So with a rock on my chest, I begin.
I spent spring break on a religious pilgrimage called Umrah in Makkah and Medina in Saudi Arabia. At first, I wasn’t exactly looking forward to it: I’m averse to airplane travel, large crowds, and not knowing what’s happening all the time. But as time went on and the countdown began, I was suddenly excited.
I haven't exactly always been spiritually attuned because of college and life responsibilities, so I figured that umrah would be a positive thing. Sure, I complete the five minimum prayers and frequented the mosque for jummah prayer…but the connection that I once had was very obviously missing. There was a hole in my heart, and I felt it deeply.
At Umrah, something changed.
I made a commitment to myself to stay off of social media and immerse myself in all acts of the pilgrimage. Although I went to Umrah with my family, friends, and sister, I tried hard to draw a line between banter and spirituality. Admittedly it was hard and unnecessary, but I wanted the connection the Sufis wrote about in the early days...still, a part of me was convinced it was impossible. But god dangit! I continued to yearn for that glorious ishq-al-haqeeqi.
I think one of the most beautiful things about Islam is the great emphasis on nuance. The more my journey progressed, the more I realized that aiming for total immersion was impractical and that love and light can coexist within all relationships: from friendships and romantic relationships to our relationship with the almighty. So I laughed loudly among friends and cried in prayer. It really became that simple.
Now can I say, if you have the resources to visit Makkah and Medina, you ought to. Of course New York has its glitter and glamour, but Makkah is truly the city that never sleeps. There is some overwhelming peace about it: everyone arrives as a family of servants eager to bond with the lord and when you come across other pilgrims, you can feel that yearn.
We performed Umrah twice and it took longer than necessary and was frankly kind of painful of the feet, but that feeling of being done...twice?! ZOO WEE MAMA (if you get this reference, we’re best friends). And the best part? I got to experience touching the black stone with my high school principal. YEAH, HMU FOR THE FULL STORY.
In short, Umrah put me on a spiritual high… I was ready to recharge my spiritual energies and go back home with a new mindset and a whole new set of priorities.
Before officially heading home, we spent about three days in Istanbul,Turkey...and WOW. If you ever have the opportunity to travel to one place before you die, make sure its Turkey. I’ve been across Europe and Asia and just…..Turkey is exceptional. The air is fresh, the architecture is breathtaking, and the people are some of the sweetest I’ve ever met IN MY WHOLE LIFE… not to mention the fantastic fake fentys being flashed at you by the street vendors.
In Turkey, I got to pray in multiple beautiful mosques (including the Hagia Sophia), got to experience fresh pomegranate juice (POM? Never heard of her), and took a ferry ride along the Bosphorus and got to witness the purest, bluest water. We’re talking like, SMURF BLUE.
Everyone enjoyed Turkey: it was a place where we all found and kept something beautiful. Interestingly enough, it is actually one of the very few places in the world I wouldn’t mind living because it truly enchanted me. But while we were basking in the turkish sun and laughing our hearts out, it seemed that God had other plans halfway across the world.
The day before we were scheduled to fly back to Texas, my mom received a phone call. Her youngest brother (my uncle) got into a car accident in Chicago, and was currently in a coma.
I clearly remember the moment I heard the news: that evening, everyone went to dinner but I spent the afternoon in our AirBnB studying for an upcoming exam. While studying, I dozed off and was awaken to my friend Nabeela explaining the situation to me.
I didn’t know what to do or how to feel. I needed more details, and I needed to understand all the repercussions. With a lump in my throat, I knocked on my mom’s room door to find her laying her head in my aunt’s lap, the both of them in tears.
My uncle, Shazoor, worked for a car rental company. He was transferring a car to their main center when the front tire of car he was driving went out. There was no proper shoulder on the road, so he pulled into the right lane and turned on his emergency flashers. Within minutes of calling for help and waiting in the car, he was rear ended by a construction truck driver who, upon reaching for a Coke can, didn’t notice that the car ahead of him wasn’t moving. He suffered severe spinal injury and brain trauma.
As soon as we landed in Houston my mom, brothers, and aunt took the next flight to Chicago while my father, sister and I headed home to finish up exams and get affairs in order.
That first day back was easily one of the worst of my life. I had exams stacked up, yet no motivation to study. I wanted to be in Chicago with my family. I wanted to hold everyone’s hand and tell them that it would all be okay. But instead, I had to take exams and drive to school and make small talk with baristas and pretend that my life wasn’t falling apart.
I had class in the morning and I didn’t want to go back to an empty home, so I decided to get some studying done in a coffee shop on campus. Frankly, I had no motivation to learn about content analysis when my cousins were being traumatized by this horrific accident. It’s embarrassing to admit but basically I cried in the coffee shop with my hoodie on and my face on the table like four times between assignments, then gave up and the passed out on a nearby softa for like three hours. I woke up groggy, drove home, and went straight to bed.
It wasn’t my proudest moment, but I’m sharing because I feel like people see me as the kind of person who has it all together. In fact, a while ago someone told me that my life “seemed perfect”. Even though I’m very grateful to live a blessed life, every single person has their highs and lows. That’s just the way this wacky thing works.
A day later, we flew into Chicago and drove straight to the hospital. It was crazy to think that only a few months ago at my cousin’s engagement, everyone was smiling and sharing sweets. Before hugging everyone goodbye, we just assumed that the next time we all saw each other would be her wedding, but little did we know.
At the hospital, we spent days in the waiting rooms and hospital chapel praying and simply holding each other. At that point, it didn’t matter that we had exams, rotations, and meetings. We had to be there for my uncle and cousins, and I’m so proud of the way my family reacted in this situation. Honestly, I don’t know what people do without family. Without one another, we would’ve crippled. I can’t mention this situation without acknowledging Shazoor uncle’s friends and mosque; their community emulated strength and was there for us in the weakest of times and I will remember them in my prayers forever.
When things settled down a bit, I flew back to Texas to take another exam. One morning, my sister and I were getting ready for school. I remember putting in my contact in one eye when I heard a muffled gasp from my sister’s room. I felt my heart drop and instinctively ran to check my phone. “He’s gone” read a text from my cousin. I retreated to my bed and stayed there for a little bit, looking out the window not knowing how to feel.
Almost automatically, the sky became dark and lightning flashed. As rain poured out from the sky, I let a tear slip. It was as if the earth was giving me permission to feel.
The next day we flew into Chicago for the funeral. Although we were late coming from the airport and missed the burial, my cousin facetimed me in. As I watched the procession lower my beloved uncle into the ground, my heart was racing at a million miles an hour. When we got to the graveyard, the first thing I did was look for my mom. Soon enough, I found her and practically ran into her arms. I can’t describe that first embrace, and I still think about it to this day.
We spent the next day in my uncle’s home, retelling stories of his youth and remembering him. Let me tell you about my uncle. He was 45 and handsome, and had the brightest smile. More importantly, he was always happy. He literally beamed. He made the best jokes and treated everyone, from the waitstaff at a restaurant to his boss, in the same respectful manner.
My uncle was the kind of person who, if someone said something bad about, no one would believe it.
It’s been a month and a few weeks, and I sometimes still have trouble believing that he’s actually gone. Honestly, I can’t even believe that any of this happened.This past Spring Break has taught me more than some years of my life ever did, and although I am still navigating life after it, I’m getting better and learning. More importantly, this break has taught me the importance of appreciating the people and opportunities in my life, simply before it’s too late.