Friday, March 14, 2008

Iraq (part two)

Twenty four hours a day, during the commemoration of Arbaeen, the streets of Karbela are packed with hundreds of thousands of people going to and from the roza of Imam Hussein and Hazrat Abbas, and to the other sites of ziarat in and around the city. The side streets, and those leading directly to the roza are filled with small makeshift stores, selling all kinds of religious and other items --- turbahs, tasbeeh, books, attar, scarves, chadors, and artistic renditions of Imam Hussein and his companions.

And there are huge huge steaming pots, with the locals cooking huge amounts of food provided daily to the pilgrims. And stalls offering fresh clean water, and excellent sugar filled tea.

No cars, except for ambulances, security officials, and garbage disposal trucks are allowed within the city limits. And one can only enter Karbala after passing through several security check points - with body searches required of each and every individual man, woman and child to ender the vicinity of the shrine itself, and again before entering the actual shrine area. The security officials, while firm and efficient, were never rude, not to obviously foreign looking Pakistanis, Iranians, other Arabs, nor towards the local millions of Iraqis.

The officials often asked where I was from - once, I let slip: "Amreeka" and got a frown --- and I quickly learnt that I have to say Pakistan to get the welcoming smile, or say "na'am" when asked (usually with a smile) if I was "Hindi" ---- And sometimes clarify that I was Pakistani not Iranian and would be paying in Iraqi dinar, not Irani.

The pavements, along with shops, are also full of tents, small and some very large - and then there are people
sleeping just out in the open - blankets provided courtesy of the locals - And it rained a few times, clearing the air, but making things not so comfortable for those sleeping outside. But there were few if any tensions that I could see. And even with the pressures of the crowd, the huge numbers who gave in their shoes and cameras and cell phones to be guarded before entering the shrine, those behind the stalls were almost always courteous.

Hundreds and hundreds lined up at the tea stalls in the morning afternoon and night ---- but those providing the tea almost always had time to, if only briefly, to personalize the service, and express that they were "Khadim" (servers) to anyone who asked for an extra cup.

The sounds around the shrine is filled with recorded latmiya - the lamentation songs accompanied to a "beat" of maatam ---- at times small groups of people joining in and expressing their own love for Imam Hussein and his companions (AS). And small processions are the norm, with their own reciter of noah --- in Urdu, Arabic, Farsi... but almost always joined by onlookers who sometimes walked with the procession, or stayed on the outside - listening and doing their own silent maatam.

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