Category Archives: Loss and laments and letting go

I just opened up my eyes, and let the world come climbing in

Abandoned
A child’s shoes on Muir Beach, September2005, originally uploaded by yaznotjaz.

At the start of every single week, I think to myself, Let’s go to meditation this week. The last couple of months, I have had to defer my personal Wednesday evening preferences in favor of work-related meetings and events. Last Wednesday was different: Today is free, and all mine, I tell myself, and off I go to meditation. The familiar rituals of 7.30pm: Park at the curb, shoes off at the door, enter the darkened hallway, down one carpeted step and find a seat on the cushions already laid out on the floor of the dimly-lit living room. Close my eyes for one hour and focus on breathing, relaxing, dhikr, reflection, even inadvertently napping, as used to happen when, as an exhausted university student, I’d regularly drive two hours from Sacramento just for this lovely experience.

Then, one hour of sharing thoughts. We talk about pain, and I am reminded once again of my friend H, and the strength that lies in professing our vulnerabilities. I am so tempted to pass on sharing my thoughts – I even joke about this when the mic makes its way around the room and is finally handed to me, because the three people before me chose to pass – but then I take a deep breath and decide to jump right in. So, I talk a little bit about emotional pain, because our default association with “pain” is usually the physical, and that’s the sort for which I have a high tolerance level. Emotional pain, however, is a whole other thing as far as I am concerned – public displays of tears and weakness have never come easily to me, and I am not one to focus often on awareness and acknowledgment of my emotional vulnerabilities and insecurities.

The people around the room nod as I speak, whether in understanding or encouragement, I don’t know, but I find it reassuring. I pass the mic down the circle.

One young woman, a kindergarten teacher, relates that someone once told her that people remove their shoes when they enter sacred spaces, and how moving it was, then, when she arrived at this place tonight and found a sea of shoes at the front door. I think about the fact that even in this space, a living room in the heart of Silicon Valley, people have created an environment that is reflective, compassionate – and, yes, a little bit holy. I think about how there is peace here, and grace, and light in everyone.

The kindergarten teacher continues her story. “Bear with me,” she says. “This may be a little bit of a stretch.” But we are all leaning forward attentively. “There’s an elephant tent in my classroom,” she says – a tent shaped like an elephant. She has turned this into a private space for her students, a place they may enter when they are feeling particularly lonely or upset or worried or angry or hurt. She has promised her students that this is their space, and she will not infringe on it in any way. The children have readily adopted the elephant tent as theirs, and treat it with care. They take turns stepping into and out of it, instead of fighting and struggling over who’s been using the space.

It is a little bit reverent for them, this ritual. They honor everyone’s right to use the elephant tent, and are respectful of one another’s emotions, needs, allotted time, and privacy in times of pain. The children practice diligence and care towards that space, even if they aren’t usually as mindful of the rest of the classroom: “Just this morning, someone left a tuna sandwich on the radiator,” says the young teacher with horror, and the rest of us laugh out loud.

And somehow, her students have silently, unequivocally, decided to remove their shoes before entering the tent.

Their teacher references Nelson Mandela and the concept of Ubuntu, which she is teaching her class. A popular definition is: “The belief in a universal bond of sharing that connects all humanity.” Desmond Tutu explained it this way:

A person with ubuntu is open and available to others, affirming of others, does not feel threatened that others are able and good, for he or she has a proper self-assurance that comes from knowing that he or she belongs in a greater whole and is diminished when others are humiliated or diminished, when others are tortured or oppressed.

Nelson Mandela described Ubuntu in the following manner:

A traveller through our country would stop at a village, and he didn’t have to ask for food or for water. Once he stops, the people give him food, entertain him. That is one aspect of Ubuntu but it’ll have various aspects. Ubuntu does not mean that people should not enrich themselves. The question therefore is: Are you going to do so in order to enable the community around you to improve?

