In Damascus, funeral rituals are harder than death itself

Tuesday 30 August 202202:35 pm

My uncle passed away, and I mourned a piece of my childhood, youth and  early life that was associated with his presence next to me. It was also associated with our warm family gatherings that recur routinely to color our lives with cordiality and peace like no other relationship can ever do. We want to escape death, but it coexists with life. It suddenly appears and reminds us how short our days are in this life and how important it is to live them properly.

However, The gloom of funerals in Damascus evokes the value of death more than the value of life. Not because our lives have lost their value after years of war and poverty, but more related to our strange way of imposing sadness, especially women.

The gloom of funerals in Damascus evokes the value of death more than the value of life. Not because our lives have lost their value after years of war and poverty, but more related to our strange way of imposing sadness, especially women.

When death knocks on our doors in Damascus, the rituals that come along with it do not astonish us. It has recurred before us thousands of times, but the initial shock does not surprise us. Joining the bereaved family to share its grief and try to ease its pain does not surprise us neither, nor all the long rituals that follow: washing, shrouding and driving around with the dead person, from one street to another, and eventually to the place of worship in order to pray for her/him. The voice of the caller then rises to say: “Mercy on the soul of the deceased." The dead is then driven past their home so that the family’s women get to say their last goodbye from their boudoirs, because they are banned from funerals, do not pray for the dead in the mosque, and do not attend the burial, no matter the kinship that relates them to the deceased.

In our hideous cemetery that has become surrounded with residential areas from all directions due to their expansion as well as the natural expansion of the city, the dead gets to finally rest in an old grave atop one of his/her ancestors, because there is no more place for new graves in the cemetery.

In our hideous cemetery that has become surrounded with residential areas from all directions due to the natural expansion of the city and of the dead, the dead get to finally rest in a grave atop one of their ancestors, there is no place for new graves

 The residents of the city consider the gravesites sacred and believe it is necessary to preserve them and burry all the present-day dead in them. Consequently, the traditional gravesites have turned into areas crowded with sleepers, as houses are crowded with their inhabitants. Visiting the cemetery has become a real risk, because the area is completely rugged and has no crossable passages. Maps of the dead’s graves get lost in this area.

Until this moment, things remain quite acceptable, despite everything. The dead has been left alone, and the men have prayed for them and have put them under the ground of the holy homeland, in the holy cemetery of the ancestors.

Here start the funeral rituals during which women are completely separated from men. The act of paying respects to women is usually known by “Al-Asriyah”, because its time extends from the “Asr Prayer” (afternoon prayer) to the “Maghrib Prayer” (sunset prayer). It used to take place in houses, but nowadays, got relocated to public halls, conserving the same privacy for women. The bereaved family sometimes has to change the dates of “Al-Asriyah” provided that it takes place during the day.  

Two or three women enter a room where other silent women, the deceased’s relatives who are dressed in white, sit in a circle. They sit for a couple of minutes facing them and leave the room so that another group enters… The circle of women greets the mourners by standing up when they enter the hall, and again when they leave. These rites happen in deafening silence. Women usually sit in the circle according to the order of their kinship to the deceased starting from the closest in the front and progressing to the sides.

A number of Sheikhat (religion teachers) take over the gathering and dominate the situation by just attending, since the majority of Damascene families are related to religion teachers. The higher the family’s social ranking, the more Sheikhat attend to properly pray for the dead. This is how such gatherings turn into intensive religious lessons during which infernal atmosphere surrounds the place. Asking for mercy for the dead turns into a supplication for forgiveness for the attendees and into a reminder of the penalty of the Hereafter.

I do not know why everyone insists on activating this atmosphere charged with remorse and acknowledgment of sins, as if the bereaved family did not get enough from the sadness of death itself

I do not know why everyone insists on activating this atmosphere charged with remorse, guilt and acknowledgment of human sins, as if the bereaved family did not get enough from all the sadness that started by receiving the shock of their loved one's death.

If the deceased is a man, his wife will be sentenced to prison in her own house, despite the affliction and loneliness caused by her separation from her life companion who is no longer with her. It is called the Iddah period (period of waiting) and extends over a period of four months and ten days for women who have passed the stage of youth. In fact, religious experts get creative in detailing the harsh instructions that must be followed during this period, and that are passed down from generations of women to another without any logical review. For instance, women are forbidden from opening the windows and from dying their hair, the act that is considered a major escape from white hair and the look of aging for women over fifty. They are also forbidden from sleeping somewhere other than their house, even at their children’s or parents’. The list goes on and on, and the harassment methods are multiple.

The award is that the retribution of patience over the harshness of the “Iddah period” is great, and the religious experts promise the women of getting this retribution by repeating discussions and sayings in which the wheat and the chaff get mixed. Here, the use of the mind is definitely excluded.

Men receive condolences after the evening prayer in an act known by “Al-Tamsaiah”. The deceased’s relatives line up outside the funeral hall and greet the mourners. Mourners are allowed to enter, rest and exchange conversations inside the hall before they go out and greet the members of the family and exchange words of condolences with them. Of course, Sheikhs are present according to the family’s value. They give religious lessons and prolonged prayer sessions for the mercy of the dead.

No wonder we are associated with death as a culture. Our history is full of conflicts and strife. However, the great catastrophe is that death is an occasion in which we devote our worries in this world and in the Hereafter and that what we do and say during such occasions is nothing but great frustrations and lots of negative feelings.

It is time to change. We need to find positive expressions to vent our sorrows. We need to renounce the hypocrisy of the pretenders and stop assigning to the religion instructions from which it is innocent. We have to rebel against the inherited traditions that go back to the deep-rooted time of the hareem and that are far from our current needs and circumstances.


*The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect Raseef22

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