After four days in Najaf, we packed our bags with heavy hearts on 19th October, and prepared for the one hour drive from Najaf to Kerbala Sharif, the Iraqi town which housed the shrine of Imam Hussein, Hazrat Abbas and other members of the Ahl ul Bayt.
Kerbala. The epic scene of the grand battle between the small Shia contingency and Yazid’s army. The defining ground for the split between the Shias and the Sunnis. The event that Shia Muslims across the world commemorated annually during the month of Muharram when Imam Hussein and all but one of his male descendants were killed.
On the way to Kerbala, we stopped at the town of Musayyib, which is around 45 minutes drive from Kerbala. It is where Muslim ibn Aqeel’s children, 7 year old Mohammed and 9 year old Ibrahim, were killed. Yazid who was searching for their father had put them in jail, but the jailer freed them. There was a price on the heads of the seven and nine year old so the two brothers ran until they reached the town of Musayyib. Both were caught, beheaded on the banks of the Euphrates river and their bodies thrown into the water.
It is said that Mohammed, the younger brother, was beheaded first, and that the elder Ibrahim spread his brother’s blood on his own face before he was beheaded. The gesture is an intensely poignant one that repeats many incidences in the history of Shia Islam, not least of all the image of Imam Hussein’s horse Maymun soaking his mane in the blood of Imam Hussein after his martyrdom. A large shrine is built on the eastern bank of the Euphrates river in memory of Mohammed and Ibrahim.
Driving out from the town of Musayyib, there were date palms as far as the eye could see. Some were long and tall, others short and broad but irrespective of shape, each was heavy with fruit. Clustered with bunches of dates in various states of ripening.
Every palm looked like a flower unfurled. The leaves at the bottom were yellow, brown and gold in colour and pointed stiffly to the ground. Not sagging. Stiff despite their age and brittleness. The green leaves on top were thin and spindly like bottle brushes. Poky. I imagined wiping off the tiny grains of sand that had turned the vibrant leaves into greyish shadows of themselves to reveal the dark green leaf which cloaked itself in the same way that the women of its country camouflaged their beauty.
These wild palm trees, even without a hemp corset tied around them, held their upper bodies erect. Their uppermost leaves pointed longingly to the moisture of the sky, distant from the dry and dusty world they were anchored to. And in contrast to the desert plains, the River Euphrates pulsed past, its grayish green waters encased in broad cement banks.
We stopped to clear another security check. The words Khul, Khalaas and Tamaam were bandied around by our bus driver and the security guards as pistol shaped weapons that had antennas protruding out one end were run alongside our buses, sweeping them for explosives.
And then we headed towards Bustan e Burhani, Syedna’s home in Iraq: a small residential house surrounded by a date plantation that bore 20 tonnes of dates in one season. Like tourists at the home of a Hollywood celebrity we encroached on the privacy of Mola’s family and walked around the house and the garden, carefully avoiding the pomegranate trees which were signposted with warnings not to pick the fruit.
Less than an hour later, we arrived at the main checkpoint in Kerbala, manned by soldiers in grey and green camouflage and draped with plastic flowers and leaves. The immortal garlands were on the main roads, street corners, everywhere. Garish pink, red, orange and yellow clusters dotted all over the city of Kerbala.
Flowers and soldiers. Softness and rigidity. Forgiveness and anger.
Down the road we caught our first glimpse of the shrine of Hazrat Abbas, which was situated right next to the shrine of Imam Hussein. As we craned our necks to keep one eye on the glittery domes and a second on the roads so we would know our way back to the shrines from our uttaro (accommodation), we were pleasantly surprised to make a left turn barely 100 metres from the shrines and pull into a serene white courtyard with two shaded swing sets.
There was a white mosque on one side with a red flag on which Ya Hussein fluttered rapidly, a two storey hostel to its right, and what seemed like a dining room on the left. Rimmed trees sat in the middle of the courtyard offering shade and moisture to the sunny dry temperature of Kerbala. White pigeons fluttered around the courtyard, and this – along with the glimpse of men in white saya kurtas and topis – were a sure indication that we had arrived at the Dawoodi Bohra Faiz in Kerbala.
