Saturday, February 19, 2005

Ashura in Canada

“I have learnt from Hussein how to be oppressed yet victorious”
– Mahatma Gandhi

The Muslim Union at my university have set up a table in the university center to commemorate Ashura and create awareness about the tragedy of Karbala. They did a good job in achieving their goal …I’m sure Gandhi’s quote on the stretched banner served as an effective attention-getter. Gandhi said that about Hussein? The passersby would wonder. Who is Hussein? The curious ones would ask. Mission accomplished.

This Muharram was my first time to attend the maatam in Canada or the “husseiniya” as they call it here. Going to the husseiniya was an interesting experience. It is not the place I would go to, however, to commemorate the death of Imam Hussein. I would rather listen to a speech by an articulate religious leader or read a well-written account of the tragedy than be surrounded by frantic women who, through their hysteric mourning behaviour, demote the great and deep meanings of the tragedy. It is clearly easier to cry than contemplate.

Pondering over the tragedy of Karbala and its modern-day implications is an important thing to be done by every Muslim, and although many Shia memorials are great and effective reminders of what happened in Karbala, I think the tragedy should be viewed independently of any ritualistic traditions people perform to commemorate it. I think the azza and all the processions are effective ways to evoke feelings about the tragedy, but there comes a certain point when they start rendering diminishing returns. There is always that point when the azza becomes over-dramatized and extremely pretentious taking away from the austerity of the occasion. The more force is applied and the more frantic the procession becomes, the less one feels connected and “tuned in” to the real story and the more he or she becomes engaged in the void and meaningless masochistic acts of self-injury.

So anyway, I went to the husseiniya because I thought it would be interesting to see how Muslims abroad commemorate Ashura. I wanted to find out whether there are any significant differences in the ritualistic aspects of the commemoration. To my surprise, there was quite a difference… at least in the women’s expression of grief. Most, if not all of the women in the husseiniya were weeping and wailing hysterically. But you see, I went to an Iraqi husseiniya and hysteria is not unexpected from Iraqi women…they are known to be a bit dramatic by the nature of their character. I suppose they’re weeping and wailing not only over the tragedy of Karbala but over the tragedy of their own lives as well. Many of the Iraqis in the maatam immigrated to Canada unwillingly, not in search for a better life as much as in refuge away from Saddam’s regime. The feeling of estrangement in a strange land far away from home just adds to their grief and sadness in an occasion like Ashura. Keeping that in mind, the situation was still very overwhelming to me and I felt a bit self-conscious being the only one in sight who was just sitting there quietly. This is part of the sheikh’s speech I managed to record. The sound is not very clear but if you listen carefully to the background you’d be able to hear the sound of the weeping women.

Back in Bahrain, it was different. The women in the maatam we used to go to would gather around quietly… listening to the “graaya” while gently clapping their hands on their thighs and chests. Some women would cry, others would try to suppress their tears… nothing being done, as far as I can remember, was an extreme irrational manifestation of grief. The women I saw yesterday, on the other hand, add a new dimension to grief-expression. After the sheikh finished reciting the story of Karbala, they lined up in a huge circle which took up the whole already-small space of the maatam, squeezing me and the handful of others who were not participating against the back walls of the room. Being the short and curious person I am (not a good combination when you’re amongst a crowd like this) I decided to strategically position myself atop the solitary chair in the corner of the room, taking thereby the risk of breaking one of its already crooked legs. After the circle was formed, the women started uttering their Husseini shrieks and hitting their chests and heads with all the strength and force their hands can produce. The scene was fantastical to say the least. I never knew there was a feminine equivalent to the men’s chest-beatings. The sound of the clapping you hear in this audio clip is the result of the women’s azza. In no time, their faces and chests turned red from the sheer pressure they were exerting on themselves. I was told that many women end up fainting after such an exhaustive mourning, thankfully, no one fainted last night.

