27-29 Ramadan 1440
I began writing about Anu during my first summer in Cairo. On the occasion of his birthday that year, which coincided with Ramadan, I emailed my meditation on him to family and friends.
Their responses sometimes surprised me. I forgot that not everyone knew this part of me although I carried him with me everywhere. I also learned there are so many parts of others I did not know before.
During that moment in time, I often thought about the composition style of the shama’il and tabaqat literature. I’ve wondered how many observable details of a person could be narrated to finally arrive at some perceptible interiority — and what do the memory of certain details reflect about the narrator?
I’ve returned to the email repeatedly, especially when I’m afraid of forgetting. I’ve dug it up from my emails and read it for people I’ve met along the way who knew and loved Anu.
I’ve laughed at my own writing, I’ve laughed at my perception of and relationship with him. I’ve changed.
Now, in my mind, he’s so young. A man, still. But a very young man.
The anniversary of his passing happens to coincide with Ramadan these last couple years. I share Anu here mostly as I wrote that email years ago, mostly so you will remember him during the last days of Ramadan.
Date: Friday, Oct 5, 2007
Subject: This may be the night
This may be the night
As foreheads kiss floors
Heavenly guests seek entry
Leave open the doors
Polish the mirrors
Turn on the lights
Dear God, please accept us
This may be the night
Once a year, I send something out about my brother. Tonight, I’m celebrating Anu’s birthday Ramadan style and I figure, why not be sly and solicit prayers since some of you are praying a lot more anyway these nights?
The rest is an incomplete reflection I began working on this summer. It’s very long and the events are not chronologically organized so only read on if you really, really want to…
Perhaps there is something about him you see in yourself, the person you once were, the person you do not want to be, or the person you’d like to become.
And perhaps there is something about him that will make you pray your prayers as if it is the last. There’s no time to waste. No time to waste.
For those of us seeking the Big Night, I hope we find it.
With peace and love,
24 years 7 months 26 days
Anu Shahriar Isthiaque and I—our birthdays are 7 years and 20 days apart.
After he passed away, I wanted to know what 24 years 7 months 26 days meant. That’s how long he lived in this world. Many (except the deeply pious) say, “He passed before his time.”
But—by the time Anu passed away, I thought of him as a man. No matter how young he may have been, in my mind, he was a man. Sometimes, looking at other boys, I’ve wondered: When do they become men?
Sometimes, I’ve wondered when I would I no longer think of myself as a girl but as a woman.
I thought I would come to know him better as I neared his age. Now that I have lived longer than him, I’m afraid of forgetting what I do know.
About Anu, I know this —
What you saw was what you got. He initiated greetings and gave firm handshakes.
When he said salam, he would give a full salam. He hated fake embraces, pettiness, and slander. If he didn’t like someone, it was clear. (When I think of the adults he didn’t like, he was always right on the money.) If he shaved his head or pierced his ear, he called Mom right away to tell her. When he joked, he told the truth. When he dared, “Say I won’t,” it was a trap. He threw spaghetti with meatball sauce at me anyway whether I said he would or wouldn’t.
He said, “You know, if a person gets rich real fast, it usually means they did something wrong.”
He said, “Hi, my name is Sahar. My favorite color is clear. I like to watch the wind go by.”
When phone booths were still used, he said, “Here’s a quarter. Call someone who cares.”
He also said, “It doesn’t hurt to use your brain.”
For an eighth grade presentation, he tape recorded a play he wrote. After his regal line, “What is it, my child?” he made me say, “The arachnids are trying to take over the planet.”
If he wanted something, he was persistent. He waited for a few years before he finally bought his first electric and acoustic guitars. Khammi gave him the money he needed. He took a few guitar lessons at school and then taught himself. He tried to teach me “Stairway to Heaven” but settled for teaching me the beginning of “Ode to Joy” and “Ice Ice Baby.”
He changed the oil, washed, and waxed all the cars. He taught me how to wax on, wax off. He planted most of the trees in our yard. He liked looking at furniture and chose the white oak wood dining and bedroom decor and gray leather couches ordered from North Carolina that are still in our house.
He bought the black and white photography of New York City that is still up on our walls.
He handled all barbecue-related matters. He loved to cook. He said, “It’s all about the presentation.”
The summer before he went away for college, we played Spit almost every night. He usually won.
He skipped class and attended my first research presentation. It was on dolphins. I was in 3rd grade. He helped me practice for the PSAT when I was in 5th grade. He drew a model of the nervous system for Pamela and me.
He was a comic book collector and trusted few to handle his comics. He allowed me to hold them only after I made sure I washed my hands. His favorite X-Men character was Wolverine, and he preferred Batman over Superman. All his old toys and game boards were in perfect condition. He only allowed certain kids to touch his things. He spoke to kids as he spoke to adults, and he didn’t make an effort to draw kids closer to him. They were drawn to him anyway.
