Here lies Mostafa, or the lesson I learned far too late
It was early in the morning, so early that the birds weren’t yet chirping, so early that dawn hadn’t yet welcomed the sun. It was one of the last few nights of the month of Ramadan, and I was awake, having just eaten in preparation for the fast of the day ahead.
“Mostafa has passed away.”
I can still feel what it was like to see that message appear on my phone. My heart sank into my gut, then snapped back into place. I felt empty, overcome by waves of emotion that wouldn’t let me settle, that wouldn’t let me process.
I can still see myself standing in my room, hunched over the bed. One arm resting on the mattress, keeping me barely upright. The tears, welled up into heavy drops, coating my eye.
Cars were lined up for a mile on either side of the entrance to the cemetery by the time we arrived. There were hundreds of people already there, with hundreds more on the way. The sun beat down on us as we waited for the burial rites to begin. I was surrounded by many familiar faces, but no words were uttered. Only knowing glances. Nods of understanding.
We stood a thousand strong, in silence. I can still hear it. The rustling of steps ambling about the stone-littered path, the trampling of grass under feet light and heavy. The wiping of sweat, the wiping of tears. The sudden gasp of air, catching a wave of tears from bursting forth. The sniffling of those who couldn’t hold it back.
I don’t have to try remembering. I see it all. I still feel it all.
We prayed for my friend. We prayed for his father. For his family. For each other. Then time came to lay him to rest. I yearned for a way to bring my friend back, but time was ticking away, pushing forward. His body had been washed and shrouded, placed in a casket, and the funeral prayer performed. The burial commenced, and I found myself standing before his grave, clutching a fist full of soil.
It’s not real yet.
It was just a text message.
Please. Let it be a prank.
I loosened my grip and let the soil fall away. I couldn’t look into the grave, another fleeting attempt at keeping reality out of reach. I fell back through the crowd waiting to be next. A short distance away, I saw another crowd forming into two untidy queues. I looked past the people lining up, and set my eyes on who they were lining up for. Mostafa’s two brothers.
Those who met Mostafa might be inclined to think that he was a one-in-a-million personality. A genuine, compassionate leader who had an uncanny ability to apply his strength and humility to every situation. For those of us fortunate to know his family, though, those characteristics were similarly found in his brothers, his sister, his mother, and his father. Your life was better if you knew just one of them, your life felt full if you got to know all of them.
I took my place in the line in front of his younger brother. As I shuffled forward, I watched them both patiently standing under the burdensome heat. Tens to hundreds of us wanted to pay our respects, and they let us. They didn’t run nor escape to grieve in quiet. They stood vigilant, their faces a plump red from the heat, covered in tears, in sweat.
It was nearly my turn when my mind started to rush through what I should say.
“I’m sorry for your loss.”
“Sorry for you.”
“Sorry for your family.”
“May God give you and your family the strength to bear this difficulty.”
“May God grant Mostafa an abode in the highest of heavens.”
“If you need anything, I’m here for you.”
Were those words too empty? Did they matter?
I decided that those words had to suffice. I thought, “I’ll start with those words and I’ll imbue them with meaning by speaking from my heart.” Then it’s on me to make those words matter in the days, weeks, and years ahead. I’d eventually fail at that.
It was my turn now. I looked at Mostafa’s little brother, finally seeing him. Finally locking eyes with him.
“Assalaaaaaaaaaaamu alaikum,” is how Mostafa greeted me the first time we met. Hearing those elongated vowels, his face bright with a smile and full of recognition, frazzled me for a moment.
“Wait, am I that utterly terrible at remembering people, or does this guy know me?”, I asked myself.
No, I hadn’t met him ever before, that much I knew. But that stretched out welcome, those words of glad tidings, they would become a repeated and familiar refrain during our friendship. It wouldn’t take long for me to learn to reciprocate with an equivalent response.
“Wa alaikum as salaaaaaaaaaaaaaam”.
