For Kenya’s Ismaili Muslims, eight funerals for those killed in the name of Islam

A relative kneels near the gravesite of Ruhila Sood, a Kenyan journalist who belonged to the tiny Ismaili Muslim community.
A relative kneels near the gravesite of Ruhila Sood, a Kenyan journalist who belonged to the tiny Ismaili Muslim community.
Image: Reuters/Thomas Mukoya
We may earn a commission from links on this page.

Nairobians are a hard-bitten lot. Despite our charm, humor, and warmth, not much jolts us out of a rather cynical world view: hustlers to traffic, armed robberies to carjackings, grenade attacks to political violence. That changed last week, when terror came home. This usually bustling capital, a laissez faire kind of place known as the “green city in the sun,” ground to halt amid the horror. We had no defense against the attackers on Westgate.

It started off as a regular Saturday, a sunny morning I spent running errands at a nearby mall in preparation for the arrival of guests. I had just returned home when at about 12: 45 p.m., my brother called to make sure none of us were near Westgate, about 20 minutes away from my home in the leafy tranquility of Nairobi’s diplomatic zone.

We spent the next few hours glued to our television and Twitter. My cell phone buzzed with calls from relatives and friends. I had dropped by my aunt’s house in the morning and mentioned that I had to pick up some groceries. She lives behind Westgate and feared I had gone to the supermarket there. My friend Tessa was walking to Westgate when she had heard gunshots; she turned and ran the other way. My uncle was in a mall across the road and about to head to Westgate when the shooting started. One by one, the messages came in. Most were accounted for, albeit with harrowing stories of waiting in storerooms and behind boxes, unsure if it was safer to hide or attempt escape.

I couldn’t help but think it could have been me, or someone in my family. This was our stomping ground, our territory. Westgate was where we met up for brunch, or went to the movies. Due to convenience, security, and, frankly, a lack of alternatives, much of Nairobi life for those who can afford it revolves around its high-end malls. I had been sitting in a coffee shop on the second floor of Westgate with my friend Rowan at exactly that time the previous week. My boyfriend and I had been eating at the burger restaurant that would later be in the front line of fire, exactly three weeks before.

I’ve been here before in another way. In 2008, I was a reporter living and working in Mumbai. I was there on November 26, 2008 during the attacks on the Taj Mahal and Oberoi Trident hotels. Those attacks had begun with reports of gunshots in Leopold’s Café on Colaba Causeway, and in a major train station, before escalating into an all-out three-day siege of the hotels complete with hostages held, and a total of 166 dead. Just as my brother had warned me last weekend, a friend called me soon after the first gunshots in Mumbai were fired, telling me to stay away.

Then too, we all messaged one another to check the whereabouts of family, friends, and colleagues. Everyone I knew was accounted for that evening—except for a close friend and work colleague. Parizaad had been at a wedding at the Taj Mahal hotel, and it appeared that she was trapped there with dozens of the other guests. The night passed without news of her release. After a night spent cowering in fear, fleeing from one room to the next, hearing gunshots fired on the other side of the closed door where she sheltered, Parizaad was rescued later the next day. Others were not so lucky, and for days after the attacks, funerals bells rang out through the city. Back then, I thought it too could have been me—although in the end I knew no one who died.

I cannot say the same this time. Nairobi is my home. My great, great-grandfather sailed to Kenya from India in the 1870s with three of his sons and set up a business in Mombasa. They were pioneers here, and chose to make this their home. Their hopes and dreams, blood and sweat, and those of ensuing generations down to mine, are tied up with this land. I have lived in London, Mumbai, and New York City, but Nairobi is the only place that I have ever called home.

And so I attended the funerals of even those I’d never met this week. Our tiny Ismaili Muslim community buried eight of our own this week. We are like a large, extended family. It can be gossipy, and intrusive, and the lack of privacy can grate, but when there is a crisis, there is no stronger support group in the world.

One of those killed was a radio journalist named Ruhila Adatia Sood, a young woman known for her warmth and her kindness. Six months pregnant with her first child, she had been hosting a children’s cooking competition on the roof of the mall—before terrorists shot her dead. I did not know her well, but whenever I ran into her, she always had a ready smile for me, and our conversations usually centered on journalism. I still remember her smile as she waved goodbye to me the last time I saw her—at the Westgate.

The hurt in my community runs deep. The Islam we know and practice values the integrity of human life above all. It places a premium on compassion, and helping those less fortunate. We are taught: “If anyone slew one person…it would be as if he slew the whole people: and if anyone saved a life, it would be as if he saved the life of the whole people.” There is no ambiguity: there is a great premium placed on the sanctity of every single life. What happened at Westgate is the opposite of those teachings, an assault on the most vulnerable and innocent. As a community, not only do we have to live with our losses, and grief, but we also have to contend with this horrific and cowardly attack on humanity, by those who claim to act in the name of Islam.

As in Mumbai, this was as much an attack on the integrity and sanctity of the city, as it was a bloody and brutal ploy to catch and manipulate the attention of the world. The attacks left denizens of both cities feeling deeply violated. Everybody had someone that they loved, or were friends with, or were somehow connected to, who had been caught up, and this was the insidious intention of the attackers; to bring terror into the homes and lives of the political, business, and diplomatic communities. We dined and shopped at those hotels in Mumbai—both key symbols of the city’s stature and power. We would visit one of the restaurants every fortnight, drop into a shop for a book, or pair of sandals. On 26/11, as the attacks have come to be known, this very sanctuary was violated. In this way, the tragedy belonged to everyone.

The attacks on Westgate also hit too close to home for so many Kenyans. The mall is a clear symbol of the country’s economic growth and spending power, but also represents the segment of the population who can afford to buy a burger for $10, or $6 on a cinema ticket, or $3 on a coffee. Reflecting the cosmopolitan makeup of Kenyan society, the mall is part-owned by an Israeli businessman. The attacks were a direct hit on both Kenyans and expatriates, and the chances of knowing someone who has been impacted, however casually, are very high.

Every day this week has brought multiple funeral processions as the city mourns its dead. As Kenyans continue to grieve, they also take inspiration and strength from the stories of bravery and heroism demonstrated by the citizen heroes such as Abdul Haji, and others, who put themselves in the line of fire, saving many lives. The son of the former defense minister Yusuf Haji, he had gone into the mall to find his brother. For hours after, and armed only with his pistol, he held off men with assault rifles and rescued countless people, including a 4-year-old American who ran into his arms—a scene captured by a photograph that feels iconic for both the fear and hope it evokes. As a practicing Muslim, Haji’s damning words and actions against the attackers has made him an overnight celebrity.

I also take heart from the thousands of Kenyans who have come out to donate blood, or money, for the victims, and the courage demonstrated by the families of the victims, including the sister of Ruhila. At the funeral this week, despite her own crushing grief, she had the grace and compassion to remind me to stay strong.