Chapter 1: Arrival
The couple rode their horse and cart in near silence, the only human sounds coming from her sniffles as she tried to control her tears. The man's beard was wet with his tears but he made no sound as he looked at his wife in concern.
They had just buried their fourth child; he was still-born. After the loss of their first three children the woman had insisted that when the time for delivery came for the fourth, then she and her husband would not stay in the village. To this end, they hired a small cottage several miles away, well not hired exactly, more…swapped. A family worked for them on their fields and had offered the couple the use of their home during the last few weeks of the pregnancy. The farm-hands loved the couple for their kindness towards them, their reputation as upstanding people was known for miles and the man's honesty and good judgement had resulted in him being chosen as a mediator in a dispute on numerous occasions. Everyone knew of the loss of the first three children, and everyone – man, woman and child – prayed that God would grant the couple a child this time.
The horse stopped suddenly, its ears pricked and nose flaring. It stomped the ground nervously, tugging at the rope around its neck. The sky lit up as balls of fire fell from it. But the horse didn't bolt, the man's reassuring voice helped maintain its calm. It trusted its master.
One of the "balls" suddenly broke away from the rest and streaked towards them. The man and the woman prayed to God for His protection. The "ball" turned slightly and drove into the ground, heading away from the cart. Around them, the sound and flashes of the other "balls" could be heard thundering for miles, lighting up the pre-dawn sky.
Suddenly, the woman got off the cart and walked towards the trench that had been dug by the "ball". The heat prevented her from getting too close, however. Her husband followed, holding their oil lamp, calling to her and asking her to come back to the cart but she kept walking. After the ordeal she had just been through, he knew better than to try and force her to stop, so he quietly followed her along the side of the trench. When he heard her gasp he rushed to her side.
"By He in Whose hand my soul rests, I have never seen such a thing before!" he exclaimed when he saw the strange object embedded in the burnt earth. A gas seeped out of the object, cooling the earth around it. The sun had yet to rise and the light of the moon had been dimmed by the dust in the sky and now the trench no longer glowed, but a light emanated from the object, a light far brighter than that given off by the lamp in the man's hand, a light which had a silhouette…of a baby…
The man and woman both prayed for God's protection and, as one, they stepped down into the deep trench towards the now cool object. The woman touched the glowing area and it suddenly opened as if someone had drawn back a veil of liquid. The light brightened, bathing the couple in its glow; again the couple prayed, asking for God's protection from Satan, as they stepped back in fear. The light them dimmed around…a baby…a wet baby, as wet as a newborn. The woman laughed as she thanked God for His blessings and the man looked up at the sky and he, too, made a prayer of thanks. Quickly, the man rushed back to the carriage and came back with blankets and cloths to clean and wrap the baby with. He smiled as he saw the change in his wife.
After cleaning the baby and wrapping him in a blanket the woman held the child out to her husband. His beard was wet again, only this time with tears of joy. He cradled the babe in his arms and whispered the Call to Prayer in the baby's ear: "God is Greater than…There is no god but God…" Then he reached in to his pocket and gave a date to his wife who then chewed it and then gave some of the juices from the date to the quiet child, rubbing them on the baby's lips tenderly.
"Let's take him home. I'll come back later to…to pick up…" the man turned to look at the object. He then looked at his wife in fear. "What if someone…"
"Hush, my love. God guided this child to us and us to him. He will protect us."
The man put his arm round his wife and together they walked back to the cart where their horse was waiting patiently.
As they neared their village an hour or so later, the couple feared that they would have to explain the arrival of the child to the others but then both paused and smiled when they realised that they wouldn't have to. The child was theirs…a gift from God.
"He has blue eyes…they're almost like your father's." said the woman to her husband.
"If he were a girl," said the man, "I would have suggested Inara…"
"Well, we can't call him Aladdin!" laughed the woman.
"Aladdin…'God-given'…hmm…" he laughed at the look of horror on his wife's face. It wasn't that it was a bad name, far from it, but the name would have put the boy in a position where he may grow up taunted and mocked, perhaps asked about his 'genie' and his lamp. No, choosing the name for a child is very important. It had to be just right. He smiled at the sleeping baby and then whispered a prayer to God to look after the children they had already lost.
