Speak well of the dead
Samir Sobhi reads through the obituaries pages in Al-Ahram, looking for the meaning behind the words
Click to view caption|
Clockwise from top left: Two of the most important obituaries on Al-Ahram front pages were those of president Gamal Abdel-Nasser in 1970 and singer Umm Kolthoum in 1975; Al-Ahram front pages covered the deaths of Egypt's president Sadat in 1981, the state's first president Mohamed Naguib in 1984 and King Farouk in 1965; the new face of obituaries online; the suicide of defence minister Field Marshal Abdel-Hakim Amer in 1967 was widely covered in Al-Ahram
There is one page in Al-Ahram that will tell you more about politics and society than all the pages of politics and society can ever do, a page that will inform you with authority on matters of economy and language without meaning to, a page recognised for its importance, if not for its virtuosity. This page is the obituary page.
The obituary page contains stories of epic proportions, more often than not wrapped in a language akin to poetry. There are rhymed eulogies interspersed with lofty quotations from the Qur an and the Bible. Words are chosen carefully and weighed and embellished with flare, as families wish forgiveness for their departed ones, pray for their souls, and ask God to take them into Paradise.
Al-Ahram has been running obituaries as a regular feature for more than 100 years, though it took a while to fit them all onto one page. At first, they appeared anywhere in the paper, being simply grouped as obituary announcements marked by a black line running along the top of the page.
On page five of the first edition of Al-Ahram, for example, dated 5 August 1876, an announcement reads: "We are shattered by the sad news of the death of his Excellency Erfan Pasha, director of the estates of the late Prince Touson Pasha. Passing away on Thursday, he was buried on the same day. His courteous attitude, good qualities, honesty and utter probity, let alone his wit, sharpness and generous demeanour infused with gentleness and compassion, will be remembered by many, for these are the qualities that in his life brought him a solid reputation and endless praise. All those who knew him and heard of his commendable traits will be saddened by his untimely death. We ask God to give his family solace and fortitude in their time of grief."
When Al-Ahram ' s owner passed away, the news took the entire first page of the Saturday 13 August 1892 issue. "Catastrophe," declared a headline taking up an entire page and framed in black, a picture of the deceased appearing on two columns in the centre. The eulogy contained a line of poetry that read "catastrophe has blasted into the heart of bereavement, like a trigger detonating the core." The announcement adds that "our sadness today is such that no pen can redeem it."
However, aside from these very special obituaries, other obituaries that have appeared in the paper over the years are a rich source of historical information. During the wars of 1956, 1967 and 1973, for example, Egyptian officialdom came to realise that Al-Ahram's obituaries were a valuable source of information for foreign intelligence, especially Israeli intelligence, since they revealed the connections, military ranks, social and economic status and relationships to the country's leadership of those who had died.
Once this realisation had set in, all obituaries of military personnel had to be cleared first with the authorities.
Resourceful reporters have also made good use of the obituaries. Salah Galal, the former dean of Egypt's journalists, for example, recalled that the late Sami Gohar, who was on the urban news page of the Cairo newspaper Al-Akhbar, used to read the obituaries every morning in Al-Ahram. When he sensed that an accident or a crime was involved, he would go to offer his condolences to the family, chat people up, and follow up with the police as necessary. He had many a scoop this way.
Much can also be learned about social mobility from the family histories that the obituaries disclose. As people have become more educated, and as the country has increased in wealth, the demand for obituaries has increased. However, as demand has increased, so too have the newspaper's layout staff become more economical with space. The font for the obituaries was reduced to size 7 for example some time ago, allowing more words per line -- seven instead of four or five -- and adding 30 more lines to a full-page column.
The country's tax authorities have also been interested in Al-Ahram's obituaries, regularly scrutinising the page for tax purposes. However, rich businessmen and their families have not always been deterred from placing obituaries in the paper as a result. Instead, they have even ordered obituaries in huge font sizes, three times the size of the regular one, along with a big picture of the deceased.
In the 1990s, obituaries could even become three to five pages long, with major announcements often costing up to LE100,000 a piece. As a result, those reading the obituaries have been able to get a sense of the country's networks of power and wealth, those who commissioned them becoming part of a network of reciprocal obligations. The obituaries page often has avid readers, while at the same time offering family members some respite during their grief.