There is no specific translation for Ubuntu in English, it seems. But Ubuntu is about relationships and sharing, about unity, about connectedness with the rest of humanity.

The teacher tells us how, this afternoon, she ducked her head into the tent and found something created by one of her five year old students: the word UBUNTU written shakily but in reassuringly large letters, on a sheet of paper taped to the inside of the elephant tent.

And the toppling sand mounds

We are like these things, impermanent and unpinned.
We are like these things, impermanent and unpinned; originally uploaded by yaznotjaz. [Click here for larger view.]

A few things I have been grateful for, so far this week:

one. …That so many of you took the time to read my last post about Imran Saithna. And that, for once, my commenting system seemed to cooperate just long enough that I could read your own responses to and reflections on Imran’s life. One of the things I love most about blogging is the feedback (I admit it) from those who read, and it meant so much to me that you took the time to comment on the one post that meant more to me than anything else I’ve written in a long, long while. I’m trying to move beyond posting bullet-points and numerical-lists so regularly, and trying to go back to posting deeper, more meaningful pieces of writing. The last entry was a good start, although I wish it didn’t have to begin this way. Thank you all again for the comments, the GMail IMs, and the emails. As Rick said on flickr, No one can say exactly what paths one leaves on this earth. May your friend’s path be one of heart. Amen to that.

two. …That my lovely friend A‘s fiancé has finally woken up, after being hit by a car and unconscious for two days. After the last two days of holding my breath and being too scared to venture saying the word “coma,” I am so relieved about this much. The bad news: Both his legs are broken, and doctors are still unsure about the extent of his back injuries. The fact that A is here, halfway across the world and unable to go see him, makes this doubly difficult for her. It broke my heart hearing her voicemessage on Tuesday, hearing her voice say, “I don’t really know what to do…’cuz I’m sick, too, and I’m worried…and I’m just trying to be okay, but it’s really hard. [His sister's] leaving tomorrow, and his parents the day after…and I get to stay here…by myself.” I can’t even begin to imagine what it must be like to be so far away from someone you love. Please pray that he recovers quickly and fully, so that he and A can live happily ever after in the green house in Berkeley that A covets so much.

three. [I don't know why this list is harder than it usually is. Here's a third thing:] …Dinner last night with B and N, two of my favorite Pukhtu-speakers and Hindku-speakers, respectively. The evening was filled with rocking (Malaysian) food, beautiful company, and the endless laughter that always characterizes our time together. My new favorite quote is a profound statement by B’s father: “There’s no point in making money if you can’t eat good food.” Listening, amused, as both B and N regaled us with stories, I promised N I’d make up some drama of my own, so that I, too, can have stories to share next time we hang out. As someone who prides herself on the fact that her life is “gorgeously drama-free, always,” this is really going to be SUCH a process. So, I ask you, how does one imbue one’s life with drama? Please provide advice, suggestions, and/or examples.

In memory of Imran Saithna, rockstar extraordinare: Bleed the pen, burn the paper, dry those tears of eternal sorrow


Courtyard of Lions, originally uploaded by Imran Saithna.

And we meet…
to depart,
And then depart -
Just to meet again.
*

The problem with – and the beautiful gift of – the internet is that I always fall a little bit in love with everyone I interact with. I refer mainly to blogistan and flickr, since those are the two spaces I spend most of my time online and where I come across other bloggers, (b)lurkers, and photographers. Through weblog posts, flickr uploads, weblog comments, personal emails, simple flickr comments that somehow transform into lengthy, off-topic threads, and sometimes even “stalkerish” (I joke) and baffling facebook friend requests as a result of these two spaces, I marvel that we all become connected through such tenuous, fragile networks.

But, we do – we become connected through comments and story-telling and emails and instant messenger and photographs, and everyone becomes my friend, regardless of whether or not I know them offline. This is how I walk the world – the world which, for me, just as much includes these wires that connect us all together, as it does the “real-life” friends with whom I regularly coordinate hanging-out sessions in person.

