When I ask Abu Baqer if life is better after the overthrow of Saddam Hussein, he replies in Arabic “Al’yaani”, translating to “so so”.
“We had security when Saddam was in power. If you minded your own business and didn’t get involved in politics you were somewhat safe. These days roadside bombs & killings have made life difficult… anyone is a target.”
“But there’s more freedom, for example we now have satellite TV, Nokia cell phones and most importantly we have religious freedom…we are able to observe Arbaeen.” Abu Baqer adds.
Every year an estimated 10 million people mostly Shia pilgrims converge in Iraq’s southern city of Karbala for Arba’een ceremonies.
Arba’een (meaning 40) is a religious observation that occurs 40 days after the Day of Ashura, which commemorates the martyrdom of Imam Hussein, the grandson of the Prophet Mohammad. Hussein and 72 supporters died in the Battle of Karbala in the year 61 AH, killed by Yazid’s army.
The gathering is the biggest annual religious observation in the word and was banned during the former regime of Saddam Hussein.
However for the believers, Arba’een is more than a morning ceremony it is to keep the message of Hussein alive: sacrifice & justice.
Many pilgrims take months off work to travel to Karbala by foot from neighboring countries. The road that connects Najaf to Karbala is filled with makeshift rest area and tea stands to accommodate the pilgrims, all free of charge.
“ We will get our reward from Hussein.” Says one volunteer, as he hands out warm soup to the dedicated travelers.
I travelled to Karbala to co produce a segment for Ahlalbayt TV with the very talented Khalid Mohtaseb from Next Level Pictures. Khalid was contacted by the network to cover the event using his cinematic expertise & his eye for detail. Our team of 5 also included DP & photographer Timur Civan along with Ramie Faris & Ahmad Mohtaseb as camera assistants.
From the onset of our arrival the spirit of hospitality by our client and the Iraqi people was captivating. As we started our 16 hour bus ride from Najaf airport to Karbala (due to heavy traffic) I soon came to realize how receptive the Iraqis are to their guests.
The economy is far from vibrant, many have trouble putting food on the table and the country still faces power & water cuts 2-3 times a day. For many Iraqi’s life is more or less the same as it was 30 years ago, even 8 months after the formation of a new government.
However on the days leading to Arbaeen the residents of Karbala open their doors to the millions of visiting pilgrims. These ceremonies are about unity, sharing & the Shia pride.
One day before Arba’een as US trained Iraqi security forces patrolled the city, 2 roadside bombs exploded near Karbala, killing 25 people.
Many believed it was the work of Saddam Hussein’s former Baathist party members.
“If the government provides security we will not care about the politics in Baghdad.” A frustrated Iraqi woman said as she heard about the bombings.
Arba’een ceremonies proceeded.
With the somewhat withdrawal of US troops, the formation of an Iraqi government it’s easy to forget about Iraq. Iraq’s doors are now open to integration as a respected nation proud of it’s roots. Iraq has a long way to go but it has also come a long way.
“We don’t take anything for granted, we know what we have achieved, may Allah help us the rest of the way” Abu Baqer tells me as he takes a sip of Iraqi tea before he takes off to attend Friday Prayers at the Imam Hussein Shrine. A ritual he has been able to observe freely only since 2003.
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