by Rawiya Kameir
The sound of wailing carried way down the road. Shrill, disembodied cries floated out of the house and into dusty Khartoum.
It was the day after my grandmother’s passing. Hundreds of people—literally hundreds, immediate and distant family, old and new friends, friends of friends, neighbours, former coworkers, classmates, domestic employees, women who simply might've sat next to her at a wedding—were passing through to offer their condolences on the death of the formidable matriarch at the helm of my mother’s family.
Conservative norms mean few publicly sanctioned social events in Sudan, making a funeral just as important an occasion for communal gathering as awedding. (There's as much makeup and fine silk on display, too.) In the days and weeks following a death, the bereaved open their homes to masses of mourners, who arrive as early as 8am and stay as late as midnight, bound by obligation more than grief to make an appearance.
Beit el-bikka, which translates to "the house of crying," is literally that. Some women cry for real, while others fake-cry with the theatrical dexterity of a low-budget soap opera. The louder and longer their sobs, the more hollowed by your loss they are proving themselves to be—according to one of my aunts, it’s respectability insurance for when it comes time to gossip.
When I arrived from London, a few hours after my mother’s flight from Toronto, I was stiff with shock. I was prepared neither to cross the threshold of my grandmother's house without seeing her, nor to reckon with the banshees I could hear from beyond the gate. I wanted to slump in a corner and bawl my eyes dry. Alone. Was that so much to ask?
In a culture where mourning is strictly communal and privacy is not given much consideration, there was no corner I could disappear into. Instead, my tongue tangled with rusty Arabic as I was introduced to mourner after mourner. “May the blessings of God be upon us all,” I repeated over and over. I watched my aunts and cousins engage in a deliberate dance that involved just the right length of hugging, the right velocity of back-patting, the right pitch of studied sobbing, even when the tears wouldn’t come. I kept repeating the same phrases as they obliged women who feigned grief, shoulders heaving melodramatically like none of us know what real crying looks like.
I didn’t know how to not be offended by the insincerity of it—I’m not good at suppressing my side-eye. I’d participated in Sudanese funereal rituals in Toronto and in London, in Cairo and in Khartoum, but this was my first time on the family side of beit el-bikka.
For the bereaved, the days immediately following a death are spent serving food and drink to guests, accepting condolences and making small talk. Genuine, individual expressions of grief can only happen in tiny windows: early in the morning before the first mourner has arrived, late at night after the last one has left, in stolen moments throughout the day when you enter a room and slink to the floor and close the door behind you to catch your breath. The rest of the time, you are too busy dancing your dance.
My mom and I now live in Toronto and have spent the past two decades outside of Sudan, immersed in cultures where sincerity and earnestness are valued over duty and social obligation. For us, even the concept of beit el-bikka is a trying one, a necessary evil to be endured begrudgingly, rather than to be embraced.
But in the nine months since my grandmother’s death, the purpose served by the ritual of beit el-bikka has become more apparent. It fills the house with the sounds of life, rather than the silence of death. It offers parameters for navigating heartbreak, to get through the loss rather than to get over it. In bringing together scores of people—even those who may not be there by choice—a web is drawn, a person is mapped out through his or her social ties. It is difficult and exhausting, but it is a heartening affirmation of a life lived with and for others.
You can do the real, personal work of grieving later, but you are selfish to think this is time that belongs to you.