Which is why it felt like a sucker-punch to the gut yesterday morning, when, in the midst of replying to emails and slurping down my breakfast cereal, I clicked over to my friend Zana‘s photostream and found one of her recent uploads dedicated In Loving Memory of Imran Saithna. I struggled to take a breath, eyes glued to the computer screen as I tried to take in the information. People who are 28 years old are not supposed to die. People who have just returned only a few short weeks ago from performing Hajj – the holy pilgrimage to Mecca, Saudi Arabia – are not supposed to die. People whom you’ve been meaning to email back within the next few days are not supposed to die before you reply to their messages.

Many thanks to Maliha, whose email I was in the midst of responding to when I clicked over to Zana’s photo, for her lovely note back, and to the beautiful Shaheen, who provided me some comfort as I raged, “It’s just so sucky when all the good people die. Why can’t God just take the fuck-ups instead?”

I met Imran Saithna through flickr, when he added me as a contact back in late 2005 and I reciprocated. He posted stunningly beautiful photos, and sometimes commented on mine – unfortunately, more often than I commented on his, in retrospect. You all know how good I am at these (b)lurking habits of mine.

When I posted my small photoset of Zaytuna Institute to flickr last spring, I was surprised by the number of people who took the time to comment on and appreciate the series of photos I had snapped on a whim one afternoon while waiting for my sister. Imran was one of those who commented, and our exchange made me realize how much we Muslims in the San Francisco Bay Area take for granted our proximity to Zaytuna and the spiritual goodness available there. I promised him I would post some more Zaytuna photos; he particularly requested shots of the grounds. In turn, I admired his photos of Spain, a place I have always wanted to visit.

In these last couple of days after hearing of Imran’s death, I’ve learned more about what he did than I ever knew when he was alive. As Project Manager of Muslimyouth.net, he was a passionate advocate for Britain’s first online support and guidance forum for Muslim youth. The website provides an open space for young Muslims to discuss issues which are relevant and important to them, without fear of censure or condemnation, and is part of the umbrella organization Muslim Youth Helpline, a confidential telephone and e-mail counseling service for young people. MYH understands well the effect of “the climate of fear, fury and media sensationalising” on the mental health of Muslim youth in Britain. The tribute to Imran on Muslimyouth.net lists in moving detail the various projects to which he had dedicated himself.

Under Imran’s creative and dedicated guidance muslimyouth.net flourished from a fledgling project into a thriving online community for Muslims across the UK and beyond. Much of this is a testament to Imran’s innovative and unique energy, drive and commitment to the cause.

A typical example of Imran’s maverick approach was exemplified in some of the campaigns that he ran on muslimyouth.net. Few will ever forget (especially the participants involved!) the Homelessness Campaign that ran on the site in April 2005. Imran and a group of volunteers spent a weekend on the streets of London with a budget of £3 to survive on. Crazy, unheard of and unorthodox –maybe. Pure Imran –absolutely! Behind the stunt however lay a desire to raise awareness amongst the Muslim community about issues that often get swept under the carpet. He led through example and took great care to ensure the safety and comfort of the volunteers who joined him on this experience.

This is my favorite comment-story about Imran, because the image in the first part made me laugh so much:

my best memory of Imran is the british 10K marathon in 2005. He ran the whole thing smoking marlboro reds and still beat me.

Imran touched the heart of almost every muslim youth in london.

