Part 5: Najaf – silent shrines and glittering mosques

Our priority in Najaf al Ashraf was to spend time at the gold domed Shrine of Imam Ali with its two minarets. But Najaf is a city steeped in Shia Islamic history, and so on the afternoon of Sunday 16 October 2011, shortly after lunch at the Dawoodi Bohra hall, we left our rooms at the Anwar al Sadiq hotel in downtown Najaf and piled into the white and violet striped buses that had ferried us to Najaf from Baghdad International Airport, and which were to remain with us for the duration of our stay in Iraq.

More conspicuous than the abundance of masjids in Najaf is the lack of supermarkets and grocery stores. Street vendors were selling plump and colourful fruit; traders had boxes of juice, bottles of water, shoes and clothes; and lines of small stalls crouched in shaded alleys selling nuts and sweets from kikapu styled woven bags. There were even some selling kichwa nazi (the heart of a coconut tree, kichwa nazi is a delicacy because it can only be extracted from a felled coconut tree. It resembles a book with thin pages and a spine.) But not a single supermarket.

We visited three mosques that afternoon en route to our final stop. Each held a strong significance in the history of Shia Islam, and were markers in the lives and journeys of the Ahl ul Bayt. In visiting the mosques, we were following their footsteps. Venerating the ground they had stepped on; the earth that had soaked  their blood.

We passed dusty fly overs carrying garishly coloured taxis and too many sand coloured private cars. Many Iraqis were on foot, and we were overtaken by what seemed to be a combination of the Kenyan mkokoteni and a Roman chariot. It was a two wheeled, hand pulled vehicle with a flat wooden platform at the back, elevated around half a metre off the ground by three wheels with long handles on its front. The platform had a rug pinned to the inside and at different times, it was used to transport freshly baked round naans sprinkled with sesame seeds, and old women who sat flat on the tilted wooden platform, cross legged, looking like  small mounds of black in their full length burkhas.

Our first stop that afternoon was Masjid Kumeil, which houses the tomb of Hazrat Kumeil to whom Imam Ali had counselled the famous Dua al Kumayl (recited to protect against evil, to increase daily sustenance and for forgiveness of sins). Located on the top of a small hill in what seemed to be a residential area, the circular silver tomb was surrounded by high arches. Less than an hour later, we clambered back onto the buses and travelled to Masjid Hanane. It is said that when Imam Hassan and Imam Hussein were transporting the body of Imam Ali from from Kufa (where he died) to Najaf (where he wanted to be laid to rest), the entourage stopped briefly at this mosque. It is believed that some of the skin from Imam Hussein’s  head (removed when he was disrespected by a knife wielding man called Khul Mal’un) is buried here. The place is also hallowed ground because Shia Islam says that the pillars of Masjid Hanane bent towards the body of Imam Ali to pay its last respects.

Our final, and most important, stop that afternoon was at Masjid al Kufa. We had all heard the mosque been spoken of during Muharram and Ramadhan sermons because it was where Imam Ali had received a deathly blow. Masjid al Kufa continues to be a landmark in the dry and sandy city. In size, because a large structure has been built around the modest mosque, a huge parking lot parallels the mosque’s enclosure where big buses ooze thousands of pilgrims, and because the cloaked rivers of human traffic that arrive daily have spawned a bustling street trade.

Outside each of the main entrances to the masjid were broad cloak rooms where people thronged to deposit their footwear – tied in plastic bags – and collect a token. Naive, despite my experience in Misr, I looked down at my blue Bata slippers and confidently believed they would be theft proof.

The crowds were immense. And the bottle necks were the ubiquitous security checks with their drapes of heavy brocade – dirty, stained and sweaty from the many hands that had pulled it aside – and the winding mazes into the mosque itself. But our experience in Misr and Najaf had rubbed off on us and we did not carry any cameras or phones which would slow us down unnecessarily, We oped instead for speed with a small batwa – easily checked and just as easily carried – that contained money and keys.

Like Masjid al Anwar in Misr, we walked into a courtyard at the end of which was Masjid al Kufa. It was paved with large white marble blocks, and fifteen rectangular arches formed a circle around it with cream pillars in between each arch. In each arch, an intricate lamp was suspended and on the top of each dome gold Arabic lettering was etched into the smooth white marble. There was a fountain in the centre of the expanse, with raised edges on which people sat. And next to it was  pole at which it is said Nooh Nabi’s safina, Prophet Noah’s boat, had once stopped. A section of the courtyard had carpets placed on it where groups of women in black and men in ash grey trousers and shirts sat and prayed. Other groups were being led in prayer by a man standing amidst them.