"They're here!" the children cried out. They had been sitting on the village wall watching for the return of their favourite uncle and aunt, their hearts filled with the hope that this time they would have a little cousin as well. They rushed to the cart, the horse proudly raising its tired head.
"It's a boy" said the woman. The children stopped, gasped and then, grinning with delight, they ran back to the village to make the announcement.
The couple were not rich by any means. They had farmland and could afford to hire farm-hands but compared to most of the villagers who had sons and daughters settled in the West, they were the poorest. But they were loved and honoured above and beyond almost any other family. They were good people, maybe one of the select few in the world who could have raised the child they now had in a manner that would bring out the best in him.
The whole village had been waiting in anticipation, fearful that their beloved friends might lose another child, but the shouts of joy from the children triggered something in the adults. They rushed around gathering fruits and making sweets and food, everyone helping to make this joyous occasion a notable one. There were always celebrations upon the birth of a child in the village but this occasion was considered by all the villagers to be just that little bit more special. Their Uncle and Aunty had a son. They now had a little brother.
The seventh day came and it was now time to name the baby boy and to circumcise him.
The naming was hard. There were so many suggestions but then little Hajra suggested that they name him Ishmail. Everyone agreed that it was the best name for him, and the fact that Hajra had said it made it seem all the more right, after all, Ishmail was the name God told Hajra to give to her child.
He was three years old when it happened. I hadn't felt fear like that for years.
Some of the Children had come home for a holiday. They were all so grown up but you could plainly see their discomfort in the village. They were no longer used to it after spending so many years in the cities in Europe and America. But at least they wanted their children to have some knowledge of their heritage, their background.
When they had left all those years ago, I had assumed that they would forget their Aunt. It was a surprise to see them all come back after Ishmail was born. They all came back to see him. They all offered to help in any way they could. It still brings tears to my eyes remembering.
No one knows quite how it happened, how Ishmail had climbed those stairs to the roof. Most probably, the door hadn't been shut properly. Naila screamed when she saw him on the roof. Almost everyone screamed when he fell to the ground. Thank God that Nadia was there. Imran had married a good woman, a doctor who loved to "come home". She rushed to Ishmail. Everyone was so quiet. Finally she said that he seemed fine and that his arm was broken but she took him to the hospital to have him checked over thoroughly. Imran told us not to worry about the medical bill. But how could we not? The Children had done so much for us, there was no way we could possibly repay them.
When he came home everyone doted on him. I was worried that he may be getting spoilt and I think the Children and, well, everyone, knew that that was what I was thinking because they all reassured me that just as we had helped bring up their children, they would help with ours and would also ensure that he grew up to be a fine member of the village.
But a mother worries, right?
And if seeing him fall off a building made my heart stop, I don't know what I would have done if I had seen what Yusuf had seen!
I must have aged twenty years in those few minutes.
One of the Children had passed away when Ishmail was five years old. He was an only child and his mother had passed away when he was eleven and his father when he turned twenty-one. He had been flying to Japan when the plane he was on suffered a fault of some kind and crashed. 114 lives were lost. I had helped look after his fields, his inheritance from his father, and I never dreamed he would leave it all to me. When the lawyer came to the village to tell me, I was shocked. Even after all these years, I didn't understand or see how much the Children loved us. We had been trying for a child for fourteen years before God granted our request.
That day…Ishmail was crossing through one of the grazing areas, he was coming back from school. He was wearing a bright red jacket and I still don't know why he was coming home alone. But he was alone…walking across the field in that jacket.
And the bull rushed him.
I thought I'd find his crushed body, feared I'd see his red blood mixed with the red of the jacket.
Instead, I found him sitting there in shock. The jacket was torn, as was his shalwar, and his hair was ruffled, but there was not a scratch on him!
I never told Asiyah about it until a few weeks later…when we saw just how strong our little boy was.
