Academic journal article Alif: Journal of Comparative Poetics

Funerary Lament and the Expression of Grief in the Transforming Landscape of Luxor

Academic journal article Alif: Journal of Comparative Poetics

Funerary Lament and the Expression of Grief in the Transforming Landscape of Luxor

Article excerpt

Funerary lamentation known as cidid has been the socially sanctioned mode for the expression of grief by women at funerals in Upper Egypt for millennia. Since the 1980s, however, some women have been more integrated into Islamic practice and lamentation proscribed by religious leaders in Luxor. With the recent destruction of their ancestral homes, women have raised their voices in lament, breaching social convention and the taboo that lamentation should not be performed without a deceased. This article examines this contextual reversal and the theme of destruction in death with reference to the traditional lament repertoire and its ancient precursors.


In the late 1970s and 1980s, I undertook a private research project in Luxor in Upper Egypt with the aim of trying to record and translate laments sung by women at funerals. In my naivete, I had not realized how daunting such a task would be. I did not know that the performance of such laments was one to which men, and certainly strangers, were not privy.

However, after some time, I was able to convince women of my interest in the poetry of the laments, and, for the sake of my research (and often at the request of my Luxor colleague, Jamal Zaki al-Din al-Hajaji), women famed for their ability to lament agreed to cluster together (as they would normally do at the commemoration of the anniversary of a death) and intone laments into my tape recorder. On other occasions, when it was not considered appropriate for me as a foreigner to be present in a particular village, women would lament discreetly into a microphone as a solitary act of mourning, and, later on, the tapes would be passed on to me for transcription. These contexts of performance were not entirely unnatural but could be described as a legitimate form of "simulated natural context." In this way, over two years, I collected many lament repertoires, but because of the sensitivity of my presence as an onlooker at funerals, only twice was I allowed to witness lamentation at an actual funeral and see the interactional dynamics between "the one who begins" (il-badaya) and "the one who responds" (illi bitrudd caleha). (1)

During this time, I was able to ascertain that the socially sanctioned modes for the expression of grief was the singing of funerary laments known as cidid (a word derived from the verb cidd (meaning to "enumerate" or "repeat"). These were shaped as almost identical pairs of rhyming couplets (sometimes triplets) and performed by the ra'isa (leader) or badaya and reiterated by a chorus of mourners and the bereaved. Traditionally, the cidid laments are performed for the first three days of the funeral and subsequently on the fifteenth, thirtieth, and fortieth days, the latter being the day on which the soul is presumed to depart definitively from the land of the living until its return on the anniversary of death known as il-hul. This disciplined and highly regulated aspect of lament performance is a prime feature of the genre and a reason why women in the past were required to spend so much time at funerals.

Young married women with children do not generally attend funerals; rather, mature women--and widows in particular--make dutiful attendance at lamentation sessions. At a funeral, the badaya's role as animator is to evoke tears in the mourners, both the bereaved and those who have come in sympathy, while the bereaved widow daubs her face with mud, unplaits her hair, scoops dust from the ground, and flings it on her head in mourning, even ripping her garments apart in a frenzied display of grief. Squatting on the ground with a soaked handkerchief to swab the tears and her face half-shrouded in a black veil, the leader will chant and sway to the leaden rhythm. As she intones the first word of a lament, her partner--another woman, also well-versed in the art of lamentation and usually her principal respondent--will provide a contrapuntal response to which the chorus of other mourners will join in. …

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