The crowds at the haram sharif have been intense in the last few days. Ever increasing numbers of Irani women in their black cloaks, filling the security checking lines, squeezing in between the man-made queues. Their children are balanced in their arms, looking out from hazel coloured eyes; and the others – near my knees – are trying to squeeze their way ahead of me, getting lost in the folds of my rida.
Inside the roza, the numbers are overwhelming. The crowd starts at the end of the winding passage; nowhere near the zari itself. And from the end of the queue, I can see only shouting and squeezing. No progressive movements. Stifling; sweaty; suffocating.
As soon as I join the fringes of the crowd, a place where I am not perceived as a threat and so allowed to join in easily, the gentle current of the crowd takes over and I am pushed and pulled, forward and backward, right and left. I have no idea whether I am making any progress until I am close enough to the zari to touch it with my fingertips over the heads of the throngs.
I touch the zari and my instinct kicks in. I am all of a sudden prepared to bear any kicking, pushing, pulling to get close enough to clasp it with both hands; put my forehead to the cool silver knobs and kiss one of the knobbly, cold joints. The crowd senses my determination and I transform into a threat – one that may prevent them from reaching the same goal and so the fight begins in earnest.
Toes are being squelched. Pointed elbows being jostled outwards making contact with all the tender and sensitive places of my body. Arms are stretched over and above my head. The arms of others are around my neck in a stranglehold position. I am so tightly squeezed between bodies that the loose ends of my rida are caught between people, creased by the heat of their bodies. Stranded in the crowd, it is only their movements which are directing and releasing the movement of my body, forward and backwards.
At this crucial moment when I can touch the zari over the heads of the others but am not close enough to kiss it, I question whether the crowds are too strong for me … the fingertip ziyarat not enough … and whether I really need to get any closer.
Depending on the day and the time of my visit, it is a different decision.
Some days the crowd frightens me. A particularly aggressive woman erodes my confidence and strength. The fear of reaching the zari and being pressed up against it with the strength of the black-swathed crowd at my back overwhelms me. And I delicately reach out with my fingertips, balance myself on the bodies in front of me, kiss the zari with the outstretched tips of my fingers and then beat a hasty retreat. Desperate for a breath of fresh air; the sensual feel of the breeze against my face and under the folds of my rida.
The thought keeps me going through the bruising crush of the 1st and 2nd rows. It squeezes the air from my body, and I start to take shallow breaths which will prevent my body from expanding within the narrow confines. And then as the crowd realizes my intent, that I wish to leave, they make space for me but only because they hope to move into the space that I am leaving. The pressure is painful, more unbearable. Hot and sweaty bodies draped in layers of clothes, caustically rubbing against each other.
And then, finally, I emerge at the fringes. A different person. My rida is misshapen, tugged behind my ears; some days pulled off completely. I am out of breath. Panting. And there is a slowly disappearing look of panic in my eyes. One glance back at the zari, at the crowd I have survived which has closed ranks immediately leaving no hint of my oozing out. And then I leave from the ornate silver knobbed wooden doors, stopping to kiss them close up as I was unable to do with the zari. Relishing the cold touch of metal on my hot flushed face.
On the days when the throng has not defeated or dissipated my energy and determination by the time I am in fingertip range, the experience is iced with a delicious feeling of triumph, victory, success.
I start slowly. I reach out and perform the ziyarat with my fingertips, unsure of whether that last boundary can be crossed – because those who finally make it to the front line hold onto the steel squares so tenaciously and refuse to let go or let anyone in, despite the colourful fluffy dusters that the volunteer women fluff on our heads ushering us to hurry up.
One woman from the front row leaves; five others try to push their way in. If I am one of the lucky ones who manages to reach the front, up close to the silvery bars, the strong undercurrent of the crowd is such that it doesn’t allow me to remain there for very long. I am pushed and pulled. Tugged away from the bars as the crowd tries to push me back to the fringes having graciously given me the chance to reach the upper echelon, uncaring of whether I have succeeded or failed midway.
And then once in a while I am correctly angled, in the right frame of mind or anticipating a movement. My furtive eyes have seen a gap or detected a slight movement from those closest to the zari. And as one woman moves out, I rush forward and squeeze myself in.
And then I am standing at the zari! The metallic feel of the cold silver on my palms and forehead; gulping this sweet air which emanates from inside the bars; clinging on for dear life and peering inside, searching for something.
My back is curved against the force of the women pushing against me. My head is bent in prayer. My double jointed hands curved around the silver knobs, my fingers and knuckles trespassing into the zari. I am holding on with both hands, getting in as many kisses as possible, scanning the insides desperate to see as much as possible, unsure of when I will ever have the chance to stand there again …
And then the feather duster tickles my face. Woken from my deep reverie, the pushing of the crowd against my back gets a notch more insistent. I slowly ease my way out of the silky black crowd; numb to the nudges, the elbows and the toe crushes. My heart is full to bursting. Grateful, I want to share the honour with others who are there with the same purpose.
Imam Hussein’s roza, Karbala, Iraq
October 22 2011