From the air, the procession appears to snake for miles and miles, pilgrims walking toward the Hussein Shrine in Kerbala, Iraq in the millions. Black-clad Shia are participating in the Arbaeen commemoration, the largest annual gathering of people anywhere on earth. They carry black, green, red and white flags, with the black flag of mourning for Imam Hussein the most common.
"Walking in long columns stretching back unbroken for as much as 50 miles, sleeping and eating in tents erected by supporters beside the road, the event has become an overwhelmingly powerful display of Shia belief and solidarity."1
Its purpose is to mourn the death of Imam Hussein, the revered Shia leader, killed in a battle in Kerbala in AD680 (along with 70 members of his family). In Islam when a person dies, family, friends and neighbors mourn for 40 days (Arbaeen means 40), then invite everyone for a celebration of that person's life.
In the case of someone as revered and famous as Imam Hussein, these celebrations have continued through war, oppression, the US invasion and the catastrophe of ISIS. For many years, under Saddam Hussein, the marches were often conducted in secret, many of the side roads used instead of the main one from Najaf to Kerbala. According to Mohammed al Rekabi, Ph.D. and living in Al Najaf, "However, since 2004, we Shia are proudly in the open, as we celebrate our martyred Imam. And we also want to let the world know we are a force to be reckoned with in Iraq."2 Iraq is the only Arab country with a Shia population who controls the government.
Some pilgrims spend ten or twelve days on the road from Basra or Kirkuk, others two or three days from Najaf. But there are people who have walked from as far away as Pakistan and Malaysia. Shia cities, towns, and villages all over Iraq empty out as their people take to the roads in an elaborately organized and well-protected mass movement not seen anywhere else in the world.
The number of people walking range from 6-7 million to 16-20 million, depending on circumstances, and it includes at least two million Iranians, although this year there will be fewer Iranians, thanks to the sanctions put on the country by the US. Mohammed al-Hilli, the author of The Arbaeen: the Walk, says "the city of Kerbala can only contain two or three million people at one time, but, since pilgrims are coming and going over a long time, the total attending will be much higher."
The mood of the event is one of intense piety and communal solidarity, though Shia clerics keep emphasizing that the pilgrimage is dedicated to peace. Once pilgrims were lucky if they got rice and bean stew, "There was nothing but muddy water to drink" recalls one early participant -- but everything is now highly organized with huge supplies of food. There are even small clinics and dentists along the route, all working for free. 3
In Najaf, more than 5000 pilgrims a day are fed with huge caldrons of bean/meat stew ladled out every morning. Unlike the better-known and well-advertised Haj in Saudi Arabia where the government makes a great deal of money taking care of the pilgrims, Iraq makes no money as a host to the walkers. Even the poor in Iraq save money throughout the year to contribute to the walk. The care of pilgrims is regarded as a religious duty.
Sami Rasouli emphasizes, "Every pilgrim is fed in Al Najaf. And it's not just for this commemoration, it's every day of the year. If a storekeeper is approached by a pilgrim on the way to Kerbala and is told that he/she is hungry, that person will be fed, no questions asked." 4
Why this amazing event is not better known in the West seems to be a combination of no media coverage, a lack of understanding over what the march is for and 14 years of being torn apart by the US invasion. Iraq is just getting its feet back on the ground and is proud of its resilience. It may begin to reach out to the West to talk about the Arbaeen March as the amazing tribute that it is.
2 Dr. Mohammed Al Rekabi, PhD (Dean of College of Pharmacy, University of Al-Kafeel /Najaf)
4 Sami Rasouli, head of the English for Reconciliation Program and Muslim Peacekeeper Team