In life, it’s almost impossible to find that friend that sticks closer than a brother, like ‘the preacher’ said in the eighteenth book of Proverbs, the 24th verse. But in Nasir Khalifa, I found a brother, one to keep for a lifetime.
Our families were Coptic Christians living in Egypt before migrating to Syria many years ago, long before my father knew to spell his name. This was a few years before Hafez Al-Assad, the father of Bashar Al-Assad came into power through Ba’athist coup d’etat. Things were much different then, than they are now.
My father, Darwishi, and Ghahiji had moved to Syria when the oil industry there began to thrive. Like most young men eager for adventure, they left home in search of lush pastures, just like many of us still do today. But a lot of times, we do so at the expense of the unknown; the things we can’t see, which if we did, we would have never made that move. Well, that’s what makes us human.
My father and his close friend moved to Aleppo, the city close to the Mediterranean Sea. They were not there for the oil. But they had a keen understanding of what the impact the oil boom was going to do for that economy. It was certain that constructions of all sorts were going to be planned; Airports, Railways, Industries etc. So, having a premonition, they both founded a small firm – Darwishi & Ghahiji Limited. It was an Engineering firm, starting up with just two engineers; my father and his business partner cum best friend Ghahiji.
To cut cost, they both lived in the same house on Al-Shaar neighborhood in Aleppo. To further reduce expenses and maximize the little money they had migrated with; they had to eat a lot of shwarma and falafels. Those are regarded as street foods in Syria.
In a few years, they had built Darwishi & Ghahiji Limited into an entity that would be worth about $100,000 in today’s estimation. The years of sacrifice had paid off, and both friends began to think about settling down and starting families of their own. They still lived together with all the money they had made at this time. They had moved out of Al-Shaar neighborhood and lived together close to Bab al Faraj square. It wasn’t a rented building.
My father had met a lady named Khepri, she happens to be my mother. Ghahiji met a Jewish-Egyptian named Nerfetiti also, and both Darwishi and Ghahiji got married that same year.
I was born on 10th of October 1992, the last child to come out of the womb of Khepri. I had two elder brothers and a sister. That same year, November 11, 1992, Ghahiji also held his only child in his arms. The child they had waited for, for 22 years of marriage. Ghahiji named him Nasir Khalifa. Nasir meaning ‘one who wins’ and Khalifa meaning ‘wisdom’ or ‘one who succeeds’ in Arabic. He was the carbon-copy of Ghahiji. Our friendship started from the very first day we Nasir was born, so I heard. I was a month and one day older than Nasir, but still we wore same clothes as babies. When my mother went to the market, she shopped for Nasir and me. When Nasir’s mother went to the market, she did same too.
Nasir’s father did not live so long after Nasir was born. I heard he died in a ghastly motor accident on his way to Damascus. He was alone in the car. My father cried like a little child for many days. He had lost a vital part of him that day; a part that my mother, my siblings nor I have been able to fill ever since. Nasir was four years old when this happened. Nasir was the one person that father would look at and remember his friend. So, my father took Nasir as his own son from the very day Ghahiji died. My father requested that Nerfetiti never spend even one Syrian pound on the up-keep of Nasir Khalifa.
I remember our first day of High School; I was put in a different class from that of Nasir. But Nasir wouldn’t stay in his class; he would always try to be in my class. When the teachers tried to force him to stay in his class, he wouldn’t talk to anyone for the whole day; he literally just starred at the board like a zombie, till the teachers got scarred. I talked to my father about requesting that the school send Nasir over to my class. I knew that the school wouldn’t deny my father any request, he was partly the reason the school had a lot of Egyptians attending it. Nasir was sent to my class, and then like his middle name ‘Khalifa’ he began to be the one who succeeds. Nasir held the first position all through our stay in high school. He wouldn’t even let me take that position from him even once. That didn’t upset me at all; I was more handsome and very athletic. And in high school, those are the guys that rock.
Khalifa wasn’t as athletic as I was, but he was the most gifted footballer I had seen on the football pitch. We called him gifted legs. Nasir did things you could only do sometimes while playing a video game. I mean; the bicycle kicks, the leg-overs. And he did those with such an ease.