Although the majority of the women were Iraqis, the husseiniya was relatively more diverse than the Lebanese, Kuwaiti (Bidoon), and Pakistani husseiniyas in the city. In addition to Iraqis, there was a diverse mix of Lebanese, Kuwaiti, Syrian, Iranian, Pakistani, Afghani, and Kurdish women. There was also a hybrid of Arab-African and Arab-Indian women in the group, making the scene all the more interesting for me. From among the crowd, an Afghani woman caught my attention. I’ve never seen Afghanis performing azza before- let alone Afghani women with exotic Hazara features. I therefore found it pretty interesting to see her performing azza the Iraqi way. The Hazaras of Afghanistan have Mongolian origins. They are supposedly the descendants of Genghis Khan’s army. Today, the majority of the Hazaras in Afghanistan are Shia Muslims. Because of her very distinctive Mongolian features, the Hazara woman in the husseiniya stood out form the crowd.. she almost appeared to me as an extract from a Mogul miniature painting… watching her yell “Ya Hussein” with a penetrating Dari accent and then hitting her forehead against the palms of her hands so forcefully made it even more surreal.

What a beautiful and diverse world we live in, I thought.

At around 1 or 2 am, we took the bus to return home. Guess what kind of people you’d find taking the bus late Friday night (early Saturday morning)? That’s right, drunk people. The unpleasant smell of beer and alcohol was suffocating me…it was hard to imagine that only few minutes earlier…I was around women in black mourning the death of Imam Hussein!


At 12:33 AM, Blogger Mahmood Al-Yousif said...


Didn't know they went for the Azza in this big a way for estranged and emigrant populations, in Canada of all places. Strange how people insist on taking all their cultural baggage where ever they go to, new or old.

It does allow them to maintain their identity as a group though.

At 6:57 AM, Blogger global soul said...

و أنتم كذلك..

There are big and active Shia communities all across Canada. Their religious celebrations and commemorations are no less fervent than what we have in the Muslim world. Men in the Husseiniya for example were even doing “haidar”. It is less gory than what you’d see in Muslims countries but it was haidar nonetheless with drums and cymbals too for the sound effects. I’ve also heard talks about plans of having azza processions in the downtown next year. I don’t know if that will ever happen!

At 9:05 AM, Blogger Chanad said...

They've actually been holding azza processions in midtown Manhattan for some 15 years now. Check out this link for a few pics from 2001. And I'm sure I read somewhere that they've been holding azza processions in Toronto also in the past few years.

Another interesting place is in Trinidad where ashura goes by the name of "Hosay" (from "Hussain"). It has been celebrated there since 1846 and has today become one of the biggest festivals on the island! I'll have some more about this in one of my upcoming posts.

At 5:23 AM, Blogger Bahrania said...

Did the iraqi women do the flailing hair thing??

At 1:27 PM, Blogger SillyBahrainiGirl said...

Amazing !

The matam, the Azza in downtown Manhattan and the Haidar.

I was reading this blog while I was chatting to a friend on the phone and I didn't like his comment... but
I will relay it nevertheless: "Of course they would allow Azza in the US.. they are friends with the Shia now."

Also, there are a lot of matams in Australia too!

At 8:19 PM, Blogger global soul said...

Oh! How come I forgot to mention the hair flailing part… it was the most conspicuous of all.

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I wish I could have been in the table set up by the Muslim Union in the university center you mention, I would have been very informative and inspiring!

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At 3:55 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Your experience was quite unique, the wailes and crying are an expression of love and devotion towards their Imam Hussein. I do not really think of it as wailing, or irrational behavior. It is a spiritual ritual one can only understand if they walked a mile in the shoes of a Shia. As a social scientist, I try to keep my world view a little more open to cultural practices rather than be arrogant or ethnocentric about it. These asserations and judgments that were obvioulsy not explored to a greater depth were a bit amateur and insulting. I think this only spreads stereotypes, misinformation and generalizations towards others of that religion. You were welcomed into some of the most intimate moments of their life and seemed to be treated with much respect. I would only hope that if you have that opportunity again to appreciate the invitation and not stab these women in the back by inuslting their religion or aim to humiliate them.


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