WARRIORS + POETS

kindred spirits

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it is a warm summer’s night in qom.

i sit on the floor in masjid-e-jamkaran and look up at the ceiling, admiring the beauty of the architecture, the interlacing weaving of the arabic calligraphy – composed with such precision, but in its composition, somehow still as wild and free-flowing as foam rising on waves of eastern seas.

i follow the meditated pattern of their sweeping lines, marveling at their intricacy – musing on the intricacy of the path of my life that has been unfolding: a thousand hidden alleys, a thousand secret moments, a thousand twists of twine, a maze interwoven with the stars – all, to bring me… here.

i think about how, in the span of a few weeks, the course of my entire life has been changed. the sights i have seen, the knowledge i have faced, the people – the guides, the mentors, the strangers, the friends – i have come across. as each of their faces comes to mind, i send towards heaven a prayer; pausing as i come to one, the keeper of my heart’s most weary secrets, the conversation, from the depths of nights to the mist of cloudy dawns.

this friend in particular, who isn’t here, but has gone to the harram of Sayyida Masooma (sa) to bid her final farewell – her flight leaves tonight, departing this once-strange-land, now-called-home to return to a now-strange land, once-called-home. not knowing when she’ll be back and wishing we had more time to spend together, i pray for her happiness, and suddenly, feel someone sit down beside me.

“Aqeela.”

without even turning, i recognize her voice. and it is all i can do not to laugh.

“…Khadija.”

and as we sit side by side in silence i begin to smile – wondering at the seeming coincidences in life that have never really been coincidences at all, but all part of His greater, beautiful plan. and with an exhale and a heart strengthened by the shoulder that now rests next to mine, i whisper into warm summer winds: thank you Allah, thank you, thank you for the kindred spirits of friends…

the taste of magic

when i open a harry potter book,
i am eight years old again,
starlight streams through the window,
i can taste magic.

tiff

“there are some things you can’t share without ending up liking each other, and knocking out a twelve-foot mountain troll is one of them.”
-harry potter and the sorcerer’s stone-

in sharing, a friendship struck many years ago between three friends and a wide-eyed eight year old hiding in the stacks of a dusty library during lunchtime, coming across a book, the story of the boy with the lightning-shaped scar…

with the first turn of the page a nearly 20 year journey: lazy summer days spent with a bowl of ice cream escaping into a world sometimes more real than my own; hidden moments in autumn-crisped schoolyards and classrooms, heart racing to turn the next page; hiding under the covers late in snowy nights, the world silent and asleep, but surrounded by the conversation of friends.

this magical world i escaped into as a child, the companion of my youth, the nostalgia of my adulthood, has taught me this: read. be a lover of reading. allow your children to become lovers of reading. the stories of childhood are the ones we carry with us – flames at which to warm our hands in our colder hours.

let your kids feel constellations move in their souls. show them that magic exists, before the grayness of the world has a chance to convince them it doesn’t.

the potter generation – an entire generation, growing alongside the books. aging with the characters. and to this day, those, knowing that harry potter was one of our first glimpses into the meanings of love. friendship. loyalty. sacrifice. betrayal. disappointment. success.

as harry, ron, and hermione struggled to make sense of their world, so did we. as they grew up and realized – that not every friend is a true friend, that the people we look up to sometimes make mistakes, that there are great darknesses in the world – so did we.

but at the same time, we also realized that true friendship, though rare, does exist, and it is worth fighting for; that people may make mistakes, but it is not their fall that defines them, but their decision to stand back up; and that though there is darkness in the world, there is within us the power to defeat it:

the light of an even greater, undefeatable magic.

some days

some days,
i walk down the street like everyone else

bundling my coat close to my neck
waiting for the stoplight to turn
“some weather we’re having”
“isn’t that right”
“in my day, autumn was never this chilly”

some days,
i go through the motions

scribbling my name hastily across a paper
filling in bubbles, a code i can’t decipher
“as you can see in figure a”
“so this study clearly shows”
the mitochondria is the powerhouse
the mitochondria is the powerhouse
the mitochondria is the powerhouse
the powerh—
the pow—

some days,
i give in to forgetting

a whisper in my ear says,
there is enough time – just rest
my nails, chipped, ragged
there are still many years to go
splintered edges against rawed stone
you will not make it to the light
the sun so far, the edge of the well
but here, now, is the dark

go on, sleep a while.

and some days,
i listen.

until some days become some weeks
some weeks, some months
some months,

well.

was it all really real anyway?

