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City of Banjul
Friday, September 18, 2020

The Facebook photos [Fiction]

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I lost Alieu first. 

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Four words, writing them down the hardest obstacle I ever faced. For weeks I came back to this notebook and this pen, sat there looking at the empty page, willing myself to write the words, to record my grief in ink, my sorrow in legible characters. And for weeks I failed – even the thought of what the words meant driving me so low I had to climb back into bed.  

He drowned on an outing with our friends, on a boat that would take parties upriver for a fee. He went alone because I could not go with him. It was a routine trip, one we had gone on many times. On the Gambia river, the Sun long set yet the sky still filled with light, his arm around me, his friends laughing at the jokes he would make. 

And on the first Saturday on which I could not go he was taken from me. I had a headache, and had decided I would stay. Ever the gentleman, he offered to stay with me – but I pressed him to go. I pressed him to go, and he never came back. 

The boat capsized mid-journey, the result of a shoddy repair job where a hole had appeared in the bottom of it. No one was injured, no one hurt. Except Alieu, who had never learnt to swim, who had always joked about drowning when Denton Bridge finally fell apart. The last time I saw him that morning he kissed me on the cheek, promised to make them turn around early so he could be back. I told him not to rush back, to enjoy himself – that it was nothing serious, and all I needed was some rest. 

And in the evening in his stead they brought the news of his passing to me…

The second of your trials will be a trial by fire… 

And then Daddy died, a few months later, the house in which he slept – the house in which I had grown up before I married Alieu – razed to the ground by a fire, one NAWEC-less night. He could not sleep in complete darkness, and so when the power went out he would light a candle and place it at his bedside. All my life growing up he had done this, and the candle had run out while he slept without incident. But that night it fell, though no one still knows how, the candle holder toppled to the ground, the candle flame licking at the edges of the bedsheets, until they found purchase and roared through the rest of the room.

They found his charred corpse at the door the next morning, the blackened key left at his bedside table in his rush to escape. This fact was hidden from me at first, to spare me more pain, and I came upon it only by accident, an errant conversation with a person who had assumed that I knew. By then I had thought my grief had reached its peak, that nothing could push me down further. I do not know how I left that place, the place of my discovery of this knowledge, do not know how I made it home – there is a blank in my memory now when I look back and try to remember.  

Both of them had been very religious, not in a showy kind of way, but understated: never missing a prayer, fasting all month through, giving of their earnings to Zakat. But also in other ways, little ways that mattered: their kindness, their treatment of the women in their lives, the way they did all they did without expecting gratitude. For months I prayed fervently for them at each prayer, gave out money for sarrah to ones less fortunate. But there was something missing in all this, something off, as if I was merely going through the movements of a complex ritual, but could not see to what end, what larger purpose. Though I repeated platitudes about their being in heaven when I spoke to people, I felt the opposite: as if they were irretrievably lost, as if a wall had come up between I and them, never to be pulled down again. And the holes they had left in my life felt as if they would be vacant all my life, my grief never-ending. 

And so I went to see an Imam. Not for a tuup exactly, a conversion, for I was already Muslim, but for something else: an explanation perhaps, a chance at renewal, a purification. I went there of my own will – no one forced me. He granted me an audience, and I sat and spoke with him. I told him all that was on my mind, about the recent deaths in my life, about all that I had lost, and he listened without interruption, his attentive expression unchanging. When I was done he spoke to me, his tone calm and measured, his gaze free of judgement. 

– That is a great tragedy, he said to me, – And you come to ask me to pray for them?

– No, I replied, I have lost myself these past few months, and I wish to find myself again…

I sat waiting for him to ask for further explanation. But he seemed to understand even without one, and nodding his head at me he spoke again. 

– So you wish to strengthen your faith so that you might continue. But you have questions that present an obstacle to achieving this… 

He trailed off, waiting.  

– Yes, I replied, – But only one. Why would God take away the two people I love most in the world, in such a short time. What have I done? I cannot understand. What have I done? 

I stopped then, knowing if I continued I would lose the battle with tears that I had been fighting since I began to explain. I sounded a bit shrill, a bit on edge. But his eyes never left mine, his tone never became scolding. I had come expecting to be judged, to be shown the wrath of the Lord and what form His retribution had taken upon my life, over something that I had done and taken to be minor but that had displeased Him, and warranted His anger and divine punishment. But there was none of that in the Imam’s tone or his words. He only stayed silent, until my breathing slowed and I became calmer and could look at him again. Then: 

– You are asking the wrong question my child, he replied gravely, – And so you will arrive at only the wrong answers. 

– Then what should I be asking? I demanded, and my voice sounded hoarse now even to my own ears. 

