I was told that the elders went first.
They followed a trail of supplications, uttered year after year
In quiet work, in nature’s lulls, in watching the rice pot or babes as they sleep.
La ilaha illallahu
drifting upwards from moving lips, shining bread crumbs heaven bound.
As they rose from the worn prayer mats and spiralled to the skies, they looked around mid-air and smiled at the faces beside them.
Ah, my friends
We are destined to see the end together.
But near the dome, their guide bid them halt
And hovered for just a moment.
Others, it seemed, would join them.
Grey of beard, hands thrown in wrinkles,
Knees heavy with needles
They waited and wondered
More of our friends, perhaps?
Then came the son of Ahmad. The daughter of Kareema.
Their neighbour Idris and their friend Aslan.
Rosanna, who had come to pray with the family before going away for her studies.
Lila who kisses their hands when she sees them at the grocer.
Their arrival startled the elders
who had thought them ahead of their time.
Ah, no matter
But it was when the first child rose towards them
Looking down past his little feet
… like when he rode on the ferris wheel and the people on the fair ground shrank to ants
… like when he soared on the swings, his fathers palms on the small of his back for every oscillation
… like when he floated at the surface of a blue sea, peering through crab-shaped goggles at the fish by his toes
That the elders felt a bloom of something akin to that
which they thought they had left on Earth
Wilting petals of sadness, tiny buds of regret.
Hunched, they hunched further to gather him into their numbers
Come little one, come with us now.
But the boy had not learned to let go of that which he nurtured in life
Tiny heart beating,
An irrepressible curiosity.
What is that? he asked.
On the ground was a dark force ragged and lurching
It rushed in a cruel surge that pulsed with evil intent
It fed on an ugliness that engulfed its flesh
It scraped and pulled to bring nothingness into the world
In the mire it flashed its dark teeth, crushed by gnashing and loathing of self
Come away, little one.
Still he kept looking.
He traced its jagged path, storming through fallen bodies
Sliding through torrents of red
What is that? he asked again, but this time, a whisper.
One of you, said a voice as old as time
Winged and weary, their guide spoke only truth
One of you, but he forgets. He remembers only fear. He remembers only falseness. He remembers only hatred.
The darkness pulsed
It moved though it was tortured and wretched
It laughed though it knew only sorrow
It grew though it would never be whole.
Will it find a way back?
Eyes met eyes and looked away
None of them knew
Even now, inching closer to heaven,
Even though in their long-fought years, they had seen this tiresome force before,
Here and there,
Again and again,
No answers came to them.
There were enough of them now to prise their way past the dome
It glinted gold in the sun
The curved chamber had served them well, but now rang with echoes of shots and screams
They sat for a moment, by the minaret, and like the boy, they looked down
They saw their families in tears, and had they a moment to spare
They might like to tell them
How they were loved, that their anguish will subside, that light and strength will live on, that they will rebuild.
But their time here was through.
So, they held on to their messages, learned them by heart. For a later dream, a whisper, a siffling wind slaking the thirst of a loved one on a hot summer day
They even taught the boy the words that might soothe
The raw edges of the living
Wrought with loss and mourning
When will they rebuild? he asked
Fingers uncurling now.
Only one elder remained, to lead him upwards with the others.
He lifted his hand from the Earth
And placed it within her palms.
At the next jumaah,
On the 15th of March 2019, a gunman charged through Al Noor Mosque and Linwood Mosque in Christchurch, destroying the profound peace of the Friday congregational prayers, the jumaah.
Christchurch is not so far away from us. And the victims were not so different from us. In fact, are they ever? In their faces, I saw my face, in their families, I saw my family. And although I wasn’t at the congregational prayer that afternoon, an act of worship made mandatory for our men, I was preparing to perform my Dhuhr prayers at home, one of the 5 obligatory prayers we keep every day.
,I couldn’t stop thinking about this awful day. And my thoughts always returned to those people, unsuspecting, who entered the mosque with the intent of prayer, only to leave skyward, released from their worldly trappings, travelling onwards as souls.
Inna lillahi wa inna ilahi rajiuun.