We've all stood on the banks of the Potomac River, taking in its grandeur, its jutting landscape, its unforgiving current. And not often, but sometimes, the river takes in one of us. Seduces us right from its banks, and swallows us whole:
Two local college students are scaling rocks on a Wednesday afternoon study break, thinking about anything but the final exams looming ahead. The first, Amer Chaudry, 20, slips, bounces down 30 feet of rocks and falls into the water. The second, Fahad Huque, 24, jumps in to save him. Two of their friends watch from above, stricken, frantically dialing their cell phones, which flash "No Service." It is 5:15 p.m. on April 28. Soon, across town, two phones will ring. Two families will learn that a river has claimed one of their children.
Fahad's brother Farhan, 25, gets the first call, cell phone to cell phone. But he misses it, and the next 29 calls, too; he has left his cell phone in his car while he is at the gym. When he finally gets the messages, it is 7 p.m. Farhan doesn't immediately call the rest of the family. He just drives, fast, to Canal Cut, the heavily wooded area of the Virginia shoreline where his little brother -- the one everyone mistakes for his twin -- stood on solid ground less than two hours ago.
Rescue workers are long into their search when he gets there. Authorities actually saw Fahad enter the water -- by chance, a Fairfax County Fire and Rescue boat was about a mile away, on a training mission. Fahad had even been waving to it shortly before Amer fell in. The boat was close, but not close enough.
Farhan immediately joins the search. He plans to retrieve his baby brother, who will surely be wet and shaken up, and bring him home to their parents' house in Rockville for a toast to Fahad's bravery, and a stern lecture on safety. The sun begins its descent, and the rescue mission is called off before Farhan musters the courage to call his family and tell them that something is unimaginably wrong. At home -- an end-unit townhouse a few blocks from Montgomery College -- Fahad's sister, Sobia, 21, is upstairs checking her e-mail, and his mother, Sayeeda, 49, has just eaten the first bite of her dinner of chicken, rice and lentils. Both are enjoying the last few minutes of peace that they might ever know. It is 8:25 p.m.
Sayeeda answers the phone in the dining room. Sobia reaches her mother just as she is falling, screaming, the black cordless phone still in her hand. She steadies her mother, then grabs the receiver and hears Farhan repeating: "Fahad's fallen in the river. We can't find him. It's getting dark. They're calling off the search." Sobia lunges for her purse. "Don't come here," Farhan quietly tells his sister. "There's nothing you can do. I'm coming home." Sayeeda grabs Sobia to stop her from hurtling out the door.
Within minutes, the news is repeated all over town: "Fahad has fallen into the river. They can't find him." Fahad's father, Mohammad, 55, and elder brother, Zeeshan, 29, race home from work. The excruciating wait begins.
AT 8:55 P.M., I AM SETTLING DOWN on my family room couch, with a hunk of chocolate cake and the remote control. In the few minutes before "The Bachelor" starts, I decide to call Farin Salahuddin -- Fahad's first cousin. She has been my closest friend since sixth grade, when our mothers forced us to invite each other to our birthday parties.
Farin answers her cell phone from the Huques' living room. She tells me, "Fahad has fallen into the Potomac River. We can't find him."
I instinctively believe that Fahad is dead, even though there's still reason to hope. But the shudder in my gut is not for Fahad. It is for his mother. I have two little boys tucked into their beds upstairs. I know what this means.
Farin and I consider each other's family our own. Like Farin, I call Fahad's parents by their family titles: Mamu Jaan (literally "Dear Uncle") and Chotee Mumani ("Little Aunt"). I first met the Huques in high school, when I traveled with Farin's family to Pakistan, also my parents' native country. The Huques lived there at the time, and they embraced me the same way they did Farin, with hugs and chicken curry and old family jokes. Fahad was just a dark-haired sprite of about 8 at the time, but doing a pretty good impression of his future self -- squabbling with Farhan, vying for attention, his adoration of his mama evident.
