Almost twenty-five years ago, I was diagnosed with a cyst, and the doctors thought it quite serious and ordered a mammogram. When I told my mother about it she panicked and made a vow that once I got the all-clear, she would send me to Karbala Moalla (the exalted city of Karbala) in Iraq. By the grace of Allah I was cleared. Immediately Amma gave me the necessary funds to make the trip.
Due to some personal problems I was unable to go then. Amma and I used to plan that we will both go together; Amma would pay for the ziarat (pilgrimage) and I would, in turn, take her to Turkey for some R&R after that.
But as they say man proposes and God disposes. Amma died in 2004 of the same disease that she was scared I might get. While Turkey is still on the bucket list, I finally went to Karbala in 2010 on the occasion of Arbaeen.
Arbaeen in Karbala is one of the world’s largest public gatherings and marks the fortieth day after the martyrdom of Imam Husain and the male members of his family and friends.
It is observed with a lot of solemnity and sorrow the world over, but more so in Karbala.
What Happened On The Fateful Day Of The 10th Muharram
I went with a group of pilgrims and we landed in the city of Najaf where the shrine of the Ali ibn Abu Talib, the fourth Caliph of Islam, is located.
‘Hazrat Ali’ – as we call him – is considered the first imam by the Twelver Shias. The word ‘Shiian-i Ali’ actually means ‘friends or followers of Ali’, and this became the name of a sect of Islam in later years.
The martyrdom of Hazrat Ali’s son who refused to accept the alliance of Yezid is well-known. Imam Husain refused to accept Yezid as the Caliph of Islam after the death of the latter’s father, Muawiyah, who was the first Umayyad Caliph.
To avoid confrontation, Husain left Medina for Mecca, and later from Mecca to Kufa in Iraq. He was accompanied by his family. Later, when it became certain that there was going to be a confrontation, some friends joined him.
They were forced to camp on the dusty plains of Nainwah, which is now famous as Karbala.
Imam Husain bought the land from the Banu Asad tribe in Karbala and gifted it back to them. He asked them to bury the dead as he was convinced that they would all be martyred, and asked the tribe to host his mourners.
Even today, many ziareens (pilgrims) get one meal there. I was blessed to get dalcha (meat cooked in dal) and naan at the shrine of Hazrat Abbas.
On the fateful day of the 10th Muharram, 61 AH/ 10 October, 680 CE, a battle was fought which was to change the history of Islam. It was fought between the small, determined band of followers of Imam Husain, the Prophet’s grandson and the mighty army of Yezid, the ruler of Syria.
So, here I was going to Karbala for Arbaeen. It was my second visit to the holy city, the first being as a child of two years.
We made all our preparations, including asking everyone for forgiveness, making a will etc.
En Route To Karbala: ‘Prayers On Our Lips, Tears In Our Eyes’
In the olden days, these pilgrimages had been fraught with danger, and all were advised to settle their affairs, put things in order before embarking on it. In 2010, there were other dangers. Sectarian violence had been rocking that area and it wasn’t the safest of regions in the world.
The first thing I saw after clearing immigration and coming out of the Najaf airport was a sniper standing on a high sentry post with the legend ‘We shoot to kill’.
The excitement of visiting the shrine of Hazrat Ali overcame everything else, and we spent the next few days visiting the shrine, praying and weeping at the tragedies that the Ahl-I bait or family of the Prophet (PBUH) had to endure.
The morning that we were to leave for Karbala, we all piled onto the bus with prayers on our lips and tears in our eyes.
We were told that it was a distance of 75 km, and though a distance that could be covered in an hour by a car, would take a few hours because of the rush of people coming there. We were prepared with water, a few sandwiches, and the love of the Ahl-i bait.
There had been many restrictions on this pilgrimage for locals during the rule of Saddam Hussein. Once he was ousted in 2003, the locals were able to revive the tradition of walking to Karbala. They came from all parts of Iraq.
In the shrine I met a lady with torn and blistered feet who had walked from Basra. She had covered the distance of almost 500 km with her family in a week.
