Wednesday, 29 March 2017

Greetings with a kiss from Algeria

The Bay of Algiers at dusk
The method of greeting people in Algeria all depends on whom you are greeting, male or female, whether you know them well or hardly at all.  I still haven’t got used to the resounding ‘Walaykum asalaam wa rahmatulah/wa barakatu’ in answer to any greeting of ‘Asalaam alaykum’ whether it’s on entry to a shop, passing a policeman at a traffic stop or stopping to buy fruit and vegetables at a stall holder in a market.  However I was informed by my children that this reply greeting was more than likely inspired by my husband being an ‘akhina’ (a man wearing both a camis, the long dress like garment of the Muslim man, and a beard) or by my being a woman.  My son said usually the reply is more muted with a simple ‘walaykum asalaam’ in reply, and my daughter said that among women she has found that other women will often go the extra mile and return the greeting with the extra tagged on. 

It’s funny how being an akhina or an ‘ochtina’, (a woman wearing hijab, but often more specifically the jilbab which is more like a cape from head to toe, and the niqaab, which is the face covering) elicts a more respectful attitude in public.  Some people have this idea that if you are one or the other then you must be more religious, more knowledgeable, more spiritual, or just downright better, which of course we all know is not at all the case. To be fair in some cases people recognise that someone wearing this type of clothing will feel uncomfortable in certain cases, giving handshakes, listening to music, or being seated on public transport beside someone of the opposite sex as just some examples, and will make allowances accordingly.  But, of course, there are always those who think that, by wearing the right ‘gear’ they need do no more, and act in ways that are so ignorant and abhorrent to Islam while wearing the camis or the jilbab, and then many others get tarred with the same brush. As a result, sometimes, you will find someone who will test your patience to the limit by being deliberately obtuse or rude simply because you do dress this way.  However, a lot of the time I feel like the ‘nun in the family’ as my aunt was a nun and, as such, was always given the utmost respect within the family, mostly just for being a nun. I will admit that, the mischievous leprechaun in me likes to lull unsuspecting Algerians into thinking I’m an Algerian ‘jilbabi’ and then start yabbering away in English just to see the confused looks on their faces.  Hey, us ex-Pats have to get our amusements where we can find them! God knows we give the Algerians plenty to laugh about!

If you are greeting someone (of the same sex of course!) for the first time you might, if you are a woman give  her one kiss on each cheek, and if you are a man, then a handshake is sufficient.   However if it’s someone you know well you would greet them with a kiss on each cheek if you are a man, and TWO kisses on each cheek if it’s a woman.  But, being Algeria, nothing can be that simple and there are times when the kisses are three and not two or four.  So my advice is to just go with the flow and just keep going with the kisses as long as they do.  I have heard that if you work with women then it is customary on the first day of the working week to greet each other with a kiss on each cheek, which can make the notion of being late for work on that particular day rather attractive.  But then I’ve been reliably informed that if you go to school or university then it’s customary to greet all your friends with either a kiss on each cheek or a handshake or a wave in the morning, and then again on parting in the afternoon.   A very tactile lot these Algerians!

And if you think that the distance of across the road, or even the other end of the street means you have a get-out clause for greeting any Algerian acquaintance, you can think again. In that case, you give them a quick wave of your hand which is the stand-in for ‘asalaam alaykum’ and then press all the tips of your fingers to your thumb and wave that up and down signifying ‘washerak/i’ meaning ‘how are you’, and they just do the same back to you until something like a big bus, or an earthquake comes between you and you make a quick escape.

Between family members most Algerians will greet their in-laws, whether male or female with a kiss on each cheek, unless, again, you are an akhina or an ochtina.  But then there are times when it all gets to be a bit too much and common sense prevails, as is the case when a person enters a gathering with one ‘asalaam alaykum’ and a wave of the hand encompassing all those present.  My favourite greeting is the one I have seen done more usually between men, but sometimes also between women, where they shake hands and then put their hand over their heart.

