There was a box on the table and a suitcase open on the gravel near the long benches, littered with large dishes now almost empty and being picked at by the last few lunchers. The box and suitcase were full of jumpers, polo shirts, a windbreaker jacket, trousers. They looked small for someone of his stature; he’d been solid, bear-like, as though carved from wood. A Russian Tartar with a full mouth of gold teeth and a neatly groomed moustache. I only ever saw him a few times before he got ill.
His widow Katya sparkled, her lipstick a girlish shade of candyfloss, her Spanish stilted and apologetic, her hands warm and squeezable and whitened with cooking fat scars. She was getting used to her new name, Karima, having become Muslim only days before he died. It was one way to remember him. Now she smiled with an immense joy for having people to give his clothes to, gratitude for having had him in the first place, excitement at sharing him out to everyone the way a musician is thrilled for a rapturous reception.
There were often things for sale or give away outside the mosque on a Friday afternoon after Jumu’ah prayers, boxes of Sadaqah clothes, halal chorizo and salami, booklets of transcribed teachings. Today another woman was laying out dresses, oriental perfumes and jewellery on one of the tables that sloped at an unfortunate angle.
The worshippers were already drifting to their cars, cajoling their children to get their shoes on, put down that poor kitten and get in. My toddler kept running off to see the older kids, the cars starting up, the two donkeys brought down belatedly by a neighbour for the last few children to ride on in the dustbowl car park. Some of the men, having lingered this long after the food – Karima’s unbelievable chocolate and almond cake – had called the adhan for Asr and were inside praying. Meanwhile, the rest of us (mostly ladies, no surprise there) were pawing through the clothes and perfumes, appreciating them in muted voices.
That was when I noticed the things Karima was offering, not knowing whose clothes they had been. I love a good jumble sale; I’d once planned on holding a monthly ‘Rumble in the Jumble’ in the sleepy English village where we used to live. My newest ruse was to find wool sweaters, over-sized, and to felt them in a hot wash cycle to make neat winter things for me and my son.
I could see, being slowly uncovered as others pulled overlying garments out of the boxes, a peach of a jumper. It was sort of oatmeal in colour, but it was more the feel of the wool that my eyes were already stroking that made me pick it out.
“Baraka de Ibrahim,” Karima said with warmth.
So this jumper – these clothes – had been his! The man who, less than a month ago, was released from his breakneck descent into amnesia, incoherence and disability as his cancer metastasized and consumed him from the inside out – these were the textiles that used to hug him loyally, through pain and calm, hold him like those strong hands of Karima’s did.
During that time there were men going to see him by turns every day, helping him to move about; he was too heavy for Karima to carry. She was also being visited by the women, who brought her cooked food so that she didn’t have to cook for herself, though her own cooking probably far outshone theirs. She was still working in the mornings, cleaning someone’s house and helping their decrepit mother to wash herself and go to the bathroom.
Maybe I thought that, being just pregnant with my second child, I was too close to the start of the existential roundabout to be an appropriate presence in their home, a mirror into what their own lives were like thirty years ago when their children were still in nappies. One way or another, I felt they’d understand if I didn’t call by. Ibrahim’ death didn’t need to be a bandwagon.
When he did die, mercifully not too long after the worst of his illness had started to bite, the men followed the traditional Islamic rites of washing his body so that it didn’t putrify in the ground too soon, wrapping him in shrouds, perfuming him, and laying him directly in the ground without a coffin. My friend, a carpenter, had made a sort of wooden deathbed for the body to lie on in the grave, so that it didn’t touch the earth immediately. The whole process takes a day, and the work of perhaps ten strong men to fill the grave – six feet of empty space, minus that occupied by the body, astonishingly small once the life that once animated it has left.
The whole way through this process, it was human hands that had touched him, held him, carried him, washed him, buried him. These were the same hands that had shaken his while he was alive, had passed him plates of his wife’s superlative potato and chicken casserole, or grapes and persimmons from friend’s gardens, or slices of watermelon to slake that unbearable summer thirst. The voices that sang his funeral cortege up the hill to the Muslim graveyard, where people could be buried in the ground instead of in slots in a concrete wall like in the Catholic cemeteries – cementerios as they are so aptly called – those voices were familiar to him, had also touched him acoustically.
