The morning after the sand storm warmed up as the sun rose, and the air conditioners on our lilac and vanilla mini buses were turned on full blast as we climbed on to perform the Ataraf tour around Kerbala. Just a short distance behind the shrine of Hazrat Abbas, we walked down a narrow alleyway – similar to what you would find in Mombasa’s Old Town – and ducked into a side building which turned out to be a small mosque within which Imam Jaffer us Sadiq, the 5th Imam, was buried.
For my sister and I – and possibly for most Dawoodi bohras – Imam Jaffer us Sadiq will always be associated with doodpak (a sweet dish, similar to English rice pudding) and puri (a small, round piece of bread made with wheat flour and deep-fried, which is used to scoop up the doodpak).
Returning back into the bus, while we waited for stragglers to catch up – many of whom had stopped to browse the stalls, an entrepreneurial Iraqi knowing that many of us would prioritise a seat on the bus over any window shopping brought his wares to us, and displayed them through the mini van windows.
Of the trips I have taken around East Africa, I have never bought anything from a car window – including the bottles of water and packets of biscuits waved around at Voi, and the bunches of bananas and other fruits near the border town of Namanga – but this man seemed to know his audience. He was selling only one item – booties – at a low cost and I suppose they were equivalent to an impulse buy in a supermarket. In less than two minutes, he had sold three of his items
Dawoodi Bohras have a thing about socks. For us, they are an art form that can be both unique and highly fashionable. Inside a mosque, Bohra women wear cotton socks in a colour to match the rida – the length is not important since the skirt of the rida covers us to the ankles. The quality and colour of the socks displays an attention to detail and a neatness that reflects favourably on the wearer.
Men too have embraced the fashion, and are no less particular about their socks. And so while the women deck their feet in delicate shades of red, green and blue – and the more trend conscious and financially empowered find patterned socks to match the various colours on the rida – the men, in keeping with their masculinity, wear light grey, brown or dark grey socks with a padded sole.
The women – as is often the case when it comes to clothing – have taken the fad a step further, however, and outside the mosque, the colour coded socks form the inner layer and are covered up with a bootie which fits neatly over the foot, and is held in place with elastic around the ankle.
This is what the Iraqi gentleman was selling, and so mentally flipping through the colours of the ridas hanging in my closet, I selected a mehndi (green henna) coloured pair patterned with small flowers. Dark enough not to stain, and feminine enough not to verge on masculine colours.
It was my first pair of booties! But to be fair I hadn’t taken to the sock fad quickly. And by the time the shoppers returned to the bus, I was sitting in my window seat with my plastic encased, mehndi coloured booties in my lap
The self satisfied look of a happy shopper didn’t last long and after a short drive, we arrived in the quiet area where Molana Hur had been buried. A commander in Yazid’s army, Molana Hur had defected to Imam Hussein’s side and was one of the first to be killed. He had been buried where he died, and it made me realise how, despite the passing of more than a thousand years, the battle of Kerbala was still deeply engrained in this Iraqi town.
His ziyarat set the tone for the rest of our road trip. and soon we stopped at what used to be the tented camp at which the Ahl ul Bayt had lived – now a circular shaped building with murals narrating the battle between the two camps. A small room was dedicated to the young Bibi Sakina where she had bid farewell to her teenage husband, and in which she saw him for the last time before he was killed by Yazid’s army.
As we huddled in a small crowd, one of the ladies in the group pointed to a drawing, a sketch really. Black marks on a faded brown piece of paper, it drew the location of Yazid’s army, the tented camp in which we were sitting and the river that flew between the two camps. Until that point, my understanding of the battle of Kerbala had been blurred with rough edges but the visual positioning of the two camps brought home the direness of the Ahl ul Bayt’s fate at that time.
