A Secret Funeral in Cairo
Burying a friend in a city under siege.
CAIRO — Mohamed waded through the hundreds of people entering in and out of the cramped alley to the Zeinhom morgue. He walked under a drawing of horses advertising a veterinarian's hospital and past two giant refrigerated trucks for the overflow of bodies. The smell of rotting corpses filled the air, and a volunteer burnt sticks of incense atop a trashcan to dilute the odor.
CAIRO — Mohamed waded through the hundreds of people entering in and out of the cramped alley to the Zeinhom morgue. He walked under a drawing of horses advertising a veterinarian’s hospital and past two giant refrigerated trucks for the overflow of bodies. The smell of rotting corpses filled the air, and a volunteer burnt sticks of incense atop a trashcan to dilute the odor.
Mohamed — a boyish, chubby-faced lawyer with rings under his eyes — was hunting for the 24-year-old Mohamed Ismael, a friend who had gone missing five days earlier. The trail for his friend had gone cold: All Mohamed knew was that he had last been seen at Cairo’s Nahda Square, the site of one of the major sit-ins in support of deposed President Mohamed Morsy, when Egyptian security forces stormed it on Aug. 14.
The morgue had been so packed with mourners last Thursday that Ismael’s family had given up trying to force their way inside and instead combed every Cairo hospital, praying to find him alive. But after coming up empty, Mohamed and Ismael’s brother, Islam, once again pushed their way toward the morgue’s main building on Monday.
With casualties still piling up amidst the government crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood and its supporters, however, the morgue remained in chaos. Egyptians wandered about holding out photos of teenagers and would grab anyone in a suit and tie, hoping they were an official. "Have you seen my boy?" went the refrain. "He was last seen in Rabaa. He’s not Brotherhood."
The Egyptian state had been completely overwhelmed by its bloodiest week in recent memory, which has left at least 900 people dead. In the chaos, many families have struggled even to determine whether their loved ones are dead or alive. Many see the lack of order as a deliberate government plot, accusing it of covering up the number of casualties in an effort to minimize the tragedy’s epic proportions.
Mohamed and Islam are members of the Muslim Brotherhood, supporters of Morsy, and the ordeal has only strengthened their will to oppose the new political order. Confronted with obstacles large and small along the way, they approached their cause with a certainty that there were only two options in store for their future — victory or death. The struggles of the new Egyptian government to restore order coupled with the protesters’ weary determination suggests that darker days remain in store for Egypt.
The two men forced their way to the morgue’s front window, where families inquired about their dead. One staff member answered no, Ismael was not there, so they turned to leave. A second voice shouted to wait: "Is it Mohamed Ismael, the lawyer?"
They had found him. Mohamed and Islam entered the grimy hallways, where dozens of corpses were strewn on the floor, and approached a body lying on a tray by the refrigerator locker. At first they couldn’t tell if it was Ismael — the face was so swollen and bruised. Mohamed looked closer: Somehow the bloated face resembled his friend’s. He thought it had a smile the way Ismael did. The two examined the tag on the dead man’s big toe. It read: "Mohamed Ismael, lawyer."
Islam called his parents at 2:30 pm to say they had found him. His parents refused to see their son’s decomposing body. Ismael’s father, a civilian employee at the ministry of military production, arranged a van from his ministry to carry the body — the right of every state employee. Even as Egypt’s new leaders vowed to hunt down those they branded as terrorists, the father of a slain Brotherhood member was now carrying his son’s body in a military-owned van.
It was 3:54 pm. Mohamed rode in a car behind the van carrying Ismael’s parents, brother, and the wooden coffin. Writing on the van’s side read "Everyone’s natural end is death." But as the group would soon discover, the chaos in the Egyptian capital was denying those who had lost their lives even the dignity of a proper burial.
Cairo’s streets were jammed as commuters raced across the capital, trying to get home before a military-enforced curfew at 7 p.m. The two-car funeral procession needed to reach the neighborhood Sixth of October, a southwestern suburb on Cairo’s desert borders. It was not certain they would make it before sunset, or that the police would let the procession pass after curfew. Mohamed’s vehicle barreled over the bumps in the road, causing its frame to rattle.
Mohamed and his friends, Ahmed and Noor, phoned ahead to let more people from their social circle know they were on their way. The friends were all members of the Muslim Brotherhood — they had bonded while attending Cairo University together. Now they were rushing to organize a funeral on the fly, under the tightest of deadlines.