He made me read The Firm and The Witching Hour in elementary school. He was drawn to the character Lestat in Interview with a Vampire. He owned all The Godfathers and Scarface. One of his favorite movies is The Last of the Mohicans. He would sit us down to discuss the tragedy of the Native Americans. Then he would proceed to say how Daniel Day Lewis is the man.
When he was in elementary and middle school, he thought he would become an artist. He especially enjoyed drawing and won awards and the admiration of his art teachers.
Mushira insisted he pick her up even though he had a cold. She insisted. He gave in, and she drooled and wiped her nose all over him as he held her on his lap while working on the computer. She also had a cold.
Sometimes, he’d pick me up from pre-school with his bicycle when Mom was working and Dad was studying. He would take the long way home by passing over all the bridges. When we took the school bus, he sat in the back. When he got a car senior year, he drove me to school everyday.
I began wrapping my hair with a scarf when he was still away in college. When he saw me, he said he liked my new Erica Badu look and called it Badu-ism. During college breaks, he’d pick me up from high school. While waiting for me in the parking lot, he would amuse himself by blasting Ricky Martin. He claimed Ricky stole his hot Latino style.
After Reham’s wedding, I brought in pictures to show my friends. A friend in Spanish class saw a picture of Anu and said, “Who is that guy? Something about him is so Ricky Martin.”
I never told Anu for fear of male-ego-overload.
On the way home, he played his mix of R.E.M., Bob Marley, U2, Nine Inch Nails, Mana, Queen, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Extreme, Saigon Kick, Smashing Pumpkins, The Lion King soundtrack, Ace of Base, and Pachebel’s Canon in D.
Sometimes, he’d take detours and purposely slow down the car, roll down the window, and ask the white kids from the wealthier neighborhood next to ours who weren’t wearing shirts, sagged their pants, and pimp-walked, “Hey. Do you have a home?”
He was stopped a few times by security guards or police officers as a teenager. Once, it was because we were walking through our mostly white neighborhood that we just moved to. I was 6 or 7; he was 13 or 14.
Another time, he tried to sweet talk the police officer who pulled him over for speeding as I prayed to God she wouldn’t get angrier. He was stopped right at the highway exit we take to go home. She smiled—and then gave him his second (or third?) speeding ticket.
He sent me via mail a baby blue Gap shirt, khakis, and Mortal Kombat III for my thirteenth birthday. MKIII was really for him when he came home for breaks. Another birthday, he gave me a gold bracelet with a dolphin chasing a black pearl. Mom scolded him for spending so much.
When Duff was born, he wanted to name him Shawn. He called Duff “Shawn” his whole life. He made Duff tuck in his shirt and bought Duff a Play Station when he came back home. That was also for him to play with.
He never ceased to make fun of his siblings. Together, we all made fun of Sana. Behind our backs, he praised us and when his friends would want to meet us and tell us “Oh, I’ve heard so many great things about you!” we were shocked.
Mom performed her first hajj the year of the Mina fires. He called home to find out from Dad if there was any news about Mom. He cried over the phone and Dad cried. Dad said, “Your mom is my best friend.”
He told me to never touch baby birds because their moms would abandon them if they smelled my scent. He didn’t stop me from throwing rocks at the male ducks I thought were unjustly drowning the female ducks. (I had no idea the ducks were mating.) He loved the white cat that showed up one foggy day in front of our door. He was annoyed when the neighbors had her “fixed.”
One college break, he brought home a cat named Felix.
He liked root beer and ice cream floats. He loved steak and turkey. He was a fan of Kiss and had all their albums. He quizzed me on car and guitar models.
He consistently worked-out and made me lift weights if I was with him. Sometimes, he would lift me while doing push ups. Other times, he’d make me walk on his back.
He tolerated pain and like Mom, he had a high tolerance for it. We rarely knew when he was ill. He tore his ACL playing high school football. I never saw him complain of pain or sickness until that day. He used to cry nights after his surgery. After that, he joined the cross country and rowing team.
He loved music. He said we should form a band. When the Bengali uncles who performed at all the parties asked him to play guitar for them, he accepted without hesitation. In spite of the cheesy band name, black suits, and red ties, he loved those uncles, and he loved playing guitar.
He was crushed when the drummer of their band suddenly passed away.
He knew which one of my friends from school or at the mosque or the Bengali parties had a crush on him. He never lost the chance to make fun of them.
He knew Duff’s friends thought he was a rock star. Duff’s best friend Tasnim thought Anu was so cool because he had cool hair and cool sun-glasses. When he went over to Tasnim’s house, Tasnim nearly fainted. Then they played video games together. Tasnim finally behaved as a normal human around him.
