Saturday, January 15, 2005


Sharing Grief in the Countryside

[This is the second post describing the Iraqi Fat-ha reception where one goes to pay respect to the deceased's kin. Please read the previous post for basics. Again, I will only describe the men's reception. I doubt if Riverbend or Rose have seen the inside of the women's reception in the countryside!]

The basic social function of the country Fat-ha is the same as that of the city; only the setting, the execution and the "feel" are all rather different, reflecting the nature of the country folk in their difference from city people.

The Fat-ha is generally conducted at the deceased's house or one of his or her closest kin. Special "tunnel" tents are erected for the purpose. These are basically steel frames, speedily erected by a gang of young men. The space they make after erection is about 3m wide and about 20m in length. This space is filled with rows of plastic chairs facing each other along the length. They call such a tent “bait” [= house].

The number of such tents depends on the number of expected visitors, reflecting the social status of the hosts. One such tent may be sufficient for a simple peasant's Fat-ha. At the other extreme, an important person's reception may require more than a dozen such tents.

Iraq is full of places where everything a Fat-ha needs is rented. People in the country usually have a good supply of young men and pick-up trucks. Everything may look extremely chaotic to the casual observer: people yelling, people going back and forth, people shouting their arguments, tractors with scrapers preparing a flat, clean clearing, etc. If you happen to observe proceedings, you would think they would never get it done! But somehow, the whole thing could be set-up in a matter of a few hours, sometimes to be ready when people come back from burial.

Black banners announcing the Fat-ha are used to a lesser extent than in the city. The actual announcement of death is usually made by firing guns. People hearing the reports, knowing that there is no scheduled wedding in that household, immediately assume what has happened! The grapevine, which is even more efficient than that of the city, takes care of letting everybody know. Relations who live long distances away usually hear the news within the following day!

In city Fat-has, people usually go by themselves or in small groups of a car load of friends or family. In the country, this does happen but generally visitors from outside the area or from different tribes usually go in larger numbers, sometimes exceeding 100 people! Social politics are a more important consideration in country Fat-has.


The minute you reach the car park, you can tell that this is a different affair from the city. A few teenagers usually supervised by an older young man, direct you and keep an eye on your car. It would shame them if something happened to it or was stolen from it in a busy Fat-ha with so many people coming and going.

Just outside the tents, several people in charge of reception welcome visitors and direct them to the tent that they would fit in best! These people may not be distinguishable to the inexperienced eye from other clusters of men scattered all over the yard leading to the tents in small groups, discussing things!

If you are somebody important in their eyes, then the hosts, and others, having been given warning by the car-park boys, or one of the outside "clusters" will leave their place and come and welcome you in. The higher your status, the larger the number coming out for you. Usually this has little to do with wealth. If is not uncommon for the entire assembly to come out to welcome someone really important to them such as a tribal chief or an important tribal delegation!

Once inside the tent, some people don't shake hands, much like in the city… for a variety of reasons -one of them being not wishing to shake hands with an adversary or an enemy! If during this round such an "enemy" is encountered, he simply does not stand up and is ignored by the newcomer! But generally people go around the whole tent and shake hands with everybody. You have to start with the people on the right and go counter-clockwise. It is almost insulting to go the wrong way around. This rule is always meticulously followed in the countryside. Some city people unaware of this can cause some confusion going round the wrong way!

People stand up as you approach them, shake hands and usually exchange pleasantries. For an important guest, the whole tent may rise for this hand-shaking tour! Country folk (or Urbaan) are much more exhibitive of social status than in the city.

Once seated – again, according to status, like in the city you would loudly announce the "Fat-ha". Most people in the country don't just use the word but put it in a sentence like "May God bless you, al Fat-ha" or "May God have mercy on your parents, al Fat-ha!".

Then the usual "Allah bil Khair" follows.

Koran readings are the same as in the city but more frequently from a recording. The volume is usually louder, due to the louder noises made by people. Nevertheless, it is usually drowned by the noise!

In the city, water is always served before coffee; in the country, the opposite is more frequent. Cigarettes are less frequently served, but tea usually follows water. It is more common to tip the coffee server if he is a hired professional coffee master.

After this ritual, you can go and shake hands with people you know, change seats, sit down with various other people and discuss thing (frequently loudly). If you are important to them, one or more of the hosts will come and sit next to you and keep you company, the higher your status is, the more senior the host.

The duration of your stay depends on the time of your arrival. Visitors usually stay between half an hour and an hour. If you stay to within an hour of lunch- or dinner-time, you will find difficulty getting away! The hosts may give you a difficult time!

