By Ali Ege Duale, Toronto
I have not been a frequent participant in funeral ceremonies, as many of my friends know, but this one in Toronto, oct 1st, 2017, was particularly paramount. A family friend and a dear mother, Mrs Anab farah Jabali, has passed away recently after a long battle with cancer. I went there to condole and comfort the bereaved family. I also went there to meet family and friends whom I rarely get the opportunity to visit and who I anticipated would congregate at the funeral location. Living in Etobicoke at the west end of the city, whilst most reside in Scarborough, I had found it quite arduous to traverse the distant two hour drive through the maze of high way traffic to their place of abode. This was an opportune moment to avoid that. What pushed me to write this acclamation is the contrast of Muslim burial rituals, back at home and here, that I observed in addition to other oddities that I encountered during the burial ceremony coupled to that of my making tribute to the remarkable lady cousin whose death I wish to commemorate.
The Mosque was located at the East and as I have noted was difficult for me to reach. The burial site was located in the west at Jane and Steeles at an elaborate location off Jane. We entered the cemetery grounds and went around in search of the graveyard, having arrived there before the funeral procession. There were Jamaicans in one location, Chinese in another and whites in mourning yet in other locations. The road meandered through these island plots of multicultural societies, clad in different attires and costumes praying to their loved ones in their myriad ways. The tombs displayed an array of colors, flowers and head stones. The road served as demarcations for the varied cultures and peoples. Some left huge flowers over the graveyards, some left food, some left dolls and stuffed animals of various shapes and colours, while others placed huge superbly machined granite tombstone heads with elaborate markings denoting the date of birth and death and the final prayers- In memory of …the beloved …and the ubiquitous rest in peace engravings on the tablets. The Muslim quarter had no markings and was a stretch of a well kempt green lawn save a barely visible foot long cement tablet marking the spot, hardly visible through the grass, per grave yard indicating the name and the date of birth and death. It often included a qoranic verse of inaa li-laahi wa inaa ilayhi raajicuun..or ..bismillahi rahmani rahiim..in Arabic.
The body was finally brought in and easily unloaded as it was simply a box of plywood containing the body. The grave yard has already been prepared by a tractor. The sand dug out from the hole was neatly placed on a piece of flat wood adjacent to and by the dugout hole. Mounted on top of the hole was a machine that was to enable the lowering of the box into the grave. Two nails holding the coffin lid were efficiently removed and the body exposed with its white shroud rightly in place. The closest of kin were asked to sprinkle a small amount of the soil on the body and on the sides and then, rather quickly, the box lid was remounted and closed.
I was shocked by the silent nature of the burial activity. No ‘Laa ilaaha illa laah’ was read. No “haadaa xaqu laah” was chanted and the sheikh that made an abbreviated rhapsody was politely soft spoken. The box was placed on the machine to lower it into place. In a minute or two the box was down six feet to its final resting place. I looked in sheer bewilderment when I noticed that no mud balls were being placed by the side of the corpse. I thought the angels would find no seating to question the deceased whence they arrive after we depart. When I asked why the body is being left in the box, a young sheikh explained that it would otherwise contaminate the underground water and that it is merely ‘the regulation’ to do so. I thought it was necessary to place the naked underside of the body in physical contact with mother earth. ‘Not so,’ the young mavericks explained, ‘the piece of wood is also part of mother earth’. It seemed quite reasonable. The gathering then took turns to throw some of the soil, a spade-full at a time, onto the hole. Soon after, a tractor came along and finished the filling up undertaking rather efficiently. The whole activity lasted no more than ten minutes. Silence was the main noticeable oddity. When I quietly asked what happened to the “laa ilaaha illa laah’’ chants, a young man by my side, wearing a little goatee, retorted that it was unnecessary… irrelevant…or something to that effect through his halting Somali lingua. Despite their argument, I couldn’t help but hum quietly: Haadaa xaqu laah, xaqu daaímu laah. Whether the practice conforms to traditional and fundamental Muslim practices is for scholars of the faith to debate, but my observation attests to the efficiency and pragmatic attitude of the Somali faithful in Toronto. Osman, who is far from any form of fanaticism, calmed my concerns to indicate that what they do here in Toronto, is well within the limits of Islamic tradition and that there are no grounds of any concern. Needless to say, I wondered in silence whether the Toronto practice is the result of coercion on Islamic ways or whether old practices in my head were by and large traditional rather than according to scripture. Whichever, I kind of liked the efficiency and precision of the Toronto burial undertaker troupe. It was fast, efficient and respectful.
A second sheikh took over to do the final blessing. Before he commenced, he pointed to a group of young Somali boys standing not more than fifty meters away from where we were. The boys huddled over a graveyard of one of their comrades (buddies) and were obviously in a mourning mood. Dressed in hooded jackets and worn out jeans sagging down their butts, they looked somber. One of them held a bottle of whisky in his right arm and was sprinkling it over the grave of the fallen comrade. The sheikh pointed to the disillusionment and loss of faith and muddled purpose of some of the young Somali boys in Canada. The practice of commemorating one’s friend with an alcohol sprinkle is being copied from gangster fraternities of American blacks and their drug dealing underworld. The boys continued to hover over the graveyard for some more ten minutes and then revved away in speedy cars. The sheikh warned that we should not interfere as they might be armed and are known to be quite trigger- happy.
Hassan Aw Cisman Guleid, who has been the longest in Canada among all Somalis, a pioneer in terms of Somali refugees into Canada, remembers scores of people whose funeral and burial at the site he remembers. He pointed to Ahmed Roble’s, Amina’s Husband-Hassan, Ismail, and many others-all within the confines of the same Muslim burial site where we stood. Over the grounds we walked, we saw Alasow, Muuniye, Sharif who are evidently from the south of Somalia side by side the Somaliland compatriots. Here the distinctions of South and North fizzled out into a common Canadian Muslim identity. In Burao someone once said that the HJ and HY brethren only come close to one another at neighbouring hospital beds of the TB ward. Here in Canada, The Munye and Culusaw of Xamar and Brava lie side by side with the Farah’s and Gedi’s and Guleid’s of Erigavo, Hargeisa and Borama, without segregation in the realm of afterlife.
After the men departed, the women emerged from their vehicles and swarmed around the graveyard. These were her daughters, their off-springs and the closest of kin. They took pictures and I could see from afar that some wept openly to express their grief. The women are sincere in letting out their emotions in the true spirit of Somali cultural practice and love for the bereaved. May Allah bless her soul.