The last day, Tasnim, Duff, and Anu played video games before praying Asr.
He lived in Bangladesh for the first 3 years of his life and loved her in a way I may never understand. He loved our relatives, could listen to my uncle ramble for hours, and managed to make our grandmother laugh. He never complained about the heat and loved visiting the country-side and Dad’s village.
He could look at you with a straight face, never raise his voice and scare the crap out of you like he scared the crap out of the bully-kid one Eid party at our house. He instantly became the hero of all the other kids who used to cower in the bully’s presence at other Eid parties.
He said off-handedly, as soon as he met the British hafiz who was super nice to mom, That boy thinks he is going to marry Sahar. He was right. The hafiz avoided him.
When I hit my head against the corner of the wall, bled, and was taken to the hospital for stitches, he walked back and forth outside, all night, until I was brought home.
He’d threaten to flush my head in the toilet or pour freezing cold water over me or throw me in the lake in our backyard in order to retrieve the football we were tossing.
He made me change Sana and Duff’s diapers when we were home alone.
He gave Duff super-wedgies and was responsible for ripping most of his Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle underwear over his head. He carried Duff most of the time when we went to Bangladesh. Duff was one-year old.
He tied a bandana around Sana’s head, made her sit up in her crib, and took pictures. Sana danced on stage while Anu played guitar at his graduation party. She was one-year old.
He adored his AP Psychology teacher and decided he wanted to study psychology after taking that class. He once said, Muhammad, sallallahu ‘alayhi wa sallam, was a great psychologist—he understood people’s states and needs.
He was a waiter. He disliked waiting for Indians. He said they were cheap with tips. People usually tipped him well—he was smooth and customers liked him. When he ate at restaurants, he made sure to leave a good tip.
He was a fan of Hasan Uncle’s cooking and especially liked the way he cooked shrimp with string beans.
He liked and got along well with the elderly. They liked him.
He had a temper. When he got angry, he couldn’t hide it. When someone insulted Mom in a store, like the store manager who yelled at her in front of other customers for accidentally bumping into a product, he confronted them. He would probably punch that person in the face if we didn’t pull him away.
It was during those times I prayed to God that no one made the mistake of harassing me or my siblings—I was fearful of what Anu might do and what might happen to Anu as a result of it.
Once, after a fight with Mom and Dad, he punched the wall and left a dent, before storming out of the house. Another time, after I yelled at Mom because she wouldn’t let me go to a party, I ran and hid under a bed because I knew he would come after me for being so disrespectful. When he left for college, he hugged me and said, “Listen to Mom and Dad. Be better than me.”
When Mom and Dad came to America, he witnessed their first struggles to make ends meet. He had to wear hand-me downs. He loved to go to school even if his English was terrible. He learned quickly that it wasn’t cool to wear a sarong to school. He spent a lot of time with his elderly host family in Oklahoma. He called them Grandma and Grandpa. Grandpa would make him mayonnaise sandwiches. When Grandpa passed away, he had beside him a picture of Anu.
He was particular about his coffee. He made special orders for flavored coffee beans to make fresh cappuccino for himself and guests.
If he couldn’t get what he wanted from Dad, he asked Mom because she would not say no. Often, he just had to ask Dad because Dad could not say no.
He insisted on dressing well and had expensive taste.
He had a weak spot for beautiful women, wit, and nice voices. When he fell in love, he really fell. He wrote poetry and songs. He knew when women were attracted to him. Sometimes, their infatuation was so apparent, even I noticed and cringed as an elementary schooler. Like this one time when we were with Mom at a store and she was looking at gold necklaces. Instead of focusing on Mom, the jeweler began talking to Anu and telling him about her life problems. I watched him stand quietly and listen.
He went away to college for 5 years. During the last six months after he returned home, he just wanted to be left alone. He reconnected with his old high school friends. He began taking a few classes again and was incredibly offended when his professor at the local community college hit on him. He worked on power point presentations while other students turned in penciled loose-leaf paper presentations.
During the same time, one of his co-workers became interested in him, but she sensed his need for space and respected that so he felt at ease around her. The day before the car accident, an old acquaintance from a high school summer program found him via email and they reconnected over the phone. She sent him a card in the mail and wrote how it was so nice to reconnect. I had to call her to tell her Anu had passed away.
He taught me how to give someone a dead leg. He practiced on me for demonstration. When I punched him back, he said I was getting better.
On Reham’s wedding day, he stopped me in the hallway when he saw me wearing make-up for the first time. “Mom’s letting you go out like that?” His lack of the usual “You so ugly…” and making fun of my lack of style almost made me blush. After the wedding ceremony, I cried a bit and wandered outside alone. He found me and gave me a big hug. I think, for the first time, he realized I was a young woman.
