Broken Chairs and Bitter Coffee

I sat in what surely must be one of most uncomfortable chairs in America, a straight-backed kitchen chair whose seat was entirely broken so that I had to balance uneasily against the back ridge, my feet a few inches off the floor, my butt slowing going numb. This was the home of a refugee, filled with cast-off furniture, and it was clear from the way other women were sitting that the couch wasn’t any better. A few feet away, a woman clad entirely in black, a triangle of cloth from head to toe, mumbled, cleared her throat, and began chanting into a microphone, which was entirely unnecessary in that tiny, crowded room. The women, seated on cushions against the wall all round the room, crowded onto broken couches, fidgeting on broken chairs, joined in. Subhan Allah. Al’Ham Dulillah*, they chanted. Subhan Allah. Allah u Akbar.

It’s my second funeral in less than a week. I know the ritual now. When you arrive, you are served what I think of as funeral coffee. It’s similar to Turkish coffee but made with Nescafe instead of water, and it’s potent and bitter. Booklets containing sections of the Qu’ran are passed out, and various people take them and read them and sometimes kiss them. The entire Qu’ran must be read by the 3rd day after death, which is the day this ceremony takes place.This is counted as a good deed done on behalf of the recently deceased.

Then the chanting woman arrives with 2 older women. They settle themselves in the place of honour and set up the loudspeaker and microphone. Sometimes, they will stand up and begin to sing and beat themselves, and then everyone in the room will follow their lead, beating their breasts or their foreheads with their hands, hard. At a certain point in the ceremony, everyone in the room will weep. They will grab two, three tissues and press them helplessly to their eyes. Sobs will ring out. And then, suddenly, magically, at the end of the song they will stop. The chanting will stop. Everyone will dry their eyes. Bottles of water will be handed out, then cans of Coke and platters of food. We will eat. People will chatter. And then they will leave.

This time, the sobs don’t stop. A woman has lost her father. I know her only minimally, am not even sure of her name, so I don’t know how long it’s been since she saw him, but I’m sure it’s been several years. She grieves, crushed in spirit, collapsing on the ground. Another woman goes to her, fills a glass with water, and lifts it to her lips.

One thing I have always loved about my glimpses into Arab societies and cultures is the way it helps me understand my Bible more. As a modern American, so much of the narrative is strange to me, lost to the intervening years and worldviews, buried under a couple centuries of industrialization and technology. But here in this crowded living room in suburban America, it was all too easy to imagine how Jesus could have dealt with the situation. I prayed and prayed, wanting so badly to represent him well, to give comfort the way he did.

I shifted subtly in that broken chair and read the gospels on my phone. While the women wailed and beat their breasts, I caught my breath anew at an image of Jesus walking in and saying, “She is only sleeping” (at the raising of Jairus’ daughter; Luke 8) and it was easy to imagine the tears instantly stopping while they laughed at him. I read and re-read John 11, where he went to a graveyard and said “I am the resurrection and the life!” and I prayed for each woman round the room, that she would come to see that and be given the hope it represents.

My very first Muslim funeral was also for a daughter who had lost her father. She gripped me frantically. “Tell me that he’s okay! Tell me that he’s in heaven!” she pleaded with me. I wanted to be able to reassure her, but all I could say was, “God loves your father” and “God will do right.” I don’t know how helpful either of those were, but when a woman whom you love pleads with you for reassurance that you can’t give, what can you say? You seek ways to comfort without losing the truth. I don’t doubt her father lived and died without ever hearing the gospel, the good news that changes how we face death. The next day we visited again, and I told her the story of Lazarus, and Jesus’ words blazing with life and hope in the midst of that dark hopeless graveyard.

We left this latest funeral early. I had carpooled with friends, and I think they were tired of those chairs. I knelt before the still-weeping daughter and gave her what hope I could, with our limited language. I hugged her and cried with her, told her I’d be praying for her. She thanked me brokenly, but I know she doesn’t know what it means to run to the God of the universe as if he were your own father, confident of being heard and loved. And so I left with my own heart broken, longing for her to know and have this peace.

*the first two both basically mean Praise God. The last one means God is great.

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