Muharram – Then, Now
The 10 days of rituals that lead up to Ashura were one of the most important religious rites I eagerly participated as a child; still do, albeit for altered reasons. These are the annual rites that Ahlebeyti Muslims commemorate the tragic events that gripped Karbala some 15 centuries ago. Even as a terrified aware toddler, I remember Mama’s tears of agony, when she wept uncontrolled, her handkerchief turning moist with tears, the speaker relating the cruel and brutal way the family of the Prophet of Islam were demeaned and slaughtered on the burning sands of Arabia. And because she wept, I too, bawled away, until my head was hoarse with pain.
A little older, with other children of my congregation, I eagerly anticipated the arrival of the month of mourning and began preparation long before the sad crescent of the new year was sighted. We helped drape the walls of the imambargah a somber black, seeped our not so desirable, castaway colorful shirts with black dye and generally anticipated the 12 days of rituals that were rewarded with communal meals of meat pulau, daal curry, chundo curry, kalyo pau or kithchro. The makeshift kitchen immediately to the left of the entrance to the Tanga mosque went into a beehive of activity; pungent onions and mounds of potatoes sliced and fried, assortment of curry spices pounded, bags of pishori rice picked clean of possible stones, carcasses of goats cut to pieces… All the food was cooked over burning logs of firewood or glowing fiery red kolsa, labored over by cheaply hired sweating African labor and overseen by a bullying Mukhi of the time. Served with kachumber, carrot or chili sambhaaro, the taste of that niyaz was uncanny, uniquely delicious, and could never be replicated at home. Any home. Period.
As an early adolescent, when accompanying Mama was taboo for a male child, I tried to imitate Mullah Paalo and Anver Tharu at the Tanga Imambargagh, slapping my cheeks and head silly sore, even though the effect was mostly lost without tears present. With others, I would rush to the emerging laash or allam, before the reciter was done from the mimbur, even, wailing, beating off others to try and be the first to kiss it and like an selfish brat, cling to the symbolic coffin, denying others a chance to pay their respects. Then came the saf matam, going round circles with an animated reciter in the middle. I had a rowdy set of friends and we stuck together, slapping our chests in a step-dance that had us sweaty in minutes. Any intruder attempting to join this group was summarily penalized – tripped up and sent crashing out. And the zanjeer, of course. On the eve of Ashura. The chained knives were perpetually limited in supply, which always led to nasty fights and acrimony for days afterward. Since I could not fight the bigger boys, I had to wait until they tired or Anver Tharu relented to give me a chance with a used one before turning the bloodied and contaminated blades to my fledgling chest. I was chicken, so stayed only long enough to get a few drops of bright red blood oozing out before I hurriedly quit. Some of us chose to wear a lighter shirt the next day, as more matam split the wounds open and we could show off the sullied shirt to others. I shudder to think what other silly stuff we would have indulged if smartphones were available then.
It is only as an enlightened adult, did the bulb finally stop flickering and the ‘aha’ moment set in. Imam Hussein (a) and his invaluable sacrifice has been grossly misinterpreted at best or hijacked by ancient rituals at worst. That Muharram in general and Ashura, in particular, is not only rituals of matam and juloos and exaggerated and (many times) dubious battlefield narrations. Ya Allah, it is oh, so, so much more!
Imam Hussein, et al, were, are, invaluable representations of everything just, right and sublimely pure, beyond compare. Opposite to everything that is inherently wrong in me, in us, an answer to all my, our, complex life challenges. They are a beacon against repression and injustice, of unselfish love and sacrifice for the Supreme Allah, for the love of kin and uncompromising loyalty to friendship and unwavering obedience towards the wilayah of the Aemaas (a). They are also a rallying magnet for humanity in general, against oppression and injustice. The call of Labaik Ya Hussein is so powerful, it can make aggressors think twice, thrice…
I still look forward to these months of azaa with charged zeal and anticipation, every year. There is no better way to renew the spirituality of Karbala, Imam Hussein’s and S. Zainab’s (a) message than sitting in a somber imambargah and hear a speaker who can impart a balanced, intellectual and emotional lecture. Asking for too much, I suppose. Except for a handful of speakers, it’s the same all, same all, again, the world over. I don’t blame them, most are trained to think and speak to appease a certain audience. Some lack the capacity to grasp the bigger picture of what the mission of Imam Hussein (a) is and fall back on regurgitating the same lackluster topics that put me off. Others stray into controversial and taboo subjects that make them short-term subject of interest and gossip. Some, like Assad Jeffery or Sheykh Jehad or Jaffer Jaffer, can easily get my heart pumping and juices flowing with their balanced approach to the mission of Abaa Abdillah (a).
All 3 centers I visit this year were lacking, for me. What irritated me to a tizzy was a supposed professional cum zaakir, apparently a good orator, who threw rational to the wayside and regressed to emotional recitals quoting maqtal and man (quoting divine, however) inspired symbolism as his source for defense. Pity such fine talent can fall prey to marginal gratification of ‘wah, wah’ on subjects that have their dubious origins in after majlis baraaza.
Yes, I’ll deal with it, Bwana.