Face To Face With Death In Iraq Um Abbas has spent decades performing the Muslim ritual of washing the bodies of the dead to prepare them for burial. The war years in Iraq were terrible, she says, but in some ways, confronting death every day helped her cope with the country's trauma.

Face To Face With Death In Iraq

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This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block.


And I'm Robert Siegel. This week, 10 years after the U.S. went to war in Iraq, we are revisiting Iraqis we met in our coverage. In 2006, we brought you the story of a woman who performed the Muslim ritual of washing and preparing the dead for burial. And, of course, there were many dead, as she explained to us.

UM ABBAS: (Through translator) And before that, there were two sisters and before that, I cannot quite remember. There's just many people of different ages - young, women, children, old women.

SIEGEL: Recently, NPR's Kelly McEvers went looking for the body washer.

KELLY MCEVERS, BYLINE: What's interesting about this story and about so many stories we did from Iraq during the most violent years is how we got the story. Back then, hundreds of people were dying every day. Anti-American sentiment was high and a lot of times Western journalists didn't even go out unless they were embedded with the U.S. military.

If we wanted to talk to Iraqis, our Iraqi colleagues did the work. Here's our longtime colleague, Isra' Al Rubei-I, on how she first met the body washer, whose name is Um Abbas.

ISRA' AL RUBEI-I: She was reading the newspaper and I asked, what are you reading? She said, oh, about the benefits to the health of apple. She seemed a very life-loving person. She still wants a better life, although she lives in the midst of death.

MCEVERS: Isra told Um Abbas she wanted to record her while she washed a body. Um Abbas said, fine, but said she didn't want to offend the relatives of the dead. They agreed Isra would pose as a woman who couldn't have children.

RUBEI-I: She believed, and the Iraqi community and, I think, in the Arab community as well, that for a woman who cannot have babies, if she undergoes this terrifying experience of witnessing or seeing a dead body being washed, then this would have a certain effect on her psychologically and hopefully - and it worked many times, she would be able to have babies.

MCEVERS: The night before she was to record the washing, Isra couldn't sleep. She had never spent so much time with a dead body up close. But the next day, it all went fine.

RUBEI-I: They say that you are the enemy of the unknown and once it becomes known to you, it will no longer be your enemy.

MCEVERS: These days, Iraq is different. There are still bombings and some people still hate Americans, but now, Isra and I can go together to meet Iraqis. On a clear, cold day last month, we drove about two hours south of Bagdad to find Um Abbas. She's still a body washer at a washing house in a dusty field outside the holy city of Karbala. We notice she's wearing a new robe, or abaya. We realize it's the abaya of a dead woman.

ABBAS: (Through translator) Sometimes if the clothes are very old and worn out, we burn them. And sometimes, if they're still new, we use them.

MCEVERS: Um Abbas says she's seen a lot in the decades that she's done this job, but it's never been as bad as it was in 2006 and 2007.

ABBAS: (Through translator) I've seen women with the decapitated heads, university professors, there were some who worked at the embassies.

MCEVERS: One was the wife of high ranking official. Her head was partially shot off. In 2008, Um Abbas decided to leave Bagdad for good and move here to the south, where there's less violence. Now she washes people who die of natural causes. We ask if she's still haunted by the bad time.

ABBAS: (Through translator) Of course, I feel the pain inside because I know those people are just innocent people. They didn't deserve to die in such a brutal way. But to affect me or to be traumatized in a paralyzing way, no.

MCEVERS: This is the think about Um Abbas. Despite all the misery of the bad time, she somehow manages to smile and laugh.

ABBAS: (Through translator) You know, I never grieve. I never care really too much about things. My husband got another wife. I didn't care. Like, I said, oh, okay, everything comes in its time. I really feel optimistic about things.

MCEVERS: Like our colleague Isra, Um Abbas is philosophical about seeing death up close. While most people are scared of death, perhaps being face to face with it every day is just the thing.

ABBAS: (Speaking foreign language)

MCEVERS: Why do human beings complicate things, Um Abbas says, when we know how it ends. Life goes by in a moment, she says, why not live it as it is. Kelly McEvers, NPR News.

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