I laugh now, at how, as a child, I understood the narrative of Moharram and still (I think) managed to get the point of all the fuss.
I was left to understand the narrative of Moharram mostly on my own—because my parents, while observing its essential features for the first ten days of it weren’t really interested in instilling religion in me. I pieced it all together through my grandmother, who was very interested in telling me the “facts.” And I picked it up through various other sources of information available to me which included Pakistan Times, Radio Pakistan, the war with India and movies about cowboys and Indians. Through all of them I tried to patch together and make relevant the stories told to me about the events of 1400 years ago when the prophet’s grandson and family, the good guys, were besieged at Kerbela, denied water, died fighting for justice and did not submit to Yezid’s overwhelming force of bad guys. I imagined the heat, the desert, the overwhelming military force of the oppressor. And I concluded from the people around me that all this sorrow led to an abundance of poetry and painting. And when politics was added into the discussion mix with wine then the heroism of Kerbela was sure to be remembered. My father always read to us a Marsiya by Mir Anis’s on the tenth of Moharram. It was also mentioned many times over that Faiz Ahmed Faiz had written a Marsiya after Sadequain chacha had told him that an Urdu poet isn’t a real poet unless he has written a marsiya.
Last Christmas eve, when asked about how Moharram was proceeding for me given that the lunar calendar placed the first ten days of Moharram during December 18-28th I came up with my usual answer, that as usual, I had done nothing. I am a Shi’a and identify myself as one. And during Moharram or any time of the year I can weep and feel the pain personally at the mention of the plight of the innocents, the family of the prophet Mohammad, at Kerbela, in 680 AD and in their journey to and imprisonment in Damascus. I am moved deeply at the very mention of Hussain’s sacrifice at Kerbala, particularly the trials of his sister Zainab and her exemplary and courageous conduct. Such is the power of this immortal narrative of courage and resolve against tyranny, as received and passed on through the centuries from Zainab, the daughter of Imam Ali, the sister of Imam Husain and Hazrat Abbas, the witness and narrator of Kerbala. Such is the affect of the story of Kerbela as received from Zainab that through the centuries it has been expressed through dirges, passion plays and laments about struggle and resistance and it is for me and for millions of others an article of faith.
But as a child a little knowledge left me shaken and not stirred. As a child I lived in an enclave in Pakistan nestled between Mirpur and Mangla on the border with India. Water and rivers dominated my world—Mangla dam where my father was an engineer and where American contractors were building a massive dam was the world I grew up in, insulated from the larger Pakistani society. I tried to make sense of Moharram within the context of the world I lived in. I grew up in what would be labeled, in today’s world of fear and apologies, as a secular-agnostic Shi’a Muslim family. My upbringing as a child was isolated from the larger Pakistani society and confined to a rural enclave where an international community was busy building the largest earth filled dam of the time. And then, of course, there was the atmosphere of war in 1965, we were close to the Indian border and the constant fear of India attacking was very frightening for me.
On Christmas eve my first grade American teacher borrowed me from my parents—not clear why I was borrowed or lent—but it was because my teacher and her husband didn’t have children of their own to shower presents upon on or to spend Christmas with and so I got to be the proxy. In hindsight, I would hazard a guess that they were young missionaries, probably Mormons, who, out of the best of intentions, like my grandmother, were seeking to save my sweet soul.
My grandmother who lived with us—disapproved of my being loaned out at Christmas. She was sure that it would come to no good. She had registered her protest by telling me quietly that the Christians had forgotten who they were since they didn’t believe in the real book. The real book? Yes, the old one, called the old testament. And I believed Amma for I knew that my grandmother would know, she was as old as the old Testament herself, so of course she would have understood the old Testament. Her white long braid of hair, her many tiny looped earrings on either earlobe, her bent back, her velveteen vest with its engraved crystal buttons, over her white kurta and velvet choridar, her silver pandan—and her purified silver drinking and eating utensils separate from ours and her unique curses such as “Moa namurad! Lazy good for nothing!” All of these details were a testament to me that she was just as old as the real old Testament. I understood that it was a very old book—older than the one that was wrapped in a satin coverlet with a brocade edging and ribbons that sat up on a shelf or next to the puck of clay, which she touched with her forehead in prayer, in sajda, this clay from Kerbela, her sadjdiga, on her janamaz on the takath where she prayed. Also, she made sure that I understood, what my parents had not made clear to me: that we were, amongst all the groupings of believers, the real believers. According to her this was so: “Because we are Shi’as and we are Syeds and we belong to the prophet’s family.”
“Just us?” I asked
“Yes. The other believers have forgotten, but we are true, we are those who will always remember.” Amma replied solemnly.
“What happened to the old testament?” I asked.
“Well–It had gotten lost—“
“How?—Did someone throw it away? “
“Yes, she had laughed, “They had thrown it away.”
