Even after my faith has faded, the markings of Ashura are still etched on my mindby Maan Al-Yasiri / September 13, 2019 / Leave a comment
When I was five years old and living in Damascus, I witnessed the massacre of a small rebellious army led by the Imam Hussein, a saint for Shia Muslims. My grandmother and I watched as men in bloodied white robes barely fight off the more numerous army of a corrupt and unjust ruler.
Thankfully, it was make-believe. The play soldiers were re-enacting the Battle of Karbala, a now holy city in Iraq. The battle, fought on the 10th October 680, is marked by Shia Muslims as Ashura, on the tenth day of the first month of the Islamic calendar, Muharram. Ashura is the sect’s foundational story. It’s the earliest story I can remember. There was a saintly hero who was brave, merciful and devout. He led his family and a small band of supporters to bring justice to the Ummah, the Islamic community. He fought with skill as often shown in films and cartoons.
I was captured by the story and its morals as a child. I don’t remember ever not knowing that he did, however, die and become a martyr. I imagine the first time I heard it, in my infancy, I heard its ending first. The Imam was a martyr because God rewarded him for his struggle for justice. It’s a story that, to me at least, extolls struggle as a prerequisite for reward. Ever since, Ashura’s lessons, chiseled by family, battle re-enactments, eulogies, films and cartoons, have remained in faded but still visible engravings in my mind.
This year, Ashura falls on the 10th of September. Shia men and women will gather in separate halls to cry and beat their chests in rhythm with a eulogy sung by a trained, and likely also crying, orator. The Shia cry and hurt themselves to feel closer to the suffering felt by the Imam Hussein and his family. It is said the family and their military supporters numbered around a hundred while their adversary, the corrupt Caliph Yazid, had an army in the thousands. There’s a variety of slightly different retellings of the story but the most charged typically include scenes of Yazid’s men…