He said to Mom and Dad one night—as I eavesdropped—Don’t make her marry someone she doesn’t want; you can’t make her do anything; even if she’s dumb life-wise and her head is somewhere else.
He thought about our futures a lot.
He never hid that he was a Muslim. He was the first to convince me Islam is beautiful.
He didn’t like the attitude of most of the adults at the weekend Islamic school, but there were a select handful he loved. Some didn’t like his “American-ness.” He liked that red Ghulam Sarwar book. He didn’t mind being a 15 year old in first grade at that school, worked his way up, and graduated in two years. After he messed up his knee, he had difficulty making ruku’ and sajda. One administrator pushed him while he was praying, saying he shouldn’t pray like an old man and tried to make him bend over.
He was so hurt—physically and emotionally. I don’t think he ever went back to visit that school again.
He wasn’t religious but never made fun of religion. He had a deep respect for the Qur’an and the Prophet. He always carefully wrapped his Qur’an with a cloth and placed it on the top shelf. He fasted during Ramadan since he was in elementary school. Mom encouraged him to attend an iftar party when he went away to college. He returned seething. No one fasted but they talked about it as if it was a joke and expected he wouldn’t mind since he wasn’t “religious.” He especially disliked one of the guys who insisted on talking about women he wanted to sleep with assuming “irreligious” men like Anu would enjoy his banter.
The imam who said that psychology was useless in the same lecture in which he spoke about the Dajjal also pissed him off.
Religious people didn’t make him uncomfortable or feel defensive. He didn’t really have assumptions about them. He didn’t mind driving around the elderly maulana who stayed at our house during Ramadan. He met my tajwid teacher. I said he was teaching me how to pronounce the Qur’an correctly. He said, “People are always trying to make you do things correctly, huh?”
He couldn’t say no. He was generous. He wanted to be rich, and he wanted to work on Wall Street. He wanted to give, give, give to his friends. He thought his friends were his world. His inability to say no opened doors for being used, hurt, betrayed. He worked a few jobs to keep up with his expenses. He helped his friends, even if it hurt him. He got angry if Dad suggested he wasn’t doing well because Dad was right. His brief period of over-confidence and deep trust in people was just that—brief. He returned broken-hearted, wanting to start all over again. He called home and cried. Mom and Dad said, Come home, son. We miss you.
Even if he didn’t ask for it, Mom and Dad would have forgiven him anyway.
Mom and Seema teased that they would like to see him get married. He said he couldn’t. He said it would be unfair to the woman because he had nothing to give her.
The day before he passed away, he said he wanted to learn more. Pray more. He said he liked that Sana and Duff and Sahar were learning how to read the Qur’an. He said he needed us to be gentle with him and to let him do things at his own pace.
On the last day, he said I should live in Manhattan with him. He said I should go to college in New York—specifically Columbia University—and he’d work on Wall Street and support me. I said I wanted to stay home. He said I shouldn’t limit myself because he made mistakes. “Study what you love.”
On the last day, he didn’t understand why my uncle asked him to travel with him to London to sleep in a mosque if he could just sleep in the local mosque. When my uncle asked him to pray Salatul ‘Asr that day, he joined him. He loved my uncle and aunt a lot.
On the last day, he made coffee for everyone.
On the last day, we went to go visit a man who was suffering from cancer. My mom told me to get the keys from Anu. He was walking outside talking on the phone. I kept bugging him for the keys until he told the person on the phone, “Hold on a moment. My sister is being weird right now,” and then smiled and handed me the keys. Mom told him to eat whatever she left behind. “We will be coming home later.”
He smiled at me.
On the last day, he worked at the Cheesecake Factory to cover a friend’s shift, and then he met up with friends at the nearest Waffle House.
He left the world right at the highway exit we take to go home.
He was smiling as Qari Abdul Jaleel recited Qur’an beside him; even after his ghusl; even after being wrapped in his shroud; even as I kissed his forehead and told him I loved him and gave my salams before his funeral prayer.
I have now lived more than 24 years 7 months 26 days. Having out-lived him, I still don’t know everything about him. I still do not have his smoothness, fashion sensibility, hot temper, musical ear, artistic eye, sincere generosity, cooking skills, bold willingness to take risks, physical discipline, tolerance of pain, and discernment of people. I repeatedly return to my memories of him and discover something new that I could have only discovered with experience.
If I were to die today, it would not have been too early. It really never is.
And I now refer to myself as a woman.
Especially this year—knowing we are the same age—there’s so much I want to discuss with him. I want to ask him about the pieces of his story I don’t know and about the pieces of his life I have come to know, but I’ve learned to be patient.
Insha-Allah, we will meet again.
(Day 26, 27, 28 night of power, Reflect, It’s in the details)