The night of the funeral also happened to be the wedding celebration of the sheikh’s daughter. Some of the guests there had also been at the graveside only hours before. It had drizzled that day, a damp and welcome conclusion to the furnace that had been September – baraka, everyone said: blessings.
The rain didn’t dampen any spirits that evening. The double duty guests had changed their clothes, scrawled on some make-up, adjusted their outlook from one of grief to one that straddled endings and beginnings, joy and sadness being joined on an elastic band, one pulling the other after it in a perpetual hopscotch. The sheikh’s daughter danced; the flamenco dancers danced – even the random Senegalese guest who gatecrashed the party danced. It was a wedding that embraced all things sober and ecstatic, the Sufis and the teenage fashionistas, the old people (even me, aged with parenthood) looking back, wistful and relieved, and the young people looking forward, daring and unharmed.
At the Friday prayers a month later, the young couple had already moved on, as had so many other things. The plates of food had not yet been laid out, the boxes of jumble and perfumes still sat unopened. The bride’s father was away and an Algerian man gave the khutba which, admittedly, I largely spent stroking my son’s soft bare feet and round little nose. But several of the women were in tears, of release and not of sadness. Even one of the toughest, most self-abnegating ones among them was startlingly serene, her eyes closed, no longer clacking nervously on her tasbih beads and sighing with the hopelessness of her spiritual task.
The tears being shed fell from faces made tender through sudden exposure to an intense, boundless, undiscriminating love. There was no hurt, or guilt even, except perhaps regret for never having noticed it before, for having complained despite it. Even the usually raucous kids playing outside had inexplicably chosen not to beat each other up with sticks or throw one another into a hole.
I was hardly listening to the talk he gave, confronted as usual by the initial culture shock of going from my house/local supermarket/yoga group to this place where women wore dozens of layers of clothing even in hot sweaty weather and people stood in rows putting their foreheads on the carpet. Even though I was born a Muslim and brought up with Sufism as a daily part of my life, I still experience this jolt of misplaced expectations, of my perception of normality, whenever I come to a mosque without steeling myself for the turbulence in advance.
But when surrounded by people whose whole beings seem to have been pounded by some powerful waves, and who have yielded to them and come out freed from their stiff, powerless defences, it is impossible to be impervious. The love-ache spreads and you learn that you only feel bruised when you try to repel it.
The hugs and kisses that always come after a Friday prayer were this time long and fully felt, not the usual mosh pit of women trying to kiss each person, mentally ticking them off the list. It was as though all of us were rising out of a surreal and beautiful dream at the same time and recognised people they had just been dreaming about.
Not much was said that I can remember. Orders were called from the kitchen and we drifted out dozily to plates of rice, salsa, lentils, olives, pumpkin soup and Karima’s potato and chicken casserole, which was so delicious I have to mention it again. “Very easy,” was all Karima managed to say among the dazed chatter. And then came her chocolate and almond cake…never had so many women wanted a recipe so badly. I was sitting next to her. I wanted to eat her up, her food was so good.
In the porch of the mosque that afternoon, a golden sense of unburdening lingered on well after the meal was cleared away and digested, the obligatory Moroccan green tea drunk, the various tasks as home needing to be done remembered. I don’t know what it was. Sometimes a great collective weight eases from a people’s mind, the strain of keeping heads above water giving in to an overwhelming urge to let the tide carry them to shore – whatever shore it may be. I am reminded of something sweet my father’s sheikh used to say: “Relax your mind and learn to swim”.
And there was Karima, her husband now fully relaxed and swimming in the tsunami of the infinite, giving away her cake recipe and his old clothes in candyfloss pink lipstick. I wondered if she felt that neither had ever really been hers to possess. As the Prophet Muhammad said, peace and blessings be upon him, whatever you give away you will be reunited with in the Garden. Our greatest losses in this world are our greatest gifts in that ever-present other.