As the midday sun beats down on the hard dusty streets of Najaf, we gather at post No.1 for group selfies. Another 1451 posts, each 50 meters apart, map our journey along the Najaf-Karbala road.
Our small group is joining the annual Arba’een walk to Karbala in Iraq and it will take three days to complete.
We are not alone. Far from it.
Every year, on the occasion of Arba’een (20th Safar – Islamic calendar), millions of pilgrims descend upon the Holy City of Karbala. Lovers of the Ahlulbayt (a.s) (The Holy Household of the Prophet) travel the world to visit the shrines of Imam Hussain (a.s) and his companions. They come to pay homage to these revered individuals, their martyrdom, and their stance against oppression and injustice.
The love for Imam Hussain (a.s) is the impetus behind the largest annual peaceful gathering on earth. Figures, this year, are expected to reach 26 million.
The energy at post No.1 is buoyant as hundreds mill around us preparing to embark on their own journeys. Our departure is imminent and the excitement is palpable. In chorus we recite a Salawat (sending peace and blessings to the Prophet and his Holy Household) as we take our first steps.
Arba’een marks the last of a 40-day mourning period starting on Ashura (10th of Muharram, on the Islamic calendar – the martyrdom of Imam Hussain (a.s) and his companions). Pilgrims commemorate the occasion by wearing black; the universal colour of grief.
Hundreds of thousands march in unison forming a river of black, flowing steady towards a single destination. Upon arrival it will populate the narrow streets of Karbala, rushing with ever growing urgency and magnetic attraction. It will gather at the darih (mausoleum) of Imam Hussain (a.s) and Hazrat Abbas (a.s), where thousands will form human waves and whirlpools with a life of their own, lamenting the martyrdom of Ali’s sons.
The Najaf-Karbala road, usually a busy multi-lane highway, is partially shut to accommodate the procession. As we walk, to our left across a sandy divide, vehicular traffic flows freely in both directions, a stark contrast to our pedestrian river.
To the right the road is lined, for the most part, with mawakebs. These are tents, buildings and stalls providing pilgrims with free food, shelter and medication. Mawakebs are manned by volunteers offering any kind of assistance for the pilgrims to make the journey in the way of Imam Hussain a.s. as easy as possible, to show their love and dedication to Imam Hussain (a.s) and his message, in the hope that they may gain thawab (reward in the after-life).
Nourishment and hydration is paramount for the walkers. Bottled water, hot meals and fruits are distributed throughout the journey. Some are willing to give what little they have to pilgrims, a level of generosity one rarely observes. Others try to make a modest living selling what they can; this includes everything from slippers and sunglasses to sim-cards and selfie sticks.
Volunteers offer massages to loosen tight muscles whilst medical clinics tend to conditions incurred from the walk such as swelling, blistering or exhaustion. I have opted to wear rubber bathroom slippers with socks, as is recommended, to reduce risk of injury and maximise comfort.
I stop for respite on average every 100-200 posts, sitting by the roadside watching the procession pass by whilst I repair my feet and re-hydrate. Breaks become increasingly rewarding the further apart they are.
Back on the road I search for our flag bearer, who has ploughed ahead. I see dozens of brightly coloured flags punctuating the river of black with green, yellow and red. They line building tops and the road side, flailing perfectly in the desert wind.
Whilst serving the practical purpose of group identification, these flags also carry heart-felt messages of solidarity with the Ahlulbayt (a.s). One cannot help, when faced with this scene, but imagine an ancient battlefield where flags and banners determined who was with whom.
The Adhan (call to Prayer) accompanies the setting sun behind dusty plains as the sky turns cinnamon. It is a sight to behold, and at Maghrib (sunset Prayer time) I am stopped in my tracks.
The river of black relents only for sleep and Salaat (Prayers) and so the Najaf-Karbala road is left deserted as the pilgrims, united in procession, now unite in prayer.
As we perform the obligatory prayers we are reminded of what Imam Hussain (a.s) died for. Battle did not interfere with his obligation to God, offering prayers even as arrows showered down. He rode into battle purely to protect the sanctity of Salaat.
After sunset, temperatures fall sharply. Jumpers and jackets are employed whilst sunglasses retired. The night cold of Iraq is unforgiving and weighs heavy on the body as it sinks into the bones.
Despite the plummeting temperatures, after dark, the mawakebs continue to serve tea and coffee to the pilgrims still on foot, whilst offering beds and basic facilities to those wishing to rest for the night. Blankets and pillows are handed out for people to fashion beds on the floor. Under spell of exhaustion, lack of comfort becomes a blurry and trivial observation.
