On the plane that took me from Beirut to Baghdad, the chorus of chants humming “Ya Hussein” should have been a clue. But it wasn’t until after I arrived in Iraq that two friends there confirmed it to me: “Yes, it’s Arbaeen, the largest Shiite pilgrimage in the world. It takes place in a few days, on September 27. Should we go?” It was perfect timing, since that was also my birthday. And celebrating your 30th on a Shiite pilgrimage to Iraq – well that’s something!
The event, which was banned during the reign of Saddam Hussein (1979-2003), was subsequently the target of several deadly terrorist attacks by Daesh. Ever since the American invasion in 2003, the ranks of the faithful taking part in the pilgrimage have grown at a steady pace.
Arbaeen, which literally means “forty,” marks the end of a forty-day period of mourning in honor of Prophet Muhammad’s grandson, Al-Hussein ibn Ali, who was killed in 680, at the Battle of Kerbala, on a day called Ashura – because he refused to take an oath of allegiance to the tyrannical Caliph Yazid. Every year since then, for the past 1341 years, Shiite worshipers have traveled from all across Iraq and beyond to honor this sacrifice. Hussein’s death constitutes a pivotal event in the development of Shiite thought, and his willingness to stand up to oppression has made him an object of deep reverence.
And yet, this pilgrimage, which, pre-Covid, brought together more than 17 million pilgrims, and which is among the largest gatherings in the world, gets very little coverage in the Western media. Arbaeen is almost five times larger than the Hajj pilgrimage to Mecca, in Saudi Arabia; how is it that I had never seen images of this enormous gathering, then?
To address this disinterest from the West, Imam Hussein’s Holy Shrine office has stepped efforts to facilitate access to the international press. Transportation, accommodation, translators: everything was arranged for a foreign journalist to cover the event. I would even be entitled, I was told, to a local press card.
Before we embarked on our road trip, respectful attire was required: covering our hair, arms and legs, and, if possible, dressing in black. On the road from Baghdad to the holy city of Kerbala, I saw that the pilgrimage had already begun. Through the window, I admired the dense crowd trudging forward under the blazing sun: women, children, old people – all the different generations were there together. Floating above this moving mass were various black banners commemorating Ashura, while others represented the Shiite paramilitary militias of Hachd al-Chaabi, and of course there were the flags bearing the likeness of Imam Hussein – the one for whom the faithful mourned as they commemorated his tragic death, and, in so doing, reaffirmed their commitment to his ideals.
The traffic that clogged the highway created the perfect opportunity for us to get out of the car and closer to the effervescent spectacle around us: the stereos crackling with the chanting of various prayers, the scent of incense and amber blending in the air, the colored carts, pushed by the force of men, transporting old people and invalids, the photos of martyrs shimmering on the signs and abayas, and the cups and dishes offered by the faithful, clattering on silver platters. It was a veritable myriad of apricot juice, lemon teas and chicken shawarmas. This astonishing highway of open-air meals was dotted here and there with mawkeb (tents), rest areas, spaces for prayer and medical attention. There was something truly exhilarating about this turmoil and this generosity towards one another.
The march on this road to Kerbala set the tone: here, everyone offers and receives. The miles walked with millions of other faithful, eating the same food, sharing the same tents, or sleeping on the ground, were already part of this parenthesis where individualism is put aside in favor of a collective humility.
I arrived in Kerbala at night. The city, featuring tall palm trees throughout, was all lit up with red neon lights. There were also several security checkpoints to go through, a sign of a city still under high tension and protection. In this surreal setting, the faithful wandered around in all directions, some to go to the Holy Shrine, others to find their accommodations. Right then, I felt that I was looking at a swarming anthill on a human scale, as frantic as it was well organized.
We had arranged to stay with local residents of Kerbala at night: Zainab and Hassan, truly great hosts. Zainab loaned me her hijab and abaya, mandatory attire in this holy city of Iraq. She and her husband Hassan welcomed us like royalty, giving of their time and offering us traditional Iraqi dishes: masgouf (grilled fish), dolma (stuffed vegetables) and other Mesopotamian delicacies.
After we expressed our gratitude to them, Hassan replied, “No matter who knocks on my door, I will offer them hospitality. There is always a majlis and food to accommodate people passing through. And I know that if I were ever to find myself in need in another city in Iraq, I would be taken in like this as well.”
