Something’s Gotten Hold of My Heart: Ashura in Nabatiyye, south Lebanon

Ashura in Nabatiyye

by Estella Carpi

The so-called “Islamic Sphere” – al Hala al Islamiyya constituting the predominantly Shiite areas of Lebanon – undoubtedly emerges in its uniqueness on the Aashura’s day.

We were a group of six people heading to Nabatiyye (South Lebanon) yesterday 24th November 2012, on the occasion of the celebration of Aashura’, the 10th day of the Islamic month of Muharram, when the Muslim Shiites commemorate the death of the Imam Hussein, son of ‘Ali, cousin of the Prophet Mohammed.

In Nabatiyye’s procession it is quite easy to follow the historical stages of Kerbala’s battle in 680 D.C, when Hussein died while fighting against Yazid I, who Caliph Muaawiya appointed as successor.

The mourning of his death seems to have tattooed victimhood and suffering in the everyday Shiite social ethics.

What remains unfathomable to the occasional foreign visitor is the normalized sense of human grief that holistically constitutes “Shiiteness”. That is to say their chronic sense of victimhood characterizing the ethical bedrock of this confessional group, as well as the publicly shared value of existential martyrdom, which have paradoxically guided Lebanese Shiites to the road of historical self-empowerment within a neglectful society and a weak state.

Our arbitrarily universalized “human rights approach” leads us, willy-nilly, to poorly grasp – if not misconceive – the genuine sense behind the ethically unacceptable blood-shed and self-flagellation. Such practices, already outlawed in Iran as well as in Lebanon on initiative of the Party of God, are still carried out by few individuals that appear to the visitor’s eye – witnessing Aashura’ in ambitious bid to catch its essence in a few hours – as fanatic extremists.

The boasting aspects of a ceremony in which bleeding and parading play a big role, unavoidably hamper people’s co-empathization and hence de-lyricize the purely psycho-emotional essence of such a commemoration.

In fact it is quite hard, even to the foreign mindful visitor, to identify with the importance of Hussein’s tragic death, to which Shiite identity is inescapably bound. The memory of suffering (Dhikra al Asa), the exhibited wailing and weeping (Nuwah wa Buka’), and oppression (Zhulm) are concepts rarely represented with cognitive faithfulness by the outsider interpreters. Yet it is on them that Shiites relied in the effort of turning themselves from oppressed victims into agents and active citizens, while deploying their religiousness in a cultural way that we can just partially represent.

Into the shoes of foreign tourists of the Aashura’s event and of curious beings greedy for “native authenticity”, if, on the one hand, we cannot totally identify through their martyrdom-oriented religiousness, on the other, we should at least consciously suspend our ethical judgment, in the attempt to reduce the merely stigmatized gap between who They are and who We are, and to consequently avoid any cultural classification and de-legitimization of human suffering.

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