I have heard it said that all this kissing contributes to health bugs being passed around, and that a handshake is healthier, but I honestly can't see how this is the case - the kisses are merely a quick press of cheek to cheek while God only knows where that hand has been before you pressed yours to it.

So when it comes to greeting people in Algeria the general rule is....there is no general rule, and just go with the flow.  When it comes to some gestures, however, there are those that are perfectly innocuous everywhere else but a complete 'no-no' here such as anyone or anything.  Now I was brought up to believe that pointing at someone was rude, but pointing out a house, a nice view, a bird in a tree.......NO, not in Algeria, 'someone might think you're pointing at their house'.  Sorry but that excuse won't wash with me.  But ......I don't point, or rather I do but get my finger knocked down every time.  Another one is the beckoning of the finger when you want someone.  Now this one could be just unique to my husband, I'm not sure, but he absolutely hates it if we're out somewhere in public, and we've been separated and I want him to come and look at something near me.  I suppose it does have rather superior connations with it, such as beckoning to a minion, but sometimes it's just so handy!  I did suggest, as a alternative, that I just stop, cup my mouth with my two hands and shout 'COOOEEEEEE', or alternatively, jump up and down and wave my hands to get his attention.  Those suggestions went down really a lead balloon. 

My favourite memory that illustrates how kissing as a greeting is intrinsically a part of the society is the day we were sitting stop still in traffic, and my husband remarked ‘only in Algeria does the traffic come to a standstill to wait while the policemen kiss each other during the changeover in duty!’

A typical street in the suburbs of Algiers

Tuesday, 28 February 2017

Irish Soda Bread in Algiers!

There are times when memories from the past can be evoked so strongly by just one whiff of a smell, a lyric in a song, or a taste on the tongue, so much so that they are immediately transported back to that time and that place and the people with whom they associate it.

I had one of those moments during Ramadan last year when I got a figary (an Irish word for a notion, a whim or a sudden impulse) and decided to make Irish Soda Bread.  My siblings and I grew up on this bread made with brown flour and sour milk and my Mum baked it every second day of our lives.  Even when we all left home she still baked it for us when we visited and made enough for us to bring back to our own homes.  Funny thing about her bread though – I could have some for breakfast in her house in the morning, and have some more in my own home in England that very same evening…..and it just didn’t taste the same.  I thought it was my imagination, but then my eldest daughter also remarked on it. 

We ate it with butter, and soft boiled eggs for breakfast and Galtee cheese (an Irish processed cheese) or Irish cheddar cheese and mustard or tomatoes for tea (the evening meal in our house), but my favourite topping was stewed rhubarb.  One year my husband met me at the airport on my return from Ireland and was complaining about the weight of my bag ‘what on earth do you have in here?’  I waited until I got home to tell him that I had brought back Irish Soda bread and fresh rhubarb from the garden.  Many years later I tried not to laugh when his niece who lives in London asked her mother to bring her some vegetables from Algeria that they have in England, but that obviously just didn’t taste the same to her.

I had never attempted to make it here in Algeria because all I could find was white plain flour.  There wasn’t even self raising flour until recent years.  One friend did give me a grain which she said you could use as a flour but I wasn’t sure how to use it or in what quantities, and while I was procrastinating the moths got busy and suddenly a lot of my foot stuffs were full of worms and moths, so I had to do a complete clear out and went totally off the whole idea of using any flour that didn’t come in a sealed packet.

An Irish friend had given me the recipe for the bread that she had made here so I decided to try it one Ramadan night as a surprise for my children, and the memories came back with the smell emanating from the oven.  Memories of my Mum baking it, of long country walks on a cold Sunday afternoon followed by endless cups of tea and Irish Soda Bread, of my Mum after she moved to her new home and found the counter a little too high for her liking and improvising by standing on a block of polystyrene that had come as packaging in a box, whenever she baked it.  

