The politics of Ashura in Lebanon

Ashura was different in Nabatieh in 2015.

The town in South Lebanon attracts every year hundreds of Shiites who mark the commemoration of the Battle of Karbala when Imam Hussein ibn Ali, the grandson of Prophet Muhammad, was killed by the forces of the second Umayyad caliph Yazid I at Karbala, Iraq. 

Blood flows in Nabatieh during the procession that takes place in the central square of the town: men, teenagers and even little boys as well as a few women who made a pledge to perform the bloodletting ritual make and incision with a sword into their foreheads and let the blood flow on their faces in sign of mourning. 

In order to keep the blood flowing, they also hit the incision with the flat of the sword chanting Haidar! Haidar! [ Lion! Lion!],the nickname of Imam Ali, Hussein’s father, the son-in-law and cousin of Prophet Mohammad. In religious terms this is the Tatbir; in slang it is called “to hit Haidar.”

Often, some of the members of the procession are rushed out from the central square in an ambulance. The tenth day of Muharram was a Saturday this year. But not as many people as the years before crowded the alleyways of central Nabatieh. The security was tight.

Among tens of policemen and Red Cross volunteers, security officers who wear beige vests with pockets and black t-shirts with the green Amal Movement logo also supervise everything. The entrances are separate for men and women. The women’s entrance is in a tent, where four women body search all female believers and tourists carefully going through their purses. Foreign women are also briefly interrogated by the guardians covered in abayas: who they are, why they are there and who they might be friends with in town. If you don’t know anybody, you don’t get in.

Nabatieh is the only place in Lebanon and one of the few places in the world where people still practice the Tatbir. In the southern suburbs of Beirut, Hezbollah organizes a grandiose and clean commemoration with Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah showing up in person to deliver his speech this year. In Nabatieh, the Party of God does not sanction the disputed Tatbir and organizes a procession the thirteenth day of Muharram, the third day after Ashura.

The reason is, residents and political analysts say, that Amal Movement and Hezbollah, although political allies, have always had a convention of not mixing their crowds for the religious celebrations. The convention is about traditions, religion, but also political struggle to keep a strong grip over the most important Shiite majority town in South Lebanon.

The controversy of hitting Haidar in Nabatieh

The first Hussainiya [congregation hall for Shiite Muslim commemoration ceremonies during the Remembrance of Muharram] in the Levant was built in Nabatieh in 1910 by the grandfather of current imam of Nabatieh, Sheikh Abdul Hussein al-Sadiq.  At the time, the Ottoman rule was not very permissive with the Shiites in Lebanon.

“My great grandparents used to commemorate it in secret, at home. Also there was a commemoration in the Hay al-Serail Mosque, but it was also all very much in secret,” a resident of Nabatieh told NOW, speaking under the condition of anonymity. 

There was no bloodletting ritual in Nabatieh until Iranian doctor Bahij Mirza moved to the town. 

His house still stands in the Southern Lebanese city to the day.  It was right after the efforts made by the Iranian ruling Pahlavi family had convinced the Ottoman occupation to allow the public ceremonies of Ashura in Farsi for the Iranian residents of the town. 

“The Arabs only watched, never participated,” the resident says. “But they started taking part in the procession after the WWI and the fall of the Ottoman Empire. Gradually, the Iranian influence decreased, Arabic took the place of Farsi. I’m not sure exactly what year that happened; it was a gradual transition,” she explained.

The Tatbir or “hitting Haidar” is one of the most controversial practices in Shiite Islam. According to residents, the Imam of Nabatieh, Sheikh Abdel Hussein Sadik, cannot be convinced to give up the ritual because he says it is not a sin to shed blood for one day a year to commemorate Imam Hussein. The sheikh also enjoys great popularity in Nabatieh. 

Politically he is closer to Amal circles that he is to Hezbollah. Moreover, he also has an older grudge against the Party of God. Ashura was held in the town’s Hussainiya, and it is forbidden to be held elsewhere; however, Hezbollah tried to go against this rule and set up a tent in front of the Husseiniya and only took it down in 2005.. Sheikh Sadiq did not like it. To this day, the Hussainiya of Nabatiyeh is the only place where no image of Sayyed Nasrallah and or Ayatollah Ali Khamenei can be found.

