There is nothing so odd, bizarre, and sometimes disgusting as other people’s customs. To adapt and paraphrase Professor Higgins in My Fair Lady with regard to women, why can’t other people be more like us? After all, we are perfectly well-intentioned as well as rational beings; from which it follows, as the night the day (as Polonius would have put it), that those who are not like us are ill-intentioned and irrational.
On a short visit to the Persian Gulf recently, I had the good fortune, undesigned, to be present on the first day of Muharram, the first month of the Islamic calendar, the tenth day of which is the day of Ashura, the anniversary of the Battle of Karbala in 680 AD. In that battle, Hussein, Muhammad’s grandson, considered by many as the rightful successor to the Caliphate, was killed, along with his followers. The battle gave rise to the enduring fracture between Sunni and Shia Muslims, the latter believing in the legitimacy of Hussein.
The first ten days of the month are a crescendo of mourning for Hussein by the Shia, ending often in bloody self-flagellation in which metal scourges are used sometimes to produce serious injuries. The more enthusiastic mourners strike themselves on the forehead with swords, sometimes splitting their scalps open.
The self-flagellating processions of the first day of Muharram are, however, genteel by comparison. The streets are decked out in black flags, some of them fringed with green or red satin and inscribed with Hussein’s name, and everyone (even small children) is dressed in black. We have often heard that whipping is nice when it stops; in the Shia tradition, it seems, it is nice (comparatively) when it begins. It is rhythmically performed, and more symbolic than masochistic, as it later becomes. The drums beat, the men—for only the men beat themselves—sway and strike themselves in unison, mostly without any viciousness, on the back of their shoulders with whips of short chains, first on one side, then on the other. In the middle of the procession, or behind it, a man pushes what looks like an old-fashioned ice cream cart, which however relays through a loudspeaker chants in which the name of Hussein figures prominently, and in which some of the men in the procession join.
I bought a chain for myself, probably made in China, just to know what it felt like, and though light and without the nails or other instruments of torture that the truest believers employ, one can easily imagine how constant and repetitive blows with even this light a chain might inflame the skin and the tissues below it.
In a way, the procession is initially rather impressive and not without a certain grace. One can easily see, however, how, when it continues for hours on end, it could induce a state of trance and mass hysteria in the participants. But to begin with, it is all—if not jolly exactly—far from unpleasant.
While observing the flagellators go by, I felt a light tap on my shoulder: A man with a kind and generous expression asked me by gesture to partake in food distributed free to the crowds, a tradition of the ceremony. The minced lamb stew with Arabic flatbread was, I am glad to report, delicious. I thanked the man with one of the very few Arabic words that I know, and he said in English—and by his expression quite sincerely—“You are welcome.”
A small encounter like this gives one an inner glow and makes one feel that all is right with the world, that all conflict is really just superficial, and that universal understanding is possible. It isn’t, of course, but it is pleasant to indulge briefly in the fantasy that it is.