كل يوم كربلا
Today Shiites all over the world commemorate the death of the grandson of Muhammad, Hussain, at the battle of Kerbala in 680 CE. Hussain, being a direct descendant of Muhammad had a fair claim on the caliphate which in 680 had just been assumed by Yazid, the son of Mu’awiya, who in 661 CE had usurped the function following the death of Hussain’s father, and caliph, Ali. Hussain went to Kufa to claim his rights and was caught at Kerbala, where he and his followers were massacred by an army that far outnumbered them.
In Shiism the commemoration of this battle has acquired a far wider meaning than just this historical incident. Hussain for Shiites is the epitome of everything that is good and just, while Yazid… Well, you may have guessed. The conflict between the powerless and the powerful, the oppressed against the oppressor. It all comes together at Ashura.
One day in Esfahan during Ashura, I read a phrase on the back window of a car, the title of this post. It means ‘every day is Kerbala’. According to Shiite Muslims Ashura is there to remind us of that sad fact. Those who are not Shiites need only to open their newspapers and read.
Kerbala is commemorated with passion plays in the streets, with music, public mourning and self-chastisement. In some parts of the world this even turns into self-mutilation, but not where I was. I’ve been told the latter is forbidden in Iran.
Flagellants in the main square of Esfahan (Iran) celebrating Ashura in 2010.
Beating oneself, in Iran with a bundle of chains of varying thicknesses, however is an integral part of the commemorations. It is done in groups in procession on the beat of a drum. It has a little choreography to it, that differs from group to group. Everyone wears black shirts and you can see small particles of iron shimmering on the backs of the men (no women beat themselves with chains). I’ve tried it myself. It does not hurt as much as you might think, it’s just a heavy thump on your back. But I’ve never tried doing it during half a day, as these men do.
It’s the beating with chains that impresses people the most, but once you’ve been at Ashura, you realise it’s just a detail. It’s the general atmosphere of mourning that is most impressive.