andnbsp;By Salman M. A. Salman

Translated by Muhammad Mahmoud



Like most people, I never knew a physical form for death. It meant for me what it has mostly meant for humans since time immemorial — that Grim Reaper who doesn’t distinguish between the sick and infirm and the fit and healthy, or between the young and the old. It might come all of a sudden, or after it has prepared the one about to depart and his/her dear ones for the imminent fate. In all cases, one is left with a profound sense of affliction, pain, and sad loss.

I, however, personally met death, and was physically touched by it at 7:50 pm on Sunday 6 September 2015 at my house in McLean, Virginia, USA. My wife and life companion, Fawzia Omer Abdulgahni, was performing after-the-sunset (Maghreb) prayer, and had just finished her first ritual bow and was into the second, when she keeled over on the prayer mat without being able even to hold on to the seat next to her.

I rushed to her. My biggest fear was that she would have injured her head on account of the fall. But the moment I rested her head on my left arm, I realized that the blight was far greater, and that in reality I was meeting death face to face for the first time in my life. The muted brownness of her face was changing fast and alarmingly from her natural colour to purple. The lines of her charming face were also fast changing — showing through and vanishing by the second. Her mouth was wide open while she was gasping hard for air to reach her lungs. Her eyes were wide open, and confused, not knowing, as it appeared to me, what to do to hold on to life.

Yes, this was my encounter with death. Doctors told me later that she had in fact passed away at that moment when her heart suddenly and completely stopped beating. The ambulance crew who were in our house within minutes tried to save her, but to little avail. She was rushed to the emergency department of the nearby Fairfax Hospital. They did not allow me inside the ultra-intensive care unit where they took her at 8:50 pm. They came back to me at 9:05 pm to confirm the tragic news that she had departed in her final journey. They gently and quietly told me that I and my family and friends could stay beside her laid out body till 4:00 am of the next morning of Monday September 7, 2015.

When we got married in June 1976, I had promised her that I will do my utmost to protect her from any threat to her wellbeing, and that I won’t hesitate for a moment to sacrifice my life for her — a promise I kept repeating till a few days before her departure. How am I going to live the rest of my life after having seen death snatch her from my arms, while standing helplessly and unable to keep my promise؟ My forty-year old promise evaporated in one second at 7:50 pm on Sunday 6 September 2015.

That Sunday started in a different way from all the days we had been together. My affliction with the shingles virus, which had viciously attacked my right leg before more than a month, had severely limited my movement. The excruciating pain prevented me from performing the simplest of daily tasks. Eating, drinking, sleeping, reading, watching the news, working on the computer, even the slightest movement — all became difficult and hard, if not impossible.

The tormenting pain chose the night of Saturday and the morning of Sunday to attack with all its severity and intensity. None of the varied and strong painkillers could hold it at bay. My life companion was next to me all that night and morning treating my leg with ice to alleviate heat and pain of the shingles, and rubbing in some olive oil in the hope that it might help (despite the fact that she had studied biology). Fawzia had spent most of the last night in her life trying to relieve the pain of my shingles. What a wonderful life partner till the very last moments of her life!

A number of friends had planned a visit to our house on the afternoon of Sunday 6 September to see me, and check on how I was doing with the shingles. When they began arriving, Fawzia met them with her usual cheerful and welcoming smile — a welcoming smile that greeted countless friends and colleagues we hosted during our long stay in the greater Washington DC area; a welcoming smile that kept drawing them time and again to our house. Many chatted with her that afternoon. Journalist Mohammed Ali Salih was the first to arrive around 2:30 pm, and brought her, as usual, a collection of Arab newspapers and magazines. Then came Hatim Abusin who tried to help her with some fault in her mobile phone, and spoke to her about the uses of that particular brand in Sudan. The last to chat with her was the educationist Ustaz El-Tayyeb El-Salawi. He and Fawzia reminisced about their time at the Islamic Saudi Academy in the state of Virginia, where they both worked for over ten years in the 1990s and after, alongside dozens of American, Arab, and Sudanese teachers. Ustaz El-Salawi was the last of friends to see her, as she departed an hour and a half afterwards.

The great irony was that the friends who last saw her had in fact come to see me owing to my ill health, and not hers. The other greater and bitter irony was that she had come from Sudan to accompany and nurse me, and I returned back three weeks later carrying her body on my shoulders.

Fawzia chose a career in teaching at the Islamic Saudi Academy despite the fact that she had previously worked at a number of scientific research centres in Sudan and outside Sudan. She had graduated with a BSc (Honours) in Biology from the Faculty of Science, University of Khartoum. Subsequently, she obtained an MSc in Microbiology from the University of Connecticut in New Haven, in the United States of America. She set Microbiology aside and decided to teach the subjects of Geometry and Algebra to twelfth grade students (after acquiring the necessary professional qualification from a Virginia college).

Initially, I didn’t see eye to eye with her about her decision, as I wanted her to continue her work and research in her field of specialization. But I soon noticed the deep satisfaction and happiness that filled her while explaining and discussing in Arabic and English the principles of Geometry and Algebra to her Arab and Sudanese students who frequented our house during the weekends, and sometimes during weekdays, to be helped in these complex subjects by “Ablah Fawzia” (Teacher, or Ustazah Fawzia), (as some of her Arab students liked to call her). She did this on top of her long hours at the Academy itself, where she worked closely with her students. Gradually, her happiness proved to be infectious, and I decided not only to support her decision, but also to help her realize it.