*

some days,
i forget you

you turn your face from me
from the black heart
you hold in your hands,

disappointed

and some days,
i let you.

but some days…
somehow…
someway…

you look at me.

and suddenly,

i am

bundling my coat,
a teeming pile of tendrils
heartstrings and sinew
bloody, awful, messy
sprawled across the pavement

caught mid-motion in
a spilling across the crosswalk
paralyzed by shame
naked, exposed

writing with my own blood,
scribbling, frantic,
“i am aqeela”
“i am batool”
i am naqvi
i am naqvi
i am naq—
i am n—

*

some days,
i am weak

but some days,
you give me the strength to remember

some days,
i do not forget

i do not
patch up the brokenness
do not
numb the sweetness of the pain
shooting through my spine
falling to my knees

forgive me,

forgetting
was what i had feared most of all…

*

some days,
i walk down the street like everyone else

but some days,
i walk down the street, a bereaved lover

insides thrashed, blood trailing
hair wild, breath gasping
racing through the alleyways
screaming for you

some days,
i stand and watch the city go up in flame

fire catches my clothing
and sears, hot on my skin

but i do not set it out

some days,
i let you consume me

some days,
i burn
i remember
i am grateful
i crumble

at long last free,
nothing but dust and ash,

vanishing,

in the autumn wind

exhibition: “the steps of Imam Hussain (a)”

it is the day of Ashura.

after performing morning amaal with the Muharram in Manhattan community at NYU, i board a bus to New Jersey – to Bait-Wali-ul-Asr: the Islamic center of my childhood and the community closest to my heart, with whom over two decades of my Ashuras have been spent.

as i journey, i go through old text messages with my sisters, pausing as i come across one in particular: “the Karbala exhibition is amazing. you need to see it Appa.”

throughout the first nine days of Muharram, i have heard much about the towering replica of Baynol Harramain (“Between the Two Harrams”) being constructed on the grassy lawn beneath the branches of the center’s aged trees. i have been messaged pictures of the historically accurate miniature depiction of the tents as they stood in Karbala over a thousand years ago. i have been told about the heartbreakingly beautiful reconstruction of the burnt tent of the Ahlulbayt – the replica standing, a weeping shadow, in the far corner of the exhibit.

for many days, i have heard much about this unique experience put together by a tireless, dedicated, and sincere team of volunteers and creative thinkers – but it was not until i actually stood before it that i truly understood its magnitude.

it was not until i had not just heard of it, but had seen it with my own eyes, that i felt the ground give way beneath my feet.

***

shortly after arriving at Bait-Wali-ul-Asr, i am taken outside by one of the main artists behind the project. as i follow her towards the reconstruction of Baynol Harramain, my heart – sensing something my body is not yet able to grasp – begins to beat rapidly. and when we finally stop, i realize why.

staring up at the giant reconstructions of the fronts of the holy harrams (sanctuaries/graves/burial places) of the sons of Imam Ali – Hadhrat Abbas on one side, and Imam Hussain on the other… all breath leaves me.

i look at her, finding myself at a loss for words. tears fill my eyes. chills shoot up my spine. my hands begin to shake.

the sun is hot on my face in New Jersey, but i am standing in Baynol Harramain.

with trembling hands, i remove my shoes and step onto the plastic mat that lays between the two towering walls – and when i close my eyes, i am no longer on the lawn of a center in a small town in America, but am standing on hot marble, oceans away – breathing in the scent of Karbala.

as is custom for many who visit Karbala, i turn first toward the replica of the harram of Hadhrat Abbas – the flagbearer, the lion, the warrior, the prince; Saqqa, the carrier of the water. in the center of the wall, beneath an arch and a banner emblazoned with, “Ya Abal Fadhlil Abbas,” is a magnificent, enlarged poster of the dharih (encasing) that surrounds his grave.

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i watch as a young child steps before me, climbing towards the photograph – gently, tenderly touching the image of the dharih and leaning forward to kiss it.

and in that moment, the photograph is not a photograph anymore. it is reality.

the dharih seems to enlarge from where it sits, dignified, silent in the picture – until it unfolds itself in all its magnificence before my eyes. as i reach my hand out into the empty wind, i can feel against my fingertips the coolness of its touch… and suddenly, my knees give way.

as i kneel on the floor, my heart begins to bleed inside my chest, and i am no longer in front of a picture, but journeying with the spirit’s wings to the grave of Abu Fadhil himself. if i listen closely, i can hear the chants called out beneath his dome, ya Abbas, ya Abbas! and if i close my eyes, i can smell his fragrance.

as i sit, the afternoon slips away. the time of the murder of Imam Hussain replays itself, over and over and over inside my head. my heart screams, oh lion who sleeps by the riverbank, awake from your slumber! ya Saqqa! oh my beloved, my Abbas! where are you, my warrior? do you not hear the wails of your sister Zaynab? will you not come to her aid as she screams? today, they are cutting the neck, they are wounding with spears, they are murdering your brother Hussain…

