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Abdallah Alayan. Photo/Martin Hunter/Listener

How his brother's death in the mosque attack inspired award-winning architect Abdallah Alayan

As the one-year anniversary of the Christchurch mosque shootings approached, we spoke to one family member who's unlocking the potential for spiritual well-being through architecture.

It seems like just months since the mosque shootings. It seems like decades.

“It is a strange in-between place,” says Abdallah Alayan, recent master’s graduate of the University of Auckland school of architecture and planning. “It is crazy to think it has almost been a year, but we are doing as well as we can. Being close to my family is really important.”

In the breezy space of Ilex Cafe in Christchurch’s Botanic Gardens, Alayan is attentive and articulate, enthusiastic about his surroundings – the building is one of his favourites in Christchurch – but cautious in holding the conversation too close to the memory of his brother.

On March 15, 2019, Alayan’s brother, Atta Elayyan, a 33-year-old software developer and goalkeeper for the Futsal Whites indoor football team, was killed while praying at the Al Noor Mosque. Alayan took four months off university to be with his family in Christchurch before returning his attention to an architectural project that had suddenly become desperately relevant.

Alayan with his brother, Atta Elayyan, who was killed in the March 15 mosque attacks. Photo/Alayan family collection/Supplied

In the months before the shooting, Alayan was working on an idea for his thesis, a series of four architectural responses to the other-worldly landscape of Fiordland aimed at engaging the spirit for the religious and non-religious through sound, water, meditation and hauntingly evocative built spaces.

It was an audacious plan – in an increasingly secular society, he says, the spirit is not seen as deserving architectural importance. “In an architectural context it is not a priority. We are so preoccupied with issues such as climate change and building waste and social housing, which are all so urgent – something that feels negligible, like the spirit, is ignored.”

It was also a potentially naive proposal  “in the sense that it was so unlikely to eventuate”.

For a while, he considered changing his proposal to something more realistic, but then, as he was weighing up his options, March happened.

Elayyan with his daughter, Aya. Photo/Supplied

“I thought, no, I have to do this. It made so much sense and the urgency of the topic became really acute.”

The resulting work, Faith in Fiordland, was joint winner of the 2019 New Zealand Institute of Architects Resene Student Design Award along with Jeremy Priest’s Protest Academia. It is hopeful, ethereal and elegant, a pilgrimage of built spaces taking the visitor on a pathway between Te Anau and Milford Sound.

It is not, he says, defined by what happened in Christchurch. It addresses tourism  and the unmet potential of the built fabric in Fiordland, which is currently dominated by prefabricated long drops, sheds, jetties and “very average commercial touristic buildings”, and the lack of physical spaces responding to religious and non-religious spirituality.

“Spaces for spiritual engagement are usually designed within a religious typology, but the majority of people I know are either agnostic or atheist,” he says. (Alayan describes himself as a Muslim at the more agnostic end of his religion.) “So, we have all these young people unattached to religion and there is no space designed to engage their spirit. Even if you don’t believe the spirit is a real entity, being spiritually moved is something everyone is capable of and engaging the spirit has a huge impact on our well-being, whether or not you are religious.”

Spiritual journey: Alayan at the 2019 awards exhibition at Victoria University of Wellington. Photo/David St George/Supplied

In plotting four different structures, he says, the focus of his project remains the journey rather than the destination. “We are so time-poor and so obsessed with ‘getting there’ that creating incentives to pause on the way is important to experiencing journeys in general. Even if the spaces were not designed for the spirit, having that incentive to pause could mean the journey becomes more spiritual.

“So, at the end of day, it isn’t a memorialisation. The design is still tailored for Fiordland and for the agnostic and atheist and religious New Zealand spirit and that was the intention throughout.”

But the effect of the mosque shootings on his family and his community is also a context for this strangely elusive work. After spending time with his family in Christchurch and joining them on a pilgrimage to Mecca, he threw himself back into work and study. “The fact I could be busy and focused on something I am passionate about, that I could put myself in that mindset of optimism through the research, that had an impact.”

Hopeful, ethereal and elegant: a drawing from Abdallah Alayan’s 2019 NZIA Resene Student Design Award-winning work Faith in Fiordland. Image/Supplied

“He was my biggest mentor”

Although initially reluctant to present his thesis in the context of the March shootings, he was encouraged during the lead-up to the awards to acknowledge the role the shootings had played in pursuing his project.

