By Maryam Qarehgozlou

Muharram, rejoining families, promoting intimacy

September 18, 2018 - 10:16

Once I grew old enough to figure out the main reasons behind the mourning rituals of Muharram I became genuinely fond of it, as it is not just a month grieve, but a time to heighten the strong sense of intimacy.

The mourning of Muharram or Muharram observances marks the anniversary of the Battle of Karbala (October 10, 680 AD) in present-day Iraq. The battle took place between a small group of supporters and relatives of Prophet Mohammad (PBHU) grandson, Imam Hossein (AS), and a larger military detachment from the forces of Yazid I, the Umayyad caliph.

Imam Hossein (AS) was martyred and beheaded in the battle, along with most of his family members and companions, including his six-month-old son, Ali al-Asghar, with the women and children taken as prisoners.

The battle has a central place in Shia history, tradition and theology and it has frequently been recounted in Shia Islamic literature. However, for me the month is not just about mourning the unfortunate events of the Battle of Karbala.  

The month of Muharram is inextricably tied with my childhood memories. Being pre-occupied with the thought of wearing black clothes (a tradition observed in this month to show the sorrow at the events of Karbala), asking my older cousins to let me help with preparing Nazri food (charity food being distributed among the mourners) and the smell of dried capsules of esfand mixed with other ingredients which were placed onto red hot charcoal, and the sound of little popping noises once they explode.

While we, as children felt great sorrow for Imam Hossein (AS) and his family and the way Umayyad caliph had treated them and could actually relate to them by thinking how hard it was to lose all your loved ones, we also felt good because we knew all we did was in a good cause. 

Being almost 28, I remember experiencing Muharram both during long and hot summer days and freezing winter days. 

My grandmother’s house, a fairly spacious two-story home with a big yard, was the best place to stay during the mourning days of Muharram. Staying up all night to prepare Nazri food, taking turns to stir the food in big pots, either during chilly nights of winter or short summer nights with the soft breeze sweeping through the trees, are the nostalgic, treasured memories of my childhood.

Boys used to go out with their fathers to take part in mourning rituals such as Sineh-Zani (chest beating), and we girls used to stay at home with our mothers and aunts to prepare Nazri food. 

Actually women in our family, my grandmother above everyone else, were on top of everything to prepare the best food and drinks they could and distribute it among the mourners especially on the ninth and tenth days of Muharram (Tasu’a and Ashura).

On cold winter days I can vividly remember big pots of milk boiling on the stove and once we heard voices of mourners passing our street we hurried to pour milk in small cups to dish them out among them. 

And likewise, during summer, when the scorching sun made everyone to work up a thirst we distributed cold homemade drinks to quench the mourners thirst. 

In addition to Nazri food, we also used to make Halva (sweet confections), in memory of those of our loved ones who passed away over the past years. 

In my view that’s how the Battle of Karbala, and what Imam Hossein accomplished by sacrificing himself and his family not only kept Islam truly alive, but also kept humanity alive. 

On a smaller scale, the months is an opportunity for many of us, who are apart from each other for almost all year round swamped with works and private affairs, to rejoin those we care about and remember people who used to be among us. 

And that’s why for me, Muharram is not simply a month to mourn, it’s a time for us to reunite with our families and to remember those we lost, it reminds us to cherish what we already have and develops deep intimacy between us.


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