Unsung death on the Nile – Part I

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By Khaled Diab

Once the mother of our world departed, her ghost arrived, plunging me into the memory hole which grief opens up, where the past becomes its own present and the present morphs into a kind of phantom future.

Friday 11 August 2017

Egyptians fondly refer to their country as Um el-Dunya, Mother of the World, drawing comfort for their lacklustre and turbulent present by reaching far back to the ancient past when Egypt was at the summit of the civilisational pyramid.

I am doubtful that the world could have a mother and, if it did, I suspect it would not be Egypt. But there is a mother of my world and, because I have spent the greater part of my life outside my native land, she, in many ways, is, or was, my Egypt.

That is why when mama took a sudden fall and fell seriously ill, Cairo, that heaving city of constant commotion and continuous motion, seemed to dematerialise. Although the 20 million or so souls who inhabit the metropolis were oblivious to the fact that they had become shadows, Cairo’s legendary gridlock melted away before my taxi as it hurtled from the airport to the hospital, as though someone high up had notified the city’s unruly motorists to clear a path for this worried son.

When I entered her room in intensive care, I was horrified by the sight of my mother intubated and struggling with the nurses. Although mum’s flesh was weak, her spirit was still willing and tough. Never one to accept faits accomplis, she was trying to spit out the tubes that had been rammed down her throat. It was only after we comforted her and gently explained that she could not breathe without the machine that she desisted. Cruel to be kind, flashed through my mind.

Seeing my mama bedridden, with a broken hip and a collapsed lung, unable to move and unable to speak was unbearable to witness or to endure. My ‘baby’ brother, Osama, who along with my sister, Ghada, had dealt with the brunt of the emergency, could not bear to be in the room anymore and bowed out for a breather.

Mama’s extreme frailty brought memories flooding back of the once vigorous, uncompromising, outspoken yet gentle and fair woman who raised four children almost single-handedly, and nearly super-humanely.

The same four children who, due to the geography of modern life, were gathered in the same place for the first time in years, feeling, despite their adult masks, faces and costumes they now wore, like helpless children in need of a comforting squeeze from their mummy.

When mum, her multi-shaded eyes lacking the sparkle with which they once shone, finally had the tubes removed, the first words she spoke were in keeping with her character. She asked how we were doing, expressed her satisfaction that her four kids were gathered around her, and complained about the bland hospital food. Ghada was so overjoyed that, in addition to her repeated expressions of love, she regularly told mum, like a mantra to reassure herself, that she would take very good care of her and get her home soon.

I don’t think I’ll ever leave this hospital,” mum said at one point and we, echoing the doctors’ assurances and to reassure ourselves as much as her, told her she’d be back home in a matter of days. But despite a short-lived improvement, my mum turned out to be right and a few weeks later I had to rush back, in a race against the malfunctioning clock of multiple organ failure, arriving just too late to say a final farewell.

Once mum departed, her ghost arrived, so to speak. I plummeted into the memory hole which grief opens up, where the past becomes its own present and the present morphs into a kind of phantom future, where I clasped and grasped at all mum-related remembrances with every tentacle of my mind, in a desperate effort to keep her alive, even if only in the form of my subjective image of her.

Over the years, the space mum took up in my head had diminished due to the many years we had not lived in the same country. But now she was everywhere in my consciousness, even though it distressed me to realise that I did not remember as much as I wanted to, as much as I should, as much as I must – the little essential details, the exact words uttered, the tiny shards that make up the shattered whole. I became aware that location is a vital component of memory. I imagine that when you spend your entire life in the same country, city, town or village, regularly revisiting or passing the same places constantly, this triggers and reinforces memories – when you never or rarely revisit the scene of the time, the recollections gradually fade until they appear to be so dreamlike that you sometimes wonder whether your memories are actually real, and where the real ones end and the invented ones commence.

Mum was also there at her wake, in the memories and words of family and friends, and at subsequent family gatherings. Throughout the ordeal, well-meaning people tried to comfort me by telling me mum had gone to a better place, that God must love her for taking her during Ramadan, supposedly the most blessed month of the year. But my unbelieving ‘soul’ could gain no consolation from their words. With no God, no afterlife, neither heavenly nor hellish, no blessed nor cursed times of year, I could only console myself with the thought that my mother’s pain and suffering had disappeared with her consciousness, that the hell of disease was over, and she now occupied the paradise of oblivion. Of course, she believed in the afterlife and had worked consciously her entire life towards pleasing her Lord. For her sake, I hoped that he truly existed and that he would be there to reward her goodness.

