Today is Ashura...
Today is Ashura; a yearly religious event held to commemorate a battle that occurred 1327 years ago. I remember the first time I realized there was such a thing as Ashura: I was 14, I had just woken up, around noontime, and I found my dad in the kitchen listening to the radio with tears brimming in his eyes. It was just the two of us at the time, stuck in a Baghdad summer. He was making lunch on an industrial scale; pots of various stews that would last us for the rest of the week. He liked to get such things out of the way. But on that day, he struck me as very odd, he was listening to something, and acted all flustered when I walked in, as if he’d been caught doing something illegal. I don’t know if it was a look of caution that he threw my way, or a sense that I probably wouldn’t understand, or care much.
There was only one time when he tried to make a point of our family’s Shi’ism. We were at the Ummayad Mosque in Damascus, facing an edifice that has something to do with Hussain, the martyr of Karbala. I was 7 or 8 at the time, and along with us was my older brother, and my dad’s driver from work, Bolous, an Orthodox Christian. I don’t remember the exact circumstances, but my father told me to fix my arms to my sides as Shi’as do, while I obstinately placed my right hand over my left at my mid-center, as I had been taught in school. We were living in Amman at the time, and Jordan is an almost exclusively Sunni country. I may have even told my dad, “I am not a heretic,” as a way of explaining my refusal to follow orders. I remember my father turning to Bolous, who was also pretending to pray in the Shi’a manner, and sharing a smile.
But back to my pubescent years and the Baghdad heat, why was my late father so visibly moved as he listened to a barely-audible signal from Iran Radio? He saw the questioning in my eye, and very calmly, as if initiating me into some sort of ancestral secret, began to paraphrase what to my ears back then was archaic Arabic, spoken and sometimes sung by a legend in the recitation of the Maqtal, or the ‘Death [of Hussain]’, Sheikh Abdel-Zahra Al-Ka’abi.
A baby’s neck is slit through by a wayward arrow. A brother bids a sibling goodbye; a father sends off his sons to battle. A Christian slave, asks his master for permission to carry a blade and die fighting. A commander of the enemy forces, stuck midway between the two warring camps, weighs the rewards of this life or the hereafter, and throws in his lot with the handful of rebels against the tyrant’s army of several thousand. A warrior fights his way to the riverbank, to bring back some water to parched lips. A son, ill and bedridden, is hidden away, he will survive to carry on the name of this noble house. And then, in the final scenes, Hussain, the grandson of the prophet, now an old man with his sons, brothers, kin and followers dead around him, mounts his steed and exchanges last farewells with his sister and the wailing womenfolk. He launches into the enemy lines, and is cut down. A villain, Shimr Bin Dhil-Goshen, finally overpowers Hussain, who is weighed down with arrows and gashes, and severs his head.
This was powerful stuff, and this piece of propaganda left its intended mark on me. For, on that day, a link in a chain, which had been unbroken for almost 14 centuries, was added: according to our family lore, we are descended from a man who commanded the armies of Ali—Hussain’s father. I was now heir to a tradition; carried on from the earliest Shi’as through the loins of my ancestors to our modern day.
Religion was never an issue in our family, which was a mixed Shia-Sunni one. My parents had worked around it by banishing religion altogether from our lives, even though they remained fiercely proud of their cultures. There was also a message there that bristled at the thought that one would be persecuted for being a Shia, or a Sufi, or a Kurd, and actively defied it.
That day ignited a keen interest in my family background; it was as if this one secret had whetted my appetite for more and more. There was a whole universe of secrets, loyalties and grudges to be passed on for the simple association of hailing from the little Shia enclave (more ‘gated-community’ than ghetto) of Kadhimiya—a town north of Baghdad, and a now a suburb of it. That summer, I was given a tour, mostly of remembered houses and shops that no longer exist, of a Kadhimiya wedged into my father’s memories of childhood and early life; before college in Beirut and New York, before marriage and teaching in Baghdad University, before the Iraqi Communist Party, before the Ba’ath Party, before imprisonment and exile, before a life with the United Nations, before raising a family all over the planet (I was born in Nigeria, for example), before retirement, and before waiting out the demise of the Ba’ath so that we can go home.
My dad passed away before he could show me Ashura as it should be in his most favorite place in the world: Kadhimiya, and among his favorite people: the people of that town. Because for that to happen, there would have to be no more Saddam.
This is why, when Shias in Kadhimiya, in early 2004, commemorated Ashura, I made it a point to show up every day during the ten day ‘celebration.’ And it was indeed a celebration.
