An insider's account of the Shiite pilgrimage to Karbala

Crowds gather at the entrance to the mausoleum of Ali Hussein in Karbala
Shia Muslims from around the world have poured into the holy city of Karbala in Iraq for the annual pilgrimage Arbaeen. It’s not only often a lengthy journey, it’s also a dangerous one.
One of the holiest days in the Shia calendar, Arbaeen marks the end of the forty day mourning period for the death of Ali Hussein. As the grandson of the Prophet Mohammed, Hussein is one of the most revered figures in Shia Islam. He’s said to have been killed in 690AD in a battle against Yazid Ibn Muawiya in Karbala.
Despite making up the majority of Iraqi Muslims, Shiites were brutally oppressed under the rule of former dictator Saddam Hussein. The pilgrims’ ranks have swelled since Saddam Hussein was toppled in 2003 during the US-led invasion. But they are now the target of attacks, believed to be the work of Sunni insurgent groups.
On Thursday January 3rd, 17 Shiites were killed in a car bomb while en route to Karbala.
Pilgrims from Bassorah on their way to Karbala.

"The pilgrimage is an occasion to see the diversity of the world’s Shia population"

38-year-old Meead al Mhanna is a sports teacher. He lives in Hindiya, 20km from Karbala. His town is also known as ‘Touireg’, which means ‘small route’ in Arabic, as it makes up part of the pilgrim’s path.
“The pilgrims head to Karbala on foot from across Iraq. Those from abroad tend to land in Nadjaf Airport [Editor’s note: 60km from Karbala], and walk from there to the holy city.
The groups of pilgrims carry banners naming which towns and regions they’re from. Many come from Bassora [Editor’s note: Iraq’s second city, situated in the south and majority Shiite]. But I’ve seen them from Qom in Iran, Bahrain and even Qatar.
The pilgrims sing and chant songs about their martyr, Ali Hussein. They also play out historic scenes depicting stories of Hussein’s family members who were imprisoned, some of whom, like his sister Zeinab and his daughter Rokaya, were killed in the battle for Karbala.
Scene with women representing Hussein’s imprisoned family members.
"We cannot be deterred from celebrating Arbaeen"
When night falls, the pilgrims sleep in towns and villages along the way. The town of Al Hindiya is the last stop before Karbala. It welcomes a lot of people during the last days before the pilgrimage. They set up tents and residents give them food, drink and blankets. Some invite them to stay in their homes.
Security forces were on high alert because Shiites face a big risk of attack. There are soldiers and police everywhere, and helicopters in the sky. There are checkpoints at the entrances to some towns and cities. The idea is to protect people against terrorists, but we know well that it’s impossible to guarantee security given the sheer number of pilgrims. But in spite of the dangers, we cannot be deterred from celebrating Arbaeen.
The pilgrimage ends with a visit to the mausoleum of Ali Hussein, where his body is buried [Editor’s note: various theories exist as to where his head was buried, some claiming it was buried in Cairo, while others claim Damascus]. The prayer in front of the tomb must be brief to give everyone a chance to pray. The pilgrims then continue to celebrate in a court-like space within the mausoleum. Some depict historic scenes while walking on red hot embers, while others hit themselves on the head, to show their devotion. Not all Shiites appreciate these practices, but the pilgrimage is an occasion to see the diversity of the world’s Shia population. 
Pilgrims from last year in front of the mausoleum of Ali Hussein in Karbala. The child on the horse's back represents Hussein's son. 
People dressed in old-fashioned clothes represent prisoners. This video also dates from last year.
Cet article a été rédigé en collaboration avec Sarra Grira (@SarraGrira), journaliste à France24.


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