I asked her where. She didn’t have a clear answer. I asked her “Did they throw it away out of the window?” Out, away and distance were to me measured by indoor and outdoor to our house.
“Yes” she replied, “Out the window, a long time ago in a very old town.”
A few months later I happened to be in what appeared to me to be a very old town. I had gone with my parents and Amma to a funeral in a town with narrow streets. It was a town near Jhelum called Dhomeli. There, I saw a woman my grandmother’s age toss some peanut shells and orange peels out the window into the street below. Hot, bothered and overwhelmed as I was, sitting in a room with very few windows and too many women in black wailing and sobbing and mourning, a sight that frightened me, I concluded that this was the town where the old testament had been thrown out of the window.
I had, till then, therefore, in terms of religion been exposed to the azaan, my grandmother praying five times a day, my grandmother looking for the new moon each month then shutting her eyes tight upon sighting it as she called me to her and then upon my arrival at her side she opened her eyes and breathed her paan and fennel scented breath on me—the first face she had seen after the auspicious sighting of the moon, upon which she blew prayers and good wishes. In addition to this my exposure to religion included listening to the incomparable and rather formidable oratory of Maulana Rashid Turabi and specially on Ashura Sham e Gariban broadcasted on Radio Pakistan; eating my mother’s kitchara on Ashura; and oh yes—being lent out one Christmas. My parents did not slaughter any animal at Eid but we did get new shoes from Bata and new clothes on that day and received five or ten rupees as our Eid gift or as it is called, Eidhi. Savian or vermicelli, in thick sweetened milk was a feature. Religion, for me, therefore was composed of a twice yearly event of blister inducing patent leather black shoes, white socks, new clothes, a crisp five rupee note and savian. And of course marsiyas and Sham e Ghariban to listern to on the radio and Kitchra to eat. Eids featured twice and Moharram once a year.
Newspapers, however, arrived every day and dominated our daily rituals of breakfast, lunch, dinner and afternoon tea conversations. My father, literally draped in the newspaper, held spread open in front of him, presided over these meals with heartfelt, fervent oratory on the state of affairs. This was the time of the 1965 war between India and Pakistan and like everyone else around us we had a trench dug out as a bomb shelter in our garden under the Jaman tree in case the Indians attacked. And we had the glass panes on all the windows news papered up to block in any ray of errant light during the blackouts once the air raid sirens started up their wailing.
In 1965 at that great age of five I had never seen an Indian at least not one that wasn’t a Hollywood production. Partition had occurred only fifteen years before and the borders were sealed before I was born. To me they were the enemy who would attack Pakistan just like they attacked the pioneers who lived in log cabins. I knew how the Indians could be. I had seen them at our local cinema: there he was, John Wayne on the big screen, battling them! Oh yes, those Indians swooping into settlements, scalping and yelping and galloping towards the poor hapless American pioneers defending themselves in log cabins. And I knew that because of them–those red Indians, there were refugees living in tents as a result of the war, homeless Kashmiris, whom my mother helped when she visited hospitals and refugee camps with clothing, food and medicines as did other moms. I also knew that my mother and father and grandmother felt homeless too—they often talked about partition. I couldn’t understand how they could have come from India. And why did they sound so sad about leaving? There was sorrow. This was a mystery unresolved and the only possible answer was that they must have been pioneers–fleeing the bad guys. The Hollywood westerns distorted everything. It was all very confusing.
My grandmother told me the stories of Kerbala and I retrofitted them to the movies I had seen. It was unbearable that one horrible Red Indian had taken his bow and arrow and shot a baby right through his thirsty throat on the side of the good guys. My Amma cried so much when she would tell me the story of Kerbela. And I knew that I was related to all of them, all those babies, girls, boys, sisters, brothers, cousins moms, dads, uncles and aunts. And all the sorrow that came of it was as much mine as it was theirs. It was a burden. And I couldn’t help them and they had died of thirst. I couldn’t help them. I was guilty.
We lived away from cities and towns and our access to majlises in Moharram would have required an effort which my parents did not make. We did, however, listen to majlises which were relayed on Radio Pakistan. Particularly the one on the night of the tenth of Moharram or Ashura , the majlis for the Sham e Ghariban—those in the wilderness—the evening of those who had lost everything—the evening of the bereft. It was delivered by the venerated Maulana Rasheed Turabi. The children were made to listen, which we did— giggling, squirming and being admonished to be quiet by the grown-ups around us. I was always alarmed by how the grown- ups would sob and weep through the duration of the fire and brimstone emanating from the Philips radio set.
