Tuesday, July 03, 2012

An Arabian wake

On Sunday morning, a professor here at AUS passed away very unexpectedly. Dr. Ibrahim Sadek was the associate dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, which is the college in which Jeremy works and also the one I'm taking my master's classes in. I first met Dr. Sadek in a social capacity and then, when I started my MA, I dealt with him on a professional basis. He was a quiet man with such a nice way about him, and a smile that assured you he was always there to help. Since he has been with AUS since this university's establishment, he has quite the legacy among former and current AUS students and employees. As news of his passing spread, he quickly became a trending topic on Twitter for the UAE. It seems strange, but I think he (and we) can consider becoming a trend on Twitter a mark of honor in this case.

I wasn't brave enough to attend the funeral yesterday - heavily cultural events like funerals and weddings can be a minefield for foreigners like me. In my opinion, it's best not to go unless you are very sure of protocol or if you have a trusted native friend with you to show you the way things are done. Trust me - I once almost brought Jeremy with me to a women-only baby birth celebration here. I didn't realize it was for women only until I showed up at the door of my friend's house and was greeted by her unveiled self as well as the unveiled selves of all my female neighbors. That would have been such a train wreck, if I had showed up with Jeremy at my side as I had initially planned. I cringe just thinking about what a close call it was.

Anyway, although I didn't attend the funeral, I very much wanted to attend the "reception" in his honor that went on all day yesterday and today in the Main Building on campus. I think "wake" is a better word than "reception," but the Arabic is "عزاء" (and I hope I spelled that right) so there you go. Fortunately, I found two friends to go with me (both Muslim; one Palestinian and one Afghani) so I wouldn't embarrass myself and others at this sensitive cultural event.

The reception/wake/عزاء was separated into men's and women's areas, in a traditional majlis room in the Main Building. We walked in and received a copy of a prayer in Arabic to read for Dr. Sadek. As far as I understand, it is a standard prayer to read for someone who has died. Then we made our way through the line of seated female relatives all along the wall of the majlis. I didn't know any of these women - his sisters, aunts, cousins, nieces - but I took each of their hands one by one and uttered those horribly inadequate words, "I'm sorry." Do you know what they get to say in Arabic? The ritual expression, "May God grant you strength to bear this loss." And then, because Arabic is awesome and it has ritual replies to ritual expressions, the person says something like, "God thanks you for this." I felt so dumb with my "I'm sorry."

After taking the hands of each of the female relatives, my friends and I found some chairs among the other mourners and just sat. Because that's what people do when tragedy strikes. They come over, and sit.

Meanwhile, on the other side of a screen partition, the men were doing the same thing, with the male relatives. There were water and dates available for refreshments.

Some time later, my friends and I left. As we walked, we discussed the differences in Muslim and Christian beliefs in times like this. Guess what? They are almost identical (at least to the Mormon Christian construct). Like Mormons, Muslims believe that at death, the soul is taken up to a preliminary sorting of good and bad, but final heaven vs. hell distinctions are reserved for the day of judgment, when all are resurrected.

I'm glad I could attend the reception/wake, especially since I had some friends to guide my behavior. I'm sad to mark the passing of Dr. Sadek but at least I could do so among his friends and family. May God rest his soul.


Jessie said...

I'm sorry your community lost someone so respected and admired. I was fascinated by this glimpse into an Arabian wake. Would it have been culturally insensitive of you to use the other sentiment in their own language? You do speak Arabic, after all.

Bridget said...

This was my first time at an Arab funeral and I didn't know that expression before tonight. Also, I was the only foreigner there (at the time) and I felt like English would be what they expected of me. However, I really did feel dumb saying "I'm sorry." Why does English not have a better phrase for a time like this? Sometimes there is comfort in ritualistic expressions.

Jessie said...

It's true. A coworker of mine recently lost his wife and "I'm so sorry" felt absurdly insufficient.

Kathy Haynie said...

I think one's presence, regardless of the words spoken, is the real deal. Good for you to show up and let them know you care, just by being there.

Nemesis said...

I know this was not the point of your post, which really was interesting and thought-provoking, but I am so happy that you love Lars and the Real Girl too. At least, I'm assuming you love it because you are quoting it. :-)

Bridget said...

Yes, I love that movie, and I am equally happy that someone noticed the quote from it!

Susanne said...

I was told Muslim women couldn't attend funerals because they are too emotional and it was the kindness of Allah to spare them such a hard thing. Or maybe that's just the burial.

Really enjoyed this although I'm so sorry for the loss. He sounds like a wonderful man who will be greatly missed.

Bridget said...

I don't know if there's a general rule about women attending funerals, but in this case, women were invited. AUS even provided a bus for female students to attend. I just wasn't brave enough to go.


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