Thursday, January 26, 2012

Nabeel's Funeral

January 15, 2012:
I have spent the six days since I arrived back in Arrabeh in sad and dreary nonstop social formalities. I arrived at the height of the cold and rainy Galilee winter to be directly drafted to the receiving line of family elders accepting the condolences of people, many I had never met or seen before, on the occasion of the death of my 51-year-old nephew and namesake, the son of my younger sister who was born shortly after I left the first time to study in the USA. In fact part of the rationale for this three-week-long home visit, a break in my academic year At the Writers’ Institute of CUNY, was to see Hatim before his expected death from Renal Cancer against which he had battled for the past three years. At every step of his losing battle he had enlisted my mainly moral and psychological support against his awful disease. He knew I had retired from active medical practice but, like other members of my extended family, he sought my opinion and reassurance regarding what the oft-impersonal modern medical care system dished out for him. “Thank you uncle. Visiting you gives me encouragement to go on,” he would tell me at the end of each visit, usually accompanied by his ever-smiling properly hijab-clad wife and their toddler first grandchild.

Four months ago I left to join my daughter’s family in New York for the current academic year as a fellow of the Writer’s Institute of CUNY in the fiction track. I thought it would be nice to escape from the maddening buzz of New York’s life back to the quiet of my garden in the vain conviction that it was certain to need my special attention. We had collected seeds of wild flowers last summer and I wanted to spread them myself in the right places in the garden once I had turned the weeds over. So far it has rained daily and I have had no chance to work the ground. And I had counted on seeing my friend and namesake before his departure. He died and was buried 24 hours before I arrived. After all, giving the dead a proper burial is the honorable thing to do, the sooner the better according to local tradition. After three days of receiving people who came to pay their respects I was all set to visit with other family members and friends.

I started with my late second brother’s household. A niece prepared coffee and another updated me on family news while I teased a couple of her children playing a game on an electronic gadget. Suddenly her melodramatic husband barged in and, skipping the proper greetings, shouted that Nabeel died in a car accident. Everyone started inquiring, shouting, cussing and running confused in disbelief.

“Who told you?” I asked.

“Mohammad, my son. A friend called him.”

I called the friend. He confirmed the news and explained that Nabeel was his friend and that an hour earlier he identified Nabeel's body lying on the side of the road by the totaled car half way down the road to Acre, not far from the water reservoir. There was no doubt about it; Nabeel, my 19-year-old grandnephew and favorite gardening helper, son of Rudaina, my favorite nurse, orphaned youngest child of my late nephew, grandson of my favorite late brother, had died.

I got in my car and drove the half-mile to Rudaina’s house but no one was home. I called her mobile but it was out of range. Accompanied by another nephew I met on the way who had also heard the news I headed back to my brother’s family home, the home in which I grew up as a child right next to al-Zawieh, the Kanaaneh clan guest house, fronted by a small space that once was the village’s main square but now is the conversion point of four different paved village alleys. We arrived to a scene of total confusion: A crowd of all ages and from all parts of the village had gathered in the tiny space blocking the homeward traffic of laborers returning from the city and of Nabeel’s age mates driving up to verify the rumor regarding their friend. I left my car running and went up to the second floor of my late brother’s compound where a confused Rudaina was begging to get any information about her son. I held her to my chest and said:
“Nabeel was in a car accident. His condition is serious. Come with me to the hospital. We will find out what exactly happened.”

“No! Uncle! Please God, let me see Nabeel alive!”

Of course, that was not to be. I played for time and gave Rudaina a valium. As we got in the car another cousin of Nabeel’s, the deputy mayor of the village, stuck his head in and said in an officious tone of voice:
“I just spoke to the police officer at the scene. Nabeel died and his body is at Naharya Hospital. No sense in going there. I will bring the body in the morning.”

