I was born and raised in a Shia Muslim household in Pakistan. For me Moharram, Ashura and Azadari are part of my life and childhood. However if you were raised in the subcontinent or had Shia Muslim friends you might have some insights into the observation of this month.
I do not wish to write a religious piece. I know there are different opinions on this topic and I respect them all. This is just me feeling nostalgic and thinking about Moharram of my childhood. I grew up in the Pakistan of the 80s. The world felt more peaceful because maybe we didn’t hear the bad news as much or as often through blaring “breaking news” on constantly switched on TV sets. There was a public holiday on the 9th and 10th of Moharram as is still today. While we had started the observation from the eve of the first of Moharram, PTV would telecast a majlis for all viewers across Pakistan on the 9th and 10th of Moharram. For a Shia kid, who hardly had any Shia friends in school, this was a big deal. It was a moment of inclusion and realization that the mourning of Imam Hussain (A.S) was not limited within the Shia Muslims but was for all. Talib Johari’s Majlis-e-Shaam-e-Ghareeban and Nasir Jahan’s “Salam-e-Akhir“ are probably just as nostalgic for anyone who listened to them on PTV, as for me.
My first memory of Moharram is lying in my dadi’s (paternal grandmother) lap as we listened to a female orator sitting on a raised platform delivering a majlis in a huge hall filled with women and children. She spoke into a mic to carry her voice over the huge crowd and the wires of that mic tangled under the platform which was covered with a black cloth. My dadi always sat right at the front which meant that my toes played dangerously with the wires of the mic as I hid my feet under the cloth covering the platform. My dadi praised the orator through frequent “wah wah”, “beshak”, “SubhanAllah”, “Kya baat hai” and sometimes raised her voice in a three-step cheer of appreciation: “Naara-e-Takbeer”, (to which the crowd responded Allah-o-Akbar), “Naar-e-Risaalat” (responded with a “Ya Rasul Allah” P.B.U.H) and “Naara-e-Haideri” (at this the room echoed with Ya Ali). The hall would settle with a loud recitation and rippling of Darood and the orator (called Zakir or Hadees Khawan) would get an opportunity to drink a glass of water and fix the dupatta over her head.
As a child, the various moods of the majlis were fascinating. These gatherings were always gender segregated. The majlis started with a recitation of Hadees e Kisa, and then announcements of the upcoming majalis as the crowd kept coming in and getting settled. The start of soz khawani would be by a group that would recite poetic verses on various topics , some pleasant and others tragic. As they recited verses in praise of Allah, his last Prophet P.B.U.H and His Ahle Bait the crowd would smile and nod encouragingly. As the topic turned to the tragic events of Karbala, handkerchiefs would come out and cover eyes wet with tears. The Marsiya was a tragic poetic narration and would always start with a Surat Fatiha for all martyrs of Karbala. The Hadees was a lecture given by a usually well-learned scholar. It would start with one verse of the Quran and it’s explanation, context and applicability to daily lives. At the end one tragic event of Karbala was narrated and the mood would again change to that of mourning. The majlis was concluded with Noha and Matam. This is the face of Moharram that most people view on media. It is definitely one of the most emotionally charged ones. Chests are thumped in sorrow, as the crowd joins in the chants following the lead of the Nohakhawan (narrator). The majlis concluded with the distribution of Tabaruk (food) for all attendees.
As a child Matam and Tabaruk were the highlights of the majlis. We would keep an ear out to hear the ending of the Hadees which was marked by the crying sounds of the women as the masaib started. We knew matam would start soon after and rushed in to join the crowd as they got up on their feet and arranged themselves in rings of outpouring circles. The children were always in the middle of the inner most ring. We enthusiastically participated in the matam and later when the majlis finished opened the brown bags passed on for Tabaruk in anticipation of what was inside. Samosas, Keemay-walay-naan and cream rolls were a few standard favorites. On some days one majlis was followed by another. My mother piled on as many women as would fit our van and then some more, on our way to the next majlis. The days of Moharram and Safar were busy. The stories of the valour of Hazrat Abbas, the leadership of Hazrat Zainab, the wisdom of Imam Hussain and the innocence of Hazrat Sakina, were descriptive and inspiring. The heroes of Karbala were my first few super heroes.
It was only as I grew up that I began to understand the universal appeal of the message of Imam Hussain (A.S.) and the tragic events of Karbala. I had never understood why grownups who are generally so composed cry like children in the majalis. I had tried as an 8-year-old to repeat the Nohas in the school playground for my friends, after they asked: “So what did you do this weekend”. The noha somehow didn’t seem to have the same effect and I only got curious confused looks in return. I learnt later that it’s not the words or the tune of the Noha that had the magical touch. It was understanding the meaning and significance of the message and that understanding only came with research, reading and learning. The majalis were a great source of this knowledge. They were however delivered in extremely difficult urdu. While the language improved greatly with the exposure, there were some concepts that totally flew over my head and I would question my dadi, my nani, and any other elder I got my hands on, to answer the never-ending series of queries. I was eventually directed to books to pave my own journey of understanding.
The format and flow of the majalis stayed the same through my childhood to growing up. It was after I traveled to the Middle East and then lived in North America, I realized that different countries observed Moharram and majalis in their own ways. My first experience of listening to a British scholar in Damascus deliver a speech in English was quite unnerving. Language had no effect on the message of Karbala. The tears came just as naturally.
I learnt that not everyone who came to the majlis was a Shia Muslim. There were Muslims from others sects and some from other religions. I learnt that people cried for Hussain for many reasons. They cried for him, his helplessness and his bravery. But they also cried for themselves, their own sorrows and tragedies. Some came to forget their losses, and find solace for their broken hearts. Others came to find courage in the story of Hussain. I remember explaining the events of Karbala to my 9-year-old nephew many years ago. He couldn’t understand that how did Imam Hussain win, even though he died. I told him that understanding the meaning of this question is the legacy of Imam Hussain and might take him a few years to accept, but when he does, he would have grown up.