I am calling this one, Of Martyrs and Mere Mortals
Disclaimer: This story is about individual grief and loss of a loved one. It is NOT an attempt at dissing the military or the respect given to martyrdom in Islam.
“Hush, sweetheart. Not so loud. It hurts the departed when you cry like that”, was the first sentence his grieving mom heard. Akram had just come home from school when the bomb that wrecked their lives was dropped on them. He had spent the whole day tensed up like a spring, ready not to unwind but explode at the slightest sign of disaster. Nadeem, his brother, had been MIA for a week now. Akram knew something bad was headed their way. It wasn’t like this had happened for the first time. Nadeem was on the frontlines, defending the country with his body and spirit. He could be gone for days but Akram would know in his heart that his brother was all right. A day or two later, he’d be at school when his phone would chime, alerting him to a video conference call. Akram would excuse himself, hide in the boys’ bathroom just so he could talk to Nadeem.
On the call, Nadeem would act like his old goofy self and joke around about his latest exploits. They all involved exploding armored vehicles and somebody losing an ear or two. Temporary loss of vision, hearing, and other senses seemed to be commonplace in what was supposed to be non-active combat. Something seemed off this time though. Akram had waited for that reassuring chime every day his brother had been gone. He had waited some more when Nadeem was declared MIA. By the time, he had left school today, his unease turned into full-blown panic. His doubts were confirmed when arrived home.
The parking space in front of his apartment complex had sprouted twenty vehicles. There was a flurry of activity – people went into his house and then trudged out. Akram had tossed his school bag at the doorstep and run inside, belatedly remembering his eighth grade Islamiat book was still inside. He had found his mother sobbing her heart out in Nadeem’s room. Some well-wishing neighbor sat right next to his mom on Nadeem’s bed. Akram watched as the woman who had just lost her eldest child tried to squash her grief so it would fit within the confines of the accepted way of grieving.
As the day passed, he would watch more relatives pour into his house. All of them had some pseudo-religious piece of advice to impart to the grieving family. His mom cried too loudly; his ten-year-old sister was silenced when she kept asking if Nadeem was dead. The little girl was having difficulty wrapping her head around the concept of death. Their brother who could switch between making them laugh and irritate the heck out of them within nanoseconds wasn’t coming home. The only breadwinner of their family wouldn’t be bringing home anything other than his own body. And yet, their mom didn’t have the grace to grieve in the proper way.
It didn’t take the media too long to arrive at their doorstep. His mom was helped to the makeshift stage where mics were thrust into her face. She was told to put her sorrow on hold long enough to make a statement. The woman managed to spit out So proud…a martyr…earned a place in heaven…died for his country… Having given birth to a martyr, this was the response the country expected from her. They were deaf to the sound of her heart breaking in her chest. They couldn’t see how the thought of holidays still unspent with her son weighed on her shoulders. They were blind to all the times she daydreamed of that son finding a girl, falling in love, and marrying her. They missed how she would miss playing with her as yet unborn grandkids.
The media circus left, happy to have captured another moment of pride for the nation. The neighbors were the next to go, leaving behind reassurances. Most of the relatives glorified his brother’s death and then were gone too. Akram’s mother had perfected the art of crying without making a sound in just under a day. He looked for his sister only to find that she had crawled under Nadeem’s bed and fallen asleep. The room still smelled like Nadeem. Akram’s goddamn life still reeked of Nadeem.
When he returned to school a week later, he found his fellow students having hushed conversations about his martyr brother. Skipping classes only earned him a sympathetic pat from the principal. Not doing his homework or failing tests didn’t get him into trouble. People he didn’t know would nod at him in passing. Nadeem might have had to die to become a martyr but his death had turned Akram into a living saint. It didn’t take him long to realize acting out would only hurt his widowed mother more. Gradually, life returned to normal; he received fewer nods each day.
Akram had yet to let out his grief into the open. Trapped within, the sadness had engorged itself on bitter thoughts, a sense of abandonment, and self-pity. It was a monster waiting to bleed out into Akram’s life and come out, it did. A month after Nadeem’s death, Akram was having dinner with what was left of his family. His mother had become quieter and just…less in that span of time. His sister, on the other hand, had grown chattier. That night, she was rambling on and on about what her teacher had to say about martyrs. “She said all martyrs go to heaven. Mama, she said Nadeem hadn’t died because martyrdom means to live forever. Nadeem is…” but Akram didn’t let her finish.
He sprang out of his chair and started yelling at his younger sister, “Is dead. He is worm food. Did you not see his body being buried? Huh? Why must you spread these lies? Do you not get that he isn’t coming back? Should I take you to the graveyard just so you can see it for yourself?” The little girl looked shocked for a second and then burst into tears. Akram’s mom stood up and he thought it would be to comfort her daughter. But she just walked up to him and put her arms around Akram. He began bawling like a baby, surprised at himself. “It is okay to cry; it is okay to not be okay. It is okay to be loud”, she said, as she tightened her embrace.