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AshuraThe Tenth-Day Catastrophe of Duodecimal Shi’ism

As to the rest of us accustomed to a completely different art, these dramatic lamentations centred on the same action, these theatrical grievances telling the life and death of the same protagonists, may appear—despite their splendour and the spell of the language—tedious and monotonous, just as the popular religious ceremonies that follow may seem savage and barbaric: those spectacles during which the people, actor and spectator, bathes itself in its own blood for the greatest glory of its venerated Imams.

La Revue Théatrale, Numéro spécial sur le Théatre Persan, Nouvelle Série, No 37, Juillet 1905, page 868.

In the late afternoon, as the sun relents and the streets of Nabatieh cool down, Hassiba’s voice floods the playground. The town-folk have converged on the soccer pitch and, here she is, a sixty-year old woman wrapped up in black, hoisted onto a raised platform, plaintively intoning the day’s events. Her diminutive figure never quite matches the scope of her far-reaching voice.

Clusters of young men hang around the goalpost or sit on the fence-wall, their legs dangling, their teenager eyes lost between the gravity of the event and their own light-heartedness, their love of flippancy. Their nascent manhood is making demands on them. Their attention, momentarily seized by the unfolding drama of the story, has already shifted back to their immediate concerns, the playful girl they were picking on or flirting with, or the pig-headed father they have left at home and hope they will succeed in avoiding in the crowd. They let Hassiba’s voice into their head but will not allow it into their thoughts, storing the words away, like the air they breathe or the sunlight they gaze through. Tonight, at home, in the silence of their beds, the words will come back to them and they will think plenty about Hussein.

Women, in unabashedly coloured frocks, the heads of some covered casually with scarves, others tossing their hennaed hair with excitement as they whisper into a companion’s ear, look on from the balconies of the dull two-story buildings, which form a wider fence around the pitch. Older women, in black silk shirts, black skirts and white head-covers knotted at the neck, are gathered in the front-yard of an older house. While some sit quietly, others sway gently right and left, sobbing and wiping their tears with a handkerchief.

A plump three-year old in red shorts waddles through the front-door into the courtyard, shoeless and topless, and stares at a handbag lying on the floor next to a chair. A tired, bleached-asphalt road separates the buildings from the walls of the playground and branches out at the four corners of the oblong field into other parts of the small town. The Hussaynya, or place of gathering, with its white walls and black steel window-guards, is busier than usual. The cemetery next door is deserted.The traffic has been diverted, and the road has disappeared under the feet of men, women and children who stand close to each other, their shadows mingling in strange shapes. But the road is still there, patient, eternal, biding its time. To the south and south-east lies the market place and lower Nabatieh, to the north are the white hills of the Al-Bayyad quarter, while in the east the Sarai and the municipality stand. Today is the ninth day. Tomorrow, the streets will paint the men in different colours, disgorging them in exalted processions.

Hassiba’s voice is impervious to its surroundings. It is propelled by its own energy and the logic of Ashura, the commemoration of the tenth-day of the lunar month of Muharram. She is telling the crowd what happened, thirteen hundred years ago, to the true believers who fought alongside Hussein, son of Ali, in a place called Karbala’a in the south of Mesopotamia on the bank of the Euphrates. Hussein’s handful of followers were besieged and slaughtered by the army of Yazeed, son of Mu’awya. Their fathers had fought against each other twenty three years earlier at the battle of Saffeen, in today’s Syria, a battle that the righteous Ali had come close to winning, only to lose to Mu’awya’s ruse, or so the story goes. While the former belonged to Ahl’l Bait, the prophet’s own kin, the latter was from the Meccan clan of Oumayya, which had only reluctantly relegated its own pre-Islamic power by converting to the victorious new religion. Both Ali and Mu’awya were Moslems; but they belonged to different clans and had fallen out in a protracted succession dispute that followed the death of the prophet Muhammad. The falling out crystallised into a schism between two streams of Islam, Sunnism (or mainstream Islam) and Shiism (from the Shi’a or followers of Ali), afflicting the new religion with a crisis of authority that has never been resolved.1