I turned the motor off, helped Rudaina out of the car and back into the house, pushing my way through the crowd of screaming women and children relatives and their doting and supportive men repeating the Islamic mantra of “God is great. There is no power but God’s.” As we climbed the stairs to the second story living room, the gathered aunts, uncles and cousins realized the absolute certainty of the news. An ear-splitting cacophony of shrieking women, men and children shouting Nabeel’s name nearly caused me to faint. I managed to hold steady with Rudaina leaning on my shoulder and whispering her son’s name: “Nabeel! My beloved son!”

A while later I managed to leave her in the care of a fellow nurse, her trustworthy neighbor and friend, and to leave the womenfolk to assume my expected role as the elder member of the bereaved household. By the time I entered el-Zawieh more than one brass decanter full of thick black coffee had materialized in the brazier in front of my cousin Derwish, the diwan’s chief attendant. The strong coffee is the final outcome of days-long slow concentrating process on low fire of the magic potion most respected old men in the village occupy themselves with preparing and intermittently tasting till it reaches the desired thickness and mature flavor. Kanaaneh practitioners of the art who had heard of the death of Nabeel must have sent their coffee in anticipation of its possible shortage with so many visitors, both men and women. Other neighbors had sent bags of wood coal for the coffee brassiere that will be kept burning for the next three days, cartons of mineral water and boxes of dried dates, the other obligatory items in receiving of will-wishers who had already started arriving to pay their respects.

Shortly, several bearded young men arrived in a pick-up truck with hundreds of plastic chairs, a tent, two gas space heaters and two projector-style electric lights and proceeded to prepare an additional receiving space to el-Zawieh for the womenfolk. I enquired who in the family had the presence of mind to request their services and was told that this was done automatically and offered gratis by the village’s Islamic Movement. The portly ex-mayor of the village, a former teacher of Nabeel and member of the Islamic Movement who specializes in the sordid but required task of washing the dead, arrived and offered a few consoling Koranic verses. He then left to the mosque for the after dusk prayer, the fifth and last prayer of the day, after which he announced Nabeel’s death on the mosque’s loudspeaker:
“The young man, Nabeel the son of the late Khaled Ahmad Abdul-Kader Kanaaneh has departed to the mercies of God the Almighty. His remains will be entrusted to their last resting place tomorrow after the noon prayer. We all are from God and to him we all return.”
Across the ancient thick walls of el-Zawieh where we, the men of the family, sat I heard the shrieking cries of Rudaina and her two daughters from the receiving area for women next door. It touched something very deep in me. Alas, men are not supposed to cry or scream openly; I played by the rules hiding my silent tears with my Kafeyah scarf. By ten o’clock that night the crowd had dispersed. I begged Rudaina to accept a Valium tablet or a sleeping pill but she refused. After much convincing and explaining she and her three remaining children accepted Melatonin.


Over the next three days I alternated between fulfilling my traditional duty as an elder among elders of the clan and offering my shoulder to Rudaina, her son Ahmad, her two daughters: Laila, a teacher, and Muna, a nursing student, to act out their loss in tears and repeated objection to whoever decreed it. Nabeel’s aunts and uncles on both sides, his many cousins, friends and classmates were left for others to console. With my older brother, Prof. Sharif Kanaaneh, in attendance, I was relegated to the rank of second in command in terms of formalities. But because I am a resident of the village, despite my temporary absence in NY, while he lives in Ramallah, and because of my professional association with Rudaina over the years, I was the one to bear the brunt of tending to the practical minutia: the police and traffic department reports, the hospital papers, the burial permit, etc. etc. When I learned of the passing away two days before of a respected old farmer from another clan in Arrabeh, I accompanied a calling party of Kanaaneh respectable elders to the mourning family, the Yasins, who would make a return visit to our quarters that same evening. Two days later, similar visits of a dozen elders from each side would be exchanged with the Aslis who would loose a middle-aged laborer to heart attack.

