Last week we lost a very dear friend and an extraordinarily special soul, Abdallah Said, who left this world after a brave four and a half year struggle with a vicious brain tumor. My fondest memories are of the weeks we spent in his little carpentry workshop where he taught me how to turn wood into art. While we sawed, carved and painted, we chatted and ate his favorite falafel and hummus sandwiches and snacked on an endless supply of Cadbury chocolates – his only vice!
As in life, so in death, Abdallah brought together so many people from vastly differing backgrounds. Sitting through the condolence ceremony, I couldn’t help but think to myself: this is Jordan and the Arab world showing its best side.
Abdallah, a Jordanian of Circassian roots and a devout and practicing Muslim was a greatly loved sports mentor, educator and former handball champion. His beloved wife of almost nine years, Rania, a Jordanian of Palestinian origin, is a well-known and very successful career woman born a Greek Orthodox Christian. Their families and social circles are quite different, yet everyone came together to express their love and respect for Abdallah in an overwhelming atmosphere of peace, harmony and love.
Cultural traditions in death either focus on facilitating the journey of the deceased into the after-life, or on ways of easing the suffering of those who remain behind in this physical world. In Arab culture the two most important events in a family’s life is marriage and death – and both are marked with special ceremonial traditions that can differ in the details from one Arab country to the other but are similar in their basic structure – cutting across religious and social lines.
While in western cultures the deceased lays for several days in a funeral home for people to visit before he is buried or cremated, in the Arab and Muslim culture, the deceased is honoured by laying the body to rest as soon as possible – often in the same day, but not more than two days after the passing.
If the family is Muslim, only the male relatives and friends attend the funeral. It starts off with prayers in the mosque. The deceased is wrapped in a white cloth and placed in the grave without a coffin.
For Christians, the funeral service is held inside the church with the coffin present, and only close relatives go to the burial site. Traditionally women did not accompany the coffin to the burial, as it was deemed to be too traumatic an experience for the women to handle.
For both Christian and Muslim Arabs, the funeral is followed by three days of condolences that are held either at the family home or in a public hall. This is known in Arabic as Aza. An announcement is published in the local newspaper and of course, word travels very fast in these close-knit communities.
As a foreigner, this is one social duty that means a lot to your Arab hosts. If a death occurs in the family of someone you work closely with, make it a point to enquire about the arrangements for the aza and how you can visit to pay your respects during the first three days.
The men in their suits, the women, dressed modestly without makeup or jewelry, in plain black or black and white, sit in a separate room from the men. The idea is to give the women their privacy to weep and mourn comfortably. Chairs line the rooms and for three days – relatives, friends, acquaintances and colleagues – flock to be with the mourning family, to pay their respects and show their support.
Bitter Arabic coffee is served along with dates. While people are expected to sit in silence; nevertheless conversations do pick up, still make sure that the volume remains hushed and respectful of the occasion – especially if verses of the Holy Quran were being recited – which is quite common during a Muslim aza. In a Christian aza the family may choose to play recordings of hymns sung by the Lebanese icon Fairuz to ensure that the volume of chatter doesn’t get out of hand.
The number of people that visit for condolences is quite staggering. This is the only time when grudges are overlooked – a distant acquaintance and even an enemy can visit the house of condolences to pay respects to a grieving family. The mourning period officially lasts for 40 days, during which the family of the deceased designate at least one day in the week for anyone to visit unannounced.
All this may seem very strange and invasive in the eyes of a westerner who is accustomed to mourn in private with only the very close family or friends. Although admittedly some of these traditions can be quite exhausting, those who have experienced it say it is a great cure for the initial shock and heavy sadness of the loss. Being surrounded by so many people expressing their support and affection and sharing their memories of the deceased goes a long way in helping relieve the family’s grief.
Whatever the cultural experience, the sadness and pain of losing a loved one are, without a doubt, universal.