Today is a public holiday, in the Muslim calendar it is the 10th of Muharam, or Ashura (3ashura2) for Shia Muslims. A pivotal date in the history of Shia. Today is the day Imam Hussein was killed in Karbala/Iraq. Which in the words of Shiapundit “is a time for grief, reflection, and ibadat . Nothing else.

My mother is Shia from Karbala, so each year we wake up in the morning (it is 1am as I write this) to the sound of the “3azah al 7ussain – the lament of Hussein” from the radio, not very pleasant. And after that we hear the stories of the public laments that used to take place in Karbala, now they are banned. The last three days of the Imam’s life are acted out throughout the whole city of Karbala. I’ll give you an idea of these last few days, I hope the Shia readers will excuse me if I don’t get it fully right:

Basically it is the story of the battle between Imam Hussein, the grandson of the prophet Mohammed, and Caliph Yazid on the Kerbala desert in 680 A.D.
Imam Hussein is to return to Kufa/Iraq after he has been reassured that the people there will help him in his struggle after he had fled to Mecca under the threat of being assassinated by Yazid’s people. On his way back the horse he is riding stops at a certain place near the Euphrates and doesn’t move. When the Imam asks the name of this place he is told it is the desert of Karbala (karrun wa bala2) which roughly means harm and calamity. He tells his followers that this is the place where he will be killed as prophesied. Tents are put up and they are very soon after that surrounded by Yazid’s army. The Imam does not have many people with him and most of them are family members with women and children. We’ll move a bit quickly thru the events now. First their water supply is cut off for three days, and then the battle starts, family members of the Imam die one after the other trying to protect Imam Hussein including his young sons. After all the men have been killed, Yazid’s army moves thru the camp and burns the tents down. Imam Hussein’s head is then taken to Damascus to prove to Yazid that al-Hussein has been killed.

Now imagine this being enacted in real life thru the whole city, to this day there is a district in Karbala called “Mukhayam – the camp” which actually used to be the site of the tents for the play. The most hated role that had to be played is the role of the soldier who will kill Imam al-Hussein, my aunt tells me it usually ends with the people running after him throwing stones until he hides in one of the houses. Groups of lamenters would then move thru the city, from the scary – groups of people hitting themselves with whips on their backs for not being there to help al-Hussein in his tragedy, to the poetry reading groups of students, to the solemn lawyers. People would come from all over Iraq, and from as far as Pakistan to join with their own lamenters. In houses and mosques you would see loads of men and women listening to the “maqtal – the killing of Hussein” beating their chests and crying. There is even special food for these days cooked in the streets.
I have seen nothing of this ever. It has been banned as long as I can remember; it is considered a public unauthorized demonstration. Laments can be held in houses but not the big play in the streets of Karbala. Lately even the cooking of (qima – minced meat with chickpeas) and (Harissa – something which looks a bit like gruel actually) in public has been banned. My aunt just came from Karbala today said that the army is all around Karbala, which happens every year.
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