ASHURA IN DAR ES SALAAM- 8th June, 1995-The Express  



It's Muharram & everywhere it's black

When the Shias dress in black they herald Muharram, the month of mourning for Imam Husain, the grandson of Prophet Mohamed, and his family and friends who were martyred in the battle of Karbala some 1400 years ago.

The Shia Muslims await Muharram with the anticipation of children. It is a period of tears and mourning, a time to remember the sacrifices that Imam Husain, his kith and kin underwent to defend Islam.

Come Muharram and the Shia world returns ritually to life. Daressalaam city, stretching from Mehfile Asgari at Libya street to the Shia mosque on Indira Gandhi street revives hectically at this time of commemoration of death and tragedy.

As if touched by a magic wand the Shias awake flocking the mosque and mehfils (mansions turned into majlis hall) which are drawn black with curtains and installed with alams (standards) insignia that Imam Husain carried in the battle of Karbala.

The story of Karbala resounds on microphones in mosques, mehfils and kabrastan (cemetery). The epic tragedy is reenacted with words, tears, shabihs and processions.

As a child I had imbibed it all in the sacred Zanzibar of yore and adhered to it in the years I was away. In here the place is different but not a changed Muharram, the same scenario. It is black all over-men in black shirts and trousers, ladies garbed in black shalwar kameez, frock, dupatta and hijaabs while children discover the awareness of Muharram.

In fact children are spontaneous in their beliefs and rush to Mehfile Bibi Sikina at Mohamed Kermali’s (Babu wa Lelu) place to obtain fateha(libation) that sacredly gets offered to them.

The mansion at Asia street that has been landmark in the history of Daressalaam’s Khoja Ithnashris as Mehfile Abbas since the days of colonial Tanganyika and run by the formidable lady, Fatmabai Mohamed Sheriff(Fatu Membei) remains intact, somber, sacred and fervent.

The community now is larger and the mehfile packed with the believers. It houses the replica of Hazrat Abbas’ mausoleum. Abbas was the brother of Imam Husain and his alamdar(commander in chief) who held the forces in the battle.

Another such mansion is Mehfile Asgari located at Libya street. It houses the replica of Hazrat Ali Asgar’s mausoleum. Asgar was the six month old baby boy of Imam Husain whose thirst for water remained unquenched and instead had his throat pierced by the arrow of the enemy.

Thursday afternoon will witness a hive of activities at Mehfile Asgari. The devotees will be busy directing preparations for the julus(mourning procession) at night. It will be the scene of applying scent and threading loads of flowers such as roses and jasmine into sehras tied on flags, alams, tabuts, mehmils and shabihs that will also be taking shape.

Non-Shias paying their respect outside Mehfile Asgari


The tabuts are placed outside the mehfile and there in the evening the devotional activities will be evident. Even non Shias pay their respect and make offerings signifying the universality of this event.

The youthful volunteers will clear the dust on the roads. Also the framework of the events of Ashura day at Karbala is laid upon the open ground by the side of the Asia street Police station opposite Chic King.

Thursday’s procession is one sacred event for which the city of Daressalaam waits. All roads will lead to Mehfile Asgari where the procession commences passing through Jamhuri street and terminating at the Shia mosque. Hundreds of Daressalaam’s cosmopolitan public line up the route for a glimpse of the procession. The atmosphere is awash with doleful nauha chants and the devotees replying the elegies in unison as the public watches in respectful silence. The julus reaches a crescendo when it arrives at the Shia mosque where the preacher briefs the public on the significance of the event.

It was in Karbala, Iraq, where Husain fought this battle along the waters of Euphrates against the army of the tyrant Yazid. Husain, his family and friends numbered only 72 but but fought with valour against thousands before attaining shahadat to save Islam.

There is sabil of sharbat then and everyone offered to drink it in memory of Karbala that had denied water to the children of Husain. At around midnight the aura is reinforced with zanjeer ritual. It is the beating of chest with chain of blades as the devotees recite elegies and bleed profusely.

The climax is reached at Shia imambara on Ashura day on Friday, the 10th Muharram at noon, the time of assar when Imam Husain became shaheed. As the story of Karbala will be recounted the Shias will openly cry and beat their chests. Imam’s last words to his sister Zainab were “Put your trust in Allah and know that man is born to die, and nothing will remain, everything shall pass away except the presence of His Almighty Allah. Also convey my salaams to all Muslims.”  Imam then rode his horse into the face of thousands of enemies.

In the evening the Shias gather at kabrastan(cemetery) to recite fatehas and majlis when the drooping sun and gradual spread of the evening will proclaim the eve of Shame Gariba.

At the imambara at night it is majlise Shame Gariba when lights will be dimmed adding to the poignancy of the situation. The majlis is short and tears flow abundantly as the preacher recounts the cruelty inflicted upon the ladies and children of the Imam after his martyrdom.

I had first heard the story of Karbala in majlises I had attended as a small boy. Generations of children have grown up hearing the same story through the years. Each repetition freshens and enhances its truth and larger meaning. One loses ones dear and near one, a fortune or even a kingdom but its memory fades as does its pain. But the memory of Husain and his unique sacrifice never fades. It is a pain that goes beyond any individual pain and returns afresh every year as rightly put by the great Urdu poet Iqbal, ‘Islam zinda hota hai har Karbala kebad’.

Framework of Karbala


The youthful volunteers cleaning the road




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