After high school, I was more interested in running the family business. I applied to study Business Administration at Aleppo University. Aleppo University is one of the Six state universities in Syria. It is the second largest university in Syria, after the University of Damascus. Nasir wanted to pursue football professionally, but he hid his intentions because he didn’t want us to be separated. He applied to study Neurology, and we were both admitted.
We resumed school on the 1st of October 2010, just a few days to my birthday. We were in different faculties, but we shared the same room. So, we still shared a considerable part of our day together. One day while we were still sophomores, Nasir couldn’t keep pretending anymore, so he began to talk to me.
“What do you think of someone who leaves the university to play football?.” Nasir asked.
“Well, it’s like someone leaving the university to become a fisherman or a barber. I think it’s crazy.”
“What if that was his dream for his life?”
“I still feel it’s a risk. There are no famous Syrian footballers anywhere in the world.”
“Just like there are no Syrian Neuro-Surgeons working in John Hopkins or Eisenhower Medical Center in California.” Nasir quickly interjected.
“What’s your point brother?”
“I want to play football professionally,” Nasir said, looking at me intently as if he were trying to search into my soul.
“I’m in school because everyone thinks that’s the right thing to do, but this is my dream, all I’ve ever wanted to be.”
I took a deep breath and then turned to look at him. I could tell that all he actually wanted was my support.
“What becomes of your degree?” I asked, still trying to make sure he understood what he meant by playing football professionally.
“I’ll stop school for now. I can always get a degree, but I can’t always play football. When I turn 30, the odds won’t be in my favor anymore, but as for now, I’ve still got it in me.”
Our friendship was everything. I was scared that If Nasir left school, we were going to drift apart. But I felt I shouldn’t let selfishness get in the way of his dream, so I stood up, walked up to him and sat beside him on the bed. I put my arm around his neck, just like I had done almost every day for many years now.
“I’ll buy you an Adidas boot & I’ll watch every match you play. Don’t forget who got you your first boot when you become Syria’s Maradona.” I said to Nasir.
“Yeaaaaaa!” Nasir shouted and jumped around the room.
“But you will have to convince Baba (my father) and your mother too,” I said to him. That didn’t kill his joy – he just kept jumping around like a little child would in Disney land.
Baba wasn’t too pleased with Nasir’s decision to play football professionally. He would have preferred him to be a part of the family business too. But the last thing Baba was going to do was stand in the way of Ghahiji’s son fulfilling his dreams. So, Baba provided all the support needed.
11th Feb 2011, I sat with Nasir at the departure terminal inside Aleppo International airport. He was on his way to Brussels for trials with WS Brussels, the Belgium Second Division Football club. I was the only one with him at the airport. Nefertiti (his mother) wouldn’t come because she had cried so much begging him not to go. But Baba (my father) had somehow convinced her to let go, so she did so reluctantly.
I talked with Nasir about a lot of things we had planned to do together before this trip came up. He made a promise to me – “Time and space would never break what we share.”
They say men do not cry, but at least our eyes get red. So, I waved Nasir as he walked past a point where I could no more escort him. I got into the car, drove off a little, and then I parked my car wound up my window and just cried like a little boy. I had never known what it was like to spend a day without Nasir. He was a vital part of me, just like Ghahiji was to my father. For the first time, I began to understand why dad couldn’t get past Ghahiji’s death.
I was in bed when my phone began to ring, it was 2:05 am in the morning. It was a number I wasn’t familiar with. It was foreign, and I guessed it had to be Nasir’s. So I picked the call.
“Hey, Youseef!” Nasir said.
“Hey, Brother!” I replied, excited to hear his voice.
“I just landed a few minutes ago. I’m yet to talk to Baba or Mama. But I had to hear your voice, just to know how my brother is faring without me.”
“I miss you, Nasir. It’s been a horrible few hours without you. There’s no one to force me to eat, so I just slept on an empty stomach. There is no one to remind me to read daily or escort me to the gym. So, I have spent the rest of my day in bed sleeping. I guess that’s all I have the strength for, for now.”
“You make it sound like I was everything to you. Who is going to be to me the only brother I have in this world?”