When I went to visit her tomb, mama seemed absent from this alien terrain, even though her remains lay only feet away, under my feet. My brother, Amr, who is the second eldest after me, had prepared a prayer which he recited with his head bowed in front of him, trying to conceal the tears which had involuntarily welled up in his eyes. This was the first time I had seen Amr, who prefers to shield his emotions from sight, cry ever since mum had got sick, though I understand he wept during her burial, which I missed due to a fault by the airline. When I tried to comfort him, we both cried in each other’s embrace, something that has not occurred since we were children.

Egyptian tombs are pretty homely, with an outer house and a subterranean burial chamber, a practice that stretches back to pharaonic times, which is typically shared by the various deceased members of a single family. But this being a new tomb, my mother was the only occupant. The idea that mum was all alone in that cold, dark place shook me severely. Having been born into a large family and raised one herself, my mother had rarely spent time alone, and so the idea of her now being by herself, even if she could no longer feel anything, distressed me.

Reflecting on mum’s life and the central role she had played in shaping mine led me to discover that what I call my conscience is to a large part actually her voice. Iman Khattab may not have made a visible difference to the world but for the many people she embraced and took under her wing – from her younger siblings whom she helped raise to her friends and protégés – my mum made a world of difference. Empirically, it is easy to disprove the notion that only the good die young. But they always die far too soon for the people who loved them and those who were touched by them.

My mother was only two months older than Donald Trump. I wonder what she would have made of his black comedic rise to president, and particularly his toxic views on immigrants, refugees, Muslims and women – all of which mum was, in some form, at one point or another during her life. Despite her sensitive nature and apprehension about hurting people’s feelings, she was not one to take prejudice and bigotry lying down – though she was always a connoisseur of lying down or reclining, often with a well-earned snack and a hot beverage – as demonstrated by the numerous confrontations she had with racists, one of which included a man with a barking Doberman trying to knock down our front door, the way she taught us to stand up for our rights, and how she always stood up for what she thought was right and defended the weak, with little concern for the personal costs.

Although mum was never officially a refugee, she and my father fled into self-imposed exile. In a sort of shotgun wedding, with Egypt’s state insecurity apparatus holding the barrel to their heads, my parents, who were engaged at the time, got married in a hurry when they discovered that a political case was being concocted against my father. Just how serious and far-fetched that case was would only emerge nearly four decades later, during the 2011 revolution, when a revolutionary salvaged the scorched and synched confidential file on my father which state security had been keeping on him and his family.

At first, my parents fled to neighboring Libya, where a young and not-yet-completely-unhinged Gaddafi had recently abolished the monarchy and installed himself as republican monarch, even though he had no official position. Here is where I and one of my brothers, Amr, were born. However, it would not be long before my father could no longer deal with the regime and fell out of favour with it.

Britain, which was still relatively easy to immigrate to back in the mid-70s, was decided upon as our next destination. Mum went back to Egypt to give birth to my sister, Ghada, before joining my father – but she was delayed three years as state security held us hostage by banning us from travelling in the hope of luring dad back to the country. Fearlessly, though she was probably terrified, mum, with a babe-in-arms, a toddler and a young child, sued the government repeatedly, and won every time, while holding down a job, but each time. However, state security had other ideas and defied the courts by re-inserting her name on the no-fly list at the airport.

Eventually, we made it out of Egypt. But getting to England required a multi-nation tour of the Arab world in a frustrating attempt to find that sweet spot where Arab and British bureaucracy converged, a country where my father would be allowed in and the British embassy there would handle our paperwork. But eventually we landed in Thatcherite Britain…

Read part II 

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The Viking Allah

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By Khaled Diab

A mysterious ring in a dead Viking woman’s tomb shows how Northern Europeans came into contact with Muslims and Islam before even becoming Christian.

Viking Allah

Tuesday 7 April 2015

A ring with a cryptic inscription in a foreign tongue turns up in the ancient burial site of an enigmatic woman.

It is the kind of mystery that would have excited the imagination of JRR Tolkien. But this enigma does not unfold in Middle Earth but in the middle ages. The ring in question was unearthed in Sweden and intriguingly contained the Arabic inscription “For/To Allah”.

Recent scientific investigation revealed that what was assumed to be a precious stone containing the inscription was actually coloured glass. But the long-deceased owner wasn’t ripped off, as glass, though pretty common in the Middle East, was a rare and valuable material in Scandinavia at the time.

