Tuesday, February 22, 2005
تبتل منكم كربلاء بدم...ولاتبتل مني بالدموع الجارية
Ashoora is a national festival that unites people in sadness. What has recently been termed as 'collective conspicuous grief' in the West (a la the public reaction after Princess Diana's death) has existed in Shia culture since the events of Karbala in which the Prophet's grandson, Imam Hussein and his family were left in the desert for over 3 days without water and then massacred over a thousand years ago. Bahrain, for its minute size however, seems to have a historical comparative advantage in commemorating this event in terms of organisation and innovation. Speaking to many friends, the way this event is held surpasses other shia hotspots like Iran, Iraq and Lebanon by far.
In 1891 Muhammad Mirza Ismail, a Persian merchant, used his position as agent for the British India navigation company to lead the procession in front of the Ma’tam bin Rajab, one of the oldest of the city. This was a momentous event for Manama’s Shi’i communities. People flocked behind an heavily armed Mirza Ismail who confident of British protection made his way through Manama streets defying the veto imposed by the Sunni rulers on public manifestations of Shi’i devotion.
This annual event has become so entrenched in Bahraini identity and culture that the government has recognised that this event is untouchable, the only thing it can do is to support it, a hard lesson learnt by the late Amir after his attempts to ban loudspeakers in the 90s. The amount of effort and preparation that goes into this event is flabbergasting. From the minute you set foot in Manama you can feel the hussaini spirit, the spirit of sacrifice and giving and also the hussaini spirit of defiance. Quite frankly, sociologists and anthropologists could have a field day analysing the way this event resonates socially.
Firstly, weeping, beating the chest are simple symbolic rituals for most which, for some bizarre reason, is looked down upon by outsiders possessing a superficial outlook on things. But believe me, it is second-nature to the shia and has come to serve a dual purpose as a group physical exercise and creating a rhythmic beating sound to which a eulogy of Hussain can be sung. It is not a meaningless self-mutilating action. I mean, how else would you explain why 20,000 men in mowkib ma'atam Saloom do this till the early hours of the morning? For others, it is almost a form of group 'dancing' if I dare say so. It gets the testosterone and the adrenaline going and provides a strong sense of belonging. The sound it generates is the beat to which the 'shayyal' or the lamentor sings his eulogies to. Questioning the 3azza to me is like questioning the reason why people clap - both actions simply make a continuous, collective, rhythmic sound which is louder the more people there are or questioning why certain communities do things in a particular way. To do so requres looking deep into social evolution rather than a passing judgement.
Secondly, creativity in the development of non-traditional mourning activities such as art exhibitions (marsam), the longest candle in the world (73 metres=number of Hussain's companions), largest number of fingerprints on a banner, theatrical plays (with real tent-burning), marching bands, english hussaini recitations, massive blood donation campaigns in nu3aim, high quality publications that all serve to spread the Hussaini message:
Thirdly, people-watching. 100,000 people descend onto the dark alleyways of manama. It is inevitable that you will bump into your third cousin who you haven't seen in years or that old childhood friend. This is one of the few events where the elderly and young unite, oh yes and the teenagers. Those damn frisky teenagers who keep getting caught kissing in that dark alleyway. My friend was showing me the hotspots unfortunately i didn't find the time to go on a spy mission. Just switch you're bluetooth on and you'll get at least a list of 25 names on it. What bigger event is there in which to check out the opposite sex?
Fourthly, commercialisation of ashoora with respect to tourism, 3azza recordings, and merchandise especially. It was hard to miss all the saudis, emaratis, kuwaitis and even omanis who have come to Bahrain to participate in the ashoora event. Such outward celebration of this ancient shia event is confined to indoor ma'atams in these countries. The number of shops that sell the recordings of 3azza lamentations easily outnumber shops selling music tapes in Manama souq. There is a whole shop dedicated solely to the Iraqi Bassim Alkarbalaei recordings with his posters plastered everywhere. Indeed there is intense competition and rivalry between the these lamentators. Personally, my favourite is Sheikh. Hussain Alakraf, and I don't deny that I felt kinda excited when he sent me an autographed copy of his latest CD. In addition, there is reasonably good market for al-malaley or 'mulla's' but not in the common meaning of the word. The mulla in Bahrain is the guy who gives a short lecture and does the traditional lamentation 'mowaal' style recitation, the most famous mullah of all who started a unique genre was Al-waely who died a couple of years back. Word has it, that some of these mullahs earn as much as BD 7000 for the 10 days of ashoora, especially the foreign ones. The latest superstar is a 12-year mulla. Watch the video for a little taste.
Fifthly, with a discerning eye you might even spot an increasing number of sunnis who also come to Manama, if not to take part than at least to watch from the sidelines- the minority of sunnis who didn't go to the effort to plan their holidays in the period where the shia 'go crazy' :)
Lastly, the highlight of the event is the food. There is enough free food going round to feed a small African country. Now for all those who cry out in disgust at the though of matam-food, I am living proof that matam-food is safe. I ate absolutely everything I could get my hands on just to prove the latter statement. U name it, I ate it- bacha (bahraini delicacy consisting of all the undesirable parts of a carcass namely, tongue, head, hooves, eyeballs boiled and water used to soak '7ubz irani), balaleet, harees, chappati, shawarma, cocunut cake, hot saffron milk with ba'79am, ma7alabia, 9aloona, na'7aj basheer, samboosa, baryani...u get the picture. No seafood was on offer unfortunately but i think that is just due to the difficulty in producing good seafood en-masse. All those stories of hairy men sweating into the 'gudoor' and cooking the food the night before didn't put me off. Anyway I believe that would only add to the flavour.
The only like-minded person who is courageous enough to go on this adventure of the stomach is my uncle. My mother's theory is that somehow me and him have developed an immunity to food poisoning. There is a very small chance that this could be true as we were about the only ones who didnt suffer bouts of vomiting and diarohhea, but I put that down to weather not 'something they ate'.
As for the nutters who defy all common human logic and insist on self-flagellation, I can assure you, they're days are numbered, if not now then in the hereafter, by carrying out an officially prohibited action. Frankly, I don't give a rats arse if they beat themselves to death, but I do care when it is done in my religion's name. In Iraq this year this phenomenon almost disappeared after last years disgusting display following the clear prohibition by Sistani. Unfortanetly, pure ignorence still prevails in Bahrain. I heard the shouts of 'haidar haidar haidar' in the distance and as I got nearer I spotted 3 gir3aan beating themselves crazy and i'm telling ya it was sick and beyond comprehension. The only reason I could concoct is that they were in a trance of some sort that didnt feel bits of they're flesh flying off. The other explanation my friend offered was that the 10 tequilas he downed beforehand knumbs u a bit.
Charles Dickens said the following about Imam Hussain (AS):
"If Hussain fought to quench his worldly desires, then I do not understand why his sisters, wives and children accompanied him. It stands to reason therefore that he sacrificed purely for Islam."