There are many posts and comments about Imran all over the internet these days, it seems. I found one of the most poignant tributes on deenport, written by Yoshi Misdaq:

Then, a month or so ago, I went to a poetry event. I wasn’t scheduled to perform there, but I did. Imran was scheduled to perform, although I didn’t know it beforehand. And so, he did. I remember thinking that his poem went on a very long time. I thought it was a bit too much. But then, when I had that thought, I was caught up in the world. And when you’re caught up in the world, feeling worldly (not that you’re aware of it at the time) you forget about the bigger picture. Death is the only thing that could make me look back at events in this way. And so I did. I asked my friend (who was filming that night) to lend me the tapes earlier today. I watched Imran’s poem (the second, the last performance) again. And it was a miracle. Later that night, when I had told him how nervous I was to perform my poetry for the first time, and how calm he seemed, he corrected me, saying that he was doing all he could do stop from shaking. And so, this performance meant everything to him. That’s why it went on for so long that night. It was as if he were putting every single significant disappointment and feeling into that extended piece of rhyme. He was rinsing out this water-pain from his soul, taking it from every single angle, from every perspective. He felt it that night. And I felt it when I saw it again. After he had left Earth. Every other line of poetry was about death, the next world, the pains of this world. I could quote it at length. I just typed the whole thing up. I won’t do that though. To see his face again was a blessing. Some peoples eyes light up when they smile. Other people are always lit up, subtly.

[...] As I’ve said, Imran didn’t fit perfectly here. Others closer to him would no doubt have seen more worldly sides to him. For me though, he is now in the place he was so clearly destined to be in. The spirit-world. And I can’t help but fear for myself and those I love who do not have that odd way about us. Those of us who sometimes seem all too eager to get comfortable here in this filling-station called Earth. Selfishly, I feel fearful, because, in a way, God seems to have taken him so perfectly, after having just returned from Hajj. What more mercy could there be for him? And yet, what ambiguity and uncertainty there is for the rest of us. In the poetry event before he left, through his poems, he was purging himself. And, I will always believe the on the pilgrimage that followed, he discovered himself, nourished himself, filled in the holes and gaps. What he was meant to be, where he was meant to go. Within a few moments of hearing that news, and thinking about my encounters with this wonderful human, I knew it was meant to be. It was right. It was a story that God so clearly wrote.

While I spent winter of 2005 writing and writing and writing about the aftermath of the South Asian earthquake, Imran was one of those amazing people who jumped on a plane and went to help with earthquake relief efforts. He posted to flickr the photos from his time in Pakistan, and wrote about his relief-work experiences on his weblog; the BBC interviewed him, too, in a November 2005 story.

I went searching through my GMail account yesterday afternoon. As I expected, my last email exchange with Imran is marked with the all-important “must reply soon” yellow star and a red “Draft” note next to it. When I had neglected to upload photos to my flickr account for nearly two months, Imran emailed me in mid-December of last year to check in. He ended his email with “Fi amanillah [(Go) in God's protection],” which made me smile. In my reply, I explained that I’m not much of a multi-tasker when it comes to writing and photography, so if I’m active on flickr, I tend to neglect the weblog, and if I write more often, then I stop uploading pictures consistently. I also wrote:

Just replied to your comment on my weblog post. Thank you for taking the time to stop by; it’s always nice to see the flickr folks over at the weblog, too. There isn’t much overlap; the flickr folks check out my photos and the blogistan folks check out my writing, but only a couple of people stop by both, as far as I know.

At the end of my email, I added, “I’m a big fan of other people who also say ‘fi amanillah.’ HIGHFIVE!”

He replied that he did indeed check out both the weblog and the flickr, a sentiment that was repeated again just recently, when he commented on my “Bethany” post that made us all laugh so much.

And he responded to my How goes the life with you? query by ending with:

Life with me is good, just really busy doing so many mad voluntary things in the local community here, am back in London for the time being as insha’Allah I will be flying out for the Hajj on Monday. Pray that my Hajj is accepted insha’Allah, and also let me know if you want me to bring you back anything from Saudi at all, it would be a pleasure.

Fi amanillah, Yasmine, take care and keep smiling so it can rub off on us all.

I remember staring at my computer, thinking, Bring me back something from Saudi? What a beautiful, incredibly generous offer. I decided I would send him the list of duas [prayers/supplications] I’d been emailing to all my friends who were leaving for Hajj. The most I could ask of anyone was that they add some prayers for me while in the holy cities.

