By Fred A. Reed
Amadou Bruno M’baye was born in Senegal 63 years ago and died in Montreal on June 15.
He died alone, in deprivation, but his death cast a light that was both revealing and unexpected.
I’d known Amadou for three years. He lived near the mosque I attend. Every Friday I would pick him up in front of his house, and drive him home afterwards.
He had become weakened and diminished from diabetes. Walking was often a painful ordeal; he was tormented by the fear of losing his feet.
Educated as a veterinarian, he had earned a livelihood in business before falling into poverty in Canada.
Month’s end would often see him asking for charity at the mosque; his miserable social assistance cheque was not enough to cover the cost of food and rent.
In the prayer hall he could always be found in the same place—though he remained curiously unseen by the mosque authorities.
Yet none of these hardships could diminish his high spirits, his patience, and his deep faith.
“I am your chauffeur,” I would joke, as we pulled up at his apartment building in my sub-compact. Amadou would respond with peals of laughter and eloquent protests.
Only later was I to discover how true my words had been.
On the face of it, he and I should have been radically incompatible: he, a native of French-speaking Africa; I, a North American born and bred. And yet everything seemed to conspire to draw us closer together.
As the months and the years went by I gradually came to know him, in short conversations that reflected a dimension of the man that was hard for me to grasp and yet drew me.
Ours was a friendship founded in brotherhood, and when I visited his daughter and her family in Paris, it grew stronger still.
My brother Amadou may have died alone, but around him a circle of people of widely varied backgrounds had taken shape - a young Bengali-Pakistani couple who delivered food to his home, an older, Pakistan-born couple who tried to help him set up a small business, his Senegalese countrymen, and his neighbors.
Like me, they were drawn by his kindness; the courtliness and a humility that made people feel good simply by being around him.
With the greatest subtlety he began to talk to me about his spiritual master, Sheikh Amadou Bamba M’backé, the nineteenth-century Senegalese renewer and founder of the Mouride Sufi order, who had given African Islam its black countenance.
“Blackness of the skin” wrote Sheikh Bamba, well before Senghor, “cannot be considered as a condition of intellectual or moral inferiority.”
My brother Amadou left me to explore the spiritual writings of Sheikh Amadou Bamba on my own.
His “method” was as light as the brush of a feather - a kind remark, a few words of advice to the novice reader that were so restrained that I found it almost impossible not to accept them.
When the Senegalese brother who had discovered Amadou dead that Sunday in June called to tell me the sad news, I did not anticipate the shock.
Shortly thereafter, I learned that his family had asked me to look after his affairs.
At the mosque, once the consternation had passed, the first reaction was to insist that he be buried in Montreal, where he had died.
A collection box was opened for that purpose.
Had not my brother Amadou told my wife and me on several occasions that he wished to be buried in his homeland, next to grandfather’s grave?
The next day, a call came from Paris - his family, both in Senegal and in France, insisted that his body be repatriated.
The news touched off a reaction that surprised me by its sharpness, and by its apparent disregard for the feelings of his family.
To repatriate the body would be to waste the money that had been collected, said one; to send the body back to Senegal was against the teachings of Islam, said another.
These carping voices ignored one thing - the reality of the situation.
As Amadou had died alone, and had left no will, his body lay in the morgue awaiting the autopsy that would determine the cause of death (a heart attack, in the event).
What were they hoping to do?
Organize a raid on the morgue to extract the body and carry out a “licit” burial?
God be praised, though loud, their voices were a tiny minority.
Community solidarity, generosity and compassion had trumped the literalists.
The hearts of our sisters and brothers had spoken.
Within a week the money needed had been raised, and less than two weeks after his death, my brother Amadou’s body was loaded aboard an airplane for its last earthly journey.
By then the shock of his death had begun to abate - but the news from Dakar caused another tremor, even stronger than the first.
First by telephone, then by e-mail, I received news of the burial.
“Immediately upon his arrival at the airport a resounding zikroullah (la ilaha illAllah, Muhamadou rassouloullah) rang out, chanted by dozens of representatives dispatched to meet him from all the Mouride khalifas of Senegal.
The chanting continued over the one hundred kilometers that separated Dakar from the earth of Ndiassane where he is now buried.
He was washed, perfumed and wrapped in his burial shroud by the community’s most immaculate elders.
Once again the Holy Qur’an was recited - 41 persons chanted Sura Ya-Sin.
Accompanied by a procession of hundreds of the faithful, Amadou was put to ground like a khalifa, which in truth he was.
Precisely at this instant of relief and sorrow, I learned that my brother Amadou had concealed his true identity.
“And thus ended the last journey of Sheikh Amadou M’baye,” wrote his son-in-law in a letter that was read out in the mosque.
“He had set aside his noble lineage to become a simple servant of the Almighty.”
Then I understood.
In life as in death, my brother Amadou had been among us as a bearer of witness - as one whose presence cast a revealing light upon others, whether in their acts, their words or their silences.
His life had been a trial and a test for the simple servant of the Almighty that he had willingly become.
It is, for us, a trial and a test of another kind - that of keeping our faith alive in our minds and our hearts as he had done.
(Fred A. Reed is an international journalist and award-winning literary translator. He is also a respected specialist on politics in the Middle East. Anatolia Junction, his acclaimed work on “the unacknowledged wars of the Ottoman succession,” has been translated in Turkey. Shattered Images, which explores the origins of contemporary fundamentalist movements in the Islamic faith, has been translated in Syria.
After several years as a librarian and trade union activist at the Montreal Gazette, Reed began reporting from Islamic Iran in 1984, visiting the Islamic Republic twenty-eight times since then. He has also reported extensively on Middle Eastern affairs for La Presse, CBC Radio-Canada and Le Devoir.
Reed worked with documentarist Jean-Daniel Lafond on the films Salam Iran, a Persian Letter and American Fugitive. He currently resides in Quebec).