Since the Huques moved to Rockville a decade ago, I have seen them all the time at Farin's house. Like Farin's, the Huques' is a house always full, of food, laughter, friends. Sayeeda is the hub of it all. Through Farin, I know so much of what happens in the Huque household. When Mamu Jaan bought Pizza Palace, a restaurant in Rockville, Farin took me there to visit. When Chotee Mumani opened a day-care center in her basement, I visited there, too. Just a few weeks ago, Sayeeda came over to my house, pizza dinner in hand, to visit my new baby boy. At the very moment Farin is telling me the news about Fahad, my husband is out playing basketball with friends, including another one of Farin and Fahad's cousins.
Although I want to, I can't race to Farin's side. My husband is unreachable, and I must stay home with the children. Over the phone, Farin tells me how she had to break the news to Fahad's eldest brother, Zeeshan. I can tell that Farin, who's an organizer by nature -- and an events planner by trade -- is doing her best to keep the rest of the family calm while they piece together what has happened. By staying at Farin's side for much of the next few days -- and by talking to her every two hours when I'm not with her -- I absorb the details. What I don't learn from Farin, I will learn from interviewing Fahad's three siblings later.
Soon after the news, one of the young men who were at the river with Fahad comes to the house to tell the Huques what he saw. The four friends had gone to Great Falls, a short drive from Northern Virginia Community College's Loudoun campus. They had all met Fahad just a few months ago, when he had transferred there. On this Wednesday afternoon, they were hiking on a trail that runs along the Virginia shoreline, blowing off pre-finals steam. They could have stayed near the Great Falls visitors center. They could have stayed firmly on the footpath leading away from it. But as is the nature of invincible young men, they wanted to get a little closer to the action. Every so often, they climbed down from the footpath, onto the boulders bordering the water. They sat, looked at the river, taking it in. Then they got up and moved farther down the path. About 15 minutes into their walk, they reached a cluster of rocks about 30 feet above the shoreline. Fahad, always the adventurer and the best climber in the group, was the first to reach the water's edge. Two of the others were on their way down. Amer was still at the top, when, somehow, he lost his footing. Fahad apparently didn't see or hear Amer fall. He was too busy waving to the nearby rescue boat.
While gazing out into the water, Fahad's eyes fell on his friend, floating, face bleeding. Fahad looked up in disbelief, then back to the water. Without a word, he dove in. Fahad reached Amer, and clasped his arms around him. But within seconds, the current carried them both out of view.
Fahad's family listens to this boy's story, rapt. When it's over, they thank him, and send him home to his own grateful parents. But before he leaves, they ask him his name. Haltingly, he tells them, "My name is . . . also Fahad."
THE HUQUES LEARN FROM THE 11 P.M. NEWS that two unidentified men who have fallen into the Potomac River earlier in the day are presumed dead by authorities. That tomorrow, when the search is resumed, it won't be classified as a rescue mission. It will be classified as a recovery mission.
It seems that authorities have already used thermal-imaging equipment, to detect signs of body heat along the river's extended shoreline, the TV tells them. Because none has been detected, there is little chance that Fahad is out there, clinging to a branch or a rock. But Fahad's family still believes he is. The Huques and their relatives huddle in the living room, waiting for someone to tell them that Fahad is okay. Or for Fahad to call. Every time a phone rings -- and by now there are about two dozen cell phones in the house -- there is a frantic, collective rush for it. But it is never someone with answers. Only more questions.
The night continues in quiet hysteria. Farin tells me nobody wants to be the first to really lose it, for fear of setting the rest off, for fear of starting something that might never stop. The Huques wait for the sun to rise, so they can go out and retrieve their boy. Each hour is agonizing because it is one more that their son is out in that cold, out in that water. Finally, Mohammad tires of being told to rest. He says flatly, "How can I lie down in my bed when I don't know where my son is lying down?"
