11 weeks, 3 days, 9 hours, 21 minutes, 36 seconds from the moment I last stood by your side. 11 weeks, 3 days, 9 hours, 21 minutes, 50 seconds of yearning to go back. 11 weeks, 3 days, 9 hours, 22 minutes, 1 second of scrambling with bloody hands, trying to set the shards of a broken heart back together. 11 weeks, 3 days, 9 hours, 22 minutes, 47 seconds of a body waking, dressing, commuting, schooling in a land this side of the ocean; but 11 weeks, 3 days, 9 hours, 23 minutes, and too-many-seconds-to-count of a soul thinking, reaching, sighing for a land six thousand miles away; waking with heavy eyes and a heavier heart, your name resting upon my tongue.
Sleep brings me dreams of your smile, of my hand resting gently in yours, the scent of roses filling the air – but waking brings the pain of nails digging into my palms, hands clenched over my chest, the air empty of your fragrance; empty, like the crevices of my fingers as they wipe away tears from the parched plains of my face.
(My God…how does anyone survive this separation?)
* * *
A few months ago, I was blessed enough to be granted the opportunity to visit for the first time the holy lands of Iraq and Iran, where, among others, Prophets Adam and Noah, and the descendants of Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him and his family) are buried – some of the greatest revolutionaries (social, moral, political, intellectual, spiritual, and otherwise) to have left their marks on human history.
Before leaving, I had a feeling that this journey would leave in indelible mark on my life…but I don’t think I understood just how deep its imprint would be.
I did not expect to live the rest of my life in insatiable hunger – tasting for one moment such sweetness, that nothing else could ever taste sweet again.
Of the many places I was fortunate enough to visit, one was Karbala, the resting place of Imam Hussain (the grandson of Prophet Muhammad), his family, and companions.
It is still difficult for me to put Karbala into words. I do not possess the language – or perhaps language does not possess the words – to properly express how it feels to drive into the city limits for the first time, seeing the golden dome glimmer in the distance; to step on the same dust that embraced the slain bodies of warriors so many years ago; to breathe the same air that wailed when, after the battle, silence was the only sound that remained; to gaze upon the same horizon in the direction of Medina, as if thinking the thoughts of Zaynab: Grandfather, look what they’ve done to your children…
From childhood, I have heard stories of the stand that Imam Hussain took against the tyrant Yazeed and the tragedy that ensued as a result. My mind has wandered to Karbala countless times. But it is not until my feet were granted permission to stand upon its dust that I realized – it is one thing to see a story as if through a dream. It is another to understand it through the lens of reality.
To not just think of, but to hear the words of Imam Hussain still reverberating through the desert air. To see with your own eyes where his son fell, murdered with a spear through the chest; where the arms of his brother were severed while trying to get water for the thirsty children; where his sister stood, watching as before her very eyes, her brother was encircled by enemies and beheaded…
To be in Karbala is to hear echoes of the reality Zaynab heard, to see glimmers of the reality Zaynab saw. It is one thing to think of the aftermath: what must have befallen the encampment when every protector had fallen, left unburied on the sands. It is another to stand alone in a frigid desert night, and realize the strength it must have taken to live through such a tragedy.
The strength of Zaynab who, after being taken through the streets, was finally brought into the court of the tyrant, expecting to be found broken and defeated. But who refused humiliation, instead raising her voice like the crack of thunder – her straightened spine the torrential promise of rain.
To wear clothes stained with the blood of her loved ones, to stand amongst those considered to be defeated – and still, still laugh in the face of tyrants, knowing they were nothing but small men attempting to claim a world that was not theirs to claim; to still speak with a voice unwavering, knowing that the sacrifice given in defense of truth made those who were killed truly victorious; in the midst of harrowing grief, to still declare: All praise belongs to God, the most Glorious, the most High…
There are many things visiting Karbala has taught me – more than I will probably be able to realize and comprehend in my lifetime – but one of the most important is that remembering the sacrifice made by Imam Hussain on the 10th of Muharram over 1300 years ago is not the remembrance of a story that has ended. It is the remembrance a story that, like its enactors (2:154), is still alive – breathing, pulsating, waiting to be unfolded, in each and every one of us.
All of us were born with souls so white they blinded, challenging even the brilliance of the sun. As children, we carried that purity with us. We smiled unthinkingly at strangers; cried unreservedly at pain; expressed love endlessly, extending our arms without conditions, requirements, preconceptions. But as we grew, we allowed that light to dim. We learned darkness – tight-lipped smiles, rarely shared with passersby; selective empathy for the pain of ‘Us’ but ignorance of the pain of ‘Them’; the building of walls and categorizing of compassion given only to ‘our own.’
