As the sound of the radio was drowned out by his noisy work in the warehouse, at first Issam thought he had misunderstood. But the journalist confirmed the incredible news: Italy, a few hundred kilometres further south, was going into lockdown. “Today's March 10", he thought, "I’ve got construction jobs until June. What will happen if they decide to do the same here?”
It could not have happened at a worse time for Issam. His young Grenoble-based company was finally getting traction with several incoming projects. He had launched the business betting on the windfall effect of the government's tax incentives to promote the green energy transition. And it has proved to be a winning ticket: the order book for home insulation has filled up for spring and summer 2020.
In search of reassurance, he spent the morning calling his clients back to confirm their projects. But a few days later, the announcement of the closure of schools and the martial tone of the President - "We are at war," he repeated several times during his speech - heralded difficult days ahead. Issam wanted to believe that it was more a matter of "caution" than anything else, especially since Sunday's municipal elections were still being held.
But on Monday evening, coming back from work, he found Leila worried: "Macron is going to talk tonight. We're going into lockdown for sure. The schools, that was just the beginning. What a joke to have maintained the election."
After dinner, Issam watched TV with his three eldest while Leila tucked in their two-year-old twins. On the screen, another presidential speech. France was put on hold for several weeks — the word "lockdown" was, strangely enough, never mentioned. Issam let out a sigh. He stroked his beard nervously, trying to not show his growing anxiety to his two boys and his little girl, Sarah.
Issam’s mind raced like crazy. What would happen to his company: "Will we have to postpone all the work? Will customers still be able to pay if everyone stops working?"
Over the next few days, Issam frantically reorganized his construction jobs, contacting suppliers, making sure that roofers and fitters were available... But it was proving increasingly difficult: a growing number of his contacts were getting sick. Keeping his company alive was Issam's sole obsession.
Until that phone call.
"Zak" appeared across the screen. It was Issam's older brother. He lived in Marseille where they spent part of their childhood. Zak had moved back there.
— Grandma fainted this morning, she's at the clinic.
— What's happened to her?
— She's had a fever for several days. We took her to Aunt Cora's to take care of her, but we got scared when she had convulsions this morning. The paramedics came. We managed to get her admitted to the clinic.
— What do you mean "managed to"?
— With the coronavirus spreading, hospitals are overwhelmed. They're only taking the most severe cases now.
— I'll go down to Marseille. I need to see her.
— You can't. No visitors are admitted. Not even the staff are allowed to move from one floor to another. Aunt Cora couldn't see her. Fortunately, Agnes - you remember Agnes, the neighbor? - She works in the intensive care unit. She took a picture of Grandma with her phone.
Issam received the photo at that very instant. Grandma Khadija smiled, reassured by Agnes' familiar face. Her round face flushed with color under the respirator mask. Her ample 89-year-old body seemed far away, unreal.
Issam told his wife what had happened and that he would need to leave for Marseille the next day. Leïla felt her heart crack. "Yes, you have to go. Transfer all your professional calls to my phone. I'll take care of it."
The next morning at five o'clock, Issam and Leïla rose together, like every day, for their dawn prayers. When it was time to bow, both spouses remained head down longer than usual. Foreheads pressed to the ground, they made the most of this final privileged moment in the muslim prayer when, after the consecrated formula and surahs, one can address God intimately and freely for as long as necessary.
Dawn’s light broke with the most beautiful colours as Issam climbed into his truck. Ready to turn the key in the ignition, his telephone rang. Leila, he thought, I must have forgotten something... But the screen showed a number with the +212 area code. The area code for Morocco. It was his mother Nija. She had been splitting her time between Marrakech and France for several years now. Issam picked up the phone and heard his mother's voice, sobbing.
— Grandma died this morning at 05:40. Her lungs didn't hold, they said it was the coronavirus…
— They’ve put her body in a sealed bag to prevent spreading the virus. We can't see her. Aunty Lydia is also sick: she’s just been admitted to Timone hospital. We don't know if we'll be able to bury Grandma, apparently cremation is mandatory... Do you realize what it means?... And I'm stuck here!
