Wednesday, February 24, 2016

Sand Opera Lenten Journey Day 15: Muslim Burial (Standard Operating Procedure) + Huda Al-Marashi

Sand Opera Lenten Journey Day 15

Heed me, O LORD,
and listen to what my adversaries say.
Must good be repaid with evil
that they should dig a pit to take my life?
Remember that I stood before you
to speak in their behalf,
to turn away your wrath from them.
--Jeremiah 18: 18-20

"Muslim Burial (Standard Operating Procedure)"
from Sand Opera:

One of the odder moments in reading Guantanamo Prison S.O.P. manual was discovering a rather elaborate protocol for burying a dead detainee, including a diagram for how the burial should look. It turns out that this rather-elaborate forethought has been necessary. Nine detainees have died while in prison. And seven years after Barack Obama promised to close the prison, it still remains open, thanks to a recalcitrant Congress and political posturing and fear-mongering. Just yesterday, President Obama unveiled a plan to close the prison, saying, “It is viewed as a stain on our broader record of upholding the highest standards of rule of law,” Mr. Obama said. “This is about closing a chapter in our history.” It is not viewed as a stain. It is a stain. The Bush Administration created a prison outside of the jurisdiction of U.S. law in order to do whatever they wanted to do. That is a stain.

While those final detainees continue to rot in prison, Iraqi exiles in the United States are also confronting the fact that many of them may never go back to Iraq. Huda Al-Marashi’s poignant op-ed below describes the experience burying her grandfather in California, keeping the customs but far from her grandfather’s native place.

“After exile, Iraqi immigrants must learn to grieve at a distance” by Huda Al-Marashi, first published in the Los Angeles Times

My uncles wanted to accompany my grandfather's body back to Iraq, but my mother refused. It was 2006, and the insurgency was at its height. “Isn't it enough that I am burying my father?” she said. “Do I have extra brothers to lose?”

We buried my grandfather in the Muslim portion of a sprawling, green-lawned cemetery about an hour from my parents' Monterey home. Because of state regulations, his shrouded body was placed inside a plain wooden box, not directly in the ground as Islamic custom requires.

His children on the East Coast and in Britain came for the funeral. His children in the United Arab Emirates mourned their father in place and held satellite memorials.

Only when I put a loved one in the ground did I feel as if I was putting down roots.

Despite the long drive, we visited my grandfather's grave site regularly, loading up our car with picnic lunches. We'd spread blankets, pray, eat and dote on his grave. Once my mother spilled a bit of coffee onto the dry soil, as if giving her father a sip of his favorite drink, and I marveled at this unexpected thing that had happened: Someone from my household was buried in America, the place that seemed like an accident, the place where my father landed after completing his medical training, the place my mother brought her parents to escape Saddam Hussein's Iraq.

I was born in this country. I was raised in this country. I went to school in this country, own a home in this country and have children in this country. But only when I put a loved one in the ground did I feel as if I was putting down roots.

My mother's sister was among those who didn't attend my grandfather's funeral. But a few weeks before he died, she came to visit from the UAE. When she left, she kissed him in his wheelchair and walked backward to the car, waving and blowing him kisses, only to race back to his side. She did this three more times until we were all standing in the foyer of my mother's house laughing and crying.

Seven months ago, she died of cancer. I didn't see her once while she was in the hospital. I didn't hold her hand. I didn't kiss her goodbye. I have not seen her grave.

I didn't make the trip because I'd recently taken my family of five to attend her son's wedding. It was too much for us all to go again and too difficult for me to go alone and leave my children behind. Such decisions are inevitable when your entire relationship with your extended family hinges on airfare.

When the cancer spread to my aunt's brain, my mother rushed from California to her sister's bedside, where she stayed until she had no choice but to return for work. She cried the whole way back. At the airport, her eyes were red and swollen, her cheeks rubbed raw with tissues.

I found out my aunt was in her final moments when my mother dashed into the hallway with a wild look in her eyes, her cellphone in hand. “She's dying,” she said.

For the next 30 minutes, she watched frantic texts fly back and forth. “Come now!” the caregiver wrote to my aunt's children, who'd not yet arrived at the hospital. The last text came: “No more Madame.” My mother repeated this line again and again and collapsed to the floor.

After my aunt died, I made a list of all the times I'd seen her. She came to California when I moved into my dorm room my second year of college, when I picked out my wedding dress, for my wedding, to meet my first and then second child. I had these stand-alone chapters, 15 of them, to be exact, that I desperately wanted to stitch together into some kind of a story, some semblance of a shared life.

I typed her name into my email search bar. There were six messages from me along with her replies. I printed out every exchange, wondering why I didn't send more, say more. I looked through my old cards and letters and found a note from her from before my wedding that I stuffed into my wallet.

I had not appreciated the particular pain of unanchored, disembodied grief that my aunt must have felt when my grandfather died until she passed away, too.

Now it was our turn to host the satellite memorials. We held two: one for the Iraqi immigrants in Northern California, and one for the Iraqi immigrants in Southern California.

We wept without a body, without a grave site to focus our attention. The women in our community, the ones I grew up calling “aunty,” consoled me, bemoaning the loss of the real aunt with whom I had shared blood but not place or time.

These days I listen to the clamor about refugees, and I think of my grandfather's death and my aunt's death and just how far the grasp of exile extends, how many people it ensnares, how deeply it cuts. I think about the desperation that forces people to accept the vulnerability of living in a foreign land, and I cannot comprehend begrudging another human being such an unenviable lot in life.

The initial exile is just the beginning of generations of heartbreak.

Diaspora means weighing visits against airfare and daily obligations. It means missing out on births, graduations and weddings. It means hearing that a loved one has died and knowing that you spent your short time on Earth in different places.

Huda Al-Marashi is an Iraqi-American at work on a memoir about the impact of her dual-identity on her marriage. Excerpts from this memoir have appeared in the anthologies Love Inshallah: The Secret Love Lives of Muslim American Women, Becoming: What Makes a Woman, In Her Place, and Beyond Belief: The Secret Lives of Women and Extreme Religion, a collection that the Washington Post listed among the best nonfiction for 2013. Other works have appeared in The Rumpus Funny Women Column and the anthology Rust Belt Chic. Her poem, “TV Terror,” is part of a touring exhibit commemorating the Mutanabbi Street Bombing in Baghdad. She is the recipient of a 2012 Cuyahoga County Creative Workforce Fellowship and a 2015 Aspen Summer Words Emerging Writer Fellowship.

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