“It was tricky. I was hesitant to be defined by what happened and how it affected my family and my community. In an awards context, I didn’t want to be seen as seeking sympathy. But part of the narrative and poetry within the work did come out of the healing process – that gave me a better lens to look through. It did feel like an urgent discussion because of what happened – it shows the spirit is an entity we need to start addressing in our spaces.”

There is also a more personal side. Although his design was never planned as a memorial to his brother, “Being able to produce something that I could be proud of and got recognition for is something [Elayyan] would have been keen to see for me. He was my biggest mentor – he was always expecting the absolute best from me and seeing my potential more than I could ever see it.”

Although Alayan was born in New Zealand, Elayyan, 12 years his senior, was born in Kuwait and spent his early years in the US before moving with his Palestinian parents and baby sister to Christchurch. “He saw himself as a New Zealander, that was at the core of his identity in terms of public life. At the same time, we all define ourselves as Palestinian, so we balance the two – the Kiwi and the Palestinian. We are proud of these roots, although the pride in that probably comes from the adversity more than anything – if Palestine was this stable area, we probably wouldn’t be so worried about making sure we were proud of it, if that makes sense.”

Hopeful, ethereal and elegant: a drawing from Abdallah Alayan’s 2019 NZIA Resene Student Design Award-winning work Faith in Fiordland. Image/Supplied

The pageantry of commemoration

Growing up in Christchurch, Alayan experienced the physical and spiritual environment of the mosque as a kind of “third space”.

“It isn’t commercial or domestic, it is this in-between space purely for spiritual engagement. The Al Noor Mosque isn’t an incredible building but it is an escape in its own sense. I attend Friday prayers after work and there’s a bit of stress in finding a car park, but sitting down and being with the community in that moment has a massive impact on your well-being. It is quiet, or you can hear people supplicating in the corner – there is something so moving about being there and being with the community in that moment.”

For Muslims, he says, that inclusivity is crucial, although not always reflected in the architecture. “When I talk with my parents about the way we build mosques like these opaque fortresses, they agree it is not presenting the right image – there is all this mystery about how people of non-mainstream religions practise and that opaqueness makes room to create that negative narrative, whereas if you operate in a transparent way in the way you worship, then there is nothing to hide.”

Alayan at the 2019 awards exhibition at Victoria University of Wellington. Photo/Supplied

Like many family members of those killed in last year’s mosque attacks, Alayan is unsure about the need to mark the anniversary. He will attend if his family goes, “But in terms of the pageantry of commemoration, as a family and probably as a community we are less interested in that. For me and my family, there’s that guilt about being over-exposed. You do see pockets of the New Zealand public being uncomfortable with the amount of attention this event has garnered – maybe those comments stem from a racist angle, but we need to be sensitive about the way we commemorate things. I know it is something we are dealing with as a nation – this didn’t just shake the Muslim community, it shook the core of the nation and the Christchurch community as a whole – but I would not mind having less, or at least doing things in the most simplistic way possible.

“For my family, the policy changes and the progress made in regard to racism in general have been a major step forward in addressing immigrant issues, but there are still indigenous issues waiting to be solved meaningfully, so hopefully this is a step forward in becoming a better society, rather than a better society for Muslims.”

Public mourning: flowers outside the Al Noor Mosque. Photo/Reuters

‘It is like putting salt on the cut again’

For Muslim families, especially those who have lost loved ones, this year will be difficult. Already, two weeks before the anniversary service, a threat on an encrypted chat app accompanied by a photograph of a masked man in a car outside the Al Noor Mosque in Christchurch was posted anonymously to more than 2000 followers.

Earlier this month, Canterbury police searched a Christchurch address in relation to the threat and a 19-year-old man was charged on an unrelated matter. Canterbury district commander Superintendent John Price said the sharing of the image was causing significant distress and anxiety within the community. “This type of imagery has no place in Aotearoa New Zealand. It is abhorrent and will not be tolerated.” He said the image had been referred to the chief censor to ascertain whether it should be classified as objectionable material.

Anjum Rahman, spokesperson for the Islamic Women’s Council of New Zealand, says they were expecting this “and possibly worse things”. She says racist and xenophobic extremists had been “emboldened” by the March 15 attack.

