Muharram Impressions: Forty Days in Four Paragraphs
"Do not say that you are Shi'a," says the gaunt young howza student sitting upon the impromptu minbar, "say that you are muhibb(lovers) of ahl al bayt (as)." We all know why. To be a Shi'a of ahl al bayt, that's heavy stuff, a title earned not simply claimed. We are lovers, heavy-hearted with the shame at our failings. We are little kittens longing to be lions, to be Shi'a, to "live like Ali (as) and die like Hussain(as)." "Death with dignity," said Imam Hussain (as), "is better than life in humiliation." So we complete our daily tasks in our professional 'fields' and for an hour or two, 10, 20,30, or 40, maybe more (for the highly devoted) days out of the year we can hide in our lil cabin, from Massa Dollar's ever watchful gaze and imagine ourselves free.
I stood in the room full of women. I'd just finished a highly emotional ending to a long and heartfelt majlis in rememberance of the Sayyid as shuhadaa and the martyrs of Karbalaa, rememberance of our duties to Allah (swt). The women raised their right hands and slowly began to hit their chests. Just as they all fell into rhythm, the collective heartbeat steady and strong, a small Salvadorian woman in black salwaar kameez said, "Ya Hussain." I nodded. It was time, so I began. My friend, the tall Romani with the bright blue eyes, she never hits her chest when she leads the latmiyya. I always do, because though it disturbs my voice, I want to be a part of that heartbeat. My baby is in her sling, listening to mama's loud strong voice.
Courageous men and lives were made
In hopes they might be sworn for you."
I say it again, hitting the chest harder, making my voice stronger. For an hour or two after the majlis I contemplate having a few more children. In hopes they might be sworn for him. Then I remember, I have enough. It must be powerful if it can make me think of having more.
The Iranian woman tears open her mahntoe*, white flesh quickly turns red and the heartbeat, drumspeak of the ummah can he heard throughout the world. Chest beaters we are, and proud. We want the world to know the power of this message, so we walk the streets from Beirut to Karachi carrying black banners at once prideful and penitent. Grown men cry and women beat their chests in militant fury. An Indian man in San Jose, CA stands in the tiny masjid parking lot cuts himself in an act of solidarity with his beloved Imam. Hussain bled on this day, so he will bleed on this day. I sit in a Houston apartment and say through unrestrained sobs to the woman who offers me water, "I can not drink today, I can not drink when my Imam died thirsty." She understands; it's good to be with those who understand. I think his bloodletting is gruesome, extreme, but I can't hold it against him, our luxury feels shameful. It is, after all, such a tiny amount of time each year that we allow ourselves to see how gruesome our submersion in consumerist gluttony really is. For a few moments we are free from the yoke of capitalism, we've liberated ourselves from the shackles of caste. We are on the battlefield standing fearless beside our Imam. We are not weak. We are not oppressed. We are lions. We cry our hearts out, wipe our tears and come out of the darkened room to drink strong hot chai with rich creamy milk. We get into our luxury cars and drive to our 2100 sq. ft homes in the 'burbs.
It's good to be a lion, if only for a few hours.
*Mahntoe is the long sleeved overcoat worn by Iranian women. It is usually spelled manto.