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Many Jordanians read their morning newspaper from back to front, starting with the obituary section. It’s not a morbid obsession, but rather an attempt to make sure they don’t neglect a vital social obligation.
Here in tribal Jordan, even as other aspects of society have transformed dramatically, the importance of communal mourning has changed very little. If anything, the obligation to pay your respects during the azza, the three-day mourning period after someone dies, has been elevated to a matter of honor.
If a relative of an in-law, friend, co-worker, neighbor, or acquaintance dies – no matter if it is a parent, cousin, or a distant aunt thrice removed – it is a duty to demonstrate support and show up during the azza, however briefly.
“We go to azzas more often than Americans go to the gym,” jokes Mohammed Shadi, an Amman lawyer who had just attended four wakes in three days.
Not showing up is just not an option. That makes for an awful lot of wakes to attend. How to weave them into an already hectic schedule and get to the funeral tent in time is a real challenge. So now there’s an app.
In much of the Arab world, among Muslims and Christians alike, paying your respects in person is part of a communal approach to mourning that is a cornerstone of social solidarity.
A practice begun centuries ago as a form of social support for the bereaving family, the azza is a three-day mourning period and public wake immediately following burial.
Here in tribal Jordan, even as other aspects of society have transformed dramatically in recent decades, the importance of communal mourning has changed very little. If anything, this social obligation has been elevated to a matter of honor and personal duty, and a funeral is a call to action.
If a relative of an in-law, friend, co-worker, neighbor, or acquaintance dies – no matter if it is a parent, cousin, or a distant aunt thrice removed – it is a duty to demonstrate support and show up during the azza, even if just to express your condolences, sit for a few minutes, eat a date, and leave.
No person’s word has worth if they do not show up at an azza: After work, stop by an azza. Get a call in the middle of grocery shopping, stop everything and go straight to an azza. Drop the children off at taekwondo practice, and head to an azza.
“We go to azzas more often than Americans go to the gym,” jokes Mohammed Shadi, an Amman lawyer who had just gone to four wakes in three days.
Such is the frequency of paying condolences in daily life in Jordan, it is the azza – not the wedding or any other social event – that is the main center for gossip, networking, matchmaking, and political debates.
But what happens if, by some unforeseen circumstances, you miss a memorial service?
“Unbearable social awkwardness,” says Zaid Bassam, an industrial manager and IT expert from the town of Salt. “It reflects badly on you.”
“Because you will always run into that person a few weeks later and you won’t know what to do. Do you apologize? Do you offer your condolences one month after their mother died?”
In Jordan, where hard feelings cut deep, such misunderstandings can turn into long-running unspoken feuds and social blacklisting.
Don’t invite Mohammed to the wedding; he didn’t show up to our mother’s funeral last year is not uncommon to hear, or Why should we visit Sara to congratulate her on the new baby? She didn’t even offer her condolences when my uncle died.
A lot of work to keep up
With personal honor and social pressures riding on condolences, keeping up with death notices among the various vast and intertwined tribes, clans, and families can be a full-time job in this tiny kingdom.
If all that sounds unmanageable in today’s tightly scheduled world, well, now there’s an app for that.
Jordanians long relied on newspapers, many starting their mornings by flipping the paper over and starting from the obituaries section, not moving on to news until they were assured there were no surprise funerals they would have to suddenly rearrange their schedule to attend.
With the advent of Facebook, many families have turned to the social media platform to post death notices and funeral information.
Open the Facebook account of the average Jordanian and you will find post after post of a black background with the white Arabic script “to God we belong and to God we will return,” and the name of the deceased, burial, and funeral times.
But the haphazard manner made missing a funeral all too likely; unclear obituaries would leave out the location of the azza or when the final day of the wake was. If you are not friends with the right people, you may miss the Facebook notice.
Mr. Bassam ran into this dilemma one morning in 2017 when he heard that a family friend’s relative had died. He stopped by his parent’s home to find out the time and location of the funeral, only to discover that the day’s paper had yet to be delivered. Panic set in.
“It was 6 a.m. and we had no newspaper and there were no copies in the shops,” Mr. Bassam says.
“I was calling people left and right throughout the day to try to figure out where this funeral was and I couldn’t get a clear answer. I kept thinking – there has to be an easier way for this.”
With apps in Jordan to order taxis, meals, groceries, cooking gas, plumbers, carpenters, cleaners, and to check the weather, there was no smart solution for azzas.
So he created one himself: Wafiyat (Obituaries) app.
The first app of its kind in the Arab world, Wafiyat is a free directory and noticeboard that allows users to post and read obituaries to make sure you never miss a funeral again.
People anywhere in the world can search the latest obituaries in Jordan by family or tribal name, home province, town, or date, allowing them to determine how many days are left to express their condolences in person.
Gone are the days of driving in circles in an unfamiliar neighborhood asking for the location of a funeral: Users uploading funeral details are required to provide a GPS location of the men’s and women’s mourning halls.
Your presence is still required
The app even provides a directory of caterers, restaurants, and other services nearby the azza if someone wanted to pay for a meal, coffee, dates, or other items for the funeral – a common practice in Jordan designed to lessen the burden on the grieving family.
With Wafiyat, you can even place a watch notification for a certain family name so that if a relative in that tribe or family dies, you will immediately get a notification.
It may sound macabre, but for Jordanians it is a vital way of maintaining this ancient social duty amid hectic 21st-century life.
In less than two years, Wafiyat has become one of the fastest growing apps in Jordan, with entire tribes and tens of thousands of users in Jordan, the United States, Germany, and as far away as China keeping up with social obligations that know no borders.
Perhaps crucially, the app even allows users to post condolences so they can pay their respects before even stepping foot in the funeral hall.
Although this will never be a substitute for showing up in person, this could go far in avoiding any unintended social slight.
“Our daily life may be becoming digital, but the way we respect people in the afterlife will always be traditional,” says Mr. Shadi, the Amman lawyer, who just downloaded the app.
“No tweet, Facebook post, or WhatsApp message will do; we need to see you in person.”