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Arbaeen: an endless annual march of love

Millions walk from Najaf to Karbala in Iraq for Arbaeen pilgrimage

It is the most outstanding worldwide peaceful march of millions from around the world that takes place during the second month of the Islamic Calendar, which coincided this year with November 2017.

Safar is the second month of the Islamic calendar, which is marked with one of the most important of events in Islamic history known as Arbaeen (20th of Safar). In Arabic language it means forty and in Islamic history it marks the 40th day of the mourning period following Ashura, the 10th of Muharram, when Hussain ibn Ali, the grandson of the Holy Prophet Mohammad was killed and beheaded along with his family members and companions by the army of Yazid in year 61 of the Hijri Calendar. Every year, thousands join the walk, which has become a fixed walk of love for millions who use their savings for the trip.

In this month, millions of people from around the globe start off by paying homage to Imam Ali in the city of Najaf and then begin their march to finally gather in Iraq’s holiest city of Karbala to commemorate Arbaeen and to pay tribute to Imam Hussein and the martyrs of Karbala.

The millions travelling every year are not just any travelers, they are the visitors of Imam Hussein and his household, and they are called the 'Zaereen' or 'Zowar'. These visitors are of high importance and are paid much respect.

The marchers on the day of Arbaeen reach Karbala, where more than 20 million gather in a city that is said to fit approximately only 4 million. The Zaereen do not need to take full travel gear with them. Makeshift kitchens along with residential tents, temporary showers and bathrooms, as well as ER tents are set up everywhere to serve the pilgrims.

Thousands of Iraqis and hundreds of non-Iraqis use their annual savings for this event, where they provide the Zowar with food, water, and all needed services.

The stations they set up are called 'Mowkebs', with each mowkeb welcoming the visitors on behalf of the city or country to which they belong.

On the way from Najaf to Karbala, you meet people from all walks of life. It does not matter what language you speak or where you come from or what you do for life: all differences dissolve and the only thing worth attention is Hussein; a language of love that everyone speaks.

As I walked further towards Karbala, I met more Iraqis who vowed to serve the Zaereen, feeling excited and grateful for this opportunity; to be ready to serve the pilgrims in every aspect.

Abu Jassem, who owns a Mowkeb on the Najaf-Karbala highway, said that he has been setting up his mowkeb for 10 years so far.

"I have vowed to serve the Zaereen every year until the last day of my life. My family and I use our savings to set up the mowkeb every year and make sure we are part of this flood of love for Imam Hussein," he said.

Abu Ahmad, a Dutch citizen and one of the organizers of the Belgium mowkeb said that he and his friends open their piggy banks every year to come together and serve the Zaereen for two weeks and then finally visit Imam Hussein and his brother Abbas before leaving back home.

6 year old Aya, who stood in the kitchen with her mom, said she does not feel at ease unless she is beside her mom serving the pilgrims.

"I get really upset when my mom sends me to bed at 10. I like to stay up with her and make sure I am giving love to all the people who come to our house by serving them. These people will tell Imam Hussein that I helped them out and he will love me in return."

As I spoke to hundreds across the distance between Najaf and Karbala, I realized that this phenomenon is not static and is one of a kind. No other ceremony worldwide witnesses an always increasing number of attendants. No other event includes more than 20 million people all pouring into one city with the largest free food and services festival at their hands in a peaceful and violence-free scene.

At the Imam Hussein International mowkeb, people from different nationalities stood to read the brochure and know more about Imam Hussein through some lectures and discussions.

One of the volunteers, Sami from the US, said that some congressmen and presidential advisors (from around the world) came to visit and deliver a speech on current affairs and answer questions addressed to them.

He further explained "we have a stand with volunteers who speak different languages, to provide people with access to any information they want or need. Understanding Ashura, and knowing who Imam Hussein is, how he was killed and for what cause is vital. The philosophy of Ashura is unique, and I advise all our non-Muslim friends to get acquainted with it too. Imam Hussein is not limited to a time or place or a certain sect of people. He is for everyone and at all times."

Pakistani Henna, who came with a group of university friends, said it is not possible to know of Imam Hussein and his story and not fall in love with him and his manners, and respect his goal and attitude.

"When I come here and see the millions united by the love of Imam Hussein, I feel peace at heart. At the end of the day, no differences can stand in the way of such love and peace, and no issues can stop us from spreading the love of a man who gave up everything for the love of God; a philosophy that many probably cannot digest. Put simply, he is a loving father for all humanity."

Heba Morad

Heba is a freelance writer.