23 February 2018

Crying for Omar

(Pencil drawing by Jred93Mugen - http://imgur.com/user/jred93mugen)

(Pencil drawing by Jred93Mugen – http://imgur.com/user/jred93mugen)

I’ll never forget that image of my grandmother rolling on the floor. Her hair and gown turning a depressing shade of beige from the dust she picked up off the ground.  It was as though she was dancing to the music of the piercing shrieks and wails of the women that encircled her. Like a whirling dervish in a spiritual trance, she closed her eyes and turned round and round.

“Amna!” someone would alert her from time to time. Particularly devout relatives would pick her up from the ground, throw cold water at her face and advise her to repent. She was committing a grave sin; emulating the ways women of pre-Islamic Arabia grieved their dead. Yet most chose to turn a blind eye to this during my uncle’s funeral. She was a mother who lost a son and everyone understood her excruciating pain. ‘Amna hashamahroug’[1] they would mutter, a sickening yet accurate description.

My uncle Omar was pursuing postgraduate studies in the United States. He was an ambitious young man, and Sudan did not offer much for him, so he left his beloved Omdurman and opened his jaw wide open for a good bite at the Big Apple. But he died only a few days before he was due to come home. A few days before his long and alienating years in America would draw to a close. A bare branch on the family tree, Omar never married or had children.

I was only five years old when my uncle died and his funeral was the first one I had ever seen, as I was living with my maternal grandparents at the time. I curiously watched as hundreds of women put their head to my grandmother’s, pinched her shoulder and let out dramatic wails into her ear. Family travelled from all over the country; the majority stayed the obligatory three days and if particularly indebted, seven.

I mostly waited by the door, waiting for another theatrical arrival. Heavy women with soprano voices sang poetic descriptions of the deceased punctuated by sobs; Yahlelakyaalhaneen.. yahlelakyaaladeel.. yahalelakyaomarrr[2]But I was intrigued by the women yelling awful hyperbolic curses at themselves –  yetrishni![3]– they would repeat. Years later, I’ve come to learn that being late to funerals was one of the greatest social faux pas in Sudanese society and the only valid excuse is having not heard of the death.

So my aunts carefully made mental notes of who came late. They also watched very closely for any lapses in behavior; the guests that wore bright colors, drank juice or wore Kohl. Most were unintentional yet some weren’t; like that one relative who left an insulting fragrant trail of henna and burnt sandalwood aromas upon her arrival. Her seemingly cryptic behavior sent the clearest message to our family. Everyone understood this was just another score in an endless game of tit for tat.

After the rituals of the funeral’s fortieth day were over, our house slowly became empty. This quasi-solitude drove my grandmother into an intense period of mourning. One day, a neighbor came to visit my grandmother. In a dream, Omar asked her to present my grandmother with a glow in the dark sibha[4]. He said that at night, the luminous greenish beads would distract his now insomniac mother from thoughts of him and would inspire her to remember Allah instead. She then placed the sibha in question, with its pistachio colored string, into my grandmother’s palm. My grandmother never doubted the woman’s story because no one knew about her recent sleeplessness.

During my last visit to Sudan, I noticed dents on the hard plastic beads of that Sibha in the shape of my grandmother’s forefinger and thumb.


[1] Burnt gut

[2] How we miss you the kind one, the just one, how we miss you Omar

[3] May I become deaf

[4] Prayer beads; rosary

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