Claudia Borgia

Arbaeen. In the footsteps of Hazrat-e Zaynab.

Iraq 2013 - 2019

The pilgrimage to the holy shrine of Imam Hossein, in Kerbala.

The guideline of this journey is the searching for truth. Travel is life. This stage is part of a study project on the devotion of the Islamic woman. Sister of Imam Hossein, the martyr of Kerbala, Hazrat-e Zeynab is the bearer of the messages of Ashura. Witness of martyrdom from the top of a desert hill, she was taken prisoner and brought to the palace of Caliph Yazid, in Damascus. It was here that she revealed the truth about the massacre of Imam Hossein and his companions and awakened people hypnotized by Yazid's false propaganda, who wanted to pass Hossein as a rebel. It is said that had it not been for Zeynab, the tragic event of Karbala would have been forgotten and the messages of Ashura, about truth and justice, to name but two, would not have been passed down from generation to generation. Today, yesterday and every year, millions of pilgrims trample the same ground on which Zeynab walked first as a prisoner and then as a free woman, guardian of the truth.
I walked beside the Iranian women I knew and I have met the eyes, hands and smiles of Iraqi women. Some of them were on pilgrimage like us, others, unable to go to Karbala, assisted pilgrims on their way: this is also a way to "conquer a piece of paradise". I was able to know a little more about the devotion that involves them.