Mishaps can also happen in obituaries, with some men, secretly married to a second wife, having the announcements of their deaths filed separately by two different families.
Obituaries can also say a lot about the ways in which names have changed over the years. Following the 1919 Revolution, for example, the name Saad became widespread due to the popularity of the nationalist leader Saad Zaghloul. A lot of names associated with royalty, such as Fouad and Farouk, were seen in the following decades. In the 1960s, with the wave of nationalism sweeping over the Arab world, names like Abdel-Nasser, Yasser, Tamer, Wael, Hisham and Marwan became popular.
A generation or two before that, Turkish names were common, with Shawkat, Medhat, Erfan, Touson, Inji, Khesrow and Yakan appearing in the obituary columns. Coptic names, such as Kyrollos, Guirguis, Boutros, Hanna, Henein, Morkos, Aziz, Habib and Salib, also gave way to Robert, Albert, George, Alice, Madeline and Margaret after the British came to Egypt in the late 19th century.
Euphemisms and half-truths are also common in obituaries. A man who never went on a pilgrimage would turn into a haj upon his death, for example, or a butcher would be called a "meat trader" and an office boy a clerk. A judge could become a counsellor in the afterlife for the purposes of his obituary, and a head of department could be promoted to a deputy minister by his bereaved relatives. In this way families would honour their dear departed ones with post-mortem upward mobility, and a remotely related great man, such as a governor or a minister, would suddenly become a close friend or associate.
There is a news element to obituaries. Kamal Naguib, once head of the editorial desk at Al-Ahram, once said that the obituaries staff would notify him when someone important had died, as this would merit a front-page announcement.
Obituaries also follow a strict order. Condolences, for example, appear immediately below obituaries proper and immediately before notifications of 40-day wakes. One of Al-Ahram's staff, Mustafa Farmawi, used to promise the families of the deceased suitable spots on the page for their obituaries. I remember telling him that if all the newspaper's staff behaved like he did, promising grieving families what they wanted in their obituaries, we would never get the paper out.
One unforgettable incident occurred when an obituary announcement arrived just as the paper was going to press. The paper's editor-in-chief at the time, Anton Pasha Al-Jumayil, sent the notice to the press with a line of instructions. The next day the paper came out as usual with an obituary reading "May the deceased be granted a place in Paradise, subject to availability of space," thus incorporating Al-Jumayil's pencilled instructions to the press.
"If Al-Ahram doesn't say you're dead, you're not dead," Al-Jumayil used to say. What he meant was that a life of accomplishment was not complete without a notice in the nation's top newspaper. Al-Jumayil, editor from 1936 to 1948, also had his own stories to tell. "I will never forget the layout worker who came to me late one night, all agitated," he said. "The paper is missing a section, the worker said, that of the obituaries. It turned out that we had no announcements that day, which was very unusual and disturbing for the man concerned."
Typos could sometimes wreak havoc on an obituary, as they could on a regular story. One story once famously read not "renovation of the judiciary," but "denudation of the judiciary," for example. In another incident mourners from a Muslim family were sent to the Coptic Cathedral by mistake instead of to the Omar Makram Mosque. Al-Ahram, admitting its mistake, sent buses to take the mourners to the mosque.
The great Egyptian poet Salah Jaheen once wrote a poem about obituaries:
The dead chatter to me from their page.
They talk in the morning,
Their images pale,
Their eyes distraught.
When, they ask,
Will my photo come up?
My dear beloved,
Before too long
My turn will come.
My destiny is with you.
The poet Naguib Sorour also had his shot at the obituaries. Noticing that Al-Ahram assiduously reported both news of the dead and the price of gold, he detected an irony:
Prices of gold may go up,
But six foot under
People stay down.
Their serenity forever alive,
Lies cannot survive.
Death guides us gently,
Commanding us to read,
To read between the lines.
I also remember the great journalist Khalil Sabat commenting on the extravagant declarations that sometimes appeared in the obituaries -- how a widow would declare to her deceased husband that "your death has wrecked me," for example, or how she wished they might meet again in heaven.
He once told me about a widow whose eulogy to her husband included the phrase "until we meet again in Paradise." Shortly after that, Sabat said, the woman remarried.