Nonfiction Feature: “kafir 1 & 2” By Tarfia Faizullah

 

kafir 1

 

It’s been twenty years since my sister died in the car accident. For twenty years I’ve been telling slightly different versions of her death and the aftermath. None of them are true. All of them are true.

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Kufrul-‘Inaad is disbelief out of stubbornness. This applies to someone who knows the truth and admits to knowing the truth, and knows it with his or her tongue, but refuses to accept it and refrains from making a declaration.

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One night during college at a party in someone’s dark dorm room, someone decided it would be fun to make a drinking game out of how many things in common we had with our siblings. The lava lamp in the corner made our faces seem like the topographies of far- away planets. “What about you, Tarfia?” he asked.

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“Throw into hell every obstinate disbeliever,” Allah says a few verses later. “Why are you so stubborn?” everyone in my life who has ever loved me has asked. “Why is it so hard for you to back down?”

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“I don’t have any siblings,” I said, thrumming the amber neck of the beer bottle with my fingers.

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In verse 50:19 of the Qur’an, Allah says to the disbeliever, “And the intoxication of death will bring the truth; that is what you were trying to avoid.”

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“She’s not dead,” I said when my parents came to visit me in the hospital a few days after my sister had gone into cardiac arrest. My arm was in a sling, freshly plastered hours after surgery that was meant to correct the damage done to my shoulder during the car accident. My mother’s face was a map of bruises. I couldn’t look directly at any of the new countries of her ruptured skin. “She can’t be.”

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How can death simultaneously intoxicate and bring truth? If the very cells that allow us to experience intoxication stop functioning, how do our brains process, allow, or deny truth? That is to say, truth is like memory in that it is not so much a set of discrete memories as much as it is a set of processes by which we encode, store, and retrieve information.

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“It’s just me and my sister,” I say to the lipsticked and rouged woman ringing up the bottle of perfume I’m buying for my mother at the makeup counter at Dillard’s. It is strange how easy it is to not continue with “…but she hasn’t been alive for twenty years.” “I’m about five years older,” I say, and she lights up. “That’s the age difference between me and my sister!” she says, and I smile and sign my name on the credit card slip with a flourish.

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In many ways, kufr is synonymous with atheism, which is the rejection of a belief in the existence of deity. But is it still disbelief if you are rejecting belief in someone or something that no longer exists?

 

kafir 2

 

The Arabic word for disbeliever is kafir. It can also be translated as infidel. The term refers to one who rejects God in Islam. The word kafir is the active participle of the root k-f-r, to cover. As a pre-Islamic term, it described farmers burying seeds in the ground, covering them with soil while planting. Thus, kafir implies that a disbeliever is a person who hides or covers.

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My father was driving the car. It was summertime. My sister and I were thrown out of the car. She had an instant brain aneurysm. We had been in Houston, vacationing. I landed in a fire ant bed. We prayed in the hotel room, orienting ourselves toward the direction of the Kabah. I had argued with her about who would lie down on the long dusty blue seat of the 1984 Suburban and who would lie on the floor beneath it. I had won the seat. Neither one of us wore seatbelts. My father crawled over to me where the bones of my right arm were twisted above me. It was dusk. “I think Tangia is dead,” he said. I don’t know where my mother was. My sister was seven years old. A stranger brought ice to place beneath my back to discourage the ants away.

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I finished reading the entire Qur’an from cover to cover by the time I was seven years old. My parents threw a party to celebrate the khatam, and invited the entire Islamic community of west Texas. My mother made milky rice pudding flavored with rosewater. There is a picture of me and my father sitting on the old blue couch in what we called the family room: I’m wearing a blue and red salwaar kameez, and my father is wearing a white panjabi and crocheted skullcap. He has his arm around me. Both of us are grinning. I was both pleased and embarrassed to have accomplished something monumental, something worth his pride. I could read Arabic script flawlessly without knowing the meaning of a single word.

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Kafir, and its plural kafirun, is directly used 134 times in the Qur’an. Its verbal noun kufr is used 37 times, and the verbal cognates of kafir are used about 250 times. These numbers, just like what I know of the car accident in which my sister died, are facts. They don’t describe the look in my mother’s eyes when she sees girls who are approximately seven years old. They don’t describe how the word kafir does not change meaning over the course of the Qur’an, but rather accumulates in meaning over time. They don’t describe my father needing two back surgeries because he has to work himself to distraction in his garden. Facts and numbers don’t describe the manifestation of Kufrul-Inkaar, for example, which is disbelief out of denial, practiced by someone who denies with both heart and tongue. “I think Tangia is dead,” my father had said. “No,” I replied.

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Gionni Ponce (Nonfiction Editor): As writers, we occasionally encounter work that flawlessly accomplishes a difficult task we have set for ourselves. In the past, these moments caused jealousy, frustration, and envy in me. But I’m finally seeing this as an opportunity for study. In “kafir 1” and “kafir 2,” Tarfia Faizullah writes about the death of her younger sister with a delicateness and poise that I’ve aimed for in my own essays centered on the death of my brother. It’s a brief portrait, rooted in the entomology of words, of a family coping with grief. Watch as Faizullah demonstrates her willingness to engage with deeply personal material.

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This piece appeared in Indiana Review 37.2

Tarfia Faizullah is the author of two poetry collections, REGISTERS OF ILLUMINATED VILLAGES (Graywolf, 2018) and SEAM (SIU, 2014). Tarfia’s writing appears widely, is translated into multiple languages, and has been displayed at the Smithsonian, the Rubin Museum of Art, and elsewhere. Born in Brooklyn, NY to Bangladeshi immigrants and raised in Texas, Tarfia currently teaches in the Writing Program at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.

 

 

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