The courtyard was rimmed by the shrines of Muslim bin Akil, Nabi Allah Nooh, Hani bin Arwa and Mukhtar a Thakati – each of whom played a central role in the history of Shia Islam.

Our visit to Masjid al Kufa was the corner piece in the jigsaw of Shia Islam history. It was the mosque in which Imam Ali had walked in for Fajr prayers on 19th Ramadhan. He had seen a non-believer sleeping in the corner at a time when he ought to have been preparing for morning prayers, and he had awoken him. That sleeping man turned out to be his assassin. And as Imam Ali – the Lion of Allah – bent his head in prayer and touched his forehead to the floor in abeyance to Allah, the infidel lifted a blade that had been soaked in poison for 40 days and 40 nights, and struck Imam Ali on his head in a blow that would have instantly felled a man. But the famed Shia warrior simply removed the second cloth that was around his waist, wrapped it around his head to staunch the flow of blood and returned home.

In the days that followed, he let his sons know of his wish to be buried at a secret gravesite in Najaf so that his grave would not be desecrated by enemies. He asked them to take him to Najaf where they would see a shining white stone. Under it, he said, they would find a ready grave. In that same grave, Imam Ali continued, Nooh Nabi (Prophet Noah) and Adam Nabi (Prophet Adam) had also been buried. The white stone is a haven, Imam Ali told his sons. A haven for anyone, man or animal.

It is said that a particular hunter was pursuing a deer, and was startled when he saw the shy animal sitting confidently on a white stone instead of running away from him. The hunter shot many arrows at the deer, but each missed as the deer sat atop the stone complacently. Eventually the hunter conceded defeat when he realised that he was on hallowed ground and that the deer was being protected by an unseen power.

Imam Ali died a couple days after he was attached, on 21st Ramadhan. For Shia Muslims, the 21st of every month is a reminder of this great leader.

These stories reeled in my mind as we approached the ladies entrance to the masjid. The qibla (front nook which the prayer leader occupies and which marks the direction of prayer) in which Imam Ali had led prayers on that day, in which he had prostrated his head in prayer and received the deathly blow, was partitioned into two. We accessed it from the right and looked through a jewelled glass and network of silver balls while the men were privileged to a wider access from the left. Here too were the women with their feather dusters hurrying those who clung a little too long to the ornate silver bars.

All along the walls of the mosque were diamond shaped tiles in which jewels and yellow gold spoke the Arabic name Ali. A single symbol, it was written without lifting the hand. From the curvy letter for A to the pointed finger L to the graceful boat shaped final letter I.

That first day we were content with the restrictions that gender placed on us because we knew our visit in Najaf spanned a couple days and we would have a chance to return. We were also tired from a full afternoon of traversing the hot and dusty city of Najaf, and so we performed a perfunctory ziyarat and shortly before Maghrib, left Masjid al Kufa and returned to the hotel.

In the days that followed, early morning buses were arranged to return to Masjid al Kufa and many of us grasped the opportunity to say our Fajr prayers at the Masjid al Kufa – at the acclaimed moment of sunrise – and at a time when few pilgrims would be present which would allow us to access the men’s section and perform sajda in the qibla.

Mum and I went every Fajr, and with no lines and no rush, we were able to  meditate deeply on our faith in the cool and silent hours of an Iraqi morning.

Thinking back to the ziyarat visits, I feel an overwhelming sense of déjà vu. Whether the memory of being there has become a part of my subconscious, or the anticipation of the event and the half encounters through photos and other people had prepared me so well that it took only moment for the experience to take on the quality of an old sepia toned memory, I cannot say.

The day after our visit (Monday 17 October) to Masjid al Kufa, we walked to the largest cemetery in the world, Wadi al Salaam, located just metres away from Imam Ali’s shrine. It is apparently the cemetery at which Hud Nabi and Salih Nabi were buried. It is also said to be the oldest graveyard in the world, the final resting place of people from the days of Adam Nabi, possibly making Najaf one of the oldest cities in the world. Inside, the graves were made of rough cut bricks, and haphazardly panelled with white tiles painted with patterns in blue and yellow. Some of the graves were shaped like small square houses and had a roof like shelter constructed on top of it.

We walked on ancient graves when exiting the cemetery. The burial ground was so large that the town had had to reclaim the outer perimeter to ease movement on the roads, and as we shielded our eyes against the light, we searched for the end of this vast acre that seemed to stretch to the horizon.

4 April 2013

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