February 28th - Ashura
01 Mar 2004
The parade for the Shia festival of Ashura.
Two lines of young men, dressed in black, belts at the waist so T shirts flare at the bottom, green headbands around dark hair, swing their arms up, hands to the sky, swing them down so their bodies bend forwards as well, bring their hands up to chest height, arms bent at the elbow, mark another beat and then, with the crash of drums and cymbals, thump their chests.

The devotional music has been blaring from the Shia mosques for a week, telling the story of the death of Hussein, son of the Imam Ali and grandson of the prophet Mohammed. Every Shia mosque sends out a parade. The women were walking on the pavement, covered in black from head to foot, some of them clapping a hand to the chest with the drumbeat. Later they formed a small bloc at the back of the parade, the old women with henna tattoo-ed faces and a lifetime of tears in their eyes, the very small women on their first parade and all the others in between, two of them sharing a joke and hiding the smiles under layers of black.

Our street is in the merging point between the Christian and the Shia communities. For all that people deny there are divisions, there are often quite defined areas occupied by each sect. The young men had T shirts with the face of the Imam Hussein. Ahmed, the green eyed man from the juice bar, had the T shirt but didn’t walk in the parade. The pavements were full of people watching.

The parade stopped. The men stood side by side, took out the chains which had been tucked into their belts, and joined up, a chain between each of them. They released hands and turned to the front again. The march changed and they began, on each beat, swinging the chains like a kung fu display, the last movement of each cycle being the chain hitting their own back, over the shoulder. It looked more ceremonious than painful but still a timely reminder, I suppose, that it would be a bad plan to provoke Iraq’s Shia population too far.

The kids pointed out older brothers and cousins in the parade, especial pride for those with any responsible task, holding one of the shining coloured flags, a banner covered with glittering, intricate Arabic calligraphy, the picture of Hussein. The Iraqi flag was swung in a figure eight pattern from the roof of the mosque and red, black and green flags hung from all the Shia windows: red for Hussein’s blood, black for mourning and green as the colour of life.

All around the parade were more young men with big guns. Traffic here is at best disobedient but the amount of weaponry was still surprising. Sami said it was because they were afraid of being attacked. The Sunni don’t observe Ashura; many think it is haram – forbidden or sinful because, as they see it, it is founded on lies. Ahmed, when we asked him, explained that the Shia say certain things happened before, during and after Hussein’s last battle, but that those versions of events are not true. He seemed very certain of what had gone on, about 1,400 years ago; as certain, I expect, as the Shia are of their belief.