In the days leading up to Ashura of that year, which fell on March 2nd, I had been tasked to put together a presentation on the history of Baghdad for the officers of the 1st Armored Division. On the proscribed day, the presenter’s presentation was being mangled by two young Iraqi interpreters who were awkwardly conveying his Arabic words to an American audience filling out a large auditorium in the Green Zone’s Conferences Palace. General Dempsey, then in charge of the 1st AD, seemed unimpressed by what was going on, and I could see that the officer who I had coordinated this event with was getting anxious. So I asked to go up to the podium and give some respite to the translators, and make better sense of the historian’s words, which had begun to slur from the onset of nicotine deprivation. It wasn’t going well, so I took the initiative and spoke about Ashura—something all those officers in that hall would have to deal with in the next couple of days.
I thought the easiest way to describe this ritual to a western audience was by portraying Ashura as a passion play—something the Catholics in the audience may have picked up on more easily than others. The battle of Karbala is enacted by troupes of seasonal actors (lay townsmen whose ‘day’ jobs would be spent as bakers, jewelers, street-sweepers, and the occasional petty thievery!), who take on the roles of the righteous and their oppressors, and dress up in era costumes. Swords (real) are swung, fake blood is applied, tethered horses trammel back and forth between the cardboard props, and many odes are sung to the bravery of the heroes of that day. And tears, so many tears, gushing out with the howls and shrieks of the female onlookers as each warrior was dramatically cut down. And so much cursing in a mishmash of Farsi and Arabic, as the self-appointed morality enforcers shoved the males in the crowd away from pressed-upon females, whose bottoms would turn sore from uninvited pinching.
And woe be the actor who plays the ultimate bad-guy, the aforementioned Shimr bin Dhil-Goshen, who’s usually festooned in bright red, and who beheads Imam Hussein towards the end of the battle. Hussein is the headlining act of the good-guy crew, who’s usually played by a handsome young buck—the real Hussein was killed when he was a graying man in his early 60s. His executioner, that actor playing Shimr, is always surrounded by a squad of extras whose job it is to ensure that no frenzied audience member, usually a woman crazed would grief, would lunge at him with a menacing slipper and smack him across the face. The worst part is when the passion play is over and that actor needs to be escorted through the hostile crowd back to the safety, and anonymity, of a life outside of the red costume.
Alternatively, Ashura can be described as a tourist-trapping carnival: each of the shrine cities—Najaf, Karbala, Kazimayn, but not Sunni-dominated Samarra—tries to outdo the other in spectacle; drawing out the oohs and aahs of Iranian pilgrims. And with these pilgrims, most of whom are peasants, come life savings set aside many years back to splurge on a crying tour around the shrines of the Middle East. These savings end up lining the pockets of the merchants of these shrine towns, who themselves are the main financiers and choreographers of the Ashura processions.
And then, there’s the paganism of it all. I tend to agree with the Wahhabis on this point: Ashura rituals have very little to do with Islam. But unlike the dour-faced Wahhabis, the anarchist within me—the one that resents all forms of authority—is encouraged by that fact. In the face of conformity and orthodoxy, all those little colorful faiths that preceded Islam are still with us, although in barely recognizable forms. C’mon, how else can one explain a contraption called the Zengi ‘flag’ or rather, the Zengi standard?
Before explaining the Zengi standard, I need to explain why no two Zengi standards are the same. The Ashura procession is actually made up of tens of individual processions divided up by neighborhood, guild, ethnicity and tradition. Each mini-procession has a unique Zengi standard. Thus, the bakers’ guild has its own procession in Kadhimiya—unimaginatively called the Bakers’ Procession—while the residents of the Anbariyoon Quarter (immigrants many centuries ago from the ancient town of Anbar, which would be located in today’s predominately Sunni Anbar Province) also puts together a procession bearing their neighborhood’s name.
Traditionally, the overall procession in Kadhimiya has been dominated by two rival processions: one organized by Jumhour (‘Populace’) Procession, one that my grandfather and his grandfather before him had supported, and which claims the tomb/mosque of Sharif Al-Radhi (an 11th century Baghdad jurist and poet of considerable renown) as its ‘tent’—its headquarters and operations center during the Ashura festival where donations are collected, food and alms are distributed, and last-night eulogies are sung. The rival procession is called the Jawahiriya (‘the Jewelers’) Procession, and it sets up its tent at the Bab al-Murad entrance. I had more friends in common with the Jawahiriya, so that is where I used to hang out.
It would seem that way before my grandfather’s time, the Jumhour and the Jawahiriya have been jostling for the privilege and prestige of going first in the overall procession, leading to many bouts of fisticuffs, which were fondly remembered by the elders over endless cups of tea served all around in the tents. After the Jumhour and the Jawahiriya come through, the less prominent processions follow suit, including the ones that have established much more recently such as the one organized by the ethnic Persians who were deported from Iraq in the 1970s (by the tens of thousands, along with hundreds of thousands of ethnically Arab and Kurdish Shi'as); their procession had the heartbreaking name of ‘House of Sorrows.’
