Islam and the Gendered Discourses of Death

Lila Abu-Lughod
1993 International Journal of Middle East Studies  
ISLAM AND THE GENDERED DISCOURSES OF DEATH On a bright day in January 1987, my host in the Awlad c Ali bedouin community in Egypt in which I had been doing research invited me to accompany him on a condolence call. He knew how enthusiastic I was about visiting people who still camped in traditional tents in the desert, and this set of families, he assured me, lived in a beautiful area. The group's patriarch had died twenty days ago, but my host had been too busy to go so only his younger
more » ... s had paid their respects. He had just heard, though, that the bereaved family was upset he had not come himself. So we drove off in his car, with his two cowives in the back seat, stopping at the market town nearby to buy a fat sheep to take with us. As they loaded the beast into his car, my host complained about how expensive sheep had become. The sound of its bleating in the trunk reminded me of trips to weddings, when sheep are also obligatory gifts. We drove on tracks through the desert until we saw their tents in the distance. As we drew near, my host asked his wives if they planned to wail. "No, no, no!" they exclaimed, adding that the deceased was an old man, and he had already been dead for twenty days. My host dropped us off at one end of the camp and drove off to the other where the main men's tent was. As we walked toward the camp, three women emerged from one of the tents and headed toward us. Suddenly the three approaching women and the two I was with started wailing and when we met, each woman from the camp hugged one of us and squatted down with her and began the formulaic heartrending "crying together" (yatabako) that is their funeral lament. I felt myself gripped by the back of the neck and pushed down to a squatting position. The woman's black head cloth smelled of cloves and smoke and I could feel her tears through the cloth. My discomfort was absolute. Paralyzed and silent, I waited while she went through her loud and seemingly endless lamenting close to my left ear. Then we stood up, I in embarrassment, and all of us walked to the tent. We greeted the other women in there, sat down and began a long afternoon of desultory chatting and gossip until the sheep we had brought was butchered, cooked, and served to us on a bed of rice. When we returned home, the story of my encounter with the lamenting woman was told and retold. Everyone laughed about the woman who had presumed I Lila Abu-Lughod teaches anthropology at
doi:10.1017/s0020743800058487 fatcat:sqrgeqi5wnbn5flt3jvqn7njxy