Two days after Fawzia’s sudden and painful departure, Ustaz El-Tayyeb El-Salawi wrote an obituary in which he described her, saying, “Her passion to serve others was her primary motive in choosing education as a career. All her colleagues and students could clearly see her dedication to her work. She cherished her work and gave it all she had. All the time she was altruistic, helpful, and giving.” (Sudanile, 8 September 2015).

One day we were visited by an Arab diplomat whose daughter was being regularly helped in her Geometry and Algebra by “Ablah Fawzia”. He handed Fawzia an envelope which was clearly full of dollars. It was his way of expressing his gratitude to Fawzia. However, Fawzia smiled gently and politely, and told him that helping her Arab daughters and sons brought her great happiness, and that, in carrying out such a duty, this happiness was all she wanted and wished. The diplomat’s eyes expressed at that moment his profound respect, appreciation, and affection for this remarkable and unique teacher.

Ustaz El-Salawi had noted this attitude and wrote in his aforementioned piece, “What we knew about her was that she took up teaching as a career out of conviction, and not as a source of income. Thanks to God she did not need the money, from which she turned away.” (Sudanile, 8 Septemer 2015).

Fawzia decided to extend her experience of working among the youth and helping them beyond the Saudi Academy, to the youth of the Sudanese community in the greater Washington DC area. She proposed the setting up of a special office for the Sudanese youth who study at high school and college. Her aim was to help young people at high school in the subjects they require to enter university, and to expose them to the diverse cultural, historical, and geographical issues of Sudan. The executive committee of the Sudanese Community chose her as secretary to this office. She gave to the work what she possessed, and what she didn’t. She organised a weekly program for the study and revision of the core subjects required for university admission. This program went hand in hand with periodic talks given by Sudanese experts who regularly came to Washington, which helped widen the knowledge of these young people of their country and its diversity. Over time, this office developed to become a major, and the most important office of the Sudanese Community in the greater Washington DC area.

In 1999 elections of the Sudanese Community, Fawzia scored the second highest votes. Some women in the community were of the view that their moment had come. They believed that a woman should take over as community president, and that Fawzia was the most qualified to do so. Fawzia, however, thought otherwise. She insisted that the winner was in fact more experienced, and had won more votes, and so had more right to be president. She was elected vice-president, and that was the first time a woman was elected to this position in the Sudanese Community of the greater Washington DC area.

Fawzia and our daughters moved back to Sudan in mid-2001. As soon as she settled down in our house in Street 5, in Amarat, Khartoum, she resumed her public activity. She invited the ladies living the neighbourhood for a cup of coffee, and suggested to them working together to improve the street’s general condition. The public square at the west side of Street 5 had turned into a big rubbish dump and a refuge for stray dogs and cats. The street itself was in dire need for paving and lighting. A women’s committee, chaired by Fawzia, was set up.

Journalist Muhammad Latif wrote about the successes of this committee in public work. Our neighbour, journalist and friend, and a former leader of the Students’ Union at Khartoum University, Sulaiman Al-Amin, also spoke about Fawzia’s public contributions and successes. In his address to the gathering of mourners at Faruq Cemetery on Thursday 10 September (where and when Fawzia was buried), he spoke about her and the role she played in Street 5. He said that the maintenance and greening of the square, the building of the mosque of Street 5, and the paving of the road and its lighting, were all due to her efforts. He furthermore spoke about her role in energizing the social life of the women and men of Street 5.

The last chapter in Fawzia’s life was dedicated to humanitarian work, and in complete silence. Every now and then she would drive out with our car stacked with ready meals, sugar and flour bags, clothes she had bought from wholesale stores in the USA, and money. Wad Al-Bashir’s camp for refugees witnessed many of these regular trips, particularly in the last months of her life. On hearing about her death, many of the refugees and poor and homeless came to our house and mourned her tearfully.

I had thought that the pain of shingles, as I have experienced it over the past two months, and as many doctors have repeatedly told me, was the most unbearable pain one can go through. But I found myself living a pain that was far more harrowing and intense than shingles.

Time was fast approaching 4:00 am on the dawn of Monday 7 September when two hospital employees entered the room in which we sat next to the body. I realized they had at last come to take her. I looked at her while recalling my promise to do my utmost to protect her from any threat to her wellbeing, and that I won’t hesitate for a moment to sacrifice my life for her. Feeling the cutting pain and agony of her departure, I asked myself: how come that I failed to keep a promise that I thought to be definitive and categorical؟
The hospital employees looked at me. I immediately realized that the moment of final separation has come, and there were only a few seconds for a final glance and the eternal farewell.

Her cold, laid out body was a painful reminder that time has at last defeated us, and thrust its poisonous arrowheads in my heart. It has snatched my life companion, and separated us forever. However, her charming and affectionate face, which still carried many signs of childhood and youth despite age and death, was telling me, “No, dear husband! I’ve also defeated time!”