The reaction from the eldest three children who would have been old enough to remember my Mum’s bread was all that I could have wished it to be – it was like being back in Ireland with ‘Granny’, and immediately they had to have a slice with cheddar cheese top.  One night later in Ramadan I made it again and served it for iftaar by popular request along with lham lahlouh, translated as ‘sweet meat’ and a traditional Ramadan dish in Algeria. It’s called sweet meat but more often than not it’s served without any meat, and often can be simply prunes, cooked with cinnamon, sugar and rosewater the way my children like it or as packed with dried fruit and nuts according to taste.   I remember the first time I saw this dish, it was three weeks after I had given birth to my second child, my son, and my sisters-in-law who were staying with us, had cooked a meal for some Algerian guests.  I came downstairs and peered into a saucepan on my cooker and saw what looked like a lump of chocolate in a sweet sauce.  What a shock I got when the chocolate turned out to be a lump of meat…in a sweet sauce.  It took a while for my poor confused taste buds to return to normal.  Serves me right for pilfering food in my own kitchen.

When we saw the Irish Soda Bread on the table along with the Algerian lham lahlou my youngest daughter remarked, ‘now that’s what I call a true merging of culures!’

And, in case you’re wondering how my Algerian husband feels about it, a few weeks after he returned from England (he was there all through Ramadan), I made it for him and served it up to him as a surprise, and he was impressed and very happy as he likes it with cheddar cheese on top.

The flour I bought is made from oats of which there are two types in the natural health food shops.  One is more whole grain and the second is milled more finely to make a flour, and it’s this latter type that I use.  My recipe is as follows:


3 cups of brown flour
1 cup of white flour
2 teaspoons of baking powder
1teaspoon bicarbonate of soda
1 teaspoon of salt
50gm or less of butter/margarine
2 eggs
1 cup and a little of buttermilk


The method is as Irish as Irish can be – mix the dry ingredients together, rub the butter in with your fingers until it resembles breadcrumbs and then add the wet ingredients until you get a very soft wet dough.  Shape it into a round, cut a line across the top in a plus sign that will make it easier to break apart in quarters once baked,  and plonk it on a greased baking tin in a preheated oven 180 C for half an hour.  Sláinte!

Monday, 27 February 2017

Shaikh Charfaoui (RA), Rouiba

It is an amazing fact of life that sometimes, there are people whom you’ve never met, and probably will never meet who, nevertheless, by virtue of something that they did or said, have a big impact on your life by making you stop and think deeply about a certain aspect of life.  Such was the case for me one day in July 2012 when my husband returned from a funeral.  Although I had never heard of Sheikh Charfaoui by name I was aware of his story.

He was a wealthy man who lived here in Algiers and who bought a plot of land on the outskirts of the town of Rouiba. On this land he built a mosque named Omar ibn Khattab, or nicknamed Khandahar Mosque because it was situated right in the middle of wasteland that reminded one of Afghanistan. He also built a Quranic school with a boarding house attached to the mosque. Many students from all over Algeria came to stay here throughout the years, to live and study, food and board completely free, provided by this man. He used to go to the kitchens daily to check that they were being properly fed mashallah. Many times we drove by and saw all the white camis’ flapping on the washing lines on the terrace over the boarding school, This man was not a scholar and didn’t claim to be extremely knowledgeable in the deen and yet, his funeral prayer was led by Shaikh Ferkous and attended by Shaikh Lazar and other shuyouk as well as students. In fact his funeral totally closed the town of Rouiba – it was virtually impossible to get in or out with all the traffic.

When I think of the impact this man had on so many, and the sadaqa jariya (continuous charity that benefits the deceased long after they have died) that he has provided, I am reminded of the hadith:

The Prophet (sal Allahu alaihi wa sallam) said, “Envy is permitted only in two cases: Of a man whom Allah gives wealth, and he disposes of it rightfully, and of a man whom Allah gives knowledge, and he applies and teaches it.” [Bukhari]

And yes, I felt envy for this man who had made the best of use of his wealth. People place so much importance on creating a legacy to leave behind, something by which people will remember them.  Yet, in the space of just a couple of generations people will not only have forgotten them but not know that they ever existed, and whatever legacy they left behind will have become useless, broken, or so familiar that nobody will notice it or even know of its original importance.  Such is life.  I loved my grandparents and have so many fond memories of them but none of my children or my nieces and nephews knew them, and once my generation has gone nobody will ever remember them.  So why oh why do we place so much more importantance on what we leave behind, when what is truly important is what we bring to the grave with us – our deeds and sadaqa jariya.  Every time someone prays in this mosque, or learns a hadith or an aya of the Qur’an, or any Islamic knowledge this man will receive a blessing for it inshallah.   Now…that’s what I call a legacy. 