Surrounded by headlines and breaking stories of war-torn countries and more torn families; the sound of fleeing, the silence of exile; the pangs of hunger lining streets where the satiated live; the waking nightmares of children, the tender spilling of too-young blood, the red tint of unfinished dreams – we learned the curling inward of love: a spiraling constellation turned into the empty gaze of a moonless sky.
Faced with such horror, we looked down at our hands and saw barrenness, unbelieving that anything could still grow from the parched, gasping breaths of humanity’s clay. And instead of drawing attention to ourselves as targets, stepping onto the plains in an attempt to toil the earth, we cordoned ourselves off to protect ourselves and ‘our own.’ Instead of in love becoming courageous, in hatred we became afraid.
But then, we were reminded of a story.
A man steps onto a desert plain, a clear target for the enemies that surround him. In the span of one morning, the savage murder of his brothers, sons, nephews, and friends has been witnessed by his eyes. Every last breath has torn another heartstring irreparably. His hands have been stained with their blood, but still, he raises them to the sky, “O Lord! I am patient with your will…”
When this man looks at his hands, he does not see barren soils of despair or defeat. He sees hope in the ultimate justice of God. He sees resistance against every form of tyranny. He sees plains that will be nurtured by the sacrifice of his blood, from which will blossom the roses of revolution.
When Hussain enters the battlefield, history watches with awe-struck eyes, and it is not just a man it sees – but the totality of Love, rising to defeat forever the totality of Hatred. It is love that cries out, “Hayhaat minna thilla – Far from us is humiliation!” It is love, that roars with the strength of a lion, drowning out the howling of wolves. Love, that is struck and falls from his horse, a silhouette of pierced arrows against a reddening sky. Love, whose head is severed and raised high on a spear – a sacrifice given, not for fame nor glory nor the remembrance of his name, but so that the message of truth would remain eternal…
* * *
It is 11 weeks, 4 days, 3 hours, 42 minutes, 15 seconds ago, and I am standing in front of the entrance of your shrine. The marble is hot against my feet as I watch hundreds flock towards your grave, seeking the refuge of your fragrance.
I have loved you my entire life – but it is not until this moment that I have begun to comprehend what this love truly means. As I make my way towards you, counting every step until I am finally next to your body clinging to your grave, it suddenly dawns on me: the greatness of Hussain is not dependent on our love, but our potential for greatness is dependent on the love of Hussain.
You are the beacon of love, the truest servant of your Lord, and the representative and reflection of His Light on earth. And in choosing to love you and what you stood for, we are choosing to love and nurture the best pieces of ourselves. We are choosing a life, not of abasement or disgrace, but of honor and dignity. We are choosing to rise from what we are to what, with courageous compassion, we could eventually become.
There is a saying: ‘Hussain gave his heart to God – so God gave millions of hearts to Hussain.’ As my days with you draw to a close and I move away from your grave for the last time, my heart tears itself from my chest, my steps become the heaviest I have ever taken, and I find this saying begin to ring painfully, achingly true…
“All praise belongs to Allah for my intense grief.” —Ziyarat ‘Ashura
I have counted every second from the moment I had to part physically from Imam Hussain’s side. The pain pierces through me in the veils of the night, and pulses in my skin through the hours of the day. And though the pain of separation is agonizing – if you asked me to, I would never give it up. Because the pain of separation means that there is someone or something to be separated from. It means that you are connected to something so deeply, that even a moment’s absence from it triggers the longing to be reunited once more.
Hard hearts do not feel pain, only soft ones do. And it is the softest that choose to break their hearts open: to feel the pain of Hussain and his sacrifice, and turn its lessons into reality. Imam Hussain’s is a legacy is one that demands to be felt, because the feeling itself is a catalyst, urging towards improvement, struggle, and change.
To love as deeply as Imam Hussain – to submit mind, body, and soul to the will of an All-Merciful and All-Compassionate God – requires courage. If one man was brave enough to love in this way and in doing so, changed the course of history forever, what would happen if we all tried to do the same?
After none remained from his family or companions, Imam Hussain stood on the plains of Karbala and called, “Is there any supporter left to help me?” Despite being utterly alone, he sent out this call, knowing that somehow it would travel through the tapestries of time; knowing that it would eventually reach us.
Choosing to love Imam Hussain – and to love in the infinitely selfless way that he did – is choosing to pay heed to this call. It is choosing to be brave enough to feel his pain. And in feeling it, choosing to understand that the tragedy of Karbala is not simply a story to be mourned for ten nights in the first month of every year. Rather, it is a lingering question for truth, justice, and the never-ending struggle for freedom that demands an answer.
And we must have the courage to reply.