x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

Sheikh Ahmed's burial 'one of the saddest of my career' says man who prepared grave

Mohammed al Baloushi, who has buried thousands of people at Bani Yas, is now supposed to be retired. But this week he had to perform one of the saddest tasks of his career.

Mohammed al Baloushi says there is no greater pain a human can feel than when burying a child.
Mohammed al Baloushi says there is no greater pain a human can feel than when burying a child.

BANI YAS // Mohammed al Baloushi was in Al Ain enjoying a day with his family atop Jebel Hafeet when he got the phone call he had been dreading since he first heard of the disappearance of Sheikh Ahmed bin Zayed.

"The municipality called me and told me to rush to Al Bateen cemetery because Sheikh Ahmed had been found and was being flown back to Abu Dhabi," he said. Mr al Baloushi, a retired grave digger at the New Bani Yas Cemetery, was part of an eight-man team that prepared the sheikh's grave at Al Bateen. According to the watchman there, Abdul Qadir Abdul Qadir, Mr al Baloushi arrives "every time there is an emergency".

"My heart felt heavy," said Mr al Baloushi. "I gathered my family and we drove back quickly to Abu Dhabi and I went to the cemetery to make preparations for the burial and to dig and prepare the plot. There was great sadness in my heart and I was thinking of the grief the Royal Family must be feeling." The grave they built was a simple one, "like the grave of any Muslim", though the cemetery is exclusive to the members of the Al Nahyan family, according to its watchman. Mr al Baloushi said he has buried many Al Nahyans.

"I saw all the sheikhs arrive and could see the sadness on their faces," Mr al Baloushi said. "Burying anyone is a sad affair but especially sad when burying a great man such as Sheikh Ahmed." Mr al Baloushi has buried thousands of people over the past 25 years; as many as 30,000, he says. He remembers many of them by their first names. Pointing to five graves he said, "This is where Fatima, Mohammed and their three children are buried. They were killed last year in a car accident.

"Not even a thousand words can describe the sorrow I feel when burying a child or teenager," he said. "I see the pain the family feels and hear their cries asking Allah to be merciful on their dead. "There is no greater pain a human can feel than when burying a child." His eyes welled up with tears as he pointed to the graves of several brothers buried next to one another, their deaths a result of traffic accidents.

"Their families suffered so much and their hopes for their children's future and their hopes of seeing their grandchildren [were] never to come [true]," he said. "But this is the will of Allah, what can I say?" The New Bani Yas Graveyard is sectioned off into three parts and takes up four square kilometres. It is the last resting place of thousands of Muslims. Near the entrance to the cemetery, just metres from the mosque where families pray for their dead, is the children's burial area. As each section fills up, the dead are buried farther away from the mosque.

The graveyard is a quiet place; the sounds of traffic and city life are far away. Only the chirping of birds and the occasional sound of a jackhammer break the silence. Thousands of gravestones rise up from the ground, some bearing only registration numbers while others have notations: the names of the dead, the date they died and a verse from the Quran in Arabic. "O (you) the one in (complete) rest and satisfaction. Come back to your Lord, Well-pleased yourself and well-pleasing unto Him. Enter you, then, among My honoured slaves, and enter you My Paradise."

Some graves are more grand than others, with marble headstones and benches set aside for friends and families. Visitors offer their prayers and ask Allah for mercy on the souls of the dead. Other graves are more simple, surrounded only by plastic chairs. Living in a wooden Portakabin attached to the mosque, Mr al Baloushi is available 24 hours a day to pray for the dead, to console their families and to attend as the bodies are lowered into the ground.

"This graveyard has been my home for many years and I am here to serve Allah and those who have died," he said. "To me these are not just remains, they are Muslims, someone's loved ones, people who lived and affected the lives of those around them." Mr al Baloushi came to Abu Dhabi from Pakistan in 1985 to work for Abu Dhabi Municipality, which operates the graveyards in the emirate. Every day at sunrise he perform the Fajr prayer and then heads to the graves. These days, as old age has set in, he rarely digs, leaving the task to younger workers who use jackhammers to loosen up the ground.

Mr al Baloushi is not exactly sure how old he is but said he is over 40 and under 50. "Even though retired in 2007, I will continue here as this is a service to the community for which Allah will reward me in the afterlife." He earns about Dh3,330 (US$905) per month from his pension, but said he would do the job for free, and wants for little. "I have my home next to the mosque and I have my little car. The money I make goes toward supporting my wife and six children, two of whom are living in Pakistan," he said.

Mr al Baloushi is a quiet man. A sombre look seems permanently etched onto his face. "My job is not a happy job filled with laughter and joy, it is a job that affects all who work here," he said. "The joy in doing what I do comes in knowing that I serve Allah and have served Muslims and their families." He worries about what will happen to his own family when he dies. At night before going to sleep he lays down and thinks of the day's events of the people he has buried and of his own demise.

"Today I buried someone. Tomorrow someone may bury me." * With additional reporting by Hassan Hassan