Mohammad, always a strong, fast decision-maker, and the head of this household in every traditional way, is the first to believe it's over. He lies half-collapsed on the sofa, a cushion clutched to his chest. "There is no hope," he whispers, again and again. "Give up hope." But Sayeeda refuses to give up. Her hands are cupped in prayer, her lips are moving, and she is looking up, as if she's trying to make eye contact with God.
Nobody in the house is all that surprised that Fahad did what he did. This tall, good-looking young man with the big grin and baseball cap had a history of heroics, and of not thinking enough about his own safety. Last year, Fahad and two friends were in a car accident. He drove his semiconscious friends to the hospital and stayed there all night to make sure they were okay. It was only the next morning, when his family learned of the accident and forced him to see a doctor, that he found out that his arm was broken. The year before, while rock-climbing with friends, Fahad took a pretty bad fall. He decided just to walk it off. The next day, when he could barely move, Sobia persuaded him to go to the hospital. Two surgeries later, he wound up with screws permanently embedded in his knee. Years later, the hospital bills are still being paid off.
Recently, Fahad has become more responsible. He is paying his own way through college by working the night shift at the front desk of the Marriott Hotel in Sterling, where he has just been promoted. In his first semester at NOVA, it looks as if he is going to pull straight A's.
As the sun rises on Thursday, Sobia jerks awake from an hour of accidental sleep. By 7 a.m., she, Zeeshan and Farhan are headed to Great Falls, to bring their brother home. They reassure their parents that they will find him, wedged into a crevice or, knowing him, hiding behind a rock, ready to yell, "Surprise!" They plan to cart him home and lecture him till his ears bleed, for giving them such a scare.
Farhan has insisted that his parents stay home for now. He doesn't want them to see how deadly the water looks. Besides, he says, they need to be there in case Fahad calls.
After a quick briefing from authorities on the scene, the siblings start walking along the tree-lined riverside trail, retracing Fahad's steps. They reach the rocks where Amer fell, and Fahad jumped. Though they're tempted to climb down and put their feet where Fahad's last stood, Zeeshan issues a stern command against it: "If you cannot control yourself, then go back. We cannot afford to have any more losses."
Eventually, they veer from the path, trudging through the brush and tripping over stones, staying as close to the water as they safely can. Farhan repeatedly calls out his brother's name. Sobia scans the water with binoculars. Zeeshan watches two boats searching for Fahad, and holds his breath every time they stop somewhere. It's a beautiful, sunny day, and visibility is good.
After about a mile, the trail ends. Still, they go on, until there is nowhere else to go. Unable to bring themselves to return without their brother, they sit down by the water's edge. Briefly, Sobia contemplates jumping in, if only to feel what Fahad felt.
Zeeshan remembers the first time he came to Great Falls, a few years ago. That day, he was so moved by the river's majesty that he actually went home and wrote down some poetic impressions of it. He reaches out and touches the water now. It's cold. So cold.
Eventually, Zeeshan -- with the first tears in his eyes that Sobia has ever seen -- slowly rises. He catches Sobia's shaking hand, gently pulls her to her feet and holds her in his arms. "Let's go," he whispers. Sobia can't stop sobbing and stumbles the whole way back. At this water's edge, she has left all hope of ever seeing her brother alive again.
When the three arrive home, without the promised fourth, Sayeeda breaks down. Distraught, she cries out to Farhan, "You promised you would bring him home! Where is he?" Farhan wraps himself around his mother's flailing body and whispers, in a strangled voice, "I couldn't bring him. But I won't let you feel his absence. I will become Fahad for you."
I SHOW UP AT FARIN'S PLACE AROUND 9 A.M. Thursday, with a meager offering of coffee and bagels, and drive her over to the Huques' house, where relatives are well into their morning vigil.
As we enter, we put our shoes in the growing pile by the door. Sayeeda sits, the Qur'an by her side, hands cupped in prayer, in the corner of the living room sofa, her perch for the next four days. Sobia rests at her feet, arms wrapped around her mother's waist, head limp in her lap. Sobia is nearly catatonic, but Sayeeda gratefully accepts each visitor's prayers for her son, and then offers her own for the visitor's family, the visitor's health, the visitor's long life. She manages a tiny smile for my baby boy. As she looks at Zach, she shakes her head and whispers to herself, "How do they get from there to here?"
