[Picture 4. The author, in the middle, with the Shaykhs.]

The Culture of Grief and Color Symbolism

The Shi’a people mourn al-Husayn and shed tears for the prophet’s family. The colors of black, red, green and white hold symbolic significance in ‘Ashura rituals and dramas. Though Shi‘a people value the color black as a symbol of modesty, it also emphasizes the state of grief or sadness. In the mourning processions (‘Aza’ or ta‘zziyya mawkabs), men wear predominantly black shirts and slacks. Some wear white gallabiyyas or gowns, however, men of religious learning (faqihs or shaykhs and so like) wear black robes (bisht or ‘abaya), and put white turbans on their heads. Shaykhs who are genealogically related to the prophet Muhammad, however, wear black turbans [see picture 4]. I heard that the Shi’a turban consists of 12 layers, connoting the 12 Imams. Women wear black overgarments or cloaks (‘abaiya) that cover their other clothing, such as dresses or slacks. Though women wear black cloaks all year round, they, including young girls, are careful to wear them during the forty days that include the Arabic month of Muharram (in which occurs ‘Ashura) and ten days into the month of Safar. Black is also associated with al-Mahdi, and black flags signal the nearness of his appearance.

[Picture 5. A procession led by a child descendant of the prophet (Al al-Bayt).]

There is no specific costume for children, but I observed that the majority either cover their heads with black scarves held tight with green or red bands, or wear black bands around their heads. Children who are descendants of the prophet wear green gallabiyyas (picture 5). Green is basically related to the house of the prophet (Al al-Bayt). The green turban is worn by the member of the house of the prophet who is not a man of religious learning, whereas the black turban is worn by the member of the house of the prophet who is a man of religious learning.

Shi’a people show a great respect to al-turba al-Husayniyya (a light red or brown clay stone made of Karbala’s soil, symbolizing the blood of al-Husayn’s martyrdom) on which they rest their forehead in prayers. In the mosque of Shaykh ‘Aziz, a man accidentally stepped on a turba laid on the front of a young man who was praying. The man immediately picked up the turba, kissed it, and laid it back on the floor in front of the young man who continued praying.

Red signifies the blood of the Imam al-Husayn, the martyr or al-mazlum (the oppressed) who was unjustly tortured to death. The color white is favored by participants in ritual dramas (mainly men) for covering their faces out of respect and honor for the prophet when they enact the personality of one of his family. The faces of the members of the prophet’s family are veiled by a piece of white cloth, not to be imaged, imitated or embodied by anybody else.

The Drama

The ta‘ziyah is a ritual drama or theatrical performance of the Karbala event. I attended plays in the villages of Bany Jamrah and Buri. The stages or grounds were rectangular in shape (an L-shape for the male audience and an L-shape for the female audience). In each of the two locations, tents were prepared to represent those of al-Husayn’s family and those of the enemy camp. The headless corpse of al-Husayn lay down motionless on the ground. Six of the enemy’s horses were ridden back and forth between the two camps. The soldiers, riding the horses, stomped on the representation of the corpse, further mutilating and humiliating it. In the play, while the headless corpse lay on the ground, the heads of al-Husayn and his male relatives were displayed on spears. A white horse, symbolizing the sainthood and bravery of Imam al-Husayn, was shown riding back toward the tents of al-Husayn’s family. Toward the end of the drama, the tents of the Imam al-Husayn and his followers were burnt.

[Picture 6. Al-‘Abbas (the children protector), al-Husayn’s brother.]

Another play, called “After Zaynab” (ma ba’d Zaynab), took place in the village of ‘Arad. The audience, totaling approximately 1,000, was great in number. The number of women attending tripled that of men. The play was held on the evening of Friday, 21 of Safar (1426 H), or the 31st of March, 2005. It was enacted in an open area rather than a stage and close to ma’tam ‘Abbas in the same village. The play was about the martyrdom of al-Husayn. An actor, playing the role of al-Husayn, asked the enemy to provide some water to his small child, ‘Abd Allah (picture 6). The enemy responded by hitting the child in the throat and killing him. There was subsequent mourning of the child. Horses returned, and al-Husayn was alone and fighting by himself, after losing his brother al-‘Abbas, known as the protector of children (picture 6), and his nephew al-Qasim, as well as his other male relatives in battle. Al-Qasim died very young and is honored by a display of the marriage ceremony (zaffa) [picture 7).

[Picture 7. Captivity of women and children.]

Imam al-Husayn was hit in the face by a stone and fell from his horse. Shamar, a vicious enemy, came and separated the head of al-Husayn from his body. At this point, both men and women in the audience were crying heavily, and one adult, affected by the intense emotion, fainted and fell down to the ground. Two people carried him from the scene and offered him assistance. Back at the play, the horse of al-Husayn went to the tent where the women, including Zaynab, recognized that her brother had been slaughtered. There ensued the crying and mourning of Sakina and Zaynab who along with other women were later taken captive by the enemy. The corpse of al-Husayn lay on the ground for three days before it was buried. While burying his corpse, Zaynab uttered, “May God accept this body as a sacrifice (qurban)”. The head was carried to Yazid who mocked it and broke its teeth. The audience reacted emotionally with tears and weeping.

Historically and after the martyrdom of al-Husayn as well as through the resistance of his sister Zaynab, female captivity was transformed into a moral victory and Yazid’s muscular might vanquished. To conclude, these rituals and mourning recitations symbolize struggles against any ideological or materialistic power that precludes or prohibits individuals from their rights.

el-Sayed el-Aswad
University of Bahrain

[For Part One of this article, click here.]