After the meal, you would hear a few people saying "al Fat-ha" and then reciting the verses on the deceased's soul.

Now you are free to leave! Unlike the city, very few people announce their wish to leave by saying "Fat-ha" aloud. They just get up, shake hands with the hosts and leave. Again, if your status is high enough, some of the hosts will accompany you to your car; and again, the higher the status, the larger the crowd!

Fat-has in the country last all day long for three days. Until about some 20 years ago, most used to last for seven days – many people still retain the 7th day and the 40th day tradition by a gathering of relatives and friends over dinner. They are much more exhausting affairs to the hosts.


One of the most fascinating things to see in the country is called A’ratha [Literally: parade!]. This takes place when a really important personage, such as a major chief of a large tribe, dies. Other clans of the tribe and other tribes from far away places come in large numbers. They get off their cars and go into the Fat-ha carrying large tribal banners [as large as the European Trade Union banners!]. They sometimes fire some shots in the air en route.

A small group of 20-30 people of the hosts go out to meet them. Once at the entrance, with the two groups facing each other, a poet accompanying the procession says a few lines praising the deceased… and his own tribe of course! Another poet from the dead man’s tribe is there and he has to respond immediately in kind [Old hands have a store of ready lines. They sometimes simply change the names, but this trick is readily detected.] The sharpness and quick wit some of these people in responding to implied statements and “wrapped” insinuations is truly amazing by any standard.

A’ratha is seen more frequently in the south where people are closer to older customs. Even then, they only happen once every few years.


Lunch is served after the noon prayers and dinner after the dusk prayers. If there is no nearby mosque or a Husseineyyah, people just pray on a wide span of rugs prepared by the host. Sunnis and Shiites pray together. Sunni and Shiite prayers are identical, there are only small differences in posture (Shiites leave their arms at full length at their side, Sunnis cross their chest with them). Ten years ago, perhaps a quarter of those present took part in the prayers. Nowadays, the figure is closer to three-quarters.


Meals are served three times a day. Breakfast is served to relatives who come from far and stay over-night, sometimes for three nights! Cooking is normally done by men, supervised by an older man or woman. People who can afford it hire professionals.

Foldable steel tables appear from nowhere carried by an army of young men. Within a few minutes all tents have tables erected in the aisles. The same army of young men then fill the tables with food, again in minutes. The meal is always the same: steel plates filled with fried rice (sometimes with bread underneath), with chunks of lamb on top, bread and water.

Most hosts rarely eat with the guests. They just hover around behind them checking that everything is satisfactory. They normally go inside the house to eat during the lull of visitors after the meal.

The army of young men, now armed with towels, soap and water canisters, pour water for the guests to wash their hands in a corner outside the tents. The tables are cleared and then removed with the same speed. Tea is always served afterwards.


The whole affair is so much less solemn than the city Fat-ha. The hosts are full of welcoming sentences (and sometimes even smiles). It is usually considered unbecoming to show grief, especially if the death is of natural causes, unless you are too old to worry about social considerations. But there are many exceptions of course. If the death was violent and the murder is un-avenged, then you are more likely to see anger in their eyes!

Women are the reverse. Their wailing is much higher than city women. There is also a great deal more chest beating and tearing of clothes! It seems as if countrywomen somehow compensate for their men's lack of display of grief by showing more of it!

Naturally the cost of this affair can be rather high. This is never a problem. Close relatives contribute towards the initial cost. People always pay money when they go to a Fat-ha in the country. They call it "Wajib" – duty! Someone carries a notebook and people sign their names and the amount they pay. Country folk are very particular in referring to that notebook when going to someone's Fat-ha… but there is usually a norm. The end result is that the Fat-ha usually does not cost the hosts much! People who contributed toward the initial expenses may then have their money back. If not, it will come back to them some other day. It is more like one gigantic cooperative.

There is virtually no difference between Sunnis and Shiites in country Fat-has. If you didn't know the people, you couldn't tell the difference. Small differences are due to area and geography rather than sect. Even then, the differences are minute. The above description would hold almost anywhere in the countryside in Iraq.


I have always seen Fat-ha as an excellent exercise in social "therapy". Being so busy with planning, preparations and taking care of guests somehow lets people pass through the initial shock period by being busy with others (for women, also crying loudly with others). You are given no time to sit quietly in a secluded corner with all sorts of sad and "loss" feelings. Your loss is shared by so many others… in public. By the time all the activities are over, the loss would have been psychologically accommodated!

The Fat-ha, to me, is a victory of life over death.

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