In 2005, ten years ago, I spent several months in the Middle East. I recently came across some pieces I wrote about that journey, buried in my digital bottom drawer. Reading them I was struck by the awful fact that things have gotten not better, but much, much worse.
The sky was heavy and yellow over Damascus on the Tenth of Muharram, and I took a taxi to the tomb of the Prophet’s granddaughter. We passed through busy streets in the poorer quarters on the southern edge of the city. There was bad building work and loose wire, and I saw the head and neck of a slaughtered camel hanging outside a butcher’s stall, fleshy lips pointing at the pavement. It still had its woolly winter coat.
The mausoleum of Sayidda Zeinab was in a grubby Shia suburb of dust and yellowing concrete. The streets were already crowded and the great golden swelling of the dome rose above the compound walls against the heavy sky. All along the pavements there were stalls, full of prayer beads and skullcaps and books of prayer and theology with embossed covers. And there were posters of the Shia Imams, together like a multiplicity of stern Jesuses with the blinding white blank of the Hidden Imam at the centre, or as individuals: Ali and Hussein, green-turbaned and black-bearded and fiery-eyed.
Lean youths in jeans and black tee shirts, and women in black head-scarves and little children in their best clothes, and shabby men in old jackets, and here and there a tall figure in robes and turban: they surged along the grubby street and around the corner and into the gate of the compound, past the soldiers who searched bags and pockets as best they could. I went with them, though the gateway, and inside.
The tomb, under its great dome, lay ahead, people clamouring up the steps, tripping over discarded shoes. It was flanked with arches of blue-green tilework and a band of golden calligraphy framed the roofline: “Peace upon Zeinab the Great”, it said. The courtyard was full of people and there was a smell of sweat and hot breath, like at protest marches and outdoor concerts. From the space behind the tomb I could hear the rising pulse of voices and a hollow marching sound: thump, thump, thump.
A dozen young men, dressed in black, strips of green cloth tied tight around their brows, formed a ragged band: mourners, like everyone here, for the Imam Hussein, killed at Kerbala – with his baby son in his arms, they say.
They were led by a man with curly brown hair, rising in knots above his headband. His face was blotched red with furious grief and his eyes brimmed with tears. His voice cracked as he chanted – “Oh Martyr! Oh Hussein!” – and with each chant he brought his bolted fist high up above his head and swung it down with mighty force onto his own chest. The others matched the beats, fists pounding in time against breasts. Thwump! Oh Martyr! Thwump! Oh Hussein! They swung their bodies together in time so that it was like a dance. Their eyes were red and their brows gleamed with sweat.
A small boy stood in the crowd nearby. He was wearing a tatty woollen jumper and up above his head he held a crudely painted placard, marked with two words in white on black and splattered red: Martyr; Hussein. He stood on tiptoes, straining to hold the sign as high as he could. His mouth was tight with determination.
Thwump, thwump, twhump!
There was a roar from the courtyard gate and a new mob of young flagellants came surging through under waving green banners. They swept past the gate of the tomb in a seething knot beating out a mighty rhythm on their own flesh.
I stepped back a little, out of the way, onto the raised platform at the edge of the compound. A girl with pale brown eyes in a black headscarf smiled at me. I nodded back, a little startled.
“Where are you from?” she asked – and I was still more startled by her accent.
“From England,” I said, “like you…”
She smiled again; she was very beautiful. She was born in Iraq but she had been brought up in London. She was training to be a doctor. “Where exactly are you from?” she asked.
“You don’t have a Cornish accent,” she said.
“You don’t have a London accent,” I said. Hers was crystal clear but without any superior sharpness.
“I went to a good school,” she said; “I suppose you did too.”
The mourning youths surged past us on another circuit of the courtyard, fists pounding into flesh. Some of them were sobbing as they chanted.
“I must say,” she said, “I’m surprised to see a… a…”
“Tourist?” I suggested.
“Yes! I’m surprised to see a tourist here.”
