Skandar Keynes: Week 4

** WARNING: This article contains some graphic and gory imagery** SKANDAR tries to make sense of the blood-letting festival of Ashura.

Ashura Beirut Edmund Hussein islam Karbala Narnia Shi'a Skandar Keynes Sunni

skandarkeynesA lifetime of experience can still leave you unprepared for Ashura. Even my 95-year-old grandfather was truly taken aback.

Showing photographs of the events to others often prompts disgust and condemnation for what they consider medieval practices. Indeed, working out how to process it all has taken some time. My memories are still overflowing with various sensual inputs: the sounds of sobbing thousands; the dull smell of blood hanging in your nostrils; the feel of blood splattering against an uncovered neck; and the sight of men crumpling to the ground.

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As a historian, you cannot help but be awestruck to see the past dramatically brought to life through rivers of tears and blood. The event commemorates the martyrdom of Hussein Ibn Ali at the battle of Karbala in 680. In many ways, it embodies what it means to be a Shi’a as opposed to a Sunni.

People converge on cities and town squares to join together in remembrance of one of the defining moments in the splitting of Islam. Men and women gather in their thousands to hear the story emotionally retold in large halls. The aggregate of a thousand sobs is like a howling wind, rising and falling with undulations of drama in the story.

Outside in the city squares, men in their hundreds, and occasionally a few women, flagellate themselves, staining the streets red and leaving behind pools of blood. They remember Hussein’s pain with pain of their own. They show their devotion to Hussein and all that he symbolizes for them in the most impassioned way possible.

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One cannot ignore the impact such ceremonies have on community identity. The longer the blood flows, the more men must join together, physically supporting one another as they near the point of collapse. When one falls, they are instantly scooped up and carried to first aid tents set up across the square within a matter of seconds. It is difficult to think of a more intimate and binding communal activity than crying alongside a thousand others. Food is given out at mosques and from people’s homes. The family hosting me had bought the meat of nine sheep for the event.

You cannot talk about Ashura as an insulated event, as it shapes perceptions on either side of the Sunni-Shi’a divide. While the Sunni perpetrators of Hussein’s brutal killing are reviled and demonized by Shi’as, the sight of the bloodletting shocks and appals those outside the community. Images of young children partaking in self-flagellation are especially hard for many to stomach.

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Whatever conclusions you reach about the spectacle, there is no doubting that to the outsider it is awe inspiring – although I do have one complaint to make. Within half an hour of returning home, the dogs had sniffed out the blood on my shoes.

Consequently, I’m now down a pair of shoes.