Sunday, February 04, 2007

In memory of Imran Saithna, rockstar extraordinare: Bleed the pen, burn the paper, dry those tears of eternal sorrow

Courtyard of Lions, originally uploaded by Imran Saithna.

And we meet...
to depart,
And then depart -
Just to meet again.

The problem with - and the beautiful gift of - the internet is that I always fall a little bit in love with everyone I interact with. I refer mainly to blogistan and flickr, since those are the two spaces I spend most of my time online and where I come across other bloggers, (b)lurkers, and photographers. Through weblog posts, flickr uploads, weblog comments, personal emails, simple flickr comments that somehow transform into lengthy, off-topic threads, and sometimes even "stalkerish" (I joke) and baffling facebook friend requests as a result of these two spaces, I marvel that we all become connected through such tenuous, fragile networks.

But, we do - we become connected through comments and story-telling and emails and instant messenger and photographs, and everyone becomes my friend, regardless of whether or not I know them offline. This is how I walk the world - the world which, for me, just as much includes these wires that connect us all together, as it does the "real-life" friends with whom I regularly coordinate hanging-out sessions in person.

Which is why it felt like a sucker-punch to the gut yesterday morning, when, in the midst of replying to emails and slurping down my breakfast cereal, I clicked over to my friend Zana's photostream and found one of her recent uploads dedicated In Loving Memory of Imran Saithna. I struggled to take a breath, eyes glued to the computer screen as I tried to take in the information. People who are 28 years old are not supposed to die. People who have just returned only a few short weeks ago from performing Hajj - the holy pilgrimage to Mecca, Saudi Arabia - are not supposed to die. People whom you've been meaning to email back within the next few days are not supposed to die before you reply to their messages.

Many thanks to Maliha, whose email I was in the midst of responding to when I clicked over to Zana's photo, for her lovely note back, and to the beautiful Shaheen, who provided me some comfort as I raged, "It's just so sucky when all the good people die. Why can't God just take the fuck-ups instead?"

I met Imran Saithna through flickr, when he added me as a contact back in late 2005 and I reciprocated. He posted stunningly beautiful photos, and sometimes commented on mine - unfortunately, more often than I commented on his, in retrospect. You all know how good I am at these (b)lurking habits of mine.

When I posted my small photoset of Zaytuna Institute to flickr last spring, I was surprised by the number of people who took the time to comment on and appreciate the series of photos I had snapped on a whim one afternoon while waiting for my sister. Imran was one of those who commented, and our exchange made me realize how much we Muslims in the San Francisco Bay Area take for granted our proximity to Zaytuna and the spiritual goodness available there. I promised him I would post some more Zaytuna photos; he particularly requested shots of the grounds. In turn, I admired his photos of Spain, a place I have always wanted to visit.

In these last couple of days after hearing of Imran's death, I've learned more about what he did than I ever knew when he was alive. As Project Manager of, he was a passionate advocate for Britain’s first online support and guidance forum for Muslim youth. The website provides an open space for young Muslims to discuss issues which are relevant and important to them, without fear of censure or condemnation, and is part of the umbrella organization Muslim Youth Helpline, a confidential telephone and e-mail counseling service for young people. MYH understands well the effect of "the climate of fear, fury and media sensationalising" on the mental health of Muslim youth in Britain. The tribute to Imran on lists in moving detail the various projects to which he had dedicated himself.

Under Imran’s creative and dedicated guidance flourished from a fledgling project into a thriving online community for Muslims across the UK and beyond. Much of this is a testament to Imran’s innovative and unique energy, drive and commitment to the cause.

A typical example of Imran’s maverick approach was exemplified in some of the campaigns that he ran on Few will ever forget (especially the participants involved!) the Homelessness Campaign that ran on the site in April 2005. Imran and a group of volunteers spent a weekend on the streets of London with a budget of £3 to survive on. Crazy, unheard of and unorthodox –maybe. Pure Imran –absolutely! Behind the stunt however lay a desire to raise awareness amongst the Muslim community about issues that often get swept under the carpet. He led through example and took great care to ensure the safety and comfort of the volunteers who joined him on this experience.
This is my favorite comment-story about Imran, because the image in the first part made me laugh so much:
my best memory of Imran is the british 10K marathon in 2005. He ran the whole thing smoking marlboro reds and still beat me.

