In Iraq, Every Day Is Memorial Day

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Karim Kadim / AP

An Iraqi woman mourns in front of a coffin at a funeral for a student killed by gunmen in Waziriya.

The Shi'ite militias that forced Azhour Ali Mohammed from her home in Baghdad's al-Dolai district last month shot her husband Amer dead before her eyes and torched all her worldly possessions. And the fear that the killers may come back for her and her two little children prevented her from mourning her husband. "I could not hold a proper wake for him," says the young widow. "He deserved at least that."

A society with as much experience of violence as Iraq — up to half a million soldiers and civilians were killed in the war with Iran in the 1980s, hundreds of thousands were massacred on Saddam Hussein's orders in the 1990s, and tens of thousands have died in the Shi'ite-Sunni sectarian carnage in the past two years — learns to adapt its mourning traditions to its circumstances. During the war with Iran, Saddam barred newspapers from publishing wake notices; he worried that the sheer numbers of such notices would advertise just how badly his ill-judged war was going and demoralize his subjects. (Ironically, the current Iraqi government has taken a page out of the Saddam's rulebook, suppressing monthly death tolls and barring journalists and photographers from the scene of bomb blasts.) Undeterred by the dictator's orders, Iraqis developed a new custom: families in mourning painted notices on black banners — the name of the deceased, the manner of their death and the date and location of the wake — and posted them on street corners.

The practice continued after Saddam's fall. Many of Baghdad's major intersections became festooned with black banners. The mounting death toll from suicide bombings and roadside explosions led to a boom in the funerary industry — coffin makers, grave diggers, caterers. Wakes were often held in mosques, and before sectarian hatreds flared up it was not uncommon for Sunnis to use Shi'ite mosques, or the other way around.

Affluent families put on more elaborate wakes, building giant cylindrical tarpaulin tents in their gardens, where for three days visitors paid their condolences and ate hearty meals. The atmosphere was somber, punctuated by haunting lamentations performed by "adadas," or professional mourners: at a 2004 wake in Baghdad's Jihad neighborhood, I saw a group of old women in black abayas sing threnodies for four hours, egged on by an uncle of the deceased, who said, "Keep crying, I'll pay you more." (The going rate for a group of addadas was $150 per day, plus tips.)

Such ostentation is rare these days, since any display of wealth is likely to attract the attention of criminal gangs and kidnappers. Besides, mourning has itself become potentially deadly: Sunni suicide bombers have been known to target Shi'ite wakes, and Shi'ite militias have attacked Sunni funeral processions. So when Azhour went to collect her husband's body from Baghdad's central morgue, only her father and brother volunteered to go with her. They put Amer's body in a simple wooden coffin, strapped it onto the roof of the car and drove as quickly as possible to the nearest Sunni graveyard. "I was terrified that [Shi'ite militias] would see the coffin and stop us," she recalls. "And once they found out that we were Sunni, they would kill us as well."

Fear of Shi'ite militias also prevented Azhour from posting a black banner to mark Amer's death. There was no question of holding his wake in a mosque; fearful of attacks, many of them refuse to allow wakes. Nor could Azhour hold the wake in their former neighborhood, where their old friends and neighbors could attend. So she invited a handful of family members to the home of an uncle who lives across town. Nobody came.

As a poor widow, Azhour is now confronted with a world of problems. All of the family's official papers and documents were torched along with their other possessions: without them, her children won't be admitted to any school, she can't collect state-subsidized rations, or even rent an apartment. Traveling in the city is dangerous: she could be stopped at any one of hundreds of checkpoints and arrested for not having papers. To get new documents, she must first return to the neighborhood where Amer was killed, and get a note from the police station there. But that's impossible, because the neighborhood is controlled by the Shi'ite militias, who would likely shoot her on sight. "Without my husband, I am now a nobody," she says. "For the government, I don't exist."

She may not have been able to mourn Amer in the customary way, but like countless Iraqis who have lost loved ones to violence, Azhour's grieving has just begun.