Monday, March 19, 2007


Saturday before last was the culmination of the annual Shiite commemoration of the anniversary of the traditional 40-day mourning period after the death of Hussein, who was killed in 680 in a battle for succession of the leadership of Muslims. The event set about the permanent split between the sects. Shiites remember his death by inflicting physical pain upon themselves. The often bloody self-flagellation ritual is repeated at shrines holy to Shiites across the Middle East.

About 15 miles east of Damascus, the tomb of Seyda Zeinab, the sister of Hussein, drew thousands of Shiite pilgrims from Lebanon, Iraq, Iran, and south and central Asia. (Mainstream so-called Twelver Shiites are a tiny minority in Syria.) They gathered to recite the story of Hussein's death, speaking in the tongues of their native lands; they touched the gilded shrine to Zeinab; they wept and they prayed to Mecca.

Dozens of barefoot and bare-chested men chanted and rhythmically beat their chests and whipped themselves with chains tipped with small blades. Some reopened the scars of past flagellations. Their backs ran with blood and it glistened in the sun. As they rocked and flailed, blood splattered nearby onlookers, who didn't seem to mind. It was as much performance as religious practice. A throng surrounded the men, packing a street by a side entrance to the shrine, and recorded the proceedings with cell phone and video cameras.

(Sunnis call the ritual heretical. Later the same day, a Syrian friend, who is Sunni, apologized over dinner for the impression that the event may have given me. Cutting oneself has no place in Islam, he said.)