After lunch, the resident Amil led the first official ziyarat. Only a few of us followed. The rest, lulled by the knowledge that we would have five days in Kerbala, unpacked in our rooms and caught a small nap, confident that as the heat of the afternoon waned so would the numbers and that after sunset would be the best time.
I didn’t take any such chances. I had waited too many years to perform my first ziyarat of Hazrat Abbas and Imam Hussein. I had listened to too many sermons about Kerbala and harboured too much desire to waste one moment in my room, just a stone’s throw away from the shrine. I wanted no regrets when I returned to Kenya at the end of the week. No doubts.
We approached the inescapable security checks, more conspicuous here than anywhere else we had seen in Iraq. Iraqi and Irani women filled the queues in their full length silky black burkhas. But as they peeled a corner back to remove their amaanat (property kept in trust), they revealed the boot leg jeans, fitting tops and stylish cuts under their veils.
There was a large fountain between the security check and the entrance to Hazrat Abbas’ shrine. Water poured into the fountain from a mashki (a water bag made of leather) that was elevated in the centre. The mashki told the story of Hazrat Abbas’ sacrifice. Imam Hussein’s contingency had been denied access to water for three days, and Hazrat Abbas, the commander of Imam Hussein’s forces and his brother, left the safety of the encampment to get water from the river for the young children. On his return, he was attacked and he died defending the precious pitcher of water.
Najaf and Kerbala were two completely different pilgrimage experiences. Najaf was one and Kerbala was many. Najaf had only Imam Ali whereas Kerbala was sprinkled with ziyarats and Shia history. It became clear to me then why Najaf was a stop over and Kerbala the destination.
The two main shrines in Kerbala were within one enclosure but separated by a stretch of around 300 metres of hot tarmac which we walked barefoot. The shrine of Imam Hussein was circled by the smaller shrines of his two infant sons – Ali Akbar and six month old Ali Asghar – who were also martyred along with seventy two others during the battle of Kerbala.
Kerbala attracts a larger number of pilgrims – more than double that of Najaf – and an incredible amount of refurbishment was taking place at both shrines which added to the confusion of the large numbers. Not only were both shrines larger than that of Hazrat Ali, but they were fully enclosed whereas Imam Ali’s had an open ceiling covered only with heavy material through which the sun and the moon were visible.
Even more confusing was that both shrines, although circular, had multiple, identical entrances. If you exited from a side door and not the main door, it was impossible to find your way back to the cloak room at which you left your shoes. But each door had a number written on it, and the best solution was to walk in circles within the shrine until the right number appeared.
With the first ziyarat performed, and an understanding of the basic layout, our small group walked back to the Faiz, determined to return again at night. But as we left the hot and crowded shrines, we were greeted by a strong, crisp wind, and by dinner, a sand storm had descended on Kerbala.
A powdery coffee coloured dust filled the air. It was so fine it looked deceptively like fog or mist except that it filled my mouth with a grainy sandy taste, entered my eyes and nose blurring my sight and clogging my breath. The Ya Hussein flag on top of the mosque fluttered wildly, and the dust laden wind exfoliated the skin on my face leaving it ashy and tender to the touch.
With our noses and mouths draped with a scarf and a handkerchief, we sought refuge in the marbled shrines from the swirling devils of dust. But even inside, the mist of dust was visible against the high ceilings and the Islamic Fatimid architecture. Almost as if the high ceilings were a mirage and we were still standing outside with the stars shining down. The bright painted navy blues and yellows on the white tiles faded to a lighter shade as the dust obscured our vision.
And during the long barefoot walk down the narrow path from Hazrat Abbas’ shrine to Imam Hussein’s, the sand grains swirled directly onto our faces. Families sat with their children tucked in blankets under the open shelters that lined the walk.
The sandstorm signaled a change in weather for us. It blustered all night and the next morning was cold. I awoke to a clear blue sky without a cloud in sight. A brisk wind continue to flutter the flag of Imam Hussein and our thin cotton ridas. There was a film of dust on everything: the table and chairs outside our room, the benches in the courtyard, and the buses in the parking lot.
5 April 2013