Burying my Yemeni grandmother on FaceTime.
By Nadia Laher | A recording of the Quran plays in the background as I sit on a floral-patterned couch in our Northern Virginia living room, watching a crowd gather around my grandmother’s casket in Yemen on the screen of an iPad. A few of the mourners I recognize; many I don’t. It’s 7 a.m. in Aden and 11 p.m. where we are.
My siblings, parents, cousin, and I are in pajamas and sweatpants. Out of the corner of my eye, I see my father absentmindedly reach under his white T-shirt to scratch at his belly, eyes still serious and focused on the screen. The funeral goes on. My younger siblings go to sleep, kissing our mom on the head before they do—even though they hate that, preferring a good old American hug instead. Now there are people in the live video stream blocking our view of the casket, and we quietly mutter about it, wanting them to move.
It’s a peculiar kind of mourning that one does over FaceTime.
We call my cousins in Kansas and Texas. They grew up in Yemen but are here now for school and jobs and a better range of opportunity than what they left behind. We FaceTime them on two iPhones, then hold up the phones to the iPad, so that they can watch the funeral too. We’re an assemblage of somber faces on rectangular screens, quiet except when someone comments on what’s happening with Gida, my grandmother. Mostly nothing is happening. Gida lies in a casket under a white sheet. People stand and sit in a big circle around her, approaching one by one to kiss her forehead or say a last goodbye. It’s strange to sit here in sweatpants, to check my phone, meander into the kitchen for some hot chocolate. I feel uncomfortably comfortable. I think I should be sadder.
I didn’t know any of my grandparents very well before they passed away. My mother is from Yemen and my father is from South Africa—places I’ve been to a handful of times. This grandmother only spoke Arabic, and the only time she came to America was when I was born. She stayed for a year, caring for me while reportedly grumbling about the women everywhere dressed in shorts. I’d always thought we had a special bond because of that year, even though I don’t remember it and we’d never really spoken since then.
For the last six years I’ve been trying to learn Arabic. When I started, full of passion and optimism, I told myself one day I’d have a conversation with Gida. The thought that she might pass away before I was able fueled me to learn faster.
But now, watching her funeral on FaceTime, I don’t even feel the loss of that possibility. Now I think maybe our bond was one-sided, something that I imagined into being simply because it was all I had. Now that she’s gone, I find that my mother’s sadness weighs more heavily than my own.
Two days ago I watched her receive the details of Gida’s death (from septic shock, in an Indian hospital) on the phone with my aunt. I’m used to seeing my mom deal with bad phone connections to Yemen, but this time she was in tears repeating her sister’s name to check if she was still there. “Lutfia? Lutfia?” Every few minutes the connection would falter, and the beeps of redialed buttons would punctuate my mother’s sobs.
My grandmother was 84. I’m 21. My mother is 54. I do the math; I have 30 years to get married and have children and find something that will keep my mother alive forever, because when she goes it’s hard to imagine that I won’t too.
We host ’aza at our house. It’s a gathering for prayer and remembrance. My mother’s Yemeni friends come over bearing dates, qahwa—Yemeni coffee—and khameer, a sweet brown bread I grew up dipping in honey for breakfast. In a solemn echo of the rowdy ladies-only dance parties my mom hosts, my dad leaves the house and my brother confines himself to the basement, where eventually he texts me asking for food. Women fill our house, praying or talking with my mother. I’ve never been to anything like this, and my mom says to my cousin, “It will be good for Nadia to see ’aza.”
The women don’t ring the bell or knock; my sister and I hear the knob turn and jump to open the door and greet whoever is on the threshold, taking foil-wrapped trays from their hands and pressing our cheeks to theirs. You don’t kiss, exactly, just hold cheeks together for a moment on one side, and then the other, and maybe one more; I usually just follow the other person’s lead. They say things to us I only partially understand: Kefik habibti? (How are you, sweetheart?), Fein mama? (Where’s your mom?), Allah yerhama (God have mercy on Gida’s soul). I thank them and find more folding chairs. I didn’t know we knew so many people. Actually, I don’t think we do.
