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Ashoura in Nabatieh, Lebanon

05.12.2011 Nabatieh, Lebanon.Ashoura is one of the most important religious holidays for Shiites, one of the two opposing branches of Islam. It is celebrated to commemorate the death of Imam Hossein ibn Ali, who died in the battle of Karbala in 680 AD. Hossain, a grandson of the prophet Mohammad, fought at Karbala the Ummayad family whose leadership he refused to recognize. His army was vastly outnumbered and the resulting slaughter cemented his status among Shiites as a religious martyr. It is also considered an important catalyst for the split between Sunni and Shiite Muslims.

Ashoura is an annual religious holiday that unites Shiite Muslims. Nabatieh, Lebanon, which has a large population of Shiite, hosts a particularly vibrant festival to commemorate the holiday every year. Tens of thousands of believers take part in processions and historical reconstructions of the battle at Karbala which the holiday commemorates. The most commonly known ritual Haidar is controversial for both Muslims and foreigners. The word haidar means lion. The ritual is performed by cutting the skin on the head of the believer which causes profuse bleeding. It is supposed to be an act of unity with the fallen Imam Hossein who died at Karbala. Joining Haidar is voluntary and mostly performed by young men. Ritual participants are considered deeper believers and socially recognized as brave and fearless. Another ritual celebration of Ashoura is Zanjeer. A procession of barefoot flagellants, using special chain scourges, cause themselves pain in an attempt to bring themselves closer to Imam Hossiein and the sacrifice he made in the name of religion. Pain, blood and suffering are the essence of the religious unity of the community.

The bloody rituals arent received well in many foreign countries and face challenges from within other factions of the Islamic community, such as the Shiites. The two main Shiite organizations differ in opinion. Hezbollah is against the primitive looking rituals while Amal supports them.Acts of self mutilation are forbidden according to certain interpretations of the Koran. Opponents of the bloody rituals point out that these practices spread the bad reputation of Islam worldwide. Without understanding and explanation they say Haidar and Zanjeer look uncivilised and violent which supports the image of Muslims as being threatening and cruel.The worshippers emphasize the depth of religious feelings and bonding between the people preserved by the controversial ceremony. Some say it is the only day in the year when they dont feel the pain.The atmosphere during the procession is very different from what may look like cruelty. The streets of Nabatieh get crowded a day before the main procession. Whole families march in the streets and it becomes a uniquely social experience with people serving free food on the street, locksmiths and barbers sharpening knives and swords for free and medical assistance for participants. There are also several mobile medical points in town providing opportunities for Ashoura participants to donate blood. Police, alongside members of Amal and Hezbollah serve as security guards. Those who dont take part in Haidar and Zanjeer, take part in the procession by praying, punching their chests or beating their heads to submerge themselves in the highly emotional experience. Those who take part in the procession propel themselves into religious ecstasy. The procession is a draw for hundreds of people who observe the ceremonies, families walk along the procession and share food in the picnic like atmosphere. Foreigners are also welcomed to witness the event.


Maciej Moskwa