A soulful journey replete with emotions, spirituality and an unmitigated will.
Known outside as a cradle of Arab civilisation, the land of Arabian Nights, a country virtually floating on oil, Iraq has had a checkered history with its people torn apart by centuries of conflict and strife.
However, change is in the air. This change is more striking for anyone who has traveled there in the past.
The airport at Najaf al Ashraf, is busiest these days with nearly 100 flights arriving and taking off daily as this is the time of Arbaeen.
Arabeen, the 40th day of Ahsura and the end of annual mourning period observed for the martyrs of Karbala, has attained a religio-political significance for Iraq and the increasingly assertive Shia Muslims the world over, ever since sacred sites in the country were thrown open for public after the fall of Saddam Hussein in 2003.
Pilgrimage to Karbala and Najaf and other sacred places was prohibited by the regimes succeeding Umayyads. Abbasid caliph Al-Mutawakkil even leveled the sacred grave in 850-851 and persecuted any one visiting it.
During the Saddam regime, public mourning for Imam Hussain was a punishable offence. Shrines were under constant surveillance and mourning rituals an underground affair.
Feeling liberated from centuries of stranglehold, now millions of Iraqis, young and old, men and women walk all the way from Basra in south and Mosul in north to Karbala. But their journey is not without perils. Pilgrims tread the path braving suicide attacks and booby traps set up by Daesh and the likes that are desperately, though vainly, trying to stem the tide.
Undeterred, millions more flock to Karbala from outside Iraq. In 2016 Arbaeen was declared as the single largest annual human gathering on earth.
Besides Shias and Sunnis, Christian pastors holding the holy cross can be seen among the swarms of people walking, united to swear allegiance to a man who left an everlasting legacy 1400 years ago – one that would inspire many generations after his death.
Children waddle with parents, the elderly venture in wheelchairs, even the disabled hobble along, step by step, supported by nothing but crutches and an iron will to salute Hussain.
What draws them to this voyage? Is it love, or is it remorse that they could not come to the help of Hussain when he needed it the most.
Every poll post -1452 in number – from Najaf to Karbala now carries portraits of martyrs who sacrificed themselves defending the shrines of Hussain and his companions from marauders. A perpetual reminder for pilgrims from outside of an unflinching devotion of people for Hussain and the changed times they live in.
Moreover, the pilgrimage is a political statement. Here you have movakibs representing all major movements – be that Baseej of Iranian Revolutionary Guards, Lebanese Hezbollah or Yemen’s Ansarullah. A small number of Kashmiris too try to make their presence felt. Many among the foreign pilgrims, like Saudi and Bahraini citizens, risk arrests back home to be in Karbala.
Najaf, the bustling holy city where I began the three day journey on foot to Karbala, is testimony to cultural renaissance of Islam. Here lies the resting place of Ali ibn Abu Talib, Hussain’s father and guide. Adjacent to his sprawling shrine lies world’s largest cemetery, known as Wadi-us- Salam (Valley of Peace). From Adam, Hood, Sualeh and Noah, hundreds of prophets are resting here, so are Iraq’s new war heroes. What a place to be in! An endless number of graves dot the vast expanse. Devotees wish-mark their own gravesites here and scrabble through the dusty ground to locate Durr-e-Najaf, a precious transparent stone formed ‘miraculously’ of its clay during rains.
The walk from Najaf to Karbala (82 kilometers) is rapidly attaining an international recognition. A mesmerising journey through the desert is guaranteed to change your life.
Along the entire journey ‘Halabi Zowwaar, Halabi Hom’ (come pilgrim, come) is the call that one hears consistently. All doors lie open and there are people pleading with pilgrims to grace their homes. You can rest and charge up your phone and use washrooms.
Furthermore, large tents – mawqibs – pegged by the villagers to serve the zowwaar with an abundance of facilities and amenities are located at every few furlongs.
The menu virtually includes everything one can imagine of. Soup, falafel, haleem, rice and many other mutton dishes and plenty of fruit are in endless supply. Dates, like tea, are available literally at every 50 steps and normally kept in the middle of the road so as not to interrupt the cruising speed of the pilgrims and provide an opportunity of a quick pick – similar to when a marathon runner picks up a water bottle without coming to a halt.
Once the sunset nears, there are numerous tents to sleep in. Here you are provided with a mattress, pillow and very neat and cosy blankets.
ALTRUISM AND GENEROSITY
The currency to this walk is selflessness and kindheartedness. Every single volunteer you encounter will be more grateful to a visitor than the other and vice-versa, for it is the biggest honour to aid and attend to a zowwaar. Not so long ago, this practice would have invited the wrath of the secret services. In the changed times now, it’s not uncommon to see soldiers with folded hands at the service of zowwars of Hussain.
Everyone who has been on this walk has a story to tell. So here is mine. As I completed half the distance, tiredness began to slow my pace. A stocky Iraqi man grabbed me from the crowd and sat me on a bench. Speaking in Arabic, he began removing my shoes and socks and gently caressed my feet with warm water from a metal trough. I sat speechless and embarrassed that an elderly gentleman, a complete stranger, was massaging my feet. As I watched him smile and thank God for allowing him to wash my feet, all I could do was well up and kiss his forehead.
My three-day journey is filled with moments like this. There is absolutely no doubt Hussain is the man that warms every heart, and inspires people to new levels of compassion.
Approximately 80km, three days and hundreds of cups of tea later with tired legs and a heart bursting with emotion, the first sight of the illustrious golden dome of Hussain’s shrine brings joy, sadness, humility and honour, all amalgamated into a stream of tears, for the paradise on earth has been reached.