Many were walking bare feet as a mark of respect, some because they couldn’t afford foot wear, but everyone wanted to be in Karbala-i Moalla to offer their condolences and mourn the Sayyid al-Shuhada (Master of Martyrs).
How Did People With So Little Open Up Their Hearts To Us?
That year in 2010, there was a record 10 million people visiting Karbala on that day. Of course now that number has increased.
That bus journey is something I can never forget. The first 50-60 km we covered in an hour or two, and after that we crawled. It took our bus seven hours to cover the rest of the journey to reach our hotel Karbala-i Moalla.
It seemed we were in the middle of a sea of humanity, all dressed in black, carrying green or black flags. They were mostly locals who were making their way to the shrine.
After an hour or so some little boys came into our bus and distributed tetra packs of milk and juice. There were sabeels ( water stations) put up all along the way for the refreshment of the ziareens (pilgrims). Please bear in mind that these people were not well-off; their region had seen a lot of violence and economic deprivations. And yet, they opened their heart to us.
We needed to visit a washroom, and were guided to an old mud-and-brick house whose inhabitants were cooking naan for distribution. They were being supervised by an old lady with a toothless smile, dressed in shabby clothes. I was drawn to her extremely warm smile, and in a little bit of broken Arabic I picked up a conversation with her. I asked her if I could photograph her and she said ‘wait a minute’.
I can’t forget the self-respect and self-esteem in her eyes, as she adjusted her worn-out chador and gave me a toothless grin. I embraced her in tears and prayed for her safety.
What I Learnt From My Dadi About Piety, Fortitude & Forbearance
I wanted to experience the walk myself, and as our bus was in any case stuck, I knew I could come back to it after a while. It was there that I saw a young boy, perhaps eight or nine years of age, with his younger brother, aged about six, in the crowd. The two were alone. The older one had tied a rope around the younger one’s waist, and stick in hand, was leading him as the man of the family. I couldn’t stop the spontaneous flow of tears and even now as I write and think of those two orphans, I can’t help but cry.
War and violence are cruel.
Back in the bus, I tried to understand why these two little boys had chosen to walk from their home to the shrine of Imam Husain or why that lady with meagre means was cooking and distributing naan.
I remembered my childhood and my paternal grandmother, Begum Banni Fatima, whom we called Dadi, who was an ardent lover of the Ahl-i Bait and for whom everything else paled in comparison to the sorrow and grief that had been borne by Imam Husain and his family.
She had been one of the guiding lights of my life. She inspired great respect for her piety, fortitude and forbearance, and was known for her love of the Ahle Bait (Prophet’s family). She wasn’t alone in her grief; every year, millions gathered in villages, towns and cities to mourn for the garib ul watan (immigrant) Husain who couldn't go back home.
For most Shias, the observing of Muharram and crying over the tragedy of Karbala is a catharsis.
I can never forget Dadi, who was almost 90, reciting a marsiya, an elegiac verse, commemorating the death of Hussain ibn Ali’s 18-year-old son Ali Akbar at the battle of Karbala:
Rann mein jab Bano e Bekasi ki sawari aayi
Utho laal dekho Maa tumhari aayi.
When Bano the helpless came to the battlefield
[She cried] Get up my darling, your mother has come.
How My Dadi Coped With Loss & Grief
Dadi wept and recited it with passion. Everyone who listened to her, including us children, grew hysterical with grief. It was the majlis held after my father’s sudden passing away. A majlis, or assembly to mourn Imam Husain, recited normally during the month of Muharram, also marks the death ceremonies of a Shia Muslim.
Dadi had also borne the untimely death of her two younger sons before my father. She had recited the same marsiya at their deaths too. She bore the loss of her sons with fortitude.
“They were given to me by Him; they've returned to Him,” is what she would say. Maybe a few tears escaped her, but she didn't weep upon their deaths as that would be showing ingratitude to Allah. She had been brought up to have faith in Him and His decisions.