I gave one of the fields Amir had left to me to the masjid and we built a school there where the children could learn the Qur'an and about Islam. It wasn't just the children present at the village who attended. Some of the Children sent back their children to learn as well. Their ages varied, some were less than 10 years old whilst others were in their late teens and early twenties. It was quite heart warming seeing their eagerness. The experiences that the children from the West brought with them made them see things in quite a different light to those of the village and the older children were quite forthcoming in expressing their views.
Ishmail knew the Qur'an and hundreds of Hadith by heart by the time he was 8 years old. His knowledge astonished everyone and none were more astonished than Salman when he introduced him to the science of Biology. Ishmail would ask him hundreds of questions based on his own observations in his tender years and Salman had a hard time keeping up, even though he was student at a university in London and Biology was his "specialisation".
When he was introduced to other sciences, other schools of thought, Ishmail approached them all with the same vigour.
But then he stopped. He no longer got a hundred percent at school, sometimes he would incorrectly recall an Ahadith and he no longer played with the children.
The problem was that the children who had been born just before his arrival or since it…they resented him. The older children competed with him gladly and, yes, some were upset when he bested them in knowledge, but the younger ones…they apparently felt that there was no way that they could attain his standard. I think Ishmail realised this and that's why he pulled away, although he has never admitted it to us.
Then Lubna arrived.
Lubna…I still remember the day when Ishmail first saw her. She was Nadia and Imran's little girl, born the same year as Ishmail. They were three years old when they first met, just before the accident. Ishmail was the kind of child who was inquisitive, would always be looking around but when he saw her, he looked at nothing else. She was sitting with Nadia in their parents' home; they had just come to the village that day. She was sitting there in a pink dress with little pink shoes on and she was yawning. Ishmail was with us when we visited them and we didn't realise that he just stood at the door, his mouth agape.
I used to tease him about that – I'm his mother, I can do that – that when he was a little older, especially after she had come back. The problem was that although she thought he was nice, he "weirded her out", Nadia told me several years later.
She came back when they were both 9 years old and she stayed here for a year. This was after Ishmail's…change. It was a week before she saw him, even though she came round every day. Nadia had told her to give him a gift she had chosen and Lubna was adamant that only she would give it to him. Seeing her pace up and down the room cursing him, I was glad we didn't get very good reception for our little television.
Ishmail came home a little before Maghrib and found Lubna napping in his room. He went off to perform his ablutions and, as he returned, I saw Lubna try to kick him.
It was just a joke. Come on, he had avoided me for a week, so a kick up the rear was called for. I didn't think he would move out of the way, so I was the one who ended up with a sore behind. When he smiled at me, my first thought was 'how are his teeth so straight', and my next thought was how to stop the tears. My bum really hurt! And then, when I saw him holding the present, that he had somehow caught it, then I was angry. And do you know what the cheeky git did? He apologised and handed it back to me!
I'm pretty sure I swore at him.
We sorted things out – I shouted at him and he listened – and finally we opened the present. I didn't know what my Mum had sent; all I knew was that it was heavy. Ishy was curious, too, but he let me open it.
It was a laptop and, according to the letter my Mum sent with it, it had a satellite uplink to compensate for the lack of internet in the village. Mum was a bit of a tech-geek back then, but I think she had a friend of hers get everything set up. Anyway, it had a lot of educational material on there – some really advanced stuff and, with the uplink, Ishy could get more when he was ready for it.
Then I saw why he was grinning. There was a line in the letter – 'maybe you and Lubna can study together'.
Ishmail loved that laptop and the worlds it introduced him to. It was impossible for any of us to teach him anything, he had been making references to things we had no idea about, but with the laptop…well, I saw the change, the reassurance he received from it. He could see and hear things none of us could, and one of the reasons why he was withdrawing was because he felt so different…because he couldn't share. The laptop changed all that, Alhumdulillah, and my son was smiling again.
I have to admit, astronomy was fascinating. Unlike in London, in the village the sky was clear and there was no light pollution to get in the way at night. Ishy made me a telescope but he hardly ever used one himself.
The only thing I was wary of was the chat sites. How would those people in MIT and Oxford and so on react when they found out they were talking to a 9 year old? How would those aalims and scholars react when they found out they were talking to a 9 year old?
