If one was to ask me what the atmosphere of Muharram was, I would – without hesitation – reply that it was one of grief, sorrow and a strange, unique energy that cannot be explained, only experienced. Until last year, that is. This year, from the sighting of the new moon that is its herald, this month of Husayn ibn Ali (a) has been something new, something other for me.
There is a prickle in my eye in the middle of the day, a scratching at the back of my throat while I put my baby to sleep for her nap, a great heaviness weighing down upon my shoulders when I walk with her on beautiful, warm, sunny afternoons. All these are familiar to me, I have felt them, as has any mourner in these days; the grief for Karbala springs on us at random moments, taking us by surprise when it comes outside of the mourning sessions at the mosque.
I remember going to the mosque every night surrounded by an electric anticipation of what lay ahead. The sermon itself would be different every year, but the eulogies, the lamentations, the traditions are not just familiar, but instinctive – a part of our very nature, something that calls to the deepest cores of our Selves, much as Imam Husayn (a) called out on the plains of Karbala for a helper. We cannot do anything except respond to it as moths do to a flame.
I would prepare for each of these ten nights, meditating beforehand, listening to latmiyya, envisioning scenes, creating a ‘mood’ for myself so that I could immerse myself fully into the aza, the mourning. I never realised how much of a luxury this was…
This year, I prepare for the nights by keeping track of what time my baby sleeps and when she naps. I try to make sure she has eaten enough because once we go to the mosque, all training and 18-month-old habits are left in the parking lot. I pack a bag with ‘essentials’ including a dozen varieties of snacks – just in case – although I know most of the effort is wasted because she won’t eat (except the food the other children have brought), she insists on grabbing at random water bottles while I keep waving hers under her nose, she wants to play with baby-rattles that she won’t give a second glance to at home instead of the age-and-place appropriate books and quiet toys I have brought along…
For the first time since I can recall going for Muharram gatherings, I have heard probably one 60 second snippet of the 40 min lecture. And if I expected my saving grace to be the ghamm, the eulogy at the end of the sermon that is its climax, then that has also been sabotaged. From the moment the lights are dimmed and the first tears begin to flow, my baby pulls at my handkerchief, clings to my neck and loudly wails: “Mummy hurt. Mummy, no cry” and then proceeds to shed copious tears of her own.
I have no clue how to deal with this and can only pray she gets used to it in the next day or so.
I look at her, this first experience for her of a commemoration that will one day be as much a part of her being (I pray) as it is of mine and of all the Lovers of the Ahlul Bayt (as). I wonder at the beauty of the journey from being a stranger to, then introduced, familiarised and finally falling in love with Husayn ibn Ali (a) and his companions. A journey each of us has taken and yet most of us take for granted. How did we reach where we are? By whose grace and with whose help? Who do we owe infinite gratitude to?
It doesn’t end there however.
I also used to be passionate about needing to act, to know what is going on in the world so I could be duly incensed. I would look at photos of victims of war and watch videos of destroyed regions to build up the fury required at such injustice to speak volubly on these issues. I could handle the fuel I needed to fire up my passion.
These days, one only has to mention Syria or Quetta or Iraq or Palestine and I feel my stomach turn. I can only glimpse at a photo of a blood-covered child on social media and never, ever, consider opening the articles for fear there will be more. A ‘more’ that I don’t think I can handle. Forget the fuel; I no longer have a fire burning inside me.
I am all ashes and burning embers and inevitably I come to the same conclusion: only my Awaited Imam (atfs) can fix this, only he can take away their pain and mine in the process. And yet I am too afraid to call on him to come soon because I know I am not ready for him, which leads me to wonder at my own selfishness even in times as dire as these.
All of this brings me right back to Karbala and I have to ask myself: if I can consider a delay in the coming of the Saviour because I haven’t made the effort to be ready for him, then really, can I lie to myself and say I would have been on the side of Imam Husayn (a) on Ashura without a doubt? Would I even have come when he called like Hurr did or would I have been an Umar al-Saad – all talk and no action?
I have never felt so many different emotions at one time over one matter. I am split between wanting to cry when I hear the heart-rending words of a particularly emotional marsiya or nawha and feeling a deep joy when I see my daughter raise her hands in matam for that same poem. I am torn between revelling in the wondrous beauty of God in the amazing environment I am in – blue skies, green trees, open spaces, cool breezes – and wondering at the beauty Zaynab bint Ali (a) saw amidst blood, pain, suffering and tears.
I see my daughter make a new connection, learn a new word, hold out her arms for a hug, laughing simply because I am there and even as I wrap my arms around her, I cannot help but think of all the children in the world – victims of war, famine, abuse and other twisted evils – whose instinct is also to reach out for a loving pair of arms, but who are alone, lost and confused and when they come to mind, I am reminded of the children of Karbala: starving, parched, witnesses to the massacre of their fathers and uncles, oppressed, beaten, and trampled beneath the camel hooves along the road to Kufa and Shaam.
Past, present and future all blend into one in these moments and I am overwhelmed by what to feel. Is my daughter any more precious or special than other children simply because she’s mine? We are blessed that God chose not to test us with disability, illness or circumstance – that is all. Are the innocent, oppressed children in the world to be divided into those in the Middle East and those elsewhere? Muslim and non-Muslim? War victims or social abuse victims? Does a child hurting in Syria deserve more sympathy than a child cowering in the corner of a small room somewhere in England, waiting to be sold off on the human-slave market? Were the children in Karbala any less child-like because they came from a noble family? We often make the mistake of thinking of Sakina bint Husayn (a) as an adult because of her speech and manners, but was she not still a 4 year old, with all the innocence, trust, faith and love that only a child of that age can possess?
When I put all this together, I feel that we deserve the Wrath of God upon us: not just those commit evil, but also those of us who are silent at it, who don’t do more – who don’t do all that is in our power – to save these children as if they were our own.
I can find no excuse – not one – for myself. That is why I am sitting here, writing this. Because words don’t seem to be enough, but they are the only thing I have at this moment and if I was to die on this night, I can at least say, I made an attempt to begin a journey even if I haven’t figured out where I’m headed and what I want to achieve.
This Muharram, I may not be shrouded in a cloak of uninterrupted grief as I have been before, but I am stabbed at irregular intervals by sharp daggers that hook their barbed blades deep into my heart causing indescribable pain and if I pull them out by force, they leave behind ragged tears that leak out an intense, restless darkness whose source I cannot explain.
The traditions tell us that the tears we shed in Muharram for Husayn ibn Ali (a) act as a balm for the grieving heart of his mother, the Lady of Light, Fatimah al-Zahra (a). Maybe if I am lucky, the unshed tears that my daughter prevents from escaping will be the same for my tattered soul.