Ahmed, who wore a green and black striped polo shirt, sat in the back of the car. He was the last to see Ismael alive at Nahda Square the night before the crackdown. Ahmed had left at 6 p.m., and called Ismael at midnight to let him know he wasn’t coming back that night. Neither had any idea that the police crackdown was imminent: On the phone, Ahmed teased his friend about the price of furniture and air conditioners to decorate Ismael’s apartment when he married. In the early morning, Ahmed was woken up by news of the attack — he tried Ismael’s phone, but no one answered.
It was 4:47 pm. Egypt’s famed Giza pyramids stood on the horizon. The group was stuck in traffic. Between them, they counted seven friends who had died in the last week. Mohamed said that Ismael’s funeral would be the fifth he had attended. "There are people going to one funeral in the morning and one at night," he said, in a matter of fact tone.
The three men admitted they worried the same fate awaited them, but saw little choice but to continue their resistance to the new government in Cairo. "If I remain quiet my turn will come anyway," Mohamed said. "Who knows, maybe my words to you could get me picked up."
Ahead of them, the van carrying Ismael’s family pulled into a gas station. Its engine was sputtering — the group was afraid it wouldn’t start. Some from the entourage ran around the station and started to beg people for a second car. But after filling the car with gas, the engine hummed and the van rolled again.
It was 5:09 p.m. The sun was sinking to the west and Cairo was opening up into desert. Mohamed and his friends gunned their car as they chased after the dead. The group called ahead to see if they could stay with friends that night in Sixth of October. They worried the police would not let them reach the cemetery.
Ahmed told a story of how Ismael joked last month about writing his name on his arm so he would be identified in case police killed him at the protests. But then the heat sweated the name off Ismael’s arm. "We laughed about that," he said.
It was 6:03 p.m, and they were nearing their first stop — Ismael’s impromptu funeral. The group approached a giant white mosque. A crowd waited for them there, holding aloft a poster of a smiling, clean-cut Ismael.
The mourners lifted the coffin into the mosque in an instant. "God forgive us," people screamed. A cleric rushed the 100 men through a five-minute prayer, calling it Ismael’s "wedding day."
The crowds filed out of the mosque in a hurry and raced to their cars. Above them the sky was still light, but the moon was already showing. The procession had now swollen to more than 30 cars racing across the highway — the only travelers along this strip of desert road. The van carrying Ismael’s coffin finally broke down, but mourners rushed to lift the coffin into a pick-up truck. It was 6:20 pm.
People raised their hands aloft from their car windows. They waved four fingers in the air — the protest movement’s new symbol, in honor of those killed in the two sit-ins. Ahmed sobbed quietly, gazing out of the window. Mohamed tilted his head upwards.
"Don’t weep," said their friend Noor, who was driving. "He’s in a better place than we are."
Ahmed joked as the car approached the cemetery. "I remember this man at the government office was upset his cemetery plot didn’t face northward. As if he could really make use of that northern breeze," he said. The three sniggered.
It was now dusk. The car stopped and mourners scrambled toward a cemetery entrance — but it was the wrong entrance. They rushed back to the cars and sped a few meters down the road. They worried both about the police and religious custom: Bodies should be buried before sunset in Islam, and there was no time to spare. They scrambled out once more. The men gathered around a grave, and Ismael’s body was slid from the coffin into the earth.
The sky turned ink blue and a few mourners held aloft fluorescent lamps. Ahmed worried they wouldn’t find Ismael’s plot in the daytime when they wanted to visit him.
The makeshift burial proceeded without gravediggers. Friends and family took up the role, eager to bury their martyr, hoping for God’s blessing. They covered his open grave with stone slabs, and then shoveled wet sand and dirt atop the grave. A sheikh began a prayer against Ismael’s killers.
"Paralyze their hands, blind their eyes, scatter them, destroy them," he said. "Make us strong. We are humiliated. Lift that humiliation off of us."
Another man began calling on God to forgive the deceased, eulogizing him and listing his good deeds. Ismael had been chosen for paradise, he said. "Do not think those who died for God’s cause are dead. No, they are alive in paradise and have no fear. They are never sad."
The sheikh’s voice reached a crescendo. His prayers were met with "amens," broken intermittently by mobile ringtones. The wind rustled in people’s ears. A man, clinging to one of Ismael’s university friends, shook with grief. The sheikh’s voice cracked, asking, "God grant the dead martyrdom."
Mohamed suddenly spoke out to eulogize his friend. "We were about to give up on ever finding Ismael. It had been five days," he said. "Then I saw his smile. Even in death his smiled remained. I know because of this that he is a martyr in paradise."
It was now 7:20 p.m., and the night had turned pitch black. The mourners quickly retreated, rushing to their cars. Behind them lay an entombed Ismael. Nothing was left beside that quickly patted-down mound of sand. It was after curfew.
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