His Voicemails Were a Kind of Afterlife

Wednesday, August 9, 2017 - 4:35 pm
Vincent Harding

His Voicemails Were a Kind of Afterlife

My iPhone died last week. There was no warning. The phone just powered off, and no matter what I did, it wouldn’t come back on.

I spent hours trying to get it to work. No luck. Took it to the store. No matter. Normally it wouldn’t be such a big deal, but there are some items on my phone that are special. There are the normal reasons why: passwords to email accounts, lots of pictures of my kids. But those can be recovered, even if it takes some time.

It is the voicemails and the voice memos. There are voice memos of my kids from when they were much younger. When they first started to speak, I recorded their voices. It sounds unmistakably like them but baby-ish. That sweet sing-songy way that they used to speak, which they don’t anymore. I love my babies for who they are now, and love them for all that they have been and all that they shall be. But there is a special love for when they were that little and the love was so first so big, so unconditional, so grand.

And then there are the voicemails. There are saved voicemails that go back years. Some from my parents, some from my mentors — those are special ones to which I occasionally go back and listen to. The way my father says, “Omid jan, salaaaaaaam.” The way my mother says, “Omid jaaaaaan, salam. It’s Mom.” I would know it was her from the Omid jaaaaaaan. (“Jaaan” is a word in many Muslim languages that means “soul” or “life force,” identifying the person being named so dear to your heart, as if they are the very soul through whom we live. They are the life force for our hearts.)

And there are voice messages from Vincent Harding.

I had the unlikeliest friendship with Uncle Vincent. I would go to visit him periodically in Denver. Sitting at his feet and having the chance to soak up his stories, stories of the “freedom movement” (his favorite term for the Civil Rights Movement) and stories of life with “Martin King.” He would call me periodically. Whenever I would see his number on my phone, I would let it go to voicemail. It is not like me to not answer the phone for people who are so beloved to me. But with Uncle Vincent, there was another reason: I wanted to save his voice.

He had a special way of leaving his messages: “My dear nephew, son, brother, and fellow struggler in the cause of love and justice.”

And now those voicemails are lost somewhere on my iPhone. Inaccessible. Lost. Gone. No, I had not backed up my phone. Don’t ask me about the regret now.

When Uncle Vincent passed away in 2014, I wept. Actually I did not weep, but sobbed uncontrollably. He was a moral compass for me, someone that I would think about when I would find myself at an impasse. “What would Uncle Vincent say?”

He had beautiful advice:

“I listened to your talk carefully. Your political critique is spot on, my son. But make sure you always link your critique to a message of redemption and transformation for all.”

“Critique injustice, but always end on the side of hope and love, hope for a better tomorrow for all of us. Remember that there is an American that has never been, and yet must be.”

I would then call him back, and we would talk, speaking from the heart. His heart came through his voice. It was the pace at which he spoke. There were pregnant pauses between every word, the kind that made me slow down and pay attention to every gem Uncle Vincent dropped along the way.

I am surrounded by people who treasure being quick-witted. There is a special kind of intelligence that is about being quick to thought and, all too often, quicker to speech. Uncle Vincent displayed a different kind of heart intelligence. This was not about speed but about depth. It was about the depth of his words, his heart, his wisdom, his love.

Those voicemails were the treasure chests where his gems were stored. How often I have come back to these voicemails over the last three years. I sobbed when he died, and I cherished his words, his voice. They would comfort me. They were my link to a world of justice and love, wisdom and beauty that seemed so urgently needed and yet so far away. They were a personal connection to Uncle Vincent and, through Uncle Vincent, to Martin King. Somehow the voicemails were a kind of afterlife. They kept a heart connection not just to his teachings but to something of him.

They lingered, even after his death. And they are gone.

I sit here, staring at this phone that won’t come on. Containing, hiding, erasing the gems of my dear Uncle Vincent.

I stare at this phone and wonder about our need to hang on, to have some measure of something that lingers beyond death. I wonder at the irony of storing that lingering gem in the most technological symbol of our age. And I wonder what it would be like to store a gem in my heart, somewhere where infinity and humanity mingle.

I look up and see my own beautiful daughter. And I wonder how I can become the kind of human being who someday she would want to cherish gems from my heart. Not on an iPhone but in her heart.

That is who I want to become. That is what Uncle Vincent wanted. Here is to eternal gems.

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is a columnist for On Being. His column appears every Thursday.

He is Director of Duke University’s Islamic Studies Center. He is the past Chair for the Study of Islam, and the current Chair for Islamic Mysticism Group at the American Academy of Religion. In 2009, he was recognized by the University of North Carolina for mentoring minority students in 2009, and won the Sitterson Teaching Award for Professor of the Year in April of 2010.

Omid is the editor of the volume Progressive Muslims: On Justice, Gender, and Pluralism, which offered an understanding of Islam rooted in social justice, gender equality, and religious and ethnic pluralism. His works Politics of Knowledge in Premodern Islam, dealing with medieval Islamic history and politics, and Voices of Islam: Voices of Change were published 2006. His last book, Memories of Muhammad, deals with the biography and legacy of the Prophet Muhammad. He has forthcoming volumes on the famed mystic Rumi, contemporary Islamic debates in Iran, and American Islam.

Omid has been among the most frequently sought speakers on Islam in popular media, appearing in The New York TimesNewsweekWashington Post, PBS, NPR, NBC, CNN and other international media. He leads an educational tour every summer to Turkey, to study the rich multiple religious traditions there. The trip is open to everyone, from every country. More information at Illuminated Tours.

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  • Katharine Weinmann

    “And I wonder what it would be like to store a gem in my heart, somewhere where infinity and humanity mingle.” Your words deeply touch my heart, Omid, once again. May we all become this kind of human. And I vouch that your posts here embody your mentor’s advice. Every time. Blessings…