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Dr Sulayman Nordien: A jewel among pebbles

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This is an obituary for Islamic calligrapher Dr Sulayman Nordien, who passed away on the 5 September 2020. 

My first personal encounter with Dr Nordien was in my early twenties when my father set up a meeting with him to introduce me to Arabic calligraphy. We met at Masjid ul Quds where this eloquent, excited, and eccentric man walked in with his writing tools, ink and paper. I could tell instantly that he was unique and special. What blossomed henceforth was an ongoing friendship and mentorship that spanned about 18 years.

Being a well-earning physician, what always struck me about him was his simplicity. He used to drive a tiny, run-down, blue car that looked like it was going to break down at any moment, making this respected doctor a very unassuming individual. He was far more interested in attending a book fair in Egypt than in upgrading his car. He had immense adab and always removed his shoes before stepping onto our rug (not a requirement in our family home), and would choose to sit on the ground rather than on the couch.

Dr Nordien was quintessentially a humble man, easily relating to common Cape Town culture, despite being a jewel among pebbles in terms of his knowledge and insights. He would always offer others edibles and a seat first, and was ever ready to charm his company with anecdotes, stories, past memories, excerpts of poetry, Shakespeare, hadith or Qur’an. He was most certainly what we would call in Arabic أديب and مثقف (a man of letters and cultivated).

My memories of him include countless times when he would be waiting for me to open up the front door, a stack of books in hand. He would share with me the current project he was working on, whether it be from Lane’s Lexicon, tahqiq (rewriting an old manuscript), a few lines of poetry he wrote in stunning Arabic calligraphy or an outline to his autobiography that he intended to pursue. This gentle man always had a twinkle in his eye when he spoke of these things. He might have whispered or giggled too. He would physically stand up and express himself with motion, arm movements, even twirling. He basked in the literary splendour that was before him. I loved to watch and listen, and it deepened in me my love and respect for Arabic adab (literature).

When I was studying my Bachelors in English, again my father connected me to Dr Nordien who was a lover of Shakespeare. I remember him coming over, books in hand, quoting monologues from Hamlet and discussing the play with me. He made what seemed to me a dull topic, much more engaging.

As the years passed, it alarmed me to see his weight wither, especially over the most recent years. I was saddened knowing that he had cancer. Still, whenever I visited Cape Town, year after year, he would be at the front door with books in hand.

My last visit to Dr Nordien was before lockdown. I went to his home with my son, while he showed me his writings that were currently occupying him. He told me about the deterioration of his health, and made it seem that death was very likely to happen sometime soon. A surge of emotion overcame me, a lump formed in my throat and my eyes might have become moist. It was sad. I didn’t express to him my heartfelt appreciation for his presence in my life, how much it has meant to me. We just continued talking about other topics as if impending death was not on the table. He explained to me the verses of jahilyy poetry he had written and hung up in his lounge (by Imr al Qays). Now I wish I had recorded him explaining it to me. I wish I had recorded many conversations. I wish I had called more often, visited more. I wish I had gleaned more from his knowledge. I went on to tell him about my Cape Town tour idea, and he said he would be glad to join us as a guide for the District 6 museum visit, having lived, smelled and tasted District 6 life personally. We talked and planned. However, I would not see Dr Nordien like this again.

April came and everything was shut down by COVID 19. We had no communication for about six months. Then two days before he passed, I heard my father talking to him on the phone, loudspeaker on. Alarmed, I heard that he could not speak. I was stunned, having been oblivious of his level of deterioration. Knowing that he was not accepting visitors, I left two voice messages for him via his daughter, stating that he was in my dua, I missed him, and what his mentorship has meant to me. I sobbed when I tried to send the messages and had to regain composure before trying the recording again. I am immensely grateful and pleased that he got to hear my words, before passing two days later. At the janazah, his daughter said he smiled when he heard the messages. That had me in tears all over again.

With shock, I received the text message about his passing on Saturday morning. When I walked into his house and saw his fragile frame enshrouded in white, I could not restrain my tears. The verses of Imru al Qays still hung over the window, his desk still cluttered by piles of books. The first lines of the hanging poem reading : Let us stop and weep.

With his passing, his vibrant spirit and erudition have left us. What a void he has left. I did not cry for him, because I know he is among angels and perhaps reciting poetry and verses of praise with them, but I wept for myself, because my life is now somewhat lacking with him not in it. He connected me to things profound, meaningful and beautiful, and that conduit has gone. People like him who roam the earth in our era are few and far between. When I beheld his enshrouded body, I had the phrase I heard the Prophet صلى الله عليه و سلم say about some of his companions running in my mind: ربحت تجارته، ربحت تجارته “His transaction has been successful, his transaction has been successful “.

May Allah accept all his endeavours, all he put forth. May Allah envelop him in His infinite mercy and grant him the loftiest of stations.-Umm Jameel

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