Saudi monarch given modest burial

Body in unmarked grave

simple rites are part of religious tradition

August 03, 2005|By Megan K. Stack | Megan K. Stack,LOS ANGELES TIMES

RIYADH, Saudi Arabia - The body of King Fahd was shrouded in his brown cloak and lowered into an unmarked desert grave yesterday 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 Quranic 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.

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 the many viewers who tuned in to the live coverage of the king's rites. "But the kingdom of Saudi Arabia abides by the Shariah," or Islamic jurisprudence.

While 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 Saudi stock market closed briefly on Monday, but reopened before the day was over. Government employees stayed at their desks. Saudi flags, emblazoned with praise for God, flapped at full mast.

"Maybe to the outside world we seem cold, but that's the way we are about things," said Jamal Khashoggi, a senior adviser to the Saudi foreign ministry.

In the severe Wahhabism that is entwined into 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 an abaya, or robe, taken from the wardrobe of the deceased - and buried without a coffin in the desert sands. 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."

Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf, Hosni Mubarak of Egypt, Syrian President Bashar Assad, Afghanistan's Hamid Karzai and Jordan's King Abdullah II were among the mourners at Monday's ceremony. Non-Muslims were not allowed at the rites; neither were women.

French President Jaques Chirac could not attend, but paid a condolence call afterward to the royal family.

Vice President Dick Cheney is expected to lead the American delegation, which will be present at today's ceremonies. But by then attention will have fallen away from the dead king. Instead, the focus will stay staunchly on the future - Saudis of all backgrounds will come forward to pledge their loyalty to the newly named King Abdullah.

The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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