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.
He had stayed with us for some time, because Kulsum had to go and work. (They couldn't manage to raise five children on Farouk's salary alone). We became very close to him. In fact, Fatima, being unable to bear children herself, focused a lot of attention on Muhsin, making a point to buy him something new every time she went to the shops, and spoiling him with expensive toys and sweets. The other children all stayed with my mother.
I tried to warn her about this, making her understand that Kulsum and Farouk might not be in the dumps forever, that Farouk might just get a better job and then Kulsum would not have to go to work anymore. She could then look after her children herself.
As I brought the car around to the front door to let Fatima get in, I remembered Muhsin's eleventh birthday. I could still see the excitement on his face when I had given him the PlayStation he had been talking about for days on end. The other children had all looked on enviously. Kulsum and Farouk had both come to me, telling me how much they appreciated what Fatima and I were doing for their child and that they would never forget it. Fatima had been busy in the kitchen.
I remembered how I had led them to Muhsin's room where toys were scattered all over the floor and the walls plastered with pictures of all his favourite characters. He was practically our own child.
It was approximately three weeks after that, that Farouk and Kulsum came to us and told us that they wanted Muhsin back.
Needless to say, I do not not have to explain in detail what Fatima's reaction had been, only that she hadn't stopped crying for days on end, and no matter how hard I tried I couldn't get her to go into Muhsin's room, let alone clean it.
Looking at her now as she got into the car, I still felt angry over what they had done, not only to her but to Muhsin as well. I hated them!
I drove off, thinking of all the stupid arguments we had engaged in in trying to talk sense into them. Farouk still had not found a better paying job, and Kulsum still had to go and work. But they had stuck to their belief that things would change for them once they had all their children with them, and they would show everyone that they would come out on top.
And so they took Muhsin back. But after five months of trying to prove a point, or call it whatever you will, Muhsin had come to visit us one Saturday afternoon, much to our surprise, and told us he didn't want to stay with his parents anymore.
I had looked at Fatima and there had been a fathomless expression on her face, almost as if to say, "I told you so!"
Muhsin had told us in no uncertain terms that his mother and father were always fighting over money, always abusing or blaming each other for their woes, and if any of the children asked for anything there would be hell to pay. I hadn't interrupted him, but Fatima had hugged him when he had begged us to take him back into our house.
That same day I had gone to see my sister and her husband and had not minced words when I told them how unhappy Muhsin was with them, and asked whether he could come and stay with us again.
Kulsum had sworn at me and told me not to interfere in their lives, and asked whether I was aware how cheeky and stubborn Muhsin was. She also said that Muhsin was back-chatting the both of them and setting a really bad example to all the other children. She wasn't saying it in so many words, but she was actually blaming Fatima and me for the child's misbehavior. I hadn't pursued the argument, I had merely left and asked them to reconsider my request; after all we loved him very much.
We pulled up at Kulsum's house after a 20-minute drive. My mother and youngest sister Ayesha were there. Farouk and the others had just arrived.
Muhsin's body was wrapped in a blanket and I could see blood seeping through one side. I greeted Kulsum and hugged her tight as she sobbed uncontrollably. "He was only 18, Brother. Only 18!"
I went on to greet my mother and Ayesha whose eyes were red with weeping. Fatima was also crying bitterly.
"What time do you plan to make the funeral?" I asked Farouk as we all helped to lay the body on a bier. Muslims usually bury within the same day, or as soon as possible if the body has to be transported from another area.
"What time do you think we should make it?" he asked me, and for a moment I was confused. "Why do you ask me that?" I wanted to say, but thought better of it. Now was not the time to bandy arguments about. One had to respect the dead. "I think three o'clock would be a good time seeing that it is Sunday," I offered. An elderly man with a grey beard had entered the room and I recognized him as the one who performs the ablution and prepares the body for burial. He removed the blanket from the deceased.
I tried not to look; I felt very sad. I wanted to scream out loud that this should never have happened. Muhsin should not have died in this manner! I buried my face in my hands.
I heard the old man giving instructions to someone and I still did not look up. I was thinking how many youngsters at this moment were lying shot up on coke, or methamphetamine (or Tik, as it is commonly known here in Cape Town). And how many of them were lying dead in mortuaries all over the world because of an overdose, or as in Muhsin's case, stabbed to death over an argument about who stole whose drugs. I was particularly cut up in thinking how many of these youngsters were indirectly encouraged by the ignorance and stupidity of their parents in following the drug route.
I finally looked up and I saw Fareed, Kulsum's second eldest child, standing on the other side of the bier. Tears were running down his cheeks freely. I made a vow there and then that no child that I knew, be it family or not, was ever going to go the drug abusers' way. Even if I have to use force. And if the parents should get in the way I will use every means at my disposal to fight them to get the child onto the right path. I wasn't even aware that tears and mucus were collecting at my chin, until my one brother put his arm around me and led me out of the room.