Outside, the men are about to perform ablution required before acts of worship, washing their faces and limbs. I listen to them as they make the niyya-intention to do ablution and recite, ‘’Bismillāh i’r Rahmān i’r Rahīm. In the Name of Allâh, the Beneficent, the Merciful.’’
Syria is hot. I always thought Mombasa my hometown was hot but this heat beats the dense humidity of my coastal hometown in Kenya. The midday scorching sun makes the black hijab covering my head and face feel like a hot iron-box and I’m sweating profusely. Peeping from my veil, I catch a glimpse of the men doing ablution intent on purifying themselves, yet I know no matter how much they scrub, they can’t purify themselves of their filth. Though I don’t want to judge, I’ve come to the conclusion that my husband and his friends are filthy because of what they’ve been planning – murdering innocent people, beheading most and locking others in cages, all because they refused to join the Islamic State. They even burnt others alive including small babies while forcing young girls from these families to become sex slaves. Their attempts at purification are in vain, I believe. They can cheat us, but they can’t cheat Allâh. I’ve been taught that on Judgement day, the same hands and feet will betray them and say what haram they committed in name of religion.
Staring at my husband as he prays I realize that I’ve submitted blindly to him. My husband says that jihad against the unbelievers is all binding upon him and is ordained for all Muslims. I pray that were he to die on his dangerous missions, Allâh would make him realize the fallacy of his radical beliefs which are even against the teachings of Islam. I also pray that Allah grants me a way out of this marriage.
My mind is already made up. I want to escape back to Kenya.
Growing up, the Ustadh at our Madrassa in Mombasa never taught us anything about killing innocent people. I regret my rash decision of leaving home to join the Daesh as a jihadi bride.
This is how I ended up in Syria.
It was mid last year when they surrounded our mosque that our troubles with the anti-terror detectives began. Their very intimidating presence made me tremble with fear, andi was scared not only for myself but for our Baba the Imam and our older brother Fareed who was always with him. I peeped from across our house at our local Masjid which was surrounded by armed police. The police later came out of the masjid with jihadist flags like the ones flown by the Al Shabaab militants, grenades, petrol bombs, pistols, ammunitions, gunpowder, what they called bomb-making material, knives and machetes. All these things were put on display right outside the mosque for the media to take photos of, including audio and video recordings of Ba’s sermons. There was a lot of tension and we heard that one youth was shot dead after he ‘tried to hurl a grenade at the officers’, though we were not sure of this. A bag containing laptops, surveillance pens, military boots, external hard drives and satellite phones were also seized.
To Baba and many of our neighbours, our masjid was a beacon of hope. Even as young as I was, it did not add up how dangerous weapons found in the holy place. I was only twelve but I was getting irate as to how the newspapers and the news anchors on TV were describing our Baba. Why were they calling Ba a radical Muslim cleric? Later at a press conference the police chief said they raided our mosque after getting a tip that Baba was organizing a jihad convention. He said that the CDs that preach jihad messages recovered in the raid earlier that day proved that the masjid was a recruiting ground for Islamist militants. The previous night the police from the anti-terror unit had again raided our neighbourhood. They said it was a security operation to arrest youths who had been radicalised by rogue Imams. I didn’t understand what this word rogue meant. All I know is that the police were shooting and beating people with batons and they arrested many of the young men from our Mji wa Kale hood. “We had information that this particular group of youth had been recruited to attend the jihad convention at the masjid and thereafter they were to plan a terrorist attack. That is why the raid was conducted,” the Mombasa police chief said on prime time news. “We have arrested several of them, including ten notorious ones who were on our security radar, having come back from Somalia.” What scared me is that the police chief on live television said that our Ba was an Islamic extremist suspected of arranging funding for Al Shabaab militants. He said the seized recordings of Ba’s sermons were proof of his radical inclinations.
But what the world didn’t know was that the youth had decided to take refuge at the masjid because of what Baba called arbitrary arrests and killings of clerics accused of radicalising them. The world will never know this. I remember Ba’s words: Our masjid provides solace to grieving Muslim families who have lost their loved ones to extra-judicila killings suspected to have been carried out by security agencies.