***

what seems like centuries pass in silence on the lawn. i let the grief wrack my body until it feels like at any moment, my soul might leave this world.

i let the waves of Ashura consume me.

for a long time, i remain where i am, because i know where it is i must journey to next – and i don’t know if my heart can handle it. i know that when i stand and turn across the walkway, i will see…

oh, my Mawla, Hussain.

as those who have been blessed to perform ziyara in Karbala know – (may those who have visited be invited to return soon, and may those who have not yet gone be called to this blessing in the nearest future, inshaAllah) – Baynol Harramain stretches as a long walkway of white marble between the graves of Hadhrat Abbas and Imam Hussain. after you convey your salaams at the grave of Hadhrat Abbas, asking his permission to meet his brother, your footsteps on this walkway towards Aba Abdillah begin.

footsteps: both exultant and heartbroken, excited and hesitant; the urge to run, the need to move slowly, absorbing every moment – one foot in front of the other in front of the other, until you finally stand face to face with the grave, the presence of the soul, the discerned figure standing before you,

the scent of heaven, beneath the dome of Imam Hussain.

similar to the replica of the harram of Hadhrat Abbas, the replica of Imam Hussain’s stands tall, majestic, noble. between beautifully constructed arches lies an even more beautiful poster, the dharih of Aba Abdillah al-Hussain.

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as i move slowly towards it, my soul is shorn to pieces. ya Hussain! i do not know whether i should rejoice at this opportunity to somehow feel like i am next to your grave again, or whether i should fall to the ground in agonizing pain, keeled over, gasping for breath, crying out to the skies – not yet, please! please, it is still too soon! still too soon to embrace your broken body. please, not yet, don’t leave me…

as i look up from where i sit, it as if the dharih moves close towards me. as i grasp onto its metal and kiss the encasing of his grave, i see before my eyes this heartbreaking apparition:

10th Muharram. the final moments. Imam Hussain bids farewell to his sister. hugs for the last time his daughter. mounts his horse to ride away from the tents, never again to return. 

the battle. the most glorious lion, charging into a battlefield of sheep. he moves left, the enemy scatters right; he moves right, the enemy scatters left. hundreds fall at the strike of his sword. the enemy panics. more archers are signaled forward. more swordsmen are prepared. arrows are released, darkening the skies like angry clouds, a savage storm falls upon my Imam…

wounds upon wounds kiss his skin. his blood falls in streams. a wailing arises from the depths of the desert sands. wolves begin to circle, teeth bared, snarling grins splayed across their faces. a lance is thrust forward, and al-Hussain falls towards the ground…

the tears choke in grief! the eyes shed blood! the heart’s sinews rupture and the arms clutch the chest in tatters. ya Allah! let the wailers wail! let the screamers scream! let no tear be left unshed as before history’s eyes a sword strikes and the earth quakes; as severed is the head, as is lifted high on a spear, as is covered in blood the beautiful face of Sayyid ush-Shuhada…

***

the evening begins to dim over the lawn. dusk begins to settle.

the battle is over. the dust of karbala is still. bodies lay unburied upon the ground. rivers of blood seep into the sands. the clamor that once filled the air is gone.

all that remains is silence.

the day of Ashura has come to an end, but the night of grief, Shaam-e-Gharibaan, is just beginning.

gone is Hadhrat Abbas. gone is Imam Hussain. but Imam al-Sajjad and Sayyida Zaynab remain.

the whispering entrance of a white tent beckons, and as you enter, the hollow stillness of the night pierces you. in the darkness, there is a red glow from lights and candles. inescapable, surrounding you – the atmosphere of grief. the scent of ash and flame.

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in the corner of the exhibition stands a lonely tent, burnt holes all along its sides. as you enter, you see the musalla of the ailing son of Imam Hussain, the sign of Allah on the earth, Imam Zaynul Abideen. the soul catches in pain at the sight of his green imamah… for just a few inches away lie metal chains, and when you see them, you cannot shake from your mind the image of the family of the Prophet being dragged as prisoners through the streets of Damascus.

just a few paces away lies the cradle of Ali Asghar, the infant son of Imam Hussain, murdered that morning. his haunting ghost rises before you: the sight of his small hands, his innocent tongue running over the parched brokenness of his lips…

as you feel the weight of Ashura’s aftermath settle heavy in your chest, you leave the tent, steadying yourself to stand – but your eyes catch on a movie projection depicting the final moments of Imam Hussain’s martyrdom – and as you watch him, a silhouette of arrows falling to the ground, you fall to your knees as well.

