It all started over a few drinks at a private party in an underground venue in Beirut. I was talking to Tres about a couple of upcoming projects when he mentioned he was going down to Nabatieh for Ashoora with a reporter that has worked with Vice before, Martin. I didn’t give it much thought that night (thank you gin & tonic) but the next day, I called up Tres and asked if they needed a ride and a fixer, and a few minutes later, we were preparing our trip down to Southern Lebanon down to one of the only towns in the world that still practices the infamous self-chastization Shia muslims engage in to remember the fall of Hussein.
Hussein was the ‘son of the daughter of the Prophet’ and in October of 680AD (61H) him and 71 of his most loyal followers were killed by an army that’s said to have numbered in the tens of thousands. After the passing of Mohammed, the line of succession was not clearly defined. Some of his followers wanted it to stay within the Prophet’s bloodline, others believed it should be handled by his closest companions.
Hussein and his followers refused to submit to the Caliph Yazid at the time and pay him allegiance, and a fierce battle resulted in the death of the Imam and all his male companions, and all the women were taken as prisoners to Damascus. That event solidified the schism between Shia and Sunni muslims some 1300 years ago, and ever since then, Shia muslims commemorate the fall of their Imam Hussein on the 10th day of the month of Muharram (hence the name “3ashoora” which comes from “3ashra” which is “10″ in Arabic)
The Experience in Nabatieh
We left Beirut early, and I picked up Tres, Martin and Olivia from Gemmayzeh. The drive took less than we expected since today was a national holiday in Lebanon and most people were still recovering from their nights out. Picturesque town after picturesque town, we finally made it to Nabatieh, where black, white, red and green flags with Arabic calligraphy that reads “Ya Hussain” or “Ah Ya Zainab” or “Ashoura” with painted images of Hussein, his brother Hassan and the Al-Aqsa mosque fluttered from electricity poles, buildings, cars, buses and even cranes.
That’s when I saw the self-flagellation procession pass by, chanting “Haidar! Haidar!” in unison with a backdrop of a man’s very deep voice reading what happened on that fateful day 1300 years ago. Despite the shocking sight of bloodied faces of men waving machetes in the air, my attention kept reverting back to the voice on the massive speakers, who despite its imposing depth and perfect articulation, stopped bellowing every now and then and struggled to keep reading while sobbing at the intensity of the story.
We made a full circle around the square, into narrow streets with traditional Lebanese buildings decorated with Ashoora banners and flags. Processions were different when it comes to size, flags, numbers and whether or not they cut their scalps. Also, many men in those processions did not bloody themselves, but instead sufficed with chanting in unison and tapping their chests rhythmically.
It was the interest in the men that did bloody themselves though, that led us to find out that the large knives and swords aren’t the tools they use to cut, but a straight razor (mousse) which is sterilized before making a small incision on the frontal part of one’s scalp. So, for the most part, it’s not as extreme as the blood makes it look. But, some folks do faint, and there were well over a hundred Red Cross paramedics there that treated anywhere from 600 to a thousand people.
The bloody heads and hands with the white sheets the men in the procession wear was a bit intense, and despite seeing photos of this many times, it was quite different live. After hours of going round and round the square, with thousands of men and even some women participating in the bloody processions, the asphalt turns red, and it literally was a river of blood by noon. The blood spatter in the air every time the men hit their heads and the unmistakable and sometimes pungent metallic, copper-like smell of coagulating blood, was surreal.
Then, at around 11, the reenactment began, and it was quite a spectacle. Over a dozen horses and several camels with anywhere between 60 and 80 actors played out the events leading up to the battle, Imam Hussein’s death, and the aftermath. The epic voice recordings were played out to the dot, and the horses, outfits, battle scenes and sound effects gave the historical and religious event justice in my opinion. It was also nice hearing the story of Hussein and his followers and enemies, something non-Shia folks rarely know properly (myself included).
Throughout the 90 minute reenactment though, the processions continued without fail, and I was amazed at how these men, often very young, could last so long, walking marathon distances while self-inflicting pain on themselves every step of the way.
You’d think the mood would be gloomy and austere, but relaxed would be a better word to describe it. It was a day out with the family for many, who put their toddlers on the horses and camels and posed for photos taken with their iPads. It wasn’t military-like precision and security. It wasn’t a well-rehearsed, ultra-controlled series of events like many folks might imagine. No one paid much attention to us, but they didn’t mind us taking photos and asking questions. It also seemed like no one was organizing it, but that everyone knew what they had to do and where they had to be.
All in all, the experience was a powerful one for me. I never imagined I’d take part in Ashoora and experience it firsthand like today. My shoes, my hands and my clothes had drops of blood on them. It was awe-inspiring to see such a tradition live, which many of us hear about and never really see live. It was amazing also meeting the people, finding out most of them are normal folks with that one day of what someone not familiar with the traditions would see as odd, even “barbaric” behavior.
Most Shia religious figures condemn this practice. Even Hezbollah strongly opposes it. That’s why today, Hezbollah were present only in the security aspect, and throughout the whole processions, reenactment and town square, we didn’t see a single sheikh or religious figure. So, my take-home message was that this bloody event is more of a layman’s tradition than a disciplined religious rite.
Kids. These are the most disturbing images of Ashoora. Bloody, tiny and sometimes scared faces of infants and toddlers. I, and I’m sure many of you, feel outraged at seeing that. But then again, Jews and Christians do the same thing to their kids, whether it’s dunking them underwater, or circumcising them, both are not choices of the child/infant, and they hurt. Also, teenagers I spoke to were proud they’ve been doing it since they were kids, and assured us they’re going to keep doing it and that more people should. So, I guess it’s one of those irrational religious practices that parents force down onto their kids, but which the kids often grow up happy with (unfortunately).
My Personal Thoughts and A Boost of Serotonin
Personally, my atheistic views are well publicized, and most religious practices to me seem irrational. But, I am also a libertarian, and I firmly believe that people can do whatever they feel like with their own bodies. I might never do it myself, but I can’t condemn a person who does, and neither should you as believers of other faiths. Christians in the Philippines crucify themselves, Jews, Buddhists and many other faithful folks chastise themselves too in sometimes incomprehensibly violent and cruel methods. But, it is not representative of the whole faith. An overwhelming majority of Shias would never do this, and even condemn it. Just like a Christian might cringe at the idea that people actually get crucified on Easter. I still think doing it to kids is not OK, and would much rather wait for the kids to grow up and decide for themselves if they want to engage in that tradition or not. That is the one thing I hated about today, and doubt I’ll ever come to terms with inflicting an injury on a kid (no matter what the faith).
As for most Shias condemning this tradition, the fact is the numbers of people bloodying themselves are getting less and less, and a more noble, acceptable and well-respected trend is gaining more and more traction. For decades, Shias have been encouraged to donate blood on Ashoora instead of spilling it on the streets and hurting themselves. You can see in Dahyeh and several other places, even today in Nabatieh, many faithful donating blood, and I think that’s an amazing and modern interpretation that I am sure fits better with Hussein’s legacy. It shows compassion for your fellow man, it shows sacrifice for willing to stick a needle in your forearm and give a part of yourself to someone and shows courage for standing up and saying no to age-old traditions and doing the thing you feel is right.
This year, I am extremely proud to announce that thanks to a joint effort between DSC Lebanon and Who is Hussain, ninety two bags of blood were donated in less than 3 hours: a new record for us at DSC! So, thank you to everyone who donated today, and I hope more and more people will do that in the years to come!