RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
There's a ritual involved in preparing a Muslim's body for burial. The corpse must be washed several times, dressed in a simple shroud and then quickly buried by tradition on the day of death. Only certain people can perform this ritual, and they've been overwhelmed with the ongoing violence in Iraq.
NPR's Jamie Tarabay tells the story of one Iraqi woman who washes and prepares the bodies of the dead.
JAMIE TARABAY reporting:
Water flows from a tap in the wall as Am Habas(ph) moves about the body of an old woman lying on the cold cement floor. Relatives say the woman died of old age. They quietly chant God is great as Am Habas stands over the body in the small washhouse.
She knows what to do. She's been doing this for over 30 years.
Ms. AM HABAS (Iraq): (Through translator) I had no other choice. (Unintelligible) you are left without a lot of options. I was only 22 when I started. I had four children and my husband didn't make enough to feed us. So I had to do this.
TARABAY: She closes her eyes in prayer, then bends to remove the old woman's clothes. Her long gray hair with remnants of henna spills out of her black veil. Am Habas places a square of white cloth on the lady's private parts and begins the ritual. She's done it many times.
Earlier this week, it was a young girl killed in a car bomb.
Ms. AM HABAS: (Through translator) And before there were two sisters. And before that I cannot quite remember. There are just so many people of different ages, young women, children, old women. As you know, a car bomb doesn't discriminate. It just rips whatever people are there.
TARABAY: Am Habas' washhouse is in Kadamia(ph), a deeply religious Shiite district of Baghdad. There, many families bring their dead and prepare them for burial in Najaf, the Shiite city of cemeteries in the South.
Ms. AM HABAS: (Through translator) They come from all over Baghdad and from the outer province, because they come to Baghdad on their way to Najaf; but mostly it's people who live in Baghdad.
TARABAY: Am Habas dips a faded plastic container into a tub of water and pours it over the body. She takes a bar of soap made of olive oil and rubs it in small circles on the woman's scalp, creating a lather. She takes a loofah and scrubs every inch of skin; every finger and every toe. She's careful and caring.
She used to be frightened. The first time she washed a body she couldn't eat or sleep.
Ms. AM HABAS: (Through translator): It was the body of a woman who had been burned. I still remember her. When I went to sleep that night, I couldn't get her out of my head. I kept thinking about it. I was scared. I told myself that I would have to choose between starving or doing this.
One day, they brought a body of a young woman who was in a burning car. She died holding tight, her baby.
TARABAY: Am Habas said it was impossible to separate the two corpses.
Ms. AM HABAS: (Through translator) A woman is always a mother, even if she's dead. This really broke my heart more than any other incident I can recall.
TARABAY: Am Habas has trained her daughters in the washing ritual. It's as close to a trade as they'll get. Given little education and husbands who don't make enough to support them, there are few choices for poor woman in Iraq, she says. If they didn't do this, her daughters might have turned to prostitution.
Ms. AM HABAS: (Through translator) They either come to help, or I send them a share of what I earn--all because you cannot trust life. I do not want them to consider other options.
TARABAY: Am Habas washes the old woman's body a second time, using water mixed with (unintelligible), or berry leaves. As she doused it, she chants a prayer, then she washes the body for a third time--this time with camphor, a powder made from bark that works like a liniment for the skin. Then, she rinses the body again. The entire ritual takes over an hour. Sometimes, corpses are brought to Am Habas still adorned with jewelry. The valuables, she returns to the family. The clothes, she keeps.
Ms. AM HABAS: (Through translator) They are clean. We take them for ourselves or give it to the poor.
TARABAY: The blue smock with white flowers she's wearing now belonged to someone else once upon a time.
Ms. AM HABAS: (Through translator) It belonged to a dead woman, to be honest with you.
TARABAY: After completing today's washing ritual, Omabas gently pats the old woman's body dry with a towel. Then she puts camphor powder on the seven areas of a Muslim's body that touch the ground in prayer: the forehead, the palms of her hands, her knees, and her elbows. The whole time, she recites verses from the Koran. Then, she spreads a large, white shroud onto a block of cement.
Other women then help her lift the body onto the shroud. Am Habas then places a dry, white cloth over the torso, another over the head. Sometimes, Am Habas says, the relatives bring beads or a ring made of mud to place on the body.
Ms. AM HABAS: (Through translator) We also put dust on her eyes as if to say that the only thing man should take with him to the grave is dust.
TARABAY: Am Habas doesn't get paid for her work, but families usually tip her around 10,000-15,000 Iraqi dinars, about six to 10 dollars. But the increase in violence has brought Am Habas a lot of work lately. She says young Iraqi women are eager to do this work now, because it's one way of retaining honor and purity in a place that is disintegrating into chaos. But there are rules, she says.
Ms. AM HABAS: (Through translator) She should know how to be kind to the family of the dead, because they are bereaved. She should recite certain Koranic verses.
TARABAY: She must also have deep faith, especially in the hereafter.
Jamie Tarabay, NPR News, Baghdad.
MONTAGNE: NPR reporter Izra al-Rabihy(ph) contributed to that report.
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