Imran touched the heart of almost every muslim youth in london.
There are many posts and comments about Imran all over the internet these days, it seems. I found one of the most poignant tributes on deenport, written by Yoshi Misdaq:
Then, a month or so ago, I went to a poetry event. I wasn't scheduled to perform there, but I did. Imran was scheduled to perform, although I didn't know it beforehand. And so, he did. I remember thinking that his poem went on a very long time. I thought it was a bit too much. But then, when I had that thought, I was caught up in the world. And when you're caught up in the world, feeling worldly (not that you're aware of it at the time) you forget about the bigger picture. Death is the only thing that could make me look back at events in this way. And so I did. I asked my friend (who was filming that night) to lend me the tapes earlier today. I watched Imran's poem (the second, the last performance) again. And it was a miracle. Later that night, when I had told him how nervous I was to perform my poetry for the first time, and how calm he seemed, he corrected me, saying that he was doing all he could do stop from shaking. And so, this performance meant everything to him. That's why it went on for so long that night. It was as if he were putting every single significant disappointment and feeling into that extended piece of rhyme. He was rinsing out this water-pain from his soul, taking it from every single angle, from every perspective. He felt it that night. And I felt it when I saw it again. After he had left Earth. Every other line of poetry was about death, the next world, the pains of this world. I could quote it at length. I just typed the whole thing up. I won't do that though. To see his face again was a blessing. Some peoples eyes light up when they smile. Other people are always lit up, subtly.

[...] As I've said, Imran didn't fit perfectly here. Others closer to him would no doubt have seen more worldly sides to him. For me though, he is now in the place he was so clearly destined to be in. The spirit-world. And I can't help but fear for myself and those I love who do not have that odd way about us. Those of us who sometimes seem all too eager to get comfortable here in this filling-station called Earth. Selfishly, I feel fearful, because, in a way, God seems to have taken him so perfectly, after having just returned from Hajj. What more mercy could there be for him? And yet, what ambiguity and uncertainty there is for the rest of us. In the poetry event before he left, through his poems, he was purging himself. And, I will always believe the on the pilgrimage that followed, he discovered himself, nourished himself, filled in the holes and gaps. What he was meant to be, where he was meant to go. Within a few moments of hearing that news, and thinking about my encounters with this wonderful human, I knew it was meant to be. It was right. It was a story that God so clearly wrote.
While I spent winter of 2005 writing and writing and writing about the aftermath of the South Asian earthquake, Imran was one of those amazing people who jumped on a plane and went to help with earthquake relief efforts. He posted to flickr the photos from his time in Pakistan, and wrote about his relief-work experiences on his weblog; the BBC interviewed him, too, in a November 2005 story.

I went searching through my GMail account yesterday afternoon. As I expected, my last email exchange with Imran is marked with the all-important "must reply soon" yellow star and a red "Draft" note next to it. When I had neglected to upload photos to my flickr account for nearly two months, Imran emailed me in mid-December of last year to check in. He ended his email with "Fi amanillah [(Go) in God's protection]," which made me smile. In my reply, I explained that I'm not much of a multi-tasker when it comes to writing and photography, so if I'm active on flickr, I tend to neglect the weblog, and if I write more often, then I stop uploading pictures consistently. I also wrote:
Just replied to your comment on my weblog post. Thank you for taking the time to stop by; it's always nice to see the flickr folks over at the weblog, too. There isn't much overlap; the flickr folks check out my photos and the blogistan folks check out my writing, but only a couple of people stop by both, as far as I know.
At the end of my email, I added, "I'm a big fan of other people who also say 'fi amanillah.' HIGHFIVE!"

He replied that he did indeed check out both the weblog and the flickr, a sentiment that was repeated again just recently, when he commented on my "Bethany" post that made us all laugh so much.

And he responded to my How goes the life with you? query by ending with:
Life with me is good, just really busy doing so many mad voluntary things in the local community here, am back in London for the time being as insha'Allah I will be flying out for the Hajj on Monday. Pray that my Hajj is accepted insha'Allah, and also let me know if you want me to bring you back anything from Saudi at all, it would be a pleasure.

Fi amanillah, Yasmine, take care and keep smiling so it can rub off on us all.
I remember staring at my computer, thinking, Bring me back something from Saudi? What a beautiful, incredibly generous offer. I decided I would send him the list of duas [prayers/supplications] I'd been emailing to all my friends who were leaving for Hajj. The most I could ask of anyone was that they add some prayers for me while in the holy cities.

