Ghannam Lectures on Life and Death in Egypt

Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.

The sudden death of a 38 year-old working class man was the central focus of the talk that professor Farha Ghannam gave on Tuesday, entitled “The Life and Death of an Egyptian Man: Reflections on the Meaning of ‘Good Endings’ in Cairo.” The lecture was based on a year of field research that Ghannam studied on her sabbatical last year.

Ghannam began with a story: Karim was born in Upper Egypt and moved to Cairo to be a plasterer. He got work in Saudi Arabia that paid well and allowed him to send money home to his family, but also required him to be away for a year at a time. The money he saved granted him enough financial security to be married, and over the course of several years he and his wife had two children, a boy and a girl. However, he did not survive to see his daughter, because while he was away one year he suddenly got sick and died. The cause of his death was determined to be an allergic reaction to dust and other substances he encountered at his job.

While this story is interesting in and of itself, Ghannam was interested in the way Karim’s friends and relatives reacted to his death. In America, she explained, there is an ideal way to die: peacefully, asleep in one’s own bed, unaware that the end has come. The same is not true in Egypt; there, a “good death” is one where the deceased is aware he or she is about to die and can face death bravely and without fear.

Karim’s sudden death, while tragic, was almost universally regarded as a good death, to the point that friends expressed their envy and wished that they, too, could have such a death. Although his death was hard on his family, who had depended on him for their livelihood, Ghannam found that they spoke positively about his life and his death and made connections between his death and the good deeds he had done while alive.

People who were with him at his death talked about specific signs that indicated Karim’s awareness of and readiness for his imminent death. He asked his brother to look after his family. When they came to the hospital after he had died, they said his face looked beautiful, and he was smiling. These are all auspicious signs. At the burial, people in attendance said that a light shone from the grave, and the earth smelled of perfume, indicating that his grave would be a paradise. Even the paperwork needed to perform the burial was completed in only one day — a miracle!

By spreading these stories among their community, Ghannam said, relatives are creating a narrative that establishes Karim as a good person who was rewarded with a good death.

Additionally, they are working to ensure him a good place in the afterlife. While Islam rewards those who lead virtuous lives with a pleasant experience in the grave and in the afterlife, a person’s fate can still be influenced when their life is over by the words and actions of their family. By telling stories about Karim’s good death, his family is actually creating it. For the same reason, they would never speak ill of the dead, for that could injure their status in the afterlife.

All these things point to a central difference between the way Egyptians like Karim’s family view death and the way we Americans do. For them, death does not end a person’s relationship with their community; rather, they continue to be defined by that relationship for good or ill. A dead person can even exert influence on his relatives by appearing to them in dreams.

However, not all of Karim’s relationships took his death with equanimity; his wife and mother were upset to the extent that they were criticized for excessive mourning. While violent expressions of grief have long been a traditional and accepted action for women, they are more frequently being criticized as at odds with Muslim sensibilities. Women who tear their hair or put dirt on their heads, some say, are questioning God’s will inappropriately.

The discrepancy between the mourning of the wife and the reaction of the relatives lead to a debate about mourning. Karim’s mother was told that, because of her constant wailing, Karim wanted to distance himself from her. His wife, on the other hand, chose to both follow Islamic guidance and go against it. His wife listened to religious radio shows for spiritual guidance, while also choosing to wear black for twenty years compared to the few months advised by religious leaders.

The readiness to mix religious guidance with social expectation shows how death is influenced by many social factors, all of which exert influence on peoples’ reactions. For Karim’s family, Islam creates a framework for understanding death, but does not totally dictate how they will react to his death.

Ghannam concluded her talk by suggesting how it could serve as a window on western assumptions about Islam. In western culture, she said, death is not a part of public life: it is not natural, beautiful, or significant. It is easy to fall into the assumption that, because Islamic cultures focus more than ours on death, they only value the afterlife and not life on earth. The life and death of this one Egyptian man allows us to see that, on the contrary, the way people react to a loved one’s death actually emphasizes their life, their relationship with the community, and the good deeds they did in life.

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