April Is the Cruelest Month

What is it with early April? Two days ago we mark the assassination of MLK, yesterday is the day we lost both Layne and Cobain (some years apart) — I don’t talk much about my grunge years here, but rest assured I sported mad plaid in the mid-90s — and today was the day the Rwandan genocide began in 1994, taking some 800,000 precious lives before it was over.

April 6 also marks a memorial closer to home. 12 years ago today our dear friend, Sharif Moustafa, a core member of our tight-knit West Cambridge crew and the BFF of my younger brother, suddenly collapsed on the same basketball court where we all spent countless days and nights — a court now named after him.


Thinking about Sharif — his life and his death — makes me want to write about our neighborhood and our city and things like race and religion and community, but rather than mobilize his passing for some politicking, I’d prefer to focus on Sharif here — and on the larger questions his untimely departure raised for us with regard to loss and mourning.

None of us really knew how to deal with losing a dear friend, with no warning, in the prime of his and our lives. Some dark, cathartic days followed. The strangeness of encountering Muslim forms of mourning and making peace was, I think, actually quite helpful in bringing some of us — some of us infidels, that is — to terms with an experience that seemed to resist explanation, that seemed in its own way utterly foreign.

(The Moustafas’ religious life was largely a private affair — one conducted in the privacy of their family home or outside of the neighborhood entirely, with fellow faithful in Greater Boston — and Sharif’s death was a notably rare moment where that veil was lifted.)

For my own part, inspired by the likes of “T.R.O.Y.,” which itself became endowed with new meaning in the wake of Sharif’s death, I wrote a “Song for Sharif,” an attempt to work/rap through some of the intense feelings I was having and witnessing, and though I actually recorded it and shared it with my friends and with the Moustafas (including his devout parents, who loved the Umm Kulthum sample and didn’t mind the additional blasphemy of sampling Koranic recitation), all of whom received it positively, today I find the recording a little too heart-on-sleeve to share more widely without embarrassment.

So allow me instead to offer a few lyrics that remain resonant (and perhaps work better on the page than in my cracking voice) —

How to persevere through this sudden shock of a loss?
Some cry, some wail, some chant their hum-du-Allahs
And some to a cross wanna grasp
How else to fathom the chasm left by a friend who’s passed?
So many questions to ask, so much left unsaid
Some people punish themselves, wish it were them instead
On new ground I tread: how to fill this void?
First time I find that emptiness could have such heaviness
I guess we just gotta remember the very best
Please rest in peace, my brother, you know you passed every test
Of friendship and family and everyday I plan to be
Reminded by the visual memory of the man I see
And when I cannot see, I’ll still hear your tune
You’re like a favorite song, that always ends too soon

Now, I’m not saying any of that’s profound or anything. The process of writing the song was much more about articulating the confusion and searching that followed our friend’s passing — and which, in retrospect, looks a lot like a stage of mourning, both for our friend and for ourselves. Along these lines, I was happy to run across the following quotation from Judith Butler over at Zunguzungu today; to my mind, it presents a poignant and helpful bit of thinking about mourning:

… Perhaps one mourns when one accepts that by the loss one undergoes one will be changed, possibly for ever…I do not think, for instance, that one can invoke the Protestant ethic when it comes to loss. One cannot say, “Oh, I’ll go through loss this way, and that will be the result, and I’ll apply myself to the task, and I’ll endeavor to achieve the resolution of grief that is before me.” I think one is hit by waves, and that one starts out the day with an aim, a project, a plan, and finds oneself foiled. One finds oneself fallen. One is exhausted but does not know why. Something is larger than one’s own deliberate plan, one’s own project, one’s own knowing and choosing…

On that note, May flowers anyone?