the scene replays before your eyes and you struggle for breath between your tears. a small crowd of the lovers of Imam Hussain enters the tent, candles flickering in their hands. they surround the miniature replica of the Battle of Karbala where small figurines are arranged as they must have stood on that day – the enemy camps, the tens of thousands of Yazeed’s soldiers, the blocked river Euphrates; the surrounded, glowing tents of Imam Hussain…

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a devotee amongst them begins to recite the mournful melody of lamentation poetry in Urdu, and another takes a candle and begins to set the tents of Aba Abdillah on fire. as they begin to burn and the ash begins to rise, the children sitting nearby cry out, “my eyes are burning from the smoke!”

and with these words, none who stand witness can contain their weeping. for this child, pain rising from the heat of a single candle’s flame… but what of your children, O Hussain? at this very moment, what ash must be leaping from your tents? what flames striking from those torches? what heat burning from that blaze? what heartwrenching screams of your children? from your young daughter, wa Hussaina! Oh Baba, where are you! please, save me…

***

the last time i felt like my heart could no longer be contained inside my chest, like it would explode, like it would shatter from such intense and unbearable longing, i was standing in front of Imam Hussain in Karbala.

i send infinite duaas to those who have so artfully recreated even an ounce of that feeling of ziyara, that connection to the Ahlulbayt, from thousands of miles away. through this beautiful exhibit: The Steps of Imam Hussain, so many have been allowed to have their hearts, rendered so tender by the grief of Imam Hussain, be broken utterly and completely. in a single moment, they have felt themselves not just speaking to Imam Hussain from afar, but standing before him – walking by his side, living in a new light the day of Ashura, seeing with a new sight the night of the aftermath, coming together to mourn the greatest tragedy in history – when Imam Hussain, the divine representative of God and the reflection of His attributes on earth, sacrificed everything – everything – in the way of Allah, without a moment’s hesitation.

if you have not yet had a chance to visit this exhibition, please make the effort to go. it will be open for two more nights this year before closing (inshaAllah to return next year and for many years to come). bring your friends, your families, your children – and allow yourself to be immersed in this transformative experience.

allow yourself to feel the arms of Imam Hussain reaching through the tapestries of time to embrace you.

let yourself feel his grief anew, and in feeling it so viscerally, allow yourself carry it with you as the torch to light the way even when caught in the depths of darkness.

break your heart open, and through this brokenness, make your spirit unbreakable. for a few hours, walk in The Steps of Imam Hussain; and for the remainder of your lifetime, carry the beauty of those steps with you.

may every volunteer and visitor who has participated in this project be granted the intercession of Aba Abdillah on that final day. may we remember him, pledge our allegiance to him, and pledge allegiance to his descendant, the Imam of our own time. may we live a life with soft hearts but strong convictions, being blessed enough to choose the Ahlulbayt in every moment of this life – inshaAllah becoming worthy of their embrace when we finally meet them in the next.

from every mountain top

“He (Imam Hussain) sees those who come to his shrine and he knows them by their names, their father’s names and their ranks in the eyes of Allah, the Glorious, better than you know your own children.”

-Imam Sadiq (a)-

to think – of my name, on your tongue…when the sins that weigh on my back, the shadows that whisper in my heart make me unworthy of even speaking yours. of ever claiming you as mine.

but to think, when i whispered, ‘my mawla Hussain, i am here,‘ standing next to your body… to think, that you responded to me? knowing every curve of every letter of my name?

my heart stops.

it still baffles my mind that to this lost traveler, so far gone from the path, wandering in a thickening fog, you still extended your hand. you still invited to stand by your side.

how can i ever thank you for saving me? how can i ever thank my Lord for attaching my heart to you – allowing me to attach myself to Him through you?

Mawla, i am so unworthy of loving you…
but you, are so worthy of being loved.

ya Allah,

allow me to be consumed by the love of your truest servants,
utterly and completely.
so that nothing remains of me myself and i,
and all that remains is You, Your pleasure, and Your beloveds.

make no speech of mine speech, nor action of mine action,
unless it is climbing, from every mountain top to sing,

‘i am in love with the one You loved and the one who loved You –
i am in love with the one named Hussain…’

the aftermath

s

 

your face haunts my every dream…
i wake from the fragrance of your embrace
to the scent of fire and weeping—
to the wailing of flowing rivers,
rivers of flowing blood.

.

“And think not Allah to be heedless of what the unjust ones do.
He only respites them to a day
when their eyes shall be fixed open [staring up with terror].”
 – The Holy Quran, 14:42 –

.

film: the caravan of pride

still far too soon

يا ليل طوّل ساعاتك
O night, prolong your hours—

let me for some moments longer gaze upon his face;

these hours of night,
still far too soon
these thousand years,
still far too soon
these infinite ages,
still far too soon

to embrace the
broken
body
of

Hussain.

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