Nada Tawfeek had been teaching children in Christchurch’s Al Noor Mosque. She couldn’t possibly have realised how apposite those lessons were.
“I was doing classes with them, fortnightly, about purification of the heart, making sure your heart is not filled with envy, hate, or greed. It’s a big part of our teachings in Islam, and our Prophet’s teachings, because we believe no one can enter heaven unless you have a pure heart.”
A psychology graduate from the University of Canterbury, Tawfeek, 25, also discussed mental wellbeing. About how there’s no shame in asking for help or talking about your feelings, if you’re feeling down or grieving. The signs to look our for if someone’s suffering.
“Which is really interesting now, given the circumstances, that we were talking about that just a month ago.”
Cairo-born, England-raised Tawfeek, who speaks with an English accent, moved to Christchurch in 2009 when her father, Sherif, a gynaecologist, took a job at the city’s women’s hospital. She went to St Margaret’s College, completed her psychology degree at University of Canterbury, and met her husband here.
Christchurch is home. Al Noor is her mosque.
For 18 months Tawfeek had been living in Merivale while her husband, Mohamed Moustafa, an oil and gas engineer, undertook a fly-in, fly-out, two weeks on, two weeks off job in Australia.
On March 15, when a terrorist entered Al Noor and started shooting, she was in Egypt, staying with family, as Mohamed had started a job in Saudi Arabia. At 3am, Egyptian time, Tawfeek woke for no particular reason to a series of messages from friends in Christchurch, asking if she was OK.
“I expected that a war had happened in Egypt, or something had happened to Egypt, like a bomb. I didn’t think of New Zealand at all, or Christchurch.”
She checked social media and saw news of the shooting, and its shocking scale.
“I never in a million years expected anything like that to happen in Christchurch, in our mosque in Christchurch. It’s a really small Muslim community. It’s a really small mosque and we all know each other.”
Suddenly, shockingly, the focus of the world’s news media was on her home city, where her parents and inlaws live.
(If it had happened a month earlier, she, her husband, and her brother-in-law would have been there. It was just a coincidence her father wasn’t there – he had gone to Ashburton that day. If the attack had happened a day later, on the Saturday, there would have been hundreds of kids, including Tawfeek’s sisters, aged 3 and 5, as well as her mum, at the mosque.)
The faces on TV of the injured and the crying – people searching for their sons, their husbands – were faces she recognised.
Worst fears realised
Tawfeek rang her husband in Saudi. It dawned on them that the attack happened during Jumu’ah prayers, Friday prayers. They were sure her husband’s father, Hussein Moustafa, 70, would have been there. “He was always at the mosque – always either at the gym or at the mosque.”
Initially there was hope. Someone said they saw him alive and well. The live-stream video of the shooting ran, in full, on Egyptian TV news.
“I watched it when I was over there. And so did my husband, to try and find my father-in-law. We did.”
When the injured list, of people in the hospital, was called out in Christchurch, Hussein’s name wasn’t on it. That meant he was still in the Al Noor mosque. No one at the mosque was alive, authorities said. “My husband found out as soon as he landed in Egypt to pick me up.”
They flew to New Zealand knowing the worst had happened.
That first week was a blur, both of them busy from morning till late at night. Two Thursdays ago they buried Hussein.
Mohamed had the honour of washing and shrouding his father’s body, the ghusl. “Then we got to say our goodbyes,” Tawfeek says. “This is my first time ever dealing with death. It was very raw and very surreal.”
At the funeral prayer, or salat al-janazah, Mohamed helped carry his father’s body. Tawfeek: “We laid him down. We each took dirt and put it on him.” A dead body is just a vessel, she says. “He is now with his Lord.”
“We should acknowledge the problem in order to try and face it and try and begin to fix it, begin to raise awareness about it.” – Nada Tawfeek
Wearing the hijab around Christchurch wasn’t easy, Tawfeek says.
She came from the United Kingdom, where more than 3 million people practice Islam, to a country where, according to the 2013 census, 46,000 people were affiliated with Islam. In Christchurch, Muslims are a small and visible community.
The picture is so complex it seems contradictory. Tawfeek says most Kiwis are friendly and accepting, particularly because of the country’s racial diversity. “I felt very confident practising my religion here.”
But she adds the caveat that she felt more welcomed by the “international community in New Zealand” rather than Kiwis themselves. “I feel like I belonged to my group of friends, whereas I felt like New Zealand has always been quite clicky, especially Christchurch.”
Pre-quake, in the bus exchange area of the city, Tawfeek and younger sister Hannah were in their St Margaret’s College school uniforms, and headscarfs, on their way to school. Two young adults shouted “terrorist” at them. “Everyone just went about their day as if nothing had happened.”
Years later, near Christchurch’s polytechnic, Tawfeek was walking from the community access radio station Plains FM’s studio with a fellow Muslim presenter and a male colleague, when someone gave them a Nazi salute. Just three years ago, a pig’s head was left outside the Al Noor mosque, where 42 people were shot dead on March 15. Eight others died after being shot at the Linwood Mosque.
Unfortunately, Islamophobia is still alive in Christchurch. Stuff has reported how, just three days after the attacks, a Christchurch bus driver slammed the door in the face of a hijab-wearing teen. A swastika was painted on a fence on Brougham St, where the alleged terrorist’s car was rammed by police.
