Saaeda Begum, Mother of Irfan Khudi Ali -by Asim Rafiqui
Irfan Ali was perhaps one of the most well known young Hazara activists and human rights worker. His death in the January 10, 2013 suicide bomb attack sent shock waves across the country, and solicited outrage and statements of sorrow from a many diverse sections of Pakistan’s human rights and academic community. Known fondly as Khudi Ali – he remained a steadfast and passionate speaker for justice in the country, speaking out against intolerance and bigotry, and working relentlessly build forums for dialogues across the country. His mother, whom I met briefly soon after his death, was generous enough to spend a few moments with me despite a grief that clearly continued to overwhelm her.
These boys will not let me cry. Bu there is a knife in my heart, and my tears are my only solace. What do they expect from me – to receive the news of my son’s death in this house…what else is there for me? But they will not allow it. Irfan’s Ali’s mother is distraught. I have come too soon after the death of her son. Its been nearly three weeks since he died, but I realize at that moment that I have come too soon. She is not ready to talk. Her heart, still burdened with the horror of her son’s death, is not ready to make room for anything other than grief. She weeps quietly. I sit close to her, facing her, on the floor. She weeps – her frail body, draped in a generous shawl, shakes gently. I watch her hands – the sinews, the folds of the skin, the hard, plastic like texture.
You obviously knew Ifran Ali? Everyone knew Irfan Ali. Ali Baba Taj says that to me as I enter the living room of his home. I have not heard of Irfan Ali until that question and I am a little taken aback and somewhat embarrassed by Baba Taj’s confident declaration. I offer a sheepish Yes and hope that in the following moments I will learn something more about this man.
As we enter I see two young men already sitting on the living room floor, large sheets of white and colored paper lying in front of them. One of them is on his knees and is using a larger permanent marker to make what look like protest posters for a planned protest rally. I can read the word GENOCIDE and STOP THE KILLINGS on a few signs leaning against one of the large chairs in the room. The marker makes soft squeaks against the paper.
Thick curtains cover the windows of the living room– a recent suicide bomb attack that killed nearly 102 has shattered the glass and they have had to pull the curtains across the windows to keep the winter wind out. A gas heater – set at its highest flame setting to offset the cold air that creeps in from the broken windows, sits in the middle of the room and the boys huddle around it as they continue with their work on the posters.
We sit down on the thick, plush carpet that covers the floor of the entire room. The people here prefer to sit on the floor, the sofas being used more decorative elements. Ali Baba Taj takes out a pack of cigarettes and light one. The two boys do the same and soon the rooms air – already thick from the heat emanating from the gas heater, fills with a dense haze of smoke.
This is for Irfan. Ali Baba Taj points to the many protests placards that sit leaning against a wall behind me. He was an inspiration to so many of us here. This is his legacy…He trails off. I miss him every moment. Ali Baba Taj pulls on his cigarette – a poet, an academic, he was a close friend of Irfan Ali, the man whose family I have come to meet. Not just friends, he says when I ask him about their relationship, but something more like brothers…he was a part of each day I lived and I used to often wait for his arrival for my day to begin.
I had told him to stop all this he was doing. Her voice is weak. Her eyes swim in a pool of tears, constantly darting across the room. She rarely blinks. Why do you care about this country, or about what happens here? But he would not listen, and insist that his work would make a difference.
Irfan was among those killed in a suicide attack at a snooker club in the Meir Abad neighborhood. Until that moment I had known Irfan as just a young man who had died in an attack claimed by a religious movement – one nurtured by the country’s political and military establishment, and that had become detached from any moral and ethical thought, that had promised to rid Baluchistan of the Hazara and the Shi’a.
A suicide bomber had detonated a powerful bomb at a snooker club on January 10, 2013, killing 102 young people. Irfan had not been at the club that night, though it was close to where he lived. There had been two bombs that night. The first had compelled him to rush to the club to help the injured. As a crowd collected to help those injured in the earlier blast, the suicide bomber detonated the second bomb that killed Irfan instantly.
I went mad with panic when he did not return home. I knew something had happened. We were just going to sit down to dinner. When he ran after the first blast to help the survivors I tried desperately to stop him.
She adjusts here shawl which has slipped down her head. Her grey hair – thin and disheveled, ends in a simple pony rail. I was right. I had told him that he was wasting his time on this nation. I was right.
At a candle light vigil held in memory of those killed in the January 10 blast, Ali Baba Taj refuses to recite a poem. Instead I find him sitting quietly by Irfan’s grave, simply staring into the distance, a cigarette in one hand, and a crumpled piece of paper in the other – the poem he had meant to read at the vigil perhaps? He had been invited, along with other Hazara poets, to attend the vigil and read some his works at the burial site. But he had refused, perhaps overcome by grief and the sense of the pointlessness of words in the face of the reality.
It was a bitterly cold night, and the hundred or so people – mostly young boys and girls, standing among the graves in the heavy darkness are huddled against each other holding protest placards, small candles and photographs of those who had died in the attack. Some are already sitting by graves, reading from prayer books, or simply sitting with hands pressed against the earth, lost in thought and mourning. Others walk about the graves, showering them with holy water and rose petals, bending down to adjusting the temporary tombstones and pebbles that define their outlines, patting down the dirt or simply touching them out of respect. A man with a microphone stands to one side, asking various people to step forward to say a few words – Mohsin Changezi, a poet I had met earlier in the week, is there, and reads his works. People listen in silence, as a strong, angry cold wind lashes the congregation, upsetting carefully placed head coverings, extinguishing candle flames, dislodging prayer books from shivering fingers, raising a thin dust that is impossible to see in the dark, but penetrates the soul, and periodically drowning out the sound of the poets voice despite the amplifier being used to allow it to reach the furthest corners of the cemetery.
