First, there was a text message from my mother. It contained an untitled video which I opened and began watching while I was on the train to Lakemba in Sydney’s south-west, determined to purchase a new set of prayer beads from Darussalam: Your Muslim Bookstore. The video was of a first-person shooter, the nose of a long firearm cocked in front of the camera, moving towards an arched doorway and a golden dome. The weapon began firing and the people inside, dressed in white thobes, began running and falling on top of each other like insects.
Illustration by Simon Letch.Credit:
The images reminded me of the most heinous crime I’d committed as a boy: sitting in the grass by the Parramatta River, I captured an orange butterfly resting on a four-leaf clover. I stared at it closely in the bright sunshine while it flapped its wings, trying to break free from my small fingers. Suddenly I found myself plucking off its wings, and once the butterfly was naked and black, I let it down and watched it crawl away on its legs. Years later my father, a dark-olive-skinned man with a strong jaw, thick black moustache and sharp frown, warned me never to hurt an insect again: “On the Day of Judgment, you will be the size of that bug and that bug will be the size of you.”
Next, there was a phone notification from The Guardian: “A mass shooting has taken place inside two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand.” By 4.30pm, the death toll had reached 49 people and a rumour that the gunman was an Australian-born white supremacist had begun to echo through the alleyways of my childhood.
And finally, there was a realisation: the video my mother had sent me was the massacre that had just unfolded in Christchurch. I was so goddamn angry that Mum could send me the video with such indifference, without telling me what it was and without questioning whether I – or any sane human being, for that matter – would want to see it. Eight months to the day, I keep telling myself, “Forgive her.” Mum was born and raised in war-torn Lebanon, where her baby niece died from diarrhoea because her parents couldn’t afford to take her to the hospital; war-torn Lebanon where her cousin was electrocuted to death in the shower when a bomb hit their building; war-torn Lebanon, where her uncle was kidnapped by Israeli soldiers and tortured to give up information on Hezbollah. Mum’s threshold for horror is far greater than that of the average Australian. She knows too much and she doesn’t know any better.
In exchange for my mother’s trauma, I had now witnessed the most horrific incident of my life. Just like the Muslims inside those two mosques, I did not see it coming, and once I saw it, I could not unsee it. I ran through the streets of Lakemba like a cockroach scampering away from a boot. Everywhere I turned I saw hijabs and beards piling on top of each other. Panting uncontrollably, I stood before Lakemba Mosque, which was unusually empty for a Friday afternoon. I dropped to the floor in front of the steps and stared up at the enormous green dome, which loomed over me like Jabal al-Nour – the Mountain of Light. Peering at me from the peak of the dome, perched on a crescent moon, was the butterfly I had mutilated as a boy. “Now you know what it’s like to have your wings plucked,” the butterfly hissed. “Allah have mercy upon you.”
When I arrived home that night, my three-year-old son, Kahlil, and his mother, Jane, had already fallen asleep. I could hear them tossing around as I showered in darkness, the water clapping against my Arab flesh like sandpaper.
It had been six hours since the massacre. I crawled into the sheets of our king-size bed next to Jane and Kahlil, who smelt like milk and honey and talcum powder. Kahlil had started day-care only a few weeks earlier, and having experienced his first taste of separation from his parents, developed a habit of pleading with me to “never leave again” every time I returned home from work. As soon as I entered the bed, he rolled away from his mother and murmured in my direction, “Dadda, will you stay with me forever?” My soul swooned at the sound of his breathless voice. The way I understood it, no matter where I was, I was always with him, entirely at his mercy – he was my heart meandering outside my body, helpless and vulnerable, the single entity that kept the blood thrusting through my veins. But I also knew that this was not what Kahlil meant; when he said “stay with me forever”, he meant that he wanted to see and touch and hear and smell me in all of his living moments.
I knew it was a lie to say yes, and still I pushed my mouth through his thick brown curls and whispered gently into his ear, “Yes.” Kahlil took my arm and snuggled into it as though it were a teddy bear, smiling and drifting back into his oasis of dreams, which I prayed was a world more beautiful than the one we have brought him into, a world where people did not hate him because of his name, and his curls, and his blood, and the holy books of his ancestors.
As Kahlil and Jane took calm breaths into the late hours of the night, I remembered the day of my son’s birth. Jane had powered through her contractions at home and was eight centimetres dilated by the time we reached the hospital. “You’re a miracle worker,” the midwife told her. But Jane didn’t believe in miracles before our child was born – she was raised in a white middle-class family of atheists.
