Today I realized that my newspaper rituals are a bit dark if not acheronian. I read the paper in two doses the first of which involves a quick skimming of the front page headlines just like what I assume the overwhelming majority of readers do. Front page headlines in Middle Eastern papers are about 70% related to death because death in this region is an unavoidable topic. An excerpt on the number of people who died to the west of us in Gaza and the West bank; story continued on page five. An excerpt on the number of people who died to the east of us in Iraq; story continued on page six.
What I’ve lately found to be abnormal is that I will always flip to the much avoided graveyard of newspaper sections: the obituaries, just to find out who died today. At the kitchen table I read aloud familiar family names followed by their age. In my mind I am calculating averages: in Jordan you either die too young or too old.
The flamboyant language of the obituaries is almost always entrancing. The words people choose to use, the adjectives they employ to describe someone they once knew. Pay attention: in Jordan, the greatness of one’s life is measured in inches: how large is the black frame that encircles your name when you die? Is it the small trivial box in the corner of the page amidst a monotone mosaic of geometrics? Like Muslim headstones in a cemetery; a display of pebbles purposely aligned on a beach, blending perfectly. Is it half a page; just enough to say you were important but humble. Or does it stretch across the entire gray sheet to reiterate a single simple statement: I was here and I mattered.
Are you above the fold or six feet under?
Pay attention: the anatomy of your obituary is delicate. The architecture of your frame means everything. If only to be remembered in death the way you lived.
Other than a sprinkle of scripture between the newspaper fray there are no teachings of Islam to be found here: you are not born equal and you do not die equal. For surely some lives matter more than others. In Jordan, some lives do matter more than others.
And on the final page, after all the squares, a rectangle appears: a list of names of those who died in Palestine. Just one name after another, a sorted daily memoriam for a population who have so many relatives west of the river. None of the names are paid for, simply a public service. As informative as the little box that tells you what the weather will be like today or what time the sun will set.
Pay attention: the obituaries can keep you humble. If only to make you remember the way you should be living. To memento mori and carpe diem, before it carpes you.
Myself? I do not want to be remembered as a faceless name in the obituaries. I do not want to be boxed in with black frames on gray paper. Whatever you do, do not, do not, do not box me in. Do not measure my life in inches or weigh my soul in adjectives. Not a name on a list; never just a name on a list. Speak of me in chapters, in volumes and anthologies long after I am gone. A trailblazer whose flame still flickers barely on the dirt roads I have plowed amongst a field that I have sown. Long ago.
Or speak nothing of me at all; a footnote in a forgotten history. Unworthy of a freckle of dust in the back pages of a newspaper.
In either case say nothing.
Let my life be the writer of its own obituary.
Let it tell its own story.
If only to be remembered the way I lived.