In playing my role and fulfilling these duties I was aided by many nephews, cousins and neighbors who stood at my beck and call, not to mention relatives and friends from half a dozen Arab communities in Galilee who were more than ready with their advice and counsel as well as cars and muscle power when needed for a chore. Such volunteerism reached its peak when the body arrived as scheduled, one hour before the noon prayer, in the special Islamic Movement’s hearse, the service with the special driver again provided gratis without being requested by the family. The waiting crowd of men swooped down from all directions to help with the highly commendable task of carrying the body in the temporary casket into the house where the heart-rending screams of the women reached to high heaven. After half an hour I had to use my authority to snatch the body from the grieving crowd of women and let it be carried upstairs to a room where it was washed, perfumed and anointed and a proper ablution performed on it in preparation for it to enter the mosque and, after the prayer for the departed and the burial, to meet its creator and His accountant angels who would tally up Nabeel’s few minor sins and many good deeds. It was then wrapped in stitch-less white cloth and placed in the casket to be carried for its last trip. I then asked Nabeel’s brother to assist me in taking his mother and two sisters to kiss Nabeel a last goodbye. I figured that assigning him this task would lighten his burden of sadness and bereavement.

As I walked down to bring Rudaina and her two daughters, two teenage boys begged me to permit them to go in and cast a last glance at their friend. When I agreed the asked to be accompanied by a third classmate, Nabeel’s girl. I was awestruck. What will that do to the girls reputation in the village? I recalled that I was attacked and narrowly escaped being knifed because a girl in my high school class laughed at my jokes. And more recently, both of my children finished high school without ever admitting to having specific friends of the opposite sex. And it is only two generations from the days when the only men a woman could talk to were her husband, father and brothers. The boys saw through my anxiety and sought to reassure me.

“It is alright, uncle. They are together on Facebook.”

I went down and found the girl crying in Rudaina’s arms. I took her in one arm and Rudaina on the other, Ahmad held Mona, his younger sister, while her fianc√©, a Christian boy, supported Laila. I knew I was outdated. What amazed me most was the total silent acceptance of all of these ‘transgressions’ by the crowd of mostly hijab-clad women surrounding us.

The rain let up just long enough for the funeral procession from the mosque to the Kanaaneh cemetery on a rocky knoll best known as the sight of the grave of a holy man, formerly well-respected locally until recent years when it was monopolized and walled off to locals by Jewish fundamentalists as that of Rabbi Hanan Ben Dosa. Because of crowding Nabeel was buried at the same site with his late father who died in his forties because of diabetes. I have never seen a bigger crowd at a funeral in Arrabeh. Nabeel’s popularity with his age mates, his mother’s years of service as the maternal and child health nurse for the largest, and, not incidentally, the poorest neighborhood in the village, his aunts’ services as nurse and teacher, his brother Ahmad’s rapid climb to the deputy CEO of the largest Arab transport and tourism company in Israel, his late father’s and grandfather’s well respected memory and wide circles of friends, and perhaps my own service as the first local physician added up to where they made attendance near compulsory to all the adult male population of this 24-thousand-strong town still behaving in the classic intimate village mode. I stayed away from the actual lowering of Nabeel’s body in the ground. Instead, I turned my attention to observing the ongoing social interaction. It dawned on me for the first time that the whole process involved men only even if the dead were to be a woman. Come to think of it, Allah Himself and all of his prophets since Adam, as well as all His angels, are always referred to in the masculine form. Strange visions floated up from my subconscious regarding the inappropriateness of male angels squeezing into the subterranean narrow spaces of dead women. I dared not raise the question with the better-informed sheikhs.

After the lowering of the body in the ground and the religious invocation, the Kanaaneh elders stood in a receiving line in the street outside the cemetery and accepted the condolences of participants from outside Arrabeh. The inclement weather led to excusing locals from the traditional gesture of paying their respects right after the burial.

“We will be honored to see all of you at el-Zawieh,” the cousin heading the line announced apologetically. “We know you will honor us with that so we can skip the additional kindness here.”

