Approaching Nabatiyeh’s main square, chants of “ya Hussein, ya Hussein” rang out, accompanied by the steady, catalytic rhythm of a drumbeat. Men dressed in white, covered in blood, marched in groups intermittently slapping the crowns of their heads where small cuts had purposefully been opened up by razorblades.
Several checkpoints had been set up, manned at intervals by members of the Shia party Amal, and different units of the Lebanese armed forces. Hezbollah were also keeping an eye on proceedings. Dahiyeh, the party’s Beirut stronghold, had been hit by two calculated bomb attacks in the preceding summer months, resulting in the deaths of at least 24 people. Intelligence reports circulating in local media in the build-up to Ashura hazarded that the event could be targeted by Salafist groups linked to the Syrian opposition as retribution for Hezbollah’s military support of the Assad regime.
Ashura is the most significant date in the Shia religious calendar. It commemorates the martyrdom of Hussein ibn Ali, the grandson of the Prophet Mohammad, at the hands of the Sunni Ummayad leader Yazid during the battle of Karbala (680 AD) – an event that marks the definitive schism between the Sunni and Shia communities. If ever there was an opportunity to foment sectarian discord in a country accustomed to inter and intra-religious strife and currently divided over Syria’s civil war, it was during Ashura.
Commemorations the world over are marked by sorrowful, poetic recitations recalling the events of Karbala, sermons eulogising Hussein’s esteemed position within Shia Islam, and re-enactments of the battle itself. However, the extreme self-flagellation practiced by supporters of Amal in Nabatiyeh is uncommon, having increasingly been deemed heretical by Shia religious leaders since the foundation of Iran in 1979. Ali Khamenei, Iran’s supreme leader, instead encourages mass blood donations – a policy followed by Hezbollah, the Iranian regime’s main allies in Lebanon.
"Open your bag please," said an Amal security officer as I reached the final checkpoint. I did as he asked and he proceeded with a fairly rigorous pat down. Meanwhile, a man holding a 15-inch blade and covered in blood was ushered through with a smile and a slap on the back.
“I found myself standing beside a woman rocking the swaggest Ashura outfit on offer: peroxide blonde hair, knock-off Chanel sunglasses, skin tight leopard-print trousers"
I proceeded to follow the procession around Nabatiyeh’s central square, past a man carrying an enormous flag emblazoned with the word "Hussein" in blood red ink, an assortment of horses and camels preparing to re-enact the battle of Karbala, a child with his head cut open holding a replica Dhul Fiqar (the famous double-edged sword carried by Ali, the first Shia Imam and father of Hussein), and hundreds of participants caught up in moments of religious ecstasy.
Mothers, wives, and sisters walked alongside the procession mopping blood from the foreheads and torsos of loved ones, whilst Islamic Red Crescent tents were erected at regular intervals ready to treat more serious self-injuries.
"Around six hundred to a thousand people are treated each year," said Rawad Mansur, a local Red Crescent worker standing nearby before explaining that the majority just need to sit down and have a breather for a few minutes, with a minority requiring stitches and the occasional transfer to the local A&E. Minutes later, I’d narrowly avoid such a trip after the blade of a sword, separated from its handle by the friction caused by scraping the weapon against the floor, went flying past my left shoulder blade.
Meanwhile, conducting interviews with participants was proving somewhat problematic. My first attempt to speak with a particularly bloodied adolescent resulted in a rather non-committal response. "I’m dizzy," said the young man before stumbling into the welcoming arms of a medic standing nearby.
Thankfully, others were more forthcoming. "There are not as many people here as usual," said Ali Hassan, standing in the courtyard of Nabatiyeh’s 16th century mosque. "People have stayed away because of the security threats. They are fearful of an attack."
“But I am not scared,” continued Hassan somewhat defensively, “we exist in this world because of Ashura, Every single tear, every drop of our blood is for Hussein.”
As Hassan departed the mosque’s courtyard I noticed a guy wearing a pair of L.A. Lights, their flashing LEDs appearing somewhat incongruous given the surroundings. Then during the re-enactment of the Karbala narrative I found myself standing beside a woman rocking possibly the swaggest Ashura outfit on offer: peroxide blonde hair, knock-off Chanel sunglasses, skin tight leopard-print trousers, and eight-inch red stilettos. No one seemed to mind.
“Maria Jawhari, an 18 year-old student living in the area wrote on social media: ‘I have escaped three bombings, I don’t know if I will survive the fourth.’"
The re-enactment itself was a pretty hammy affair involving half the cast lip syncing and the remainder possessing voices so deep they made Brian Blessed’s seem like a Minnie Riperton hook. A member of Hussein’s cavalry fell off his horse twice and proceeded to chase the disgruntled beast round the arena. Then, during the climax of the re-enactment, the actor playing Hussein – seemingly in a moment of impromptu rage – fly-kicked an enemy in the balls shortly before meeting his scripted fate. The atmosphere was defined by a strange mix of intense mourning meets family day-out, overt machismo meets fear of a terrorist attack. I temporarily indulged the thought that this would be one of the most inappropriate arenas in the world for a spot of streaking.
“Ashura is not just about shedding blood. The message of rebellion against injustice underlying the story is the most important thing and this idea should not be limited to one sect,” said Mona Bitar, a local shop-owner. Bitar pointed out that figures including Mohatma Gandhi have been influenced by the Karbala narrative: “The principles are more important than the blood.”
Unfortunately, political allegiances in Lebanon have long been determined by sect, a reality accentuated by the current civil conflict in Syria. Ashura was perhaps too obvious a target. Four days later, twin bombings targeting the Iranian Embassy in Hezbollah’s south Beirut stronghold claimed 30 lives. Since that date, Hezbollah strongholds in Beirut and Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley have been bombed three times. A further explosion in downtown Beirut killed Mohammad Chatah, the former Finance Minister and close advisor to Hezbollah’s main political opponents on December 27th. Many Lebanese fear that such attacks, targeting those on either side of the political dividing line, could become a weekly occurrence.
Shortly before a suicide bomber self-detonated in the southern Beirut district of Haret Hreik yesterday, Maria Jawhari, an 18 year-old student living in the area wrote on social media: “I have escaped three bombings, I don’t know if I will survive the fourth.”
Jawhari along with three others were killed in the blast. The blood-letting on display during Nabatiyeh’s commemoration of Ashura, in all its macabre theatricality, was merely a moment of calm in an increasingly brooding storm.
Follow Martin Armstrong on Twitter here @scotinbeirut