But how exactly did an Islamic ring end up on the finger of a Viking woman? Short of discovering time travel, we will never know for certain. Several theories have been put forward. One is that it was acquired in trade. In light of the pristine condition of the ring, the researchers behind the lates study posit the intriguing possibility that the ring’s owner may have been a Muslim herself or had travelled to Muslim lands.

With all the fears and fear-mongering about the “Islamisation of Europe”, including in Sweden, it seems outlandish that a native Norsewoman who lived over a millennium ago would be so comfortable with Islam that she would wear a ring with the Arabic word for God engraved on it, and this at a time when Christianity had barely penetrated the lands of Odin, Thor and Freya.

But it is not as bizarre as it may sound. Even though we unfairly tend to associate the Vikings today with raping, pillaging and burning, there were Nordic tribes who headed eastward, not as conquerors but as merchants (and sometimes mercenaries and slave traders). The euro may draw people to Europe today, but the mighty dirham pulled Europeans towards the Middle East a millennium ago.

Although a significant number of their descendants today complain about immigrants, these early Norse-people migrated east, drawn by the opulent riches and high tech of the Middle East, then the centre of global trade.

On their voyages, they encountered Arabs – to much mutual curiosity and dismay. Since Scandinavians were not great writers at the time, the picture we have is rather one-sided, as it is based on the prolific output of contemporary Arab chroniclers, who wrote to satisfy a large and popular market for travel writing.

Interestingly, Arab writers left us with a much more sympathetic and nuanced picture of the Vikings and their ways than Europeans did. In fact, modern scholars are drawing heavily on these ancient Arab accounts to fill in the holes in our knowledge of the Norse tribes. So, in addition to “threatening” Europe’s cultural heritage, it seems Muslims have also helped to preserve it.

One of the most detailed and fascinating accounts was penned by Ahmad ibn Fadlan (played by Antonio Banderas in the fictional Thirteenth Warrior), who was a tenth-century traveller and diplomat for the Abbasid Caliphate, which bears almost no resemblance to ISIS’s modern-day caliph-hate.

Although his writing tends to exhibit some of the cultural superiority and condescension we tend to associate with certain brands of Orientalism today – such as lumping together a complex tapestry of tribes and peoples into a single homogenous “other” – he also expresses sympathy and a willingness to understand these “Rus”, as he called them.

Like later stereotypes of the “Noble Savage”, Ibn Fadlan waxes lyrical, confessing: “I have never seen more perfect physiques than theirs – they are like palm trees, are fair and reddish.” Another Muslim traveller, the Persian Ibn Rustah, praised them for their heroicness and loyalty.

Interestingly, Ibn Fadlan witnessed many exhibitions of fornication and drunken behaviour, and yet, despite being an Islamic scholar, or Faqih, failed to pass, in a display of admirable academic neutrality, any moral judgement on what he described.

This may seem odd, given how puritanical Islamic scholars tend to be today. But when considering how freely alcohol flowed in the Abbasid caliphate, the odes to wine penned by Arab poets and the fact that medieval Islamic scholars often authored sex manuals, including one with the beautifully sensual title of The Perfumed Garden.

While Ibn Fadlan barely batted an eyelid at the intoxication around him, he was totally grossed out by the Vikings’ notions of hygiene. Probably perfumed and dressed in fine silks, from a dandy culture where daily bathing was a norm and ritual washing took place five times a day, his disgust is palpable. “They are the filthiest of all God’s creatures,” he declaimed. “They do not clean themselves after excreting or urinating or wash themselves when in a state of ritual impurity (i.e., after coitus) and do not wash their hands after food.”

There are also moments of mutual culture shock. Ibn Fadlan is taken aback by the raping and human sacrifice of a female slave in the ship burning funeral of a chieftain, which must have seemed barbaric to his Abrahamic sensibilities. The Vikings were also aghast by Islamic burial practices. “You Arabs are a foolish lot,” one remarked, “you purposely take those who are dearest to you and whom you hold in highest esteem and throw them under the earth, where they are eaten by the earth, by vermin and by worms.”

Some of the Vikings Ibn Fadlan encountered had converted to Islam, but many others were too attached to their native religions or held back because they would miss pork too much.

Given the fact she was buried and not burned, the mysterious Viking woman with the ring may have been one of these converts returned home, or a Norsewoman who had come into contact with Muslims during a voyage east.

