Posted by Joshua on Saturday, January 10th, 2009
“Moharram in Damascus” by Ali Khan
Dispatch 13 (10/1/2009) Syria Comment
I was slightly fearful of coming back to Syria because I thought that I might have forgotten a lot of the Arabic over the break. Like any good student I took my books home but then only managed to go over them a few times. I came back a week ago but the trip back was frustrating.The Indian officer in Delhi Airport refused to believe that I resembled the picture in my passport because my beard was a bit thicker than in the photo. I suppose people everywhere are becoming more and more nervous, especially in India, after what happened in Bombay. Dense fog delayed the flight for four hours and then there was a three-hour wait in Doha. In order to avert another problem with picture recognition I bought an electric shaver at the airport in Doha and while we were in the air on the way to Damascus I shaved off my beard. Needless to say people were a bit perplexed as to why I has done it, except for the Syrian gentleman who was sitting next to me. As soon as he saw me, he broke out into a huge smile and said naaiman, which is the traditional greeting to someone who has just had a haircut, a shave or even a shower. Apparently the shave was not enough to assuage the concerns of the immigration officer in Damascus who stared at my picture for about fifteen minutes. Even I have not stared at myself for that long! Actually, I think he was a bit perplexed as to how an Indian had a 6-month multiple entry visa. Finally, I managed to persuade him of my good intentions and was happy to discover that my Arabic was not that rusty after all.
When I was leaving India I saw a poor middle-aged man crying by the security barrier. He was carrying a small plastic bag with his passport and ticket. His family had lined up on the other side to say goodbye to him and they too were all virtually weeping. I was so moved to see this graying man go to each member of his family, young and old, to kiss their hand ask for their forgiveness for anything he might have done that caused them pain. I realised that he was probably going away for a long period, perhaps even a few years, to work, most likely as a manual labourer, so that he could send money back to India. I am so grateful to have been able to go home just for a month.I came back the day before my classes were meant to start. The day I returned was the 6th of Moharram. Moharram is the first month of the Islamic New Year. The first ten days of Moharram are particularly significant as they commemorate the period in which Imam Hussain, the grandson of the prophet, went to Karbala with his family and friends in order to take a stand against the injustices of the Umayyad Caliphate. He and his 72 companions were martyred there on the tenth day, after three days without food and water, by the armies of Yazid, who was the Umayyad Caliph in Damascus at the time. After the massacre of Imam Hussain’s army, including the killing of his 6-month year old son, the women of his family and his ailing son were taken to Damascus. His young daughter died in prison there and her tomb still stands in the old city in Damascus. It is popularly known as Seyyida Ruqayya.
Saida Ruqia interior. Photo by Ketan Gajria
Imam Hussain’s sister’s shrine is also just outside the old city of Damascus and is known as Seyyida Zainab. An entire Shia community has evolved and established itself around the shrines and Shia from all over the world come to Damascus to pay homage to and seek the blessings of the granddaughter and the great-granddaughter of the Prophet. I wanted to experience Moharram in Damascus and so I came back early.
After coming home, I went to buy some groceries and saw that one part of my street had been covered in black banners, to symbolize a time of mourning. Some had sayings of the Prophet and the Imams written on them in bright colours, others had the names of the martyrs of Karbala and yet others had greetings and prayers written on them. The other new addition was the graffiti against Israel and its allies everywhere. A few houses down from my house is the Madrassa of Sayyid Mohsin al-Amin, who was a great Shia scholar. It is now a government run school but for the ten days of Moharram it is used by the local Shia community to hold their majalis, or meetings in which a preacher would, ex-tempore, recite eulogies in memory of the Imams, a verse from the Quran or a saying of the prophet and then would elaborate on it. This year I think a scholar from Lebanon had come to read the majlis. Every evening I would see a fleet of Mercedes covered with antennae, with the distinctive ‘Liban’ number plates, roar onto the street and stop outside the main entrance to the school. Big men with metal detectors searched everyone who went into the building. This year, because of the horrendous events of Gaza there were posters outside the school and around my area praying for the Palestinian people. The area around the school is known as Shari’a al-Amin and is the main Shia neighborhood in the old city. In the evenings when I walked to the bus stop to take a servees to Seyyida Zainab, I had to walk through Shari’a al-Amin. The whole street was draped in black banners and most of the shopkeepers and local residents were dressed in black from head to toe, as a sign of being in mourning. Loudspeakers blasted latmiyyahs, or eulogies in memory of Karbala, recited by famous personalities. [Listen in English or Arabic] Mullah Basim al-Karbalai of Iraq seems to be the most popular.
Seyyida Zainab had been completely transformed in the time that I was away. For Moharram the main street in front of the shrine was blocked off so one had to get off earlier and walk. The streets were covered in black banners and there was a river of black clad people flowing in and out of the shrine. A few hundred yards before the shrine a couple of stalls had been set up. These are known as sabeels. Each sabeel had a picture of a different Ayatollah and inevitably, most also had a picture of the Presidents of Syria and Iran. The stalls were handing out free tea, hot milk and biscuits to the pilgrims in the name of Imam Hussain and the martyrs of Karbala. I think each stall was patronised by a different Ayatollah. Moqtada as-Sadr who is not of the rank of an Ayatollah also had a stall in his name. One or two of the sabeels had been set up by groups of young men who had pooled together money in order to distribute tea. On the last two evenings I noticed that trucks would arrive at about eight o’clock and would stop just after the sabeels. They would be laden with big steaming cauldrons and vats and as soon as people saw them, they would rush towards them. Rice and chickpeas or sometimes other hot food was handed out in Styrofoam plates to the eager pilgrims. Minivans would come and distribute oranges and fruit to passers by. People who could not afford to hand out food in such vast quantities contributed in their own way and often I would see a man lugging around a crate or two of fruit, handing it out to people who walked passed him. In addition to the sabeels, people had set up stalls to sell Moharram Memorabilia. The uniquely American habit of printing and selling T-Shirts for a special occasion seems to have caught on here too. Shops were full of baseball hats, bracelets, T-shirts, bandanas, flags, posters, wristbands, headbands, rings and key chains emblazoned with the name of Imam Hussain or his cousin Sayyidna Abul Fadhl Abbas, who was also martyred in Karbala and is renowned for his bravery and military prowess.
