Al-Ahram Weekly Online   11 - 17 March 2004
Issue No. 681
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Shi'ism or schism

The Ashura in Nabatiya was more than a re-enactment of a centuries old tragedy. Political undercurrents were rife, writes Mustafa El-Labbad

The predominantly Shia city of Nabatiya in southern Lebanon has just celebrated Ashura, the annual commemoration of the murder of Hussein, son of Ali and grandson of the Prophet. Hussein is venerated by the "Twelver" Shia as third in the succession of the twelve imams they recognise as inheritors of the spiritual leadership of the Muslim community after the Prophet.

For the Shia in general Ashura is a rite of adoration, bloodshed and communal memory. It is a declaration of loyalty to the descendants of the Prophet who were killed in the battle of Karbala. The processions of flagellants and the blood they shed proclaim the innocence of those killed all those centuries ago. However, the point of the rite is not to bleed to death but to attest to the Shia's readiness for self-sacrifice in defence of an oppressed community. One could indeed argue that the long history of Shia persecution at the hands of ruling authorities started at the battle of Karbala that placed the Shia in opposition to the Sunni majority in most Islamic nations.

Shia is the largest religious group in Lebanon. Although conditions have improved since the Taif agreement in the early 1990s brought an end to the Lebanese civil war, many are still dissatisfied with the share they have in denominational arrangements in the Lebanese government.

Within the Shias themselves there is further division. Since it was founded, Hizbullah has posed a radical challenge to traditional Shi'ism in Lebanon, both in terms of ideology and denominational leadership. This year has seen the rise of the Lebanese Hizbullah to new heights of power following its success in liberating Lebanese detainees in Israel in accordance with the recent prisoner exchange deal struck with Tel Aviv.

The rifts and contradictions in the Lebanese Shia community were epitomised in the recent Ashura festivities, on the one hand celebrated by Hizbullah and its supporters in southern Beirut, which also has a large Shia population, and on the other, in the celebrations in Nabatiya. The rivalry between the "two Ashuras" was made explicit, not just in Hizbullah's announcement of its venue, but in the speech by the party's Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah who, in an implicit criticism of the flagellation rites, asked Shia followers to donate their blood rather than shedding it for no purpose. In addition, the Hizbullah-owned Manar television station, which featured live coverage of the celebrations in Beirut and Karbala in Iraq, made no reference to the concurrent festivities in Nabatiya, which is also the base of the Amal resistance movement headed by Speaker of Parliament Nabih Berri . Berri's position in Nabatiya is evidenced in the many Amal posters alongside the traditional banners marking the Ashura celebrations.

It was a national holiday as we set off from Beirut bound for Nabatiya and all government offices were closed. The Lebanese denominational mosaic was readily apparent as we drove south, parallel to the coast. In Khalda, a predominately Druze city, there were no signs of processions of Shia mourners, as was the case in predominantly Sunni Sidon. Three-quarters of an hour into the trip, however, we veered inland towards Nabatiya, where all were clad in black, including ourselves, strangers to the city.

As we approached the city we could hear the escalating chant of a single reverberating refrain: "Haidar! Haidar! Haidar!" This is another name for Imam Ali, cousin of the Prophet, husband of the Prophet's daughter Fatima, the first of the 12 Shia imams and the father of Imam Hussein. Islamic lore has it that Ali was the most courageous of the Prophet's followers who nicknamed him "Haidar" (Lion).

Everywhere we went we saw processions of 12 men, dressed in white, slashing themselves with swords and blades. The white attire is a symbol of their willingness to sacrifice their lives -- white being the colour of the shroud -- and the blood that now stained it a token of adoration and grief for Hussein and his family members who were slain. Nor could one miss the many Lebanese Red Cross ambulances and personnel on hand to rescue worshippers who suffered haemorrhaging as a result of their excessive zeal.

This year's celebrations in Ahura featured a new spectacle: a re-enactment of the Shia version of the battle of Karbala, staged in the city's football stadium. As though to confirm its independence from Hizbullah, the Amal sponsors of the performance in Nabatiya engaged the director Raif Khouri, a Christian, to produce it. Before the play began, the stadium microphone blared out the customary Shia supplications for this occasion, but heavily interspersed with Amal slogans. Towards the end of his recitations, the announcer invoked a prayer for Ayatollah Sayed Ali Sistani, "Spiritual Commander of the Shia", epitomising Amal's political and ideological rift with Hizbullah, which recognises the Spiritual Guide of the Islamic Republic of Iran, Al-Sayed Ali Khamenei as the Shia spiritual leader.

The only refuge from the sight of blood-soaked flagellants and the ubiquitous stench was the football stadium, where we sat and waited for the re- enactment of the ancient tragedy to begin. Supporters of Hussein and the House of the Prophet were dressed in white. They numbered no more than 40 against what seemed like thousands of soldiers fighting for the Ummayid Caliph. The spectacle was completed with Arabian horses and period costumes and weaponry.

The battle that was about to unfold epitomized what the Shia perceived as the confrontation between the faithful and the heretics. It was also the battle over political power, as represented in the office of the Caliph. On the one side, Hussein ibn Ali claimed the right to inherit the caliphate from his father, Imam Ali, cousin and son-in-law of the Prophet, supported by the Prophet's tribe. Against him was the caliphate led by Yazid ibn Muawiya.

Simultaneously, Hussein championed the poor Bedouins of the desert and the Ummayid Caliph, the wealthy merchants of the city. He refused to cave in to the balance of power skewed so heavily against him. As he proceeded to Iraq, he and his party were besieged in the area of Karbala. With him were his children, the children of his brother Hassan, the Shia's second Imam, his sister Zeinab and some relatives and supporters. Even against such overwhelming odds, Hussein refused to surrender. Fighting erupted and culminated in Hussein being beheaded.

The production did not reach its dramatic climax swiftly. Spectators were prepared for the denouement over the course of two hours through a succession of exchanges between Hussein and his supporters ready to lay down their lives on his behalf, and between Hussein and the forces besieging his camp. The audience, gripped throughout by dialogue amplified over a loudspeaker, was moved to tears towards the end by the elegy to Hussein, attributed to Zeinab, and the verses that follow the death of each member of his group.

As one returns to the present one cannot help but feel the melancholy weight of Karbala. It is the weight of a feud carried down through history and the memory of a tragedy that has rendered "every place on earth Karbala and every day Ashura," as Shias believe.

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