At this point, I'm the only non-family member here, so I busy myself in the kitchen, cleaning, organizing, cooking pasta. As the day wears on, the townhouse swells with bodies. The family itself is so large -- there are at least 30 relatives, many surrounded by their own mini-entourage of close friends. The rest are friends from the local Pakistani and Muslim communities. The Pakistanis and Muslims in these parts aren't people who wait for invitations when there's a death; they just show up, food in hand. By dusk, there are about 200 people here; the women inside, the men spilling onto the lawn.
Every hour or so, Mohammad calls for his children to gather around him, to see their faces and count them. Sometimes, for a few blissful seconds, he forgets that Fahad isn't there. "Zeeshan! Farhan! Fahad! Sobia! Come here!" A moment of silence, and a choking noise. Then, "Zeeshan. Farhan. Sobia. Come here." When they assemble before him, he tells them again and again, "Don't ever leave us. And don't ever forget your brother."
Sobia tells me she cannot bear to listen to the sound of water. The kitchen faucet running, the tea kettle whistling, the toilet flushing. These drops are kin of the drops that have consumed her brother.
Farin and another cousin, Arif Mannan, are emerging as command central for the information that flows in. On Thursday evening, Farin asks Safi Khan, a beloved local religious scholar, to come to the house to advise and counsel the family. I watch amid a standing-room-only crowd, as Khan sits down at the dining table. Zeeshan tells Khan that the family is confused about whether to pray for Fahad's safety, or for his soul, whether they should hold on to hope that he is alive, or hold some semblance of a funeral.
Muslims bury their dead immediately: by dusk of the same day, whenever possible. There is no wake, no embalming, no waiting for out-of-town relatives. Khan advises against holding a janaaza -- the community prayer done when a Muslim dies -- for the time being. Wait a week, he says, to be more sure. In the meantime, he counsels, pray for Fahad's safe, miraculous return. But should the worst be true, Khan says, the Huques should find comfort in the knowledge that Fahad has died as a "shaheed," a martyr. Islam tells us, he explains, that you are a shaheed when you die while helping another. You are also a shaheed when you die in one of a few extreme physical ordeals, like childbirth, or fire, or drowning. Unlike the rest of us, a shaheed will not be questioned on the Day of Judgment. He will simply enter Paradise. He will even be permitted to ask God for leniency toward 70 of his relatives.
"This life," Khan tells us, "is just a test. How you spend your time here -- these 20 or 40 or 80 years -- determines how you will spend eternity. Every death is a lesson for those left behind. It's a warning for us to reflect seriously about what could happen to any of us, tonight or tomorrow. And to reflect on how we are preparing ourselves for that moment. We can only pray that we will be lucky enough to meet Fahad in Paradise."
When a Muslim dies, Khan tells us, his family -- and his community -- have certain obligations toward him. They should pay off his financial debts. They should pray, deeply and with conviction, for his soul. And despite the temptation, they should not question why God has taken him.
"When God gives you something, he watches to see if you are grateful," he says. "And when God takes something from you, he watches to see if you are patient."
AT 11 O'CLOCK EACH NIGHT, everyone crowds around the television, which is turned up full blast. The first night, Fahad's disappearance gets top billing on the local news. The second night, he comes in after the unusually rainy weather, but before Michael Jackson's latest courtroom antics. By Friday, Fahad's story is buried.
It must be surreal business, watching yourself crying on television. At first, you hear your brother called "an unidentified male in his twenties." Then later, you watch his photograph flash in front of countless viewers, with the word "hero" echoing in the background. The same photograph you are now clutching in your right hand. The one you showed to reporters just a few short hours ago, right before you nearly collapsed and had to be helped back into the house.