On the road to Karbala one encounters people from all walks of life. Diversity is celebrated; age, gender, class, nationality and race are widely represented. Non-Shia and non-Muslims also take part in the pilgrimage, which is embedded in Iraqi culture and tradition. Broken by the love of the Ahlulbayt (a.s), the message of Karbala transcends barriers of class distinction and other social divides.
Displays of humanity are observed in those pushing wheelchairs. I see individuals striding with purpose on personal missions, groups of friends strolling side-by-side deep in conversation. Whilst families with babies in prams, small children skipping alongside, parents and grandparents supporting each other from post to post.
Melodic lamentations can be heard near and far, forming a soundtrack to the trip. Eulogies are recited in Farsi, Urdu and Arabic each carrying a unique style, cadence and flair. From time to time, chants of ‘Labaika Ya Hussain’ (‘I am at your service O’ Hussain’) erupt and spread through the procession like a ripple.
Occasionally I find myself separated from my group, yet I don’t feel alone. Strangers who all have one thing in common surround me. There is an unspoken understanding that we are all bound by a love for Imam Hussain (a.s). As a stranger in a foreign land I take solace in the knowledge that regardless of background, our destination is the same.
Security check-points are positioned closer to Karbala. A necessary inconvenience that helps ensure the wellbeing of all travellers. Officers frisk pilgrims as they file through the gates.
Over the years, security presence has grown and become part of the fabric of a country torn by conflict. Although considered a high-risk destination, the pilgrims still flood in, spending hard earned money to travel in unprecedented numbers. Numbers that increase year-by-year, despite the volatile climate consuming parts of the country.
Under constant threat, the procession has grown into a march of solidarity for peace and justice. The very presence of these pilgrims is a stance of defiance in the face of tyranny and oppression. The example set by Imam Hussain (a.s) 1400 years ago is so powerful that it resonates with people today. Visitors are filled with strength, showing the world their love for the Ahlulbayt (a.s) is resolute and out-weighing all fear and doubt.
On the morning of the third day we arrive. Sidestepping traffic and pot-holes, our group enters the busy and wet streets of Karbala. Torrents of people flow in every direction. Everything is a blur of pain and exhaustion.
I arrive in this Holy City mentally, emotionally and physically broken. I am numbed by a sense of complete insignificance. There are 26 million different stories, 26 million separate journeys all present here. I am forced to shift my perspective and reset my ego.
Approaching a fly-over, on the apex, we see a cluster gathered. Their gaze is collectively locked in the same direction, I try but I cannot see what they see. I ask a friend. He says ‘The dome of Hazrat Abbas’ shrine is just there between those buildings’.
I still can’t see it.
I keep searching. After a frustrating minute, in the distance between those buildings, a tiny golden dome catches my eye, glistening in the morning sun.
This structure, in my sights, represents a personality I have revered my whole life. It represents a story heard since childhood. It represents a martyrdom of the highest order, executing the noblest mission – providing the basic human right of water, to quench the thirst of children.
I realise I’m weeping, silently. Not a single vivid thought in my mind. Maybe I’m overwhelmed. My default is to rationalise and make sense of it all, but when love trumps logic, it doesn’t really matter.
The Arba’een walk is a personal affair that each individual partakes in for his or her own reason. Some wish to experience a struggle in the way of Imam Hussain (a.s), for some it is an expression of love, others are upholding a rewarding tradition, and the list continues.
Yet once in the city of Karbala, the pilgrims’ purpose becomes one. They all give something in the way of Imam Hussain (a.s), none worthy of his sacrifices, yet he still gives back.
On the day of Ashura the Imam called out ‘Hal min nasirin yan surna?’ (’Is there anyone to help us?’). This year 26 million responded ‘Labaika Ya Hussain’, pledging their allegiance.
A pledge of allegiance to an individual is a pledge to their message. The Imam’s message is a personal matter for the pilgrim, ultimately encompassing universal values such as love, freedom and justice.
It is as if ones moral standards and principles are elevated purely by proximity, for what better place to receive a message than at the source? Those hearts emptied of tears are filled with a bold desire for betterment, to emulate the examples of the Ahlulbayt (a.s) and remain authentic to them.
This is the gift I returned with from Karbala. In many ways, I am still on the apex of that fly-over, I never left.
Written by S. R. Mirza