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Visiting The Sacred Sites Of Shia Islam
"She wants you to take her picture," a man said when the old woman in the black abaya came up to me.
We were standing in the mosque of Imam Husayn in Karbala, Iraq. This is one of the holiest shrines for Shia Islam. It was near here that Imam Husayn, son of Imam Ali, was killed along with his supporters by the Caliph Yazid. The Shia believe that Ali and Hussein were the rightful successors to the Prophet Mohammad. The Sunnis believe that the Ummayid Caliphs like Yazid had that honor. For the Shia, Husayn's martyrdom has become a symbol of their oppression at the hands of corrupt governments.
I got that message loud and clear as soon as I raised my camera.
The woman tore into a litany about the martyrdom of Imam Husayn, describing his justness, his bravery, and his death at the hands of treacherous soldiers. I couldn't follow it all but I knew the story, how a massive army surrounded Husayn and his few dozen followers in the desert, how the women and children begged for water and were shot with arrows. How the men fought bravely and were killed off one by one. The woman started crying, her voice breaking as it increased in volume.
I wondered who else she was crying for.
During the rule of Saddam Hussein – a Sunni – the Shia got kicked around. Many disappeared into his jails and torture chambers. Their neighborhoods always got fewer municipal funds. They were the last hired and first fired. Then Saddam invaded Kuwait in 1990.
The U.S.-led forces soon pushed the Iraqi army out of Kuwait and President Bush called on the Iraqi people to overthrow Saddam. Shia, Kurds, and some Sunnis answered that call. The rebels took over several key cities and most of the provinces. Saddam had all the heavy weaponry, though. Saddam had the tanks. The rebels called on the U.S. for help.
The U.S. government launched some missiles, extended the no-fly zone, and said some very nasty things about Saddam, but otherwise did nothing.
Saddam's reprisals were terrible. Nobody knows how many civilians were killed. The mass graves are still being discovered. There was more than just religious fervor coming out of that woman, there was a lifetime of suffering. I doubt there's a single Shia in Iraq who doesn't know someone who died because of Saddam.
It seemed that everyone in the mosque wanted to talk with me, and it was the same in the shrine to Imam Ali in Najaf. As I sat on plush carpets under exquisite tile ceilings, the melodious sounds of Arabic prayers in the background, people kept coming up to me. Some were curious and asked where I was from and why I was there. Once I answered these questions they had reached the end of their English. They welcomed me, smiled and moved on. Others had better English and stopped to chat.
Parents pushed their kids forward to practice their English lessons. Others wanted to know if I was a Bosnian, the only European Muslims they were accustomed to seeing. Telling them I wasn't a Muslim didn't seem to make me any less welcome.
Many of the people I met were actually Iranian. Their country has an even greater Shia majority than Iraq, and has been ruled by Shia for centuries. Iranian pilgrims come to Iraq by the millions every year. Karbala and Najaf are almost as holy to the Shia as Mecca and Medina.
One of the best conversations was with two female engineering students from Iran. Bright eyed and friendly, they were delighted to learn that I'd been to their country and had visited that matchless city, Isfahan. There's an old Persian proverb, "Esfahan Nesf-e Jahan" ("Esfahan is half the world") and with its stunning mosques, soaring blue-green minarets, and sparkling river I couldn't deny it.
The Shia shrines of Karbala and Najaf give Isfahan a run for its money, though. Some interiors are entirely made of multifaceted glass, with colored lights that make the walls and ceiling sparkle like jewels. Others have vast ceilings of paneled tiles like the one shown below. The graves of the martyrs are ornately decorated in gold, as are some of the doors.
Together the girls and I admired the architecture and they urged me to take my wife to Iran the next time I go.
"Oh, she would love it!" they said. "She should have come to Iraq too."
"She was too scared to come."
"Oh, it's not dangerous," they said.
I found their innocence touching. On second thought I realized they couldn't be so naive. They were simply being welcoming. The Iranians did have more of a sense of optimism than the Iraqis. Although they, too, have had a succession of oppressive governments, at least they haven't been persecuted for their faith.
It was pilgrimage season. The television was filled with images of the Hajj. People were visiting Karbala and Najaf in large numbers too. One night I flicked on the television in my hotel room and saw an announcer at the same mosque where I spoke with those Iranian students. It was a call-in show and as pilgrims mingled in the background, the announcer chatted with the callers.
They were almost exclusively women and almost all were crying. I couldn't follow the conversations very well but I did pick up the names Husayn and Ali, as well as other male names, probably of the women's relatives. And one name was repeated over and over again with a mixture of hatred and horror.
Saddam. Saddam. Saddam.
Don't miss the rest of my series, "Destination: Iraq," chronicling my 17-day journey across this strife-ridden country in search of adventure, archaeology, and AK-47s.
Coming up next: "Iraq Street Art: Beautifying the Blast Walls!"
[Photos by Sean McLachlan]