She's My Sister*
by Muhammad Alshareef
*Translated by Muhammad Alshareef from the book Azzaman Alqaadim compiled by Abdulmalik Al-Qasim.
Her cheeks were worn and sunken, and her skin hugged her bones. That didn't stop her because you could never catch her not reciting Qur'an. She was always vigil in her personal prayer room that our father had set up for her. Bowing, prostrating, raising her hands in prayer, was the way she was from dawn to sunset and back again; boredom was for other people.
As for me, I craved nothing more than fashion magazines and novels. I treated myself to videos until the trips to the rental place became my trademark. It’s a saying that when something becomes habit, people tend to distinguish you by it. I was negligent in my responsibilities and my salah was characterized by laziness.
One night, after a long three hours of watching, I turned the video off. The adhan rose softly in the quiet night. I slipped peacefully into my blanket.
Her voice called me from her prayer room. "Yes? Would you like anything Noorah?" I asked.
With a sharp needle she popped my plans. "Don't sleep before you pray Fajr!"
Agghh! “There's still an hour before Fajr. That was only the first adhan,” I said.
With those loving pinches of hers, she called me closer. She was like that even before the fierce sickness shook her spirit and shut her in bed. "Hanan, can you come sit beside me."
I could never refuse any of her requests; you could touch the purity and sincerity in her. "Yes, Noorah?"
"Please sit here."
"Alright, I’m sitting. What's on your mind?"
With the sweetest mono voice she began reciting:
Every soul shall taste death and you will merely be repaid your earnings on the Day of Resurrection.
She stopped thoughtfully. Then she asked, "Do you believe in death?"
"Of course I do,” I replied.
"Do you believe that you shall be responsible for whatever you do, regardless of how small or large?"
"I do, but Allah is Forgiving and Merciful, and I’ve got a long life waiting for me."
"Stop it Hanan! Are you not afraid of death and its abruptness? Take a look at Hind. She was younger than you but she died in a car accident. Death is age-blind and your age could never be a measure of when you shall die."
The darkness of the room filled my skin with fear. "I'm scared of the dark and now you made me scared of death. How am I supposed to go to sleep now? Noorah, I thought you promised you'd go with us on vacation during the summer break."
Her voice broke and her heart quivered. "I might be going on a long trip this year Hanan, but somewhere else. All of our lives are in Allah’s hands and we all belong to Him."
My eyes welled and the tears slipped down both cheeks. I pondered my sisters grizzly sickness. The doctors had informed my father in private that there was not much hope Noorah was going to outlive the disease. She wasn't told, so I wondered who hinted to her. Or was it that she could sense the truth?
"What are you thinking about Hanan?" Her voice was sharp. "Do you think I am just saying this because I am sick? I hope not. In fact, I may live longer than people who are not sick. How long are you going to live Hanan? Perhaps twenty years? Maybe forty? Then what?" Through the dark she reached for my hand and squeezed gently. "There's no difference between us; we're all going to leave this world to live in Paradise or agonize in Hell. Listen to the words of Allah:
Anyone who is pushed away from the Fire and shown into Jannah will have triumphed.
I left my sister's room dazed, her words ringing in my ears: “May Allah guide you Hanan - don't forget your prayer.”
I heard pounding on my door at eight o'clock in the morning. I don't usually wake up at this time. There was crying and confusion. O Allah, what happened?
Noorah’s condition became critical after Fajr; they took her to the hospital immediately.
Inna lillahi wa inna ilayhi raji'oon.
There wasn't going to be any trips this summer. It was written that I would spend the summer at home.
It felt like an eternity had gone by when it was one o'clock in the afternoon. Mother phoned the hospital.
"Yes. You can come and see her now." Dad's voice had changed, and mother could sense something had gone deathly wrong. We left immediately.
Where was that avenue I used to travel and thought was so short? Why was it so very long now? Where was the cherished crowd and traffic that would give me a chance to gaze left and right? Everyone, just move out of our way!