Last night’s raid had been terrifying yet exciting at the same time. The raid had started just when the Muezzin was calling for evening prayers and people had started closing their shops. From the speakers mounted atop the minarets of the mosque, the ancient call to prayer the ancient call to prayer rang throughout Mji Wa kale, marrying seamlessly with the same from other mosques. The police sirens started right at that moment as if the end of the call to prayer was their cue to strike.
I had watched the commotion outside from our window, some protestors running away from the armed police hiding behind shields in their bullet-proof jackets while others charged towards them hurling stones and shouting anti-government slogans. Ma dragged me to my room as I raised a protest of my own to be let out in the street with Fareed and the rest. Ma said I was just a little girl and girls are not supposed to be out fighting with the police. She said we should leave that to the men, which made me feel like I was missing out on something huge in my life. I stop my protest in respect to Ma. I feel envious of the young neighbourhood boys bursting with energy in the crowd, of the way it is all happening without me and the other young girls in our neighbourhood who have been told to stay indoors. At the same time as I long to join Ba and Fareed outside, I feel scared when I see the bloody faces and the gunshot wounds of injured young men running with the baton-swinging police hard on their heels.
From the opposite rooftops others join in the chants, ‘Allâh Akbar!’ ‘Takbir!’ ‘Allâh Akbar!’ ‘Takbir!’ Tear gas cans are thrown into the charging crowd by the police to disperse them, but despite their tearing eyes, they continue to demonstrate. From the ancient building’s rooftops, invisible grandfathers, grandmothers, the elderly and the sick and young girls are shouting, hidden in the darkness but chanting in solidarity with their older sons, husbands, brothers and young men in the alleys below. ‘Pwani si Kenya!’ ‘Pwani si Kenya!’
Even in the safety of my room, I’m mesmerised by the unity in the crowds – the harmony of it all. Young people chanting slogans against the wrongs done to us, both past and present. Not only the current indiscriminate fight against terrorism but historical injustices meted against the coastal people; what Baba says is land alienation and economic marginalisation and Mama calls a search for identity.
‘Pwani si Kenya!’ ‘Pwani si Kenya!’ The coast is not part of Kenya. This slogan has put many people in trouble and Ba says some might be charged with treason because of their calls for secession of coastal Kenya. Baba had tried to explain though being only twelve I couldn’t understand much of it. They continue to chant slogans for whatever injustice they can remember. Their calling on God is all that they have. Ma and Ba always tell us that when all else fails, shout ‘Allâh Akbar!’
The chants are contagious. Ma takes my younger sisters and I to the rooftop to join in the chanting. Still, the feeling of exclusion does not leave me. I feel madly jealous yet inspired by Fareed and the other boys who’ve been allowed to go into the streets to join the crowds. The chants are uplifting and even we are not down there where the action is happening, we still feel we are part of them.
On that dark painful evening, looking at Ba’s bloody body, I thought about what death really meant. Would Ba rise as if from a deep sleep? Would we ever see him again? Fareed was not crying. He was numb with shock. Sobs had risen up in my throat but I had stifled them because I did not want to cry anymore and I wanted to be strong for Ma who was also trying to be strong for us.
Our Baba was dead.
They killed him.
They had pumped ten bullets into him, as if one or two weren’t enough to quell his energy. Ten bullets What had he done? What terrorists did we hide? As Ba’s body wrapped in his white shroud was taken for burial, I felt my world collapse around me as it dawned on me that I’d never see him again. I was a girl and stayed home because tradition dictates that women are not allowed to go to the cemetery. Ina lillahi wa inna Illaihi Rajiun. May Allâh grant Ba Jannat ul Firdaus. Ameen, I silently repeat the recitation to myself, We surely belong to God and to Him we shall return. All I remember is Mama wailing over Ba’s bloody body on the street where he had been shot. The neighbours had come to call us. Ba was gunned down as he was crossing the street to come home from the evening prayers which had been delayed by the protests. Two men with faces covered in black balaclavas riding on a boda boda sprayed him with bullets. Two more hooded men following behind on a tuk tuk had gotten out to inspect Ba’s body and for good measure had pumped more bullets into his already lifeless body as if to make sure he was dead! They had then sped off.
The ten bullets ushered unimaginable gloom and sadness in our home.
