"Tears become ideas." -Steven Feld
The lamenting tradition is prominent in societies all over the world--Greece, Finland, Morocco, India, Saudi Arabia, etc. I, however, am only familiar with the Egyptian tradition.
At funerals, professional lamenters are paid to sing songs of lament for the deceased, accompanied by drummers, beating to the rhythm of the song. The performance is absolutely mesmerizing. The lamenter is seen almost as an ethereal medium, communicating grief and passion to the dead. Eyes wild and staring into space, the fluid voice quavering and swaying with grief, she seems to transcend worlds. Even her weeping has a pattern, with a range of pitches.
A soloist sings a phrase, which is repeated by chorus members. The chorus complements the singer with gestures, monologues, and musical sobbing in between the intensifying laments. Gradually the song reaches a crescendo, at which point all other women present at the funeral are free to project their grief with no limits.
It is interesting that lamenters are always female. According to some scholars, mourning brings about "bonding through shared suffering." Women, associated with birth ("life-givers") and love, are consequently seen as the authorities on death and pain, too.
In Egypt, the songs are always improvised and powerfully poetic. Here are a few rather beautiful laments (made up at the moment they were recorded) I found in my book Children in the Muslim Middle East.
Lament for a young son who fell from a roof
My son's wrist bindings are white
I save them to help me with my fate.
A pearl necklace was cut from me.
Where is the beloved who searches for it?
A pearl necklace was cut from me.
Where is the dear one who searches well?
My precious bracelet fell from the roof.
Your mother searches, your father is helpless.
I saw your father coming into the courtyard.
My powerful amulet fell from me.
I saw your father running into the courtyard.
My powerful amulet fell into the well.
I saw children playing with palm leaves,
wearing caps, heads shaven.
I saw children playing outside--
I covered my eyes and said, "God's will."
A row of children in the alley met me.
I covered my eyes and said "It hurts me."
Say God's name over him, O tomb's worm.
Say God's name, O short-tailed maggot,
Say God's name when he gets up at night!
Mother, look at the gravedigger lowering me,
My father walked away and left me.
Your white skin like paper in candlelight.
Your beautiful face, praise its Creator!
If I say, O my son, my heart is torn,
the dust weeps: your beloved is with us.
If I say, O my son, my guts are cut up,
the dust weeps: your beloved is among us.
My children are the rings for my hands,
the silvereyes--kohl-stick for my eyes.
Children are beautiful, their bodies beautiful,
Happy mother who lives for them,
I search for you in all corners,
I tell myself that they were here,
there were three--and where is the third?
The evil eye possessed you.
When you fell, you said, "O master,
O pardon, O Lord, I am only a young boy."
Lament for her dead daughter
I want my daughter to wash my corpse,
To drape my garment and arrange the shroud.
I want her to reach my age: she will rest
My head on her lap, and she will groom me.
I want my daughter to turn
My dead body towards Mecca.
Pain came to me filling my ribs.
My beloved cannot hear my omplain,
She does not know my loss.
I dressed her in red and she exhaled
The fragrance of rose. I made her beautiful.
No-one was with me.
Come near me. Let me wrap your head.
I will loosen the rishrish beads on your shoulder.
Come near me. Let me braid your hair.
I will unbind it.
I will loosen the hair across your back.
Lament for a drowned child
O father of children, your children lie broken,
A flood descended drowning them.
If only they were absent, instead of dead!
We would swear silence until they returned.
I went to the graveyard in torn garments,
no stairs, no window there.
I was drawn to the graveyard, longing drew me,
no stairs leading me to them.
Watchman of the river, o sleeper!
I swear by your youth, bring about my drowned child.
I will gave you whales and fish.
I will gave you he who casts the net.
Everyone left, yet I stand by the Nile.
Captain! Where has my son gone?
They left me a remnant of a home,
as if I were a scrap forgotten by the carpenter.