ALI JAFRI is a musician, a Sufi dervish, a filmmaker, and a man of many words.
After this blog went public, some of my friends and colleagues came forward offering to sit down and discuss their own experiences with death. One of them was Ali, a musician I’ve known since his band Ariel relocated to Toronto from Ottawa in the 1990s. Ariel circulated in the local goth scene at its heyday, drawing comparisons to post-punk acts like The Cure. But they were not the typical wannabe Brits. At their live shows, you would usually see and hear the sounds of sitar, and percussion, the smell of incense in the air. It often felt like you were watching Ali play in his living room.
Except Ali never grew up playing music in his living room. In his Shia Muslim household, popular music was forbidden. This great divide, between his artistic self and his family life, has remained, long after he moved out of his parents’ house. I’ve known this part of his story for a while. But I wanted to learn more about his religious background, and how it influenced his perspectives surrounding death and the dying. So we met one night nearing sundown at the Lakeview restaurant, where he spoke about Islamic burial rituals, death anniversaries, and the responsibilities of honouring the dearly departed.
Why did you volunteer to have this conversation?
I think about death a lot. It’s also a huge subject in a lot of the music I listen to. Then there’s the whole Sufi aspect of my life. A huge aspect of that is being aware of death, or how temporary this all is. I don’t know when I’m doing to die. That motivates me to be a better person. A lot of people around me don’t want to talk about these things. But I do.
Growing up, what were you taught about death?
I’m Pakistani, and I was raised in a Shia Muslim household. So, it’s your typical Abrahamic faith. There’s going to be a doomsday. There is a purgatory. Then, an after-life. And, of course, a lot of guilt about all of the above. [laughs] I attended some Islamic Sunday school classes. There would be sermons or speeches that addressed these things. And that would extend over into the house.
So when you were confronted with your first death or funeral, you understood what was happening.
Yes. But it was still shocking. Because I was so young. I had an uncle who was 16 and hit by a train. I was 4. He was a fun guy and we would double-ride on his bike. I remember the shock of seeing him in the open casket. He was actually in amazingly good shape for a guy who got hit by a train. I remember staring at his face and noticing how different he was, yet it was so definitely him. I don’t remember being very emotional. I wasn’t crying. I remember being sad, because everyone was talking about how we weren’t going to see him anymore. But when I saw him dead, it was not unlike seeing dead animals on the street. Like, “there it is.” I didn’t really, really process the death right away. But then the conversations started happening. “Where did he go?” The clerics used the opportunity to talk about what the religion teaches about death.
I know you recently lost your father. There’s a specific ritual you went through that those of us not of Muslim faith may not know much about. Can we talk about that?
There are actually several. In the Islamic tradition, there is a 40-day period after the death where we do a bunch of things. There’s a belief that they are still with us. They can see us. They can hear us. All they can do in that state is receive. So us as the living have to take up the duty during that 40-day window, to serve them, to honour them. So we have to grieve, because they are watching us. But the burial happens right away. The longer the body stays out of the ground, it’s stressful for the soul. And it’s the children’s duty to prepare the body, to bathe the body.
The living have the duty to serve [the dead], to honour them. We have to grieve, because they are watching us.
Was his death sudden? How much time did you have to prepare for this task?
I always knew it was upon me to do this. It’s so intense. They die. And it’s like, “Wow, they’re dead.” Then you quickly have to do this bathing, and wrap them in the cloth then get them in the ground. For my father, he died on a Thursday and was buried on a Friday, so very fast. And his death was unexpected. He had lung cancer surgery. But it was a success. He recovered. We were all breathing a sigh of relief that he’d be home in a week. He was supposed to be kept in the ICU for three or four days, but they moved him the next day. I’m like, “Why?” He’s in such a compromised delicate state. And as he was moved, he contracted pneumonia, in the general ward. That’s what killed him. He was dead in five days.
Were you angry at the hospital?
Oh, yes. The last night, we were told to go home. I wanted to spend the night with my dad. He didn’t look very good. We didn’t know how long he had left. Both of my grandmothers died in that ICU and we spent nights with them. But they were telling us to leave. The next morning, before work, I came in to see my dad. And they said, “You have two minutes.” What?! There were all these nurses and doctors in the room. They said they were going to have to put him on life support. What?! So I had my last conversation with my dad. My mother wasn’t there. My brother wasn’t there. They were coming, but I was alone. I got to tell him that I love him. He said “OK.” [laughs] Which is so him. Even in the final moments. For him to say “I love you too” would have been ridiculous. The onus is on me to express it. I was hoping he would. But I got “OK.” It was very intense. I told him, “You’re going to pull through,” but he knew he wasn’t. For him, it was goodbye. It was a bit poetic in a way. My dad always made me feel guilty that I was never there for him. And in that moment, it was a kind of redemption. He knew he was going under. And I was there. I was the last face he saw.
How long was he on life-support?
My dad was on life support for about three days, and then transferred to St Mike’s, where he was on the oscillator for about two days. There was no improvement on the oscillator, which was a very bad sign. But before my dad went into surgery, he actually told us if there was ever a situation where he’d be on life support for a long time, he wanted us to pull the plug. We had a family meeting and everything. So when we were faced with that decision, he had already made his wishes known. Later, after he died, there is all this stuff they do. They tie the chin. Close the eyes. Straighten the legs. I watched him flat-line. I heard the death rattle, as the last breaths were being breathed. Heavy duty. Especially when it’s your dad. That transition period isn’t very long either. He was dead in five minutes after they unhooked the machine.
