“This trip is not for me,” Christchurch terror attack survivor Farid Ahmed says, the tears arriving. “This invitation came for her.”
Ahmed became world-famous for forgiving the Australian shooter who killed his wife, Husna, and 50 other peaceful, praying Muslims in the 2019 attack on two Christchurch mosques.
This week, Ahmed, 59, his 18-year-old daughter Shifa, and Husna’s niece, Farhana Akhter Reju, are part of a group of 60 terror attack survivors, victims, and their families, leaving for Mecca/Makkah, in a trip paid for by the Saudi Arabian government. (Ahmed’s support person for the trip is James Te Paa.)
They’re undertaking the Islamic pilgrimage, Hajj – which every adult Muslim must make, if they’re physically and financially able, at least once in their lifetime.
Ahmed describes mixed feelings from his “weak” and “strong” sides, with the trip provoking memories he tried to put aside.
“My weak side feels like crying because this trip is not for me. This invitation came for her.
“So I feel like I’m just carrying her. Every moment in this trip will acutely remind me about her. That is the sad part.
“This invitation didn’t come to Farid as Farid, but it has come because Husna was gone. So the trip is a reminder actually about what happened.”
Ahmed’s strong side is happy he can carry Husna’s memory with him on the Hajj.
“It is a spiritual journey, and I can go there and I can thank God for taking her as a martyr,” he says.
“I can ask God sincerely to give her all the best things in the next life. And I can go there and make my promise again – that as long as I’m alive I’ll do my part to make the world safer, to promote love not hate, so that another person like Husna would not have to go like this.”
On March 15, 2019, Ahmed and his wife were praying in different rooms at Masjid an-Nur when the gunfire started. Ahmed, who uses a wheelchair, was able to wheel himself outside and hide behind his car, but Husna was shot in the back while returning to the mosque to help him.
Fast-forward to today, and part of Ahmed’s emotional response is he thought he would never see Mecca. He has used a wheelchair since being hit by a drunk driver in Nelson in 1998. Since then, he has twice nominated people to be his proxy to Islam’s holiest city.
“I never imagined that I could take this risk of going through all the physical, mental and emotional efforts to do Hajj,” Ahmed says. “My wife wanted to go many times, that was her dream. But my disability was an obstruction. So I feel glad that I am going to try this time, and I can fulfil her dream.
“I’ll represent her. I’ll represent everyone, not in terms of faith because we have different faith, but in terms of peace and love.
“Because when I was a victim or a survivor to start with, New Zealanders, they didn’t look at me as Muslim. And that is amazing. They didn’t look at me as I was born in Bangladesh.
“They looked at me as human and unconditionally, they offered their love for me. And I would pray for them the way I believe, I pray for them that they should be loved also. The creator should love them, give them mercy.”
If Hajj is performed correctly, it is believe to wipe the sins of the sincere believer. The minor pilgrimage, undertaken when entering Mecca, is called Umrah.
Pilgrims enter Mecca in a state of ritual purity, ihram, and wear ihram garments – two white sheets for men, while women can wear sewn clothes.
Perhaps the most famous part of the ritual is walking seven times around the sacred shine, Kaaba, in the Grand Mosque. (Ahmed will not be joining the crowd at ground level, rather he will be in the mosque’s upper levels.) Pilgrims also run seven times between Mount Ṣafā and Mount Marwah.
Animal sacrifices are offered, to commemorate Abraham’s sacrifice, at holy places outside Mecca. In the rajm ritual, pilgrims throw seven stones at three walls, symbolising the devil, on three successive days, before returning to Mecca for the farewell tawāf, or circumambulation, of Kaaba.
This week’s trip for Ahmed, his family and others is a follow-on from an offer by Saudi Arabia’s king, Salman bin Abdulaziz, who in 2019 ordered the country to host the families of the victims and injured of the Christchurch terrorist attack, to help with their healing.
Two hundred people went that year.
“A number of the injured were unable to travel due to their injuries or for health and medical reasons,” says Saudi Arabia’s ambassador to New Zealand, Abdulrahman Alsuhaibani, via email.
“The embassy was unable to assist them to perform Hajj 2020 and 2021 due to the suspension of Hajj due to Covid 19 and the closure of the borders.
“This year, 60 people were nominated to perform Hajj, and they will travel … to Makkah and represent the last batch of the King’s initiative to host New Zealand pilgrims within the same programme, including Farid Ahmed and his daughter.”
Newsroom asked Ahmed how he felt about accepting a paid trip from a country criticised internationally for its human rights record.
In his philosophical way, Ahmed says we live in a world where days are split into darkness and light – “so good and bad”.
“What I do is I appreciate the good and also, I work on, as gently as possible, to discourage the bad and, and that’s how we have to work.”
No one is 100 percent pure, he says, and just because there is imperfection that doesn’t mean everything else has to be thrown into the bin.
“Whatever opportunity I get, I start with appreciating the good side, the good work that any government or any community or any country is doing. And then, whatever capacity or ability I have, to advise, to encourage, to improve the weaker areas. That’s what I do.”
In a July 2019 visit to the White House, Ahmed thanked then United States President Donald Trump for his leadership and standing up for humanity. The comments, it was said, were typical of his loving and generous nature.
He also chose not to attend the terrorist’s sentencing hearing, saying the gunman was a bigger victim than him – “At least I have peace in my heart. He doesn’t.”
Many people around the world know Ahmed, and his story, helped, no doubt, by his book Husna’s Story. (In 2019, he accepted a peace award in Abu Dhabi.)
So how is he? “I’m doing well,” he says. “I am not depressed. I am not negative. And I’m doing more work than I did before 15th of March.”
He runs through his voluntary responsibilities: including running classes at Masjid an-Nur, being a marriage celebrant, counselling within Christchurch’s Bangladeshi community, helping families with immigration issues, appearing once a week on an online TV channel, Voice of Islam TV, and, of course, media interviews.
“On top of that I am a homeopath – I have a clientele – and also I am a father. I have a daughter to look after.”
He’s managing all those things, he says. “And that’s an indication that I am doing well and this message to the people who love me, that your love is a blessing for me, and for that blessing I am doing well.”
Ahmed leaves for Mecca on Wednesday.