prose// a portrait of wudu (the story of my great grandfather)

jiddu HagMusa, preparing his wudu

pictured here, is my father’s paternal grandfather, Hag Musa, may Allah have mercy on his soul. this is the first image i have seen of him, as he passed away the year that my parents were married, the same year my mother’s paternal grandmother passed away, (a year of sorrow/ a year of joy). the photograph is different from other pictures of family members that i have, most are passport photos taken for hajj or ummrah trips– formal, portrait style images. this is a candid shot, taken in the village of rikabiya, where my father was born and raised. it is strange looking at photographs taken before you existed, of people you never knew, but know so well all the same.


over the past several months i have been helping to archive hundreds of photographs, documents, and a myriad of other artifacts of our little family history that we recently rediscovered during our quarantine organizing. it is overwhelming at times, to see the magnitude of what i don’t know laying before me, to realize how much of my own life i have forgotten, to see how painful it can be for my father when i rattle on with questions about people he buried. so, slowly but surely, we go through the images of Sudan, of my father’s early years in America, of my grandfather’s last. they are hauntingly beautiful. baba tells me the story behind each photo, and i write it down.


here, Jiddu Hag Musa is making wudu, a ritual that was particularly important to him. prayer was the center of his world; he never delayed his salah, always praying immediately upon each prayer’s arrival. his wudu would take time, intentionality behind every single movement, as though he was preparing for a very special event. and what an event indeed is salah! it is an honor to have an image of his essence, captured by the flashing, fleeting light of a 90s camera.

Jiddu Hag Musa was a really remarkable man, from all the stories i have been told. baba tells me he used to eat and enjoy his meals among those facing poverty and those with disabilities in the village. he was a simple man who lived a simple, honest life. he used to hire people to help him with tasks, and then, upon seeing them struggle, go and work with them to complete the project and still pay them in full at the end of the day. most astounding, was his daily wird, which was nearly forty five minutes long, that he never left. 

baba shares with me that he used to recite it in his home, and the sound would reverberate throughout the house, and those nearby could hear him reciting. everyone came to know his wird, that he loved and cherished, and they loved and cherished it too, and him all the more for it.

he lived a long and healthy life, having been born in 1900, and passing away at the age of 97, he saw the 20th century tumble open before his eyes. a fast changing world, a fast changing Sudan, the birth and death of many many things. what i wouldn’t give to be able to race back through time and grab onto his voice through a recorder just to hear him describe the most salient memories of his youth! 

when Jiddu Hag Musa passed away, there was a large funeral that our family and village community attended. after the janazah concluded, and the family stepped forward to begin to cover the body with dirt, a man came from the crowd and jumped into the grave before they could begin. he began to recite Jiddu’s wird, and everyone who was in attendance felt the beauty of the moment— many were moved to tears. when the wird concluded, the man climbed out of the grave, and the burial continued.

after my great grandfather was laid to rest, members of our family began to search for the man who had reminded them of something so dear and beautiful. but he was no where to be found. they asked around, but no one knew who the man was, or had ever seen him before. he was not dressed like a traveler from out of town, and even if he had been from somewhere else, the chances that he could have known Jiddu’s wird were slim. 

who that man was remains a mystical mystery, although some in my family hold their own beliefs about what happened that cool evening.

the other day, i asked baba to let me listen to the wird for the first time. i don’t know if i can ever hear it again… (i am too fragile, too easily attached to feelings that are not my own).


a few weeks ago, upon finding a handwritten letter, i was able to see Jiddu Hag Musa’s handwriting with my own eyes. you can see his age through his slanted letters, the light touch of the pen, the fact that he only wrote a line or two before delegating the rest of the writing to my aunt. but still, his hands touched the paper that i touched, hugged the man i hug…and i am floored.

it is easy for me to forget, as someone so distanced at times from my family in Sudan, that i have family members who knew and taught and mastered what it meant to live by La Ilaha Ila Allah. these men and women, from Mama Nafisah to Jiddu Hag Musa are my teachers, some i met, others i never got a chance to. i wonder what that means. as of now i only know what it feels like. 

to that i say, subhanAllah. i want to be like them when i grow up. 

wird: a litany of prayers

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