Sunday, February 13, 2005

Ashura Mourning

This was the first post on my blog. It was written last Muharram and I'd like to share it with all of you.

Ashura Mourning

The night has been long and I am tired. For the last two hours I have been engaged in two simultaneous jihads. The first struggle is schizophrenic: myself as the self-righteous congregant versus the self-aware servant of Allah. Each side marches out on the field. And with a glance the battle begins.

Ready: I see a woman, her bleach bangs lying against olive skin, the rest of her hair barely contained by a transparent scarf thrown loosely over her head.
Aim: Congregant snarls almost inaudibly and thinks, "Why can't these women at least respect the mosque enough to cover properly for the few hours they are here."
Fire: The frown softens. The snarl is replaced by an even less audible-- though more sincere-- astaghfirullah. A list of my own transgressions comes to mind. Allah is merciful, shouldn't I be as well? My responsibility is to love not judge and condemn.

Self Aware wins the first evening's battle and the army of the nafs is subdued, but I can't rest. The troops are regrouping and reloading and this time they have recruited a far more formidible opponent-- my two year old.

Ready: He leaves his place by my side and begins walking quickly around the room, his voice growing louder, competing with the speaker for attention.
Aim: I am nervous, embarrased, and angry. I shrink from the ever critical gaze of an old woman in the corner. My instinct is to grab him forcefully and intimidate him into submission. I dream of being one of those mothers who controls her child with a glance. One of those mothers that everyone praises for her ability to control and keep in line.
Fire: I seek refuge in Allah(swt) from the whisperings of satan and the weaknesses of my own ego. I know that a limited attention span is a hallmark of two-year-old development. Allah has entrusted me with this fragile soul. On this night when we commemorate the uprising of the weak against the tyrannical strong, I must not play the role of Yazid. It is so easy to coerce and oppress simply because I am bigger and stronger. He has a God-given right to be treated with respect and kindness and I have a God-given responsibility to provide it. Besides, another two year old just threw a tantrum, and for the most part we are surrounded by mothers and others who love children and welcome them.
Fire: I grab his arm, bring him to me gently and whisper in his ear a respectful reminder, "whisper." He pulls away to look at my face and judge my expression. He is ready for a fight if he detects that this is an order from on high. I look into his eyes and smile. "Whisper," I repeat. He smiles, "whisper" he whispers. We nod our heads at one another; we are partners in this journey. The battle has been won, and the soldiers of the ego retreat again. They are subdued...for now.

I relax and submerse myself in the jihad of Imam Hussain (as), the struggle for the very life of Islam. My stomach is in knots and I am grieving and furious and sad and proud. I cry for the martyrs of Karbala and the survivors. I weep at the encompassing compassion that Imam Hussain (as) repeatedly displays for his friends and his enemies. He weeps on the battlefield, not for fear of death, but for the suffering his murderers will endure as punishment for their own evil actions. I rage at the tyranny, the brutality and the selfishness of Yazid (la) and his army (la). By the end of these two hours I am spent.

My husband finishes speaking and my son runs to him. Baba sweeps him up and we exit. I go to the car and wait, and wait, and wait. I wonder where the husband is. I put the baby in her sling and return to the mosque. A procession is being held. The men will march together like the army of Hussain (as). I figure he must have decided to participate. It is unusual for him; he does not like group displays of emotion, but ashura moves us in unusual directions.

I walk downstairs to the crowd of women waiting on either side of the hallway for the procession to begin. It's hot despite the cool night air rushing in with the ever opening door. The women are a dramatic site, a sea of black-clad, red-eyed women and girls chatting in breathy Farsi and sharp Urdu, subdued by grief for a common ancestor. Imam Hussain (as) lives, because we remember. We are steadfast Zaynab's (as) with the world on our shoulders, mourning Sukayna's determined to persevere.

The crowd grows gradually silent. Our attention is turned to the left. In the distance stand the men, their voices barely audible. Slowly, carrying black flags adorned at the top with the symbolic hand of Fatima (as) they work their way down the hall. I am looking for my husband and son. I see my blond husband carrying our honey-brown son. His small head relaxed against his father's strong shoulder. He is such a beautiful child, and the night has been so long. My husband gently pats our son's back keeping in tune with the rhythm of the mourning poem. Despite the dramatic and unfamiliar displays of emotion (this is his first ashura) my son is comforted by the motion and the repetition. I wonder how and if he will remember these moments, wrapped in the security of a father's tenderness, while surrounded by heartfelt lamentations and love for Imam Hussain (as).

My husband is the only Arab in a river of Iranians and Indians. I know that he is not used to being a minority. This ritual has always been his. He has walked the streets of Beirut in a deluge of grief, mourning for Imam Hussain (as), mourning for humanity. Now is he is in a droplet of the shi'a world's annual shedding of tears and he is doing it in a language that he does not understand. My pridefulness swells. "Now he knows what its like" I think. Now, for am inute he gets a taste of what it means to be a convert; to be tribeless,ever a minority,. But, blood and pain do not belong to Americans, Indians, Iranians or Arabs, they belong to humanity and that is why we can each cry and beat our chests to the rhythm of urdu and farsi lamentations. We know the story because it is an integral part of our shi'a heritage, we feel the pain because we are human, it inspires us and renews us because we love God.

I started to look for the sheikh. He is always so calm, so sincere and reserved. Even when he speaks passionately his refined Iranian decorum never leaves him. I wanted to see him without the reserve, his emotions displayed. But, he passed along, perspiring, his turban pushed back to reveal a swirl of salt-and pepper loveliness atop his grandfatherly head. He beat his chest in tune with the poem. He was clearly moved, but reserved his emotional resevoirs likely low from the powerful recounting of the death of baby Ali Asghar (as) given moments before.

I watched as our men cried. Yes, at that moment they were our men. Through the blood of Imam Hussain (as) we were transformed from strangers into family. Indian and Iranian, Lebanese and American, Pakistani and Iraqi, they party of Imam Ali (as) a universal tribe.

One man in particular caught my eye. His name means "the hand of God". It is an awe inspiring name. I have always admired names like Spirit of God and Hand of God, yet I shy from giving them to my children, how could they ever live up to them?

Brother "hand of God" is not the image of fire and brimstone that his name might conjure. He is "hand of the merciful". He is a gentle man with contagious effervesence. He radiates calm, joyful energy even when he is rushed and focused. In this moment, though, he was transformed. He became Asadollah, The Lion of God.

He stood, short statured and powerful in the center of the men. A slender man recited the noha behind him as the men to his sides and front cried and passionately struck their chests. Brother Asadollah, the humble warrior whose desire to be with Imam Hussain radiated from his very pores. I know that at that moment he would gladly stand in the desert sun to take the cutting blows of gleaming blades and die for his Imam (as) . I wonder what was in his heart that was powerful enough to transform him. Was he, at that moment, Abbas (as) risking his own life to bring water to thirsty children? Brother Hand of God, as you beat your chest in love and grief did you hear the cries of thirsty Sukayna (as) "Al Atash, Al Atash, Ya Allah Al Atash?"Did you know that we saw you and we understood your mighty roar and we knew that it would tremble the army of Yazid (la)?

Tonight in the personal jihad of every congregant, in the quiet mourning of an Iranian sheikh, the passionate love expressed by brother "Hand of God,"
the devotion of a Lebanese man and the observations of an American woman, centuries after Ashura and a million miles from Karbala the message of Imam Hussain's great grandson, Imam Ja'far As Sadiq came to life: Kulli Yawmun Ashura, Wa kulli Ardun Karbala. Every Day is Ashura, Every Land is Karbala.

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