KNOWN outside as a cradle of Arab civilisation, the land of Arabian Nights, a country virtually floating on oil, Iraq has had a chequered history with its people torn apart by centuries of conflict and strife.
However change is in the air. This change is more striking for anyone who has traveled there in the past.
The airport at Najaf al Ashraf, is busiest these days with nearly 100 flights arriving and taking off daily as this is the time of Arbaeen.
Arabeen, 40th day of Ahsura and the end of annual mourning period for the martyrs of Karbala has attained a religio-political significance for Iraq and the increasingly assertive Shia Muslims the world over, ever since sacred sites in the country were thrown open for public after the fall of Saddam Hussein in 2003.
Pilgrimage to Karbala and Najaf and other sacred places was prohibited by the regimes succeeding Umayyads who perpetrated the tragedy of Karbala. Abbasid caliph Al-Mutawakkil even levelled the sacred grave in 850-851 and persecuted anyone visiting it.
During the Saddam regime public mourning for Imam Hussain was a punishable offence. Shrines were under constant surveillance and mourning rituals an underground affair.
Feeling liberated from centuries of stranglehold, now millions of Iraqis, young and old, men and women walk all the way from Basra in south and Mosul in north to Karbala. But their journey is not without perils. Pilgrims tread the path braving suicide attacks and booby traps set up by Daesh and likes who are desperately but vainly trying to stem the tide.
Undeterred, millions more flock to Karbala from outside Iraq. In 2016 Arbaeen was declared as the single largest annual human gathering on earth.
Besides Shia’s and Sunnis, Christian pastors holding the holy cross can be seen among the swarms of people walking united, to pay allegiance to a man who left an everlasting legacy 1400 years ago – one that would inspire many generations after his death.
Children waddle with parents, the elderly venture in wheelchairs – even the disabled hobble along, step-by-step, supported by nothing but crutches and an iron will to voyage to salute Hussain.
What draws them to this voyage? Is it love, or is it remorse that they could not come to the help of Hussain when he needed it most.
Every poll post,1452 in number, from Najaf to Karbala now carry portraits of martyrs who sacrificed themselves defending the shrines of Hussain and his companions from marauders. A perpetual reminder for pilgrims from outside of an unflinching devotion of people for Hussain and changed time they live in.
Moreover the pilgrimage is a political statement. Here you have movakibs representing all major movements from Baseej of Iranian Revolutionary Guards, to Lebanese Hezbollah to Yemen’s Ansarullah. Small number of Kashmiris too try to make their presence felt. Many among the foreign pilgrims, like Saudi and Bahraini citizens, risk arrests back home to be in Karbala.
Back in Najaf the holy city, where we began the three day journey on foot for Karbala, the bustling city is testimony to cultural renaissance of Islam. Here lies the resting place of Ali ibn Abu Talib, Hussain’s father and guide. Adjacent to his sprawling shrine lies the world’s largest cemetery, known as Wadi-us- Salam (Valley of Peace). From Adam, Hood, Sualeh and Noah, hundreds of God’s prophets are resting here, so are Iraq’s new war heroes. What a place to be. An endless number of graves dot the vast expanse. Devout wish mark their own gravesites here and scrabble through the dusty ground to locate a Durre-Najaf, a precious transparent stone formed ‘miraculously’ of its clay during rains.
Walk from Najaf to Karbala (82 kilometers) is rapidly gaining international recognition. A mesmerising journey through the desert is guaranteed to change your life.
Along the entire journey “Halabi Zowwaar, Halabi Hom” (welcome pilgrim welcome) is the ‘call’ that one hears consistently. All doors lie open and there are people pleading with pilgrims to grace their homes. You can rest and charge up your phone, shower and use washrooms.
Furthermore, large tents called mawqibs established by the villagers to serve the zowwaar with an abundance of facilities and amenities are located at every few furlongs.
The menu virtually includes every thing one can imagine. Soup, falafel, haleem, rice and mutton dishes and plenty of fruit are in endless supply. Dates, like tea are available literally at every 50steps and normally kept in the middle of the road so as not to interrupt the cruising speed of the pilgrims and provide an opportunity of a quick pick – something like the marathon runners who pick up water without pausing.
Once sunset nears there are numerous tents to sleep in. Here you are provided with a mattress, pillow and very neat and cosy blankets.
SERVITUDE & KINDHEARTEDNESS
The currency on this walk is servitude and kind-heartedness. Every single volunteer you encounter will be more grateful to the visitor than vice-versa, for it is the biggest honour to aid and attend to the zowwaar, they once were afraid of attending to for fear of prosecution by the secret service.In the changed times it’s not uncommon to see soldiers with folded hands at the service of Zowwars of Hussain.
Everyone who has been on this walk will have a story to tell you, so allow me to share with you one. As I completed half the distance tiredness began to slow my pace and perhaps it was showing on me. A stocky Iraqi man grabbed me from the crowd and made me sit on a bench. Speaking in Arabic, he began removing my shoes and socks for me and gently caressed warm water in a metal trough on my feet whilst massaging them. I sat speechless and embarrassed that an elder was doing this for me. As I watched him smile and thank God for allowing him to wash my feet, I could only well up with tears and kiss his forehead.
The three-day journey is filled with moments like this, whereby there is absolutely no doubt that Hussain is a man that warms every heart, and inspires people to new heights of compassion.
Approximately 80km, three days and hundreds of cups of tea later, with tired legs, and a heart bursting with emotion, the first sight of the illustrious, golden dome of Hussain’s shrine brings joy, sadness, humility and honour all amalgamate into a stream of tears, for paradise on earth has been reached.
Though the shrine city retains spiritual splendour despite centuries of neglect the fear of commercialisation of the pilgrimage by the unscrupulous hoteliers and traders here breaks many hearts too. The signs are ominous along the road which leads to the river Euphrates. The phrase nearer the mosque, the farther from God befits traders of Karbala who were popularised in Kashmir as ‘Karbalahaek Monjgear” by veteran leader Maulana Abbas Ansari way back in sixties.
However the silver lining is that the board managing the shrines plans to remove all encroachments of the past and restore Maidan-e-Karbala to its original size. The work is in progress.
Sajjad Haider is Editor-in-Chief of Kashmir Observer. The article first appeared in The Newsline magazine in 2018.
NAJAF -TO-KARBALA WALKING GUIDE
Total Distance: 80 Km
Total Number of Poles: 1452 Poles
Distance Between Each Poles: 50 meters [20 Poles = 1 Km]
Approx. Walking Time Required: 20 to 25 hours
Estimated Time to Reach the Destination: 2-3 Days
Preferred Start Time: 17th Safar – After Fajr – 6:45 AM
Expected Completion Time (InshaAllah): 19th Safar – Dhuhr – 12 PM
Who Can Do This?: Anyone (Male/Female/Families)
Take an Exit from Imam Ali (AS) Haram from Bab-e-Tousi (Opposite to Bab-e-Qibla) and start walking straight on Shahra-e-Tousi – After about 500 meters, Wadi-us-Salam Cemetry will start – Keep walking straight and you will eventually get to the Highway, turn left, where hundreds of thousands of people will be walking towards Karbala – Join them and you will reach Haram of Hazrat Abbas (A.S) after about 80 Km. at Pole # 1452.
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