But then we all have this opportunity to do the same with whatever little we have, as it’s not the size of the amount that we gift that is important but the intention behind it to please Allah.

I was not the only one inspired by his story – so too was my son who was 10 at the time and would have sold his mother if he thought he’d get anything for me!  When I told him the story he immediately took some money from his savings and contributed it to a mosque that was being built in our area.  Afterwards he was a little bit worried: ‘Mum, what if the money I gave goes to building the toilet or wudu areas, will I still get the reward for everyone who prays in that mosque?’, and I reassured him that it didn’t matter which part of the mosque his money went towards building, he would receive blessings every time people prayed in that mosque, and he was so happy.  One evening some time later he came home and told me that there was someone begging outside the mosque and he gave him all that was in his pocket which was only a few dinars, and he wanted to know if Allah would be pleased with him.  I told him that Allah would be pleased with him more than most, because he gave all he had.

Oh Allah have mercy on Shaikh Charfaoui, forgive him all his sins, make his grave wide and spacious and grant him Firdous. Oh and Allah…. Help me to stop wasting my time and make the most of the little time I have left on this earth by studying my deen, and doing good deeds for your pleasure, and preparing for my own time in the grave and my meeting with You.

Sunday, 26 February 2017

Out and about in Algiers

University of Algiers 3

Whenever people talk about the University of Algiers in the photo above invariably they ask 'is that the one that's shaped like a boat?'  My son doesn't attend this universtiy but instead a building behind it which belongs to another university - like so many things in Algeria, things are not always
what they seem!

An early morning start to University in Algiers

In November 2016 a huge sinkhole appeared on one of the busiest motorways in Algiers, where 3 cars fell in injuring 11 people.  More information can be found here . The above photo was taken by my son on his way to university on the same motorway a few days later – this road would normally be jam-packed with motorists but not on this day!  But credit where credit is due, the hole was filled in and the road repaired within a very short time!

A lovely park behind the above university

An evening view across the bay - the tall spire in the distance is the minaret of the new mosque
It's always lovely to find a little bit of home when you're out shopping

A lone fisherman in the twilight of the day

Meanwhile on a road around the corner from home:

Well...... I suppose....... that's one way of parking it.

Wednesday, 22 February 2017

A Mad Hatter's Tea Party in Algiers

As I have mentioned previously the English speaking ex-pat women in Algiers hold a monthly meeting on the first Saturday of every month.  I am reminded of an article I read some time ago that implied how inaccurately and discriminatory the word ‘ex-pat’, short for ‘Expatriate’ is used.  It refers to someone who lives outside their homeland, so that can mean anyone from anywhere living in a country that is foreign to them. Therefore it’s perfectly fine to say that those of us who are not Algerian and who live here are ex-pats.  But….how come then……in UK and Ireland we refer to some people from other countries (usually poorer than our own) as immigrants and not ex-pats.  Even in my own mind the word ‘ex-pats’ denoted to me, well off Europeans or Americans who go and live in another country, and not those people who come to Ireland and UK for a better standard of living, and yet we are all expatriates.  So I have had to readjust my way of thinking on the whole subject of expatriates.  Whew!  Not a bit like me to go off on a tangent is it????

ANYWAY……as I was saying before I rudely interrupted myself, the monthly meetings have been going strong for over 11 years now Alhamdullilah  I, myself, have only ever hosted one, 10 years ago (took me that long to get over it!!!), and it attracted quite a crowd despite the wailing and gnashing of teeth over the fact that we lived so far from everyone.  That meeting had men and women and children, because quite a few of the husbands who drove their wives to the house just hung around and my husband invited them in (despite his dire warnings to me that he was not available that day) and he and the other husbands had such a whale of a time they thought maybe they should set up their own meetings!  The following day neighbours came up to both him and my eldest daughter and congratulated her on her engagement.  After all….there couldn’t possibly be any other reason for a large group of women to congregate on an afternoon over coffee and cakes.