On the 40th day after Ashura, everyone congregates in the town of Karbala. There, all the Kadhimiya processions unite as one against their erstwhile enemies, the people of Najaf. And there they get to fight over who goes first. Eighty years ago, a Najafi butcher called Da’aboul was killed in a melee over who gets right of way, and this blood feud still lingers unavenged (…because the Najafis are sissies and girly-men. Ahemmm.)
Let’s get back to the Zengi standard. First, most Zengi standards feature silver or metal peacocks. The peacock used to be worshiped as a sacred symbol by the pagan Zoroastrians and others. Then, there is usually a little bell dangling from the front that is fastened with a cord. The Zengi standard is carried for short distances at a time by one of the more muscular members of the processions, who for some reason have to do it barefoot. Several such ‘jocks’ take turns hauling this heavy standard around. At certain points, the standard is advanced towards the crowds lining the processional way, and men and women stretch out their arms to pluck the chord, chiming the little bell, and thus making a wish come true, or whatever other superstition is associated with it.
Apart from expensive silks and what look like pagan stars, the Jawahiriya Zengi standard is adorned with at least a dozen bejeweled swords, testimony to the workmanship of the jewelers. Each year, a new sword is prepared, and the best swords from generations back are picked to be attached to the standard.
Those ten days in late February and early March 2004 were incredible: it was the first Ashura held after the demise of the Saddam regime, which had restricted the ritual from public spaces in 1979. After Saddam, the rituals were held without any restraints and with much order; there was no secret police to fear. Although they are supposed to be about sadness and mourning, one could easily sense the giddiness pervading the air. People were happy, ecstatic and almost relieved, as if they were finally scratching an itch that had pestered them for decades. Most younger Shi'as under the age of 25 had never seen a Shi'a procession in Iraq; my only experiences were two furtive attempts in Jordan in the 1990s, one of which ended up with my arrest and having to spend the evening explaining the Ashura ceremony to bored Bedouins in police uniforms in the southern Jordanian town of al-Mazar, the site of a Shi'a shrine.
But during those days in Kadhimiya, it was as if an innate instinct—a behavioral gene—had been suddenly animated. Everything seems to flow with a perfect rhythm, and in perfect pitch. Nighttime torchlight processions, candles lit for the dead, poetry processions whereby each band of men would read a line of poetry from a banner held aloft up ahead, so that at every 30 seconds, the stationary audience member would hear a different stanza, and then at every four or five verses, the refrain is sung by one and all.
And picture this: processions with drums and trumpets, with huge colorful flags each denoting one of the heroes of the battle, and with beautifully sung lamentations, all in conjunction with the spectacle that most in the West see reported on the nightly news and get spooked by: young men and boys rhythmically slashing their backs with chains, and drawing blood. This self-flagellation commemorates the betrayal of Hussein by his supporters, who failed to show up to battle and left him to die along with 72 of his family members and closest aides.
And then, there’s the ‘try’—which, I think is derived from the English word ‘trial.’ This word may have seeped into the Shi'a lexicon from the Indian pilgrims who lived under British colonialism, and who were influenced by European precision. For the ‘try’ is in fact a ‘trial’: it is the attempt to rehearse the most spectacular procession yet, that which involves swords and gashed scalps.
Around 1 AM on the ninth and final night, all the processions come together and perform a run of the next day’s procession. Everyone is dressed in white, and everyone has their swords ready. They go through the motions and the fanfare, but don’t draw blood just yet.
Then, after sun-up, the real thing goes down. Blood everywhere! Mists of blood, in fact, coalesce into droplets of reddish dew on the clothes of the onlookers. This is when it becomes at its most pagan: swords waving, horns blowing, drums beating, and one word chanted over and over again: Hussain, Hussain, Hussain. Yesterday’s white shrouds are soaked with blood. The spectacle of devotion and discipline is spellbinding.
I wonder if these processions looked anything like those put together in Babylon many millennia ago; the genetic thumbprints of the Babylonians abound among the people of Iraq, so that even some of their rites may have lingered.
And after the last procession had circumbobulated the shrine, everyone seemed to go home for a rest. It was done: ten days of frenzied ritual, and much spiritual and physical energy expended.
By the way, the bloodletting ritual has been banned by Khomeini, ostensibly over concern that these men were hurting themselves, but I think the real reason is because the Shi'a establishment realizes the pagan undercurrent behind the ritual. On Ashura, men are encouraged to donate blood by the Iranian government. The Shi'a religious establishment in Iraq also frowns upon the ritual, but an Ayatollah risks loosing much of his support should he come out openly and categorically against it. Some habits are hard to kick, pagan rituals included!
