This is an excerpt from The Syrian.In this scene Nadia and Sonia visit the local morgue in search of Ali’s body. They want to properly prepare him for burial.
The morgue was in the hospital’s lower level. Rather than walk through the lobby and descend two flights of stairs, Sonia and Nadia were directed to follow an outdoor walkway along the side of the building which eventually opened onto a spacious courtyard. Dozens of mourners, mostly women dressed in black, mingled about.
When Nadia pulled open the heavy steel door, she discovered more people inside the morgue’s vestibule. She and Sonia politely nudged their way through the crowd until they reached the Information desk.
“We come to identify the body of Ali Hajj,” said Sonia, “and prepare him for burial.”
The man ran his finger down one page, then another and another, until he finally found his name with a corresponding number. “It isn’t pleasant in there,” he said. “Are you sure you want to go inside? We can prepare his body.”
Nadia watched Sonia shake her head furiously at the suggestion, which made her wonder how she could doubt a woman who would do such a kind thing?
“We’ll do it ourselves,” Sonia said.
“As you wish,” and the man jotted down Ali’s identification number on a piece of paper. “Follow me.”
The stench of decomposing bodies in the hot, windowless room was a cross between rotten eggs and stinking Brie. Nadia felt the urge to vomit. While she swallowed hard to keep from gagging, she opened her purse, grabbed a wad of Kleenex and pressed it over her nose. It took her eyes a long minute to adjust to the dimness. She and Sonia followed the man down row after row of what looked like a slaughterhouse of bloodied carcasses. So many children, thought Nadia. My heart aches for their parents. It was tragic enough that they had to bury their young but to have to come here to identify what was left of them was beyond imagining.
When she saw the charred bodies, she realized that Israel was using white phosphorus bombs again. She’d seen photos of victims from the ’82 bombing of Beirut where the bodies burned like human torches. Eventually, the fire burned down, leaving charred, unidentifiable remains.
A young Muslim couple stood nearby, clinging to each other. They were there to try to identify one such corpse, laid out on a sheet-draped table. Another woman clutched a bouquet of white lilies in her hands. Their sweet fragrance lingered in the suffocating air. She searched for her young daughter. When she saw the upper torso of a child who lay headless in front of her, in a red polka-dot dress, she began to sob. Another twelve little bodies, a macabre patchwork of severed limbs, were placed on yet another table, awaiting identification.
They followed the man past dozens of corpses. Is there no end to the number of bodies here?
The man read Nadia’s mind. He shrugged and said, ”I know. What can I do?”
Eventually the man stopped and pointed to a body. “Is this Ali Hajj?” he asked.
“You have thirty minutes to prepare him for burial. You’re welcome to stay. Given the circumstances both a priest and an imam will perform the funeral service.”
A Christian woman brought Sonia a sponge, fresh water, three sheets and three pieces of rope so she could wash and prepare the body according to Islamic tradition. When she finished cleaning the body, Sonia bent over and kissed him. Nadia then helped her wrap him in three sheets, tying them closed at the top, the middle, and at the base of his feet. The task completed, Sonia let Nadia take her arm and lead her back to the foyer to join the other mourners. As she turned to look one last time at Ali, she saw two young men lift his body. They would carry him outside and place him alongside the others.
The mourners moved to the burial site. As the older women began the ritual ululating and young parents openly sobbed, the Greek Orthodox priest and the imam chanted in unison, asking God to forgive the sins of the deceased and ease their transition into heaven where they would reside and be preserved from the fires of Hell. Voices choking, Sonia and Nadia repeated the prayers along with the other mourners.
“I wish Ali were alive to take a photo of this scene,” whispered Sonia. “Look at us—Christians and Muslims mourning together, sharing the tragedy of war and death, and then burying our loved ones together.”
“You did the right thing, Sonia. May he rest in peace.”
“I’ll have to tell his mother when I get back to Beirut that we gave her son a proper burial.”
As Nadia turned to leave, she froze. She saw him. He was standing near the main door. He looked around. She knew he could only be looking for one person, her.
This is an excerpt from The Syrian, a political thriller. The book is available for purchase here.