For centuries, Iraqis have turned to religion and ritual to console themselves from wars and the dead. This year, with the pandemic and the deaths of hundreds of young protesters, the pilgrimage of mourning makes more sense than ever.
From September to October, Shiite pilgrimages take place in the holy cities of Iraq.
The Ashura, which commemorates the martyrdom of Imam Hussein during a battle in Kerbala in the 7th century, has already been celebrated and 40 days later, Arbain will mark the end of the mourning for the death of this grandson of the prophet who founded Shi’ism.
From Kerbala in 680 to Baghdad in 2020, “Iraq has suffered so much misery, from war to torture, through jail or forced exodus, and now the coronavirus,” laments Sheikh Hasan Zakeri, a member of the Shiite clergy.
“Making our pilgrimage, carrying all our concerns, our tragedies and our needs, we cried,” he explained to AFP.
The rituals of flagellations and pilgrims who beat their chests or smear themselves with ash every year arouse curiosity abroad.
“It is the first stage for our prayers to be heard.”
– “He has never experienced joy” –
In the past century alone, Iraq has seen it all: bloody coups, endless wars, interfaith violence, jihadist attacks and civil war.
The violence has driven hundreds of thousands of Iraqis to flight. Those who stayed learned to cope with power outages, medicine shortages and the collapse of the education system.
At 31 years old, Mohamed al Karbalaie, is categorical. “Iraq is a sad country. From the time of Saddam (Hussein) until today, we have never experienced joy,” says this man who recites funeral eulogies to Shi’ite figures during the pilgrimage in Kerbala (center).
To the sound of the drums of percussionists dressed in black, dressed in turbans and baggy pants, it tells of the martyrdom of Imam Hussein and his followers killed by the Caliph Yazid. According to him, the message of Shi’ism is summarized as follows: the revolt against injustice.
“People feel injustice but in the end, they see that good always prevails throughout history,” he says. In each popular revolt, the protesters present themselves as the new Husseins fighting the Yazid of the moment.
This year, amid the processions of pilgrims, some brandished photos of their “martyrs”, the nearly 600 protesters killed since last October while calling for the leaders, whom they call corrupt and incompetent, to be held accountable.
“The remedy for these injuries is Imam Hussein,” says Karbalaie.
– “Different”, “exceptional” –
To these griefs are added those of the relatives of the more than 8,000 Iraqis who died from the new coronavirus.
With more than 300,000 officially registered cases, Baghdad this year banned foreign pilgrims (millions of them usually come from Iran, the country hardest hit by the epidemic in the Middle East) and called on Iraqis to avoid the crowds.
It has been of little use. To answer the call of Imam Hussein, as they say, tens of thousands of people gathered under the golden domes of his mausoleum in Kerbala.
And for the Arbain still more is expected.
“This year is exceptional due to the virus,” acknowledges Riyad Salman, in charge of rituals in the mausoleums of Kerbala.
And in an exceptional year nothing is the same. Salman had to abandon his plans. Gone are the thousands of prayer sessions he organized each year. This time he mobilized his 30,000 employees to distribute masks, take the temperature of thousands of pilgrims and spray the crowd with disinfectant.
“It was different. And a bit frustrating,” he says. But necessary, add immediately.
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