Scenes from the Ashura celebration in Nabatieh on Tuesday. (NOW Lebanon/Nadine Elali)
Once a year, on Ashura, the streets of the southern Lebanese town of Nabatieh fill with the sour, rusty smell of blood mixed with grilled meat and oranges, as thousands of people dressed in black make their way to the central square to mourn.
Ashura, the tenth day the mourning period for slain Imam Hussein, grandson of the Prophet Mohammad, is a the festival of blood in Nabatieh, one of the few places in the world where the Shia men and children shave their heads, cut their foreheads and let their blood flow for the imam.
In the sea of men dressed in white who have been cutting themselves every year since the fall of the Ottoman Empire, when the Shia gained the right to practice their rituals, a few young women with bleeding foreheads stand out.
“Let’s go hit Haidar,” say the young men in white capes. They stand in contrast to the other attendees who wear black to mourn but who do not perform the bloody ritual. “Hitting Haidar” is the popular name of the bloodletting ritual in which the young men cut the skin on their foreheads and hit it with swords to make it bleed more while chanting “Haidar! Haidar!”—which means lion in old Arabic, one of the nicknames of Imam Ali, the prophet’s son and Imam Hussein’s father.
Groups of 10 to 20 men and young boys covered in blood do their short Ashura round, circling the town’s market, while professional actors hired by the municipality get ready to reenact the imam’s slaying in the Battle of Karbala in the 7th century. Most women, dressed in black, stand on the side of the streets and turn their heads with horror at the sight of so much blood. But for the young men and children who take part in the bloodletting, the ritual is an honor.
“I am doing it for Imam Hussein for his sacrifice. It is my sacrifice for him, I’m doing this since I was six,” 12-year-old Ali, who just finished his round, tells NOW Lebanon as he rushes giggling toward the Red Cross tent to wait in line to get stitched.
Zeinab, a 20-year-old divorced woman who came all the way from Tyre for the ritual, stops and smiles, her face covered with blood and beaming with pride. “Yes, I did the Haidar cut,” she explains calmly. “It’s the third year I do this, and I do it for Hussein. It is for my nadr, my promise. I promised God I would do this,” she says, adding that when her 2-year-old son is a little older, she will also do the “Haidar cut” for him in honor of the imam’s sacrifice.
Her 17-year-old sister, Khouloud, catches up with her, a trickle of dried blood coming out from under her hijab. “Not many women do this; you need some courage. But it’s our right, there shouldn’t be discrimination. Right now I feel stronger than a man,” the teenager says.
Once, the Ashura bloodletting ritual, which even inspires controversy among the Shia clerics in the same town, was only performed by part of the men. But as time went by, a few young women also started participate. “It’s somehow similar to Prophet Ibrahim’s sacrificing his son for God. We just cut ourselves to show our grief,” 25-year-old newly married Zeinab tells NOW Lebanon. The woman has no veil and wears full make-up. She explains that her faith is not about appearances. “I don’t put on a veil, but I just hit Haidar as my nadr,” she says, while her husband, who has no trace of blood on his face nods in approval of his wife’s words.
Ghinwa, a 20-year-old hairdresser, walks along with a group of men who are chanting, and holds hands with her best friend, Zeina, a kindergarten teacher. Zeina only accompanied her friend to the procession, but did not perform the bloodletting ritual like Ghinwa because her parents don’t agree with it. “I am not afraid. If my parents allowed it, I would have done it too,” she says, explaining that she prayed and went to recite the story of Imam Hussein every day since the beginning of the mourning period. “I would teach any child to be a good believer and do the Haidar cut. It’s the least we can do to honor his sacrifice,” she says.
By noon, the re-enactment of the Karbala battle ends and the crowd dissipates, leaving behind the bloody pavement and the sour stench of blood. “Now the municipality will have to clean for three days,” a Nabatieh resident says.
In three days’ time Nabatieh will host another march. Hezbollah members, who refuse to participate in the bloodletting ritual, organize another parade to commemorate the day Imam Hussein’s sister received the martyr’s head from his slayers.