“I’ll still be here for you,”I replied him.
“I’ll still be here for you also, my little brother,” Nasir said to me.
“Khalifa, What did you just call me?”
“Never mind.” Get some sleep, my brother. The morning comes with a lot of promises.”
“One love Nasir,” I replied, and then we both hung up.
It was March 15, 2011, the day the Syrian uprising began. It was an uprising known as the Arab Spring that began in Tunisia. There were so many protests against President Bashar Al-Assad, whose forces also responded with crackdowns. Nasir had been gone for about a month at this time. We had talked every day, keeping each other abreast of the happenings. He was doing great, although a little worried about the news of the uprising. I assured him it was nothing to worry about. In a few days, things were probably going to be stable and back to normal.
“How’s my mother?” Nasir asked.
“I try to make sure she doesn’t miss you as much,” I responded.
“How is Baba?”
“He’s alright. He’d be retiring as chairman of Darwishi & Ghahiji Limited in a few days. Khalil, my elder brother, will be taking over as head of the company. I wish you were here. We’ve planned a big party for him.”
“I’ll be back in three months time. The trials are going on well. I have better news than you’d expect.”
“Fill me in bro.”
“I have had steady interest from the first division clubs. Club Brugge and RSC Anderlecht have been on my trail. I don’t know how it will play out. But I could have a contract with one of them within the next three months. And who knows; I could be playing in Chelsea or Barcelona within two years. Just imagine me alongside Frank Lampard or Lionel Messi. That would be dreams within a dream come true.”
“You’ve always been ‘gifted legs’, that wouldn’t surprise me at all.”
“How are you faring in school?”
“Doing well, learning to force myself to read, eat and go to the gym. I’m also learning to live all alone. But, I still can’t learn to live without a brother. So, I’m waiting for your return.”
“Soon, my brother.”
I tried to ask Nasir another question, but I heard baba calling me, so I just asked Nasir to call me back when he could.
The uprising didn’t wane like I had anticipated. Things got worse each day that passed. There were increasing bomb blasts, suicide attacks and a lot of crackdowns. Although our city still remained safe comparatively.
June 30th, 2011, I got a call from Nasir. He had just signed a contract with Club Brugge. It was pure bliss. We screamed and shouted like he had just won a jackpot. It was more than a jackpot; it was the dream of my best friend gradually taking shape.
“So, when are you coming back?” I asked Nasir.
“I would in a few days. Once I can sort out some contractual terms and conditions, I would be in Aleppo.”
“I would not tell Baba or your mother. I think we should surprise them, do you?”
“Draw up the master plan, I’ll follow your lead little brother.”
“Khalifa, what did you just call me?”
“Never mind. Today is not a day to fight over that. It’s a day to celebrate.” Nasir said, and then he thanked me for all the support while he was out there all alone pursuing his dreams.
“That’s the least I could do for you brother,” I said to him.
On the Thursday of the next week, Nasir landed at the Aleppo International Airport. I was at the airport to pick him up. I help up a placard – NASIR ‘MARADONA’ KHALIFA. I just wanted to get the attention of everyone around. So, as people passed by, they asked me who Nasir was, I told them he was the greatest player Syria had ever produced and he had just signed up to play for Club Brugge. Everyone got interested to see who he was. I had gathered a small crowd to welcome our little town hero. As soon as he walked out of the airport terminal, I pointed the crowd to him and they all began to scream and clap. Nasir was shocked; he wasn’t expecting such a welcome.
As we drove through Aleppo, Nasir saw a lot of destruction, and he was troubled in his mind. I could see it on his face. The once peaceful city was becoming a war-zone.
I got him home in about 28 minutes, first to see his mother who almost fainted when Nasir walked into the Kitchen and asked her for Kebab or shwarma.
“Nasir!” She screamed.
It was a lovely site to see her kiss Nasir and cry like he was still a baby. I just stood at the entrance of the kitchen watching them have a mother and son love affair.
Then I whisked him away to see Baba. Baba wasn’t as nimble as he had been many years ago. But he stood up as soon as he saw Nasir and tried to walk as fast as he could towards him. Nasir was also his treasured son. The rest of my family was also as joyful seeing Nasir and hearing all that happenings in his life.
