the lion by the river

by Aqeela Naqvi

“al-atash, al-atash!”
O thirst, O thirst!

on the day of Ashura,
Yazeed’s army gathers water
sloshed across the desert,
dragging buckets from the river

precious drops seeping in the ground
are followed by tender eyes
thirsty children, the desert heat,
the broken piercing of their cries

Imam Hussain’s daughter sees the soldiers
lined up, perhaps she thinks:
after feeding the horses,
will they bring them something to drink?

from the riverbanks a soldier calls,
Do you see this water, O Hussain?
By God, you’ll not get a drop
perish from thirst upon these plains…

Hadhrat Abbas turns to face his brother
how much grief has he seen today?
how many bodies brought to the camp?
how many on the sands now lay?

but despite the depth of tragedy
how firm his back, how he stands tall
how firm his resolution: in each hardship,
to find patience with Allah

the protector of his brother
Abbas approaches him with this question,
will Hussain allow him to go to the battlefield?
will he grant him his permission?

Imam Hussain responds and tells him,
O my brother, you bear my standard,
and if you leave to fight the enemy,
my army will become scattered.

instead Imam Hussain tells him,
bring for these children some water
and so Abbas prepares his steed,
with the water flask rides towards the river

four thousand men encircle him
and rain upon him the arrow’s shower
but Abbas is brave and before the son of Ali
the enemy shrinks and cowers

his sword flashes as angrily as the glint
steady, noble in his eye
until he reaches the banks of the river
before him the expanse of water lies

thirsty but not seeking for himself
he fills the water bag and turns away
not a drop will not touch his lips until
the children’s thirst is first assuaged

the water skin is filled, and Abbas
rests it firmly on his right shoulder
mounting his horse to ride to the tents
riding to bring the children water…

the enemy again surrounds him
but it as if watching a lion scatter sheep
the courage of Zaynab’s brother
from his gaze alone the soldiers flee

Abbas ibn Ali, he fights bravely,
calling to the enemy these noble words:
“I do not fear death when it screeches,
until I’m found hidden amongst the swords…”

may my soul be sacrificed for the Prophet’s grandson
he exclaims in every breath,
I take water, and on the day of battle,
Abbas does not care about his death

suddenly, a man ambushes and
strikes, cutting off his right hand
without hesitation, he switches it to his left,
his blood flowing into the sands

again a man strikes and severs his left,
thinking with this Abbas will stop
but Abbas is made of something different
a warrior, and the children are his heart

he holds the water-skin with his teeth,
but the cruelty of the enemy knows no bounds
an arrow strikes his mouth piercing the bag,
water and blood stream upon the ground…

the water drains from the water-bag
and the hopes of the children with it drain
the only water that will reach Karbala
will be blood from the relentless arrow’s rain

such an arrow is shot entrenching
itself in the chest of the son of Ali,
and a tragic cry rings through skies of Karbala
from Abbas: Brother, please find me…

Imam Hussain races towards his voice,
and sees drenched in blood a flag turned red
he falls to his knees besides his brother,
placing his head in his lap, to him he says,

“O brother, why are you crying?”
Abbas says, “Why should I not, light of my eyes?”
watching his final breath, Hussain calls,
O brother, Abbas! toward the skies

the ensuing silence in Karbala is an arrow
shooting through the Imam’s spine
when he returns to the camp the women greet
his grief with their wailing cries

the women weep and lament for their lion,
their prince, for Bani Hashim’s moon
for bringing the children water he was murdered
his body cut and strewn

the one whose loyalty was unmatched
who was firm in the message of Islam
the one who showed all to come what it means
to be faithful to your Imam

when we are caught in immense difficulties
giving up seems like the only choice
the world does not make it easy to practice Islam
and we feel like we have no voice

compromising on our values or fitting in
is easier than struggling for Allah
but is anything worth doing easy? Abbas asks us
his voice, an echo from Karbala

it is as if every Muharram, Hussain examines
his ardent lovers and friends*
addressing them with this question:
is your love truthful until the end?

truthfulness in the love of Hussain is embodied
in the war of the nafs before all else
the human being cannot be victorious before
winning the fight against his self

Abbas was a victor in Karbala, but also
in the battlefield of his soul
his sacrifice was not one that was easy,
as Karbala’s red sands still show

would it have been easier to turn back,
to save his life away from the river bank?
yes, but he chose to face the struggle,
brave even when surrounded from every flank

he knew that serving his Imam,
and gaining the pleasure of Allah His Lord
was far worth more than any pain,
any struggle to be faced in this paltry world

it is because of this level of servitude,
that Hussain weeps so profusely for his brother
the mark of grief shadowing his face,
the heart’s pain aching like for no other

in the mind replays that moment,
the moment of that final breath
Hussain and the bloodied body of his brother,

the moment of Abbas’ death

Hussain weeps for the lion by the river,
who now sleeps never to be awoken,
and from a severed heart comes this farewell,

Brother, my back has now been broken…

* “The doyen of martyrs sought cavaliers in the battlefield of the soul. It is as if I can behold al-Husayn (a) examining his ardent lovers and friends every Muharram. He tests and addresses them as follows: Are you truthful in your love and affection for me? Truthfulness in the love and affection for Imam al-Husayn (a) is embodied in the war of the self, before any other arena. This is because the human being cannot be genuine in fighting against other army camps before being genuine in his war and fight against his self.”

Ayatullah Shaykh Muhammad al-Sanad, al-Sha’a’ir al-Husayniyyah, v.2, p.308