Saturday, May 31, 2008

A big farewell

My father-in-law's funeral is now over after four long and tiring and emotional days. I'm writing this sitting in the Emirates lounge in Dubai on my way to a consulting engagement in Johannesburg that I was supposed to start last week.

On Tuesday the family received condolences at home. Most of the visitors were relatives and close friends so it was quite comforting to receive them. The day was complicated only by the jet lag (we arrived in Beirut after 26 hours of travelling at 4 am and people started coming by around 10 am) and the fact that we had nothing to wear since Etihad had decided not to transfer our luggage in Abu Dhabi (to be the subject of another post I promise you).

Wednesday was the service and burial which took place at one of the churches in the family's home village (now a Beirut suburb) which fittingly we visited last October and which my father-in-law was instrumental in restoring after the civil war. The service led by the Maronite Archbishop of Beirut was conducted in Arabic so I didn't understand any of it, but I found it beautiful nonetheless.

Here's a photo I took of the church on that visit last October not knowing we'd soon be back there under such sad circumstances.

Viewing the body was harrowing but necessary to help us accept that he really is gone and burying my father-in-law alongside his parents in the family crypt was very emotional. So this was definitely the hardest day.

On Thursday the family continued receiving condolences in the salon attached to the church. The process consisted of us sitting in this large room from 10 am to 7 pm, standing to receive visitors and shaking their hands or kissing them on the cheeks (three times).

The visitors would then sit for some period of time (I'm sure the duration of their stay was carefully calculated according to some protocol but I didn't manage to figure out the algorithm) before repeating the process on their way out. This is quite a Middle Eastern thing to do. You'll often see photos of Arab political meetings where everyone is sitting around a room like this.

The process was repeated on Friday in a downtown location where fewer family and more political leaders visited. So I've now shaken the hands and kissed the cheeks of a sufficient proportion of Beirut's residents that I feel ready to run for a seat in the Lebanese parliament.

I always knew that my father-in-law was a man of some prominence in Beirut but I hadn't really appreciated how widely he was known and respected in the local community and in political and business circles.

I also knew that he'd maintained good relations with the Shiite community which is notable enough in a country renown for sectarian strife, but they really went out of their way to pay him respect; hanging banners farewelling him in the street; Shiite leaders coming to pay their condolences; and the overwhelmingly Shiite residents lining the streets and the Shiite shopkeepers closing their stores as the coffin was carried from the church to the cemetery.

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