Friday, August 22, 2008

At Al Quoz Cemetery

Farook called to let me know that a mutual friend whose bread I had eaten had passed away. Farook was going to the cemetery, and wondered if I would join him. Of course, I said, ‘Yes.’

We started in the opposite direction to the cemetery, since we had to pick up another mourner, Abu Khalid, before going. As we waited in Abu Khalid’s office, I heard Arabic on the CD player, and asked, ‘Is that the Koran?’ ‘No, that is du’a,’ said Farook. ‘Du’a means praying.’

Arabic, it seems, has quite a few words for praying, all with quite different meanings. In English, we try to explain the differences with adjectives, but English is, for the most part, completely lacking in words to describe the different varieties of Islamic prayer. Du’a, as best I could tell, is a chanted prayer, and one need not do anything physical while listening to someone chant it.

We then proceeded to Al Quoz Cemetery. The cemetery is surrounded by a high masonry wall, with several entrances. We entered through the main entrance and parked by some buildings. I didn’t see any sign of any graves, and assumed that Islamic graves must be unmarked. All I saw was plain, natural desert. ‘In Saudia,’ Farook explained, ‘they do not allow any markings. You go to see the tomb of your father, but you cannot find it.’ I assumed that must be true in Dubai.

Abu Khalid went into one of the buildings, while Farook and I stood outside in the 45 degree heat. Then Farook said, ‘Remove your shoes, and I will show you,’ so I removed my shoes and followed Farook into the building, a rectangular one-story building that was air-conditioned and which felt very nice after the Dubai summer heat. There were signs by the entrance, but all were in Arabic, so I just followed Farook.

The room was carpeted throughout, and the wall opposite the entrance had bookshelves filled with books, some of them obviously Korans. Farook and I sat down near the entrance. Other people were praying, meaning, in this case, standing, kneeling, bowing until their heads touched the floor, and standing up again, the prayers called, I think, rakas. I realized I was an infidel inside a mosque, something normally prohibited in the UAE, but I was not inclined to leave, so I continued sitting beside Farook while Abu Khalid and the others inside performed rakas. Then a Pakistani Imam entered, and led the noon prayer. Everyone except myself lined up and followed as the Imam recited the words that go with the rakas when performing the prayers called, I think, salat. Everything was done in perfect unison, except for one or two worshippers who entered late and were out of sync as they tried to catch up.

After two rakas, Farook indicated that we should leave. ‘Everyone was staring at me,’ I said. ‘They think you Shia. Shia do not pray with us Sunni, they sit and pray after.’ Then Farook and I sat in his air-conditioned car, waiting. I wasn’t sure what for, but Farook had read that the service would be right after the noon prayers. ‘We wait for ambulance,’ he explained. Eventually, Abu Khalid came out of the mosque and joined us in the car. A few cars with three-digit plates began arriving, and more cars began coming into the cemetery through the other entrances, and we could see them in the distance. I wondered if we had missed the ambulance, but Farook, who has been to quite a few of these services, knew that the ambulance always enters through the main gate.

It was not long before the ambulance did arrive, lights flashing, and we followed it to the gravesite. It appeared that no one has yet been buried near the entrance. In the actual burial area, most graves were marked with tombstones shaped as in a typical western cemetery, but, of course, most were engraved in Arabic. Some, however, were bilingual with English, and, had I been alone in winter, I would have wandered about the cemetery reading them.

We got out of the car and I followed Farook and Abu Khalid as everyone crowded around the open grave, apparently dug with shovels rather than with a machine. One gravedigger was still standing inside the grave when we first arrived.

Several blue jars were arranged around the grave, but I didn’t know why. The body was removed from the ambulance by several men. In accordance with Islamic tradition, the body was wrapped in a simple white covering. Then the body disappeared into the crowd. I was in about the fourth row from the grave, but the three rows in front of me were tall enough that I couldn’t see over them. I barely saw the body placed into the grave, then I saw balls of dirt handed to the men nearest the grave. Someone yelled (in Arabic), 'La, la, la!' or ‘No, no no!,’ but I have no idea what it was about. ('La,' being about the limit of my Arabic.)

Eventually, all the men gathered around the grave began putting handfuls of sand into the grave, and, as the grave filled up, someone placed two markers at the head and feet. The gravediggers helped speed up the process with their shovels, and in a few minutes, the grave was filled. Then I heard Farook’s voice reciting the prayer for burial, and after each phrase, everyone responded with what sounded to me like ‘Amen,’ though when Farook repeated it to me in the car where I could hear better, it was more like ‘Ameen.’ Since the West imported ‘Amen’ from a Semitic language, the similarity was not altogether surprising.

And then it was all over. Those who had helped place sand in the grave used the jars, which I now saw were filled with water, and washed their hands and feet. Then everyone tried to leave, though a couple of SUVs seemed to be hopelessly stuck in the sand.

Since Farook had parked on pavement, we didn’t have that problem, so he dropped Abu Khalid off, and then dropped me off.


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