That camp was Imam Hussein’s final home, and that of all his family before they were chained to walk the long distance back to Misr – the place where our pilgrimage had begin, and where it would end. Surrounded by enemy blocks and date palms, a long distance from the river, this is where the final hours and days of the Ahl ul Bayt were spent. Where the faces of the young children were slapped by Yazid’s soldeirs, and where the burkhas were snatched off the women.
There was too much to think of, and we left the camp all too soon.
As we neared our last stop, the green and gold domes of Imam Hussein’s and Hazrat Abbas’ shrines glinted at us and we realised that we had driven in a circle that morning, And so when we stopped at Maulatena Zainab’s tekri (hill), it was expected. This was the final location in the narrative of Kerbala; the small hill to which Maulatena Zainab had run when she glimpsed Imam Hussein being attacked, and where she was standing when the final blow was inflicted.
We filed into the tiny mosque, unusually quiet, and peeked out of the miniature window which had been built to immortalise her searching look across the sandy dunes to the solitary figure of her brother. It was now an alley of shops stretching towards the shrine. Ornaments resembling dream catchers hung from the wires outside the tekri, and we scrambled for our shoes and ran after our group leader to complete the final step of our journey – the hasty dash to the beheaded body of Imam Hussein as it lay on the scorching sands of Kerbala.
That evening, I was able to put it all in context as I sat outside our room at the Faiz – the icy cold night with its dusty wicker chairs was better than the stuffy rooms with the fan circulating the same stagnant air. The serenity of the Faiz gave me space to think, to absorb the intensity of emotions I had experienced in my ten days of pilgrimage. It was our last night in Kerbala, and the next morning we planned to return to Baghdad by bus, and board the short commuter flight to Misr.
That Thursday night, we were to bid farewell to Imam Hussein and perform biori namaaz (late night prayers) at the shrine. There were a lot of pilgrims at the haram sharif, but the unifying power of religion washed over me as I watched pilgrims from various countries congregate under one roof. In one room, one shrine, one town – covered from head to toe in various types of Islamic dress. We sat together on the thick, red velvet carpets which had trapped in their long hair, tiny grains of sand that dented the skin on the ankles, palms and foreheads. We lined the aisles and sat in the squares reserved for prayer, reluctant to leave the hallowed ground. Determined to speak in heaving sobs physically wrung from our chests.
Some of us had our hands raised in prayer, others prostrated with their heads balanced on a piece of khake shifa (the earth of Kerbala shaped into a tablet). Some clung to the silver zari, desperately clasping a variety of objects. Others sat quietly with their legs folded to one side, prayer book in hand staring fixedly at the zari. Tears dripped from their eyes, and coursed gently down their cheeks.
A myriad of people and prayer but all in one place, and all directed at one Imam who is known for his intervention, self sacrifice and miracles
As we drove out of Kerbala the next morning, I couldn’t help but compare my experiences of the two neighbouring towns. Where Najaf was cooled by fragrant billows of air, Kerbala was heavy with heat. The history of the land had woven its influence and continued to share its tale with every visitor.
Najaf and Kerbala were the final moments of two great men.
Najaf was the resting place of Ali, a man who knew his last moments were upon him and humbly strode into the Masjid al Kufa for prayers. He fearlessly lay his head down in sajadah, in abeyance to Allah and in full knowledge that his enemies would choose that moment to slay him. He was a man who had left instructions that he was to be buried under a white stone in the nearby town of Najaf.
Kerbala was the last stand of Hussein and his ummat. A place where he stood and watched as his entire family was massacred by an army that was created for that very purpose. First by thirst, and then on the blade of a sword. And when he was the only one left standing, the only one left to protect the ummat of Prophet Mohammed, surrounded by a harem of women (his wives, sisters and daughters), he was stoned, pierced by arrows, and slain like a ritual sacrifice while his enemy sat astride him and traced patterns on his bruised and battered body with the edge of his weapon.
We arrived at Jomo Kenyatta International Airport in Nairobi that evening, and I couldn’t wait to return to Iraq.