Indeed, we then returned to the clan’s guesthouse to welcome men visitors all the waking hours of the next three days. They arrived mostly in groups of family constellations or friends from all over Galilee and beyond. Few independent or lonely souls arrived alone such as Yoav, a longtime dear family friend from Tel-Aviv. Though he was the only Jewish man to call on this sad occasion, he felt close enough to join the receiving line as another member of our family. Our near total social separateness from the majority population of Israel was not as total when it came to women. Female visitors were received separately next door in the much-overhauled old house in which I grew up that had since devolved down the inheritance line to Nabeel’s paternal uncle, my nephew, as the ground floor of his nuclear family residence. Rudaina’s nurse colleagues from the Ministry of Health, both Arab and Jewish, showed up in a group to console her. Shosh, one of my former secretaries at the ministry’s district office dared to drive up alone later on and insisted on seeing me. Simona, Her friend and my personal French-Moroccan secretary, had already retired, I was informed. I was pleasantly surprised to find Shosh still her old blond sweet self despite the years. Her boys are both in their thirties now, she told me. And the office never recovered from the loss I inflicted on it by leaving it, she insisted.

The single large room that constitutes el-Zawieh was empty of furniture except for a wood-coal-burning brassiere functioning as space heater and to keep the coffee decanters hot and a small table with a set of damascene demitasses. The perimeter of the hall had built-in seating with thin mattresses along three walls. We, half-a-dozen older men from the bereaved clan, sat on chairs against the remaining wall by the entrance. Additional seating for the human overflow beyond the capacity of el-Zawieh was provided at the balcony that had been protected from the elements by plastic sheeting provided by the local Islamic Movement and heated by a space heater from the same source. All visitors on this sad occasion were accorded the same level of proper respect and attention: We stood up to exchange individual greetings and standard niceties and epitaphs, conveyer-belt one-on-one style, before they took their seats around the perimeters of the room. Young adult men of our family promptly poured each a sip of the extra-concentrated, cardamom-flavored black coffee. Two concessions to modern public health were in evidence: Water was offered instead of cigarettes and it was poured in plastic single-use cups and not in the same metal or glass mug being passed around as was formerly done. However, the black coffee was offered in only two porcelain cups offered in alternating style down the line. Dried dates followed, but this is a practice frowned at by many and not sanctioned by most religious authorities except in the case of old people who had done the Haj to Mecca. On more than one occasion I managed to keep awake by performing simple statistical analysis on the 3-4-dozen men sitting around the circumference of the room at a time: No more than 10% wore traditional attire; about half smoked cigarettes at a time; the other half busied themselves with their worry beads; and half of the total were visibly obese. As a new wave of well-wishers arrived, the previous crowd would get up and proceed to shake our hands in reverse order and repeat the same slogan utterances on their way out:
“May God have mercy on his soul.”
“May this be your last sad occasion.”
“May God protect your youth.” Etc. etc.
And we responded with equally standard appropriate responses:
“May Allah repay you for your consolation.”
“May you never experience the loss of dear ones.”
“May you and your youth live long.”

And so on and so forth with the only break in the near mechanical three-day-long repetitive sequence of getting up, shaking hands, siting down and starting over again afforded by invitations to the homes of second degree relatives for our meals. The same households sent large amounts of food for the women of the bereaved household: fresh bread, rice with roasted pine nuts and spiced ground meat, lamb or chicken cooked in yogurt with vegetables and beans, various combinations of salads, pickles and preserved olives. Sleep was a welcome escape from it all followed by early morning Skype conversations with my wife, children and grandchildren in The States.

