Early Morning Mourners

By Kazim Alam

It’s 4 a.m. in Karachi, Pakistan. Thousands of mourners are gathered in the city’s central park to participate in the yearly religious congregation of “Ashura,” an Arabic word meaning “tenth.”

“Ashura” marks the martyrdom of Husayn ibn Ali, the grandson of Prophet Muhammad, who was killed in A.D. 680 along with his 72 companions, including many family members, in Karbala, Iraq, by the army of a rival Muslim general.

The mourners, most of whom are adherents of Shiite Islam, are wearing black clothes – a symbol of grief in most Muslim societies. A number of them are walking around barefoot; small children can be seen wearing artificial chains around their feet and wrists; many mourners have put dust into their uncombed hair to give themselves a scruffy look: they’re trying to re-enact the last moments of Husayn, his family and companions – the time they spent in an Arab desert 1,330 years ago during the night of 9th and 10th “Muharram,” the first month of Islamic calendar.

They’re remembering the steadfastness of Husayn by sacrificing the comforts of their homes and staying up all night under open sky. They’re grieving over the helplessness of the female and underage members of Husayn’s family by putting chains around their hands and refusing to wear sandals – torments the survivors of Husayn’s convoy suffered during many months of imprisonment after the battle of Karbala.

In several small groups standing at some distance from each other, young men frantically beat their own chests to remember Husayn’s violent and painful death. Cassette players play religious songs in the background which are written in Persianized Urdu, a sign of the Iranian influence on the Shiite branch of Islam. They call on the listeners to emulate Husayn and his followers, for they set the highest standards of courage and fortitude in the face of imposed war and severe torture.

Mourners’ chest-beating becomes thunderous as time goes by and leads in due course to a brief lull – after which, the chest-beating resumes with renewed vigor.

Community groups, religious bodies and well-off families have set up stalls of free food, soda and water around the park. Young volunteers offer biscuits, boiled eggs and bread rolls with tea and flavored water to the mourners. Men and women make separate queues.

Volunteers, mostly in their teens, appear to be keener on watching over the ladies’ queue. Women, with their heads covered and face showing, are not entirely unaware of the special attention they’re getting.

Loudspeakers fixed on electricity poles around the park are now switched on. It’s time for “majlis,” a highly descriptive narration of the suffering of Husayn and his family and friends by a shrill-voiced Shiite preacher. Food distribution comes to a halt, chest-beating stops and mourners all over the place sit on the ground immediately to listen to the address.

The speaker starts recounting the sacrifices of the martyrs of Karbala in a high-pitched voice. The crowd is now charged with emotions. Within minutes, men and women start crying aloud, and shout in chorus: “Hai Husayn, Hai Husayn” (poor Husayn, poor Husayn).

The drawn-out sobs of the speaker, marking the end of the “majlis,” are followed by a bloody round of self-beating. Mourners use knives, daggers and metallic chains with sharp, little blades to inflict cuts on their chests, backs and foreheads. The air reeks of the stench of human blood, as ambulances try to find their way amid the swarm of mourners – some self-beaters, it seems, have fallen unconscious.

Mourners are instructed via loudspeakers to march out of the park in a certain direction. They’ll now walk as a procession all day on the city’s main road, which has been closed for vehicular traffic. The procession will culminate with the evening prayer at a major Shiite mosque.

Mourners – tired and sleepless, with stains of blood on their clothes – begin leaving the central park. In the background, a muezzin is saying the morning “adhan” – call to prayer – from the minaret of a nearby Sunni mosque. “Hayya Alasallah” (hasten toward worship), the muezzin says. Mourners walk away slowly.

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