I had thought of holding it several times since then, when it seemed as if nobody else was able to host it, but always at the last minute someone would step up to the plate and I could breathe a huge sigh of relief.  But this time it didn’t look as if anyone was going to volunteer so I went ahead and, in a moment of temporary insanity, I invited everyone to my house.  It being January with the days so short, and knowing it was quite a distance for most people to travel, I wasn’t expecting much of a turnout – actually I had visions of it being just me and my two daughters sitting staring at each other and twiddling our thumbs.  However my friends who live in this area all rallied around and said they were coming anyway.  But then the number of women on the Facebook group interested in coming, started to grow at the same rate as my blood pressure, and then I started panicking about where I was going to put everyone. 

There is nothing like hosting an event in your home to get all those long overdue jobs and tasks done – I highly recommend it!  I had 6 days in which to prepare, so I sat with my list and organised and prioritised and worked my butt off and nagged my head off, so that when the day came I was so looking forward to seeing everyone.  I prayed to Allah that He would bless the meeting and the sisters with a safe journey… time I will be more specific in my dua and ask Him to bless them with a short journey also!

It does make things so much easier when you don’t have to provide the food (although of course I did bake for the event), only the hot and cold drinks.  I have hosted events in our home for Algerians and I found them far more stressful due to the fact that I always feel a little out of my depth and am never sure of all the etiquettes, the unspoken do’s and don’ts.  But when it comes to a monthly meeting anything goes as nobody cares very much about what’s served with what and in what cup or plate, as the women’s first priority is to meet up with each other and catch up, get new ideas and maybe get some things off their chest and, in the process, perhaps find ways and means of coping with the problems of living here in Algeria.

I moved the kitchen chairs into the living room, pushed the kitchen table into a corner, brought some extra chairs into the courtyard to make an outdoor extra seating space (Alhamdulliah the day was dry and not too cold), and prepared flasks of hot water, milk and coffee. My friends who lived locally also were very supportive providing me with extra mugs, flasks and even a coffee table barakallahu fihunna.  At one stage the living room was practically empty and the kitchen was standing room only with a whole group standing around chatting – I should have known that would be the most popular area with it being near the food and drinks!

Over 30 women and young girls turned up covering 11 different nationalities, and, although I had little time or opportunity to sit down and chat with anyone, I was able to catch up with some.  It was wonderful for me to see groups of women and girls sitting around chatting and laughing, and I felt truly grateful to Allah for the wonderful community of sisters here in Algeria, and for the opportunity to facilitate this get-together.  One of them had brought a talk by Muhammad Mukhtar Ash-Shinqitee  entitled The Goodly Life and you can find it here.   The Islamic talk has brought many benefits to the meetings – the first and foremost is the blessings as promised in the following hadith:

Abu Hurairah and Abu Sa`id Al-Khudri (May Allah be pleased with them) reported: The Messenger of Allah (sallallaahu ’alayhi wa sallam) said, “When a group of people assemble for the remembrance of Allah, the angels surround them (with their wings), (Allah’s) mercy envelops them, Sakinah, or tranquillity descends upon them and Allah makes a mention of them before those who are near Him.”

They have been good reminders to us all, Islamic tips on how to cope with life here as a foreigner in Algeria, and usually they bring everyone at the meeting together in a unified group for a brief discussion which adds a feeling of community to the meeting.

Among the guests, three of them had been to the original meeting in my home 10 years ago, and one of them, who had been a young girl then and was now a married woman with her own child, gave a wonderful feeling of continuity.  It does help a lot that only children under the age of two and girls over the age of 10 are allowed, and we had 3 toddlers and a baby who were as good as gold Allahibarek. 

