The first time I ever saw bodily flagellation was in the screen adaptation of French dramatist Jean Anouilh’s 1964 play ‘Becket ou l’honneur de Dieu’ (Becket or The Honor of God. Henry II (played by Peter O’Toole) was being whipped by priests for supposedly ordering his four dagger-happy knights to “rid” him of the “meddlesome priest”, Sir Thomas Becket (Richard Burton) who had grown too big for his ermine cape. My parents had forced me to watch this film in Karachi during the 1980s as part of an education. (Others on the list included the 11-part ‘Holocaust’ series with Meryl Streep on videocassette that scarred me for life, ‘The Deer Hunter’ with Robert DeNiro that introduced me to Russian Roulette, ‘Peter the Great’ that perhaps laid the seeds of my fascination with Russian. I soaked it all up but was more interested in sneaking in episodes of Dynasty with Linda Evans – now that was American life!).
Many, many years later, after I joined the Daily Times newspaper and began ‘slumming’ it with real journalists, men who lived in the heart of Karachi, I encountered another kind of flagellation, this time self-perpetrated. They were the Shias (or Shi’ites, a rather ugly Westernisation of the lexicon), a sect of Muslims, (vs Sunnis), who followed the tradition of Imam Hussain, the Prophet Muhammad’s (peace be upon him) grandson (and son of the fourth caliph Ali) who was butchered in a battle over fealty against the tyrant Yazid in the fields of Karbala in modern-day Iraq. (There are many, many excellent books and websites that provide details of this history and its context in the larger picture of Islam)
In Karachi, in the first month of the Islamic calendar, Muharram, the mourning begins for Imam Hussain and his family. The first ten days are crucial, leading up to the 10th or Ashura day. The climax is reached on this day when a massive procession, made up of smaller ones converging from the city’s imambargahs, emerges from Nishtar Park in central Karachi. Over the last few years, however, the Shias have been attacked by militant Sunni terrorists. This year, as with the others, security is so tight that even the birds need security passes to fly overhead.
The entire city has been nervous in the lead up to Muharram because Karachi’s vulnerability has become prominent once again. The focus was mostly in the upper reaches of Pakistan with the US and Pakistani forces focusing on the Taliban cross-border infiltration from Afghanistan into the NWFP or Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa province (South Waziristan, Swat, Mohmand Agency etc.) But suddenly militants renewed their interest in Karachi, that has long served as a base for funding and R&R for recuperating Taliban and al Qaeda men.
Last Muharram we had two terrorist attacks on Shias. So this year, when I called up friends to ask who was willing to accompany me to Khurasan no one was willing to go. Khurasan is a central spot in Karachi close to Nishtar Park where most of the activities take place. The entire neighbourhood around the imambargah is lit up, enormous fresh garlands of Queen of the Night flowers and roses adorn the replica standard bearers or flags from the battle of Karbala, sabeels are set up to provide free drinks in plastic or Styrofoam cups (a traditional concoction is milk and rose syrup) and steaming chai or tea to the thousands who converge there to pay their respects. A majlis is organised with a famous orator who recounts the history of that terrible day, reducing the crowd to tears as they relive the beheading of the Prophet’s grandson. Incense fills the air, mingling with the scent of the flowers. Charities set up stalls. You can buy books on religion, the Shia tradition, silver amulets or the names Ali and Hussain in beautifully wrought calligraphy. They even sometimes have stickers for your cars.
Every year, for a while I’ve been going to either the central procession or Khurasan just when it’s being organized. One year, when I was city editor at Daily Times, my six sub-editors at the desk told me that they needed the 9th and 10th of Muharram off. That’s when we realized that all of them were Shias. We laughed at the affirmative action. (Shias are a large religious minority in Pakistan). I replied that no one was getting time off because I had to go to the procession. They laughed at me because I’m Sunni. I replied that I was an “honorary Shia”.