Amma insisted on leaving for Karachi in advance of Moharram to participate with her kinfolk in the fun and pageantry of an Amroha moharram which had been left behind at Partition in Amroha, her hometown in India and was now replicated and recreated in a mohalla in Karachi. She pined for her hometown of Amroha,in India,or more specifically for her neighborhood there, all the time. And so she wouldn’t miss Moharram the Amroha way for anything, especially not for what would appear to her as tiresomely dour conversations of justice and sacrifice that her son and daughter in law insisted on engaging in—so she was put on the Tezgham from Dina a month earlier to be able to spend a rollicking and very busy month of majlis hopping from one family home to another for majlises, niaz and nazar and weeping and beating her bosom in an act of mourning deep within the bosom of her vast Amroha clan in Karachi.
Meanwhile in Mangla it was clear to me watching the adults gathered around the Philipps phonogram in paroxysms of sorrow as all of us listened to majlis on Ashura as relayed by Radio Pakistan—that the tragedy of Kerbela was a family tragedy. What else would explain such deeply felt emotion and weeping? It was obvious that Imam Hussain and Abbas and Zainab and Sakina, and Asghar were relatives of ours—of mine– Abbas and Imam Hussain were uncles—from my mother’s side of the family of course, because my mother was involved with charity work for Kashmiri refugees who too were left bereft, parted from their homes and were good guys. And she often spoke about a cousin of hers, an uncle of mine who was a commando in the Pakistan military and who had disappeared in Kashmir during the war. Also a good guy.
I therefore surmised, at age five, that Imam Hussain, was an army commando in the Pakistan army and maybe he was Kashmiri. For some reason he had taken his family with him to war—and they were very, very thirsty. Also, they were refugees, Kashmiris of course and they lived in tents. Until the cruel Red Indian, Yezid, burnt down their tents. And the Red Indians had prevented Imam Hussain and his family from drinking water from the big river—like the Jhelum which flowed past our house, and through Kashmir. I had heard my father talk about the importance of the river during the war how the Indians could block its waters across the border—but for some reason inexplicably during the oratory of Moharram the river was referred to on the radio as the 'uffrath'— Euphrates and during the worried conversations about the war, as Jhelum. But then, I knew, Radio Pakistan—that broadcasted the Marisyas and the Majlises each year which made the the adults weep—and the Pakistan Times which published the news that enraged my father were not to be trusted. After all it was a military dictatorship that ruled the country and lied through every channel it could find. That’s what everyone said. Or, rather, everyone I knew. My father said so all the time. And so, it was easy to see how the Euphrates being confused with the Jhelum river, could be the censor board messing with my mind.
The weeping and the faith coalesced around the injustice of a denial of water. It was all very personal and very sorrowful. War, then, as I understood it was about water. And it was about thirsty and hungry refugees and children being killed senselessly. Faith was about loyalty, it was about always standing in unity with those who were denied justice, who were oppressed and who were therefore innocent. And, of course, to consider them as being related to me. It was about having the discipline not to giggle during a majlis.
Somehow, it all added up. It was all about water. It was about thirst. It was always about being on the side of those who are thirsty.
So it is this narrative of pain and compassion received from family and friends of a family and friends and their struggle and endurance against wrong that I acknowledge as my definition of my faith.
She stands on this side of the Euphrates the side denied water, throat parched, eyes flooded— She searches for her loved ones: brothers, cousins, nephews, sons. The battle has ended and now there is the wilderness: night has descended and settled in the desert. The smoldering light from the burning tents all around is reflected in her river of tears and emblazons her vision. And she knows that tonight her journey begins, as a hostage under occupation. It is up to her to ensure for all eternity the outcome of this battle between good and evil. Those who are assembled on the other side participate in this massacre of the prophet’s family. They too consider themselves Muslims, they call themselves believers, followers of the Prophet. On either side, there are Yezids, Alis Hussains, Saads, Akbars and Abbas. They too will claim to be on the side of the righteous. There will be different versions of the truth—and those who weren’t there to witness the event will not know who to believe. They will have to rely on what rings true. The story will live on, through her. Does she scream into the night—this is my body—killed here this is my blood split here—Or does she scream in agony the battle cry: Oh Thirst! She is Zainab, the grand-daughter of the Prophet Mohammad. She is the daughter of Fatima, who was the daughter of the Prophet Mohammad. She is the daughter of Ali. She is the sister of Hussain and Abbas. She is the mother of On and Mohammad. She is the aunt of Zayn ul Abedin, Ali Akber, Ali Asghar and Sakina. All the way from the scene of the crime at Kerbela to the court of Yezid in Damascus–Zainab in chains will tell the people along the way what has happened. She will be the witness and narrator.
She is Zainab the daughter of Ali. The carrier of the story. She is the loving selfless leader, the guardian, the defender and the protector of those who must endure in their struggle. She is courage. The care taker and defender of war victims, refugees, orphans, the sick and dying. She is the embodiment of motherhood.
Those who love, those in the plains, those on terraced mountains tending fields, those in deserts, those who spend their days tending their flock , those seeking refuge, those in flight, those in servitude, those imprisoned, those in hospital, those in pain, those who struggle will know the meaning of her cry: Oh injustice! Oh Thirst!