We had asked the sisters to please park their cars on the road perpendicular to our road in order not to inconvenience our neighbours so when my husband returned from work and saw no cars parked outside our house he assumed everyone had gone home, until my youngest told him ‘go and have a look at the hall at the bottom of the stairs’ – wall to wall footwear!  And that was after two thirds of the guests had gone! The neighbours never blinked an eye at the comings and goings on that day, proof that after 10 years they have become accustomed to our odd gatherings (‘odd’ referring to both the gatherings and the guests).

And that temporary insanity I mentioned at the beginning of this post?  I think it may be more permanent than I thought because I’d be happy to host another meeting again……soon…….especially during the summer months when the days are longer.

And the day after the meeting we had one of the side benefits of hosting a monthly meeting, a Queen Antoinette Day – anyone hungry?  Let them eat cake!

Tuesday, 31 January 2017

My mother-in-law's funeral Part 2

We had the loan of a neighbour’s car so I was able to drive home in the evening with the kids and leave my husband there.  The neighbour across the hall opened her home for all the cooking and general refreshments to be served with the help of another neighbour, my husband’s cousins’ wives, his nephews’ wives and, of course, my two daughters.  I went home the first night and baked cakes to serve with coffee.  The funeral usually goes on for three days with a meal provided for everyone on the third day. I think his mother would have been pleased at the turnout and at the fact that everyone was fed  - she had left money specifically for this purpose and I can’t help wondering if this was as a result of my husband and his brother teasing her in the past and saying they weren’t going to feed anyone at her funeral.  She was aghast and asked what about those who came long distances…to which they asked how did she know they would come to her funeral, and she replied that of course people would come!  To her way of thinking she had never harmed anyone so of course they would all come.  Then she asked them what they would do with the money instead….to which they answered they would buy a car!  It’s a wonder she didn’t drop dead there and then with the shock……but they were only joking with her.  Still I can’t help wonder if she decided if something was worth doing….do it yourself! The family received so many gifts of food – packets of coffee and sugar being a favourite but also chickens (of the dead variety!), croissants and other assorted cakes etc. etc. that my sister-in-law could have opened a shop after the funeral.

My youngest stayed the second night and the girls stayed the night after.  Like funerals in Ireland, and, probably the world over, it reunited people who hadn’t seen each other in a long time as well as brought the family closer together – a night or two after the funeral all the siblings stayed together for the night, which was a first in a very, very long time and which they all enjoyed …especially without any spouses! 

Stories of the burial that emerged afterwards made me realise why my husband fits into our family so well – his family is just as barmy as ours!  Another little old lady in the neighbourhood had died the previous night and she also was buried on the same day, at the same time in the same graveyard.  One of my sons didn’t realise he was at the wrong funeral until the crowd of people he was with noticed it.  and then he went off to find the right one!  One of his cousins did one better – he was actually inside the grave helping to bury the old lady when he looked up and realised  he didn’t recognise anyone… he got out and went in search of the right one!  I asked my eldest daughter how could anyone let a complete stranger into the grave of their loved one….and she said ‘he’s an akhina (meaning ‘brother’ alluding to a practising man usually wearing the Islamic dress of camis and sporting a beard) – people assume THEY always know what they are doing’!!!!!!    My husband  got caught up in traffic so my eldest son and one of his cousins were the only family at the graveyard with his grandmother, so my husband rang him and told him to go ahead and bury her, and not to delay on his account.....which nearly gave my son a heart attack especially as the cousin he was with didn’t know his a@&e from his elbow!  But the rest of the family soon caught up and the burial went ahead.  She was buried in the graveyard on the hill opposite her home….on the other side of the hill, and seemingly it’s quite steep where her grave is.  The women went the next morning to visit the grave and one of my sisters-in-law came home absolutely disgusted with the site saying that her mother had specified she wanted to be buried in another part of the graveyard, and instead her son and grandsons had just ‘flung’ her into the side of a cliff!  She said she didn’t care if in Islam it says that only men can perform the actual burial, she didn’t want any of her male relations to bury her – her daughters were the only ones she trusted to do it for her.  One of the neignbours tried to mollify her by saying, ‘at least she has a nice view of the sea’…..a comment she will never live down I think!

