Om Yazzim put out her cigarette (she always smoked while I ate) and got up to stand at the window. I asked her why. It was my first day at site, a year and a half ago, and my Arabic was so bad I had to ask a few times before she understood. “I’m waiting for the cars,” she said. The window faced the long stretch of road that led from Ramtha to the other two bordering villages and, eventually, Syria. “What cars?” I asked. It was 3pm and it seemed like everyone in the world must be eating or sleeping. “My uncle’s son died today,” she explained.
I got up and stood with her. We waited. The cars started to come. They flew by in clusters of two and three, the horns jarring and loud. Om Yazzim cried and I did too, I’m still not sure why. I didn’t know her cousin. I barely knew Om Yazzim then. I’m not even the type of person who cries very much at all, let alone in front of other people. But we stood there, deafened by horns and watching the most tremendous demonstration of grief I had ever seen in my life. And I think maybe it’s just impossible to see so much pain all around and not feel it too. We waited until the last car disappeared, the noise fading into an echo that rang in my ears.
I had only attended two funerals in my life before I came to Jordan. In America our tribes are smaller I guess, and life expectancy is longer. But a few weeks ago I went to my sixth funeral in little over a year and a half. A sixteen year old girl shot herself in the stomach while she was playing with her dad’s gun. She thought it was unloaded.
Salam lived in the village next to mine, where I led a day-camp for girls last January. She was a beautiful, lively kid, always the first to speak and the loudest to laugh. She came to camp 30 minutes early every day, bearing tea and bread and once, a bright pink perfumed scarf that she insisted I put on immediately. We made road-maps of our goals and decorated them with pictures cut from magazines. Salam demanded two extra pieces of construction paper to accommodate all the pictures she’d found for her future career as a fashion designer, or a teacher, or a doctor. She was the kind of kid no one forgets, and I hope that no one will.
I went to the funeral with another volunteer who lives in Salam’s village. In Jordan funerals are separated by gender and consist of three days of family sitting together, mostly in silence, and drinking coffee. Sometimes they eat dates. The women in Salam’s family had strung together several sets of prayer beads that flowed across four women’s laps. They chanted and moved their fingers over the beads and cried. My friend and I shook hands and kissed cheeks and said “Allah yarhamha,” (“May she rest in peace.”) We were the only non-family members there and I guess we should have felt awkward about that but we didn’t. We were there because we’d lost someone and we were sad, just like everyone else.
And I guess that’s why I’m writing today about my six funerals in Jordan- because it’s not just that people die more often here, it’s that I am more aware of it. Because being connected to a community has exposed me in a very honest way to every part of life-births, weddings, graduations, illnesses, and death. When someone dies here everyone knows. You hear it from the loudspeakers at the mosque. You hear it in the screaming horns from the cars flying by. You hear it because your friends tell you, your neighbors tell you, strangers on the street tell you, and they go to the funeral with you. If a student I’d known for a week died six months later in the U.S. I’m not sure that I would ever find out. There are just so many people in the U.S. Sometimes it feels like we intentionally structure our lives in order to create distance from other people. We don’t want to reveal too much. God forbid we wear our hearts on our sleeves.
A month ago my vegetable man died. A stranger told me in the street as I was walking to work. I went to the funeral alone and two of my neighbors and my landlady were already there. We spent an hour sitting under a blanket with his wife, drinking Arabic coffee and assuring her that her husband had been a kind and generous man. “He always gave me more fruit than I paid for,” I told her, “and when the men in the street harassed me he made them stop.” Those were small memories that I gave her, just pieces of one long and very complicated life. But they were experiences that connected us, and at a funeral what more do any of us have to give than that? Before I left the funeral I shook her hand and kissed her cheek. She said “Thank you,” with tears in her eyes, and she said it in English.