3rd January 2009.
It was around 4 AM when it happened, the tragedy that shook our sheltered little world. The qur’an says “every soul shall taste death!”, but when some one is so young, vibrant, passionate, a New mother who is full of life, dreams and ambition, the taste of death feels like light years away!
4.30 in the morning, while I slept: I’d had a blinding headache the night before, and as it promised to be a lazy Sunday after New Year, I planned on spending it in bed while I prepared to return to work after a pleasant comfortable break!
I crawled angry from the bed for breakfast when mum called me: I was staying at home in those days while the renovations on my flat were completed, and try as I might, couldn’t adjust to waking up at 8 AM even on weekends! I turned on my phone, not expecting to have had any messages or important calls during the night! But as I turned to walk downstairs, my phone sounded a message had arrived: it was from Anees:
“Maasi Narjiss past away at 4.30 this morning: …, come over.”
I was stunned: it couldn’t be true: surely it wasn’t true! A further message arrived a few minutes later: Masooma, telling me the same! I was in shock, sat for a few moments holding the phone out in front of me as though it was contaminated, as though it had lied to me and would confess any second! I ran downstairs and told mum, who was fairly unmoved by the whole thing: (one of the many difficulties with having non-Muslim family is that, you move in completely different circles, and therefore have little understanding or connection with each other’s worlds!). I ate something, took my medication, showered and changed in to a black abaya and scarf. My father, not normally the most charitable in such matters agreed to run me over to their place rather than have me pay out on a cab, which meant allot. Before leaving, I called a few friends, thinking that they perhaps didn’t know or had slept in just like me. To my horror, every one was there, doing afsos etc, reading qur’an: I’d be the last to arrive! I was still reeling as I got in to the car: hugging myself inside my abaya and coat to avoid the morning chill! It still seemed like a dream: a horrible nightmare come to life! Dad tried to make polite conversation with me, but the air hung heavy: I was anxious about what I’d find and what I’d face, I couldn’t cry in front of dad, and I couldn’t talk to him, because I just knew he wouldn’t get it! he played music in the car, was quite casual about things, asking me “when will you be back?”, like I even knew what the next few hours held for me!
The screams met me as I began walking up the path to Masooma’s family home, the place we call “big house”, not just because of its size, but mainly because of the love, unity and togetherness this place represents, particularly to people like me who are not technically part of it, but who have evolved to be so. That walk down the path seemed to take forever, my feet not willing to carry my body, and as I reached the first step I wondered if I’d make it to the 4th one and the doorbell. One of the kids opened the door with Anees behind him. Behind her, Masooma was walking down the stairs: she let go of whatever she was holding and ran in to my arms. Her frail thin body shook violently with each sob, her temperature fluctuating wildly between hot and cold. I kept kissing the top of her head, telling her it was the will of Allah, to be strong, for Zara, for the family: for her Grandparents. Behind me, the men’s sitting room was choked with screams and tears, Uncle Shabber cried the loudest of all, unable to breathe, speak or focus, he came to the door way just as I was about to walk in to the women’s sitting room, he gathered all his courage between sobs to say “Roshni, my daughter: your maasi is dead, she is dead Roshni, she loved you so much, she would have been so touched that you came, she is dead Roshni: hi she is dead!”. I began to shake too: I had never seen him like this! Uncle Shabber: my friend, my scholar, my brother and my rock, shattered in to pieces! The most frightening of all was perhaps uncle Najaf, who stood vacantly under the stairs, unable to speak, to cry, to do any thing.
Bari Ami jan (Narjiss’s mum), lay on the sofa, racked by tears, unable to stand, her daughter and sister-in-laws flocked around her, joining in with the cries at regular intervals. A number of people were silently seated on the floor reading qur’ans. Little Zara played innocently with Hasan and Hashim, not quite sure what was going on, while Anees and Anam tried to shade her from the grief. It was like walking in to a nightmare, I found a chair in the corner, slightly set back from the others by the heavy curtains. I hid my face in my hijab and cried silent tears: Narjiss, our beautiful fragrant flower that was Narjiss had left us: forever!
Saeeda Narjiss Jaffri was a part of my life almost from the first day my journey in to Islam began, (perhaps even earlier than that!), my deep bond and love for her was what drew me in to the Jaffri family and made its members my own. Her brother (Masooma’s dad), presented a regular show at Radio Awaz (he still does!), and when I went there, I asked him if he’d help me with my learning Urdu (at that time I was still struggling with phrase books and Zee TV). He said he was rather busy, but that his younger sister, Narjiss, would take up the task! I telephoned her and exchanged introductions: sadly she too was rather busy, but she did keep in touch with me and inquired about my well-being from time to time!