My mother-in-law's funeral Part 1

The day I had dreaded for so long had finally come, the day my mother-in-law left this world.   I had dreaded it because I knew that once she was gone I had lost the one person in my husband’s family who was totally, without question,’ in my corner’, I dreaded it for my husband and his brothers and sisters’ sake in losing their Mum, and for my children in losing their grandmother.  I also dreaded it because Algerian funerals are often huge and my mother-in-law’s home is tiny and the funerals go on for days, so I was anxious about the combination of claustrophobia and exhaustion I anticipated was ahead of me.

As it turns out it was a learning curve for me, and an honour to share in the grieving process of the family, and in helping out when and where I could.  The most difficult funeral is the one you can’t attend.  I wasn’t able to be at my father’s, mother’s, aunt’s and nephew’s funerals, and as a result the grieving process was more difficult for me and definitely more lonely.  To see your loved one in his or her final lifeless state is shocking, but also the beginning of the acceptance that they are gone.  The tears that flow freely, do so along with those around you who also loved this person, and nobody tries to stop you or to comfort you, because we are all in the same stage of shock, and so these tears do their work of gently healing your pain of loss, although it never feels like it at the time.  Returning home months after my Dad, Mum and Aunt had died meant that I felt that shock and absence then….when the rest of my family had moved on further down the road of grief and acceptance.  It means that you are totally out of step with the rest of your loved ones, bursting into tears at the most unexpected and embarrassing moments.

I discovered that, apart from some very basic, religious differences, funerals in my husband’s family are not that much different to those of my own in Ireland.  Maybe this is because both cultures are rooted in the belief that this life is just a passing through, and nothing is more certain than death, after which there is an afterlife.  I cannot speak for my own generation but I know that both of my parents believed in trying to live a good life as much as possible, that there was a better life to be had after death, and that, although it was not something to look forward to, at the same time it was something accepted, prepared for and freely talked about.

In Ireland people are usually buried the next day if their body is released early enough or the day after.  Sometimes the funeral is delayed to allow for someone to travel back from abroad but usually the funeral takes place as soon as possible.  My Mum and Dad were both buried two days after they passed away with people coming to the house to visit, some bringing various edibles such as scones, sandwiches, cakes etc – something that can be served with a cup of tea or coffee.  Then on the day of the funeral the family usually prepares a light meal such as sandwiches and soup primarily for those who had to travel long distances for the funeral, and this meal is usually done through a pub with a room set aside to cater for the mourners.  People tell stories about the loved one who has just gone, and there is a lot of laughter among the tears.  My own family seem to have its own unique, quirky take on funerals, often with hysterically funny results, but which would seem strange and unfeeling to outsiders……until I heard some of the stories after my mother-in-law’s funeral.  I then realised why my husband fits into my family so well  - he comes from the same kind of quirky, off kilter family as me!

When we arrived at my mother-in-law’s home she was laid out on blankets and sheets on the floor and totally covered, with my sisters-in-law, my husband’s aunt and neighbours, all women, sitting around.  Every time someone came in they moved the sheet off of her face so they could kiss her.  Obviously it was a very emotional time, but it was also a very calm and serene time, a time of waiting with nothing to do but pray for her soul.  We all had to move into the bedroom at one stage while the female doctor (in full hijab mashAllah) came in with a policeman to pronounce the death and issue a death certificate, and then the women started to clear the third room in the tiny apartment in preparation for the washing of my mother-in-law’s body.  Three women from the neighbourhood, whose job it is to do this, came and started making preparations to pray Dhuhr.  Soon after, the long table, with a slight slant towards a plug hole at one end, was manoeuvred with great difficulty into the room.  Basins of water were brought in with an empty one placed beneath the hole in the table.  Three large pieces of cloth were removed from their packaging and opened out and then rolled up lengthways and put to one side.   Rubbish bags, two large bath towels along with smaller towels, face cloths, floor cloths, shower gel and perfume were all accumulated, and my daughter pounded some camphor, or as we used to call them, moth balls,  into a fine powder.  Then my mother-in-law’s body was gently brought in and placed on the table, the family said their goodbyes and left the room and then the door was gently and firmly closed.

