As in many other ways death in Algeria reminds me of the Ireland in which I grew up, and of the time when my grandmother died in our house. She had had several strokes, so when this one came the Doctor told my mother that there really wasn’t anything they could do for her in hospital. So she spent the next 6 days in our home, in a coma. All extended family gathered and we all went our separate ways during the day – school and work, and then in the evening gathered at her bedside. In the end she died in the daytime with just her 3 daughters at her side. It made death seem such a natural and not a frightening thing for me. Of course it was sad as I loved my granny so much, but, even when she died and her body stayed in the house for one night until the funeral the next day, I wasn’t frightened at all. The local nurse came and cleaned her and prepared her for burial. I was always so grateful for that experience. The smell of Johnson’s baby powder brings me back to that time instantly whenever I smell it (although for the same reason I tried to avoid using it on my babies, whenever possible). Incidentally, that nurse became my brother’s mother-in-law!
I think that is what I like about life here in Algeria – death is part of life. You are not shielded from the reality of life, and neither are children and it may sound cruel, but in reality it is no bad thing. It brings up some interesting discussions amongst the children, it also teaches children, from a young age, Who is really in control, and trains them to turn to Him in times of stress and need, with the sure knowledge that He is the One Constant in their lives, and the conviction that He will never let them down, even as He is testing them.
It’s true, at times here in Algeria I find myself jumping up and down in sheer frustration at this country and its people! But, then there are other times when I am so overcome by awe at their strength and yaqin (certainty), and the Iman (faith) that seems to come to the fore whenever there is a crisis here. And there have been so many. I had the privilege of coming to know a young Algerian, only 20 years old, and as I got to know her I learnt that her grandparents on her mother’s side, her mother and all her siblings died in the big earthquake in May 2003. To look at her you would never know the tragedy that this young woman has endured, and it was obvious that she accepted the loss with calmness and a serenity that only Allah could have granted her. May Allah always guide her and keep her on the Siratul Mustaqeem.
The people here know how to deal with bereavement and there is no hesitation about going to visit the bereaved, or wondering what to say or how to approach them mashallah. And even with this young girl there was no embarrassment or feeling as if I was imposing on her grief, or being insensitive. The Algerians have no fear about talking to people who have been recently bereaved, and maybe that is because they have the right words to say and the best comfort to give – that of knowing that Allah will reward the patient. My sister and I once discussed this and we both agreed that we wouldn’t know how to comfort someone for whom this life was all there was. What comfort could you give?
And yet, in the west I do believe that death makes people think, like at no other time and people look for answers but unfortunately don’t find them. Once a few years ago, certainly before 9/11, my husband was waiting for me outside the supermarket in the very small shopping centre near where I lived in England. An elderly man came up to him and asked him if he was a Muslim. When my husband replied that he was, he said “So you believe in God then?” When my husband replied in the affirmative, he asked, “Why did God take my wife? We had been together for such a long time, many years, and He must have known that I needed her more than He did?” My husband replied by asking him “if someone came to you and lent you something of value, and then after a period of time, asked for it back, would you resent giving it back?” The man replied, “of course not”, “Well, then” said my husband, “Your wife was only on loan to you for a period, and her time was up and she had to return”. Some time later that man came up to me in the library and said, “You cannot believe how much your husband helped me, I am so grateful to him”. The fact that he also came up to a friend of mine saying the same thing because he thought she was me (couldn’t possibly be more than one Muslim living in the neighbourhood now could there!) was rather amusing and yet so touching at the same time. But it only goes to show that some people in the west are so out of touch with death – it has become so sanitised that people don’t know how to be around it, or around those who have been affected by it. Which makes for a lot of lonely people out there, I think, who are left alone in their grief – can you imagine anything worse? It’s true that at times you need to be alone to grieve, but then there are the times when you want to talk about the loved one you lost, to reminisce, to cry….. and laugh too, in effect…. to grieve.