Learning alongside Ishy was an amazing experience, but before long he was talking about things I just couldn't understand. None of us kids could. But he had the laptop, so his knowledge-quest was provided for.
He was still a kid, of course, and loved to come exploring with us. 'There's only so much you can learn from books and the screen,' he used to say. There was one time that scared us, though. I still have nightmares about it. If Kamran hadn't figured out what was happening…
It was nearly the end of my year there and a group of us were going camping, but we were incorporating plant and geology studies – whenever we protested studying Ishy would always remind us that the Prophet (peace be upon him) had said that we should seek knowledge, even if it meant travelling to somewhere as far away as China (of course, that was from Arabia whereas for us China was only over the border). That it was incumbent upon us as Muslims to learn, discover, share and explore. Didn't matter to him that some of us were only 9, going on 10 years old. The older kids, like Asad, Jawad, and Kamran didn't seem to mind – I'm pretty sure they were going to use the study for extra credit of some kind.
A month or so before this trip, Ishy had made each of us a small box from some kind of lead alloy that he had put together using spent shells, or something. 'Memory boxes', he had called them. I think they were mainly for those of us who were going to be leaving in a few weeks, with the holidays coming to an end.
Ishy, tireless Ishy, laughing Ishy, encouraging Ishy…stumbled, looked confused, stumbled a little more, and then collapsed.
Ishmail had never been sick. Never. He never even suffered an insect bite. Yes, he once broke his arm, but he quickly healed. For almost a week, though, he lay in bed with a fever Nadia said would have killed a grown man. Every mother hates seeing their child ill. The helplessness that wraps around your heart when all you want to do is take away whatever is afflicting your child and cast it away…every mother hates it.
We couldn't sleep. We took turns to cool him but it just didn't seem to be enough.
Some of the villagers wondered why Nadia wasn't taking Ishmail to the hospital – it was a three hour drive away but they had facilities we didn't – but Nadia insisted Ishmail remain in the village. She's a doctor so there wasn't any resistance to that, but Yusuf and I realised that…well, that Nadia knew that Ishmail was different.
We were an hour or so's walk from the village, and we were scared. Ishy was sweating and his breathing was getting shallower. We didn't have mobile phones back then, even those in the village who had them had poor signal reception and out here…out here the phone would be useless.
We gave him water and tried to make him comfortable, but he was getting hotter and hotter. Jawad was already running back to the village to get help, and Asad kept checking him over for injuries. It wasn't making any sense, and his skin was turning green.
As far as I know, Kamran doesn't know what drew him to that part of the undergrowth, but when he stepped closer to us Ishy had a sudden convulsion, his jaw clenched and body arching. Kamran stopped and stepped back, and Ishy seemed to relax, shuddering as his muscles loosened again. Kamran opened his hands and there was a small, glowing, green rock.
While Asad continued to tend to Ishy, the rest of us began looking for more of these rocks as quickly as we could. We concluded that the rock was radioactive and harming Ishy, but we didn't know how susceptible any of us would be.
We collected 42 of those glowing rocks, enough to fill two rucksucks, and then Kamran walked away with them. He came back a while later covered in dirt, his hands bleeding, and sat with us as we continued to watch over Ishy.
We heard the breathless shouts before we saw Jawad. We had been preparing for the upcoming birthday/farewell party and didn't expect the children to be back for at least a day. There was a moment of panic when we saw him and some of the men rushed out with their guns.
With ragged breath, Jawad explained what had happened and, after I convinced Asiyah to stay behind, Jawad, Imran, Nadia and I got in a jeep and headed out.
I've no idea what Aunty Nadia was whispering to Ishmail as she checked over him. She told us to stay away from him as she examined him, he was burning up so much it was almost as if he was actually on fire. Finally, after what seemed like hours but was probably barely minutes, she instructed us to lay him in the stretcher and put him in the jeep.
We watched them drive off, and all of us were thinking the same thing: our little Haadi was dying.