It’s been many months now. Today as I come home from school and enter our house, I see one of our masjid Imam’s and our uncle Hassan sitting with Mama, talking to Fareed with serious looks on their faces. Uncle Hassan is my best friend and cousin Asma’s Ba. I can’t see Ma’s face behind her hijab veil, but I get the feeling by her wildly gesturing hands and raised voice that she is very angry and tense. Ma rises up, ‘’Latifah, come with me.’’ She takes my hand and leads me to the girl’s bedroom. I try asking her what’s wrong but she doesn’t tell me. She scolds me for being insistent and asks me to be patient, and that everything is all right, ‘’Latifah, my daughter, don’t be afraid. When you are scared, always remember Allâh.” I don’t believe her that nothing is wrong.
Later, I come out of my room when I hear Uncle Hassan and the Imam standing up to leave. But before they exit, our uncle lowers himself to Fareed’s height and says sternly to him, “You are the man of the house now, son. Your Baba’s death must be avenged. You can’t fault Islam.” As I try to understand what he’s just said, the Imam adds, “Fareed, take good care of your mother and sisters. You are the son of a shahid. You must also leave a legacy behind.” With this they leave and I’m more puzzled than ever.
I’m just about thirteen now and there is a curfew imposed by the government in the Old Town. Curfews instill a different kind of fear especially at the thought of being shot on sight if seen walking around after the curfew. I’m older now and understand the fear that hovers over Mji wa Kale with its tense silence encroaching into our homes. This curfew fear sits crouched with the cats in our living rooms feeding on the slips from our tongues and Mama whispers that we have to be careful lest our words be carried by the wind to the ears of the police. Nowadays we are even afraid of our own voices. This fear – you can try to shut yourself off from it but when you are jailed in your own house where can you escape? Its sweat stinks of subjugation and penetrates every part of your being. The stink of it becomes a part of everything in your life. Even when the curfew is finally lifted and you walk out of your house at last, you still carry its stench wrapped around you in your bui bui or khanzu.
The worst of it is that it is not an unreasonable fear, but a fear of unreason. What do you do when you know the khaki of the police uniform is of callous disregard, a hard coral cliff like the hard outcrop from which the Portuguese built Fort Jesus more than 400 years ago which is adjacent our home? A cliff that you can beat your fists to pulp against, and still it will give you no respite.
There is something frightening in being only thirteen years old and knowing the face of your death so well, that when some of your friends and classmates refuse to meet your eyes you wonder if they are thinking about your Baba’s murder and that he was branded a ghaidi and a terrorist sympathizer. I’ve learnt a lot this past year. When the whole neighborhood burns, is it possible for any sane person to remain untouched? Is that not what it means to be a patriotic citizen, that when your neighbours are in mourning, you die a little too for all the unjust deaths? What do you do when rumors circulate that the anti-terrorism agents are coming again to arrest and slaughter your family and friends for no reason?
Fear has become the most effective form of vigilance.
The first Ramadhan without Baba is upon us. I stroll through our Old Town towards Fort Jesus. Mji wa Kale is home but I’m always mesmerized as if seeing for the first time the beauty of the stunning labyrinth of narrow alleys and passageways between rambling bazaars, ancient Arabesque houses and mosques. Today I’ve come to one of Baba’s favourite spots adjacent the fort and I sit and stare at the line where the horizon meets the endless blue ocean. I watch the dhow labourers and fishermen approaching the old harbour from a day’s work to drop anchor. The previously harsh sun now prepares to withdraw and dangles timidly between the receding day and appearing night.
I climb up to the topmost cliffs. I can only sit here on the cliffs and stare at the fort’s walls – I’m always amazed at how the fort was hewn and built by the Portuguese from a vast coral outcrop overlooking the Old Town on one side and the Indian Ocean on the other. The sound of the sea was soothing and the huge Fort Jesus an imposing landmark with its grubby, ancient grey walls, menacing, forbidding and insurmountable – just as I had thought our Baba was. I weep for the hopes I had and the future I had seen when Ba was alive. With Ba’s assassination, I saw a very bleak future. When the pain had lessened I had realized that it had swept away good feelings in my heart and mind, and another terrible part of me was taking the place of my true and noble feelings.
