In few weeks, London will celebrate Halloween, then the decoration will be put down for Christmas. Premature Christmas decorations, though annoys some people who are saying no to these commercial and marketing strategies, I find them to help in setting the mood for the holidays season and add some warmth to the cold city.
When the Christmas lights brightens London's Oxford St or the Piccadilly, I often think of my home town and a comparison becomes inevitable. London does not waste any occasion to celebrate joy, life and love, starting with Halloween, Christmas and Valentine. Baghdad, and most of Iraq, wastes no occasion to celebrate death.
As if the daily bombings and constant conflicts on the Iraqi soil are not enough to remind Iraqis of their inescapable fate to die; as if it is not enough that a new black sign is added to announce the death of a beloved. Iraqis dig for more to mourn, more reasons to add more black flags in the streets. In this time of the year, all Baghdad would be wrapped in black flag to commemorate the death of Hussein.
After 2003, when Shia, who appeared to be the majority of Iraqis living in the middle and south of Iraq, started to enjoy the freedom of self-expression denied to them by the Baathist regime, Ashura started to feel and look different from what it used to be in the 1980s and 90s. It simply became politicized and identity marker that was unnecessarily emphasized.
I belong to Shia family. I spent 6 years in Babel before we moved permanently to Baghdad. in Both places, our neighbours were mixture of Muslims and Christians, Sunni and Shia, Arabs and Kurds. But again, at that time these ethno-sectarian identities were not part of any conversation.
Before I realized that my family were Shia, we used to observe Ashura, but so all our neighbours in Babel and Baghdad. Ashura at the time was simple and warm. Families would cook large amounts of food and distributed to around the neighbourhood. Some would cook harisa
Or they cook qeema and rice
Which is my favorite.
I used to spend the 9th day of Muharam carrying a small pot, searching which house in the street would be cooking. I wanted to be the first of my friends to get a share of the newly cooked food.
My favourite Ashura ritual was staying awake from 12 am till next morning between 9-10 of Muharam, which we used to call ‘hija’, pilgrimage. In this context, it used to mean pilgrimage of the night. The exciting thing was that my sisters and I would be staying in the street playing with other kids, while our mothers would gather around one house and drink tea and cookies. The one who served them the tea and cookies had vowed to serve this simple meal because she prayed for something, either the return of a beloved safely from the battlefield, which was a common prayer during the Iraq-Iran war, or a woman deprived of the joy of motherhood would pray for Al Abas to have a baby.
It was the only night around the year where it was safe to go around. My mother would not ask us even to be careful. She was pretty sure that we were safe.
I never associated Ashura with mourning, or sad event. For me Ashura was the time to be free, too much playing and tasty food that we didn’t cook in any other occasion.
Today this joy does not exist anymore. Ashura rituals start immediately after the celebrating the New Islamic year. Black flags would shroud Baghdad; tents serving tea and lemon tea would play poems recited through loud speakers for everyone to hear, even if they don’t want to listen to; streets would be blocked because apparently Shia like to march on foot to Karbala, where the Martyrdom took place fourteen century ago. Life is disrupted during that week, and the only activity to be done is mourning.
Today few people do ‘hija’, few children would stay awake all night playing and exchanging stories the way we used to do. Food is abundant, but it is no longer as tasty. Ashura has become those days of continuous mourning and wailing. They are those days which heavily pass that they seem to linger weeks and months, rather than just days.
In London, today, no one knows why they are celebrating Halloween, Christmas or Valentine, but these celebrations become part of their cultures; celebrating them has nothing to do with being devout Christian, but part of giving oneself the time to enjoy the festivities. However, big companies profit from these celebrations and thus they need to support and increase their investments in these occasions. Every store in Oxford St has to hang on Christmas lights to attract customers, or exhibit red teddies and flowers. It has become commercial and politicized, but at least it is still joyful and warm.
Ashura also has its own patrons, who like to keep the newly developed rituals continue, and to have it as marker of identity. Politicians, Shia clerics in Najaf, and even businessmen need to keep these rituals going and expanding. However, these rituals have become shrouded with death and mourning.
Nadia Fayidh Mohammed