This just goes to show that Islam has deeper roots in Europe, even its remoter corners, than most Europeans appreciate.


Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This article first appeared on Al Jazeera on 2 April 2015.

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Tombs for the living

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By Khaled Diab

Egyptians’ lavish burial spaces offer comfort to relatives – while 1.5 million less fortunate Cairenes live among the dead.

Sunday 6 February 2011

Egyptians have long gone in for lavish burials. ©Khaled Diab

To highlight the chasm between the haves and the have-nots, an Egyptian newspaper recently ran an article on what it described as “five-star tombs” (see one example here).

Echoing the grandeur of the ancient Egyptian nobility, one of the luxury tombs in Cairo’s upmarket Bab el-Wazir cemetery belongs to an unnamed celebrity and is said to have cost more than 3 million Egyptian pounds (around $500,000) – an astronomical amount in a country where per capita GDP stands at just under $6,000.

 The opulent, marble-faced tomb is surrounded by greenery and a large courtyard. Inside, it is equally well appointed, with a ‘living room’ quite literally to die for and a sumptuous bathroom. But why, the uninformed may ask, would dead people, even stars whose names may outlive them, need these places?

 In ancient Egypt, people did believe that they could take their wealth and status with them, that the afterlife was simply an extension of this one in a different dimension. But that is no longer the case today.

 Actually, these spaces are truly living rooms, i.e. rooms for the living. They are meant to provide family members with the comfort and space to relax and make a day of it when visiting their dead relatives at the weekend or during religious festivals.

Egyptians show little interest in the minimalist funeral rites favoured, for example, by the Saudis. No unmarked grave or simple marker would suffice the Egyptian appetite for honouring the dead. Instead, any family with enough money owns a tomb that, to foreign eyes, would appear to be a house.

These lavish burial requirements, combined with the shortage of land, especially in the capital, mean that the country’s housing crisis plagues poorer Egyptians both in life and in death. The situation has become so acute that a number of affordable burial projects have been established and many cemeteries, like the cities they serve, have low-cost popular quarters.

Though space is becoming increasingly tight for the dead, the living are profiting from Egypt’s burial traditions. According to government statistics quoted by al-Dustour newspaper, around 1.5 million people who cannot find housing elsewhere live among the dead in Cairo’s cemeteries, renting or squatting in the tombs.

The idea of living in a cemetery might seem a macabre choice. However, there is very little of the Edgar Allan Poe about Egyptian cemeteries. Cairo’s oldest functioning cemetery, colourfully known in English as the City of the Dead, could easily be mistaken for just another overcrowded district in the city’s poorer quarters – the main sign of its intended function being the memorial plaques everywhere.

House-like tombs and tombs as homes are likely to reinforce the prevalent idea that Egyptians, throughout their long history, have had a unique, even morbid fascination with death. But is this truly so?

The archaeological evidence might suggest it is. After all, the vast majority of ancient Egyptian monuments and artefacts are somehow related to death, or presumed to be so: the pyramids, the valleys of the kings and the queens, the mummies, etc. – as are many of the grandest monuments of the Greco-Roman, Christian and Islamic periods.

But the apparent plethora of physical evidence can be misleading. “This has more to do with geography (ancient remains were preserved well in the Egyptian desert) and the availability of materials,” explains Ilona Regulski, a Belgian Egyptologist who is currently lecturing at Yale University.

Indeed, although Egyptians buried their dead in the dry desert, they lived on the wet banks of the Nile where millions of tonnes of Ethiopian silt were deposited each year. Nevertheless, what evidence there is suggests that they lived lives remarkably similar to our own today and even had a highly developed sense of humour and irony.

Similar attitudes to death were also quite common in the ancient world. “There were a lot of similarities with other ancient cultures with regard to the whole afterlife thing and how to get there and what it looks like,” Regulski notes.

Even in more modern times and settings, preoccupation with death is all around: for example, church art is replete with gory images of the crucified Christ, as is Renaissance art.

Though Egyptians have lost the inclination to honour their dead leaders with monoliths, the tradition lives on elsewhere. Washington, the capital city of today’s most powerful empire, is like some kind of modern Valley of the Kings, with its grand Washington monument, the Lincoln and Jefferson memorials, and the Arlington cemetery for the heroes and ‘nobility’.

This column appeared in the Guardian newspaper’s Comment is Free section on 23 January 2011. Read the full discussion here.

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