Today was heart wrenching and achingly sad. After I had put the boys to bed last night, M called and thick with tears his words were “she passed away”. He had been on his way to see his gravely ill baby sister and didn’t make it in time. I was too far away to be of any real comfort. The call was short, his journey would continue and the mobile went out of range.
Thank goodness for Skype, allowing me to save on roaming charges, not that I really cared at that point. A few more calls made to explain what would be happening in the next few hours, mostly based on presumptions, an finally the decision that they would have to wait for the municipality transport to be available to bring her back to Mersin. Either way, the funeral would be held today, within 24 hours in accordance with Islamic rules.
There was a bit more miscommunication as M tried to explain the funeral arrangements and procedures, leaving me feeling a little insulted having been through it before in 2003. Today though, would be different and I would have to accept the segregation, this time I could accept it.
Though Turkey may loudly proclaim it’s modernity and secularism, the fact remains that where a person dies, and has an Islamic funeral, the rules of Islam apply and that means segregation. The funeral was to immediately follow noon prayers at the mosque closest to the area where most of the extended family live. Unless it is simply not possible to transport the body to the mosque before noon, that is when most funerals are held.
There was the question of what to do with the boys. Over here I have no childcare, and clearly any relatives I might normally call on would be unavailable. We had considered that the nanny to her grandchildren may be able to help, but we were told she wanted to attend the funeral also. Thankfully I was able to get reassurance that taking the boys along would be fine, I wasn’t so convinced that they would behave.
M arrived home to have a rest and freshen up before preparing to go to the mosque. I tried to tell the boys to leave him as he was very sad. I hadn’t yet told them about Ayse, but Fatso–ever perceptive stood and boldly asked “has Ayse died?” He’s a bit obsessed with death at the moment but doesn’t fully understand what it means. A discussion earlier this week about Heaven left him thinking it was a planet somewhere, so he decided he would become an astronaut to discover the planet Heaven.
Seeing as Smelly and Fatso could feel M’s upset, I sat them down for a chat, starting with Fatso who I thought would be the most trouble given that he is prone to bold and inappropriate statements–such as “I hate Wales” in the middle of a shop in Pwhelli. It was agreed that there were certain statements he was banned from saying, and if he managed it there would be a reward, a certain fast food outlet that does crappy kids meals but not the happy kind. Fatso was very keen to explain the rules and reward to Smelly. Smelly, though, really didn’t need such enticements, he’s such a sensitive soul that I pretty much knew he would be OK. Lai lai was not informed of the plan he’s still too random to think further than the end of his nose.
The next thing was what to wear. The vast majority of my clothes here are bright and summery, often with bold patterns, not really somber enough for a funeral and while they are certainly not skimpy tourist clothes they wouldn’t give the full coverage required by the mosque and Islamic rules. Certainly not enough time to go out and get something suitable, and M was rejecting everything. So I ended up head to toe in black. Black isn’t necessary for an Islamic funeral but some do wear it. I felt a bit over dressed and annoyed at M for not giving me better guidance, especially as many people (generally men) appears to be wearing nothing more sombre than everyday clothing. I was doing the best I could though, even so I do not own a head scarf. M said I didn’t have to wear one but I felt it would be odd given that his is a religious family and Ayse wore one herself, meaning probably most of the women there would be wearing them. It’s not that hard to arrange finding one.
As we arrived at the mosque, it was obvious that even in the courtyard there was a men’s and women’s area. I went to greet M’s older brother who quickly told me to go to the women’s side. Clearly it wasn’t appropriate to even greet a man and offer condolences. I didn’t bother to look for any other male family members I knew. I went to find his other sister, his niece, Ayse’s daughter and any other female relative I vaguely recognised. There were hugs and tears, but not mine–I didn’t feel I had permission? entitlement? it’s hard to describe but I didn’t feel I should shed tears, even though I felt them. I don’t think I will ever feel anything other than the outsider in this family.
I was given a head scarf and his other sister put it on for me. In the searing midday heat of central Mersin, it wasn’t the black of my clothing or the thickness of the jacket that made me feel unbearably hot, but the headscarf trapping all the heat to my head, despite it being the thinnest muslin.
I stood back with the boys, and saw the area of the courtyard where the coffin lay under shade, for people to pray before the ezan called at 1pm. I couldn’t see M, couldn’t be near him to offer any support. The boys played quietly, but became thirsty and I had stupidly left the drink in the car. They’re not used to this segregation and all the unfamiliar faces so I had to go back to the men’s area to ask for the key. In an attempt to be as respectful as possible while invading their space I bowed my head to Mustafa Dayi, and found M. Thankfully some of the younger nephews grabbed my hand to say hello and I gave the set phrase when someone has died (Basiniz sagolsun). Water was thrust at me from somewhere, as was the car key so I took Fatso and Lai lai back to the car till the ezan called.
