Karbala: “Karb” meaning grief and sorrow; “Balaa” meaning affliction. The word is as integral to the Islamic faith as is the word Christ to a Christian. It was the scene where Imam Hussein, one of the grandsons of the Prophet Muhammad was murdered with all but one of his immediate family, in order for Yazid (Enemy of the Shiites) to gain leadership of the Muslim community.
For ten days every year, in the month of Muharram, the martyrdom of Imam Hussein and his family is mourned by Shiite Muslims – mourned with tears, hearts heavy with sorrow and the vigorous beating of the chest with the palm of the hand (“maatam“) while chanting the names of Hussein Ali (father of Hussein), and Fatema (mother of Hussein).
Every Muharram, worldly life and concerns come to a stand still for Muslims as prayer meetings are held twice a day, once at afternoon prayers and again after evening prayers, meetings where the story of the battle of Kerbala, more than one thousand three hundred and fifty years ago is retold. And with each maatam beat, the mourner remembers Imam Hussein as he asked his followers to do moments before his death.
The rhythm of the maatam, in its persistency and relentless pounding, causes the skin on the chest to smart and eventually bleed – red patchy stains of blood on the virginal white of the Muslim traditional “kurta”. The more strenuous the maatam, the greater the mourner’s desire for forgiveness for his sins and the sins of all Muslims and the more stark the contrast between the red and the white on the kurta.
Abdullah, Imam Hussein’s brother, was eighteen years old at the time of the battle of Kerbala. And having promised his brother that he would marry his daughter Sakina to his nephew Abdullah, Imam Hussein insisted that they marry despite the ongoing battle. After the “nikaah” (marriage), as the young bride and groom sat together in a room talking for the first time as husband and wife, calls were heard from outside the door from the followers of Abu Bakr demanding that the groom join their festivities – having slaughtered all others in the tent, their greed for the groom had grown. And as the groom stands up to answer the raucous calls, Imam Hussein tears the red sash off his body telling him that they are not asking for a groom outside but another victim. And the young Abdullah turns to his even younger wife, the six year old Sakina, who looks up at him with tears in her eyes. She asks when they shall meet again and he answers “Aakhirat ma” (on the day of Judgment).
As stories of Abdullah’s martyrdom fill the hall of the mosque, tears pour down the faces of those gathered there, and the fact that these deaths occurred before the lifetime of anyone in that room and exists only as a memory is unimportant. The chants of “Dulla” (groom) grow louder as the maatam becomes more frenzied. The memory is told with simplicity and yet so much raw emotion that tears course down the faces of everyone present, men and women, old and young.
Ali Asghar, the six month old child of Imam Hussein, is mourned with as much fervour. He was being cradled in Imam Hussein’s arms when an enemy arrow was shot into him ending his life. After putting his son down onto the earth, Imam Hussein is said to have cupped his hands letting the blood of his son gather in his palms and then had thrown the blood up to the sky. The stain of that blood is smeared across the sky for all time, visible to the human eye at the time of evening prayers – a slowly darkening blue sky streaked with the pinkish red blood of the infant Ali Asghar.
And on the tenth night of muharram, the mourning reaches its peak with the “shahadat” (martyrdom) of Imam Hussein. After being struck more than thirty-three blows, Imam Hussein finally fell to enemy swords and was beheaded. Muslim legend says that even after he was beheaded, his lips continued to recite from a chapter of the Qu’ran. His head was impaled on a spear and carried by the victors to their homes, a trophy of their battle: the severed head of the grandson of the Prophet.
This same site where Imam Hussein stood and fought sacrificing both his life and that of his family for all Muslims is the terrain across which the second Gulf war is raging today: a battle fought in the name of Iraqi freedom but actually about American power and the worlds obedience to that power. Because what else is this second Gulf war but the need for America to demonstrate its power to the world, and to Iraq in particular, and to once and for all make Iraq toe the line that America has drawn in the sand?
Men that are the direct descendants of Rasulallah (Messenger of Allah), the Prophet Muhammad, gave their lives on that very soil. It is their graves that are being bombed, trampled and ignored. That land is not just Iraq, it is the land, the earth, of Islam.
And today, innocent people continue to give their lives on the same soil. Front pages of newspapers are filled with pictures and headlines of Iraqi civilians being killed, city markets and maternity hospitals bombed while the “coalition’s” journey to Baghdad and the search for the missing Saddam Hussein continues unabated.
Too many battles have been fought on that land, too much blood shed, too many stories written about those who lost their lives there, too many mourned. Perhaps the earth there was cursed in the time of Imam Hussein to a lifetime of its land being torn by strife again and again, and its people being massacred senselessly. Karbala.
Grief, sorrow and affliction.
The tears have to stop.
* “Karbala” was first published by the Generator 21 on April 8, 2003.