I watched my dad flat-line. I heard the death rattle, as the last breaths were being breathed. Heavy duty.
Can you explain the bathing ritual?
My dad died in the daytime. Around midnight, my brother and I went to do the washing at the mosque. They put this loincloth over his privates. He had an opening in his back, from the tube into his lungs. That was weird to see. Another thing… my dad’s feet and mine are identical. And I remember washing his feet and it felt like I was washing my feet. But they were dead. It’s so weird seeing someone you resemble in that state. I now know what I would look like in corpse colour. And there is all this cotton up his nose and his ears. We had to be careful with the water, not to get any in his ears and such. When you do the washing, there are three cycles. One where you use camphor power. They have it set up with these hoses. And you can smell the camphor strongly. And then there’s another leaf. And then there is straight water. You do the right side first, then the left. It’s a specific procedure, with all these rules. And the same time, it’s so emotional.
Did you find it helpful, to have all these rules to follow?
I did find it helpful. It’s that service thing. Skeptics think it’s for you, for the living to feel better about the death. Believers know it’s for the soul. I think it’s both.
When’s the last time you saw the body?
At the cemetery, before they lowered him into the ground. Something I really love about Islam is how death is the ultimate equalizer. No matter how rich or poor you are, we all look the same in death. Everybody goes in the same pine box, in a white shroud. You look at a corpse and you shouldn’t be able to tell the status. You don’t have to pick a casket, a fancy headstone. That’s not supposed to be a big deal either. Because it’s not the time to show your wealth. It’s over. It’s not important. And I love that message. A millionaire and a pauper, at their funerals they look the same.
Something I really love about Islam is how death is the ultimate equalizer. Everyone goes in the same pine box, the same white shroud. It’s not the time to show your wealth. It’s over.
What is the death anniversary?
We do something annually, to mark the anniversary of someone’s death. We call it barsi. There are so many! Usually, my mom would sponsor a gathering at the mosque or community centre for that person. There is a sermon and people come and listen and the cleric asks everybody to recite the opening verse of the Koran. We also do a niyaz at home for our dead. It’s all very normal to me. We are all about death rituals, the Shias. [laughs] I actually love the idea. It think it makes you have respect for your elders.
Do you ever think about your own barsi?
My family would be against it, but I would gravitate towards a more Sufi commemoration. They do it in a more beautiful way, not so sad. They acknowledge that people died and it’s a tragedy, but it’s more of a tribute, not so morbid.
Have there been any texts or teachings that have helped you in your life, in terms of coming to terms with death?
There’s a book by [Hadrat Ali] called Living and Dying With Grace. It teaches you to be sincere at all times. Do not lie to yourself. That self-awareness comes from realizing that you are going to die. That your physical self is going to die, I mean. And then of course, music has been a huge part of my life. So much of what I’ve listened to touches on these themes. But I’ve lived with a lot of guilt because of playing music. In my family, I was always told it was sinful. Any kind of music. Anything with a beat. The Koran is supposed to be enough. That is changing, I think, but the general message when I was growing up was that music was pornography for your ears. I shouldn’t be making people feel sexy. But that’s not all music is about! My dad came to see our band play at the Opera House — and thought I was so Hellbound! He said since I was never going to give it up music, I might as well check out the Sufi thing. My dad of all people, directed me there.
When I was 16, I would secretly listen to the band Bauhaus under the covers at night, with my headphones on, after everyone else was in bed. I would sign the tapes out from the library because I wasn’t supposed to have these things. So when I met [Bauhaus singer] Peter Murphy because he was rehearsing in the same building as my band, and our first words were an Islamic greeting, that blew my mind. Because listening to his music used to make me feel so sinful. And then here he was. It was a huge trip. And I finally felt ok. That music was not bad. It is my path. And I didn’t have to feel so guilty. Peter says in a song: “Looking for the next world/it’s a natural thirst/But the next world is made up/of what you make of this one first.” That’s it. If you make this life a hell, your next will be a hell. That makes sense to me. When you die, you get locked into that. If you die in misery, that energy will follow you.
What do you think happens when you die?
I don’t really know. I do believe we go on in some way. By the way, I think a lot of atheists are closer to god than “believers.” Because they are heavily invested in humanity and justice. I don’t judge non-believers. But I personally think that when you die, there is something beyond. The whole dervish tradition is about cycles. You can see that in the whirling dervishes. But it’s more than that. It’s such a symbol of life and the universe and everything. The seasons, the clock, the cosmos, you know? Molecules. There’s so much emphasis on the cyclical, ever-rotating pattern. There’s so much evidence. It’s hard to verbalize this stuff, it’s an intangible thing. What is on the other side? What if there is nothing? Well, that’s still not a bad way to be. I believe our ego dies with our bodies. We need them, but only in this world. And we shouldn’t be ruled by them. Our souls are what’s eternal.
Are you afraid of dying?
I am very much afraid. Because I have an attachment to this world. And my lifelong work is to work on that. An enlightened person detaches. If you tell that person they are going to die, they are OK. I’m not that guy yet. I’m trying to be. I’d like to be.