Tawfeek shakes her head when people, including Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, say of the attacks that “this is not us”. “It was part of us,” she says. “And I think that we shouldn’t deny that it is part of us. We should acknowledge the problem in order to try and face it and try and begin to fix it, begin to raise awareness about it.”
It’s clear New Zealand authorities were monitoring the wrong people, she says. (The Islamic Women’s Council says its concerns about possible attacks weren’t taken seriously.)
That there needs to be more surveillance, especially of white supremacists. That hate speech needs to be banned. Social media isn’t helping, she says, as it’s dividing society, but she’s not sure of the best way to tackle that.
Something already has changed, however. Considering the outpouring of compassion and pledges of public support after the attacks, she says it feels different, now, to be Muslim in Christchurch. “I think I feel like I belong even more than I did before.”
Islamophobia in the media is a topic with which Tawfeek has some experience.
She and younger sister Hannah made national news in 2015, after being detained for hours at Brisbane Airport, seemingly because they were Muslim. They were there because their father was collecting a medical award.
Tawfeek was caught offguard when a New Zealand TV interviewer asked, basically, did she not understand why customs officials did that. She says the same interviewer is on the news now talking about how devastating the attacks are.
A columnist for Christchurch newspaper The Press wrote in April 2015: “The Tawfeek sisters arrive with their heads mostly covered by scarves, suggesting a fairly fundamentalist approach to their religion and possibly a sympathy with the methods employed by extremist Muslims. The Muslim headdress makes a statement that will get attention in the same way a gang patch does.”
Yes, there are Muslim terrorists, Tawfeek says – often in the war-torn Middle East, where traumatised people have issues with anger and hate. “That’s a reaction. It’s a terrible reaction, something none of us stand by, which has nothing to do intrinsically with Islam.”
The media has a responsibility in reporting terrorism, white supremacy and Islam. “It seems like only people who commit terrorist attacks are Muslims, if you watch the media. But, really, there are so many shootings by white supremacists.”
(Aggression and terror have no colour, ethnicity, gender, or nationality, writes Dr Mohamed Alansari.)
Tawfeek also excoriates some overseas media, particularly Britain’s Daily Mail and Daily Mirror newspapers, as irresponsible for describing the alleged gunman as “angelic” and a “blonde little boy”.
Sitting beneath a tree in Hagley Park last Sunday, she points at the Al Noor mosque. “My father-in-law was killed in there by this ‘angelic boy’,” she says. “When Muslims have committed similar atrocious acts, we’ve never seen pictures of them as a cute little baby and wondered, ‘Oh, how did this go wrong?’ It’s, like, of course it’s gone wrong, they’re Muslim.”
(Dr Neal Curtis says challenging Islamophobia doesn’t prevent anyone from criticising Islamist terrorism.)
The media can fan the flames of hate, Tawfeek says. “I understand the media do want a story but there are ways to go about that.”
Nightmare tinged with beauty
Tawfeek says she’s been waking in Christchurch with an ache. “You dream about it at night and then you wake up and you realise you’re still in the dream,” she says. “The only way to describe it is a nightmare with some beautifully overwhelming moments.”
One of those was the event in Hagley Park to mark a week after the attacks. “I never imagined that I’d ever hear the call to prayer being called out loud in Christchurch.”
Tawfeek sometimes struggles to find the words to describe what she’s going through. Sometimes it doesn’t feel real. Everyone is feeling a bit lost, she says.
But she’s trying to make sense of it.
“For us as Muslims, we believe that Allah – God – does everything for a reason. He chooses people to do certain things, or go through certain things for a reason. And I think he chose Christchurch because he knew that our people, our community, are so peaceful, and the way we’d react would actually show the true colours of Islam.”
There’s a lot of healing to do in Christchurch, she says. Once the physical wounds have healed, it will be time to tend to the psychological wounds. Many of the victims’ families have been supported by family members from out of town. But once they leave, a time when grief sometimes turns to depression, it will fall to the local community to check on them.
“It’s important to have people that, as a group, check up on each other, go for a walk together, someone to have a cup of tea with, help run errands.”
Tawfeek is in awe of Christchurch’s Muslim women in the wake of the massacre. They’ve rolled up their sleeves, made food for people who can’t make it themselves, visited each other, volunteered to help where they can, and ensured no one’s left alone.
“They are so strong.”
She’s close to the mother of 14-year-old Sayyad Milne, a Cashmere High School student who died at Al Noor. It was Milne’s mother – named in overseas media as Noraini Abbas, a Singaporean who has lived in New Zealand for 20 years – who urged her to help the local Muslim community by teaching children at the Al Noor mosque.
Noraini greeted Tawfeek after the shootings “with a massive smile, and a big hug”. She was keeping busy, Tawfeek said, helping where she could, including picking up visitors at the airport.
Where do you find the strength, she asked Noraini.
“She said because the whole community is praying for me and so, Allah has put that strength in my heart.
“I think that’s a big part of being a Muslim, is that when a calamity hits you or something bad happens to you, you still are grateful that, number one, it could have been worse, number two, Allah chose this to happen to you for a reason, and, number three, your patience will give you so much more reward than you could ever imagine.”
This story has been updated and corrected. Plains FM was incorrectly described as a student radio station, when it is in fact a community access station.