Mother was shaking her head in her hands crying as she made du'a for her Noorah. We arrived at the hospital’s main entrance. One man was moaning, while another was involved in an accident. A third man’s eyes were iced. You couldn’t tell if he was dead or alive.
Noorah was in intensive care. We skipped stairs to her floor. The nurse approached us. "Let me take you to her."
As we walked down the aisles the nurse went on expressing how sweet of a girl Noorah was. She somewhat reassured Mother that Noorah’s condition had gotten better than what it was in the morning. "Sorry. No more than one visitor at a time,” the nurse said.
This was the intensive care unit. Past the flurry white robes, through the small window in the door, I caught my sister’s eyes. Mother was standing beside her. After about two minutes, mother came out unable to control her crying. "You may enter and say salaam to her on the condition that you do not speak too long," they told me. "Two minutes should be enough."
"How are you Noorah? You were fine last night sister, what happened?"
We held hands; she squeezed harmlessly. "Even now, alhamdulillah, I'm doing fine."
"Alhamdulillah...but...your hands are so cold."
I sat on her bedside and rested my fingers on her knee. She jerked it away. "Sorry, did I hurt you?"
"No, it is just that I remembered Allah's words.”
Waltafatul saaqu bil saaq (One leg will be wrapped to the other leg [in the death shroud]).
"Hanan pray for me. I may be meeting the first day of the Hereafter very soon. It’s a long journey and I haven't prepared enough good deeds in my suitcase."
A tear escaped my eye and ran down my cheek at her words. I cried and she joined me. The room blurred away and left us two sisters to cry together. Rivulets of tears splashed down on my sister’s palm, which I held with both hands. Dad was now becoming more worried about me. I've never cried like that before.
At home and upstairs in my room, I watched the sun pass away with a sorrowful day. Silence mingled in our corridors. One after another, my cousins came in my room. The visitors were many and all the voices from downstairs stirred together. Only one thing was clear at that point – Noorah had died!
I stopped distinguishing who came and who went. I couldn't remember what they said. O Allah, where was I? What was going on? I couldn't even cry anymore.
Later that week they told me what had happened. Dad had taken my hand to say goodbye to my sister for the last time. I had kissed Noorah's head.
I remember only one thing while seeing her spread on that bed – the bed that she was going to die on. I remembered the verse she recited:
One leg will be wrapped to the other leg (in the death shroud).
And I knew too well the truth of the next verse:
The drive on that day will be to your Lord (Allah)!
I tiptoed into her prayer room that night. Staring at the quiet dressers and silenced mirrors, I treasured the person that had shared my mother's stomach with me. Noorah was my twin sister.
I remembered who I had swapped sorrows with, who comforted my rainy days. I remembered who prayed for my guidance and who spent so many tears for many long nights telling me about death and accountability. May Allah save us all.
Tonight is Noorah's first night that she shall spend in her tomb. O Allah, have mercy on her and illumine her grave. This was her Qur'an and her prayer mat. And this was the spring, rose-colored dress that she told me she would hide until she got married; the dress she wanted to keep just for her husband.
I remembered my sister and cried over all the days that I had lost. I prayed to Allah to have mercy on me, accept me and forgive me. I prayed to Allah to keep her firm in her grave as she always liked to mention in her supplications.
At that moment, I stopped. I asked myself what if it was I who had died. Where would I be moving on to? Fear pressed me and the tears began all over again.
“Allahu Akbar, Allahu Akbar…” The first adhan rose softly from the masjid. It sounded so beautiful this time. I felt calm and relaxed as I repeated the mu’adhin’s call. I wrapped the shawl around my shoulders and stood to pray Fajr. I prayed as if it was my last prayer, a farewell prayer, just like Noorah had done yesterday. It had been her last Fajr.
Now, and in sha Allah for the rest of my life, if I awake in the morning I do not count on being alive by evening, and in the evening I do not count on being alive by morning. We are all going on Noorah's journey. What have we prepared for it?
*Muhammad Alshareef's final speech at the 1999 MYNA East Zone Conference.