Last week, my eldest brother, professor Naseem K Rahman, a physicist of international renown, passed away in Treviso, Italy, after being unwell for several years. This article, however, is not about his many well-deserved accomplishments and accolades, but more about the small Bangladeshi Muslim community in Treviso (an adjoining city to the more well-known Venice), Italy. The community is very small, numbering around 800 to 900, mostly young men who live and work in a totally foreign environment. In my many visits to the area, I had personally talked to only one Bangladeshi—the owner-operator of the only Bangladeshi restaurant in Treviso.
Boro Bhai, as we—his siblings—affectionately called him, was an exceptional student who was mentored by Nobel laureate Abdus Salam. He held a distinguished Chaired Professorship at the University of Trieste, Italy. Boro Bhai excelled as a teacher and was the prolific author of numerous articles in the highest ranking research journals in physics. He believed that "science is the solution" for the inequities of the world and tried his best to find applications of his research to help the less fortunate.
Jahangir Alam owns and operates this small restaurant, called Tajmahal. The restaurant serves mostly takeout food and has two tables which can seat between six to eight people. In November 2019, I had taken my niece (my brother's only daughter Michelle) and Michelle's daughter Victoria, out for a meal. I had a brief conversation with Jahangir, inquired about his "desh" and so on. I have had no communication with him since.
When I got the telephone call informing me about Boro Bhai's sudden death, initially I was stunned. He suffered from ill-health in his later years but death was still unexpected. Both Michelle and Victoria were stricken with grief and were not sure what they needed to do about his funeral and burial.
My brother was born a Muslim and was not particularly practicing but dutifully went for Friday Juma prayers whenever he visited my parents in Dhaka. I felt that he should be mourned and buried as a Muslim. However, what could I do, being stuck in Chicago, my home for the last 35 years?
I soon found out that, due to Covid-19 I could not even travel to Italy unless I was ready to be quarantined on arrival. The same fate would await me once I got back to Chicago. I did not know what to do till I thought of calling Jahangir Alam from Tajmahal restaurant. Perhaps he could give me some suggestions?
His response to the news of Boro Bhai's death was simple and direct. He stated simply that I should not worry ("tension niben na"). He would contact my niece and arrange everything. What followed was beyond my imagination. The whole local community stepped up. Incidentally they had never met my Boro Bhai even though he was living there as a retiree for a few years. He had some health issues which limited his movement. Constantly keeping Michelle and me informed, they arranged for his burial plot, found an "Imam" to lead Janaza prayers, and three volunteers to give the body the mandatory bath according to religious rules and proper burial shroud ("kafon").
On June 6, thanks to modern technology, my siblings, nephews, nieces and their families in various countries in Asia, Europe and North America, virtually participated in every aspect of my Boro Bhai's last journey. My Bangladeshi brothers beautifully followed all the rituals in the most meticulous manner with love, respect, dignity and compassion. We watched as his body was put in the open coffin so that we could see his face for the last time, rose up to participate in the Janaza, followed the car procession to the cemetery and cried as his body was lowered to the grave.
They would not even let me thank them and always replied that this was their duty and obligation as fellow Muslim brothers from Bangladesh. The compassion and care they showed represent the best qualities of being a Bangladeshi. The "duty and obligation" they cited comes from our common religion—Islam. This was one of the saddest days of my life but it was also one of the proudest days. I felt proud as a Bangladeshi Muslim and thought the story of this funeral deserves to be shared.
Faisal M Rahman, PhD, is professor and founding Dean, Graham School of Management, Saint Xavier University, USA. Email: email@example.com