Later, the women distribute printouts of Quran verses and follow along with a CD recitation. My little sister and I lose our places almost immediately. Back in the kitchen, my cousin instructs me about our next steps: I am to take the bakhoor, Yemeni incense, to the table and set it in the middle. She will follow me with rosewater and drop a little bit on each woman’s hands.
I’m anxious and don’t understand my role, and feel a slight twinge of envy that she’s going to do the rosewater. Shouldn’t that be me? I am my mother’s daughter. Yet I don’t want to do it, either, because I don’t know what I’m doing and I don’t understand most of what the women are saying, and I want out of that spotlight really quick.
When the CD ends, I emerge from the kitchen holding the bakhoor, put it on the table, and make my exit. Someone walks around with the qahwa and dates, and one of the girls jumps up and takes the rosewater from my cousin, which makes me feel a little better. She circles the room, giving each woman a little drop. When she comes to me, I take it, but I don’t know what it means. Neither does my cousin; she says this is just something we do.
Later, I think about the way the women just opened the door to walk in. There was one family I didn’t recognize. My mother explains that they’re new to the area; they just came because the more people who pray, the more blessings there are for Gida. I dwell on this, wondering if such a thing would ever be acceptable at an American funeral. That strangers could just open the door to the house and come inside to mourn.
As we watch my cousins line up to kiss Gida on the iPad, a recording of a male voice reads the Quran in the classic tajweed style, emphasizing and lingering over certain syllables. I wonder if the old Arabic verses usually sound so mournful or if I’m just noticing it today. When I was a kid, my dad tried to get me to learn tajweed, but I felt silly elongating my syllables and just rushed through the reading, tripping over the words I couldn’t say instead of painstakingly sounding them out. I never pray, but today I do, for Gida. Or, if I’m being honest, mostly for my mom. Eventually I go to sleep, leaving my parents and cousin to sit and watch the rest of the scene play out. I bring them my portable charger for the iPad before I go.
I can’t stop thinking about what will happen when my parents die. I’m the oldest of my siblings and it will fall on me to do what needs to be done. How will I know what to do? I don’t know the rituals. I don’t even understand most Arabic. My cousins will know how to do things for my mom that I don’t, and I will be relegated to the side, watching—the way I often feel relegated to the side at family gatherings, unaware of the cultural cues everyone else responds to. In the following days I find myself asking my dad and cousin about Islamic funerals. How the body is washed, how quickly the burial occurs, exactly how to do what, when, why, and where.
Later, I watch videos my aunt and cousins send us via WhatsApp, documenting the rest of the proceedings. In one, men carry the casket to the back of a van that will convey it to the mosque for prayer and then for burial. My aunt is crying while recording the scene, so the video shakes. The women stay at the house and the men go with the body. My aunt’s hand reaches out toward the car—Ma’asalama yuma, she says. “Bye, Mom.”
I tell my cousin I’m worried about how to help my mom. She replies that she didn’t really know what she was doing either, even though she grew up in Yemen—the thing I didn’t do that sometimes I feel haunted by. She says that my just being there for her was enough. That people will be there to help us through those dark days, when they come.
Months later I try to watch the WhatsApp videos again and I can’t. The app tells me I have to request permission to watch them from the original senders. I don’t want to dredge up anyone’s grief to explore my own. I’m sad because I’m not sad. I’m sad for my mom. I’m sad for myself: the past self who wanted a grandmother, the present self who got used to living without one.
But mostly I use WhatsApp to talk to my cousins, use the iPad to read, use my phone to call friends and text boys. The last time I used FaceTime was to talk to my parents, from my apartment in Philly to our house in Virginia. I spoke in English the whole time and made my mom crack up. I told them I missed them and it was true.