After Saffeen and the defeat of Ali, Mu’awya went on to build the powerful Omayyad dynasty with Damascus as its capital, consolidating the power of the expanding Moslem empire with new territories in Palestine, Syria, Iraq, Iran, Central Asia, North Africa and later Spain, and abolishing the consultative process of Caliph selection in favour of a hereditary autocracy. The defeated Ali was assassinated by dissidents among his followers who objected to his handling of the battle of Saffeen, thereby inaugurating the tragic fate of what has come to be known as the “House of Sorrows”. To the Shi’a, the climax of the dispute was not in Saffeen but, twenty three years later in Karbala’a, where Ali’s son Hussein fought a desperate battle against the Omayyad caliph Yazeed, son of Mu’awya. As hoped-for reinforcements from the nearby city of Koufa failed to materialise, Hussein found himself isolated, outnumbered and besieged by enemy troops on the second day of the month of Muharram. The battle ended nine days later with his own death. His eldest brother Hassan had chosen a more conciliatory path, agreeing, after a brief confrontation, to a compromise with the Omayyads and refraining from contesting their authority. Ali, Hassan and Hussein, with their different approaches to moral rectitude, religion and politics, became the first three in a lineage of twelve Imams who are the leading lights of the Twelvers or Duodecimal Shi’a, in the Middle-East, Central Asia and the Indian sub-continent.

The tragedy of Karbala’a is commemorated every year by many Shi’a around the world, even though opinion differs among the Ulama, or Shi’a scholars, regarding the self-mutilation that is practised during the ceremonies, with some condoning it, while others reject it as un-Islamic. These ceremonies, known as Ashura from the root A’ashara which is Arabic for ten, start on the first day of the month of Muharram and reach their climax ten days later. The heroism and religious uprightness of Imam Hussein are eulogised, but the guilt at letting the Imam down, the bitterness at the injustice dealt Ahl’l Bait, the Prophet’s kin, and the grief generated by the tragedy are also powerfully expressed, with prose, poetry, public story-telling and drama.

In Nabatieh, the small town in the south of Lebanon my forebears and I come from, Hassiba has been the uncontested diva of Ashura. For thirty years or so she has stood there, an ethereal incarnation of mourning, held in place between the red earth of the soccer pitch and a milky-blue sky like an other-worldly vision, and told the story of Hussein and his heroic followers to a vast audience of men and women. How their provisions of food and water soon ran out. How Ali Al-Akbar son of Hussein expired in his father’s lap. How the handsome Al-Qassem died on his wedding day. How the brave fighter Abbas broke through the siege and rode back with a bucket of water dangling from his left arm, his right shoulder a blood-dripping stump. How his self-sacrifice assuaged his companions’ thirst. How Hussein’s sister Zaynab tended his wounds. How Hussein himself, magnanimous, righteous, sought martyrdom rather than a compromise that would run against his religious principles. Every year in the run-up to the tenth-day, in numerous households, mosques and hussaynyas, men and women recite the mournful story, in small or large gatherings. The passion play of Karbala’a is performed. As for Hassiba, many believe that she has preserved the story in her voice and carried the weight of history on her stooping shoulders.

The earliest written account of the battle of Karbala’a dates back to less than one hundred years after the event itself. These depictions, according to some historians, are more rational and plausible than the legends that have grown since then, even when written by Shi’a and biased towards Hussein.2 The graphic gore in the description of events, the grief, the sense of bitterness and guilt, seem to have increased with time, particularly in Shi’a popular culture. The phenomenon cannot be easily attributed to contemporary socio-economic grievances that have been projected onto traditional religious customs, since Shi’a communities in countries as far apart as Pakistan, Iran and Lebanon with different ethnic, racial and cultural, let alone socio-economic backgrounds, seem to have maintained the intensity of feeling associated with Ashura. The ceremonies convey an unusual relationship between collective memory and time.

It is in the nature of commemorations of most kinds that while they call on us to give our thoughts to those we are commemorating, they reinforce in our minds the fact of their passage or death. This is certainly true of commemorations of events or persons we have known ourselves, in which case ritualised and communal remembrance acts as a catharsis, aids the process of healing and hopefully helps us cope with the reality of the their loss. These acts can be part of a process that takes us out of mourning and grief, back into normality. On the other hand, the commemoration of events from which we are separated by many generations, has no sense of loss to work against. Rather, it focuses the collective consciousness of the community on the events themselves, strengthening its sense of cultural and spiritual identity and possibly mobilising its energies towards achieving more worldly, less spiritual tasks. (Local power structures undoubtedly benefit from Ashura celebrations because by acting as the de facto guarantor of the ceremonies they re-assert their own legitimacy.)

