Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Memoirs of Ahmed al-Katib -2-

INDOCTRINATION: THE SOUL OF KERBALA
When I was seven I joined another school, and I was moved directly into third grade because of my previous studying, this school was purely religious, it offered syllabus in Quran, exegesis, Islamic history, ethics, jurisprudence and [artihmetic?], the school had no knowledge of modern material such as English, Geography and sciences, it did try to incorporate those subjects so as to apply as a school eligible for the official statewide examinations, but it failed to achieve that status and was shut down when the Ba'ath Party assumed power.
Most of the students did not need to pass the exam and they didn't seek employment at the Iraqi government, they were either anti-Shah Iranian diaspora, or devout Iraqis who - as my father - adhered to the legal sharia ruling and refused to enlist their sons for governmental schooling.
My father would often take me to the large Husseini ceremonies, the topics addressed by the orators revolved around the story of Imam Hussein and the story of his life, in addition to the issues of the Caliphate, the Sakifa and the struggles of the other Imams with the Caliphs of their times. I had no need for additional reading to understand the topic, as the child grew in those surroundings to be indoctrinaed to an extremist, concentrated Shi'i education. He would be aware of his sectarian identity over any other national, social or tribal identity. On top of that, my devout father was keen on instructing me with the speeches of Imam Ali, in particular the one known as al-Shaqshaqiya, he gave me my first book when I was 12, al-Muraja'at by Abdilhussein Sharaf al-Din, which is a Sunni-Shi'i debate between him and al-Azhar Sheikh at the time Salim al-Bushri, it concluded by al-Bushri's admittance to the validity of the [Shi'i] sect as an Islamic mode. Other books I read were "Why Did I Choose The Sect of Ahl al-Bait" by Shii convert Sheikh Mohammed al-Antaaki, there was also a teacher in our school named Mohammed al-Ta'ie from Mosul, who converted to Shiism during a visit to Kerbala, all this served to convince me that my Twelever Jaafri Imami Shii sect is the true path and it represents perfect Islam. Thus I was often puzzled, looking with a mixture of bewilderment and fury at a Sunni neighbor of ours from Ein-Tamur, wondering why is he blind to the acceptance of Ahl al-Bait.

KERBALA: AWAKENING
In the 60s, Kerbala strove to combat the Communist, Nationalist, Atheist and Western tides that invaded Iraq, I recall accompanying my father to a lecture by Sayyid Mohammed Kazim al-Qazwini in the house of a friend, he held weekly seminars for young people that moved from house to house, I was eleven at the time, and the preacher suggested the allocation of a son to study jurisprudence and spread Islam in Europe and America, without saying anything to me I warmed up to the idea and intended to be that in the future, something undoubtedly welcomed by my father and mother. I believe that Sayyid al-Qazwini was a major influence on my life at the time, he often urged the residents of Kerbala on well manners with pilgrims, to observe the hijab of women, to propagate virtue and prevent vice, and I used to carry out his instructions literally, demanding from women who bought from our shop or who walked the streets or sat in shops, exposing locks of their hair, to adhere to Islamic teachings and cover their hair appropriately, I found no embarrasment in addressing women as I was little boy, although I was almost whipped once by the husband of one of the women I advised, who reproached me and told me to mind my own sisters.
When I was 14, the head Imam of Kerbala, Sayyid Mohammed al-Shirazi suggested that I don the clergy clothing of a turban and a jubba. I managed to convince a few similar-minded friends and we used to stroll the streets of Kerbala in 1967, looking very strange in our turbans but without any facial hair.
One morning, to be exact July 17th, 1968, while I walking from my house to the school, I heard a voice crackling from a radio in one of the shops, many men were crowded there, the broadcaster was officer Hardan al-Tikriti, one of the Revolutionary Leadership council, he was issuing the statement for the July 17th coup d'etat, I hurried to school and told my teacher and the colleagues, as it was unusual for anyone in our religious schools to keep a radio or a television, two devices banned in the devout community at the time.
The Hawza and the Islamic movement paid scarce attention to political developments in Baghdad, devout people in Kerbala lived in another age that rang centuries past, with the first men [of Islam], the culture that proliferated in councils, books, neighborhoods and lectures was all about Islamic history, the story of Sakifa and the Six-Man Council, and the injustice inflicted upon Ahl al-Bait, Fatima al-Zahra, the Battle of Kerbala, and the stories of the other 12 Imams with the Umayyad and Abbasid caliphs, in addition to exegesis of Quranic verses and interpretation of the narrations of Ahl al-Bait, however, some of the famous orators of the days would often allude to criticism of the government very subtly, or as we say: "drive in nails."
Perhaps some leaders of the Islamic movement were up to speed with political developments, but they did not speak in public engagements or Husseini ceremonies about any of it, [for example], Sayyid Shirazi in particular was engaged in a heated discussion with members of the upstart Islamic Dawa Party, regarding [issues such as] Tatbeer (i.e. headsplitting, this), and other Husseini processions, Shiari himself organized a special tatbeer convoys for students of the Hawza in order to validate this Husseini activity and to silence the opposition of intellects and others. Sayyid Kazim al-Qazwini went to India in 1956, he saw a special Husseini ceremony there where Indians would ran barefoot over burning coal, and he carried this peculiar cereomony to Kerbala aided by Shirazi, which stirred the condemnation of intellectuals who sought the aid of the Grand Ayatollah Muhsin al-Hakim to issue a fatwa banning this kind of masochism.
In 1966 there was a clash between the Shirazi following I was a part of and the Dawa Party or the supporters of the (Islamic Charity Society) which some of my uncles joined, the clash was also about tatbeer, as a party member issued a lecture attacking tatbeer, causing Shirazi members to orchestrate a rally that ended in attacking the society's headquarters and destroying it, although the incident ended with no injuries or victims, it left a deep rift between the newborn Islamic movement and the traditional devout class.

