They arrive in borrowed wooden coffins. He lifts them to his marble slab, cuts away their clothes, stuffs their wounds with cotton. He lathers and then rinses them with a hose that runs like a tiny river, carrying away blood and shrapnel and grit. He sprinkles them with rosewater, wraps them in white linen. He sends them to the grave.
Najim Abid works in solitude, in a place where the deeds of men intersect with the grace of God. Islamic custom requires the dead be cleansed before burial. Abid’s hands are white and raw; he has washed too many bodies, yet the coffins don’t stop. They never seem to stop.
“I’ve washed clergy, doctors, policemen, soldiers, laborers and painters,” says Abid, 44, a slight man with the whisper of a mustache. “I’ve washed Sunni and Shiite. This sectarian violence touches everyone. Once came a child of 12 killed in a mortar attack. They are all dear to me. They are all Iraqis.”
To visit Abid’s washing room is to see how brutal and battered Iraq has become. In July, Baghdad recorded more than 1,800 violent deaths: husbands snatched, tortured and beheaded; wives incinerated in market stall explosions; worshipers gunned down in front of mosques; the throats of laborers slit in the orchards. Children die too, or they are left without a parent, like the boy the other day who ran through the smoke of a suicide bomber to find only his father’s twisted motorcycle.
“We curse the devils for all this death,” Abid says.
He is meticulous, and sometimes reticent, when he speaks of the dead, as if he holds the secrets of all those who have passed through his hands.
Abid used to wash a few bodies a week; now, with coffins moving like rickety caravans down his alley, he receives as many as six a day, some collected from morgues, others taken from hospitals. His father was a washer before him, and Abid, a government clerk in Saddam Hussein’s time, took over when the old man grew frail. The pay is small; he receives whatever a grieving family can afford, usually $10 to $30 a washing.
“To wash a fellow Muslim is an honor recorded by God,” he says. “Today, I had two people killed by bombs. I hope this violence is just a passing black cloud. What I am seeing is the innocent and the poor who have committed no sin, yet they end up like this.”
Cleansing the dead, like washing one’s hands before prayer, is symbolic. It brings purity before God. It is an intimate act, carried out by a stranger, a man who will burn the bloody clothes, offer spiritual comfort to a widow, a brother, a cousin. There is modesty too. Abid washes only men, and when he does, he covers their genitals with a cloth.
Then he takes a loofah and greenish-brown soap. He begins: moving along the right side from leg to arm and over the shoulders and head and then coming down the left side before turning the body over and washing again.
“The bloodstains don’t always come off with the first foam,” he says. While he washes, he chants: “God is the greatest, there is no god but God. Our thanks are all to God.” Relatives are permitted in the washing room. Many don’t come. “It’s hard to see a wound or a piece of head broken away,” Abid says.
Families bring new towels -- a final, small gesture of love. Abid dries the body. He measures white linen, running scissors through it and wrapping the body from head to toe, tying it with four sashes. He sprinkles it with rosewater or maybe a man’s favorite cologne. Many families bring vials of Zamzam water, drawn from a sacred well at Mecca, where every Muslim able to do so is required to make a pilgrimage at least once.
“Sometimes with a body I feel relaxed and almost calm when washing,” he says. “You feel he is close to you. But other times, you just want to finish up quickly. Why I feel one way or the other is a mystery. It must be something related to the dead man himself. Maybe during his life he was good-hearted and had no bitterness in his soul. Maybe that comes through.”
The body is taken from the washing room to the nearby mosque. Quick prayers are recited, and Abid watches as the coffin is loaded on a car or minibus and driven to the graveyard, where the body is removed from the coffin and laid in the earth. At dusk, when the dirt is tamped and the final prayer is said, the coffin, bearing faint bloodstains of bodies it has carried before, is returned to the neighborhood mosque to be used again.
“When the dead one is carried away, I try to forget about him,” Abid says. “Maybe it is a blessing from God that I don’t remember them all. But the wailing families and the beating of chests, I don’t forget these.”
There are some among the dead that Abid doesn’t wash. They are the martyrs, the ones who died for the glory of God. But these days in Iraq, someone’s martyr is another’s terrorist. Abid is not political. He does not judge. He knows the Koran, and he knows what he sees in front of him when he begins his task.
“The real martyr is pure, even his dust-covered clothes are sacred, and this is how he should face his God,” he says.
Abid often mentions God. When the towels are folded, and his apron is hung, God is there. Abid believes this. He believes that without God, the washing room would only be a place of blood and water. “God sees what I do.”
He looks at his hands. They smell of soap and rosewater, masking death; the skin has been scrubbed so much that it seems an imperceptible layer has been worn away. One would expect his hands to be as smooth as river stones, but they are coarse and strong, like the hands of a carpenter.
Not long ago, the body lifted out of the coffin and onto Abid’s slab was that of a cousin. The man sold pickles in Baghdad, and one afternoon while he was sitting in his car, insurgents opened fire and drove away. They shot him many times, and Abid twisted much cotton into the bullet holes to stop the blood, wondering what harm a pickle seller could do to anyone.
Fleishman was recently on assignment in Iraq.