The first letter I received from Najma was in October 2010. Enclosed with the letter was some money and words of encouragement for me. At the end of her letter were a couple of lines requesting that I pray for her, since she was in the final stages of acute myeloid leukaemia.
I wrote back to Najma thereby starting a cycle of correspondence that was to last until shortly before her death. Sometimes she would reply promptly; at other times she would reply after several weeks apologising for the delay due to her being in hospital. She told me the story of her battle against leukaemia since February 2006, describing in detail the types of treatment she was undergoing. One thing that struck me about her letters was the matter-of-fact, at times even humorous, way in which she would describe horrendously painful medical procedures.
Recounting a four-month course of arsenic chemotherapy whose “side- effects are worse than the actual cancer, ” she wrote, “Due to the known damage arsenic has on the heart, I spent a lot of time on the Intensive Care Unit and Cardiac Care Unit … The heavy-metal constitution of arsenic meant that lumps of it, painful hard lumps, accumulated on my skin which had to be surgically cut away. “
She went on to detail her past week of treatment involving six-inch needles into her pelvic bone and bone marrow, three intravenous lines in her hand, “the removal of my Hickman line (attached to my jugular vein, requiring seven stitches and a lumbar puncture – spinal cord injection), ” and daily blood tests. At the end of this passage she wrote, “I am still smiling though.”
Despite all these medical procedures, her letters would be full of concern for other people. She would tell me about her work with Desidonors.org, a charity seeking bone marrow donors for sick children in the Asian community. I was particularly touched by the story of Amun Ali, a cute and chubby 10-year old boy from Birmingham with a bone marrow disorder that had already claimed the life of his 4-year old brother. I would ask Najma for regular updates on his situation. On 19 June 2011 Najma replied,
“Before I update you about my health, let me inform you that Amun Ali passed away in March this year. We found a bone marrow donor for him. However, the entire process is very aggressive and his young body couldn’t it…Truly devastating for all of us.”
Her concern for others began with her own parents before anyone else, especially her mother. She wrote,
“But perhaps the worst thing about my cancer is the effect it has on my parents. I don’t know what it feels like to be a parent, so cannot fathom how my mother stops her own life just to put some comfort into mine … She has never left my side since the first day I was diagnosed … She is so firmly committed to my care, she never stops smiling and praying for me every time I catch a glimpse of her. Parents are such a mercy, even at my age I need her. I feel so humble as I promised I would always look after her, and be there for her, but it seems to be the other way round.”
Every now and then, however, Najma would reveal the true extent of what she was going through:
“I’m tired and exhausted and in pain most days … My dreams are a respite from the painful, invasive, draining and toxic treatment I have to endure daily… Sadly my bones remain in agony and I refuse morphine simply because I feel numb and emotional … I have had a 6-inch needle into my spinal cord. It really hurts, in fact it burns. It’s a level of pain I never knew existed … I don’t know why I am still alive…”
Najma’s unshakeable faith in God and the After-life is what fuelled her determination to bear her ordeal with dignity: “I know my Creator is a Merciful One and I know I shall be rewarded for my struggles and that fact alone makes my journey bearable … When I think of Allah’s love, it makes some of this pain bearable… In the blood cancer unit, I see tragedy, pain, helplessness and misery most of the time. But there is something very special about believers: they never complain, not to others anyway. Their resolve comes from knowing that we shall only be transient in this world … And Allah knows best. “
Najma’s last letter to me was written on 20 November 2011, from her hospital bed, where she had been for several weeks by then. Unlike all her previous letters, this one was written in poor handwriting with disjointed line structure. “I wrote this letter from my room in the ward. I can barely lift my head up; it might even be incoherent… The chemotherapy has damaged my eyes so I can barely see on some days … I am still vomiting from the chemotherapy and most of my hair has fallen out … “
Despite her condition she still enclosed some money for me and went on to congratulate me for receiving 140,000 signatures in the e-petition campaign: “We are all praying for relief from your hardship. Nothing can remain the same. Things will change. “
She continued, “Sickness teaches you so much: humility, mercy, obedience, the list is endless… Patience is a hard lesson, but very beneficial indeed. I was always impatient and in a hurry, rushing around wasting my life away until sickness entered my life and I was forced to reflect … Some days I think I won’t make it through but those days are the ones that I forget that Allah has already written it down for me …”
During Najma’s final weeks and days my family visited her in hospital many times. As her condition deteriorated I sent her one final card in which I encouraged her to look forward to the reward that God had prepared for her in Paradise. My mother told me that Najma spent a long time reading and re-reading the card.
The next day, on 05 March 2012, she was taken to the Intensive Care Unit and she passed away a few days later, on the Saturday afternoon of 10 March 2012. All those present testified to the look of extreme peace and serenity on her face after she died. After a funeral attended by hundreds of people, she was buried in the Gardens of Peace cemetery in Ilford, Essex. May God have mercy on her and reward her for her patience through suffering.
I have learnt from my journey through life that there is rich inspiration to be gained by sharing the living moments of those who, for whatever reason, have been deprived of life. Whenever I have met cancer sufferers, the crippled, prisoners in indefinite detention, the blind and the dying, I have seen them attach a value to life, people and friendship that is unseen in others. To pass objective judgement on something, one must be external to it. Since they live in the twilight between life and death, they are able to see life for what it really is. They value every second of their existence and the people around them because they know that everything in life is temporary. In doing so, they increase the value of their own lives and the lives of those whom they touch.
The name ‘Najma’ in Arabic means ‘star’. The Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) once said that one of the reasons God created the stars was to act as beacons for those who want to find their way. Najma’s life was a beacon to any of us who have lost our way. Her life (and death) was the inspiration to many people, most of whom had never met her, even though she never realised it.
Through her six years of hell, Najma taught us how to be pleased with God’s destiny and how to confront hardships with dignified patience. She taught us how to cherish everything you have and how to value people because you don’t know how long you will be with them. She taught us how to smile in the face of suffering and how reaching out and helping others in pain can relieve our own pain. Through her life, Najma taught us how to die. And through her death, she taught us how to live.
14 March 2012