She couldn't hold back her tears anymore. Issam’s were not far away.
He could not believe that this disease was hitting his family so brutally, taking his grandmother’s life.
The emergency measures dictated the cremation of coronavirus victims as soon as possible following death, as the clinic did not have a refrigerated morgue.
Grandma Khadija was a devout Muslim. As such, her faith calls for burial. In accordance with the Islamic rites. And in Islam, cremation is not an option. You should be able to visit her grave, as she would have wanted, as God wills. Grandmother should be buried within twenty-four hours at the latest.
This conversation sounded like the beginning of a race against time for Issam.
— Wait Mum, I'm sure there are exceptions. Let me make some calls.
At six thirty in the morning, Issam called Murad. He was a "brother", a friend who had set up a Muslim funeral home. Before it became his professional activity, the two friends worked as volunteer gravediggers for Muslim associations. They met each other while doing funeral washes for penniless and isolated people. Needy people. Like the North-African immigrant workers in the shelters — the "chibanis" as they are called. Is there a Muslim section in the cemetery? Who can carry out the religious ritual? Who can handle the administrative paperwork? Did the deceased have insurance? Those were some of the many questions that often remained unanswered. Seeing the same distress over and over again following a bereavement in the Muslim community, Mourad decided to make it his profession.
— Assalamu alaykum, sorry to call so early. I need your help.
— Alaykum as-salaam Issam, looking at the time, I figured it out.
— My grandmother died of coronavirus this morning. And from what we hear, the chances of having a proper burial are looking slim…
— My condolences, my brother. May God have mercy on her. Yeah, since the coronavirus outbreak, it's usually cremation, but let me see what I can do...
— We will need to act as fast as possible.
Mourad didn't need to be begged. He would never forget what Issam had done for him, helping him build up the capital of his company by lending him money.
— Of course, e-mail me the details so I can have the paperwork done. We'll need the declaration of death to be allowed to dispose of the body.
A little later in the morning, the two friends met again. Mourad was able to get a coffin the right size for Grandma Khadija. It was black. They prepared a complete funeral trousseau to bury her with.
By noon, the declarations for the town hall and the police had been completed. But the death certificate would not be issued until the afternoon! This meant putting off their departure for the south until the next day.
For Issam, another sleepless night. Would they get there before noon, when Grandmother Khadidja was to be transferred to a morgue worthy of the name?
The next day, before getting into the black hearse that would take them to Provence, coffin and funeral gard aboard, they each filled out a Formal Declaration justifying the trip during lockdown: "Professional reasons that cannot be postponed" for Mourad and "Imperative personal or family reasons" for Issam. Issam could have ticked the same box as Mourad since they were granted the authorization to act as official gravediggers for Issam’s grandmother.
At 10.00 a.m. on the dot, the van pulled up discreetly at the rear of the hospital. Adel and Nabil, Issam's brother and cousin, were waiting in a car. In the parking lot, they quickly put on their professional gravediggers’ kit: masks, overalls, boots with over-soles.
Kitted out, Issam and his siblings entered the building while Mouard was waiting in the parking lot. Issam approached the nurse in charge, about to finish her shift. "We have been appointed as funeral director for Mrs. Khadija A., whose death certificate is here. " The caregiver, in a hurry, asked just a few questions - overwhelmed morgues, overcrowded funeral homes, staff absent for fear of contracting the disease, no one was rushing to take care of the remains. In the end, she gave them the key to the transfer room.
When the three parents went inside, there was only one body. Issam went first to the cooling stretcher. His brother and cousin followed him with the equipment. He opened the cover : it was grandmother Khadija! They were relieved to find her dressed in her last clothes.
They could not proceed with the ritual washing of their grandmother's body. Only a woman may do this, according to the Muslim ritual. Issam then opened the trousseau. In the basket was an earthen stone, musk and three white shrouds. He took out the stone to make dry ablutions or tayammum, an alternative when it is impossible to wash the deceased’s whole body with water.
