<<Soon it is going to be Muharram Time.>>


The tape deck is playing the marsia 'gamka paigham leke aya ye mahe muharram...' heralding Muharram. It's soulfully rendered by Murtaza Bandali. You probably know him, he's in Watford. His audio cassettes and CDs are available in plenty and i'm sure those members who have taste for melody ought to like them, also there is striking similarity between Sikh kirtan and Muslim marsia. 

Soon the new moon will be sighted to proclaim the month of Muharram, the first month of Islamic calender. To us Shias it is a period of mourning for Imam Husein, the grandson of Prophet Mohamed, and his family and friends who were martyred in the battle of Karbala some 1400 years ago. The tragedy of Karbala resounds everywhere and reenacted with words, tears, shabihs and processions. The mausoleum at Karbala in Iraq is a site of pilgrimage, and despite the war by insurgents raging on thousands of devotees are bound to flock there for Muharram. 

Muharram for me evokes poignant memories right from the good old Zanzibar through Bombay/Karachi to different places where i've had the opportunity of observing it. I recall the ladies gathering at our place and shaping the dough into ladwas that were then distributed as nyaz (prasad). It was also customary to dip stock of old cloths in a container with certain liquid to blacken them as all of us had to wear black. Those who have seen the Indian film Gaman(National award winner) directed by Muzaffarali may recall the scene where Smita Patil is shown blackening the cloths and rendering the gazal 'Kasim bane dula'. That reminds of the eve of 7th of Muharram when ladies threaded asmini (jasmine) and rose petals, prepared mehndi, arranged thals of fruits, dry fruits, siro, coconut chips along with boiled grams and sugar lumps. Then little girls carrying flags, candles and mehndi plates over the sides of which hanged asmini sehras walked to and fro while the ladies with thals moved around encircling the girls and chanting 'Kasim bane dula'. It used to be so ceremonial and moving, and done in grand style. 

Muharram was always emotionally charged. The imambara emanated air that was filled with attar, udi, asmini and rose fragrance. The glittering alams (standard) and audition provided splendour to the fully packed imambara. Day and night we attended majlises. Even while at school we skipped classes to go to Mehfile Abbas where we were served chai na toss (tea & toast). At noon we gathered for jaman at the imambara. The process continued for 12 continuous days. 

On the night of Ashura(10th night of Muharram) a julus procession was being taken out. The placard, banners, alam, jhulo (small tabut), tabut and chest beating matam symbolized the julus. What attracted Zanzibar's cosmopolitan public lined up the route to witness the julus was zuljanah, a horse draped in blood spotted white piece adorned with arrows, armour and sword, and also the zanjeer matam (beating breast with zanjeer and bleeding profusely). The atmosphere would be awash with doleful nauha chants. There was sabil of sharbat in every corner and everyone offered to drink it in memory of the martyred Imam. 

The climax was on Ashura day, the 10th of Muharram. It used to be a public holiday in Zanzibar, thanks to Ali Nathoo whose charity after the First World War and during the famine in Zanzibar knew no bounds. The British Government in recognition of his services offered him knighthood but he declined the title 'Sir' and instead asked for public holidays on 10th of Muharram and 21st of Ramadhan. His wishes were granted and these 2 days were marked as public holidays for 45 years, from 1920 to 1964. Also Husein Rahim being Chairman of Zanzibar Broadcasting Corporation, Sauti Ya Unguja broadcast marshia, nauha and live majlis from kabrastan. 

The dim lit shame ghariba recounted the cruelty inflicted upon the ladies and children of the Imam after his martydom. It culminated in the processional rite of 'wa Askara' yells by a small girl with her hairs loosened and a kooza in her hand while the others holding candles walked behind her. The older boys carrying flags followed and the audience chanted Aye shiaun imshab, shame gharibanast in unison. 

Shame Ghariba reminds me of Bombay where we attended its majlis at Rehmatabad cemetery (where film actress Meena Kumari is buried) on Ray Road along Mazgaon. At dusk when the majlis began candles placed on every grave would be lighted creating dim and sombre atmosphere. On our way back we'd be confronted with beggars who in expectation of alms queued up the route from the cemetery. 

In Karachi after the morning majlis at Nishtar Park on Sadar the big julus procession stretching for almost a mile commenced from there and culminated in the evening at Bara Imambara in the Khoja vicinity of Kharadhar. The Shame Ghariba majlis would then be telecast live. 

We'd first heard the story of Karbala in majlises that we'd attended in our childhood. Each repetition freshens its memory. Come all sorts of tragedies but their memories fade as does the pain associated with them, but the memory of Husain and his sacrifice never fades. It is a pain that goes beyond any individual pain and returns afresh every year as rightly stated by the great poet Allama Iqbal, ‘Islam zinda hota hai har karbalake baad



Last updated November 2007 Copyright © Abdulrazak Fazal 2007 - All Rights Reserved