The Grand Mosque in Omdurman


I write this letter knowing that I did not know these things myself at your age, but I realize that they are worth knowing. As you will learn more about the world, it will become more obvious to you, that the world may not know about you. As your knowledge of the world increases, you will become frightened of this fact. In fact, you will wonder if by loving the world, the world will love you. Your jajja-Mommy told me you grow aloe vera to cure fevers. She said you grow red chillis for the plantain weevil.

Like this your knowledge of the world cures. Don't forget this.


One evening, I came out of the house, looking for fireflies. I might have seen what a constellation of cosmic lights looks like. I say that I could have, because the fireflies were busy, and I was distracted by their electric quietness. I should have been looking up at the sky at the stars, but only took a quick glance. Fireflies, you will learn, are not attractive during the day. They are fascinating at night, when the world and everything around you is dark and rested. Years after this moment, I caught myself lying down facing the sky one night, and the sky seemed to glow like a cathode ray screen. For what seemed like a few hours, the sky rolled and rolled and rolled.

I couldn't tell if I was moving or the sky was.

The Mosque of Medina


I'm writing again to describe the sky. Your mother's name, Leila, is described in the Qur'an as a powerful night. The story is easy to remember. But notice what it says about the sky:

One night the prophet Muhammad left his body, in the state of a dream, and went to this sky. The night is called the Lailatul-Qadri. And when you are old enough your father will tell you about this night. So I will not go into detail here. I just want to tell you that the night of Lailatul-Qadri is not full of stars as those hanging over the mosque of Omdurman in the photograph. You will learn during the last nights in Ramadan, that photographs do not tell the truth. We look at them to find in them what we want to find.

The Mosque of Wazir Khan in Lahore circa 1895


I forgot to say something about the stars of Van Gogh. His name will come up when you speak with with your jjajja-Joseph. In conversations, he said, “pay attention to Van Gogh's brush strokes.” Notice the stars in Van Gogh's painting Starry Night. When I finally read Van Gogh's letters to his brother Theo, I noted, first, that the painter’s ambition in life was to be a preacher. Because of this, I sometimes think that that Starry Night is not only a painting about the stars, which whirl across the horizontal plane like wildfire, burning through time and space. It is that Van Gogh is trying to tell you something about this sky. It is that Van Gogh is preaching about this sky to you in moral terms.

Always, the night is full of stars. He considers these stars worth preaching about. In the same way that in the Hadith, Ali describes the birth of the city of Medina, as water flowing from beneath the dry desert sand.

The Mosque of Mecca


In your life you will see many great mosques. This is just one of them. But you may get to see the mosque of Medina. You will see the photograph of the mosque of Mecca in the living room of your late jajja’s house. You will see the photographs of pilgrims in Mecca, and the stone of paradise, that the pilgrims kiss.

When your jajja-Hajji came back from Mecca, I asked him whether he, too, kissed this stone. He said then it was a huge struggle because there were thousands of pilgrims. In that conversation, I recalled the scent of myrrh, which he had in a bottle of oil perfume, said to be the scent of paradise. An Imam at the mosque of Kibuli, in one of his great sermons on Eid-el-Fitr, many years ago, declared that the air from the mouth of one who has fasted a whole day is foul to the human nose, but it is like myrrh of paradise to divine angels.

Your uncle,

Image credit: All images available in public domain.