Thursday, 13 May 2010

It's all written

I wrote this on 5th April but forgot to post it.

The roads are empty because of a run of four days of holiday (Egyptian Christian Orthodox hols and "Smelling the Breeze" Day). We're in a bubble of good weather here in Cairo, transitioning from winter to summer. Soon, I will be complaining about 40C days and constant sweating. But for now, it is under 30C by day, and over 15C by night.

Driving around parts of Heliopolis and Medinet Nasr, I cannot believe how charming this city can be. Just remove people.

This sort of holiday begs for visits to Sharm El Sheikh or Ein Sokhna (both by the Red Sea). But everything is full-up; I should have booked a month ago. I have been forced to stay in Cairo, without the daily work routine, and with a pile of things to do.

Still, it is nice to be out and about. Last Saturday, a distant family relative died. In accordance with convention, a member from my family should have gone to her burial. But my dad was at the clinic together with my mother. Should I go?

My mother said: "Well, it is a national holiday so there is no at-work excuse and our family should be represented, so you should go." I got a little upset and said that I don't know the way to the burial site, am not a close relative anyway, etc. My kind mother told me to leave it and not bother.

Eventually guilt got the better of me and I did go. Grandma Kareema (my sister's mother-in-law's mother) had always been very sweet to me. "He's prettier than either of his sisters!"

What a lovely drive it was to 6th October city. The sun was bright and the colours vivid. Roads that would normally take half an hour to pass through, I shot through like a bullet. I passed patches of countryside green by the highway; the trafficmen had switched to their white uniforms - everything was fresh.

The mosque at which Grandma Kareema's funeral prayers were held was big and impressive: Sheikh Al-Hosari Mosque. I greeted my sister's husband, who is Grandma Kareema's grandchild, and went off to do my wodoo' (ritual wash).

The 'asr prayers were spritually nourishing - perhaps because of the newness of the whole experience, perhaps because of my affection for Grandma Kareema. I was "there" during prayer, not away on my usual going-through-the-motions reveries. I reconnected - for fleeting seconds here and there - with young me, more faithful, more pious and devout. After 'asr prayers, the imam said we would offer the Prayer for the Dead.

People - volunteers, all of them - brought forward Grandma Kareema's coffin and placed it in front of the 200-odd congregation (people who just happened to be in the mosque to do their 'asr prayers). There was also another coffin, a dead man; his coffin was placed near that of Grandma Kareema's. Then we did the Prayer for the Dead.

Afterwards, men - random, unbidden volunteers - carried the coffin to the minibus where it would be transported to the graveyards. Men would run from afar just to carry the coffin a little of the way, mentioning God's name and saying personal, spiritual things that no one else really listened to.

I went with two mourners I had never met. We went in the beat-up Fiat 128 of one of them, then we switched to a cool 1970s Mercedes belonging to the other guy. Both men, in their mid to late forties, lit up ciggies and discussed whom they'd spotted and who didn't come. I felt very much at ease with these strangers.

One of them, Khaled, had a full head of gray hair. "Mummy wanted to come but I told her don't worry about it," he said. Something funny about a grown man with a distinguished mane of gray talking about "mummy". The other man, Tarek, did not have a speck of dust or grime on his black shoes.

"What do you do, Ahmed?" Khaled said.

"I work at university," I said.

"Yeah? Like you're doing a masters or something?" he said.

I mentioned a relative of theirs who had died in a car accident. Tarek told me that had I seen how unscathed his car was, I would have thought: "He must have survived. But poor Ahmed died instantly."

"Yes," I said.

"But then I had an accident, which if you had seen the state of my car, you would have said the driver must have died horribly, and here I am, I survived. Times. Everything has a time. It's all written," Tarek said.

We arrived at the burial site. The entire area was narrow dirt-roads with small buildings (graves) lining each side. The gravekeeper laid out plastic chairs for us and he a couple of helpers dug up the "underground room" where members of the Wardani family are buried and motioned for the coffin to come up. We hoisted it up. Everyone was mouthing prayers and Qur'anic verses.

At some point, the cover of the coffin fell off and I could see Grandma Kareema's corpse fully wrapped in crisp pink-on-white sheets, beautifully fragrant. The keepers got the corpse out and went down into the chamber with it. They took about 15 minutes down there.

I asked what they were doing. Someone said: "They're tidying up. Checking after the remains of the others, and finding a place for her."

We sat on the dark brown plastic chairs, surrounded by the golden colours of desert: the colour of the land, the walls of the graves, of the dust, of everything.

Everybody fell silent, looking down.

I noticed Tarek's shoes again. How can he walk through this sand and still have spotless shoes! He had his hands pressed together, at chest level, a little in front, fingers interlocking and playing with each other; it made him look very contemplative. Every now and then, he cleared his throat.

Someone's mobile rang. He got up and quickly silenced it, but took the call, walking away.

A donkey - I don't know what it was doing there - blew wind through its lips, making a loud, disrespectful noise.

Grandma Kareema's daughter, Aunt Mona, was in a state. She sat inside the grave-building, by the underground chamber, sobbing. I turned around to an older mother and her daughter and said: "Aunt Mona is very affected."

The mother-daughter pair looked at me like I was mental: "It's her mother who just died."

The gravekeeper now put the stones back and shut the underground chamber. They started shovelling earth on top of the stones, completely hiding them.

It was now time to leave.

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