Sudanomena: Bait Albika [The Crying House]

Cover photo for this post provided by Lameese Badr, taken at her grandfather’s funeral (Allah yarhamu – may God have mercy upon him).


I rarely cry at funerals.

Actually, I only remember crying once at a funeral, and that was because my life was in shambles at the time, and when I arrived at the funeral, the first person I was faced with was literally wailing [tabki w tawassif] and I just couldn’t handle life anymore at that moment; complete and utter breakdown ensued.

But crying is an integral part of the funeral process (mind blowing information, I know). At its most basic, it is a way for the family/friends of the deceased to release their shock and sadness at the passing of their loved one. But in many countries, including Sudan, crying signifies something beyond the mere expression of grief. It is a way to honor the dead – a testament to the deceased’s relevance, importance, significance in this world. It shows those present that this person mattered; that they were respected and loved, and that their absence will not go unnoticed.

In (traditional) theory, funerals are a support system on steroids. Neighbors bring food to the deceased’s home (a.k.a bait albika and henceforth known as ‘the funeral home’) to help feed the devastated family and the throngs of people coming to offer their condolences. Friends and acquaintances all flock to comfort and commiserate with the bereaved family. Relatives, both close and distant, stay for days and often even weeks, helping the family tend to guests and fill the space that their lost loved one has left. It is the basis and beauty of communal life.

In (modern) practice, it is the socio-behavioral manifestation of hyperbole, and a big part of the reason why I am unable to cry at funerals. If I were to describe Sudanese funerals in an image, it would be this:


Everything about the Sudanese funeral sky-writes drama. Paying your respects takes you through the full gamut of human emotion – a sped up version of the 5 stages of loss. At each funeral, you are taken on a whirlwind ride from denial to acceptance.

A good commiserator starts by putting her face on. Stand in the doorway to the funeral home and collect yourself. Pull your scarf or tobe over your head to ensure your hair is fully covered. Have tissues at the ready, either in your hand or – if you’re classy – in your purse. If you need it because (like me) you aren’t a natural crier, take a few minutes to think of something sad to get you in the zone. Then step through the front door.

When you meet a grieving family member, commence the crying sequence. There are many different styles of crying, so this part is really up to you. Some are quiet criers – silent, with a shoulder shake. This may or may not be accompanied by tears, and all depends on your closeness to the deceased and/or your skill level; experienced funeral goers are adept at crying on cue. My favorite is the whine, which comes in different levels of volume and pitch, but is almost always tearless. If you are above the age of 65, some different techniques apply to you, including placing your hand on the grieving party’s head. Try repeating the phrase “kur 3alai ya bit ummi” [my poor sister] until you feel it sufficient and your point received.

Expert commiserators enter the next level – alwasif.  Roughly translated, this means ‘the description’. This is where griever and commiserator – oftentimes still in mid-hug – engage in a tennis match of sorts, with each one lobbing a description of the deceased for the other to receive and return. For example, if the deceased is male, it will go something like this:

A: Kur 3alai ya wad ummiiii~ yal sami7 yal giyaafa yal ma bitansa alnadaafa
[my poor brother~ you were handsome and a snazzy dresser and a champion of cleanliness]
B: A7ayyyy ya wad ummiiii~ yal mudeer yal wazeer yal kullak zaraafa w dameer
[oh brother~ you were a boss, you were all kindness and conscientiousness]

And so on and so forth. This in major part serves to, as we said before, honor the deceased – to showcase their qualities for the benefit of the other funeral attendees (I’m assuming, I never really understood the point). You will have noticed that these lines contain rhyme; in effect, alwasif is the poetry of mourning. Rhyme is an essential component, and the language used is beautiful and evocative. As you may have also noticed, my lines are terrible, which is why alwasif should be left to the professionals.

Once you have finished crying/describing, step away from the grieving party and take a few moments to collect yourself. Then turn back to the griever, and fulfill the Islamic portion of the condolence – alfat7a (a short prayer for the dead), and then greet them properly, because hugging and crying is not considered a greeting. Shake their hand, offer your condolences in normal sentences, and take a seat with the rest of the guests. You have successfully paid your respects, and may now enjoy a lively, laughter-filled round of catch-up with your fellow commiserators.

(You see where the drama masks come in now?)

