Remembrance and blood: The Ashura festival in Lebanon
One man, covered in blood, lay passed out at my feet in Nabatieh, Lebanon. I had just photographed him a moment before, in the midst of hundreds of other bloodied men yelling and marching in the streets. I had heard about the smell of blood, but could never have imagined what a bitter, copper taste it would leave in my mouth until it covered the men and streets in this southern Lebanese city. Three medics came over and revived the man, who promptly awoke and continued down the street, self-flagellating and shouting “Haidar, Haidar, Haidar!”
In 680 CE, one man led an army to battle for the future of Islam. On the outskirts of Karbala, Hussein ibn Ali ibn Ali Talib (also called Haidar in chants by his followers) became a martyr of the faith and source of inspiration for Muslims worldwide. Each year, Shiite Muslims, a group in Islam that particularly elevates Hussein, marks the date of his martyrdom through a festival called Ashura.
On the tenth day of the month of Muharram, Shiite Muslims gather for a visible remembrance of Hussein’s battle and martyrdom. Ashura is practiced differently around the world, but the main ceremony in every country revolves around men (and sometimes women) striking their chests and chanting, in some cases using sharp objects such as swords, razors, and chains to shed their own blood in sacrifice to Hussein.
Nowhere is the ceremony more intensely visible than Nabatieh, Lebanon, a city tucked in the hillsides of the country’s scenic south. To the uninitiated, the doomsday music, actors on horses, and free-flowing blood feel like a movie-scene massacre. What begins with friendly men robed in white sheets ends with blood dripping down the steps of the “Hussainia” (community center) and unconscious youth passed out next to medical tents.
The shedding of blood seems senseless. Yet, while part of the excess may be due to young men releasing pent-up energy and frustration, the mourning behind the ceremony is very real. “A true Shiite should never stop mourning the death of Hussein,” one Ashura-practitioner said. Ashura is a true and tangible remembrance of a martyr of the faith.
[Note: Please be advised the following contains graphic imagery. This story was produced by the Glimpse Correspondents Program, in which writers and photographers develop long-form narratives for Matador.]