I had known for a long time that Ishmail was different – that, outwardly, he looked like us, but he was different. It didn't change anything, though, he was Ishmail and you couldn't help but love him. When Imran and the others told me of some of the things Ishmail had learned and observed; when Salman kept saying that Ishmail was a 'genius'; when I saw him walk through hot embers as he was engrossed in a book…I knew he was more special than I realised, and I knew I had to do whatever I could to help him.
That day, though, when I could feel the heat coming off him in waves as he lay there in a coma…that was one of the most frightening days of my life. I honestly thought we were going to lose him. I couldn't look Lubna in the eye and tell her he was going to be okay.
When I gave him the injection and saw Aunty and Uncle flinch, I realised that they weren't expecting the needle to go in. It was a strange thing to realise, and quite a difficult one to explain. I've seen the anxious looks on the faces of parents as I'm treating their children, that glimmer of hope when an injection is being administered or readings are being checked. Aunty and Uncle didn't have that look. Theirs was one of fear. It wasn't fear for Ishmail – that was more than apparent – but a fear for the needle, a fear of the needle, and a fear of what it was going to reveal. When the needle went in, the fear changed again…to one of a fear of the unknown.
I ushered everyone else out of the house and, when it was just the four of us, we talked and prayed, and held vigil.
Over and over again, Kamran would whisper it as we hurried back to the village.
Junaid, a year younger than Kamran but a lot taller, trudged alongside him. This was his first visit to the village and he didn't know Ishmail the way Kamran did. Junaid and Kamran were cousins and were very close, but Kamran's affection and admiration for Ishmail seemed to grate against Junaid.
'The kid's going to be fine, bro,' he said after a little while.
'He's never been sick.'
'Never. I know you don't know him, I know you don't like him-'
'Ishy's special. I know you think he's weird, but he's special.'
'He is weird,' mumbled Junaid. 'I still don't know how he knew I smoked; I didn't even bring any with me.'
I went on ahead to help Asad in trying to keep Lubna and the other kids' spirits up, reminding them of the party and assuring them that Ishy was going to be fine. Some of the younger kids barely knew him, but they knew him to be fun and hard to catch in a game of tag. A couple of them had been ill, which was the norm for most visitors, but none of them, or us, had ever seen anything like it. One of them whispered, 'what if it was a djinn', and I think that got the others thinking.
When the kids arrived back in the village, emotionally exhausted, seeing everyone standing solemnly outside Aunty and Uncle's house really got to them. The fear and panic I saw in their eyes…it was unnerving. It took a while to reassure them, to explain that if Nadia felt it best to take Ishy to the hospital then she would have, that we were only outside for support.
I noticed Kamran standing to the back of the group – he was the oldest of the kids and knew Ishy the longest. He had been there the day he had been born. He had been one of the first to run into the village with the news of the cart's return, and among the first to hold him. Lubna tugged at my kameez and told me, 'Mum should take a look at Kamran bhai's hands.' I went over to him and quietly pulled his right hand out from behind his back. The skin was torn and bloodied and the nails were broken and caked in dirt.
Nadia came out of the house to reassure everyone and I signalled to her to tend to Kamran.
'You have to save him, Bhaji,' Kamran whispered to me as I cleaned his hands.
'I'm trying, Kamu,' I whispered back, wincing inside when I saw the damage to his nails.
'You know, don't you? You know he's not like us, don't you, Bhaji? You don't have to say anything…'
I had let go of his hands. I was so confused, and so scared. What Aunty and Uncle had told me sounded so impossible, so crazy…
'Rabil aalameen, Bhaji, Rabil aalameen.'
I laughed, softly, as a 17 year old reassured me about the Majesty of our Creator. I listened carefully as he told me about the green rocks, and why his hands were in this state, and I wept as I realised the love he had for his little brother.
After three days our noor woke up. His colour had started to return but his eyes were bloodshot, and his body weak and still feverish. Hearing him whisper 'Amma' and then 'Abu'…
The village had been so gray and quiet, but when I came out to tell them the news, it was like life had returned. I saw Kamran wipe tears from his eyes with his bandaged hands before he ran to the masjid shouting 'Allahu Akbar'. I saw Lubna kneel on the floor and make du'a, and I saw many people hug each other in joy.
I'm not ashamed to say that my beard had not been so wet in a long, long time.
