The Life and Death of an Egyptian Man: Reflections on the Meaning of Good Endings in Egypt

by Professor of Anthropology Farha Ghannam What defines a "good death?" What happens when a young person dies suddenly? How do mothers, fathers, and siblings make sense of the unexpected passing away of a son or a brother? What discourses do people draw on to explain such a loss? Based on recent ethnographic research in a low-income neighborhood in Cairo, I examine the role of religion in offering people a set of ideas and discourses that they can actively utilize to understand and accept mortality in general and unexpected mortality in particular. Unlike Western societies, where death is usually hidden and relegated to specific isolated spaces, death in Egypt is a public occurrence that mobilizes families, networks, and communities. Sharing in praying, carrying the coffin, participating in the burial, paying condolences, and respecting the memory of the dead and the feelings of his/her relatives are expected from neighbors, relatives, and friends. At the same time, death is widely discussed by men, women, and children and addressed by religious figures in the media and local mosques. In fact, death is the most commonly addressed topic by different sheikhs in weekly lessons in local mosques, TV religious programs, numerous audiotapes, and various books and booklets. The death of young men in particular, which is usually sudden and tragic, is the focus of much attention. Religious figures often view the increasing number of such deaths a minor sign that the Day of Judgment is approaching. They repeatedly explain the notion of "good ending" (husn al-khatima), which all Muslims should to aspire to and work to secure. They also vividly describe the meaning of a "bad ending" (sua' al-Khatima), which should be avoided at all cost. On the other hand, we have family members, relatives, and friends, who link the timing and nature of death, the place of burial, and testimonies by others who attend the washing, praying, carrying, and burying in their attempts to present the passing of the loved one as a "good death." This lecture explores how these different actors selectively appropriate religiously and socially supported ideas, texts, and views in their attempts to attach positive meanings to the death of young men and present it within the highly cherished notion of "good ending."