Throughout all this Ali Baba Taj sits by Irfan’s grave. Soon I join him. He hands me a cigarette and I, after a few tries – the wind is unforgiving, manages to light it. We sit together, using each other’s bodies to stay warm. His memory teases and pains me all the time. I struggle to give vent to these feelings. He is speaking to no one in particular. There are a few young men also sitting around the grave, but I am not introduced to them. We would see each other or speak to each other at least once a day – regardless of where he was here in Pakistan or abroad. We would always be in touch – his family and even my family knew, that this was a very special relationship. The ash from his cigarette teeters at a precarious angle, and surprisingly has not become a victim of the wind. His body was fragrant – I do not exaggerate. Even after four days without burial, sitting there in protest, it was fragrant. This is not a poet’s verse, but a fact. He leans forward, picking up some dirt in his hands, and throwing it onto Irfan’s grave, as if reliving the burial. Irfan’s family asked me to lead the last prayers before his burial. It will remain the greatest honor of my life. I am forever grateful to them for asking me to do this.
His father died when he was only five. I had asked her about Irfan’s childhood – a story or an incident. But she did not understand my question. Or simply did not hear it. I raised him, and his brothers and sister, through my poverty and difficulties. And for what? For this? She presses her lips hard against each other, yet I can see them quiver. I told him to stop all this. That there was no point in it. But he would not listen. Irfan’s brother, Mohammed Ali, who has sat quietly in a corner, now crawls forward and hands her a box of tissues. She ignores it and sits staring at her hands.
We are in a cafe – its cold, and sitting with Ali Baba Taj and some others who have gathered together to talk about the situation since the imposing of Governor’s rule in the state. It was one of the principal demands of those who had protested in the aftermath of the bombing – the removal of the sitting government because of its failure to protect the lives of the people of the city. But the removal had not bought any promise of hope, and fear and despondency continued to hover over gatherings such as this one between local academics and intellectuals. We sat in a corner of the cafe – four men crowded around a metal table, and drank tea from small ceramic cups. The only other person there was the proprietor of the cafe who sits behind a high glass-front counter, the wall behind him surrounded by posters of Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto and his daughter, Benazir Bhutto. Small paper flags in the colors of the Pakistan’s People’s Party (PPP) are strung over his head on a rope.
Ali Baba Taj has introduced me to the men, and mentioned my interest in Irfan and his legacy. They in acknowledgement and welcome me to their part of the city. All are older than Ali Baba Taj – their faces hidden under hats, mouths covered with scarves to help them stave off the cold. The corner we sit in is poorly lit, making I further difficult for me to see their features. One of them,leans forward Did Baba Taj tell you about his idea to create a wall of peace? I shake my head. Yes, he had this strange idea – it had animated him for months, to build this wall in front of the Parliament house in Islamabad where all the human rights and justice organizations from across the country could post their demands. Ali Baba Taj laughs at some memory I remember that time well…I remember one evening his calling me, and telling me how he was standing in Islamabad, broke and without enough money to eat, but talking and planning this monument to the best ideas in the country. We had both laughed at our naiveté and foolishness. The others smile in acknowledgement, and drag hard at their cigarettes. I think that he was terribly disappointed at the lack of interest in the idea – he could not understand why most were reluctant to take part. Too confrontational I suppose, but Irfan was like that – he was ready to confront if he had to.
I suffer each moment. I want to tear at my head. Is it because we are shi’a? Is it because we love Hussein? I have heard this refrain repeated often since coming to Quetta – a conviction that this violence is sectarian. There is enough evidence of the violence’s sectarian nature – including the statements made by one of the military organizations orchestrating the attacks, but I can’t help but feel that such a characterization remains ahistorical, and an apolitical judgement. That there is a context, a politics and a history that has given rise to this specific reign of violence and we must begin to understand it. But I do not raise these points – the situation is too raw for a discussion on history and the choices that have bought us here to this moment, and to this room. I am lost in thought, but am quickly pulled away from them when I notice her looking at me. I want to die….its my only hope. He will call me to himself and I will find peace. Otherwise I can only suffer.
The pain will remain. What are you going to do about that. He was beautiful – in looks, in thought, in sentiments, in passions. We are sitting in Ali Baba Taj’s home. He has promised to read some of his poems for me, and invited me to his house where we can sit in private. The apartment feels uninhabited – dishes lie unwashed in the sink, clothes are strewn on a bed that I can see from the hallway, a film of dust covers the photo frames, vases and hangings that decorate the rooms. The air feels stale. Later Ali Baba Taj tells me that he does not live there any more, having moved his family to his mother’s house, our of fear of leaving them alone. As we settle down on the carpet in his living room, drag the gas heater closer to us, light our cigarettes, Ali Baba Taj flips through notebooks to find poems that he wishes to share with us. I see him pull out a sheet of paper on which he has scribbled some verses – I wrote this one for Irfan and begins to read:
Later as we sit and take in the meaning of his words, he adds: His work did not go to waste, his dreams have not been forgotten. I see his legacy all around me – in the way this community has rallied together, the way we have stood together, the way our young are organizing and speaking out against those who would rather kill them. Irfan gave us courage, and showed us how to transform it into action. He takes a deep breath He will now live through us.
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