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Aan doden geen gebrek

Wadi Al-Salam in Irak is een heilige begraafplaats voor Moslims omdat Ali, de neef en schoonzoon van Mohammed, er ook schijnt te liggen. Er liggen naar schatting zo'n vijf miljoen graven, maar nog veel meer doden.

Finding the way to where I’m going couldn’t be easier: Just follow the cars with coffins strapped to their roof racks. This grim procession happens daily as hundreds of Arab men in turbans and women wearing black veils drive through the unforgiving Iraqi desert toward Najaf, the third most sacred city for Shia Muslims after Mecca and Medina. Death is both their constant travel companion and their final destination—it literally hovers above their heads throughout the journey to Wadi al-Salam, which contains an estimated 5 million gravesites and is reputedly the largest Muslim cemetery in the world.


I arrive at the same time as Hassan, a man who came from Basra along with his brothers, wife, and three children to bury his father. Theirs was not a funeral procession that allowed much time for grieving.

“We only stopped once on the way here, a five-minute toilet break at the service station halfway,” Hassan says. “It’s five hours to Basra, and in this heat the corpse decomposes rapidly.”

Hisham quit school two years ago to work in the Valley of Peace. His greatest wish is to be buried here when his time comes.

He has the content look of a son who has successfully carried on a family tradition. Hassan’s father will rest next to his father and grandfather, and, Allah willing, one day it will be Hassan’s turn himself to make the journey atop a car, and after that generations of his offspring. Every Shia’s last wish is to be interred here, near the tomb of Ali—the first cousin and son-in-law of the Prophet Muhammad and, according to Shias, the original Imam. And Iraqi Muslims aren’t the only pilgrims—for thousands of years, travelers have flocked to the site from Iran, Bahrain, Azerbaijan, and farther locales.

It’s virtually impossible to imagine how many rotting corpses and skeletons lie packed underground, resting on top of one another in a surreal vertical queue that will only become longer. Wadi Al-Salam currently spans more than three square miles and is perpetually expanding—its size increased by approximately 40 percent after the US and its allies invaded Iraq in 2003. The current plan is for American forces to completely withdraw by the end of 2011. In their wake they will leave wrecked buildings, angry Muslims, and a fresh layer of death atop a place that records Iraq’s history via strata of skeletons.


“How many bodies are buried here?” says Beyan Shakir Abu Saib, repeating my question. “There could be millions. People have been buried in layers, one over the other, for centuries.” Beyan is a member of a clan of undertakers that was founded hundreds of years ago. His children work alongside him.

The Saib family business is as ancient as the cemetery stones, and they certainly aren’t the only ones employed by the Grim Reaper. For instance, near an area where cadavers are cleaned and embalmed, Sadaw Ubeid sells burial shrouds for 10,000 dinars (approximately $8.50) a pop. According to Sadaw, it’s a hell of a good deal; in other parts of the cemetery, merchants charge up to 75,000 dinars (approximately $65) for an identical product.

Said and Said tend a plot that will soon be filled by new occupants.

So why doesn’t Sadaw raise his prices? “What we’re doing is humanitarian aid financed by Muqtada Al-Sadr’s NGO,” he tells me. “Money shouldn’t be an obstacle for the faithful who want to bury their loved ones alongside Imam Ali.” He says this underneath a portrait of Al-Sadr, Iraq’s most controversial political and religious leader.

Americans might know Al-Sadr as the commander and founder of the Mahdi Army, a well-organized Shia militia that fought occupying forces, the US-backed Iraqi government, and other militias until they disbanded in 2008. Iraqis, however, view Al-Sadr as a legitimate political force. His party won 40 parliamentary seats (out of 325) in last year’s election and has provided oil, water, and food to the impoverished populace. It’s no coincidence that Al-Sadr is so popular among the workers and other long-term visitors who are still breathing in Wadi Al-Salam.


The Mahdi Army and American forces fought an intense battle throughout the streets of Najaf in the summer of 2004, which inevitably spread to the labyrinthine graveyard. The US Army divided the cemetery into sections named after New York City boroughs, but this didn’t do much to improve morale. From “Queens” to “the Bronx,” insurgents used an underground network of passages between the crypts to move stealthily throughout the cemetery and fire RPGs on Bradley tanks and Humvees. The English translation of Wadi Al-Salam, “Valley of Peace,” hardly seemed appropriate in those days.

Many of the Mahdi loyalists who fought in this battle never left the cemetery; they are buried in a dedicated wing to the right of the main entrance. Their tombs are decorated with plastic flowers and portraits of the fallen martyrs in battle dress—or at least that’s what I’ve heard. Admittance to this area is forbidden to anyone without direct ties to al-Sadr’s organization.

Plastic flowers, bottles of cologne, and the flag of Imam Ali decorate virtually every grave in Wadi Al-Salam.

In another part of the necropolis I meet two men both named Said, construction workers and occasional undertakers who today are working in an area reserved for unidentified bodies.

“Most of them are victims of suicide bombings,” says the elder Said of the anonymous remains. “They all end up here. Sometimes they’re identified and taken elsewhere, especially if they’re Sunni or Christian.” The younger Said adds that the number of unknown corpses has dropped sharply since the worst years of the war, particularly the dead recovered from areas where US forces allegedly dropped white phosphorous bombs. Although the US denies that the deadly antipersonnel weapon was used on Iraqi civilians (after first denying that it was used at all), residents in places like Fallujah were somehow exposed to the substance, and its effects were devastating.


The silence of Wadi Al-Salam, however, can make the travesties of war feel distant. It’s an insular community with its own workforce, grid of streets and avenues, and taxis. The cabbies must contend with uneven roads littered with thousands of discarded plastic perfume bottles, which are used in ceremonies, and an increasingly saturated market for their services. For local merchants, the local economy is grim in more ways than one.

Family vaults can serve as a historical summary of Iraq’s wars and natural catastrophes. The portrait in the foreground depicts one of the many who perished in the Iran-Iraq War, which lasted from 1980 to 1988.

Ali Abdul Hassan, 32, had worked as an undertaker since the age of 12 until chronic back pain forced him find a new career selling incense and the aforementioned bottles of pink ceremonial perfume.

“I arrive at 5 AM, and I work until the sun goes down,” Ali says. “I make about 15,000 dinars [about $12.80] a day. If it’s a holy day, then I can make twice that. My wife and eight children live in a rented room. It’s all we can afford.”

Najaf’s perfume industry is cutthroat. Later I meet Hisham, a 14-year-old perfume peddler who is also dismayed with his profits: “If I can save enough money one day, I’d like to be a soldier or a policeman. The problem is that unless you’ve got contacts—family members who work for the government—you have to pay $1,000 just to fill out the application form. There’s no guarantee they’ll accept you.”

Considering the alternatives, almost everyone wishes to be employed by the Iraqi government in some capacity. The main problem is that corruption here is perhaps even more rampant than death.

Fortunately, young Hisham is able to put things into perspective and accept whatever fate he is dealt: “Did you know there are angels who take away the bodies of those who aren’t meant to be buried here? A while ago they opened a tomb over there and it was empty. It works the other way too. If you’re a good Muslim but are buried somewhere else, the angels will bring you. But I want to die here, in Wadi Al-Salam.”