Ba’s death was a rebirth for me. A brutality that dragged me out from a decade of being protected by Ba, Ma and Fareed. The happiness that had allowed me to believe that I and my sisters were special was rendered obsolete. I had never accepted Ba’s death, couldn’t erase from memory the traumatising scene of the murder, his blood flowing into the gutter like he was nobody. The police spokesperson saying they will investigate yet as a family we’ve never been told the results of that investigation. The pain of betrayal cut deep into my heart. I spit in disgust but it does not come out exactly how I had anticipated. My mouth is too dry with sudden rage; the spittle sprays weakly across the rugged coral cliffs as if protesting at my unreasonable thoughts and disappears without landing on the beach below.
* * * *
That was several years ago.
Tomorrow is cousin Asma’s Laylat Al Henna night and so today the women are drawing henna and piko flowery patterns on my hands and feet when we heard three near-simultaneous loud blasts. A piece of delicious baked mkate wa sinia on its way to my mouth fell from my trembling fingers. Why did I suddenly think of Fareed? Was this a premonition? I postponed the henna application and said I had to rush home. When I reached the city centre I started hearing about bomb blasts at the railway station, the north coast Mainland Bridge and the huge upcountry bus terminal near Mwembe Kuku. Police vehicles and ambulances with blaring sirens were speeding across town.
Mombasa was in pandemonium.
When I reached home the scenes on TV were distressing – many innocent people were dead. Fareed didn’t come home that night and his phone was switched off. Every time my smart phone rang I rushed to look at the caller ID but it wasn’t our brother. Ma spent the night by the window holding Ba’s prayer beads and chanting the Tasbih. She kept repeating La haula wala quwatta ilabillah– to Allah belongs all power and might. Where was Fareed? A strange sense of foreboding filled my heart. I joined Ma by the window, under my breath recited, Yaa Allâh, Yaa Rahmaan, Yaa Raheem. The words of prayer spewed out of my mouth in a long anxious murmur.
The rhythmic quality of Arabic soothed my soul.
The detectives from the anti-terror unit were at our door the following morning. Fareed was dead they informed us coldly. He was one of the suicide bombers who had detonated the bombs the previous day. They had found his national identity card in his pocket but needed us to accompany them for DNA tests. Something about their narrative wasn’t adding up. How would they find his ID intact while everthing around him including his person was destroyed completely? When I saw my three small sisters huddled in fear in the living room corner crying inconsolably, I trembled with pain my tears threatening to choke me. I swore to Baba that he and Fareed had not died in vain “Wallâhi Billahi Tallâhi.”
* * *
As I’ve grown older and researched the time surrounding Ba’s assassination, I’ve come to learn that Ba was on several US and UN sanctions lists for allegedly supporting Somalia’s Al Shabaab militants. Ma never even told us that the UN Security Council had imposed a travel ban and asset freeze on Ba saying he had provided financial and technical support to Al Shabaab. This was not the Ba I knew. There must be an explanation and I feel that Ba as Imam must have been in a difficult ideological situation of dealing with the threat of our Muslim youth’s split identity crisis, threat of political Islam, the war against terrorism fueled by systematic discrimination, profiling and marginalisation.
Do I want to avenge my loved ones unjust deaths?
I’m so full of rage and anger!
Kaffirs and agents of Ibilisi!
Murderers of our Baba and all the brave men like Fareed who stood with him! They have destroyed our family. I ask you, can the oppressed and the victims be the villains? Wallahi, with Ba and Fareed dead, I say goodbye to my first negotiation of love and loss.
After Ba and Fareed’s death. I stopped reading our family Quran. I rarely entered our masjid. I’ve been driven into this cycle of helpless sorrow. My eyes are always large with unfinished mourning and incomplete weeping. I’m distraught despite the fact that Ba and Fareed died Shahids, martyrs in the right cause. Ba used to say that Allah wills us a lot of good things in our lifetime but I was not seeing any good in my life. He always said that those who don’t believe in Allah can say and do anything.
* * * *
I was young and naive. I met him through an online Islamic chat group. He was charismatic and promised me heaven. When he first talked to me about recruiting he told me, “When you and the other girls get here, you will be treated the way you deserve to be – like queens.” From our online trainings I would hurriedly shut down the computer and rush home because the curfew was about to begin. Ma must never know where I’ve been spending my afternoons. With some of our aunts’ help, she’s been taking care of my sisters who have no understanding of this politics that has taken the lives of our Ba and brother.