The news cameras love Sobia. She is young, beautiful, articulate and appropriately distraught. In tears, she tells reporters, "I just want to see his face again. Just one more time." On the evening news, she implores the rest of us to hold our loved ones tight. "You never know," she says, "if this is the last day you will see them alive." When Channel 9's Doug Buchanan returns for an update, Fahad's brothers come out to speak with him. He asks them to bring Sobia out. "My editor sent me back for her," he explains.
By Friday, frustration is growing with the lack of communication from authorities. The family wonders whether they are really doing their best to find Fahad. The Huques leave message after message, and some are returned. And yet, it will not be the police but a friend who will first call with the news that Fahad has gone into the river. It will not be the police but the television that will first tell the Huques that Fahad is presumed dead.
Part of the communication problem is jurisdiction. When you fall into the Potomac, you also fall into a river of red tape. Virginia owns the shoreline, where Fahad stood on the rocks. Maryland owns the water that he jumped into. That water runs downstream into Washington, where the District's authority reigns. The U.S. Park Police can search only on land and in the air. Montgomery County Fire and Rescue Service has the boats that search the water. With so many entities involved, there's no central person assigned to communicate with the family, explains Pete Piringer, spokesman for Montgomery County Fire and Rescue.
But because Fahad's family is so persistent, Joseph Green, a victim witness specialist for the Park Police, eventually comes by the house on Friday afternoon. I listen in as Green explains the jurisdictional quagmire. He says that unless police have some reason to believe Fahad is alive, dedicating searchers to the effort is somewhat fruitless. That history has proven that the best way to find a drowning victim is to simply wait for him to surface and then find him on routine river patrols. It's hard to hear Green say, "We're keeping an eye out for him." Because that's not the same as saying, we're leaving no stone unturned. But after all, resources are limited. And this is not JFK Jr. who's missing. This is Fahad Huque.
Piringer acknowledges that authorities could have done a better job of keeping the family posted. But he says they went above and beyond the call of duty. "This was a pretty seamless operation, from the rescue point of view," he says.
About 30 people a year are rescued alive from in and around this water. Only about one or two drown. That's down from half a decade ago, when there were an average of 10 drownings per year, Piringer says. Although increased tourism has led to more distress calls than ever, there are fewer drownings because of improved patrols, faster response times, more educational outreach and harsher warning signs near the water. This is a fast-moving river, with serious undercurrents. The warning signs tell you that, if you do fall in, you shouldn't tread water but try to float, toes pointed downstream. The signs also warn you not to jump in if you see somebody in distress. In fact, stepping into this water is against the law. So, technically, when Fahad jumped in to get Amer, he committed a crime.
When Fahad dove in on April 28, the river's level was unusually high, its current unusually swift. Rains in Western Maryland had caused the river to swell. About a mile downstream, near the Old Angler's Inn, the water lapped 30 feet farther up onto the shoreline than normal. This is also a cold river -- usually under 70 degrees year-round. On April 28, it was between 50 and 60 degrees, Piringer says.
On Friday and Saturday, the Huques go back again and again to Great Falls, individually and together. When Zeeshan brings his parents to the site, Sayeeda is astonished to see people frolicking on the rocks right by the spot where Fahad dove in. "Don't they know how dangerous that is?" she says, shaking her head. "Why are they here?"
Another time when Zeeshan and Farhan go together, they find a 50-foot-long trail of red rose petals leading to the spot where Fahad went into the water.
Throughout this ordeal, the Huques and the Chaudrys have been in close touch, visiting one another in Rockville and Sterling. Fahad's father and Amer's father, Javaid, have become brothers, the way soldiers in the same platoon do. On Sunday afternoon, the Chaudrys come over to pray with the Huques. Amer's mother, Khalida, sits on the sofa. Fahad's mother pulls up a chair and sits directly facing her. Together, they lift their hands and pray.
