Spaces of Life, States of Death

The following is an excerpt of Noha Fikry’s “Spaces of Life, States of Death” essay, which won the 2018 MES Graduate Student Paper Prize. Submissions for the 2019 prize are open until July 31, 2019; more information is available here. 

My mother is the middle child, with two other sisters. Teta (my maternal grandmother) was always picked on for not having any male children, for who would carry the paternal family name? After conceiving her second child (who is now Mama), Teta was pregnant with a boy for whom everybody so eagerly and excitedly awaited. After five months, however, to the sorrow of everyone, the long-awaited male child was prematurely stillborn. He was old enough to be a corpse, not so well-defined, but a body of flesh nevertheless. Gedo (my maternal grandfather), a medical doctor, helped Teta to get the corpse out of her body. They insisted on taking him back home, clueless about what could be done then. He should be buried, perhaps? But he was not yet fully a “person” to be placed in a coffin and buried according to the Islamic Sharia instructions. Teta of course could not just place him in a garbage pile, or a dustbin, so casually abandoned on his journey to an unknown land. Teta and Gedo decided to bury the child in the garden. They got a large piece of cloth, covered him, and carved an opening in the garden, right below Teta’s window in the kitchen, and laid him there, peacefully. Teta was always cooking while occasionally speaking to him, and frequently tearing up upon wandering in the garden. He somehow remained there, always.

The young child remained as a corpse, a bundle of flesh, a memory, a hope, an awaited dream, and/or a Middle-Eastern-family’s desired achievement. The conscious act of burying the corpse in the garden is here perhaps what concerns me the most. It is arguably about the proximity of the garden, as in always keeping him near and dear, but also what the garden is and does. The garden here is an ecology, a site of proliferating life of rabbits, insects, worms, fruit trees, and sometimes turkeys—all grown and kept to be eaten later for nutritional sustenance. The burial of the corpse there meant that it will somehow keep growing into myriad shapes and forms. As unfamiliar or distasteful as this might sound, the corpse will inevitably become food to the inhabitants of the garden. This experience of the garden reflects the continuities of life-and-death along living with proliferating rooftops on which a variety of nonhuman animals are raised and kept. Life-and-death, therefore, unfold as twin forces giving way to or rather made by each other. As guided by my ethnographic encounters on Cairo’s rooftops, and in line with Deborah Bird-Rose, life here unfolds as an extension of itself along generational and species lines. Death, however, unfolds as a return through which the body returns through processes of again birthing, but also decomposing in the ecological lands of “waste”—through disposing the little brother in the garden for example (Bird-Rose 2012, 127).

Life and death thus unfold as carnal processes of giving life, lying life, and dying through the exchange and decomposition of flesh and the endless ways in which beings are carried on beyond physical (im)permanence.
I ethnographically explored this return through following flesh, or as Elizabeth Povinelli puts it, “enfleshment,” through which an organism’s flesh (after or through its physical death) sustains another organism (Povinelli 2006, 36). In other words, a turkey raised on the rooftop is slaughtered in an Islamically lawful way only to “enflesh” a human’s body to be stronger, sounder, and healthier. In a similar vein, in her work on the Colombian Amazon, Kristina Lyons eloquently argues for “the right to die well,” by which she specifically means “modes of dying in which death is allowed to decompose into life, rather than being violently ripped from place, territory, soil…and home. This is a death that decomposes into life, just as leaves spill from branch to ground, turn over and slowly rot to germinate” (Lyons 2016, 76). Translated into my ethnographic worlds, this would only mean a religiously lawful, or halal, slaughter of an animal. This right to death is not a given or a human privilege that comes in tandem with some kind of speciesism. It is, rather, a purely relational matter that takes place in and can only be theorized through paying closer and slower attention to modes of interspecies relations, a practice that in turn allows these variant modes of death and the rights to practice them to come to the fore. Theorizations on life-and-death then, as these ethnographic examples show, can only practically be made through following bodies, fleshes, selves, and ecologies through which these concepts are enacted, made, and circulated. Life and death thus unfold as carnal processes of giving life, lying life, and dying through the exchange and decomposition of flesh and the endless ways in which beings are carried on beyond physical (im)permanence. In short, life and death emerge as “the ability to visit many worlds,” all of which contain multiple species and are thereby improvisationally collaborative (de la Cadena 2015, xxiii).

Noha Fikry holds an MA in anthropology from the American University in Cairo. Her work explores ecologies and interspecies relations in Cairo, Egypt. Her MA thesis, “Rooftop recipes for relating: Ecologies of humans, animals, and life,” provides an intimate snapshot of animal-inhabited rooftops that complicate conceptions of humans, cities, and animals.

Elizabeth Derderian and Nazli Ozkan are contributing editors for the Middle East Section.

 Cite as: Fikry, Noha. 2019. “Spaces of Life, States of Death­.” Anthropology News website, June 26, 2019. DOI: 10.1111/AN.1193

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