This is at the level of the community. For the individual however, commemoration of this kind is primarily an invitation to an act of imagination. The abrupt change of the visual and verbal space during the ten days of Muharram every year seizes believers from day-to-day life, urging them to empathise with the martyrs they have never known personally. Even when they are mostly light-hearted and sceptical about Ashura, young people still find themselves asking questions about the identity of Hussein, the meaning of his actions, the context of his martyrdom, his personal character, his physical appearance – which may be represented in images, unlike that of the Prophet Muhammad whose iconography is blasphemous according to most religious schools of Islam. At this level, commemoration, rather than helping its subjects to get on with their lives, does exactly the opposite, and becomes a mean of transcending time backwards by fanning the emotions from a particular point of history. Time, in one sense (and only in one), is a Shi’a enemy, since it is the manifestation of the subversion of the message of Muhammad, of the triumph of unjust tyrants and their usurpation of the caliphate from its rightful recipients, the twelve Imams who, alone, have been entrusted by Allah with “preserv(ing) God’s religion and expound(ing) it when necessary”.3 Ashura is therefore a way of conquering the shortcomings of memory and by extension history. To the individual, it is an act of imagination rather than remembrance. The difference between the two is one of emphasis: if the accuracy of recollection of events is the yardstick of memory, the accuracy of emotion is the criterion of imagination. A German scholar, commenting on the evolution of Ashura noted that: “(early) presentations of the campaign of the penitents (are) heroically distorted and stylised in a Shi’a sense but nonetheless authentically reflect the views and atmosphere of the Shiites in Koufa in the decades of the birth of Shi’ism…(They) already demonstrated all the essential elements that characterise the Shi’i religion today.”4 What is mostly transmitted from one generation to another is a particular set of emotions. No wonder then that legends accumulate with time and that Ashura seems to become more tragic by the day.

Guilt, in addition to mourning, is a major ingredient of Ashura. As early as a few years after the death of Hussein, his Iraqi followers in Koufa vented their intense guilt at having failed to come to his rescue, by conducting processions of grief, penitence and even deliberate military suicide. This was to become a defining element of the emerging Shi’a identity. Imagining what happened at Karbala’a helps construct the moral world of the believer who is called upon to make a choice between the Oppressed and the Oppressor, the Godly and the Ungodly, projections of which onto today’s world are easily made. The death of Hussein was the result of his principled stance, the evil of the Omayyads and his betrayal by his followers in Koufa, an image that exemplifies both a world of Good and Evil, and the relationship of the believer to that world, highlighted by betrayal and the need to redress it. While believers must accept their share in the collective guilt of the Shi’a, it is by opting for pious private and public lives that they may correct the injustice and overturn the betrayal. In other words, Ashura, aided by human voice and image, by performance and story-telling, brings the young people of today closer to Karbala’a, impresses upon them the catastrophe and, only then, helps them deal with it, creating in the process a moral world of good and evil predicated on free will.

Around the dusty soccer pitch and in the main avenues of Nabatieh, banners are raised proclaiming:

Kullu Yawmen Ashura’a, Kullu Arden Karbala’a
(Every day is Ashura’a, every land is Karbala’a)

Ya laytana kunna ma’akum, Lafuzna fawzan a’athiman
(How we wish we had been by your side, we should have scored a great victory)

Time, or the thousand years that separate today’s believers from the event in question, is not a plausible excuse for evading guilt.

On the eve of the tenth-day, with electricity cut off because of rationing and nothing but a dense moonlight to go by, bare-chested youths, some in long white sailors’ pants, others in blue jeans, roam the back-streets of the town in groups of twenty or so, thumping their chests in chorus, to the cry HAYDAR Haydar HAYDAR Haydar. The pitch of their voices rises and falls, with one cry answering the previous one, one exclamation confirming the other. Haydar HAYDAR Haydar HAYDAR. The effect is dramatic, as if the same cry was coming from different quarters of the town and building up into a unity of purpose, a gathering of the community’s will towards an act of collective faith. The sound of thumping travels far. If you sat in a café in town, you could hear them coming from a distance, their voices heralds of catastrophes to come, the thud of their feet and chests, as they sprint along, a rhythmic accompaniment to their gentle cries. Bloodless, shadowy in the moonlight, they build up their bodies for the redness that will flood their lives tomorrow. Haydar: another name of Imam Ali, a nickname around which the young men are building an intimacy of soul and body.