Certainly we were in a planet and politics was on another...

NOTES: the issue of Tatbeer is still unresolved until today. the Sayyid Shirazi al-Katib speaks of here is known to be a more hardline, extremist cleric and is traditionally its most active supporter, on the other hand, Iran's Khamenei had outlawed it,and I think that Sistani had sent mixed signals about the issue.

27 comments:

onix said...

eh, back online, what do you think this story adds? I don't get a point, to me it seems it is about being obsessed with (sectarian) divides, could you say it is typical for the disturbed mindsets of many iraqi? Obviously to me there is a notion of powerstruggle, and after that under saddam every religious fanatical would be in problems, however why would it turn them into hero's? i much more admire the iraqi "atheists and communists" during the decolonisation and baath rule.
Am rili curious what you think this helps irak.

Abbas Hawazin said...

from a historian's viewpoint, this is obviously important, it is an account for the rise of Islamic movements, in this case Shii Islamic Movements, and the environment and conditions surrounding it by an insider who gives us some pretty interesting tidbits.
It "helps" in the sense of understanding what there was, and how it got to be the way it is today. i don't think the story is exaggerated or promotes sectarianism in any sense of the word other than telling the truth.

Lynnette In Minnesota said...

It "helps" in the sense of understanding what there was, and how it got to be the way it is today. i don't think the story is exaggerated or promotes sectarianism in any sense of the word other than telling the truth.

Hmmm...that statement reminds me of someone else. I'm sure it will come to me...

Oh, btw, I finished "History of the Arab Peoples". It was an interesting read. It gave a general overview of the region told more from an Arabic point of view, rather than say, American, like "Power, Faith and Fantasy".

Your posts tend to fill in the details.

I'm immersed in "The Glorious Cause"(a history of the American Revolution) at the moment. It's a tad long, so it will take me awhile to get back to the ME. You'd be amazed at how much we sound like Iraqis. Yup, right down to the conspiracy theories. lol!

nadia said...

yeah i see where you're going with this, the bolding is really unnecessary. provided you can read, of course.

An Italian. said...

Dear Abbas,

this series of translations of yours is very interesting.
From the recollections of al-Katib it seems that Karbala and Najaf in the 1960s were culturally very similar to the Jewish villages (shtetl) of Eastern Europe, before the Bolshevist revolution on one side, and Nazi extermination a little later on the other, destroyed them.

As for Tatbeer and the other masochistic rituals of self-flagellation and self-injury (plus the holy representations) practised at the Ashura and other Shiite ceremonies, all those who have been castigating that eeeevil regime of Saddam for forbidding such types of popular devotion forget some things:

1) That such rituals are strictly forbidden in the Islamic Republic of Iran (the only Iranian Grand Ayatollah who instead favoured them got in serious trouble, up to house arrest);

2) That such rituals were common, up to the 18th century, in all countries were the most numerous Christian confession, Catholicism, prevailed.
There were, especially during the Holy Week (but at other religious festivities as well), holy shows (such as the Morality Plays, or the Passion ones) which in a pre-TV society often led to disorders, because people would attack the actors believing that it was the real thing ! (precisely like it often happens at the Shiite Ashura representation of the martyrdom of Hussein).
And people would go in a flagellating procession, wounding themselves with whips, cat-o-nine-tails, thorns, and knives, especially on Good Friday.

3) That around the middle of the 18th century, due to the spread of Enlightenment, the so-called ‘Enligthened Autocrats’, the kings of the European Catholic nations, decided that such popular rituals were a show of mad and superstitious fanaticism and a source of criminal disorders, and FORBADE them (precisely like that eeeevil eeeevil Saddam’s regime did, and like the Islamic Republic of Iran did !).

4) That despite such 18th and 19th century bans, today such bloody rituals of devotion survive in some areas of the Catholic world, namely, in Latino America, parts of the Iberian peninsula, the Philippines, and Southern Italy, and are cynically regarded as tourist attractions. Indeed people do come from afar to see and take pictures of hordes of loonies whipping themselves, making themselves drip blood, or creeping on the road on their bare and bleeding knees …
Some years ago somebody was charged in Southern Italy because one of those taking part in one of those blood-drawing processions was a 13 year old boy; but I do not remember if there was a following, that is, if somebody was sentenced for it.

You see, Abbas, modernity and devotion do always clash, in Europe or in other places …
… because Devotion has got reasons that Reason cannot understand !

Anonymous said...

sectarianism is the pillar of shi'ism. cannot be otherwise.

Lynnette In Minnesota said...

In your listing of rituals, Italian, you forgot to mention the Sun Dance which is performed by Native Americans. Parts of it too would be considered rather masochistic.

Nadia,

Now, now, Abbas wants to make sure we see it.

Dina said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Gilgamish said...

you left us in the middle of the story, how did he become different?

annie said...

i find it fascinating and really appreciate your translation.

regarding an italian's comment, reminds of a place outside of taos new mexico, near pilar. right near the road up on a hill there is a door to enter the mountain. when i lived there i heard it was a church of some sort and later found it to be the Penitentes who practice self-flagellation.

one time while hiking in a remote area near las trampas after easter time we came across what appeared to be sort of a miniature runway that had fresh markings and long scraps my friend who had lived in the region for a long time explained to me they dragged the huge crosses and practice processions w/ flagellation also.

there are many remote areas of the region in the Sangre de Cristo's w/isolated spanish and indigenous communities that have lived there before the area was incorporated into this nation and i don't think they live very differently than they did 100 years ago. taos pueblo is also in the region and these people have coinhabited w/their different religions not without occasional bloody conflict.

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