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A Simple Funeral for Saudi Monarch

Times Staff Writer

The body of King Fahd was shrouded in his brown cloak and lowered into an unmarked desert grave Tuesday as the powerful monarch’s death was marked with the simple rites of this puritanical kingdom.

Hundreds of people, including Muslim princes and potentates from around the world, crowded into Riyadh’s Imam Turki bin Abdullah Mosque to hear the Koranic prayers for the dead chanted over the body of Fahd, who ruled Saudi Arabia for almost a quarter of a century.

In life, the Saudi king ruled over untold riches and the most sacred shrines in Islam. But in death, Fahd was whittled down to the plainest possible profile. He was laid to rest in a dreary stretch of brown dirt and crumbling mud-brick markers, his remains left to languish anonymously among the bones of thousands of other Saudis.

It was a final, egalitarian note after a life of opulence and privilege. But it was also a reminder that, for all of Saudi Arabia’s much-stereotyped materialism, there is a contradictory tendency to weigh spirituality and humility as measurements of dignity.

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It was this often-forgotten face of Saudi culture that emerged in the death rites of Fahd. In Saudi Arabia, the idea that Fahd’s body would soon be indistinguishable from others was a point of pride.

“Kings the world over have sumptuous funerals that we’ve seen on television,” the news anchor on state-run Saudi television reminded viewers who tuned in to the live coverage of the funeral. “But the kingdom of Saudi Arabia abides by the Sharia,” or Islamic jurisprudence.

Although several neighboring Arab countries ground to a stop to mourn a man who had loomed as one of the defining figures in Middle East politics, people in the Saudi capital went about their business with no apparent show of emotion. Shops and cafes were bustling. The stock market closed briefly Tuesday but reopened before the day was over. Government employees stayed at their desks. Saudi flags flapped at full staff.

“Maybe to the outside world we seem cold, but that’s the way we are about things,” said Jamal Khashoggi, a senior advisor to the Saudi Foreign Ministry.

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In the strict Wahhabism that is intertwined with Saudi society, stoicism trumps mourning at the time of death. Excessive displays of emotion are frowned upon, deemed dangerously close to disrespecting the will of God.

“Getting upset, crying, yelling, screaming -- all these things are not acceptable. It’s like complaining about one’s fate,” said Saudi oil consultant Hassan Husseini. “Nobody wears black or puts up flags. This is a major, major distinction from many Islamic countries.”

The body is washed according to Islamic rite, wrapped loosely in cloth -- usually a garment of the deceased -- and buried without a coffin in the desert. Mourning is restricted to three days and is expected to be muted.

“We’re very orthodox about things. We want to stick to the pure, simple, prescribed ritual,” Khashoggi said. “When it comes to death, a person is ascending to the kingdom of God, so we have to be careful. We can’t be innovative about death and have a music march or this or that.”

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It was no coincidence that many of the world leaders who poured into Riyadh to attend Fahd’s funeral hailed from predominantly Islamic states. Non-Muslims were not allowed at the rites; neither were women.

King Abdullah II of Jordan and Presidents Pervez Musharraf of Pakistan, Hosni Mubarak of Egypt, Bashar Assad of Syria, Hamid Karzai of Afghanistan and Jalal Talabani of Iraq were among the mourners at the ceremony. French President Jacques Chirac could not attend but paid a condolence call afterward to the royal family.

Vice President Dick Cheney is expected to lead the U.S. delegation, which will be present at the accession of the new monarch today. But by then attention will have fallen away from the dead king. The focus will stay staunchly on the future -- Saudis of all backgrounds will come forward to pledge their loyalty to King Abdullah, Fahd’s half brother.

Sources close to the Saudi royal family say that Fahd, who never recovered from a stroke he suffered a decade ago, had been on the verge of death for weeks. By the time his death was announced to the public, succession already had been arranged.

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Security was tight as Saudi Arabia laid to rest the man who fought bitterly against a rash of violent Islamists. Army checkpoints choked off traffic to the neighborhood around the mosque, and snipers ringed the graveyard.

Fahd’s remains were borne into the mosque on the shoulders of his sons. The streets outside were filled with mourners.

The floor was covered with a patchwork of carpets; white columns marched in rows through vast worship space and globes of light dangled from the ceiling on chains. Fahd’s body was laid out before a cleric with a white beard and sunglasses. A moment of silence passed, and then the voice rang out. “God is great,” the imam sang. “God is great.”

The prayer didn’t last long. After a few minutes, the remains of the king were held aloft again. His sons carried the body outside, slid it into an ambulance and the procession turned toward the cemetery.

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There, dozens of male members of the royal family walked gingerly over the dirt, their heads sheltered from the sun with brilliant umbrellas. Heat was thick in Riyadh; the temperature stood at 104.

On the eve of his coronation, Abdullah stood at the edge of the grave and peered down at his late half brother. Abdullah isn’t much younger than his predecessor; his face looked grim.

As he stood there watching, the men of the royal family took up shovels and began to throw dirt down on the fallen monarch.


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