exhibition: “the steps of Imam Hussain (a)”
by Aqeela Naqvi
it is the day of Ashura.
after performing morning amaal with the Muharram in Manhattan community at NYU, i board a bus to New Jersey – to Bait-Wali-ul-Asr: the Islamic center of my childhood and the community closest to my heart, with whom over two decades of my Ashuras have been spent.
as i journey, i go through old text messages with my sisters, pausing as i come across one in particular: “the Karbala exhibition is amazing. you need to see it Appa.”
throughout the first nine days of Muharram, i have heard much about the towering replica of Baynol Harramain (“Between the Two Harrams”) being constructed on the grassy lawn beneath the branches of the center’s aged trees. i have been messaged pictures of the historically accurate miniature depiction of the tents as they stood in Karbala over a thousand years ago. i have been told about the heartbreakingly beautiful reconstruction of the burnt tent of the Ahlulbayt – the replica standing, a weeping shadow, in the far corner of the exhibit.
for many days, i have heard much about this unique experience put together by a tireless, dedicated, and sincere team of volunteers and creative thinkers – but it was not until i actually stood before it that i truly understood its magnitude.
it was not until i had not just heard of it, but had seen it with my own eyes, that i felt the ground give way beneath my feet.
shortly after arriving at Bait-Wali-ul-Asr, i am taken outside by one of the main artists behind the project. as i follow her towards the reconstruction of Baynol Harramain, my heart – sensing something my body is not yet able to grasp – begins to beat rapidly. and when we finally stop, i realize why.
staring up at the giant reconstructions of the fronts of the holy harrams (sanctuaries/graves/burial places) of the sons of Imam Ali – Hadhrat Abbas on one side, and Imam Hussain on the other… all breath leaves me.
i look at her, finding myself at a loss for words. tears fill my eyes. chills shoot up my spine. my hands begin to shake.
the sun is hot on my face in New Jersey, but i am standing in Baynol Harramain.
with trembling hands, i remove my shoes and step onto the plastic mat that lays between the two towering walls – and when i close my eyes, i am no longer on the lawn of a center in a small town in America, but am standing on hot marble, oceans away – breathing in the scent of Karbala.
as is custom for many who visit Karbala, i turn first toward the replica of the harram of Hadhrat Abbas – the flagbearer, the lion, the warrior, the prince; Saqqa, the carrier of the water. in the center of the wall, beneath an arch and a banner emblazoned with, “Ya Abal Fadhlil Abbas,” is a magnificent, enlarged poster of the dharih (encasing) that surrounds his grave.
i watch as a young child steps before me, climbing towards the photograph – gently, tenderly touching the image of the dharih and leaning forward to kiss it.
and in that moment, the photograph is not a photograph anymore. it is reality.
the dharih seems to enlarge from where it sits, dignified, silent in the picture – until it unfolds itself in all its magnificence before my eyes. as i reach my hand out into the empty wind, i can feel against my fingertips the coolness of its touch… and suddenly, my knees give way.
as i kneel on the floor, my heart begins to bleed inside my chest, and i am no longer in front of a picture, but journeying with the spirit’s wings to the grave of Abu Fadhil himself. if i listen closely, i can hear the chants called out beneath his dome, ya Abbas, ya Abbas! and if i close my eyes, i can smell his fragrance.
as i sit, the afternoon slips away. the time of the murder of Imam Hussain replays itself, over and over and over inside my head. my heart screams, oh lion who sleeps by the riverbank, awake from your slumber! ya Saqqa! oh my beloved, my Abbas! where are you, my warrior? do you not hear the wails of your sister Zaynab? will you not come to her aid as she screams? today, they are cutting the neck, they are wounding with spears, they are murdering your brother Hussain…
what seems like centuries pass in silence on the lawn. i let the grief wrack my body until it feels like at any moment, my soul might leave this world.
i let the waves of Ashura consume me.
for a long time, i remain where i am, because i know where it is i must journey to next – and i don’t know if my heart can handle it. i know that when i stand and turn across the walkway, i will see…
oh, my Mawla, Hussain.
as those who have been blessed to perform ziyara in Karbala know – (may those who have visited be invited to return soon, and may those who have not yet gone be called to this blessing in the nearest future, inshaAllah) – Baynol Harramain stretches as a long walkway of white marble between the graves of Hadhrat Abbas and Imam Hussain. after you convey your salaams at the grave of Hadhrat Abbas, asking his permission to meet his brother, your footsteps on this walkway towards Aba Abdillah begin.
footsteps: both exultant and heartbroken, excited and hesitant; the urge to run, the need to move slowly, absorbing every moment – one foot in front of the other in front of the other, until you finally stand face to face with the grave, the presence of the soul, the discerned figure standing before you,
the scent of heaven, beneath the dome of Imam Hussain.
similar to the replica of the harram of Hadhrat Abbas, the replica of Imam Hussain’s stands tall, majestic, noble. between beautifully constructed arches lies an even more beautiful poster, the dharih of Aba Abdillah al-Hussain.
as i move slowly towards it, my soul is shorn to pieces. ya Hussain! i do not know whether i should rejoice at this opportunity to somehow feel like i am next to your grave again, or whether i should fall to the ground in agonizing pain, keeled over, gasping for breath, crying out to the skies – not yet, please! please, it is still too soon! still too soon to embrace your broken body. please, not yet, don’t leave me…
as i look up from where i sit, it as if the dharih moves close towards me. as i grasp onto its metal and kiss the encasing of his grave, i see before my eyes this heartbreaking apparition:
10th Muharram. the final moments. Imam Hussain bids farewell to his sister. hugs for the last time his daughter. mounts his horse to ride away from the tents, never again to return.
