Aziz Khaki celebrated as a bridge builder and tireless campaigner for human rights
A large and diverse crowd turned up last night for a memorial service for community leader Aziz Khaki.
On May 22, the cofounder of the Committee for Racial Justice and former vice president of the Council of Muslim Communities of Canada died at the age of 82. In accordance with Muslim tradition, Khaki's family waited at least 40 days after his death before hosting the event at a hall in Sitka Square in the Southwest False Creek neighbourhood.
At the memorial, Sen. Mobina Jaffer described Khaki as a "good quilter and bridge builder". That's because Khaki was able to pull together people with different views in the Muslim community and build bridges to connect them with the rest of society.
"He understood us all and he spoke for us all," Jaffer said with reverence.
NDP deputy leader Libby Davies praised Khaki as a man who saw the "commonality of people" rather than just differences.
"Whenever I saw him over many years—decades—what I remember most is this amazing smile of welcome, of joy, of love, of encouragement to people to be engaged," Davies told the people in the room. "And so for many decades, Aziz became a very important figure in my city."
Later in an interview with the Georgia Straight, Davies suggested that she would love to see Khaki remembered with some sort of "physical manifestation", possibly in Southwest False Creek, where he lived for more than three decades.
"It would be lovely if one of the lanes or something, a park, or a square or something would be known as Aziz Khaki because he did have an enormous reach in this city," the NDP MP said. "He left a big footprint."
Surrey–Green Timbers NDP MLA Sue Hammell told Khaki's widow Gul and their son El-Farouk that she was "very distressed" when she realized he had died. "Your father was a very, very remarkable man," Hammell said.
El-Farouk, a Toronto lawyer, said that his father passed away in a care home during a birthday party. The elder Khaki was born at the end of May in 1929, and a party was held on May 22 for all the residents whose birthdays fell in that month.
"He was singing and clapping," El-Farouk said. "He couldn't dance anymore, but he danced in his heart, and he was waiting for his cup of tea. I think he had his cup of tea in front of the throne of God."
Khaki was born in Zanzibar, an island off Africa's east coast that traditionally attracted Muslims from different sects. Later in life, Khaki worked closely with Sunni and Shia Muslims, never making a big deal in the media about which path of Islam he preferred.
Over the years, he worked closely with the media, police, and other institutions to help promote greater understanding of diversity and encourage hiring of people from different communities.
For speaking out in favour of allowing police officers to wear turbans and other progressive causes, Khaki endured nasty attacks in the North Shore News from columnist Doug Collins, who opposed Canada becoming a more diverse society. Through it all, Khaki kept his cool.
His friend, environmentalist and LGBT community advocate Imtiaz Popat, told the Georgia Straight that Khaki was a mentor to him in his activism. With a smile, Popat recalled how Khaki publicly spoke out against the Ku Klux Klan in the 1980s.
Khaki's former colleague at the Committee for Racial Justice, Meryam Abbasi, told a story about how he walked off a bus in apartheid-era South Africa rather than suffer the indignity of being told where to sit.
"He gave an earful to the driver before leaving," Abbasi said.
She pointed out that Khaki believed in living in a society that's based on equality, values human rights, and promotes the dignity of every individual.
"His passion inspired me to live my life with the same values," Abbasi declared. "I know that many of you have been inspired by him. Each of you have been thinking of different memories of Aziz today. At this point, I would just like you to take a moment and think of the memory that's strongest for you, and think how you can keep that memory and inspiration alive, as I know I will."
One of the most moving commentaries came from Alanna Dean, whose parents were friends with Aziz and Gul Khaki.
"I think everybody in this room believed that he was their Aziz," she said with a smile. "He had this amazing ability to connect with you like you were the only person and the most important person in the entire world."
Dean went on to describe Khaki as iconoclastic.
"The definition of that is someone who is a breaker of images," she said. "Whenever I remember my Uncle Aziz, he was not the person to go along with anybody. If he believed that something should be done differently, he had a voice. He had the courage to give other people a voice. That translated into my life, and I use that every day. It's in memory of him."
Dean also praised Khaki as a man of integrity. Even though he was a very spiritual man, Dean said that his decisions were not simply rooted in faith, but in what was the right thing to do.
"That's what I will always remember about my Uncle Aziz...he always tried to inspire people to do the right thing," she stated. "I loved him very much—and I miss him and know we all do. But it's an opportunity for us to have the courage to emulate his behaviour, and do the right thing as often as possible."
Michael Markwick of Capilano University said that he'll never forget how Khaki responded to the 9/11 attacks. After seeing the images on television, Markwick immediately called Khaki, and later they went to a Catholic mass and a service at the Richmond mosque.
Eventually, they along with numerous other religious leaders drafted a statement affirming that the rule of law must be preserved and that the attack was launched with "an intent to make neighbours look upon each other with suspicion and hatred".
Markwick read out the entire statement, which included these lines: "Many people have died. Innocent families have been left vulnerable to bigotry and violence and a shadow has fallen over our ability to live together as citizens."
Khaki's son El-Farouk joked that his father was always giving candy to children in the neighbourhood and feeding the local cats, even when they weren't hungry.
Khaki's widow Gul spoke briefly to the assembled audience. Her message was straightforward and simple: "His work has not ended—not by any means."
The event was attended by people of different faiths and Rabbi David Mivasair was among those who read out prayers.
El-Farouk revealed that his father's favourite verse was the "Prayer of Light", which is a supplication of the Prophet Muhammad that was also read aloud at the event. Khaki often shared the following message with Gul at the end of the day.
O Allah! Grant me light in my heart, light in my grave,
Light in front of me, light behind me,
Light to my right, light to my left,
Light above me, light below me,
Light in my ears, light in my eyes,
Light on my skin, light in my hair,
Light within my flesh,
Light in my blood, light in my bones.
O Allah! Increase my light everywhere!
O Allah! Grant me light in my heart, light on my tongue,
Light in my eyes, light in my ears,
Light to my right, light to my left,
Light above me, light below me, light in front of me,
Light behind me and light within myself.
Increase my light!
Follow Charlie Smith on Twitter at twitter.com/csmithstraight.