Smelly tried to join M at the mosque for noon prayers but it was so crowded he couldn’t find him and became upset, so again down to the men’s area to get him. Fortunately most of them had entered the mosque by then. Perhaps it’s not fair to say, but my experience of Islam through things such as this is the dominance of men and the marginalisation of women. As the prayers ended the next stage of the funeral began with everyone crowding round the coffin for the formal prayers before it is taken to the cemetery. Again, according to the rules, men at the front. It may not be my place, and perhaps because it is their faith and culture they accept it, but it hurts me that people who are principal mourners cannot take that place because they are women.
The prayers by the coffin were short, barely a few minutes and then the coffin was raised to be taken to the municipality transport truck. Over here funerals are fairly cheap and quick. There are no expensive hearses, the local councils own the transport for coffins, not easy to describe but they are pick up trucks with a sort of pitched roof and open sides. There are no expensive coffins either, the coffin is only there to hold the body until they are by the graveside. Islamic burial is simple, the body is washed and wrapped in a white shroud, and removed from the coffin to be placed directly in the grave. If there is to be a gravestone it should be simple and certainly not a show of wealth.
Mersin’s graveyard is big, and crowded. Graves are packed tightly next to one another, and it can be hard to avoid stepping on a grave. Unfortunately Ayse could not be buried next to her husband or son, another of her husband’s relative had died taking the last remaining place in the plot. She couldn’t be buried next to her parents because that plot is also full. Over here people may buy plots with ideas of who may be buried there but if a family member who has no plot dies then plans have to change. So she was to be buried in a new plot the family had already purchased.
Fortunately M knew exactly where we were going. Here the funeral transport does not hang around and allow the family to get into cars and follow at a sedate pace. It becomes a bit of a race to the graveyard and while we had set off quickly most had got there before us. We walked to the plot and again men surrounded the grave while the women stood back. There are gravediggers but after Ayse had been laid in the grave it was the male mourners who came forward to shovel the earth back. Her son being the head of those, was so composed.
The grave was filled and the Imam then started his prayers. Smelly was stood solemnly next to his elder half brother, joining the prayers. Fatso and Lai lai were with me, perhaps I should have stood at the back to ensure their ‘balancing’ game on the gravestones didn’t disturb anyone. M’s other sister said no it was fine. I was glad because I felt I should be near the front, near to his other sister. I didn’t want to be sidelined as the yabanci married into the family–I know this funeral is not about me but I seem to dance a fine line between being on the inside and on the outside of this family and so try my best to do things that don’t put me any further on the outside–not always successfully.
The prayers are longer by the grave and the heat was intense, despite the shade and the limited breeze. The musical prayer (they are always sung here) came to an abrupt end. M saw me as the people because to move and pointed to where I was going. Smelly was with him, the others wanted to join him. But again this was a man thing. The principal male mourners were going to line up for the other men to file past and receive the condolences. Really I should have dispersed into the graveyard with the other women, but there was no one else the boys would go with to find M. When we got close I stepped back and sent them over, but with Lai lai declaring he needed a wee and about to pull his pants down by a nearby tree I had to step in. It gave me a quick escape though. It also reinforced the feeling that there is no value given to the support of a wife to her mourning husband.
After a brief visit to the other family graves we then went to Ayse’s home. Yet more segregation. The municipality provided a tent/gazebo for the grounds of the apartment, to provide shade, as the next stage of the funeral is 3 days of visits and condolences. The number of visitors would far exceed the capacity of the average flat so this tent is some help in the heat of the summer. The men sat in the tent, the women were upstairs sat in the flat. Generally no one speaks, they are there to ‘share sorrow’ as M puts it so sit silently looking sad. Water, ayran and lahmacun were available to eat and drink but since most people were fasting, with it being ramazan, it was pretty much redundant. So even the obligatory tea was not flowing. As such there was little I could help with. The thought of sitting in silence in a room with a bunch of women, most of whom I barely know, terrifies me. The boys were playing, but I worried a little too loudly, Ayse’s grandson sat there staring at them play as if they were strange creatures. I decided they were probably hungry and had been pretty good for long enough.
It felt bad and rude to leave, but it also felt as though I was of no use nor ornament. M was with the men, and since it was not the done thing for me to be there, I was certainly no good to him. The other siblings had not arrived, and it looked like they had gone home to rest before coming later. M agreed it was a good time for the boys to have their reward. The plan was to return after a couple of hours and sit politely again. Unfortunately it was later than I thought, the boys were tired and it was easier to take them straight home after their reward.
M broke down after the graveyard, but he had his duty and that meant segregation, so I could not be the one to offer support. After he brought us home, he went back, to sit with the men, his elder son didn’t stay long because he had to return to Ankara, hopefully his elder brother stayed. He didn’t return until after ifthar and teravi namaz, exhausted from the turmoil of the past two days.
Ayse was a lovely lady, genuinely kind and gentle. Her passing, though not unexpected, was quicker than anticipated. With Bayram coming up in about a week’s time, it will be tinged with sadness this year. And the wind certainly does cry Ayse today.