Choosing how we remember: Finding peace a year after Christchurch

March 15, 2019 was a quiet Autumn afternoon in Christchurch, New Zealand, until a gunman opened fire in two mosques – Al Noor and the Linwood Islamic Centre – during Friday prayers. Fifty-one people were killed in the attack and 49 others were injured. Exactly a year later, the survivors and their families are trying to find peace, while the memory of what happened still shrouds them. 

I – Mazhar

How we treat our dead says everything about how we choose to live.

Mazhar Syed Ahmed begins each new day with the same routine. Shortly before sunrise, he unrolls a prayer mat in his living room and lowers himself to the floor, his forehead, nose, hands, knees and toes all touching the ground.

He believes all fortunes – good or bad – are meted out. Almost seven years ago now, he moved to Christchurch from Saudi Arabia to study architecture. His family joined him six months later during the month of Ramadan. On that first evening, the family went to Al Noor Mosque, around the corner from their motel. The raised dome gleamed amber, even in the darkness. They performed Tarawih prayers and broke their fast. A job and a home soon came through connections to the mosque.

But Mazhar believes his fortune could turn at any time. Allah might have written something, he thinks to himself more often these days. If God wills it, I will die today.

He knows that Islamic law has specific protocols for what will happen to his body once his soul has departed it on that fateful day. To perform these rites for another is a great honour. The responsibility is even greater. You might see something during the ritual – a bruise, a cut, a wound. But injuries written on the body are never to be spoken about. “You talk only about the good you see in a dead body,” is practically the first thing he says about the death rituals. “It is unethical to share anything else.”

Mazhar’s nature is to be gently instructive. He also earns his living this way, teaching architecture at the Ara Institute of Canterbury. His architecture is green, buildings that practically breathe, armoured as they are with solar panels. The architecture school’s home, named Kahukura (Māori for “chiefly cloak”), has a patterned facade, symbolising the woven inner flax strands of a fine Māori cloak. It, too, harvests solar power. Right now, Mazhar is sitting deep within the cloak’s gentle wadding, on a break between classes.

He begins a demonstration: First, he lays a pen down to rest inside a tissue (the same tissue he wept into only moments before). Then he folds the tissue inwards over the pen, ensuring the sides overlap, while the ends at the top and bottom hang loose, allowing them to be tied easily.

“There is a body here,” he says.

He is mimicking the Islamic process of shrouding a body, the kafan, which follows another burial rite, ghusl, during which a body is washed by close family members, or friends of the same sex. These religious rites happen on a tight schedule, with tradition calling for burial as early as possible. But, in the days after the mass shooting, the procedural clashed with the spiritual. How do you quickly bury the victims of a massacre, and still satisfy the demands of modern crime scene forensics?

The first bodies were released two days after the attacks. In some cases, the victim identification took longer than a week to complete. By this time the grief and agitation the families felt churned as one, while an army of volunteers mobilised to carry out their wishes.

Mazhar explains how the initial horror gave way to a nightmare of logistics. Among the dead were nationals from Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Egypt, Fiji, India, Indonesia, Iraq, Jordan, Malaysia, Mauritius, New Zealand, Palestine, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, and eventually – when a 51st person died from his injuries in May – Turkey. “There were 50 families, 50 exponential emotions,” he remembers. “It was like you were a converging point for each one of those emotions.”

Mazhar, who is 48, is not much taller than the handlebars of the bike he rides. He possesses a nature both gracious and soft, and this has the effect of putting others around him at ease. Sarah, his wife, worried this same softness might leave him exposed during the task ahead. “He did a good thing, mashallah [God willed it].”

He worked alongside four coroners and three other cultural support staff at the funeral home. One operating table was kept free for embalming. The other tables were occupied with stitching, washing and shrouding. A body might spend as long as four hours on the table, depending on the extent of the damage. The room often smelled sweetly of camphor oil, misted onto each shroud.

On that day a year ago, Mazhar fled from the Linwood Islamic Centre to the architecture school, his shirt drenched with the blood of a friend whose wound he held, trying to stop the bleeding. On the bike ride over, he placed a call to his mother in Hyderabad, India. He left a voicemail: “You might hear something in the news. Don’t worry, I’m safe.” Though, as he pedalled, he felt like a living target.

The gunman had been standing right in front of him when his AR-15 style rifle clinked empty. Mazhar had been contorting his body, twisting, preparing to take the bullets.

In total, he was called to perform ghusl on 17 bodies. Such prolonged contact with the dead is not easy.

“Most of them you knew by their faces,” he says. “Some of them were smiling.”

II – Hasan

After Hasan Abdullah scaled the wall behind the Al Noor Mosque and scrambled to safety, he was handed a phone. He remembers the first question the police respondent on the other end asked him: What was the ethnicity of the shooter?

He gave a detailed description: white, male, strong build, military dress, bullet-proof vest, carrying a semi-automatic weapon. The voice on the other end did not seem to believe the shooter could be white. “I’m not trying to be racial here,” Hasan clarifies, “but that’s what happened when I had a conversation with the cops.”

Hasan remembers the respondent’s next question, too. How many people were shot? Certain images replayed in his mind. Several hundred worshippers gathered in orderly rows, only 10 minutes before. A tangle of limbs as they climbed over each other to escape. The men trapped defenceless in corners of the room, fired upon at point blank range. The bodies piling up.

“Fifty people,” he guessed.

Earlier that morning, the heavens had opened. If it was not for the rain, Hasan would have joined Friday prayers two hours away in Ashburton. He works as an account manager for a roofing company, meaning he commutes back and forth. But that morning he was calling clients from Christchurch, trying to close important deals over the phone, and waiting for the showers to pass.

Not such a bad turn of events, he thought to himself. At least Haniyah, his seven-year-old daughter, would relish the surprise when baba swooped her up from school that afternoon. There would now be time for batting practice before the sun set. She was still learning how to adopt a balanced batting stance, protecting her wicket. He would lob soft deliveries and his two-year-old son Yahya would toddle down the driveway to retrieve the ball. Ayesha would perch on the doorstep to watch, cradling Maryam, their six-month-old daughter.

Shortly after 1pm, he hung up the phone and drove to Al Noor. He joined the second row just as the imam began giving the khutbah (sermon) in Arabic. A few minutes later, while the imam was repeating the khutbah in English, he heard a succession of loud, cracking noises. He turned to see a lone gunman, dressed like a commando. He remembers going stiff, not believing what was happening.

“I was waiting for my bullet, honestly,” he says. “I was half dead there. I was not expecting to get out alive.”

The men who saved Hasan departed this world before they did so – their limp bodies falling on top of him, shielding him; the blood dripping onto his hands still warm with the life that had left them. At first his face was uncovered. He repositioned himself while the gunman left to retrieve a third round, covering his head beneath the soft padding of someone’s stomach, and instead leaving his legs exposed.

A phone rang in a pocket as the gunman returned. He emptied eight more bullets into a corpse. In whichever direction he heard noises, he fired his shotgun.

Ayesha might have been calling Hasan, too. His phone was in the car, parked in front of the mosque.

The gunman had another weapon strapped to his head, a camera feeding live video of the mass shooting to the internet. Eventually, the shooting stopped, and soon after that the video feed dropped. Hasan escaped through a window. While the footage continues to be uploaded and removed from the internet – and anyone sharing copies prosecuted, at least in New Zealand – there are no such measures to expunge intrusive thoughts.

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