A funny thing happened on the way to the graveyard. A Mosul woman dreamt her dead husband was alive and sent a group to unearth him. What happened next made it onto Facebook and became an urban legend in one of the
Scene of an urban myth: Wadi Ikab cemetery in west Mosul.
Iraq is a land rich in superstition. After all, it’s thought that parts of that most famous collection of Arab folk tales, The Thousand and One Nights, originated here in the tenth century; the collection was built upon further in preceding centuries.
Other common superstitions in Iraq include tactics that allow locals to avoid the evil eye – such as hanging special amulets over doors or windows – and who should stay away during childbirth (people with blue eyes, apparently). It’s also considered good luck to have a stork build its nest on your house. And, outside of regular religious practices, there are plenty of magic men plying their trade in Iraq, telling fortunes, interpreting dreams and casting love spells, in local markets.
But it’s not often that Iraqis act upon these superstitions as radically as one Mosul woman recently did. And the story of her actions spread around the city and even made it onto multiple social media sites.
In a dream one night, the local woman, who is in her 40s, saw her husband. He had died 40 days previously but in the dream, he told her he was still alive and that she should get their family to pull him out of his grave.
When the woman told her four children, they became concerned and went to consult with their neighbour in the neighbourhood around Islah street in west Mosul. The 53-year-old, a man named Umar, is a disciple of Sufism, a form of Islamic religion that is considered more magical and mysterious than everyday Islamic practice.
One of Umar’s beliefs is that the corpses of righteous men won’t rot – so he encouraged the woman’s children to investigate their father’s grave. Despite other opinions –including one local medical student’s - against the grave digging plan, the family decided to try and see if their father was still alive.
A large group of relatives and neighbours drove to the Wadi Ikab cemetery, in west Mosul and by sunset, around 20 local men were there, digging together. The woman’s dream had caused a local commotion. Some of the diggers were there because they really believed the dead man might still be alive. Others had heard the tale and were just curious.
As they dug, Umar stood nearby and recited prayers and verses from the Koran. By the time the diggers finally reached the white cloth that is used to cover a corpse, it was dark. Umar’s prayers were getting louder and louder. Then the spiritualist asked all the diggers to leave the grave.
Umar then began to call the name of the dead man, asking him to come forth from the grave. The crowd that had gathered in the dark was petrified.
“Younis, do you hear me?” Umar apparently called out. “We’ve come to take you back home. Younis?” After repeated calls and no resurrection, Umar told the diggers to prod the corpse with their spades to see if the man was alive. But there was no reaction: Younis was clearly deceased.
By now, it was almost midnight and everyone was tired. Mosul is still a dangerous place and the crowd were lingering in a suspicious area: in the past, weapons caches had been found in this cemetery. So they all made their way home.
Since then the story has been repeated around the city many times; the tale went even further because on their way back home, the crowd of diggers and the mystic were stopped by security forces who demanded to know what they were doing out and about so late at night.
The captain of the force that stopped them checked on their story before letting them go, by going to the graveyard himself to check on the grave. When he saw evidence of grave digging, he reprimanded the group, telling them if he ever saw them doing such a stupid thing again, he would arrest them.
Although it may just sound like a silly story, the tale apparently caused a huge uproar in certain parts of Mosul. Locals, particularly staunchly religious locals, were angry at the desecration of the grave – and those who were involved in the grave digging had to hide away from neighbours who were angry with them.
Along with many others, local theologist and researcher in Islamic theory, Mazin al-Kalak, criticised the group.
“According to Islamic law dreams can be misleading. They shouldn’t be relied upon to determine people’s lives,” al-Kalak says.
In Islam, the closest analogy to dream interpretation is the issuing of fatwas, or religious decrees. “And most people know nothing about Islamic teachings yet some religious people, with a low level of education, feel they can give out their own fatwas,” al-Kalak argues. “In Islam, it is forbidden to open a grave unless it is extremely important to do so.”
There are certain circumstances when it is permissible to exhume a body – these include the land changing hands and when there is danger of the body being carried away by flooding or animals. “Or when there is doubt about the circumstances of the death or the dead person,” al-Kalak adds. “In this case, it is permissible to dig up the grave, after obtaining permission from a competent authority.”
Since then though, the furore about the dreams and Mosul’s grave digging crowd has died down. And some of the men who were in the crowd that night are ready to admit that they were carried away by the moment.
“I was so scared when we started digging the grave,” Tamer Muhsen told a friend. “I put my mobile camera on standby - I wanted it to be ready to take pictures when Younis walked out of his grave. And I wanted to post these pictures on Facebook. Now, when I remember these moments I start laughing,” Muhsen admits. “But if he had walked out,” he notes, “I think my first reaction would have been to run away.”