At eight o’clock on the morning of the tenth day, the playground is abuzz with an expectant crowd. Muharram falls in early spring this year, the sun is still mild and a breeze flows through the crowd. Men and women from all the surrounding villages converge on the town to participate in the ceremonies as actors or spectators. Some of the men are beaters. The town centre and the streets leading to it are covered with people. Black flags of mourning hang off electricity poles and the metallic spikes of the cemetery fence. Banners are raised on the roofs of buildings with defiant messages:

Damu’l Hussayn lan Ythhaba Hadran
(The blood of Hussein will not have been spilled in vain)

La Fata illa Ali wa la Sayfa illa Thul’fuqar
(There is no youth but Ali and no sword but his own)

Crowds are looking towards the Hussaynya for a glimpse of the preparations or a sign of the first of the beaters. A stage has been erected at the eastern side of the soccer pitch and covered with a black-felt blanket, with horses and men performing the passion play, re-enacting the last day of Karbala’a. On stage, the actors are dressed in light materials, a saffron and crimson spectacle, while Hussein is wearing a distinctive white tunic or a black Abaya (a sleeveless gown usually made of camel skin), depending on the weather. The backdrop is a landscape painting of desert and palm trees. The actors take the microphone in turn and declaim, then perform their actions, rattling sabres, succumbing to their wounds, then leaping into another role, mounting their horses or mourning the death of their companions. This disjunction of speech and action has a strange effect, like a movie where sound is not in phase with image. Better: like a movie where action has to stop to allow speech. Ash’shimr, an enemy soldier with a distinctive crimson uniform, has just slain the beloved Imam. You can almost hear feet shuffling. Attention is shifting towards the Hussaynya. The Imam is dead. One thousand three hundred years ago. The Imam has just died. What happens now?

The head of the procession appears. A bearded man, dressed in a white cloak that hangs on his shoulders and reaches down to his waist like a barber’s, is walking briskly down the few steps of the Hussaynya, holding a sabre with a silver guard, tapping his partly-shaved head with the flat side of the sword and crying out HAYDAR Haydar HAYDAR Haydar. He is followed by a small group of men repeating the words in chorus. Black hair, black beards, white cloaks. Silver swords, blue sky and sandy soil. They move along a pre-determined route, around the pitch, into the back-streets of the town-centre, through the edge of the Al Bayyad quarter, then back to the Hussaynya. The crowd parts to give way. Cries of Allahu Akbar are heard here and there.

But before the men of the first procession are seen again on the pitch, there comes the second batch out of the Hussaynya: a longer procession of around twenty men, all wearing their white shrouds, their hair with a taint of moist scarlet at the front, their brows smeared with red. They are more agitated than the first procession. Blood is trickling down their faces, like a weak but steady fountain, from a small cut made with a razor blade in the scalp, where the hair has been shaved off. Some tap their heads with the flat side of a sword. Others thump their left shoulder with their right fist or raise two hands above their head then bring them down heavily on their chest. How we wish, how we yearn… The young men gaze straight ahead, their eyes veiled with determination, as if a state of trance has delivered their spirit to the rhythm of these words: Haydar HAYDAR Haydar HAYDAR. The beating moves to the same rhythm. A radio-cassette attached to a speaker scratches a tune:

Sayyidee Halla’l Bala’a Faouqa Ardee’l Mou’meneen
Fajahrna Linnida’a Ya Leetharat’l Hussayn

(O Sir, catastrophe has struck the Faithful’s land
So we leapt to the call, we shall avenge Hussein)

Beaters move among the crowds and mingle with the spectators. Ambulance-men in bright orange uniforms, from the Red Cross and the Red Crescent organisations, run around the body of the procession warily and look for signs of impending fainting. (How amusing is the modern world as it tries to cope with its embarrassing past!). They keep watch over the believers, singling out the overzealous among them, the ones who may lose themselves and go too far, and must therefore be stopped by the procession supervisor. An ambulance is waiting nearby, just in case. Blood pours down the beaters’ faces in streams, staying at their eyebrows, running over their temples and nose, circling their lips. The believers now see the blood of Hussein. They do not need to keep his memory alive when his blood is theirs.

A few hours later, when the ceremonies have been concluded, young men are seen strolling around the town, chatting away light-heartedly, the only sign of beating a white bandage covering part of their scalp. They have drunk plenty of water and juice to replenish their blood and have rubbed and washed themselves. It is rumoured that some of the beaters will celebrate the night by drinking scotch or the local spirit aarak, intoxicating themselves not so much by alcohol but by the contradiction and daring they have come to impersonate. Nor do they intend to offend anybody; they merely live their lives, like a copse of trees open to winds from all directions.