By the time it was over, the townspeople of Kadhimiya went to wash away the blood, get some sugar into their depleted bloodstreams, and enjoy a well-deserved nap. So did I. As I was leaving, I saw throngs of people who lived in such places as Sadr City, and who had set out on foot from their homes in the furthest east of Baghdad, had begun to arrive at the shrine.
Twenty minutes later, a suicide bomber blew himself up inside the shrine’s courtyard, within meters of where I had been observing that morning’s procession. Another detonated himself at the Bab al-Murad entrace, shattering the centuries-old gold encrusted timbers of the gateway, and taking many more lives. And yet a third suicide bomber killed many others at nearby market.
I saw the news as I walking into my home. It took a few minutes to sink in, but I instinctively began gathering ammunition. I was convinced that a civil war would start that evening. At least, it should have: this was an unprecedented provocation in the annals of Sunni-Shi'a relations in Iraq. Unprecedented because even if there were sporadic massacres back and forth between the two communities over the centuries, nobody would have dared to damage the shrine, save if they were complete aliens to Iraq like the Wahhabis, who desecrated the shrine in Karbala in 1802. The current structure of the Kadhimiya shrine—uniquely featuring two golden domes for the fact that two of the twelve Shi'a Imams were buried there, Musa al-Kadhim and his grandson, Muhammad al-Jawad—was started by a Safavid Shah, and completed by an Ottoman Sultan.
I was wrong: a civil war did not break out that day. The Shi'a leadership under Sistani chose to hold the Americans responsible for not providing enough security. After that, an angry mob had turned against American soldiers trying to provide medical assistance to the wounded, and began pelting them with stones and shoes, just like Shimr.
Their anger was misplaced. Later that evening, I went back to the shrine and ran into people like Muqtada al-Sadr’s representative in Kadhimiya, Hazen al-‘Araji, as well as my friends at the Jawahiriya procession (the second bomb had gone off near them, the bomber’s head had landed on their tent’s canvass). Everyone was dazed and confused.
How could this happen?
Almost two years later, the Samarra shrine was blown up, and this time, the Shi'as did not hold the Americans responsible. But Sistani, to his credit now I see, refused to hold Sunnis responsible either. However, a fringe that had never listened to Sistani in the first place, a fringe dominated by Sadrists such as al-‘Araji, focused their anger at Sunnis and initiated cycles of reprisal killings.
And even after all that, the civil war I had predicted would start in March 2004 never materialized.
Today, Iraqi authorities are saying that they foiled a massive attack against the chief shrine city of them all, Najaf, home to the tomb of Imam Ali, Hussein’s father, and to a prominent scion of Hussein’s, the black-turbaned Ayatollah Ali Sistani. The authorities are claiming to have killed 250 militants in the day-long battle. It is still unclear whether the aggressors were millenarian Shi'as or Sunni jihadists, or both.
These religious festivals and rituals can be harnessed by dark men towards violent ends; to spread radicalism and sectarianism. But they can also be the antidote to fervor and closed-mindedness, for they still reflect all the colors and hues of faiths and rituals from more ancient times, and make a place for them in the cultural pantheon of the modern Middle East. These rituals also serve to let off steam and vent ancient hurts, and after they’re done, the actor playing Shimr can go back to being a grocer (…albeit with a few bruises), and the actor playing Hussein can take fares in his taxi, and the Iranian pilgrim can go home, all cried-out.
It doesn’t have to be about fighting a battle whose original generals have been dead for a millennium and a half. These rituals, rather than inciting further hatred, can be cathartic.
As a secular person, I choose to revel in the complex cultural messages of Ashura. I think the festival is beautiful. I think the shrine is wondrous. And I think regular folk derive much consolation and joy after exercising their spiritual muscles during this time of year.
During my talk to the American officers, I told them to encourage the men and women serving under them to take pictures and to show an interest, and not to refuse the free food and beverages that would be handed out to them as a courtesy. I saw many Iraqis taking plates of food, fruits and sweets to bored American soldiers running patrols during those days.
I look forward to the day when American and Western tourists would get to see the ‘cultural’ festival of Ashura, and to do so safely and without harassment. I look forward to the day when enlightened Shi'a clerics, mindful that they wouldn’t have been able to celebrate Ashura had it not been for those American soldiers who tore down the Ba’athist regime, would welcome these tourists and give them right of place, and encourage their flock to be hospitable and friendly, and to painstakingly explain all the little aspects of the ritual.
Maybe one day, novelty shops in Kadhimiya will sell miniature Zengi standards, and tourists would take pretty pictures of the Ashura ‘carnival.’
Hey, maybe they can even throw pies at Shimr for $1 a pop.