by Shadab Zeest Hashmi
The ghost that lurks around the old Bombay Company bookshelf is the ghost of an elliptical future, trailing the past like a spectacular, burning, comet-tail. It is the wispy energy of my own half-dreamed, half-written book that hovers over the rows of books I use for research, mostly works of history and poetry. After a night of writing, I have finally met my deadline. The life-size mirror leaning in the corner shows a pale face, preoccupied with time; my work is to not forget the past, and to call to poetry what may be forgotten. I am now searching for a book for remembrance, a book by the American Sufi poet Daniel Abdal-Hayy Moore. I want to honor this poet whose work I consider a beacon and who is now saying his goodbyes, dying of cancer. I am flailing for time, mine, his, and ours as poets, especially as Muslim poets living through times of brutal daily deaths. Weeks from now, earthly time will stop for him, moments from now, time will slow down for me, indefinitely.
The bookshelf phantom is poised to make projectiles of treasured objects— a miniature Chinese cabinet and framed Turkish calligraphic art on an easel— heavy objects that will slide down and cause multiple concussions and head/neck trauma. I am stunned but remain conscious, not bleeding but suddenly fatigued. It is ironic that one of the objects is Turkish— I had met Daniel Abdal-Hayy Moore and his wife Malika at the Nazim Hikmet Poetry Festival where he and I were both awarded the Hikmet Poetry Prize, where I recognized kindred souls in both Daniel and Malika and found a reservoir of inspiration and made lifelong friends at the Turkish House in Cary, NC. Despite the shock of the accident, I feel the surge of a promise, a kind of reassurance.
Over the next weeks and months, I will go through several phases and manifestations of the head and neck trauma. I will wait it out, struggle to continue my daily duties and keep promises to loved ones— kids’ sleepovers with cousins, cooking birthday treats, coaching for a science competition— I will strain to finish projects until the pain and fatigue take over; I will give up my goal of finishing my book by the summer. I will travel alone and with family, and come to know the din of airports and streets as nothing short of being trapped in a nightmare. I will feel helpless. I will also be the recipient of serendipity: I will be visited by childhood memories in unexpected places such as the ABBA museum in Stockholm or the Nivea store in Hamburg, reminisce with my younger brother; I will read my poetry among old friends and make new ones in Chicago, New York, Portland and Seattle. I will drink tea in some of the most beautiful gardens and have some of the saddest thoughts of my life.
In the course of a year, the political climate will ignite more mistrust, hatred and violence, particularly towards Muslims. I will find myself saying on stage how sick I am of having to publically translate reality as an American Muslim, to speak as a perpetual other; I will go home exhausted and abandoned. As someone who covets solitude, I will for once discover its frigid side. Unable to read or write for extended periods, I will have my first brush with hard core isolation— a lesson in humility that will teach me to take the first deep breaths of my life. I will no longer take breath for granted, nor will I take the beach a mile away for granted; I will catch more sunsets in six months than my whole life. I will be thankful to have my parents’ hands to picture as I suffer through a claustrophobic hour of MRI scans. I will find comfort in my mother’s voice on the phone and in chanting the ninety-nine names of God. I will discover gifts of health in nature on my weekly walks with my sister-in-law, a physician who coaches in integrative health in addition to her practice as an MD.
There are signs nesting in signs. In between episodes of panic attacks and nausea, I aim to be the finest listener, an artist of stillness who cultivates the patience to mend her own wings, and remains in no hurry to fly. My Neurologist invites me to his home to attend a Sufi zikr led by the celebrated Rumi scholars Kabir and Camille Helminsky, only days before the end of the concussion year; my attention is gently brought back to time, to letting go of time, and thereby of making what is allotted to me truly mine. I reflect on Daniel’s Muslim name— Abdal-Hayy, one in service of the Divine ever-living, the timeless One.