I come from a community who gathers.
But in this time of distance, there are only solitary rituals to mourn those who pass.
We can’t sit next to each other, pass supaarahs from hand to hand.
In each of our spaces, we can only hold our own grief up to the air.
— saaleha i bamjee (@saaleha) May 9, 2020
Mostly, the call would come after midnight or just before the dawn prayer. You’d know what’s on the other side of that line. There would be a cloak set aside for this purpose, socks, shoes that slip on and off quickly, a small bag to hold tissues and a prayer counter. You’d find parking down the street, walk past the throngs of men standing outside the house, the older ones sitting on plastic garden chairs. You’d greet the ones you know, offer a sombre nod to the son or the father or the brother or the uncle. Inside the house, you’d acknowledge the family who see you, pick up a suparah from the unread pile, claim a spot on the blanket close to the one who’s passed on, or in another room if the familial relation is too extended. You’d read the Arabic, you’d offer up the prayers, you’d consider the weight of loss – how it is that the negative of someone can become an unwieldy mass, but here you all are carrying together in the quiet. You’d bring the tissues up to your nose, to your eyes. And when the dead leave the house on the shoulders of men, the Fatiha in their wake, you’d find yourself embraced or embracing the women left behind. In this contact is the compact that all souls will meet again, each day will bring us closer. The women’s voices would now rise and clash, a fast boiling rumble to fill the vacuum. Someone would call for silence and more prayer, their admonishment cracking with their grief. You’d pick up another suparah or two. Someone would ask you to join them for the meal. They’d push you into eating, even a little. And then you’d leave, promising that aunt, that cousin, that old neighbour that you will meet again in happier times.
The call still comes after midnight or just before the dawn prayer, mostly. You know what’s on the other side of the line. You either stay in bed, recite Surah Fatiha once and Surah Ikhlaas three times or get up to pray again and prostrate. And you stay at home. There will be Whatsapp messages, someone will have started a Quraan Khatam group. You pledge a suparah or two. And you sit with it all, on your own, the grief whole and enduring. In this bewildering time, this living through a pandemic, the gendering of the rituals around death and mourning are amplified, and shaped by caution. Traditionally, women in my community do not attend the final funeral prayer before burial. Under lock-down regulations, a maximum of 50 men (whose names appear on a pre-vetted list) will be present at the cemetery. If the deceased is a first degree relative and female, a very limited number of the women closest to her could perhaps attend the ghusl, but even in this ritual washing of the dead, they are only observers from a distance. It is the gloved hands of select members of a burial committee who will rub on the stomach in circular motions, pass water over each of the limbs three times. If a woman has lost a husband, a father, a son, there could be some concession in the hearse stopping at the house on the way to the cemetery for her to see them for a brief moment in the driveway. There will be no final kiss, no contact of any kind. Everyone is masked, meters apart. There is to be no gathering at the houses in mourning. The women must seek out closure in other ways. My grandmother didn’t get to see her brother.