On the facing wall from our seats in el-Zawieh the enlarged photograph of my late uncle who, in his British Mandate days had brought the guesthouse into prominence regionally, peered at us from its wooden frame. On both sides hung the photos of his deceased sons and grandsons who had occupied respected positions in the family constellation. My grandfather, the original founder of the institution who had guaranteed its survival with a generous land endowment, lived during the days of the Ottomans when photography was highly uncommon in these parts. This all was recent, I realized. So were the whitewashing of the walls and the four decorative plastic panels affixed to the ceiling. I appreciated the attention paid to maintaining this traditional communal space in use. Except that the panels looked out of place; they had a French Renaissance pink curlicue flare to their stylized flowery motif. I inquired about this and was told that Derwish, the current titular operator of the guesthouse had refurbished it recently to his own taste. He had wrestled control of the prestigious institution when its former more traditional occupant, triply his cousin, passed away. An alert young relative reached to the wall and took down a framed hand-written document hanging there as well. He wiped the dust from the glass and proceeded to read the Arabic language consensus statement of representatives of all the individual households of the descendants of my late influential uncle, Darwish’s domineering grandfather that he tries now to emulate. The statement was replete with claims of peaceful family relations, brotherhood and tranquility. Then the young man showed me another larger document in cursive Arabic script, the message the Caliph Omar sent to reassure the Christian residents of Jerusalem before its Islamic conquest. It is a most honorable document promising peace, equality and justice. Its humanitarian spirit is worthy of admiration and respect not by Arabs and Muslims alone. I felt moved by the fact that the simple folk in my village saw fit to honor this example of magnanimity and justice by posting it at their most prominent and respected communal public space in the same manner that most Muslims honor their scriptures. The young man pointed to the four signatures of prominent Islamic leaders affixed to the document as witnesses to Omar’s declaration. Only then did he show me the signatures of the witnesses to the local smaller handwritten document, all of whom are run-of-the-mill members of the younger generation of relatives and the last of whom had signed his name in poorly written Hebrew.

“The two documents are hung together,” he commented.

I couldn’t help but surrender to a most inappropriate chuckle, given the sad circumstances.

This kind of lighthearted fun-poking chat with members of the younger generations beyond the first circle of nephews and nieces provided a sort of soft underbelly to the sad occasion of Nabeel’s departure. In fact, his loss has brought members of the two formerly closest households to me in Arrabeh, those of my two late oldest brothers who were married to two sister cousins of theirs, each bringing up nine children and those in turn having their own children, including Nabeel, and, in several cases, their grandchildren. As expected, competing for the scant attention from adult family members in the less than attentive rural setting has resulted in continuous friction between the two near identical households with competing and contradictory land claims, nearly a reenactment on a small scale of the Israel-Palestine conflict. Much as I tried to stay out of it and play the role of the impartial third party, I was eventually drawn into the fray. The last few days have seen members of the two parties back together till the next conflict. I wondered if I shouldn’t try my hand at resolving the Middle East conflict. Or would it need a major disaster first?

A much more tender affair was also noticed on this sad occasion: Laila’s Christian fianc√© didn’t leave her side throughout the mourning period. The two clung together from the moment the news of the passing away of her brother, Nabeel, had reached them in Jerusalem. Rabi’i proved to be supportive and ever attentive and helpful to Laila’s and to her mother and two siblings. Their love and sincerity showed through the sadness and the confusion. They did away with all caution and no one dared criticize their open loving relationship despite the gloomy miasma of conservatism and religious fundamentalism all around. Few in our family failed to notice and to appreciate this open show of commitment of the two young people across the presumed religious barrier.

In the receiving line at the cemetery as well as later while receiving the droves of well-wishers in el-Zawieh, my anthropologist brother, Sharif, inquired frequently about the identities of fellow villagers. My residence in the area and service as local physician afforded me more contact with Galilee folks than him. At one point, during a meal break, Sharif remarked about the effect of advanced age on our former schoolmates and friends:
“It is peculiar how deleterious age is esthetically to humans,” he, the social scientist, observed. “No other animal species suffers from bad looks in old age as much as we humans do. Dogs, cats, donkeys and fowl don’t deteriorate in outward appearances as badly as we humans do.”

