It was 2:15 on Sunday morning when the phone rang by my bedside, waking me from a sleep I had struggled to get into. I mumbled something unprintable and sat up. Fatima, my wife, was also awake.
"Who can this be?" she wanted to know, yawning aloud. "What time is it?" She stared at me bleary-eyed as I lifted the receiver, a frown starting to form on her forehead. "What time is it?" She persisted, putting her hand on my arm. I did not answer her. An uneasy feeling crept over me.
"Hello?" I said, almost too afraid to ask who it was. I had learned, over the years, that apart from pranksters, or irritating "wrong numbers," the only other phone call that comes in the middle of the night is the harbinger of death.
"Yes?" I spoke into the mouthpiece and recognized my sister Kulsum's voice. She seemed very upset. "Brother," she uttered half-hysterically, "Muhsin is dead!" They all called me Brother (I was the eldest) and Muhsin was her youngest son. She had five children.
"But how...?" I suddenly blurted out, not sure if I had heard right. "How can that be?"
Kulsum was very distraught. "They stabbed him to death earlier this evening, Brother."
"Verily from ALLAH we come, and to ALLAH is our return," I said, echoing the traditional Quranic verses that a Muslim is supposed to utter on hearing about death. I saw that Fatima was wiping tears from her eyes. She could hear every word.
"Where did this happen?" I croaked, my mouth feeling dry.
"I don't know!" she said, sobbing loudly. "He died on our doorstep. He crawled all the way here!"
I didn't know what to say. I felt as if someone had thrown cold water over me. "And where is he now? Where's the body?"
She pulled herself together. "Farouk and the others are at the mortuary. He phoned just now to say that they were on their way." Farouk was her husband.
"Okay." I said, swinging my feet from the bed. "I'll be there in a few minutes."
She thanked me and hung up. I couldn't help shaking my head as Fatima stared at me. "O, ALLAH. O, ALLAH!" We were wide awake now.
I pulled on my pants while Fatima went to the bathroom. Her diabetes always played havoc with her, especially when something distressing happened. I wondered who else Kulsum had informed.
I put on a thick jacket, because the wind had been lashing the area for most of the night and it was very cold. I thought of Muhsin, and how as a child he used to go fishing with me. How we used to take him (Fatima and I) everywhere we went, even to weddings and to prayer meetings. He loved the chants, and we sometimes had our hands full trying to keep him quiet when we wanted him to go to sleep.