No bait bika is complete without refreshments, and boy do we go all out! We have to keep up our rep of most hospitable people on the planet. So before the deceased is even buried, people have already begun making the next meal. Sheep are slaughtered, vegetables bought and prepped, and water is boiled for the tray after tray after tray of tea and coffee that will be served throughout the next couple of days. Traditionally, funerals lasted up to forty days. But in today’s busy world, the funeral status is generally ‘lifted’ [alrafi3] after 2 days. Still, commiserators are expected to make repeated visits to the funeral home for 7 days, and then on the 15th day (and in olden times, on the 40th. Yes, 40 days of commiseration. Because support!). Food and drink should be available and at the ready for the duration, because the last thing you want to be called when you’re grieving is cheap!

I should mention that everything described above applies to the women’s side of bait albika. Funeral homes are generally segregated, with the women inside the house (if space allows) and men in a tent in the street. I’m not really sure what happens with the men, because the extent of my interaction with that side is passing trays of food, tea, coffee and water. But from what I hear it’s a quick fat7a, and then football (soccer) and political talk. Maybe my male readers can help?

16 thoughts on “Sudanomena: Bait Albika [The Crying House]

  1. As I witnessed,women go from laughter to crying and then back to the chill mood real quick that I asked my mother about it once..

    And about the men’s do Fateha,have a seat and drink a cup of tea,or two,demanding the tea boy to have the number of sugar spons,and then leave,or if you were a close member,a friend was or family ,you start talking about sport,politics or the business.

  2. For men, football and politics start at the cemetery; when talking about either, it’s usually accompanied by laughter. Upon their return to Bait Albikka, they ask for the menu and today’s special. There’s a special menu for diabetic people, and there’s another special menu for those who’d like their tea extra sweet.

    When the food is served, those men roll up their sleeves to the neck, and go Quantamo-Bay-Style on whatever is in front of them. By some kind of supernatural powers, they all get ALS when they finish eating and request that their hands to be washed where they’re sitting.

    The people who serve the guests are, in a lot of cases, the deceased’s first degree relatives. Well, at least people are thoughtful enough to keep them occupied to forget their grief…. how nice of them.
    “Altagool aldafano da cable”

    P.S. Do you have a smoker’s lounge at the women’s part? No? We do; fancy stuff, eh?

    • I am both horrified and wildly amused. Thank you so much for this valuable (and hilarious!) insight into the male section of bait albika!

      Also, no, we don’t have a smoking section. Adeitni i7saas VIP section right now and I’m howling.

  3. I’ve successfully avoided every funeral there ever was for distant relatives (at least for the first 3 days) cause things are calmer after that lol.
    I’m a very awkward person and like you,not a natural crier so it would just be plain embarrassing.
    I love your writing btw,you’re hilarious and articulate at the same time. I always look forward to your posts!

      • That was too precise😳
        I thought only I notice all the little details, oh and the laughter 😩 which is pretty much why I stopped going to funerals, unless it’s a very close relative that passed away (b3d Alshar)
        ..I read this to my mum and all she said was “well maybe we should cut on the drama a little bit) 😂

        Thank you☺️

      • hahaha thank *you*! Yeah, the laughter upsets me very very much, even if the deceased is someone I’ve never met, I get so angry when I see people laughing and gossiping.

  4. Thank you — your posts are helpful insights into stuff I half-know and need to understand in more detail. As it happens, I’ve just had to explain the 40 days of mourning in an asylum case. The father of a student shot by a security officer in Khartoum waited 40 days before seeking to report the killing to the UN. The British courts needed an explanation….

    Peter Verney

  5. Great stuff Sarah,
    Lets talk about them distant relatives that wouldn’t leave for a month, that when they start using your whole wardrobe as their own, walking around the house with your shirts and galabiyas lol.
    For the men part we have to mention the famous phones debate “Samsung Galaxy vs every other single phone” lol.
    Me personally fi Bait Al Bika I always try to avoid those old people and their Ma3’asa questions, “t3al 3’asal ly ya walad .. golta ly enta walad mino .. hy malak ma betashbah abook .. malak ma3ashkab kida”. lol
    Still the loveliest people in the world.

  6. Oh my God, you described the whole ritual I almost burst with laughter, paradox!
    W ma tnsi “alkashif” kman that notebook in which money given to the deceased family to help accomodate the sheer number of guests and menues is recorded!

  7. I really love your articles.They.are down to earth and everyone can relate to.them.But I.wonder have you been tobacco bait beeka recently.From what I observed it has become a social gathering no more.From the first day people forget the deceased and focus on chitchat.
    I also can’t cry at bait beeka and I had a distant relative who passed away so I went to payment my respects only without crying.One woman came up to me and wailed no.tears no signs of grief and as soon as she turned her back she chatted to her companion about a toob another woman wore.I don’t even bother with fake grieving faces.

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