That’s how our friendship began, with me wanting tickets to an event on campus he was helping organize. I had walked into the room, a bundle of nerves. But, I was a bundle of nerves and anxiety that had committed to fight my nature, and would make me sit in the middle of what was going to be a seriously crowded event. I had walked into the room barely a rung above weak, but the disarming kindness Mostafa showed me in that brief exchange made me forget those worries. For a few moments, I looked forward to going to that event.
Our friendship would remain a casual acquaintance for a while, thanks to me. I kept everyone at bay, because that’s what people without any self worth did. It worked for a while, but then I showed some initiative, I showed that I cared about a little thing no one else did, and that’s usually all it took for Mostafa. A little spark, that’s all it ever took.
If I made a website for a small student organization as a side project, he would tell me that I’m now an administrator for a larger organization’s website.
He saw that I enjoyed writing, so he pushed me into a role as an editor for a campus newsletter.
He recognized my horror at the thought of speaking in public, so he made me give a series of speeches in front of peers who I had immense respect for. Until today, I cringe at the memory of the nerve-wracked nonsense I sputtered in front of them.
He took a bat to my excuses. He pushed me to realize what I wanted to do, and enabled me to do it better than I thought I could. This was how the second stage of our friendship was forged, a period of collaboration that found us blazing a trail of good for people near and far from us. A time in which I was fulfilled by contributing, not by taking. A time in which I learned about what it takes to be a person who makes the people around you, better than you are yourself. A time in which I learned what it took to be a leader.
Then came the time when my days on campus were coming to a close. I had decided to take a step back from most of my extracurricular work. Not out of a lack of interest, but these being the waning days of my college experience, I decided to pass the baton on to those who would continue on. I finally found myself able to spot a spark here and there, and see the fruits of making others see in themselves what they couldn’t before. Mostafa had stuck around for those years, having found work that kept him on campus.
After college, our friendship was marked by the simple act of conversation. The first type of conversation happened over the phone. It was often at night, each of us leaving work all-too-late, recounting the day with tired voices, offering enough distraction to get us home in one piece.
The thing I remember most about the calls is not the content of what we discussed, but the revolving cast of characters that would make themselves heard during those rides. Mostafa has three younger siblings. A brother who worked with Mostafa, a sister who still had a couple of years of learning to go, and the youngest brother, who was just getting started. Some combination of them would join in on those calls. We weren’t conferencing on one line, nor was I on speakerphone. Nope, they would join in despite that, injecting their special flavor of snark at just the right spots. The wall of politeness they tried to put up in the early days crumbled quickly, and I’m glad it did.
The second manner of conversation happened at Mostafa’s office. These were nights when I left the office and capped my day with an hour or two with my friend. He was wrapping his day up by then and usually waiting for a brother or sister to be done with their class before jetting home. Sometimes these conversations took on the look and feel of the calls driving home. Other times we’d talk about what else we could do, what else we should do. We’d talk about putting our energies into new projects. There was so much to get done, so little time to do it in, and even less people to do the work. We got to do a few things in those years. We got to see the sparks again.
The conversations in the office became less and less frequent in the last year of Mostafa’s life. He wasn’t feeling well, and didn’t make it to work for quite some time. The conversations over the phone also happened less and less. When he did get back to work, and he did try to call…I could hear the pain in his voice, and couldn’t ask him to keep speaking. I’d say that we’ll talk more when he’s better. I’d say goodbye.
In early June of that last year, I got an email from Mostafa. It asked me, and whoever else he sent it to, to pray for him. He was sick, and had been for nearly two years. Whether he was right or wrong to do so, he had kept this to himself, but now felt the need to share it with me, and whoever else he sent it to. The tone was as serious and somber as I had ever seen Mostafa get. The language so formal. That made sense to me, since it was obviously to a larger group of people.
Mostafa’s little brother stood before me, soaked with grief, sweat, and tears. He stood near Mostafa’s still open grave. He didn’t move from there, as close as he could get to his brother, without being in the grave itself.