“But you’re from England too.”
“But I’m a… I’m a… this is my culture,” she struggled, but smiled at the absurdity. “Actually this is the first time I’ve been to Ashura celebrations in a Muslim country. Of course, I would like to have been in Iraq, in my homeland…” she trailed off.
I told her I had wanted to see the Ashura parades in Pakistan, but that it was too dangerous there where the commemoration of ancient bloodshed all too often gave way to new sectarian atrocities. She said that was sad. She was very beautiful.
They kept coming, all day, flowing into the confines of the tomb. I peered over shoulders and piled shoes and saw the gold and silver and the mosaics of the inner chamber, and the dozens of hands reaching out to touch the metalwork around the grave.
Outside the tomb courtyard there were rags and scraps of paper and plastic and spilt food underfoot, and the sky hung heavier above crooked television aerials and jagged rooflines. Taxis and minibuses and donkey carts were howling over cracked tarmac and there was an edge of frenzy on the air.
I met an acquaintance out on the street, a Swiss-German who had studied Arabic in Damascus and was serving an internship at the Swiss embassy. The courtyard was more crowded now and we were jostled through the gateway again, past the struggling soldiers.
There would be no sunset over the Lebanon Ranges tonight, but the light was fading, thickening to a murky grey. There were many Iranians in the tomb complex now, and I remembered a little Persian – What is your name? Where are you from? America? No, not America.
When the light was all gone there were lamps around the courtyard and it shone back off the dome of the tomb, and in the corner, close to the gateway I saw men in pale shalwar kamises. They were chanting, but not like the youths of earlier: it was singing really, to the glorious heart-beat rhythms of Qawwali. Their faces shone in the lamplight, and they only slapped at their chests with loose palms. I went across quickly, unable to resist, and yes, they were from Pakistan, of course, and very quickly they were all around me smiling, and they pressed a chocolate bar and a carton a fruit juice on me and there was a tiny woman, all in black except her face, and she spoke immaculate English, and in a matter of minutes I had an address scribbled down and a very genuine offer of a place to stay in Karachi next time I came to Pakistan.
“But…” I began, and she smiled tenderly.
“Of course, I know you would not normally be coming to Karachi; it is a dangerous place. But you will be safe if you stay with us…”
I left them and picked through the seething crowds. The Swiss-German was speaking Arabic with a group of angry men. His face was lined and serious, and he was touching his mouth uncertainly with the ends of his fingers. The men had tense faces and furious eyes.
He glanced at me as I came up. “Ah…”
The foremost of the angry-eyed men looked at me and asked something. I knew enough to understand the question: “England,” I said.
His eyes flared and he tilted his head back and said, defiantly, “Iraq!”
He was broad-shouldered and he wore a black jacket that made him look broader still. He spoke with angry passion, and raised his finger as he did so.
The Swiss-German made conciliatory noises.
“What are you talking about?” I asked.
He glanced at me. “They are talking about politics. Actually, I am not really comfortable with this conversation…”
There were cracks of grief and anger in the voice of the speaking man, and the others clustered behind him, nodding furiously as he spoke.
He said something, then said it again, half-shouting, beating at his own chest. I didn’t need a translation: “I am a Shia!” he was saying; “I am a Shia and even I am saying this!”
The Swiss-German mumbled and touched his mouth. “He is saying that with Saddam gone Iraq is destroyed; he is saying that even though he hated Saddam, everyone knows that only Saddam could keep Iraq peaceful. He says Iraq needs a strong hand and the Americans are like children; he is saying ‘what have they done, what have they done?’ He is very angry. Actually this is not really a political idea that I subscribe too. I think we should go.” He started to move away.
I lingered for a moment.
“Peace upon you,” I said, and held out my hand.
The man stared at me for the briefest of moments, then shook it firmly and warmly, his eyes blazing. “Thank you!” he said, in English; “Thank you!”
© Tim Hannigan 2015