I knew he was definitely a lot better when the needle broke. The relief in his eyes when he saw there was no fear in mine when it happened…Ya Allah, I cried. He had been so alone and hidden himself for so long…the comfort of having a small amount of that pressure eased came off him in waves. I ruffled his hair and kissed his forehead, and then realised there was more comfort he could be given if he spoke to Kamran.
Was it an awkward conversation? Maybe for him, but certainly not for me. He was the reason I came back to the village a couple of times a year, every year. It's easy to say he's my brother, I always felt we had a bond from the moment I first saw him, and I truly do mean it when I call him 'my brother'.
Only a few of us had been awake on the night of the meteor shower – generally, after Isha, everyone turned in for the night. The electrical grid out here is really haphazard, even now, so most of the villagers relied on their own generators and avoided overusing them. I couldn't sleep that night, I was so excited for Uncle and Aunty, and so full of hope, so I went up to the roof and watched the sky, and prayed in my childish, hopeful way.
I wasn't scared as the flaming rocks fell from the sky, I was fascinated. I had seen things like it on television but this was real life and was really happening. The light and flames and rumbles.
It was awesome!
When Uncle and Aunty returned, everyone was happy. It was a huge moment. What threw me, though, was seeing Uncle sneak out that night with Murtajiz tied to the cart. I couldn't understand why he'd need the horse and cart at that time, and curiosity got the better of me and I sneaked on and hid under a tarp.
Uncle was reciting Sura Tawbah as he rode and I almost fell asleep as I listened to his melodic voice. I fought against it, though, and finally we arrived at wherever it was that he was going.
'Murtajiz, mere yaar (my friend), this is quite a problem Allah subhanahu wa ta'ala has set before me. Yet, He doesn't give anyone a burden more than what they can handle, which means I must be able to handle this, right, dost?' Uncle smiled as Murtajiz lowered his head. They had a good rapport, horse and master, but it still seemed strange that he was talking to him.
As he stepped into the ditch I pulled myself up in order to look over the edge of the cart, and I stared in shock…at a spaceship!
I don't think anyone realised, but when I first held Ishy the next day I actually checked if he had a tail – you know, because of the spaceship..?
Never mind, it's a DB-reference.
Anyway, the ship is quite large but shorter in length than the cart, and Uncle prodded at it to test how stuck it was and then crouched down and said, 'Bismillah' and…up it went, like it weighed nothing.
So there I was, cowering at the back of the cart as Uncle moved the ship on to it, and a small piece fell into my lap. Under the moonlight, it looked like a fifty-pence piece-shaped paperweight. Strange as it may sound, it seemed to hum. It felt warm and comforting, and as Uncle pulled the tarp over the ship, and over me, it glowed, highlighting the markings etched in it.
I didn't tell anyone about the piece, or the ship, or the barn he hid it in, or that he later moved it (I went to check on it) or anything, but I knew I was in on one of the greatest stories this world was ever going to see or hear, and I knew enough at that age to know that it had to be kept secret.
Maybe that's why I was so protective of him in the early years. I didn't molly-coddle him or anything like that, but I kept an eye out in case he did anything to draw attention. Of course, things happen as they're meant to happen, so although I berated myself for a long time when he broke his arm, I knew, eventually, that it was all part of the Plan.
When I told him all this, and when I showed him the piece I had hidden, he told me to go get Uncle, Aunty and Bhaji. When we were all with him, alone, he took the piece from my hand and it sang and glowed bright, and he smiled. The light filled the room and I squinted through the light and saw two figures and heard strange words. As the light faded, Ishy smiled some more and said:
'My birth name is Kal-El, but I think I prefer pronouncing it Khalil…'
Ishy was still too weak to leave his room, but he was getting stronger and I assured everyone he would be well enough to attend the party. The kids were all upset when I said they needed to let him rest, and even more so (although I think 'outrage' is the more suitable word) when I told them that only Kamran could spend time with him. Oooh, the look in Lubna's eyes…
I had a blue sherwani with dark blue embroidery on the chest and on parts of the arms made for him, and matched it with a red scarf. I know Aunty liked it.
