Saturday, January 08, 2005


Sharing Grief in the City

I have referred to "Fat-ha" several times in this blog and simply explained it as [A reception of three days' duration where people go to express condolences to the deceased's kin].

The Fat-ha is such an important facet of social life in Iraq that I think the subject may be worth some detailed description. This may also be useful to the many young Iraqis who were born or raised abroad… if one day they may come back home!

Fat-ha is more of social event than a simple expression of condolences! It is used to express solidarity, show the extent of social connections, the more important or well-connected or richer the deceased or one of his or her close kin, the larger and the busier is the Fat-ha. People who take their social obligations seriously may visit several Fat-has a week! You can make amends by going to someone's Fat-ha. You can make a statement by not showing at a Fat-ha.

The Fat-ha is the same whether the deceased is a man or a woman. Two separate receptions are conducted for each Fat-ha, one for men and one for women. Women's Fat-has are different than men's. Perhaps Riverbend or Rose could post something on the subject. Christians frequently follow the same custom where men and women sit in different parts of a hall annexed to a church.

Fat-ha is the Iraqi corruption of the word "Fatiha" – the first and probably the most-recited verse in the whole of the Koran. It is recited in deaths, weddings and several times in each of the five daily prayers! It roughly occupies the same place as the Lord's Prayer. Simply stated, it says:

In the name of God, the Mercy-giving, the Merciful! * Praise be to God, * Lord of the Universe, * the Mercy-giving, the Merciful! * Ruler on the Day for Repayment! ** You do we worship and You do we call on for help. * Guide us along the Straight Road, * the road of those whom You have favored, with whom You are not angry, nor who are lost!

In this post, I will restrict my description to the city Fat-ha. I hope I can describe the Fat-has in the countryside in the next post. Fat-has in first-generation immigrant communities are more like country Fat-has.

As I said before, the Fat-ha is a reception of three days' duration. It usually starts on the day following the death.

Announcement is usually through newspapers and black banners about 1m by 4m distributed at busy road junctions of the city (that is why Baghdad is always full of those black banners). The ever-active Iraqi grapevine takes care of spreading the word.

The venue is one of four places depending on a number of factors: In the house or garden at the house of the deceased or one of his sons, on the pavement outside the house, using a make-shift "tunnel tent" (called chaadir) or in a hall dedicated to the purpose annexed to a mosque or a Husseineyyah.

Duration: usually 3 hours in the early evening 5-8 or 6-9 pm, except for Ramadan where it starts right after breaking the fast. At present, it is becoming increasingly common to have it in the afternoon…2-5 or 3-6 pm to give people time to get back home before dark or soon after. For first-generation immigrants from the countryside, the reception is usually all-day long.

Protocol: Just outside the entrance to the hall, several young men stand in a row to greet visitors. You walk into the hall, you say "al Salam Alaikum" (May Peace be upon you) to the hall in general (some raise their right hand in salute while, or instead of, saying the words). Some of those nearby answer back with similar words (something like: Alaikum al Salam). You don't shake hands with anybody. You may be directed to a seat or may be left to find a seat in a position of your liking.

Before, or immediately after, sitting down you loudly say the word "al Fat-ha". You quietly recite the Fatiha verses. The verses are also recited by those who hear your announcement. When someone finishes his recital he wipes his face with the both palms as a sign that he has finished. Non-believers just make the motions!!

A Christians visiting a Muslim Fat-ha crosses himself and recites a prayer before sitting down.

People around the newcomer would then say: "Allah bi Khair" where he would respond with the same words.

The deceased's close kin receiving people, usually 4 or 5, sitting close to the entrance, stand up and don't sit down again until this procedure is complete.

All the time, the Koran is recited by a professional reader or from a recording in a loud enough level to drum the quiet murmur of noises usually present. In principle, people shouldn't talk while the Koran is being read, but in Iraq, you can see people talking to those next to them in hushed voices. It is not uncommon to see the odd smile. Extremely religious people are generally angered by that but there is nothing they can do about entrenched social habits!

Only three items are served: Water, Arabic coffee (a tiny amount, about a teaspoonful, black, really concentrated stuff without sugar, served in special cups that are only used for this purpose – perhaps more details of the coffee ritual in a future post) and cigarettes. On the third day, to signal the last day of the Fat-ha, rosewater is sprinkled from a special canister into each new guest's hands.

People usually stay for about half an hour. The duration of the stay and the number of times you go to the same Fat-ha in the three days is a function of the closeness to the deceased or his kin.

To signal your wish to leave you say "Fat-ha" aloud again, recite the verse and get up. The "receptionists" stand and you shake hands with them (junior first, senior last) and say your words of condolences.

Before the 1950's Fat-has were usually of 7-day duration. Up to the 1950's there would be dinner at the end of each day of Fat-ha. In the 1960's, 70's and 80's, there would be dinner on the third day only. Nowadays, dinner is rarely served in city Fat-has.

This is only a short glimpse of the Iraqi city Fat-ha. It applies to both Sunni and Shiite Fat-has. There are in fact tiny differences that can be detected only on the last hour of the last day, but these are not of much significance. In my next post I will briefly describe the Fat-ha in the countryside.

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