There was a funeral to attend, of a well-known and well-loved gentleman from the North. I was set to go with hair wrapped up, sporting a red and gold djellaba.
Outside the home of the recently deceased, men mingled on overlapping carpets under a tent set in the road, some waiting to ride to the cemetery, where men alone are permitted. I headed inside the adjacent house to join the women, whose task it is to mourn and comfort the newly widowed wife.
The front hall was lined with somber women seated on chairs. I gave a weak greeting, Bon soir, and the name of the person I hoped to find. A few hands pointed through a doorway and down another hallway. I passed through and found more women: on the floor, on carpets, on woven mats, on chairs, standing. I repeated the name of my inviter. They pointed up the stairs. I climbed up and, at the landing, I looked down over a railing into the courtyard: every square inch was packed with women, each wrapped in a colored veil, each looking serious, or sad, or deep in thought. Again I repeated the same name, and the upstairs mourners pointed downwards. One, dressed in a green veil with a deep blue pattern, jumped up to help me. She grabbed my hand and said “Let’s go.”
Pushing through the hallways full of women dressed in every imaginable hue and pattern of sleeve, we gestured, pointed, waved, and pressed on across the courtyard, picking our way over legs and feet. I shed my shoes on a pile at the opposite end of the courtyard, and proceeded through the doorway there.
A woman preached from the Quran in Sorai, Arabic, Bambara, French, to the chorus of women on the ground in front of her, listening, chatting, praying. They gestured me towards the back of the room and I carefully made my way, grabbing onto the hands offered up from the floor to steady me. A fleece blanket covered the floor under a far window and, as I made my way towards the woman sitting on it, she moved aside, offering a small space for me in the hot, stuffy room. I ungracefully turned and plopped down against the wall, practicing my best serious and courteous smile.
I wondered to myself where the widow was, if she was alone somewhere or with loved ones, preparing for the 40 heavy days she was now required to remain in her home, in mourning. Squeezed between yellow cotton legs to my right and the fidgeting of the women to my left in blue, I resigned myself to the heat and the sweat and the impenetrable languages. I was grateful for the ceiling fan, and I tried to breathe deeply. Someone came in with a silver tray to serve plastic bags of kola nuts, and pouches of a sweet white powder to take home and mix with milk.
A shout through the window from the street prompted a collective prayer—three rounds of quiet mumblings, holding the hands in front like an open book. At the end of the prayer the women wished peace upon each other, shaking hands. Newly able to speak at full volume, my neighbor informed me that the woman to my left was the wife of the deceased. All along I’d been hip to hip, thigh to thigh, elbow to elbow with the widow herself. I shared her blanket, and her air. I looked at her and she looked at the floor. I offered my condolences, and a girl across the room offered her tears.