On the day of the party, Kamran fetched Lubna for him so that Ishy could give her his present in private. I knew it was a book of some kind, but didn't know what was in it. Aunty told me that Ishy had put it together a couple of months ago and that she had helped him with the binding and some of the weaving, but other than that she didn't know what was in it either.
Lubna walked out of the house, struggling a little with the green cloth wrapped present and refusing Kamran's offers to help.
The village smelled of food and people rushed around setting up tables and arranging the screen and projector for later.
There was a rumbling sound, and it got louder and louder, and then there were whoops and cheers and yells from outside the village wall and the large blue gate flew open.
Then that day changed and became 'hell on Earth'.
Hard as it may be to believe now, back then there were groups of bandits scattered around the hills and mountains. They tended to come down in raiding parties during the wedding season or when word was about that 'bahar ke bachon', 'the children from the outside', those who had had the 'good fortune' to move abroad, were visiting.
They raided the village, and it was terrifying. Gun fire, horses neighing, people screaming, children crying, the men being beaten.
I remember seeing Lubna standing there wide-eyed and clutching the present. I remember Kamran running towards her in order to shield her. I remember the horse rearing up, encouraged by its rider, and I remember Ishmail suddenly appearing before them, his kameez flapping and torn, his feet bare, and his arms spread wide.
I remember the horse rearing back even more, in fear at Ishmail's sudden appearance, and the rider falling to the floor.
I remember him shouting 'Bas', 'stop', and his shout echoing over and over.
I remember him walking towards the surprised horsemen as he recited Ayat al-Kursi and the last ayat of Surah Baqarah.
I remember him flicking tiny, tiny stones and knocking men off their horses and creating holes in their cars.
I remember someone trying to stab Junaid with a sword, only to be flung back by something.
I remember seeing men screaming in pain and clutching their right hands as they scrambled away from the women and children they had been pawing at.
I remember them shooting at him and all of us screaming.
I remember him standing there, crying, and whispering 'bas'.
Ishmail? He was the best friend you could ever have. Funny, although sometimes his jokes were a little hard to understand – he made such obscure references. His love for learning did get a bit annoying, though, but, you know, back then we were kids and kids just want to run free, right?
Kind-hearted and with a ready smile – he often had a knowing cheekiness about him, but he was solemn, too. Seeing him that day, though, with that righteous anger…and that sorrow…I knew he was different…more different…and later, I realised…something else…
We all saw what happened – I don't think anyone would be able to appreciate what it was like seeing someone you love…seeing a child…riddled with bullets. Trigger-happy AK47s.
We all saw him standing there, spent bullets lying on the floor around him, his clothes shredded, tears streaming down his bruised face.
You have to understand, we weren't afraid of him, we were afraid for him. Seeing him do what he did didn't change the fact that it was our Ishmail - the little boy in love with our deen and with this duniya. What it did mean, though, was that neither he, nor Uncle and Aunty, were safe now.
Our lives were turned upside down that day. We couldn't stay in the village anymore, not without being a danger to everyone there. Asiyah and I told everyone everything – we couldn't not tell them, it wouldn't have been right. Not any more.
Maybe their acceptance of our fantastic story wasn't normal. Maybe their protectiveness of us, especially of Ishmail, wasn't normal. I don't know. All I do know, though, is that they stood by us, more firmly than ever before.
But we couldn't stay in the village anymore, and that realisation grieved everyone.
Nadia and Imran suggested they take Ishmail with them, initially to Islamabad where Nadia's family were, before making their way down to Karachi where I had some relatives. It was one of those 'they do this in movies' things, splitting us up to confuse those who might be after us.
For years we had been afraid that Ishmail would be taken from us…and now, for better or worse, he was.
In all the years I've known him, there is one fundamental thing he lives by:
'If you see an evil, do what you can to stop it. If you can't stop it then at least speak out about it. If you can't do that then at least hate it.'
I suppose many would say it was easy for him to live by that; I don't think it was, though. I think not being able to do things, not being able to stop certain things, saddened him more than he ever let on. At the end of the day, regardless of what he could do, he was still just a man.