Face-To-Face With Death In Iraq

On the 10th anniversary of the U.S. invasion of Iraq, NPR is catching up with some of the people we encountered during the war. In 2006, at the height of the violence, we brought you the story of a woman who performed the Muslim ritual of washing and preparing the dead for burial. Kelly McEvers has this update on Um Abbas, who is now living in southern Iraq.

What’s interesting about this story, and about many of the stories we did from Iraq during the most violent years, is how we got the story.

Back in 2006, hundreds of people were dying every day. Anti-American sentiment was high. Many times, Western journalists didn’t go out unless they were embedded with the U.S. military. To talk to Iraqis, journalists often had to rely on Iraqi colleagues.

For the story seven years ago, Isra’ did all the legwork. She remembers first meeting the body washer, Um Abbas:

“She was reading the newspaper, and I asked her what are you reading. And she said, ‘Oh about the benefits to the health of apples.’ She seemed a very life-loving person — she still wanted a better life although she lived in the midst of death,” Isra’ says.

Isra told Um Abbas we wanted to interview her and record her while she washed a body. Um Abbas said fine, but Isra’ should keep a low profile so she wouldn’t disturb the relatives of the dead. They agreed Isra’ would pose as a woman who couldn’t have children.

“It’s a belief in 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,” Isra’ says.

The night before she was to record the washing, Isra’ says couldn’t sleep. She had never seen a dead body, up close. But the next day, it all went well.

“They say that you are the enemy of the unknown,” she says. “And once it becomes known to you, it will no longer be your enemy.”

A Less Violent Iraq

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, cool day last month we drove about two hours south of Baghdad to find Um Abbas.

She’s still does the same work, though now she’s at a washing house in a dusty field outside the holy city of Kerbala. We notice she’s wearing a nice new robe, or abaya. It’s much nicer than something she would traditionally wear, and we realize it’s the abaya of a dead woman.

“Sometimes if the clothes are old or worn out, we burn them,” Um Abbas says. “Sometimes, if (they’re) still new, we use them.”

Um Abbas says she has seen a lot in the decades that she’s done this job. But it’s was never as bad as it was in 2006 and 2007.

“I saw women with decapitated heads — university professors. There were some who worked at the embassies,” she says.

One was the wife of a high-ranking official who survived an assassination attempt but his wife did not.

“She was sitting in the car next to him. They shot a bullet, she got hit in the head. And you know, part of her skull was missing,” she says.

Moving To Southern Iraq

In 2008, Um Abbas decided to leave Baghdad and move to southern Iraq, where there’s less violence. Now she washes people who die of natural causes. We ask if she’s still haunted by the war years in Baghdad.

“Of course I feel the pain inside because I know these people are innocent people,” she says. “They didn’t deserve to die in such a brutal way. But to affect me or to be traumatized in a paralyzing way? No.”

This is the thing about Um Abbas. Despite all the misery of the bad time, she somehow manages to smile and laugh. She looks a lot younger than her 60 years.

She says her job has helped her cope with life in Iraq better than most people.

“I never grieve, I never care really too much about things,” she says. “My husband got another wife. I didn’t care. I said, ‘Okay, everything comes in its time.’ I really feel optimistic about things.”

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, makes it less frightening.

“Why do human beings complicate things,” Um Abbas says, “when we know this is how it ends?”

“Life goes by in a moment,” she says. “Why not live it as it is?”

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