An hour and a half later, Kahlil Isa Ahmad arrived, his face emerging from his mother with her soft lips, and his grandmother’s frail skin, and his grandfather’s harsh frown, and my enormous nose. The midwife tossed him straight into Jane’s arms, and I heard the mother of my son say to no one but herself, “Thank you, God.” He lay there against Jane’s chest, covered in her blood and his own shit; I wept at the sight of him. And at 3am on March 16, 2019, I wept at the sight of him once again, tears flowing silently down my cheeks like ice melting on a sand dune. How could we have been so selfish as to bring him into a world such as this? I prayed that God would take Kahlil from me and his mother. Right there before my eyes, I would watch as he disintegrated into stardust. And then he would be safe. And then I would thank Allah that he was no longer here.
I prayed that God would take Kahlil from me and his mother. Right there before my eyes, I would watch as he disintegrated into stardust. And then he would be safe.
The first Friday after the massacre, I woke up early and dressed Kahlil in his white thobe and prayer cap. Jane didn’t ask me where I was taking him but I could see in her bright blue eyes that she was scared for his safety. Refusing to blink, she stood on our suburban porch like a porcelain doll and watched me drive our son off to meet his fate.
Kahlil and I arrived at Gallipoli Mosque in Auburn at 10am – three hours before anyone else entered for the next prayer, which was the most sacred prayer of our 35 prayers each week, and not coincidentally, the prayer that the Christchurch shooter had chosen for his assault. An older Islander man with mammoth shoulders stood at the gate of the great dome structure. He was wearing thick black sunglasses and holding up a sign that said, “I will keep watch while you pray.”
Every Friday at that exact same time for the past two years, Kahlil and I would enter through the mosque’s main doors, which are four times the size of an ordinary door but open as easily as the gate in a picket fence. Our first instinct as soon as we enter – every time, no matter how many times – is to stare up at the magnificent dome ceiling, a woven tapestry painted in the language of Allah.
It is like our very own Sistine Chapel within the heart of western Sydney. The bright red carpet is soft as you walk in socks across the floor, your feet sinking smoothly into the fabric. Kahlil and I would find an empty white wall beneath a window, sit down cross-legged and read stories in English and Arabic. My favourite story to read to Kahlil each week is a tiny picture book called Allah Made Them All, which contains illustrations of birds and flowers and sentences such as, “Oh Allah, you made the parrots that fly in dazzling colours. Make my heart fly in dazzling colours towards you.” Then Kahlil would run in circles on the carpet until he exhausted himself and found a spot where he could lie down. I would flick through prayer beads and watch him while he slept.
Entering the mosque for the first time since the Christchurch massacre, I tried to convince myself that it was just like every other time Kahlil and I had come here, but immediately I felt the difference. The doors were heavy, like pushing over a fridge, and the carpet was coarse and stiff. I could not bear to look up at that ceiling, afraid that I might break into tears at its beauty, and I quickly took Kahlil’s hand and scuttled us towards a wall that directly faced the front doors. Once on the ground, I removed Kahlil’s books from his Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles backpack and attempted to read them to him, but I could not concentrate on the words, my gaze constantly shooting back toward the front entrance of the mosque. Kahlil stood up on his knees, said out loud, “You’re boring, Dadda,” and crawled to the centre of the wide-open floor to take his morning nap.
I could hear Kahlil whimpering to himself as I sat silently, watching that front door like a mouse watching a tiger, my heart thudding hard inside my chest, waiting anxiously for a swastika wielding a machine gun to enter our house of worship. Now I understood the true power of an assault on our mosque – never again would this space represent a sense of peace and oneness with Allah for us, we would be watching those doors forever more, and always wondering if our children were safe. Blood prickled through my veins and thick drops of sweat rolled down my forehead. Kahlil wheezed and those enormous doors stood frozen. Any moment now, I knew the gunman was coming, coming for me, coming for my son. “Bismillah al-Rahmaan, al-Raheem,” I whispered over and over – “In the name of God, Most Gracious, Most Merciful” – until finally, the doors flung open.
My heart sank deep into my stomach in anticipation for what would come next, but to my disbelief, there was no white supremacist beneath the doorway. Instead, a great swirl of sunlight swept into the mosque, engulfing Kahlil like the burning bush upon Moses. I watched as my son turned to stardust. And he was safe. And I thanked Allah that he was still here.
Michael Mohammed Ahmad’s The Lebs (Hachette Australia, $28) was released in 2018. His next novel, To Marry a White Girl, will be published in 2021.
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