The shrine itself had been cleaned, the golden dome polished and the marble courtyards scrubbed until they sparkled. The atmosphere was very different from how it was during normal days. There was a constant hushed murmur as people prayed and the shrine was quieter than usual. Nearly everyone was wearing black. Inside, the caretakers who take people’s shoes so that one doesn’t have to leave them outside greeted people by saying, ‘may God grant the greatest reward to you who mourn Imam Hussain’ rather than the usual greeting of ‘may peace be upon you.’ Inside the shrine, where the zari, or tomb is, the air reverberated with the hum of people praying. The door had been covered with a beautifully ornate and heavy curtain so that the heat was trapped inside. The actual tomb is surrounded by a thick and heavy cage of pure silver. The constant throng of pilgrims touching and kissing the zari makes it somewhat dull for most of the year but obviously it had been polished to perfection for Moharram. A velvet banner with golden letters that read ‘peace upon you O Zainab, hung on one side of the zari. The inside of the shrine was sparkling with the light from the chandeliers being reflected by the thousands of little mirrors. Nearer the zari one could see men and hear women on the other side, crying and weeping as if they had lost one of their own family members. A young boy, still in his teens, stood respectfully in front of the zari and in a quivering voice recited a eulogy in memory of Seyyida Zainab. Slowly a group of men, old and young, gathered behind the boy and silently shed tears as he poignantly described how Seyyida Zainab and her family had been brought to Damascus as prisoners, walking behind a man who carried the head of Imam Hussain aloft on a spear.
Since people from various different nationalities come to Damascus for Moharram, majalis (plural of majlis) are held in different Hussainiyas, halls where people gather to remember Imam Hussain. I managed to attend an Iraqi majlis, an Irani majlis, an Indian majlis, a Pakistani majlis and an Afghan majlis in the few days before the tenth day. Obviously each majlis was special and evocative in describing the plight of the martyrs of Karbala but I was particularly moved by the Afghan majlis.
A friend of mine saw me standing inside the shrine and asked me to follow him. We crossed the courtyard and went into a small-carpeted room that was divided into two by a black curtain. One part was for men and the other for women. The lights were very dim, making it seem as if it was lit by candles. I looked around and I think I was the only non-Afghan there. Most of the Afghans are Hazaras who are Shia and have long been a persecuted minority in Afghanistan. They are distinguishable by their Mongoloid features. The Afghans in Syria are nearly all refugees with a large number of them arriving here during the Taleban’s brutal years of government. The preacher was a short, slim man and he wore the distinctive black turban that marked him out as a descendant of the Prophet. He read a short and simple sermon in Pharsi that was especially meant for the large number of children who had gathered there. After this, in a hauntingly mellifluous and melodic voice he recited a poem recounting Seyyida Ruqayya’s reaction to her father’s death and Seyyida Zainab’s reaction to her brother’s death. Whereas often preachers get very emotional and animated when reciting these eulogies, the Sayyid remained stock still on the minbar, or pulpit. His eyes were closed and his head slightly lifted as if he was reciting to the sky. He clasped his hands together and would very occasionally lift one of them to wipe away his tears. The emotionally charged composure with which he recited the poem, for me, reflected the dignity and quiet pride of the Afghan people here, who still face great hardship and suffering.
On the night preceding the tenth day the Iraqis took out their procession and walked around the shrine all night. The shrine is kept open all night and the rush of people did not diminish as the darkness slipped by. I could hear the drums well into night, pounding out a war beat. People carried mish’al, or torches that were kept alight by a man who went from person to person adding kerosene if their fire was fading.
The Pakistanis held their majlis in one corner of the courtyard and then proceeded to walk into the shrine carrying an ‘alam, or a standard, with inscriptions of the Quran and the names of the Prophet and the Imams. I was standing next to the zari when they entered and before I knew it, I was asked to hold the ‘alam while they did matam, the ritual and rhythmical beating of the chest accompanied by a nouha, or eulogy. In Arabic the eulogy is called a latmiyyah and in Pharsi and Urdu it is called nouha. The nouha was in Punjabi and while they were in the shrine, the lights were switched off. All one could hear was the thunderous echoing of the matam and the solitary mournful voice that was reciting the nouha.
I was honoured and surprised that I was handed the ‘alam as I was dressed in Arab clothes and there were many others around who were dressed in Pakistani clothes and would have been more obvious choices. Afterwards, I went home to get warmer clothes and on my way back, walking through Shari’a al-Amin I saw that sabeels had been set up there too. I huge mustachioed Syria man waylaid me and offered me a sesame biscuit and a steaming cup of hot chocolate. The next morning I got up early to go back to Seyyida Zainab but when I got to Shari’a al-Amin I discovered that the whole street was jam packed with pilgrims. In addition to this, some clever minivan driver had decided to drive through the crowd causing even more complications. I spent the rest of the day at Seyyida Zainab and in the evening, before sunset I went to Seyyida Ruqayya’s shrine.
Classes have begun. Damascus is cold, though sometimes because of the schizophrenic weather here, we manage to get a couple of hours of sunshine. I hope that the terrible events in Gaza will cease soon and that sanity will prevail. Everyone is glued to their televisions here, watching minute-by-minute coverage of the crisis. Until next week, Ma’as Salaam!