Later on, (still at radio Awaz), her nefues would meet me (Masooma’s brothers), who also became firm friends and the brothers I always wished to have. I then got married, went to Pakistan etc and had little contact with the family, but after becoming shia (a whole other story!), I met Narjiss in person, at our imambargah! It was the first time I’d attended a public event there (eid-e-Zahra celebrations), and as niyaz was distributed, Narjiss was the first to come towards me.
“Salaams sister”, she said radiating light through her smile “I have some niyaz for you! I guess you are new as I’ve never seen you before: welcome here, I am Narjiss by the way! my family are known here, and if you need any thing you only need to ask me!”. I smiled with quiet recognition and thanked her: I knew who she was! But I didn’t quite know the impact she’d have on me! Narjiss went on to be an amazing sister, friend and support to me in so many ways. She integrated me seamlessly in to her beautiful family, so that they soon became closer to me than my own blood relations! She insured I always had lifts to the masjid, whether her brothers did it, or she did it herself! She made sure every one bonded with me, and its probably because of her that Masooma and I are best friends today! She constantly prayed for me, motivated and inspired me. She’d share her thoughts, her happiness and sadness with me, we’d often laugh together, and I’d play fight with her husband against her on the old Urdu verses Punjabi debate! She’d always be bringing me food, inviting me out and having me come to her house. I say she was a sister to me, but in reality she was much more than that! She assumed something of an imposing figure: I was younger than her and new to the community, and therefore needed guidance, which she provided (usually forcefully) but always lovingly! Her humour, hard working nature and unfailing commitment to religion and family set her high above most women I knew!
Her only sadness, was not being blessed with children: for the first 4 years of her marriage her womb remained bare, and so you can imagine our delight and trepidation when she informed her close friends she was pregnant! A tense 9 months ensued, but by the Grace of Allah (SWT), all went well, and Narjiss gave birth to a beautiful baby girl (Saeeda Zara Batool Nakvi) at the end of 2008. The following year, she fell pregnant again, but seemed to be taking it much worse than she had with Zara: she was constantly sick, dizzy, weak and wasted, and despite constant visits to the doctors, she was always dismissed with “regular morning sickness, nothing to worry about!”. Finally, one day when she collapsed with what appeared to be dehydration, she was rushed to hospital and tests were carried out. It wasn’t long before they found a huge lump occupying the upper portion of her stomach (cancer). They told her that radio therapy should clear it, but in order for the treatment to work, they’d have to terminate her pregnancy! Left with little choice and shattered by this devastating news, Narjiss agreed, with sure and certain hope that good would prevail, that Allah (SWT) would cure her and bless her with more children in the future if he so desired. Despite the abortion, the growing foetus of a little boy did not die, and so Narjiss was told to wait, to proceed with a natural induced labour and see what they could do to save her child. Her little son, (Sayed Mohsin Nakvi) lived for just 1 day before he died, another fragrant flower of innocence who honoured this earth with his fragile visit, before returning to the gardens of paradise where he belonged, leaving just enough scent behind him never ever to be forgotten. Almost immediately after burying her baby boy, Narjiss’s treatment began. She had good days and bad days, but was mostly low: she had little energy and couldn’t eat, at first she stayed at home with her husband and little daughter, but in the end, moved to her mum’s when looking after her family and home became too much. She permitted close family to visit, but wasn’t too comfortable with outsiders, and although I was close to them all, I instinctively withdrew at that time: I knew she’d be lost for words, and that I would too, so there was little either of us could have done to create ease or beauty from my visits. On the night of the 6th of muherram, Masooma stayed home with Narjiss while the rest of the family went to the imambargah. Masooma was full of hope and stories: they had watched majliss on TV, and talked about the imam, they had talked about past and present and Narjiss kept returning to the fact that she wanted to see masooma married in the next year or so.
