing him for his crass behavior as a kid, but rather a reminder of who he used to be – an arrogant and disobedient kid.
These days, he’s now a respected economics professor and one of the earliest pioneers of the Muslim community here in New Hampshire when he came here in the early 1980s.
“This is God’s way of dealing with things,” he said. “In God’s way, I’ve achieved quite a bit. I never look up at myself, instead I look down.” For the past 10 years or so, the Muslims in New Hampshire have prayed in rented out prayer spaces. The largest one is here in Manchester, a town where thousands of Muslims now live. The community is currently working on erecting the first building in the state designated for a mosque. Mahboubul is president of the mosque and I notice he’s popular among the congregation. He makes his way around the room making sure to greet everyone who is there.
After prayer, he places his hand on my shoulder and asks me to come with him.
“Come, you wanted to play ping pong,” he said. “No no, I just wanted to see you play,” I replied.
He stops two people from playing and asks them to hand me a paddle. Mahboubul’s kind personality goes beyond just being a nice guy. It’s hard to explain with words, but when you’re around him, you feel a genuine sense of love when you’re in his presence. He asks me what Bassam and I plan on doing for sahoor, the meal in the morning to start the fast.
“Oh, I think we’ll just grab some food at a grocery store or gas station,” I said. “No, you come here to the mosque at 3 a.m. I will come and I will bring you food.”
I would take him up on the offer but I know there’s no way Bassam will wake up that early. On this roadtrip, sometimes he’ll even fall asleep halfway into making sentences. It conjures up thoughts of Grandpa from The Simpsons in by brain. Another congregant challenges Mahboubul to table tennis. As we watch Mahboubul destroy him as expected, a Bosnian guy points to Mahboubul and talks about his tennis skills.
“Sometimes we joke he can beat anyone with one hand tied behind his back,” he said. “Hahaha, no really, I remember meeting him the first time, he asked me to play him table tennis. So I figured ‘Ok, this poor old guy, I’ll play with him and go easy on him. He ended up beating me and every single person in the room.”
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