Yesterday was Ashura, the 10th day of Muharram. This is an optional day of fasting for Sunnis. For Shi'i, though, Ashura commemorates the massacre of Husayn ibn Ali on the plains of Karbala in 680 AD. Husayn was Mohammed's grandson, and his martyrdom denotes the formal schism in Islam between Sunnis and Shi'i.
I've seen on the news, as have many Americans, the spectacle of Shi'i beating themselves on the heads with stones or scourging their backs with chains on Ashura, but I've never been in the company of Shi'i during Ashura.
Our counterpart unit is 80-90% Shi'a. Groups of policemen were quietly gathered around the compound, listening to services on radios. The limited number of TVs in offices in the compound were also tuned to Ashure commemorations.
In the Commander's office, the CDR and some of his senior officers were watching an Ashura service on TV. When I came in, all of them had red-rimmed eyes and were all clutching and using copious amounts of Kleenex. As the service progressed, the emotions of both the people in the office and the crowd on TV grew more and more intense. Ashura services consist primarily of reading the epic of the martyrdom of Husayn and the massacre of his family. At the part of the recitation where Husayn dies, the Imam choked up and couldn't go on. The crowd (real and virtual) was sobbing.
When I've noted Ashura before, on TV, the grief of the congregations or crowds always seemed melodramatic to the point of absurdity. It must, I thought, be a put-on. Now I've definitely got a different opinion. The emotional anguish of the Shi'i on Ashura is as real as it gets. These people were in agony. I've seen people that have lost family members the day before (or even that day) to terrorism or criminality that weren't as grief-stricken as my brothers in the office.
Imagine Christmas, Easter, and Thanksgiving all roled into one. Conjure your warmest Christmas memory, slipping down the stairs in your footie pajamas to recon the treasures under the tree on Christmas morning before waking up Mom and Dad. Now invert all those feelings and imagine a day that evokes rage, grief and betrayal and is as formulative and evocative as those Christmas memories.
These guys aren't emotional pushovers, either. The day before yesterday, my counterpart unit was hit with a complex VBIED attack. The cement truck bearing the IED was vaporized. Some of the Shurta (police) were scuffed up and had some minor wounds. Because the VBIED "charged" the third vehicle in the formation, it's a safe assumption that the attack was targeting the CDR. That didn't even cause a blip on his emotional radar.
Needless to say, I felt more than a little awkward. I don't think an American, with a worldview focused on the future, not the past, can commiserate. *
And, after awhile I thought about a religion that could hold on to its unsettled scores this dearly. And how Iran, now developing nuclear weapons, is overwhelmingly Shi'a.
*Got it, there are Shi'i Americans who probably suffer horribly on Ashura. Not what I'm saying. Don't be so literal.