My reply to his last email is still sitting in my Drafts folder. It begins simply, Wa alaikum assalam, Imran -, and then there is a bunch of empty white space, and his email below. The draft was saved on December 15th; by the time I remembered I still needed to send him my dua list two days later, he had already flown out for Hajj, and I figured I’d just save the reply and send it as a congratulatory email when he returned from the pilgrimage. I never did send it, obviously, and now I can’t even bring myself to click the “Discard” button.

I wish I had made time to reply to people’s comments on the weblog. I wish I had sent him another email, and commented more often to let him know how much I appreciate his beautiful photos and poetry. I didn’t understand at the time what he meant by “doing so many mad voluntary things,” but in the last couple of days of reading people’s reflections about Imran, I’ve come to understand what a truly generous, giving person he was – someone who, as Zana said, had all the time in the world for people less fortunate.

Last October, I had sent him a short email saying,

I randomly came across this today and thought of you, since you are such a Zaytuna fan:

http://www.flickr.com/photos/alhambrapro/

Eid mubarak! Hope you had a beautiful, blessed day inshaAllah!

At the end of his reply to me, he added:

Alhamdulillah, Eid was fantastic, probably one of the nicest, bestest and most rewarding Eids I’ve had in many years.

Yesterday, scrolling through Imran’s weblogs, I came across the post that began with a reflection on both his 2005 Eids, spent helping with earthquake relief efforts in the mountains of Kashmir; the post culminated in a description of the October 2006 Eid he had referred to in his email to me:

This year I was again away from home on the day of Eid. I found myself in a place where one might suspect there to be little reason or cause to celebrate anything except imminent release. However, I was overwhelmed at what proved to be one of the most remarkable days of my life.

I have been working on an ad-hoc basis out of HMP Wormwood Scrubs for the last 6 months or so, and although there are some genuinely pleasurable and memorable moments, in general it is one big reality check. A reminder of my long forgotten past, a chance to give something back to society and an opportunity to remember the Blessings of our Lord that fall upon us so abundantly that we can do nothing but take them for granted.

Every year is different, every Eid Allah puts before me another opportunity to atone for my sins. Only this year however, have I realised quite how lucky I am to be blessed and tested in this way.

Close your eyes and try to picture 200+ brothers in one room, smiling like they have never smiled before, eating as though they have never eaten before, greeting you so sincerely with the greeting of peace and hugging you as though you were a long lost relative.

The beautiful chanting of the Takbirs still resonate warmly in my ears, almost every conceivable nation was represented in that hall, and often I wonder if this was a tiny vision of what paradise might be times a million.

Who needs Zaytuna, when you’ve found the real deal, Imran? Paradise-times-a-million must be yours by now; how could He deny you that blessed entry?

There are many, many people who knew Imran far better than I did (a simple Google search pulls up dozens, if not hundreds, of recent weblog entries, forum posts, and comments and prayers dedicated to him and the work he did, all across the internet) – there is, for example, Zana, who still can’t bring herself to delete his number from her phone; there is Balal, his close friend and photography mentor, who wrote to me about his experiences knowing Imran; there is Daniel Abdal-Hayy Moore, with whom he shared his love for poetry. But even I, who k
new him so briefly and barely, feel that I’ve lost someone whose kindness and generosity touched me enough that even I’m feeling heartbroken. When I struggled around the lump in my throat and cried hot tears for him yesterday, it was not because his life has ended, but because our own lives are a little bit emptier, having lost such a beautiful soul to accompany us through this world.

Mabrouk, ya Hajji! And rest in peace, my friend. When next we meet, I’ll tell you what it felt like for me to have – by then, God willing – finally seen Spain and the Alhambra in person, and you can describe for me what it must be like to sit in the Light of the Divine and see the Creator face-to-Face. I have no doubt that you will be one of the Illuminated. May the Lord, in His infinite mercy, grant you all that is good and pure and blessed – and an internet connection Up There, so that you can see, even through your infamous humility, how positively you’ve impacted and inspired all those of us you’ve left behind.