Truth be told, I’ve felt an affinity for the city event for a long time. As a Sunni you are brought up to regard Shias and their tradition of self-flagellation with disgust. Indeed, the ritual is difficult to witness if you are not used to the culture. Men carry their own set of daggers, six of them hooked up at the end of a long chain. They whip themselves up into a frenzy during the procession by giving in to the orator’s voice and then gather in a circle to perform the rite. The men strip to the waist, tie their long shirts around them and lift one arm (the left usually) so it is not cut as the knives go around.
One year, I think it was my first, I walked the length of the procession as it snaked through the old city. I kept to the periphery but was close enough to the knots of men so that when they stopped at intervals, I was close enough to actually smell the blood misting the air. I have long felt curious about the ecstatic element of Shia Islam. How do people walk coals? How do they do Qama ka Maatam or the self-flagellation that involved cutting the top of their heads?
Aside from the personal curiosity and perhaps a search for a more ecstatic Islam (ekstasis, or out of body in the Greek), I often felt that as the city editor I should know about such a huge religious rite performed in the city I was meant to cover. Over the years I have attended midnight mass, holi celebrations, the Hindu Raksha Bandhan and the Zoroastrian or Parsi new year or Nauroz feasts. The only religious event I have been too busy to witness has been the Sikh celebrations of Guru Nanak’s birthday.
So, this year too I wanted to go to Khurasan to see for myself what the turnout was like, to hear the scouts ask the ladies to open their purses, to hear that recorded dirges or laments blaring from the loudspeakers with their standard chain-thumping beat of a thousand knives and a thousand hands beating breasts.
But no one was willing to come. They were all scared. And it irritated the hell out of me. All these grown men, most of them journo buddies, refusing to visit Khursan where the build-up to Muharram 9 continues well past 2am.
It brought up a conflict for me. As a journalist, or as a resident of this city, how could I ask people to accompany me to a place where a bomb was most likely to go off? As city editor, how could I ask my crime reporter to cover the procession, knowing that he was newly married and young and could get seriously hurt? Last year, a Shia reporter from another media house lost his children in the bomb blast. I always thought that when I had children I would take them to the procession to witness an important cultural side to the city they lived in. But how can you put children at risk?
All day on Thursday, from the morning I woke up, I was glued to the television screen where several channels showed the entire event live. I thought it was the most morbid thing I had ever done, sit in front of the TV waiting for a bomb blast. Now that these events are covered live with DSNG vans, everything can be recorded. In fact, gruesomely enough, we all remotely witnessed the bomb blast when Benazir Bhutto’s cavalcade was attacked at her homecoming rally in 2007. It went live too.
As Muslims, we believe that when you’re time has come, you’re time has come. I was recently wondering about people who got murdered, though, as an aside. Then I figured that the way you go, is perhaps not fixed. Given this belief, I honestly feel that going to a dangerous place doesn’t really hold much meaning for me. If you’re going to go, you’re going to go.
In the end, I found one friend who agreed to go with me, only because it happened to be my birthday. We went on the 7th of Muharram and took a walk around Khurasan. This friend, a Sunni, tried to mask his feelings but I could tell that he generally was disturbed by seeing the breast beating in the imambargah’s grounds as we passed by. It sounds awesome when hundreds of men do it in unison. If you are interested, plenty of videos will pop up on YouTube.
I have long refused to live in fear in Karachi. And I believe that this has to be the case. Otherwise we would be cowering inside our closets, afraid to go anywhere. A couple of months ago I went for coffee with some old school friends, successful young women with factory-owning banker-esque husbands, Cartier and Bulgari at their necks and wrists and 2.5 kids for whose birthday parties specially crafted made-to-order cupcakes are commissioned. And I realized there was one thing about them. They limited their lives to certain neighbourhoods and areas, thought to be safer. For a city of 20 million, Karachi keeps on going. It’s almost five cities in one megacity. Either you own it, discover it and live in it or you life in fear. That friend I took, told me in the end that he had never seen this side to Karachi even though he had lived in it for years. I took that as a confirmation my decision had been correct and always will be.
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