As well as the one-year anniversary this month, the royal commission of inquiry is expected to finally deliver its report in April and the man accused of the shootings will stand trial in June.

“So, this year will be a traumatic year for the community,” says Rahman. “We understand why [the anniversary events] need to happen, but it is more for the wider communities; it is more of a national collective grief. For a lot of Muslims, it is not something we do – people have passed; reliving that is not something [people] feel comfortable with.”

Even for people who have been coping reasonably well, says Clare Shepherd, project leader for Mana Ake, a mental-health and well-being programme for schools, “The anniversary, the trial – sometimes these are trigger points for some people.” Although some people needed immediate help to settle and realign themselves, “We don’t know what to expect or how often people will need to access support over time. So let us just watch and learn and be ready.”

A Canterbury District Health Board review of international literature on mass shootings, particularly in the US, Finland and Norway, shows about a third of children and young people exposed to a life-threatening event will experience symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder during the first two years, with level of exposure, emotional sensitivity, lack of expressive ability, gender, immigrant status and poor family and social supports all contributing to the risk.

But the situation in Christchurch is unique. The alleged perpetrator live streamed the attacks on social media, thereby multiplying the number of “witnesses”. The victims were targeted in mosques, a venue normally associated with peace and security; and there was a delay for families to receive the bodies of those killed (rapid preparation of bodies for burial is integral to Muslim funerals).

Illustration/Chris Slane

Many of the survivors also have a history as refugees. “So they were reliving trauma they have already had,” says Rahman.

And it took time to build the required cultural competency and gender balance in the health workforce. Psychiatrist, GP and Muslim mental-health researcher Khalid Shah is part of a multidisciplinary advisory group set up to help the Government and social-service agencies provide culturally and psychologically appropriate services to those affected by the shootings.

“The love and the support, the people making a human shield around the mosque – that helped initially. But it takes a long time to get through this – there is still a lot of unmet need.”

Children in particular, he says, will pick up on their parents’ fear. “And any insecurity in the house adds to the fear. Children born in New Zealand and who grew up in New Zealand – their understanding is different from their parents who migrated here. They will hear about these things, but it can be difficult to encourage parents to allow children to discuss them – people don’t come forward and talk about the mental-health issues.”

Amna Ali will not be taking her three children to any remembrance service marking one year since her husband, software engineer Syed Jahandad Ali, had his life taken from him. Her five-year-old daughter, who has autism, is unaware of what happened. Her 15-month-old son is too young. Her three-year-old daughter has been told her father is in “God’s house”.

“We don’t tell her anything about [the shootings]. We can protect her from that information; we don’t show her any pictures. When they understand everything, when they are going to college or university, then I can tell them. The three-year-old asked a lot of questions but now she has forgotten, I think, or she doesn’t ask. That is why I don’t take my kids to the anniversary – they show these pictures, hard pictures.

“They are all in a good place – that is what we believe, this is what comforts us. Otherwise, it is very hard. Some people say after time passes your pain will be gone – I don’t think so. It never finishes. It is always in our heart.”

Twelve months ago, Sheikh Afraz told the Listener he would not be telling his young children why their father was away supporting the many family members of the Muslim community in Christchurch. “I don’t want them to have anything in their minds,” he said then. “Not this shock, not this trauma.” He won’t be attending any commemorative events, he says now. His children are still too young – they are eight and four – and he doesn’t want them to be pulled into feelings of fear or hatred. “We don’t want to remember that day – it was the worst nightmare for us. It happened, no one could have controlled it. Talking about it is like putting salt on the cut again.”

Now back living and working in Christchurch, Abdallah Alayan is inspired by the potential of architecture to heal wounds and promote well-being – physical, spiritual and social well-being – for those of all, or no, faiths. “We have a really conservative building sector and we are really pragmatic about things we design. That is something to be proud of – spending too much money on buildings is irresponsible when you think of all our social issues – but in saying that, there is a massive gap in poetic, narrative architecture.”

If the stars aligned – if a charitable organisation offered funding, if iwi were happy and the Department of Conservation gave the okay – Faith in Fiordland might one day be built. But in the meantime, Alayan is hopeful he will have the opportunity to put forward a proposal for a memorial. “I do have ideas for something that is pared back and poetic.”

This article was first published in the March 14, 2020 issue of the New Zealand Listener.

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