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Every year the Shia Muslims commemorate the martyrdom of Imam Hussein. For ten days the people mourn the death of the Imam, his family and followers. They wear black, attend meetings and carry out processions to express their grief.

To the Shia Muslims around the world Muharram is like a season-dark, somber and sacred. The colour of the season is black. For Muharram is the month of mourning. For the first ten days of Muharram, which begins this year on July 13, Muslims gather in mosques and shrines, in mosques and shrines, dressed in black to mourn for Imam Hussein, grandson of the Prophet Muhammed who was slain with his family and followers in the battle of Karbala in the year 680. Islamic history recounts that Hussein with a band of seventy-two came to deliver Iraq from the pretender. They came under siege by the Ommayad army of Yazid and were deprived of food and water for the first ten days of the month. On the tenth, known as the day of Ashura, Hussein was killed. “One by one the defenders fell,” writes Amer Ali, a historian of this century. “Until at last there remained the grandson of the Prophet. Wounded and dying, the dragged himself to the riverside for a last drink; they turned him off with arrows from there. As he re-entered his tent he took his infant child in his arms; him they transfixed with a dart; he lifted his hands to the heavens-they were full of blood… (after he died) they cut off his head, trampled on his body…. They carried the martyr’s head to the castle of Kufa, and the inhuman Obaidullah struck in on the mouth with a cane.” The story of Hussein’s martyrdom is told in parts during the first days of Muharram, in gatherings known as majlises where the Shias gather, dressed in black. During these ten days hundreds of thousands of Muslims converge on Karbala and Najaf in Iraq where rest the shrines of Hussein and Ali, his father. Others take to the streets, beating their chests and chanting the tragedy, in Iran, Kuwait, Lebanon, parts of Saudi Arabia, in Azerbaijan in the Soviet Union and in our own cities, most vehemently in Bombay, Luckhnow and Hyderabad. Islam zinda hota hai hur Karbala ke baad is a chant that rings in the gatherings of Shias everywhere.

It was in Karbala where Hussein fought his last battle and died. “Put your trust in God and know that man is born to die, and that the heavens shall not remain, everything shall pass away, except the presence of God.” Those were Hussein’s passing words to his old weeping sister before he washed, anointed himself with musk and rode his horse into the face of thousands of soldiers. The place where the water of Euphrates was cut off to Hussein and his family came to be known as Kerbala (Kerb meaning anguish and bela vexation. Hussein refused to bow to the forces of evil choosing a bloody death. His spirit rose like a phoenix and flew across lands away from the desert of his home. Evoking the strength and humility of Hussein wrote Anees, the poet, master of elegy: “Yeh to na keh sakey Shah-e-zulmanain hoon, Maulana ne sur jhuka ke kaha main Hussein hoon` (He never could say he was master of earth and sky. He merely bent low his head and said ‘I am Hussein’).

I first heard the epic tale of Karbala as a child hiding behind a row of women frenetic in black. Through the ten days the story would unfold-of Hussein arriving in Karbala, pitching tents on the banks of the river Euphrates whose waters flowed in front of their eyes but were denied to them, even to the six-month old baby Asghar, the four year old Sakeena, the young son Akbar and the stalwart brother Abbas who lost both his arms carrying a masqh of water. And finally Hussein who withstood it all, surrendering his head to the assassin but not his faith. Year after year I have heard the story and watched men and women weep at the same bends in the narrative.

Come Muharram and the old city of Hyderabad awakens as if touches by the magic wand of faith. Ashoor Khanas are freshly painted and aired to install the alams, insignia of the martyred Imams, of Karbala. Flowers shops load their racks with sehras, veils of roses and jasmines that are offered to alams by the faithful. Dusty streets turn fervent with men in black sherwanis and women in black burqas. And every evening for the ten days of Muharram the story of Karbala resounds over microphones as the epic is recreated with words, tears and black processions. Women, in black traverse distances, rushing from one majlis to another, bowing to alams, weeping, beating their chests, reliving an ancient sorrow. No restrictions are imposed on them during these ten sad days-the only time in a long year when they meet each other, revive old contacts, connect life with gossip, and return refurbished to their dingy courtyards. No husband protests. No child cries for attention. The focus is enlarged from one’s own child to the children of Hussein, from one’s own father to a figure who fathered the cause of Islam. The identification is intimate and complete. “You lose a son, a fortune or a kingdom. It memory fades as does its pain but not the pain of Hussein, says my Shia mother. I have seen her shed more tears on the tenth of Muharram than she does on November 19 the day when my father died. “When I mourn for my husband I mourn for myself” she believes. “But to mourn for Hussein is to mourn for mankind.” My mother speaks for many of those who find in Muharram a release, an experience that strengthens their sense of roots, and perhaps lends their lives a large meaning that stands threatened by time.

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