Well, my brother was home, so I just packed my bags and moved over to his place with him. We had barely two weeks to spend together before he had to go back. It was the best two weeks of my life. We did everything we had planned to do before he traveled for the trials.
It was a night before that beautiful morning came when Nasir had to return back to Belgium.
“Go with me to Belgium, Youssef. Even if it’s only a week you spend there, I’d like to see you in the stadium when I play my first match.”
“I sat down and turned my eye to the ceiling like I was thinking about it. I wasn’t really doing so. I was on break from school, and nothing in the world would have stopped me from accepting Nasir’s offer.”
“Let’s make this happen,” I said to Nasir.
“Yeaaaaaaa!” He shouted, and then we both began to sing one of Omar Souleyman’s songs and dance around the room.
The next day, we were off to the bus park to get a ride to the Airport. Two buses were being filled up simultaneously. When we arrived, there was just a single space in each of the buses respectively. Nasir wanted us to wait for the next bus so that we could sit together, but I didn’t want us to miss the flight. So I insisted that he and I entered each of the buses. The buses were now filled up and ready to move.
We had been on the bus for about 15 minutes and were so close to the airport. I was fiddling with my phone, trying to catch up on some news about the regime and the rebellion taking place, when suddenly I heard the sound of a loud blast. It was Nasir’s bus. It had been hit by a roadside bomb loaded car.
I screamed and screamed even louder as if the pitch of my voice was going to turn back the hands of time. The driver halted abruptly, and our car skidded off the road. I quickly jumped out of the car to get to Nasir’s. There was so much blood everywhere. I opened the door and got Nasir out of the car, he was hurt. I quickly took off my shirt, using it to stop the bleeding on his head. Looking down to the lower part of his body, Nasir had lost a leg.
“Nooooooooooooooooooooooo!” I screamed and held him close to my chest, crying.
At that point, I just wished I had listened to him and we had both waited for the next bus, or I just wished we could trade places.
“Hey, Youseef!” Nasir said to me.
“You’d be fine.” Was the only reply I could say to him, still crying.
“I feel so much pain.”
“I know. The ambulance would be here soon.”
“I’m supposed to play my first match next tomorrow. Can I make it?”
“You are superman, brother. You can do anything.”
Nasir hadn’t really realized he had lost a leg but was in so much pain. It was when the ambulance came and picked him up onto the stretcher, he realized he had lost one of his legs. He just looked at me and couldn’t say anything. The tears just did the talking for him.
“I’ve lost it all,” Nasir said.
“No Nasir, you’ve lost only a leg. You still have life and you still have me.”
“No Youseef, you don’t understand he said softly, I have lost a dream. There’s really nothing more to live for.”
“Don’t say that Nasir. Never say that.” I said to him, holding on to his bloody hand.
“Youseef, I won’t make it. Thank you for being a brother. Please look after my mother.” Nasir said a little above a whisper while trying to close his eyes.
I slapped him on his face to cause to open his eyes. “Look at me Nasir, look at me very well. I’m never going to let you go, never.” I said.
He looked at me, and smiled and gasped a little for breath.
The doctors said they wanted to put him on oxygen immediately. So, I gave them a few minutes, rushing out to look for our bags so I could take them along with the ambulance. By the time I got back, the aid worker in the ambulance was doing a cardiopulmonary resuscitation on him.
“He’s not breathing he said to the nurse assisting him.”
I rushed over and pushed them both aside. I began to give him a mouth-to-mouth resuscitation. He wasn’t responding, I slapped him and jerked him. The aid worker tried to hold me.
“Leave me alone, he’s my brother,” I screamed and kept hitting him, hoping that somehow Nasir would wake up.
But my love for him was not strong enough to keep him. But his love for me keeps me going. And every day I miss him.
I lost a vital part of me that no one can replace when I lost Nasir Khalifa Elbi.
He was a friend that was closer than a brother.
Dedicated to those who have lost someone to terrorism in Nigeria, Syria, Afghan, France & all other countries.
Written by Richard Oti
Instagram: Richard OTI