I reached for an embrace, to pull him a little farther away from the edge of the grave, to keep him safe. Then, before I got to say the words and phrases I had considered earlier, he spoke. I can’t remember the precise order of the words he said, I don’t even remember what all the words were. What I do remember is the way the words leaped out of him, like he had been waiting, waiting all too long to say them. It was a message for me, that my friend Mostafa, loved me, that he loved our friendship, that he recounted what our friendship meant to him time and time again.
I may have said the words I had prepped in advance. I don’t remember. All at once, I was shaken, grieving, and now full of regret. That little message, delivered by my little brother, betrayed an understanding of the harmful way I framed the relationships in my life. I may have suspected what I was doing to myself, but until that moment, I had never considered the damage I had done.
My friendship with Mostafa was one that I cherished, but thought of as one-sided. Mostafa was a larger than life figure, with a wealth of friends and loved ones who he gave his attention to. I was fortunate to get some of that. I considered myself blessed, in fact. But I was also happy for him to be my friend, not that I was necessarily his. In fact, there was no way we were on equal footing. He was Mostafa.
When he asked me to attend some gathering or event, I didn’t have to, because enough of his real friends would be there. When he called me over to his office, I was always down. But to suggest to him that I come over, well that was just silly. When he called me, I picked up. But to pick up the phone and call him, well he’s probably busy anyway. In all of this, I was completely and utterly wrong. Because of all this, I had wronged the best of my friends.
That last email, the one that arrived in early June, barely two months before he passed away, would haunt me. A couple of days after the email, I was at a close friend’s wedding, and found a mutual friend of Mostafa there. He was a friend to me, too, but another one of those incredible humans who was definitely tighter with Mostafa than I ever could be. The friend asked if I had heard from Mostafa, who had by then been quite absent on the social scene.
“Yeah, you know, you saw the email,” I said.
“What email?” He asked, in complete surprise.
In that moment, I panicked. “I heard he isn’t doing too well, but no idea beyond that,” I replied. I was worried that I had broken Mostafa’s trust, that the circle who got the email was much smaller than I assumed. I was worried enough that I messaged Mostafa’s younger brother, letting him know that I slipped, and to apologize to Mostafa on my behalf. The next day, Mostafa responded to the original email.
“Please note this message was only sent to you (Talal). So please, keep this between us.”
I gulped, thinking my friend was probably and justifiably upset. It was only way too late, only after his passing, that I understood just how immeasurably wrong I was. It’s only now, that I look at the subject of the email, and realize the extent of my failure.
“For Your Eyes Only”
In the days and weeks that followed the funeral, the severity of how I considered my friendship with Mostafa wouldn’t leave me. I picked one relationship after another in my life, and found the same happening time and time again. People who expressed their love for me, people who respected me, people who kept asking me to go out somewhere, despite a decade of declining them. People for whom I had a genuine affection, but whose affection I didn’t allow to reach me. Sure, there are people who you aren’t sure about, but this wasn’t that. These were people who I had no doubt about, but for whom I didn’t allow that certainty.
It had been years and years of saying ‘no,’ of not reaching out, of not checking in, of not… being a real friend. It had been months of not calling Mostafa back. Months since he left me that last voicemail message. Weeks and weeks of, “he must be busy, he must be tired, I’ll call when he’s better.”
What it left me with, is a lesson I would have to apply to so many in my life. A lesson that I still fight to apply, to put into action, but one that I’ve at least learned. What it also left me with, though, is regret. Regret, that I am the reason I never got to say goodbye.
Until next time, my friend.
Author’s note: I owe an immeasurable thanks to Amy and Bret for giving me the key to unlocking this piece after four years of failing to do so on my own.
I also owe a special thanks to Elaine, Rami, Chris, Rachel, Mohab, and Rich, for their feedback and insight on my journey towards publishing this.