[Post title from a poem by Imran Saithna:

Forget the past, sleep the day,
Wake not for the dawn of tomorrow.

Bleed the pen, burn the paper,
Dry those tears of eternal sorrow.

Blind the eyes, pack full the ears,
Wipe the traces of that lonely smile.

Turn full-around, re-trace your steps,
and walk alone for a while.
]

[Comments made in response to this entry may be found here, from when this piece was originally posted on sweepthesunshine.v1.]

Send some love to Momo


Originally uploaded by yaznotjaz.

Please take a minute to send some love and prayers to the beautiful Momo, whose brother-in-law passed away last week after a difficult struggle with cancer. He is survived by his wife and their two children, 6 years old and 13 months old. I can’t even begin to imagine how painful a time this must be for his family.

Momo’s gorgeous poem, my sister’s Love life, made me cry when I read it, over and over at least a dozen times, a couple of weeks ago.

Wishing Momo’s brother-in-law much light and ease finally, and wishing strength and nothing but goodness for all the loved ones he left behind.

Hope for recovery

Brick walkway leading up to our front porch
Originally uploaded by yaznotjaz.

Islamic Relief has recently been sponsoring a series of six dinners around the United States, in order to raise funds for continuing support for the victims of last October’s earthquake in South Asia:

The earthquake which devastated the South Asian subcontinent in October has affected millions. Islamic Relief is working hard on the ground and around the world in order to ensure that the 3,000,000 people left homeless are not forgotten. Please join us to help us in our efforts to provide sustained rebuilding and rehabilitation projects to a devastated population. [Rebuilding Lives, Restoring Hope]

If you were following this weblog towards the end of 2005, you know the earthquake is something I felt quite emotional about.

So when my sister forwarded the email about last Saturday’s fundraising dinner in the South Bay and I sent it to my father with a note asking, “Daddy khana, would you be interested in going to this event?”, I was gratified to receive an instant email back: “Absolutely! Let’s go.”

At the dinner, I was impressed by the rundown of Islamic Relief’s work, their speeches and powerpoint presentations and video footage and the 4-star rating accorded them by Charity Navigator (the largest charity evaluator in the U.S.), and their overall professionalism – but mainly I was impressed by their passion for what they do. The speakers I heard that evening – not only the Islamic Relief people, but also local community leaders and activists – have dedicated their lives to helping people and making the world a more beautiful, safer, respectful place, through various efforts. The least the rest of us can do is support such causes from the safe distance of the secure homes and comfortable lifestyles we inhabit.

In all the speeches about the earthquake, and about giving and making sacrifices in solidarity and in compassion, the part that struck me the most forcefully was when one of the brothers up there said, “We all set aside money sometimes, here and there, thinking we’ll use it later in the year, for something or other. I know you’ve saved your money for something important.”

He paused, then added quietly, pointedly, “Maybe this is important.”

Someone later mentioned, “Alhamdulillah [all praise is for God], the winter in South Asia was not as harsh as we had thought it might be: there was only three feet of snow, as opposed to the six feet we had been expecting,” and I sat there remembering that, in the two days prior to the dinner as I hung out with the ALL STAR CRACKSTAR SQUAD (killer phrase trademarked/copyrighted/all that drama by 2Scoops, and, don’t worry, you’ll hear more about the hanging out sessions later), all I had done every time we ventured outdoors was scrunch up my face like a disgruntled five-year-old and whine, “Why is it raining, dammit?”

I was stunned. Three feet of snow? I’m so sick of winter, I can’t even handle three drops of rain. Clearly, some necessary perspective is in order.

If you’re in Chicago, Tampa Bay, FL, or Dallas, the event’s still on. Take a couple of hours out of your evening, and go.