None of us really remember how the following day developed: the family have tried to recall it over and over again, but they all return to one horrid reality: at 4 AM, they heard Narjiss getting up for the toilet. On entering the bathroom, they heard a crash and all came running. She had been sick, and had fallen on the bathroom floor. The boys carried her to their mother’s room and laid her on the bed while an ambulance was called. She appeared to be conscious and although she could not speak, was making shallow breaths and her eyes were open. Sadly though, by the time the medics had arrived, Narjiss had breathed her last, the doctors later told us that a heart attack had been the main cause of death rather than the treatment proper. She died on the 7th of muherram, aged 33, a life cut short, a flower torn from the route before it had a chance to bloom: a flame extinguished: a beautiful source of comfort and joy and inspiration, lost to us forever. That Sunday I spent the day with the family, reading qur’an and doing what little I could to help. Masooma and a few others went to the imambargah in the evening, while I travelled back to my parents to update them and to make arrangements for the following few days I would spend there. work gave me the days off I needed (all be it reluctantly!), and by Monday lunch time I was back at their place. More and more people came: by this time we were reading steady strings of qur’an, kalmas and dhikr for her and some degree of calm had descended (that was, till they brought her body home). The hospital released her at around 2 PM, and Masooma and the women went to collect her and travel to the masjid to perform her gusl. It was around magrib time when they returned with her body. I remember how we crowded the tiny sitting room where she lay, the air heavy with incense and fragrance and yet choked with our grief: we cried uncontrollably: reality somehow finally hitting us in full as we set eyes on her beautiful silent form. I remember the cries of her mother, begging her to wake up: how her brothers clung to her, shouting at her and demanding to know why she had left them as they brought Zara to take a final look at her mother. I remember how little Hussain fainted and shook uncontrollably in my arms while I tried to hide my own tears. When uncle Shabber stood before me a few minutes later I just couldn’t hide my tears: I was sad for him, for the fact I had lost my sister, and because I knew (maybe selfishly too), that this little patch of tranquillity I called home would never ring with joy and laughter ever again. I remember the subsequent day and night in waves: I remember spending hours in the kitchen forcing her brothers to eat. I remember making tea and rebuking the aunties who spent more time chatting and resting than they did reading qur’an. I remember how irritated we were with the guests from London, who seemed more intent on picking fights than any thing else. At around 3 AM, the mowlana came from Edinburgh and began reciting majliss. The men gathered on the tiny sitting room where Narjiss lay, while we women settled ourselves on the stairs, on the floor: any where there was space around. I sat on the huge stair case pressed against the railings when the matam began. I remember how I wept through the matam, trying to hide my tears from the men, yet through my thick film of tears I saw pure noor reflected out from the room where Narjiss lay. I don’t know whether it was my mind playing tricks on me or a true vision (Allah knows best), but as I turned my head to my right and peered through the railings, I saw her, I saw Narjiss immerging from the back kitchen. She stood in the doorway, smiled and told me not to cry, she seemed almost overwhelmed by the guests and the outpouring of emotion: these days were hard, yet somehow I knew that my sister had found peace.
Narjiss was laid to rest on the 8th of muherram, after a 500 strong jinaza prayer was recited (definitely the largest jinaza Glasgow has seen for a while). Her burial began the long laborious process of trying to put one’s life back together after such a tragedy. Each time I look at her little daughter, I am struck a new with the horror of what took place: a beautiful little girl, with grace and intelligence beyond her years as she learns to walk, talk and read, achieves her respective mile stones with such confidence and poise that her mother would be proud of, yet will sadly never witness. I look at her parents: once old, yet now aged before their time, each time they visit her grave they revisit the tragedy a new, a great loss which in their remaining lives they will doubtless never get over. This family: the one that Narjiss held dear, that she grew from and then nurtured is a strong one, grounded in Islam and cemented by love. They are united in a desire to care for the legacy left by their daughter and sister in the form of her little daughter. She has developed a very strong bond with Masooma (perhaps because she looks so like Narjiss), and I am certain this connection will be a source of great sharing and comfort for her as she grows and learns to find her way without a mother. Last night, we recited majliss in that same room for Narjiss (her first barsi), 1 year on, the shock and unbelievable loss is almost as new as the day it happened. In this year, people from far and wide have come to know Narjiss, through her words, her legacy and the great love others have shown for her, even my mother commented that she couldn’t believe that Narjiss had been gone for a full year!
Such tragedies are the kind the heart never recovers from. They are a reminder to us of the temporary nature of this world, and how one day we too will have to face death. With each person who leaves us, a tiny portion of the soul is torn away with them, and though most of the time we react adversely: holding on to the world for dear life, we are, in reality faced with an intersection in our thinking: either to live for the world, or live in such a way that we live for the hereafter: pray each prayer like it is our last, cherish each moment, love unconditionally and share all those words, thoughts and experiences we dream of and hold back.
When Imran Sabir past away, Shaykh Abdal Aziz Ahmed concluded his tribute book with a beautiful poem, which I here dedicate to my beloved sister and Friend Saeeda Narjiss Jaffri. I request you all to recite Sura Fatiha for her when you read this, and may her death stand out as a bright light of remembrance: for the things she held dear and for the untimely ending of her invaluable life: may we be illuminated by her example, her living and her dying: now, and always.
Sleep well my friend.
Last night you slept alone
sleeping the slumber of the spouse
Your breathing eased
No more struggle, no more pain
Last night I cried alone
They mustn’t know how I loved you
Your new found ease
brings us new found pain
Years of chasing your breath
guided you to well earned rest
Your questions, your smiling eyes
How long till I see them again?
I’ve lost many a loved one
But none like you
I don’t know why I feel this pain
You’ve moved on to happier days
I cry for myself and my loss
Not for you and your gains
Sleep well my friend
We will meet again