“It is because you look at them with human eyes,” answered our carpenter cousin who is the oldest living man in our clan and hence leads the pack of Kanaaneh elders. “If you were a donkey all humans, young and old, would look the same to you. As an old turkey you probably would notice the change in the plumage and crowns of other turkeys.”

One interesting aspect of the above standard socio-religious stage-like routine acted out by all concerned on the funerary occasion is the self-assigned role played by the many Muslim sheiks and aspirant imams. Like other guests, they show up uninvited, usually accompanied by a small entourage of disciples and followers. After exchanging the standard greetings and sipping their black coffee, they would call all those present to attention with a catchy prayer and then proceed to deliver a sermon addressed mainly to us, members of the bereaved family. They would advise us to accept what fate had decreed and not to loose faith in Allah’s mercies. Then they would turn to reassuring us of Nabeel’s guaranteed place in paradise, given his Islamic faith, his youth and innocence, and his many good deeds and knowing the good Lord’s boundless forgiveness and love for all those He created in His own image. Then they would delve into warning the living regarding the certainty of death and the darkness of the grave except for those who had lived a virtuous life and performed their religious duties. Each of these points was usually highlighted and illustrated by a story. Then they would end with a sequence of prayers asking the good Lord to favor Nabeel with His blessings and favorable treatment. Some of the favors requested give away their Arabian Desert origin such as asking Allah to bathe his body with hail and snow.

The lectures varied in creativity, eloquence and width of horizons but they often repeated the same illustrative stories. What I found entertaining was hearing the very same content, phrased slightly differently by the young Catholic priest from the neighboring village of Sakhnin. And he was respectfully answered with the same platitudes from our side. Only one sheik with a bell-like baritone voice departed from the routine by singing verses from the Koran that covered all the usual points. I enjoyed his melodious performance so much that I asked him to return on the third and last evening to recite more Koranic verses to celebrate the end of the mourning and guest-receiving period in place of the standard final sermon by a local imam. Alas, another talkative sheik arrived with him and forced us all to listen to a repeat of the same well-worn religious lesson. All of this was beamed to the women quarters next door over a loudspeaker. They had their own share of women lecturers, sheikahs, but the pious male Koran reciters would not enter their circle live.

One oft-repeated story caught my fancy. I must have heard it a dozen or more times during the three day mourning period as part of the captive audience for the sheiks. It related an incident that allegedly took place in the court of King Solomon who is regarded by Muslims as a miracle-performing prophet of Allah. One day the angel of death entered King Solomon’s court in the form of a regular human. Later, as the angel in human form left, one of those present wanted to know who he was? King Solomon informed him of his true identity. The man broke down and cried in fear:
”Woe is me! The angel of death didn’t avert his eyes from me for a single moment. Please, King Solomon, save me from him!”

King Solomon accepted the poor man’s plea and, on the spot, transported him to hide all the way in India. The next morning the angel of death appeared in the prophet’s court again. The prophet asked why he, the angel in human form, had looked so intently at that poor man the previous day.

“I was trying to resolve a conundrum: My orders from the good Lord were to proceed to India to collect the man’s soul last night. And yet he was sitting here at your court. Finally, confused, I obeyed and proceeded to India where, lo and behold, I met my man right there. God is great!”

“Brothers,” the sheik who narrated the same story to bring the three days of public mourning to an official end glowered at us in el-Zawieh. “There is no escaping from death.”

“May God preserve your tongue,” a macho older cousin responded in agreement on our collective behalf. “The Arab poet put it well: ‘He who doesn’t die by the sword dies by other means.’”

A smile lit the face of the young man next to me.

“Where is the pun?” I demanded.

“What threatening belligerence!” he whispered back. “The poet said that line urging his fellow tribesmen to go to war. I guess the sheiks have repeated that story one time too many for our man.”