Graves and glory: A cartoon of Ali the gravedigger from Najaf. (photo: موقع العمية على انستغرام)
Najaf local, Ali al-Amiyah, is an unlikely celebrity. The 43-year-old is neither a television personality, popstar or politician. He is a grave digger in the southern Iraqi city and has become best known for his innovative funerals, interesting gravestones and coffins and social media presence.
His family’s business was actually the manufacture of expensive gowns for men – they used to sell the clothing to the royal families of Saudi Arabia and Kuwait – but as a child, al-Amiyah would accompany his brothers, who read the Koran at funerals; his father was also a cleric. Aged 13 he left school because of a fight with his art teacher and began to work as an assistant to a grave digger at Najaf’s huge cemetery for deceased Shiite Muslims.
When NIQASH met al-Amiyah at his office, his mobile phone rang 21 times. The erstwhile funeral director apologized. “There are usually a lot of people here waiting for me,” he explained. “Some just want to take pictures with me while others have dead to bury. These are my people,” he said proudly.
Ali with some of his fans.
Today, al-Amiyah is well known for his quirkily-decorated coffins and headstones; he uses a modern style, incorporating three-dimensional geometric shapes. He calls this pattern “baklava” after the diamond shaped Arabic and Turkish sweet and says he created the funereal look.
Al-Amiyah also has three different Facebook pages, the largest one of which has close to 300,000 followers.
But, as he notes, his journey to grave digging celebrity was not necessarily an easy one. Al-Amiyah says the business can be tough in Najaf and when he first started out, he faced stiff competition as well as taunts about his unusual style.
Al-Amiyah printed up business cards and asked friends to help him start his own Facebook page.
“I asked them to publish my pictures and those of the beautiful graves that I make,” he told NIQASH. “Many people made fun of me at first and other grave diggers didn’t like me.”
But eventually al-Amiyah was asked to prepare six graves, which he did successfully.
The pictures were uploaded to Facebook and garnered al-Amiyah more attention. “I also got in touch with tribal leaders in the southern and central provinces and in Baghdad and other cities. I got to know a lot of younger people. Most of my fans are younger people,” al-Amiyah says.
His three Facebook pages are now administered by different people – two friends from Samawa and Nasiriyah and one in Malaysia. The page administrators answer messages, post pictures and coordinate customers. He also has an Instagram page.
Despite al-Amiyah’s fame and fans, many of the other grave diggers in Najaf believe he is giving their profession bad name. “He is not really committed to this job,” says Adnan Sheikh Abdul al-Jafari. The 45-year-old’s family has been in this business for several generations and he considers himself a professional. “Al-Amiyah is just somebody looking for fame and money. Grave diggers should be chivalrous, honest, polite and committed to the rule of law,” al-Jafari argues. “Al-Amiyah is giving the rest of us a bad name, and he manipulates prices.”
Prices for a grave should be somewhere between IQD350,000 (around US$290) and IQD400,000, al-Jafari says. “Business is booming at the moment [thanks to the security crisis]. But we may charge poorer families less, around IQD200,000 and in some cases we even bury people for free,” al-Jafari explains.
Meanwhile al-Amiyah says he doesn’t charge his customers more than IQD250,000 which is why the other grave diggers are trying to make him look bad. “But we still use high quality materials for the graves and skilled calligraphers to inscribe the person’s name on the grave,” he insists. “We deal with the deceased gently and considerately and they are all buried three or four metres below the ground. Our graves are often diamond shaped and we invented this style.”
Despite criticism from other members of his profession, today al-Amiyah seems to have fans wherever he goes. “Even when I go to the mosque, people want to take pictures with me,” he notes.
Coyly al-Amiyah also admits he has female admirers. “There are some women in Malaysia, in the US and in Turkey who posted video clips in which they sing a song, in which they ask: Who is going to bury me? Then they answer: al-Amiyah.”
However, al-Amiyah says he doesn’t post these kinds of videos on his dedicated video channel because, “we are living in a conservative society and my enemies might use them against me. The one thing I do not want to lose is my popularity with the people.”
One of the many crowd-pleasing gimmicks the Najaf undertaker has come up with.
One of al-Amiyah’s fans, recent law school graduate, Aman Fuad al-Khazali, 23, says that basically his favourite grave digger has made good use of social media to promote himself. He is exploiting locals’ desire for new ideas and quirky stories and al-Amiyah spreads tales about funerals to attract attention. For example, how he prepared a number of graves using the same colour in order to bury brothers who were killed fighting against the extremist group known as the Islamic State. But some of the stories are plainly not true, al-Khazali admits.
Since he started this work, al-Amiyah has been able to buy a car and he has even opened an office. He is teaching his sons the profession and one of them is learning to dig graves while the other is being taught how to read the Koran at funerals. “I even bought him a cloak and turban,” boasts al-Amiyah, who estimates that in another four years he will be dominating the grave digging business here in Najaf.