My reply to his last email is still sitting in my Drafts folder. It begins simply, Wa alaikum assalam, Imran -, and then there is a bunch of empty white space, and his email below. The draft was saved on December 15th; by the time I remembered I still needed to send him my dua list two days later, he had already flown out for Hajj, and I figured I'd just save the reply and send it as a congratulatory email when he returned from the pilgrimage. I never did send it, obviously, and now I can't even bring myself to click the "Discard" button.

I wish I had made time to reply to people's comments on the weblog. I wish I had sent him another email, and commented more often to let him know how much I appreciate his beautiful photos and poetry. I didn't understand at the time what he meant by "doing so many mad voluntary things," but in the last couple of days of reading people's reflections about Imran, I've come to understand what a truly generous, giving person he was - someone who, as Zana said, had all the time in the world for people less fortunate.

Last October, I had sent him a short email saying,
I randomly came across this today and thought of you, since you are such a Zaytuna fan:

Eid mubarak! Hope you had a beautiful, blessed day inshaAllah!
At the end of his reply to me, he added:
Alhamdulillah, Eid was fantastic, probably one of the nicest, bestest and most rewarding Eids I've had in many years.
Yesterday, scrolling through Imran's weblogs, I came across the post that began with a reflection on both his 2005 Eids, spent helping with earthquake relief efforts in the mountains of Kashmir; the post culminated in a description of the October 2006 Eid he had referred to in his email to me:
This year I was again away from home on the day of Eid. I found myself in a place where one might suspect there to be little reason or cause to celebrate anything except imminent release. However, I was overwhelmed at what proved to be one of the most remarkable days of my life.

I have been working on an ad-hoc basis out of HMP Wormwood Scrubs for the last 6 months or so, and although there are some genuinely pleasurable and memorable moments, in general it is one big reality check. A reminder of my long forgotten past, a chance to give something back to society and an opportunity to remember the Blessings of our Lord that fall upon us so abundantly that we can do nothing but take them for granted.

Every year is different, every Eid Allah puts before me another opportunity to atone for my sins. Only this year however, have I realised quite how lucky I am to be blessed and tested in this way.

Close your eyes and try to picture 200+ brothers in one room, smiling like they have never smiled before, eating as though they have never eaten before, greeting you so sincerely with the greeting of peace and hugging you as though you were a long lost relative.

The beautiful chanting of the Takbirs still resonate warmly in my ears, almost every conceivable nation was represented in that hall, and often I wonder if this was a tiny vision of what paradise might be times a million.
Who needs Zaytuna, when you've found the real deal, Imran? Paradise-times-a-million must be yours by now; how could He deny you that blessed entry?

There are many, many people who knew Imran far better than I did (a simple Google search pulls up dozens, if not hundreds, of recent weblog entries, forum posts, and comments and prayers dedicated to him and the work he did, all across the internet) - there is, for example, Zana, who still can't bring herself to delete his number from her phone; there is Balal, his close friend and photography mentor, who wrote to me about his experiences knowing Imran; there is Daniel Abdal-Hayy Moore, with whom he shared his love for poetry. But even I, who knew him so briefly and barely, feel that I've lost someone whose kindness and generosity touched me enough that even I'm feeling heartbroken. When I struggled around the lump in my throat and cried hot tears for him yesterday, it was not because his life has ended, but because our own lives are a little bit emptier, having lost such a beautiful soul to accompany us through this world.

Mabrouk, ya Hajji! And rest in peace, my friend. When next we meet, I'll tell you what it felt like for me to have - by then, God willing - finally seen Spain and the Alhambra in person, and you can describe for me what it must be like to sit in the Light of the Divine and see the Creator face-to-Face. I have no doubt that you will be one of the Illuminated. May the Lord, in His infinite mercy, grant you all that is good and pure and blessed - and an internet connection Up There, so that you can see, even through your infamous humility, how positively you've impacted and inspired all those of us you've left behind.

[Post title from a poem by Imran Saithna:

Forget the past, sleep the day,
Wake not for the dawn of tomorrow.

Bleed the pen, burn the paper,
Dry those tears of eternal sorrow.

Blind the eyes, pack full the ears,
Wipe the traces of that lonely smile.

Turn full-around, re-trace your steps,
and walk alone for a while.

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