I rush past the ancient narrow alleys of Mji wa Kale leaving behind the alluring pull of the sea. I’m late as I run past grey shutters of closed shops, silent mosques, and bolted Lamu-carved doors behind where mothers are hiding their children, darkness of deserted alleys with police sirens piercing the night. I lift the hem of my bui bui not to trip and fall and run past shattered shop windows from previous police raids and past colorful graffiti on the ancient eroded coral sea-wall by the water front proclaiming ‘Pwani si Kenya!’ At last the door of our home comes into view. I tighten the folds of my hijab under my chin and quicken my steps.
* * *
Both I and my cousin Asma have acquired a celebrity status. Other young girls from our Mji wa Kale ring rely on us for advice on what to expect as jihadi brides in Somalia and Syria. Today we are on Skype and the other eager girls have joined us. “Salaam alaikum my sisters. What do you think about mujahideen?” My fiancé asked, “the only real truth is Allâh’s truth and Jihad,” he continued.
He talked to us about Hijrah and encouraged us to leave Kenya, a country filled mostly with unbelievers to join the Islamist countries. “It’s unbelievable that we’re talking to a mujahid in Syria,” the girls marvelled in awe. Asma and I could tell that the group of girls surrounding us was impressed. “Syria is amazing,” he said “As jihadi brides, you will lack nothing. You will have everything here. Masha’Allâh. It’s paradise! It’s the same in Somalia. We are Allâh’s warriors,” he said “Alhamdulilah for accepting to be our wives. SubhanuAllâh, many people die but it is for the cause.” He reassured us again.
We watch a video link of a sermon the group’s admin has forwarded to us.
‘There is no doubt whatsoever that Jihad is the only truth!’ shouts the Imam delivering the sermon, his Adams apple moves in his throat, bobbing up and down as he stabs and slashes the air with his forefinger. His red face seems to burst from his henna colored goatee. His alert eyes, shining with an intimidating awesome intelligence sweeps over the awe-struck faithful assembled in the packed masjid. He settles his weighty stomach and humongous backside more comfortably onto the ottoman on the floor.
‘’No doubt about it my brothers and sisters. It’s as true as the sun rising in the east and setting in the west. I have examined our Indian Ocean and the other seas and consulted with the heavens. The long awaited hour has arrived. You need to only listen and heed. We need Mujahideens for Allah! Those who doubt this will burn in hell. The devil dwells in such doubters and he will find inextinguishable fuel in their flesh!’ His red flaming eyes again sweep the audience and subdues them into mesmerized silence. He continues, ‘Jihad is the only anti-dote to infidels and kaffirs! Who would dare measure his pitiful self against the almighty Lord?’’ At this point the preacher strikes both his palms together sharply and shouts loudly ‘Astagfirrulahi!’’ A smile curls his lips and he suddenly switches moods and gently shakes his head, preparing to end his fiery sermon, he shakes his index finger at the crowd ‘’We are Allah’s soldiers my brothers and sisters. Victory and no less is our vocation. Paradise is our sanctuary. Should one of us mujahideen die in this battle, he will find a thousand virgins awaiting him, as beautiful as the sun that sets over our Indian Ocean and the stars that fill our East African nights.’’
‘Allah Akbar!’ one of the Imam’s assistant suddenly bursts out.
‘Allah Akbar!’ the assembly roars back in response.
I log off and stare around at the group of girls who seem mesmerized by the sermon. In a few days these girls as jihadi brides will be at our Kenyan El Wak border point to cross into Somalia and some en-route to Syria. I remind myself that though Allâh all-seeing, all-knowing protects me, I should always tie my camel. That is why I’ve made sure that for every jihadi bride I recruit, I earn three-thousand US dollars. This is for my sister’s upkeep and my college tuition now that Ba is no longer alive and his accounts and assets are still frozen, and Ma is overwhelmed by financial constraints. May Allâh forgive me. Astaghfirrulahi!
This is how I, Latifah Al-Hajj Moustaffa a Kenyan Muslim ended up in Syria.
Image credit:Google images