Karbala, where the shrine of the Prophet’s grandson Hussain has stood for centuries as a symbol of resistance against tyranny, was in 2016 the nerve centre of the war on terror group ISIS
Around a two-hour drive from Najaf, a long wait at two airports for visa clearance and immigration, and a layover at Doha had left us exhausted as we arrived in Karbala as part of a group of journalists covering the war on ISIS. We retired immediately after a quick dinner at Medinat-ul-Zaireen (Pilgrims City), a sprawling complex of suites near Karbala University, where we were lodged in February 2016.
I got up a little early, by my standards, the following day and took a stroll down the neatly paved, manicured, and landscaped premises of Pilgrims City. What immediately struck me was Karbala’s skyline. It was quite different from what I had imagined, heard about, and seen in its visual description in the media.
The tomb of the Prophet Muhammad’s favourite grandson, Imam Hussain, which is Karbala’s main attraction, no longer alone dominated the skyline. The skyline was getting crowded with high-rise buildings coming up across the city.
There seemed to be cranes and construction machinery everywhere. Karbala was in the middle of a construction boom. It was something we did not really expect to see in a terror-torn country.
The landscape was dotted with building skeletons. The ground was being dug up at more and more places for foundations for hotels and hostels to accommodate millions of pilgrims, who continued to visit Karbala annually undeterred by ISIS’s onslaught.
The new buildings dotting the landscape included a shopping mall and high-rise hotels. Signboards across the city advertised expensive real estate. Karbala had come a long way from the days of dictator Saddam Hussein whose neglect reduced the city to an economic backwater. Its transformation, residents told us, was dramatic.
The recently opened malls, theme parks, advanced theatres, play stations, cafeterias, and restaurants offered the residents sources of entertainment that were available until recently only in bigger cities such as Baghdad. The Al Kawthar shopping complex near Imam Hussain’s shrine offered the best collection of fashion accessories and Western clothing.
The number of devotees visiting the city continued to grow exponentially after 2003 when Saddam was ousted. The Imam Hussain shrine was undergoing its biggest expansion worth $600 million in 300 years to keep up with the rush.
Iranian companies and engineers were building multi-storey buildings to house a library, a museum and expand amenities for the pilgrims to further boost religious tourism, Iraq’s second-largest earner of revenue after oil.
The large-scale constructions were expected to ease the rush that meant over 20,000 people alone were employed to shepherd the pilgrims at the shrines of Hussain and his brother Abbas just across the road.
Hussain’s shrine in Karbala has stood for centuries as a representation of foundational Islamic values of egalitarianism, justice, and equity and a rallying point against tyranny. Karbala was fittingly the nerve centre of the war on ISIS when we visited the city.
Saddam restricted religious rituals centred around the tomb over his decades-long rule when Karbala emerged as a bastion of resistance against him. He was not the only ruler to fear the symbolism attached to the shrine, which has been the city’s centrepiece and dominated its skyline for centuries while rulers have come and gone.
The rush in Karbala peaks annually on Arbaeen when millions of people march through Iraq to reach the holy city to mark the end of Hussain’s 40-day mourning period. The march has since Saddam’s ouster become one of the biggest pilgrimages globally and surpassed the Hajj for which around 1.5 million gather in Mecca.
Shortly after Saddam’s fall, two million people wore black clothes and chanted an Arabic threnody for Hussain, who laid down his life in the city resisting Umayyad ruler Yazid in the seventh century, as they gathered in Karbala to mark Arbaeen in the shadow of his shrine in April 2003.
They raised their hands in unison and thumped their chests in collective mourning for Hussain for the first time in a generation. Tens of thousands of Iranians were among them. They walked across the Iran-Iraq border, avoiding minefields, to make their way to Karbala, making most of the ouster of Saddam, who barred them for years.
The Arbaeen march has since gone from strength to strength. In 2016, the number of marchers ranged from between 17 million and 20 million over several days. The number was 17 million two years earlier in 2014. It grew instead of going down when ISIS overran Iraq.
More and more devotees joined it in defiance of the terror group even when Karbala was particularly vulnerable with ISIS occupying the neighbouring Anbar desert and using it to mount attacks. Jurf al-Sakhar, a town located 60 km from Karbala, was briefly under ISIS’s occupation until Iraqi forces liberated it in 2014.
ISIS’s presence in the neighbouring areas did little to dampen the spirits of the pilgrims, who take up to a fortnight to walk to the holy city for Arbaeen. The pilgrims carry flags, including those bearing the depiction of Hussain with blood on his brow as they trek from places as far as Baghdad, 90 kilometres to the north, and Najaf, 70 kilometres away to the south.
The visual representations of revered Islamic figures including Imam Ali and Hussain were ubiquitous across Iraq, something I had never seen before. They are an integral part of marches and festivals, public places, and adorn homes and shops. The Shia piety unlike that of Sunnis is steeped in a visual depiction.
Sameer Arshad Khatlani is a journalist and the author of The Other Side of the Divide