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…..so 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.

Sunday, 29 January 2017

Memories of summer

On hot summer mornings, sitting on the beach watching the sea and drinking my morning coffee I said to my husband that it was memories of moments such as these that would keep me going through the winter months.  And so, here we are on a cold and very wet January morning, and I’m remembering those precious moments at the beach during the summer.

In recent years Ramadan has taken over a lot of the summer, coming as it has done right in the middle so the weeks preceding it have been spent in preparation, and the couple of weeks after in making up for missed days of fasting, and fasting optional extra days. In 2016 it took up most of the month of June and the beginning of the month of July with the most of the rest of that month spent on fasting for one reason or another, so summer for us really didn’t start until August.

All the world and his mother came to visit Algeria during the month of last August, or at least, so it seemed, and quite a few of them came to visit us.  So it was a very busy month, as, in addition to catching up with friends whom I hadn’t seen in a long while, we also had a guest staying for a while, the son of a friend staying for a few weeks and the son of another friend came for the day a few times.  The summer seemed to go by in a blur of preparing meals, washing up, brushing the sand out of the house, rinsing and hanging out swimwear and towels, and preparing cakes and tea and coffee.

But whenever we got the chance my husband and I went off to the beach around 8.00 in the morning with our flask of coffee, towels and deck chairs and whoever of our children wanted to come with us.  Often it was just the two of us and we bought lovely hot, soft croissants on the way and had a leisurely breakfast after a stimulating swim.  Our favourite beach is about a 20 minute car ride from home, and early as it was, we were never the first there, but the crowds only started to come as we were leaving.

I love the sea, and never get tired of it.  I only learnt to swim when I was 30 and so swimming is still very much a novelty to me.  A friend of mine from work and her sister volunteered to teach me to swim in the public swimming pool in Old Street, London and I went twice with them.  The first time, one of the sisters put her hand underneath me to support me in order to teach me to float, so I closed my eyes and tried, only to find myself falling, falling, falling, to what seemed to me down to the bottom of the pool – I couldn’t tell you for sure as I had my eyes tightly clenched shut.  As I lay there I thought to myself, ‘they will come and save me any minute now, they won’t let me drown’, but after a few minutes when it became apparent that nobody was going to come to my rescue, I started to flail around in the water and sure enough one of the sisters came to my aid.  When I asked her what took her so long she said that I was just calmly floating on the top of the water……upside down, and she thought I was enjoying myself!!!!  Then she showed me how to move forward in the water using the movement of my arms and legs, but somehow, no matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t move forward because……I kept swimming backwards, which of course, elicited various comments about the ‘backward’ Irish.  The following week when we returned to the pool I didn’t want to get in as I was absolutely convinced the water level of the pool was higher than previously.  This time, when I did get in the water I learnt the rudiments of keeping afloat and moving about in the water without totally disgracing myself.

Soon after we travelled to Algeria and I couldn’t wait to try out my new swimming skills only to find that swimming in the sea was a whole new ball game.  I insisted on putting on adult arm bands, to which my husband strongly objected on the grounds that I was probably the only adult on the whole coastline between Tunisia and Morroco that was wearing them.  I told him he was just thinking of the insurance payout he would receive if I drowned, to which he replied that it would cost him the whole amount to ship my body back to England!  Who said romance is dead.  Eventually I took my courage in my hands and went into the sea without the arm bands and gained some confidence.

I didn’t swim again in the sea after I became Muslim until we had been living in Algeria a few years and we went to a beach that was very stony and the sea was rough, not a good combination for an inept swimmer like myself.  I had lost any little confidence in my swimming ability and when I couldn’t keep my balance on the sea bed I clung to my eldest daughter’s arm for dear life, until she told me, in no uncertain terms, that she didn’t want to lose permanent use of her limb.  It didn’t help that I was weak from laughing.

Where the boys go swimming

Now I love going into the sea, but only when the sea is not too rough, because many is the time when I found myself, despite all my best efforts, being carried down along the beach, with my husband standing on the beach beckoning me to come back….as if I had any choice in the matter.  Once or twice I had to ask him to come in and get me because, no matter how I tried, I just could not move back up the beach, and of course, it didn’t help matters much that I was laughing my head off.  But in he came and brought me back up along the sea bed and acted as my anchor while I swam…..much the same as he does in life may Allah bless him.

Another place the boys love to swim
All of my children swim like fish Allahibarek, and the two youngest spent the summer in the sea.  They went off with their friends to a place where it is so rocky that only boys and men go to swim as there is no opportunity for gently walking slowly into the sea until you get accustomed to it which is the way most women like to get into the sea, but instead they have to dive straight in from rocks.  My youngest son spent most of his summer fishing for octopus….with a spear.  Throughout the summer he caught about 40 kilos and sold it all to our neighbour next door whose son has a restaurant, so I was very grateful that I didn’t have to cringe every time he returned with his catch. 