Only at the gate of the flight to Najaf I do realize that I'm already on the pilgrimage. I thought it started there, I thought it started with the real path but it didn't. In advance and unveiled like others, who then got up and boarded for Malè, I was the only one "naked" and faced with the evidence of belonging to a minority, in the queue for boarding I pulled the scarf that I had around my neck up on my head. In the footsteps of Zeynab, with the aim of continuing the photographic reportage on the woman's devotion to Imam Hossein, I imagined myself walking alongside the pilgrims, in a centuries-old history that involves millions of Shiites.
I'm at Najaf airport. Sitting on a carpet of luggage including mine, a huge backpack and an acid green trolley, with the head covered but without a chador, I arouse the attention of a security officer, who approaches and politely asks me if he needs help. Saying that I am here for Imam Hossein opens doors and smiles to me: I receive water and a telephone to find my fellow pilgrims.
I wait for hours for Samaneh, my Iranian friend and interpreter, and her group. I applied for a visa for Iraq at the Iraqi embassy in Italy, which after about a month and two interviews decided to grant it to me. The group of Samaneh that comes from Iran is following the grueling process for which a visa is requested directly at the airport of arrival, for religious reasons. After about 4 hours they enter Iraqi territory.
Samaneh brought the whole family: her daughter Fatima, the first one I saw and who continues to stare at me; her husband Ali Reza, whom I remember only greeting with a nice smile; Mrs Madani, her mother, who speaks to me a little in English and is very affectionate; and her uncle. Who knows what was the event that this time allowed her to make the pilgrimage with the whole family. I remember last year Samaneh told me she found the money to leave by miracle, that's how he defined it: only thanks to the sale of a pair of earrings found at the bottom of a drawer he was able to book the last seat on the plane for Najaf.
Three buses take us to the city. Once we get off, to get to the place where we will sleep, we drag our suitcases along a dirt road. At the top I get scolded because my scarf falls off, leaving my hair uncovered. I decide that from here on I will wear the al-amira, a sort of hood that slips on to cover the head and neck, more practical and functional, and that must be put on before wearing the chador. I'm the only one who doesn't have a chador on and that's why I still arouse curiosity. I see and feel that everyone is looking at me: the women look at me, some with a hint of a smile, and the men look at me, some reproachfully, some sideways. After the climb we have to walk a little longer and a girl, Mariam, accompanies me, approaches me, greets me and begins with the usual questions. It strikes me that she talks more about herself. She explains that she also speaks French, in addition to the English she is speaking with me, that she has lived in Paris and that she teaches it in a school in Tehran. She also tells me that it is not the first time she has made this pilgrimage and she has taken vacation. She asks me if I am a Muslim and when I say I am not she points out that her name is like that of Jesus' mother, Mary, and smiles at me.
We arrive at the place where we will sleep. I'm not sure what to expect. Last year I was in Nooshabad, a town three hours by bus south-east from Tehran, to attend the commemorations of the martyrdom of Imam Hossein. There were no hotels. I was hosted by a family and slept on a carpet for 10 days.
Strictly separated from the men, we enter a building that still has exposed bricks on the outside. The interior looks finished. The long and wide corridor is only dirty with earth. I enter one of the large rooms of about 80 square meters, having the foresight to leave the shoes out, and imitate what other women do: I take one of the blankets, neatly folded in its transparent case and stacked in the center of the room, and I conquer a portion of carpet. I know that that rectangle measuring approximately 70 by 1.80 centimeters will be my bed, my table and my wardrobe for these two days we will spend in Najaf before leaving on foot, so I furnish it in the most functional way possible: I empty the suitcase of the essentials and I put it up behind my head, while I decide that the backpack will use it as a pillow. Samaneh, my precious interpreter, is not with me. Her mother tells me she went to visit a friend. Still following the example of the others, I bundle up in the blanket and rest for a while.
After about two hours one of the women sleeping in my room, Fatima, wakes me up and, in English, warns me that they are about to go to the Shrine of Imam Ali, and asks me if I want to go with them. Cousin and son-in-law of the Prophet Muhammad, for the Shiites Imam Ali is the second of the twelve Imams and it is here that he is buried. A wash of the face, the shoes, the chador, that Fatima settles me before leaving, and I'm ready. She understands my difficulties and my desire of respect for them, but my hair is sticking out and this is not a touch of vanity as it can be in Tehran. We go out. As we walk, without me asking her anything, she explains to me that the chador is a protection and she, like all women, is happy to wear it and to protect herself from the prying eyes of men. She also tells me that for her it is the first pilgrimage to the tomb of Imam Hossein and she is not afraid, even if two days ago there was an attack on pilgrims not far from Najaf. "Dying on the road to Kerbala is the most a Shiite could wish for, to conquer paradise". My tension rises. Up to that point, my only concern had been walking with too heavy a backpack. Leaving all the superfluous, the metaphor of life that I thought I had learned during the Camino de Santiago in 2011, I had not been able to put it into practice and this worried me so much that it had not made me consider the risk of attacks. I did not want to die on the road to Kerbala. I feel like I'm making a pilgrimage within a pilgrimage. We arrive near the Sanctuary amidst pushing, due to the crowds, and trying to avoid the pilgrims who are sitting on the ground.
We enter. I am surrounded by women who knock on the portal covered with green sheets using the clapper, caress it and then touch their head or face. They cry clinging to the silver railing of the window that allows those who cannot or cannot enter the tomb to see from the outside. They knot the green threads or ribbons that have already been knotted by other women 12 times. We are in the courtyard of the mosque but not inside the tomb because Fatima has her period, she cannot enter, and we don't want to leave her alone. It is time for prayer. We settle on the carpets. While my companions are praying, I, who am sitting next to them, have time to reflect and to look around. On my right I see a couple opening a black scarf and spreading it on the bare floor for everyone to walk over. When Fatima finishes one of her prayers she explains to me that that gesture serves to ask Imam Ali to cure the illness of a loved one. It is as if in that way the scarf is "charged" with sacred energy and is used to cure the sick. She too did it when she was in Mashad, in the Shrine of Imam Reza, for her daughter who was still not speaking at the age of 3. Once she got home she caressed her with the scarf and after 3 days she started talking.
It's the first day. I arrived in Iraq at 2 am. After the accommodation, the visit to the Imam Ali Shrine and the dinner based on rice and boiled chicken, I go to sleep at 9.30 pm.
Around 4.30am I begin to hear some noises: some are getting ready for the first prayer and around 6.30 all of them have prayed. The comings and goings from the room to the bathroom for the ablutions have benn continuous. After the prayer, time is suspended: some of them are sitting and looking into the void, evidently still sleepy, some lie down again and others eat yesterday's bread or some snacks brought from home. It is getting light and breakfast also arrives.
At 9.00am almost all of them went out and I don't know what to do. I think I'll take a little walk right around the building where we sleep, but I don't feel comfortable going out on my own, so I remain sit in my rectangle.
At 12.00am they finally come to pick me up to go and visit the Kufa Mosque, the city where Imam Ali was killed with a sword blow to the head, Samaneh explains. I am without a watch, as usual, without a telephone and without a camera: they advised me not to bring anything, because they would not let me in.
Only my eyes look and register. Everyone is scrambling to get in. At the entrance reserved for women for a moment I was afraid of being crushed. I begin to get to know Iraqi women: they are strong, they push, they impose their bodies and at the same time they tear themselves apart crying and praying. The Iranian women with whom I share this experience seem to me more contained.
While we are pressed against each other, I see everyone touching their fingertips, phalanges and phalanges with their thumbs: they count how many times they say Allah Akhbar (Allah is great). It is the same gesture that we can observe in those who shell the tasbih, the Muslim rosary.
We are inside and for my companions it is the time of prayer. We sit in the courtyard of the mosque, on the carpets. I am with Mrs Mohammadi and her friend. I see them open a case and pull out an elegant white handkerchief with lace edges to put the stone on. They pray together: they take turns reading passages from the prayer book aloud, performing the usual actions, and then reading again. For me it is time to reflect and look around me.
I see many people talking: the mosque is also a place to meet and exchange a chat, ideas or political opinions. I see many other people celebrating the rite of commemoration of the martyrdom of Imam Hossein. At the center of a large group of people, where the women are on the sidelines, a man recites aloud the deeds of the Imam, what did the Imam's enemies who and the courageous Zeynab. Then he despairs singing the verses with which he asks the Imam for forgiveness for not having responded to his cry for help. All the people around him repeat these words and beat their chests. Between prayers Mrs Mohammadi proudly tells me that they are Iranians, not only because they speak Persian, but also because of their elegant way of performing these rites. Once the prayers are over, we approach them. Throughout the yard and even in my body, the chants and blows these men give themselves on the chest resound.
The late afternoon flows frenetically in the building where we are staying. Preparations are in full swing because tomorrow we leave for the journey to Karbala. The instructions are to close the suitcase and leave it in the corridor, because it will be taken directly to its destination, and carry only a light backpack. In the unfurnished room, full of women talking all the time and screaming children excited about leaving, everything booms. I realize that I am straining to hear my thoughts, stay focused and above all calm.

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