I couldn’t help thinking that if a stranger knocked on the door of a house in France, he would be more likely to be greeted with a good kick in the butt and a phone call to the police. What have we done with our civilization, growing so obsessed with fear of the other so as to forget the most basic rules of decorum? This wasn’t my first time taking part in a pilgrimage, or going to the holy places of various religions, but my experience in Karbala was overwhelming, given the scale and magnitude of the event.
To this day, Achoura and Arbaeen, commemorating the beginning and the end of this period of mourning, respectively, symbolize the struggle against oppression and injustices in reference to this historic event. The holy city continues to be the outlet for the sorrow of this sacrifice and the gratitude for this martyr who became a spiritual guide. Between tears and prayers, dances in trance and latmiyat (pounding on the chest), physical exaltation and spiritual strength, the city’s millions of faithful take part in this collective cathartic energy.
Swept up by this crowd that stretched out as far as the eye could see, I remember stopping to gaze out at the ocean of black abayas in front of me. There was something bewitching about what I was watching – until I realized that I too was part of that ocean. Covered by my black abaya, I too was a component of this human tide. It was the first time I had ever felt such a sensation: the sensation of being part of a moving, collective body, whose strength and thousand-year-old heritage was so much bigger than me.
And in fact, in this mass of people, anyone who strayed from the rule would be reminded of it. My friend, who had a few hairs sticking out of her hijab, was gently reprimanded by a passing grandmother – enough to wake us from our hypnosis with a smile. Apart from that incident, wearing the hijab provided a great opportunity to me, as a photographer. With the abaya, I donned the skin of a chameleon and it definitely helped me navigate around and inside the Holy Shrine with ease.
In the part of Imam Hussein’s mausoleum reserved for women, many devotees had come from abroad. From Iran of course, but also from the Gulf, Pakistan, and Afghanistan. My face with its Asian features was intriguing to many. What was a Lebanese-speaking Franco-Thai woman doing there? Curious and friendly gazes fell on me, and the more intrepid women asked me: “Where are you from? From France and Thailand? Oh, you came to the pilgrimage from Thailand!” Immediately, their faces would light up, delighted to meet someone who had come from so far away for the occasion. Before I had time to smile and shake my head, an old lady was already kissing my hands. I was so touched that I couldn’t bring myself to stop her in this gesture of affection, and internally asked forgiveness for this misunderstanding, under the starry dome of the mausoleum.
Inside the shrine, guards armed with feather dusters pointed the crowd in the right direction. They held up the colored objects, to the left, to the right, and patted them on the heads of those who were obstructing the way. I laughed at the sight of those objects, which seem so obsolete to me but which had succeeded in finding a new use there – until I myself received the fateful blow to the head… Despite the absurdity of the scene, it was also under this dome adorned with mosaics and mirrors that I had my most remarkable exchanges and moments of solemnity.
An Iraqi woman from Karbala, seeing that I was a foreigner, welcomed me in that space of meditation with these words: “You are welcome here, because this march is a spiritual march, and Arbaeen is without a doubt a revolution. It is a revolution to demonstrate that Islam is a religion of peace, love and caring for others. It’s a revolution, because here the poor can feed the rich, people disappointed in their own social situation can help the visitors. It is an occasion where one can witness doctors treating patients for free, and the sick assisting the able-bodied. It is an event where women walk with pride and dignity, despite their exhaustion.”
And then there was Batur, an Anglo-Iraqi teenager who lives in London and who described her experience of the pilgrimage in the following words: “I came to do Arbaeen for the first time. My fondest memory was the march from Najaf (the other holy city in the country) to Kerbala. People walking eighty kilometers together, and giving one another everything: shelter, food, massages to rest their tired bodies. It even made me cry. It teaches you to be patient, it teaches you to be kind to one another. We spent four days walking, sleeping partly at night, partly during the day, being fed and accommodated by the poor. It’s completely free, they save up to pay for it themselves. And it just makes you want to give back.”
The words exchanged with those women, the vectors of such humility and compassion, were perhaps one of the most beautiful messages of humanity with which to start my thirtieth year.
By Aline Deschamps
Aline Deschamps is a Beirut-based French-Thai photographer whose work is linked to issues of identity such as exile, migration and cultural heritage.
Find out more about Aline Deschamps on her website.