Rather, the only time she wept and wailed was in a majlis or during the month of Muharram when, clad in black clothes, she mourned Imam Husain and his family. Her sorrow, after all, was nothing compared to theirs. Thus, must it be for all those whom I saw walking in 2010, who had come out through years of repression and sectarian violence. They were weeping, wailing softly and reciting elegies as they walked. Who knows, perhaps it was their faith in Imam Husain which kept them going.
We reached our hotel late at night, bone-tired, had our dinner, washed and bathed – and instead of sleeping, immediately left for the shrine.
How I Switched On My Phone To Panic Calls & Messages
There are two shrines in Karbala-i Moalla: that of Imam Husain and his family and friends who were martyred, and one at a little distance of Hazrat Abbas, his half-brother.
Hazrat Abbas, the standard bearer of Imam Husain’s army of seventy-two, is also called Chhote Hazrat (Younger Presence) and Bab-ul Hawaij (The door to fulfilling wishes). It is to his shrine that we go first and then to that of Imam Husain.
Our hotel was exactly opposite the shrine, and we had to just cross the street to enter it. But once again it took ages because of the huge crowd and the stringent security checks. There were at least 3-4 checks before we could go inside.
We spent a week there. From the night of the 9th Muharram onwards, our mobiles were jammed for security reasons, and lost as we were engrossed in mourning, we didn’t even notice.
On the 12th Muharram, exactly three days later, when the signal returned, I saw a flood of messages; my husband, daughter, son and sisters pleading me to send them news of my welfare. I had no idea what had happened and why they were panicking. Finally, when I managed to get through to my husband I was told that there had been a bomb blast near the shrine. And since my signal had gone around the same time, everyone was scared and apprehensive.
My daughter tells me that those were very tense days for the family. They had eventually managed to get through to the office of our tour group, which told them our hotel was far away from the blast site, but even then the worrying persisted till I called.
What A Shroud From Karbala Means To Shias
When we were to make our return journey, the group leader called a meeting of all the pilgrims. I had gone to the shrine so didn’t attend it. I returned to our hotel room to find a weeping friend. When I asked what had happened I was told, “Rana, they are going to let loose dogs on us. What will happen to the kafan (shroud) that I have bought? They will get defiled.”
All Shias yearn for a shroud from Karbala-i Moalla for their last journey.
I had of course bought not only for myself but for the elders in my family too. Anyway, I managed to decipher what my friend was saying. We had to board the flight from Baghdad airport, where the security was very tight and sniffer dogs would come into the bus. We were told to make sure that not a morsel of our packed lunch – which had kebab sandwiches – remained for our own safety. Our luggage would be put down and the dogs would then sniff them.
I consoled the lady that the shrouds would be packed inside and the dogs could only sniff the exterior which she could clean.
‘May Allah Give You Sabr’
However, the looming security check was very unnerving. Such is the fear of the unknown, and we had no idea as to what the dogs would do – so much so that I remember all of us had picked up even the crumbs from the bread and eaten it.
The dogs however turned out to be very well-trained. They were brought into the bus by their handlers and they didn’t bother us.
There was chaos at the airport and it took us a while to get out our boarding passes and go through immigration. It was night when we reached Dubai, and the next morning I reached home to an emotional welcome.
This year there will be no march on Arbaeen, due to the pandemic and some very sensible advice by the Grand Ayatollah Sistani, who has advised Shias to partake in Muharram activities through safe alternatives such as TV and online platforms.
For those who have lost their loved ones in the pandemic, I only have words of condolences of the famous Marsiyago Mir Anees, referring to the death of six-month-old Ali Asghar who was martyred in his father Imam Husain’s arms on that fateful 10th Muharram in 680 CE.
May Allah give you sabr (fortitude) to bear the loss, and your departed relatives a place in heaven.
Nanhi si qabr khod kar Asghar ko gaad kar
Shabbir uth khade huye daman ko chaad kar
In a tiny grave, he buried Asghar
Shabbir [Hussain] stood up and dusted his shirt
(Rana Safvi is the founder and moderator of the popular #shair platform on Twitter, which is credited for reviving popular interest in Urdu poetry. She tweets @iamrana. This is a personal blog and the views expressed are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)