My eldest had already asked if she could be present while they washed her grandmother’s body, and then one of the ladies turned to me and asked if I’d like to stay.  I hadn’t considered it possible, but when I thought about it I felt that this was an opportunity I could not pass up for so many good reasons.  There is a hadith that states that the Prophet Muhammad (SAWS) said ‘"He who washes a Muslim and conceals what he sees (i.e. bad odors, appearance, and anything loathsome), Allah grants him forgiveness forty times (or for forty major sins)’.  This was the last thing I could do for my mother-in-law and, as such I felt it a privilege and honour to do it.  I knew it would make my husband happy and I thought it was so nice that there were three people in the room who knew her well and loved her who could help in preparing her for her final journey, so my daughters and I stayed and helped, just a little. 

The women were very gentle and respectful and did everything without once exposing the body, which was covered with a large table cloth – the kind that has one waterproof side.  As everything that is done in that room is something to be kept private and not discussed I will not give any details of the cleaning of her body per se.    But the following is the ritual as found on an internet search:

Firstly, the body should be carefully laid on its back on a washing table. A large towel should be placed over the 'awrah (private parts, between the navel and the knee) of the deceased. Next, the clothing of the deceased should be removed, cutting whatever is not easy to slide off. The joints should be loosened, and slight pressure may be applied to the abdomen to expel any impurities that are close to exiting. The private parts of the deceased should be washed very well. A rag or cloth should be used to wash the body and the washing should begin with the places on the side of the body washed during wudu' (ablution). After completing the wudu, the hair should be thoroughly washed. Any tied or braided hair should be undone. Next, the body should be washed a minimum of three times and the water should have some cleaning agent in it, such as soap or disinfectant. The final washing should have some perfume in it, such as camphor or the like. The body should then be dried and the hair combed. In the case of a woman, if possible, her hair should be arranged in three plaits – one on either side of her head and one on top. The body is now ready for shrouding. 

The women explained that camphor mixed with the last wash enables the body to dry more efficiently. We lifted her body and the three white rolled up cloths were unrolled beneath her so that she lay in the center, with the waterproof cover still covering her.  Then without removing this cover the top white cloth was taken from one side and wrapped around her body, and then wrapped with the other side.  The top of this cloth was left as a covering that framed her face loosely in case any of her male relatives wanted to see her before she was buried when it would then be closed. Once her body was decently covered the waterproof cover was removed from beneath it. Then the second cloth was wrapped from the second side and so on.  As we were doing this one of the women reminded me that in Algeria when a baby is born and for some months afterwards it is wrapped similarly in a blanket - what we call swaddling, and I thought of how my mother-in-law had come full circle.  Then it is tied with plain white ties, at the top and bottom and in the middle and, if necessary with two extra ties.  Then they covered the body with a green cloth with gold Arabic writing on it, but this is only to cover her while she is still in the house and is removed when they bring the body to the mosque. 

My grandmother died in our home when I was the same age as my youngest, around 14, and a neighbourhood nurse (who incidentally became my brother’s mother-in-law) came in and cleaned her body in preparation for the burial, and, to this day the smell of Johnson’s Baby Powder brings me right back to that day.   In the same way I think the smell of camphor will always remind me of the day my mother-in-law passed away.  They brought her body back into the living room but this time they made sure that nobody cried on her or that anyone unclean touched her…she was now ready for her final journey.  I went and sat in the tiny kitchen as my feet had become numb from sitting on them.

The men then came and took her on the wooden pallet out the door and it was the saddest thing for me to see my husband and his nephews carry her out to the mosque.  A lovely English friend of mine came to keep me company while the men prayed Asr prayer and then the funeral prayer and then went to the graveyard, and it meant a lot to me to have someone with whom I could communicate on an effortless basis at such an emotional time.