Within minutes, WTOP radio announces that a body has been found entangled in shoreline brush, near the Old Angler's Inn, in Maryland, about a mile downstream from where Fahad jumped in. Soon, Montgomery County detective Patricia Pikulski shows up at the Huques' door with pictures of a body. A body that has Fahad's wallet in its back pocket. Fahad's ring on its finger. Fahad's screws in its knee.
It will be three more days before the Chaudrys' only son will wash up a few miles farther downstream, in the District, near Fletcher's Boathouse.
FAHAD'S JANAAZA IS SCHEDULED FIRST FOR 6 P.M. on Monday, then 1:30, and then, finally, 3 p.m. Farin keeps changing the schedule, because nobody's quite sure exactly how long it will take to recoup Fahad's body from authorities, and then to have it washed and shrouded in the Islamic way and transported to the Muslim Community Center in Silver Spring, where the janaaza will be held. I arrive at the MCC at 1 p.m. Just outside the main entrance to the mosque, Farin is on several cell phones at once, notebook in hand, coordinating Fahad's last above-ground movements.
For the burial to be held this day, the George Washington Cemetery has informed Farin that Fahad's body must arrive at the grave site no later than 4:30 p.m. But at 2 p.m., as I stand outside the MCC with Farin, Fahad's body is still at the funeral home in Washington.
Zeeshan and Farhan are preparing him for burial, as Safi Khan guides them. Fahad lies on a hospital gurney, covered by a white cloth, in a small room. Zeeshan uses a hose to gently wash Fahad's right side three times; Farhan washes the left. Afterward, they add musk oil to a bowl of water, and slowly pour it over his entire body. The entire process normally takes an hour and a half, but because Fahad's body has been worn to fragility by the water, Farhan and Zeeshan are forced to skip about half of it. The brothers wrap him, head to toe, in a white burial shroud. Finally, he is placed in a coffin, and a black hearse brings him to the MCC.
In Islam, it is considered a great blessing if 100 people pray at your janaaza and sincerely ask God for your forgiveness. Close to 1,000 people converge on the MCC at 3 p.m. These are the same Pakistanis and Muslims who have shown up at the Huques' house, and then some. I recognize many of the faces. Most of the 250 people who attended my wedding at this same mosque, 13 years ago, are here.
After the janaaza, Sobia and her parents quietly gather around the coffin and open it, lifting the shroud to see Fahad's face for the first time in five days, and for the last time. Then Fahad is rushed to the cemetery 10 minutes away; his body arrives just minutes before the 4:30 p.m. deadline.
The crowd gathers under two green tents. After a short sermon by Khan, Fahad's brothers step down into the grave. Fahad's shrouded body -- Muslims are not buried in coffins -- is handed down to them. Zeeshan takes hold of the legs and Farhan holds the shoulders. They place him gently on his side, facing east toward Mecca. They angle some dirt on either side of him, so he will stay in place, even after a cement slab is lowered over him.
Before climbing out, Zeeshan takes a good, long look around the grave. He examines its depth, its width, the feel of its hard walls against his hands. Standing in the hole, he quietly recites from the Qur'an: "God, please show us the right path, the path of those upon whom you have bestowed your mercy."
Afterward, friends and family throw in handfuls of dirt. The bulldozer hastens to finish the job. A few feet away, Sobia watches it all. Farin's arm is around her shoulders, propping her up. In Sobia's remarkably steady right hand is a photograph of Fahad: the same picture that's been flashing across the evening news for nearly a week. She holds the 4x6 photograph up and out, almost like a shield against what is happening in front of her.
Toward the end of the burial, the sky opens up, and the rain starts to fall, slowly at first, then urgently. Water spills from the heavens, and from Sobia's face, and the combined torrent threatens to blur Fahad's image. With one finger, Sobia carefully wipes the water from Fahad's face, from his baseball cap, from his blue shirt, again and again. Eventually she clasps the picture to her chest, her brother's face against her heart. This time, Sobia refuses to let the water wash him away.
Reshma Memon Yaqub, a contributing editor for Parents magazine, lives in Gaithersburg.