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June 26, 2008 The Undiscovered City

After several weeks of devoted care from her children, my increasingly infirm MaHallu passed away last night. This was not at all surprising – she has been bedridden for weeks, and with steadily worsening symptoms – but maybe death always seems sudden.

In Moroccan Muslim practice, women are prohibited from funerals, because there is an expectation that they will scream and wail in paroxysms of grief that are inappropriate for religious ceremonies. When I first learned that, I was surprised; the three American funerals I’ve attended both had many women present, and while there were tears, there was no wailing or screaming. What I’d failed to consider was that there are cultural norms for grieving, just as there are for eating or marrying or bathing or any other way people interact.

As soon as MaHallu passed, just after midnight, and then throughout the night, women wailed, shrieked, moaned, and sang to themselves in an ongoing chorus of grief. It quieted some in the morning, as her body was prepared, and then crescendoed as she was carried to the tamdint*, the cemetery. She had been wrapped in several blankets and was then put into a white litter and carried by several men, including her sons and nephews, down to the grave. Because the women were not allowed in the cemetery, they filled the street between our house (which is the closest one in town to the cemetery entrance) and the gate. Some women collapsed onto the ground and were attended to by others; some stood quietly; some ran around hugging everyone; some sat against a wall… The full spectrum of grief was visible in the dozens of people who had gathered to say goodbye to my host-grandmother.

The men were quieter, almost silent. I didn’t see the graveside ceremony itself – there was a house in the way, which I was content with – but I know that funeral customs dictate that she be put in the ground, without a coffin, just wrapped in a white shroud, lying on her side so that she can face Mecca.

Once the graveside ceremony was complete, the men came back to the house, where they gathered in the back courtyard, while most of the women gathered in the largest of the formal rooms. One of my uncles gave me a handful of dates; I gave them to my littlest sister and one of my cousins, who I was holding onto both to give myself something to do and because they seemed rather adrift. (In fact, they looked as confused and uncertain as I felt.)

I hugged the family members who I’ve become close to, and said the appropriate phrase – Ajarlkomallah, which more or less translates as “May God help you through this difficulty” – to others.

…and then I fled. I’d had a scheduled trip out to SouqTown, and Ama insisted that I go ahead and take the trip. (I also got confirmation from several others, including my infallible tutor, that it wouldn’t be inappropriate to leave, and in fact might make others more comfortable.) So shortly after everyone returned to the house, I slipped out the side door and quietly headed out to the city.

* Vocabulary note: tamdint is the word for cemetery, but it could also be translated as “the little city”, hence my paraphrase of Shakespeare.

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