The Israeli army, as attuned and sensitive to local culture as a gang of soccer hooligans lost in a foreign city, once drove a military convoy through the Ashura procession in Nabatieh. The celebration, which usually welcomes foreign spectators, including non-Moslems, turned into a confrontation.5 TSAHAL, the Israeli army, had invaded Lebanon both in 1978 and 1982 and was encountering increasing military resistance from the Lebanese. In 1983, on Ashura day, an Israeli military convoy had to change its route after it was attacked by a resistance unit. As the shortest path to its destination was now through the town centre, the convoy decided to break through the crowds and the procession. The provocation was a nasty one: if any believer was looking for a contemporary incarnation of the Omayyad evil, the Israelis were happy to oblige. “If you’d forgotten about us, which we know you haven’t, we’re here to remind you.” It wasn’t long before the Israeli soldiers were jumping out of their trucks, chased away and stoned by spectators and beaters alike. Some trucks were set aflame. The Israelis fired shots then withdrew, failing to pass through. Two civilian spectators were killed. The processions continued. Later, the Israeli army brought in more reinforcements, carried out the usual arrests and imposed a curfew on the city.

In Southern-Lebanese Shi’a culture, there is a sense in which the Jama’a, the community, is still recoiling from a catastrophe which happened over a thousand years ago. An aftermath of something so terrible, it triggers sadness, pathos, bathos, regret, guilt, hope of salvation, rebellion and shows no sign of abating, least of all with time. The rich emotional repertoire of catastrophe is re-enacted in songs, theatrical performance, political speech and self-representation.

A modern catastrophe, an earthquake, a plane crash or a military defeat, would trigger amongst other things an allocation of responsibility because of our belief in progress: that by attributing responsibility and understanding the mechanism which led to the undesirable event, it is possible to reduce the chances of a similar catastrophe happening in the future, and therefore the world becomes slightly better for this fact. This is an essential ingredient of the word experience, at least in its technological connotations. In other words, we believe that Destiny must be approached with no sharper a weapon than statistics, the laws of probability and a good management system. There is no such feeling in Ashura. Responsibility is unambiguously established: it is merely an earthly incarnation of the metaphysical polarity of good and evil, those who are good Moslems and those who only pretend to be so, those who pray and follow the duties laid out in the Qur’an and those who drink alcohol on top of minarets, those for whom Islam comes before politics and those who prey on political machinations and seek their own power. In other words, Ali, Hassan, Hussein versus Yazeed, Mu’awya, Ash’shimr. The brave and poor Moslem in the plains of South Lebanon and Iran, versus Saddam’s Iraq, Israel and the United States of America. What happened to Imam Hussein thirteen hundred years ago is also happening now. The river of good and evil travels over time: time is not a river, it is a river-bed. You can travel upstream and downstream, uptime and downtime: you are always travelling in the same element, history, the flow of good and evil. Time is merely a base, a setting, around which you can freely hunt for meaning. Grief itself is timeless, but fortunately so are blood, writing and the human voice. Blood, in the ruthlessness of its spilling, conjures past events, travels through time and – how wishful is the thinking – rights wrongs and re-writes history.

  1. There is a large body of work in English on Islam and the Shi’a-Sunni rift. I single out three relatively recent books: Islam: A Very Short Introduction by Malise Ruthven (Oxford University Press, 1997), which despite its conciseness is never superficial or oversimplifying; Shi’a Islam- From Religion to Revolution, by Heinz Halm, translated from German by Allison Brown (Markus Wiener Publishers, Princeton, 1997), a sober and intelligent chronicle of Shiism from its birth to its contemporary manifestations; An Introduction to Shi’i Islam – The History and Doctrines of Twelver Shi’ism by Moogan Momen (Yale University Press, 1985), a more encyclopaedic work that covers history, theology and contemporary politics.
  2. Halm, p.15 and S. Husain M. Jabri, The Origin and Early Development of Shia Islam (Longman and Librarie du Liban, 1979), pp.187-192, 211-212.
  3. Allamah Sayyid Muhammad Husayn Tabataba’i, Shi’ite Islam, translated from Persian by Seyyed Hossein Nasr (Allen and Unwin, Persian Studies Series, 1975), p.185.
  4. Halm, p.18.
  5. A comment is made by Heinz Halm Shi’a Islam, p.81, on the question of foreign spectators in the ceremony. Speaking of Ashura celebrations generally, Halm asserts that “foreign, even non-Muslim spectators are admitted and usually even warmly welcomed”, which is borne out by my own experience of Ashura in Lebanon. He adds: “The Muharram ceremonies only become violent when Shi’ites feel provoked by Sunni or Hindu disrupters.”

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