Ashura in a time of war | The Economist

Men chant 'Ya Hussein' as they beat their heads. Image by James Haines-Young

Men chant ‘Ya Hussein’ as they beat their heads. Image by James Haines-Young

[Published here November 18, 2013]

KFAR RUMMAN — THE excruciating wail could be heard without the microphones. On November 14th, thousands of women clad in black abayas and children watched the army of the caliph Yazid slaughter Hussein, a grandson and would-be heir of the Prophet Muhammad, in a theatrical recreation of the battle in 680 AD that split Islam into its Sunni and Shia branches. 

Below the stage in this town in southern Lebanon, groups of young men prepared themselves for a bloodier part of Ashura, as the day of mourning for Hussein’s death is known. Men used razors to carve small incisions on the scalps of the men and boys, some as young as two-years-old. Cries of “Ya Hussein, Ya Hussein” echoed through the streets as men pounded their foreheads, blood streaming down their faces.

This year local organisers were keen to draw the link between that battle over 1,300 years ago and the war in Syria. Hizbullah, one of Lebanon’s two main Shia movements, has depicted its military campaigns next door in support of President Bashar Assad as an existential struggle for the Shia and other minority sects against Sunni opponents. One play in Kafr Rumman told the story of a father about to depart to fight at Saida Zeinab, a Shia shrine close to the Syrian capital, Damascus.

In weeks leading up to Ashura, Sunni extremist groups reportedly threatened to bomb Ashura events in retaliation for Hizbullah’s involvement in Syria. Tight security loomed over the packed commemorations. At makeshift checkpoints local Hizbullah members and allies from Amal, Lebanon’s second Shia movement, searched belongings and screened identity cards. “There is fear,” said Bilal, the woman who heads Kafr Rumman’s girl scouts and an organiser of local women’s events.

Hizbullah’s national leaders call on followers to refrain from self-cutting rituals, and the country’s now-deceased top Shia cleric, Ayatollah Mohamed Hussein Fadlallah, years ago called it “unIslamic.” He and others encourage Lebanon’s Shia to donate blood instead. Hizbullah’s Kafr Rumman representatives complained that those choosing to cut themselves—mostly Amal members—were ignoring more wholesome ways to express the acute sorrow of the occasion.

But amid a growing sense of isolation for the sect, all pulled together. Young medics who said the ritual “was not for them” dutifully cleaned others’ blood-caked wounds. Members of Hizbullah provided security for the event. While Kafr Rumman residents may have different views“they all melt together in this commemoration,” said Abd al-Hamid Shukran, the town’s deputy mayor. “On love for Hussein, we agree.”

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