Saturday, 28 January 2017

It never rains but it pours

Bouira, Algeria
It never rains but it pours

And this is never more so than when it comes to the weather in Algeria.  The country just doesn’t ‘do’ weather by halves.  In the summer it gets so hot that the sun is splitting the stones (an Irish expression, what else), and in the winter it rains, and rains and rains and then….it rains some more.  My husband tried to warn me about the rain in Algeria, but I got on my Irish ‘high horse’ and informed him that being Irish I knew all there was to know about rain.  After all we have different names for the different types of rain in Ireland, from just the fog and mist induced damp in the air (referred to as a ‘soft’ day), through to ‘spitting’ rain where you don’t know whether to go back inside and cancel the day or be optimistic and go forth in the hope that it comes to nothing.  And then there’s the ‘rotten’ rain, the name of which actually refers to how it makes you feel rather than any description of the rain itself, and where you have no excuse not to go out in it as you can use an umbrella, but…..some part of you will still probably get wet anyway. But the rest of Irish terminology for rain best describes Algerian rain whether it’s actually pelting, lashing, hammering or bucketing down, each term stronger than the last.  It literally feels as if the heavens open and all the water in the universe comes lashing down all at the same time.  Of course they have lighter rain, and they have showery days where you can go out and about in between the showers, but on those days when it really takes itself seriously the rain is quite awe inspiring mashallah. 

I’m a sun person – I love the heat and feel energised by the heat and the light of the sun, which means I’m not a particularly rain person.  However I do appreciate it, particularly here in Algeria where the country desperately needs the water to increase the levels in the water reservoirs especially for the dry hot summers, for the crops in the fields, and it does clean away most of the dirt and rubbish (when it’s not overflowing the drains and leaving a mud surface behind).  Above and beyond all that,  I love the rain because it is one of those special times when a dua (supplication) is more likely to be answered by Allah.  And I love the rain on a day when none of my family need to go out in it, I love the fact that we are all snug and warm and dry inside together.  I also love the rain in Algeria because I know it will stop…..sometime, and that when it does the sun will come out again, and the world will cheer up again, and my get-up-and-go will return again (as opposed to the winters in England and Ireland where I felt that my get-up-and-go had got up and gone…..forever).

A lot of Algerians love the winter because they feel more inclined to do things without the oppression of the heat of the summer and I can agree with this.  My problem is that once the day is grey and overcast my brain just goes into hibernation mode and I want to do nothing more than sit on the sofa with a hot drink and a book and just not even THINK.  It takes such an effort of will to ignore this inclination and force myself to get up and DO something, but whenever I do, of course, I always feel so much better and the day seems so much brighter.

I do love the variety of weather here in Algeria though – I love the fact that the heat of the summer very, very gradually turns to mild autumn and then cold winter, back to cool spring rushing back into hot summer.  The weather doesn’t really get cool here until the end of October and it doesn’t really get very cold here until January, although the cold here, where I live in Algiers can not be compared to the cold in England where I used to get a pain between my shoulder blades from hunching my shoulders against the biting cold.  There are areas in Algeria that are snowed under every year and people flock to these areas during the weekends for the novelty of playing in the snow.

The end of our street

It has rained a lot these past few weeks in Algeria Alhamdullilah, and I am sincerely glad as the past year or two we haven’t had as much rain.  We live in what used to be a marsh area, near the sea and when it the rain comes bucketing down a lot of the streets around our house become flooded and the drains have to be opened.  The street on which we live is a cul-de-sac with the sea at the end of the road and when it rains we feel like we’re living on an island as the road at the other end of the street becomes flooded.  I was out driving in the middle of it during the week and in a matter of hours the streets that I had previously driven through had become small rivers and it can be quite frightening when you’re driving through especially if you don’t know the road well and you don’t know if there’s a big hole in the road where you could get stuck.  It’s always a reassurance when you watch other cars driving through first, but it still can be heart-stopping to see the water flowing in waves around the car as you drive through it.  My son and I noticed that there were men in hazard striped jackets beside the most flooded areas to help people navigate the water and, where necessary, carry children over the water to their homes.

A street in our neighbourhood

In most countries, when the wet weather comes in, people dress appropriately.  In Algeria, if you’re not going to work or school and the weather is wet, then you fold up your trouser legs or haik up your hijab and walk through the water barefoot in flip-flops – it’s the only way to go!

Driving in our neighbourhood at the moment