A split town

The bloodletting ritual on Ashura in Nabatieh is still associated with the Amal Movement. That is because the party was there before Hezbollah and even before the Iranian revolution and Ayattollah Ruhollah Khomeini’s decision to label the Tatbir as haram. When Amal Movement was founded as the Movement of the Dispossessed in 1974 by Moussa Al-Sadr, it emerged as the only group to represent the Shite community in Lebanon, Ali, also a resident of Nabatieh, said.

“In the ‘70s, there was nothing political about Ashura. Amal did not go against the already existing popular beliefs.  In part this is because the Sadiq family, the imams of Nabatieh, as well Imam Moussa al-Sadr are of the Arab Hawza of Najaf, and do not follow the Iranian Qom doctrine that forbids the bloody practices. Therefore, they were pretty much in agreement,” he explained.

But Imam Moussa al-Sadr disappeared, the Lebanese civil war turned Amal Movement into a militia and Islamist Hezbollah emerged. The supporters of Hezbollah participated in Ashura, but it was obvious that they did not share the same enthusiasm for the Tatbir.  Following Ayatollah Khamenei’s decision, Hezbollah forbade its members to perform the bloodletting ritual and had its people donate blood instead.

 “The Amal militiamen turned Ashura into a festival of blood, where they assert their courage and manhood by self-flagellation. Hezbollah was always against any kind of bloodletting. It was obvious that they would never mix as far as these religious practices were concerned,” Ali explained. “I don’t think that Amal and Hezbollah were ever united in celebrating the day of Ashura. Joint marches are rare, to say the least,” Ali said.

A tale of many commemorations

On Ashura, the tenth day of Muharram, the Nabatiyeh central market closes down and the road that least to Marjayoun is also closed until the Hussainiya. If you look around carefully, you notice how different the groups attending the Ashura ceremonies in Nabatieh are, the woman resident told NOW. 

The people of Nabatieh who are not keen on showing their affiliation with any school of thought march first. The followers of the Najaf doctrine, also nicknamed Iraqis in town, come second. 

Then there are the Shirazis, the followers of Mohammad al-Shirazi’s teachings. Then the Amal Movement supporters show up. And last is Hezbollah’s group.

“Hezbollah’s women always wear black abaya, while the men have beards and wear black shirts closed to the neck. They flash banners with Ayatollah Khomeini’s sayings, carry pictures of the martyrs and, of course, Hassan Nasrallah and other political leaders,” the resident explains. 

“The Amal groups are much less organized: young men are sometimes topless, women don’t wear abayas and sometimes not even the veil, but they’re dressed in black. Let’s just say that the Ashura pmarch reflects exactly the situation in the party they represent,” she smiles.

The agreement

Historically, the massacre of Karbala happened on the tenth days of Muharram. The legend says that the heads of the slaughtered Imam Hussein and his companions were taken to Damascus to Yazid bin Muawiya, the second Umayyad caliph Sayyida Zaynab followed the convoy and recovered the heads from the Umayyad soldiers on the thirteenth day. This is the day Hezbollah holds a separate march in Nabatieh.

That is the result of an agreement it reached with Amal Movement in 2002. “The two parties remained at odds well after the war they fought against each other in the 1980s; there was always friction during Ashura even after they stopped fighting in 1990. Once, in 2002, they provoked each other, they started throwing stones at each other and the incident remained in the history of Nabatieh as the stone intifada. They then agreed to separate the marches: Amal March in the eleventh or twelfth day of Muharram, and Hezbollah on the thirteenth day,” the woman pointed out.

According to journalist and political commentator Qassem Qassir, neither Amal, nor Hezbollah leaders want to overlap with the Ashura processions, because they want to simply avoid friction. 

“But it seems that the Amal Movement wants score more points over Hezbollah; so they decided to hold processions on the 10th, the 11th and 12th day, while Hezbollah only holds the march on the 13th day. 

I believe that, despite the political alliance, there is a competition for power in Nabatieh,” Qassir pointed out. 

“This is a show of force between Amal and Hezbollah; it turned out that, despite the strong political presence of Hezbollah, Amal enjoys some popularity in the South and the party wants to maintain it, so they express it through the marking of Ashura in the most assertive way possible.”

My friends and colleagues Amin Nasr and Myra Abdallah  helped me with translation for this piece. 


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