Gently, the grandson passed the stone over Khadija's face, wrists and hands. He then placed pieces of musk on the points of prostration: the forehead, hands, knees and feet. Khadija's arms were arranged along her round body. Carefully, the three men arranged the shrouds one by one to wrap their grandmother's entire body in the cloth. They started with the left side of her body. Issam and Murad carried the body to the coffin waiting outside in the vehicle. Issam returned to the clinic's administrative department to close the file. This last signed document was the end of grandmother Khadija's passage to the final place she had been alive. The place she died. Like thousands of other covid-19 victims.
The vehicle should have gone directly to the cemetery, but there was one last stop for grandmother Khadija: the family home.
There, a large part of the family was waiting. About forty people were able to make the trip. Kenza, the eldest of the family, came to meet Issam. She whispered in his ear : "I was able to get a dispensation from the mayor : instead of the ten people normally allowed, we can be twenty at the funeral."
The mayor, not currently affiliated, previously elected under the banner of the National Front, a far right party solidly rooted in the region, knew this large clan of Algerian origin, settled in his town even before he was born. He had not hesitated when Kenza, his neighbour for some twenty years, called him. The mayor offered his condolences and told her he would make an exception. He added in a nostalgic note: "I knew your father well, he did so much here... he was the real mayor of this town!"
Before going to the cemetery, the prayer of the dead, Janâza's prayer, had to be performed. For while he had granted a dispensation, the mayor had still insisted: "The burial must take place as soon as possible, for that, no exceptions." Khadija's coffin was placed in front of the door, in front of the family home, facing in the direction of Mecca. Like anywhere, it was difficult to find an imam available. By tradition, it is the eldest and wisest man present that should lead this prayer. It should have been Khadija's son-in-law. However, he would rather a direct descendant take the lead.
Issam, being only in his early forties, felt a wave of emotion pierce his chest. His uncle had just given him the responsibility of leading the funeral prayer of the only grandmother he had ever really known. He, the born-again muslim, never imagined he would be in such a position. Younger, far from his parents, isolated, he had known mad people, mixed with thugs, companions of larceny, of galley slaves. Redemption, too. That's how he met Muslim clerics.
His family of Muslim culture had seen him born, his second family, of devoted Muslims and engaged in preaching, had helped him to become the man he was now. A self-taught man who had become an honest and committed worker, Issam had found his balance, his inner peace and a place in the community. He had also met the woman who became his wife.
Behind him the others stood according to the ritual, forming prayer lines. He walked up to a metre from the coffin. With difficulty, Issam took a deep breath and intoned the prayer for the dead, his hands superimposed on his solar plexus. In this third part of the mortuary prayer, the moment of the invocations dedicated to the deceased, Issam's voice dried up. He lacked air, choked by a sob. The memory of his grandmother and her relationship with God overwhelmed him, her last will to rely on Him. He knew that she had decided not to take her diabetes medication for months.
Issam exhaled, a tear slowly flowed from his right eye. Bowed heads behind him lifted up, some trying to see his figure, others his face, trying to read his expression... He managed to continue the invocations and ended with a salute, repeated by those present, to the right.
The convoy of about ten cars headed towards the city’s main cemetery. With the help of the other men of the family, Issam, though with some difficulty, brought the coffin into the family sepulchre. Khadija now lay with her son and husband in this crypt.
Once out of the tomb, Issam finally took off his overshoes and his undertaker's suit, overcome by a feeling of weariness and relief. It was 3:30 p.m., but he didn't know it. Grandma Khadija had died the day before, on Good Friday, at the dawn prayer. She was now buried at the time of the afternoon prayer.
Leaving for Grenoble, while hugging his brother, Zak, Issam saw the joint of his elbow with a red plaque on it. He wasn't done with the coronavirus.
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Born in the south of France, Aïta Nebbour lives in Paris. As a traveller, she finds her inspiration in her encounters and in public life. "Issam, gravedigger against is will" is her first published text.