Note: The following piece was originally written on February 18, 2005, the 9th night of Muharram, 1426 AH.
"What are you listening to?" the young Iranian boy asked me as the room was blasting with the sound of nauha (Urdu elegy) and people doing maatam. "Are you listening to songs?"
"No," I replied as I pushed the headphone speaker off my left ear. "I'm listening to the lecture that was just given." "Why?" he asked. "To put it on the website," I said. "Oh." He remained silent.
We sat at the back of the dark room, our actions highlighted by the glow of the laptop screen. 34%... 37%... The night's lecture was being converted from WAV into RealAudio format for online distribution. The audio input and output meters on the screen danced from green to orange to red as I sat with my head down, listening to Nadeem Sarwar's "Mil Kay Sub" nauha being recited so beautifully over the hall's loudspeaker.
"How about now? Are you listening to songs now?" "No," I replied once again. "I'm not listening to anything." Tears rolled down my face as the nauha went on: "Yeh maatam mazloom ka maatam... Zahra ke masoom ka maatam..." ("This maatam is for the oppressed... For Zahra's innocent [children]...") I sat with my head bowed down, my right hand on my chest and my left hand raised above my head, shooting my finger to the sky, proclaiming that there is no god but Allah.
This is the third Muharram since I decided to change the method by which I would mourn in this holy month. I decided I would only do maatam when it truly came to me, not just stand like a drone, forcing myself to beat my chest to words I didn't understand. Yet tonight, as we observed the sacrifice of Hazrat Ali Akbar (A.S.), the eighteen year old son of Imam Hussein (A.S.), my instinct took over as I wept and I started to beat my chest. Visions of the tragedy flashed through my mind: of Ali Akbar's body being trampled by the enemy's horses; of Hazrat Abbas (A.S.)'s canteen being pierced as he fought to return water to his niece, Sakina; of the women of the Imam's household being paraded as prisoners of war through the streets of Damascus.
Growing up, I was like every young boy in the community: beating my chest, right hand then left, only to compare whose chest was brightest red at the end of the night. As I got older, I tried to learn more of what was being recited and concentrated less on barbarically beating myself. Urdu is not my native tongue, so only bits and pieces would come to me. I would look at the Indians and Pakistanis around me and see the tears in their eyes as their hands reached for the ceiling only to come crashing down on their bosom as they cried out, "Ya Ali!" If only I could understand what they understood, maybe maatam would've been different for me.
I still remember the first time I stood and didn't put my hand to my chest. The laash procession (also known as juloos; a mock casket covered in red-dyed cloth as to simulate that of a martyr) had just come into the room, its carriers yelling "Ya Hussein! Ya Hussein!" The people around me leapt forth to touch the laash as it made its way around the room; they kissed it, wiped their eyes in it, and lifted the children up to do the same. I had touched the laash for years, but only now did I question why. Seven months earlier I had returned from my second trip to the holy cities of Iraq, including Karbala, the site of the tragedy of 'Aashura. God knows that I feel for the sacrifice of Imam Hussein, but I could no longer bring myself to do maatam solely for the sake of doing maatam. I wanted to feel the tragedy first, then I knew that mourning would take place.
The laash came around the room, and as it passed me by, I stood with my head down, just listening to the elegy being recited. The brothers around me looked at me out of the corner of their eyes as they saw that I didn't step forth to touch the laash. Yet the night went on. The nauhas started and people started doing maatam. I remained in my position, hands crossed across my chest in a solemn manner, with my head bowed down contemplating what was being recited. I didn't feel enough anger and raw emotion to beat my chest, but I did feel that I was weeping inside. After the program, friends came to me and asked me why I wasn't doing maatam. When I explained my new tactic, that I wouldn't do maatam unless I understood what I was listening to and actually felt compelled to do it, they looked at me like I was some type of foreigner. Word soon spread to the elders in the community as discussions on the origins of maatam arose in our weekly halaqas (study circles). Behind the scenes I was blacklisted as a misguided youth. Was it because of my newfound friendships with many of the Sunnis at my University? Was it because being a Muslim was more important to me at this point in life than being a Shi'a? Or was it really just because I couldn't bring myself to do maatam during the month of Muharram? Regardless, they didn't like the fact that I would talk to their children, my friends, about why I didn't do maatam. I was a troublemaker, no questions asked.
As the years have gone by, people around me, including my parents, have slowly come to understand that not doing maatam is simply my choice. There's still those youths in the jamaat that continue to do maatam as they admittedly don't understand a word of what's being recited, but I am not one of them. I stand at the back of the room, head down, trying to imagine the battle of Karbala taking place. When I do occasionally understand what's being recited, tears do well up in my eyes and I feel my hand return to my chest. Today was one of those occasions.
My concentration on the nauha was again disrupted as the young Iranian boy turned to the Khoja boy sitting next to him. "Why do they cry?" he asked. "Man, my mom was really crying yesterday. I don't know why..." he said, as he looked on at the crowd of mourners performing maatam. Maybe one day he'll go through the same reflection process I'm going through, I thought. Then again, I hope he doesn't ever have to. Maybe he'll be able to grow up in a community that allows dialogue on azadari (mourning of the tragedy of Karbala), its history, its purposes, and its results. Maybe he'll know why he's supposed to beat his chest.