– First you must begin to see differently. You see death as an ending, when in fact it is a beginning, the only true beginning. You will not get to see them for a while, but when you do it’ll last all eternity – you will never lose them again. You have learnt this since you were a child, but there is doubt in you, and you must rid yourself of this doubt, and come to believe it completely. 

A stray thought: Why not have me die with them then? Increase their years or lessen mine, so we could all go together to this place of eternal being… 

– Because it is not yet your time, the Imam answered, as if reading my mind. – One day it will all be clear as water, all explained, before we re-enter the Garden. In the meantime all must be left in the hands of Allah, for He alone sees the whole plan. 

He looked at me, waiting for assent before he continued. I thought of the corpses laid out at Death House, Alieu’s face and arms showing, Daddy’s charred corpse all covered up, both empty husks clearly vacated, containing nothing of what I had loved. 

And then another thought: the water and the fire that had taken them from me only doorways into another place, outside of time, held open by angels. I saw Alieu and Daddy smile, I saw them step through, free of pain and of death. It was a fleeting thought, and I could not hold it for long, but it presented a possibility of solace, and I felt a warm feeling run through me. 

I looked up at the Imam and nodded. 

– There is something else you need to know in order to perfect your religion, he said then. 

– And what is that Imam?

– That if we were perfect beings there would be no need for religion. And our imperfections are not from a lack in Allah’s ability – they are a privilege He has granted us, in order that we may choose between good and evil, between His way and Shaytan’s. You will fall, as all the children of Aadama must, but you must never stay down, never think He has given up on you. You must rise again, resolve to do better under His guidance. His mercy is endless, if only you repent and are sincere. You must ask yourself always this question: what would He have me do? And then you must trust Him to always choose right for you, even if it does not seem so at the time… 

I left that place then, after the Imam had prayed for me, and returned home, sure of the path I needed to take, the one that would lead me back to Alieu and Daddy. 

And from that day on I poured my heart and my soul into living under Allah’s guidance. When I prayed I focused my mind on Him, fought against the distractions that had filled my juli before, so that I came to look forward to the times of prayer, a place of calm and meditation, no matter how the rest of my day was going. I took up the veil, and stocked my wardrobe with clothes that were modest and revealed nothing of the body underneath them. This was the personal part, the jihad of the self that I embarked upon, and that depended only on my own will and its strengthening. 

And then there was the external part, the things other people said when they found out, both in front of my face and behind my back.  

I came to find that there are two stages of Ibadu shaming. First there is the initial doubting. Hayy na nyu baalal… She’s done everything bad under the Sun… Now she thinks she can throw on a kaala and fool us? Daf nyu buga yapp… I give her six months, see if she won’t take it off… 

Six months come and six months go…

And you haven’t changed to their predictions… You haven’t taken it off… You’ve grown instead, your faith is stronger… You have come to a better understanding… Much that was serious to you once you now see as frivolous… They see you’re serious about this, that this is who you want to be. And so they start on the second stage: the “hypocrite” stage. 

An Ibadu who wears tights? Walking around with make-up on? Still going to parties? New Facebook pictures every day? What kind of Ibadu is that?! All she is, is a hypocrite. 

Some enterprising person provides the word “ibandi” and it catches on, used from now on in their jokes, uttered in derision, as they pick your life apart to find faults, to “prove” your newfound convictions are fake. 

What a strange time we live in, when deciding to dress modestly and submit oneself to the will of Allah, the only will that matters, is treated as almost a crime, a talking point, a thing to be attacked and called out and denounced for… 

The problem, I have found, is that the ones outside see things differently: they see putting on the veil as a subtraction, a limitation of their freedom, and this creates within them a fear which is expressed by lashing out, by showing that you are not so different from them in the sins you commit. But they have it wrong – it is the other way round. It is an addition, not only of clothes that adorn the body, but a modesty that adorns the soul, the only thing that will be preserved when the body decays, the only thing that will be judged. 

I accepted Islam into my heart, and into my life. And everywhere it touched that life it was improved, and in time my life and the religion became as if one. So that I walked down the path set out for me at the beginning of creation, and over time it became easier to not stray, to stay on it come what may. 

Alieu and Daddy are not lost to me – they are only just waiting: in a different place, a better place, one that does not contain all the hate and anger that fills our world below, all the death and sorrow, a place where Shaytan has no means and no power. They wait for me. Allah has decided that they went to that place before me, and though the wait may seem to be long while I inhabit this human shell, afterwards the being-together will never end. 

Allah alone sees all of Time. He is everywhere at once, in all places and all ages. In His eyes I am already with them, and will be for the rest of eternity. In His eyes they never died, but only went home. 

One day I will go home too. The moment approaches closer every day. I can feel it, and I am no longer afraid.

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