the battle. the most glorious lion, charging into a battlefield of sheep. he moves left, the enemy scatters right; he moves right, the enemy scatters left. hundreds fall at the strike of his sword. the enemy panics. more archers are signaled forward. more swordsmen are prepared. arrows are released, darkening the skies like angry clouds, a savage storm falls upon my Imam…
wounds upon wounds kiss his skin. his blood falls in streams. a wailing arises from the depths of the desert sands. wolves begin to circle, teeth bared, snarling grins splayed across their faces. a lance is thrust forward, and al-Hussain falls towards the ground…
the tears choke in grief! the eyes shed blood! the heart’s sinews rupture and the arms clutch the chest in tatters. ya Allah! let the wailers wail! let the screamers scream! let no tear be left unshed as before history’s eyes a sword strikes and the earth quakes; as severed is the head, as is lifted high on a spear, as is covered in blood the beautiful face of Sayyid ush-Shuhada…
the evening begins to dim over the lawn. dusk begins to settle.
the battle is over. the dust of karbala is still. bodies lay unburied upon the ground. rivers of blood seep into the sands. the clamor that once filled the air is gone.
all that remains is silence.
the day of Ashura has come to an end, but the night of grief, Shaam-e-Gharibaan, is just beginning.
gone is Hadhrat Abbas. gone is Imam Hussain. but Imam al-Sajjad and Sayyida Zaynab remain.
the whispering entrance of a white tent beckons, and as you enter, the hollow stillness of the night pierces you. in the darkness, there is a red glow from lights and candles. inescapable, surrounding you – the atmosphere of grief. the scent of ash and flame.
in the corner of the exhibition stands a lonely tent, burnt holes all along its sides. as you enter, you see the musalla of the ailing son of Imam Hussain, the sign of Allah on the earth, Imam Zaynul Abideen. the soul catches in pain at the sight of his green imamah… for just a few inches away lie metal chains, and when you see them, you cannot shake from your mind the image of the family of the Prophet being dragged as prisoners through the streets of Damascus.
just a few paces away lies the cradle of Ali Asghar, the infant son of Imam Hussain, murdered that morning. his haunting ghost rises before you: the sight of his small hands, his innocent tongue running over the parched brokenness of his lips…
as you feel the weight of Ashura’s aftermath settle heavy in your chest, you leave the tent, steadying yourself to stand – but your eyes catch on a movie projection depicting the final moments of Imam Hussain’s martyrdom – and as you watch him, a silhouette of arrows falling to the ground, you fall to your knees as well.
the scene replays before your eyes and you struggle for breath between your tears. a small crowd of the lovers of Imam Hussain enters the tent, candles flickering in their hands. they surround the miniature replica of the Battle of Karbala where small figurines are arranged as they must have stood on that day – the enemy camps, the tens of thousands of Yazeed’s soldiers, the blocked river Euphrates; the surrounded, glowing tents of Imam Hussain…
a devotee amongst them begins to recite the mournful melody of lamentation poetry in Urdu, and another takes a candle and begins to set the tents of Aba Abdillah on fire. as they begin to burn and the ash begins to rise, the children sitting nearby cry out, “my eyes are burning from the smoke!”
and with these words, none who stand witness can contain their weeping. for this child, pain rising from the heat of a single candle’s flame… but what of your children, O Hussain? at this very moment, what ash must be leaping from your tents? what flames striking from those torches? what heat burning from that blaze? what heartwrenching screams of your children? from your young daughter, wa Hussaina! Oh Baba, where are you! please, save me…
the last time i felt like my heart could no longer be contained inside my chest, like it would explode, like it would shatter from such intense and unbearable longing, i was standing in front of Imam Hussain in Karbala.
i send infinite duaas to those who have so artfully recreated even an ounce of that feeling of ziyara, that connection to the Ahlulbayt, from thousands of miles away. through this beautiful exhibit: The Steps of Imam Hussain, so many have been allowed to have their hearts, rendered so tender by the grief of Imam Hussain, be broken utterly and completely. in a single moment, they have felt themselves not just speaking to Imam Hussain from afar, but standing before him – walking by his side, living in a new light the day of Ashura, seeing with a new sight the night of the aftermath, coming together to mourn the greatest tragedy in history – when Imam Hussain, the divine representative of God and the reflection of His attributes on earth, sacrificed everything – everything – in the way of Allah, without a moment’s hesitation.
if you have not yet had a chance to visit this exhibition, please make the effort to go. it will be open for two more nights this year before closing (inshaAllah to return next year and for many years to come). bring your friends, your families, your children – and allow yourself to be immersed in this transformative experience.
allow yourself to feel the arms of Imam Hussain reaching through the tapestries of time to embrace you.
let yourself feel his grief anew, and in feeling it so viscerally, allow yourself carry it with you as the torch to light the way even when caught in the depths of darkness.
break your heart open, and through this brokenness, make your spirit unbreakable. for a few hours, walk in The Steps of Imam Hussain; and for the remainder of your lifetime, carry the beauty of those steps with you.
may every volunteer and visitor who has participated in this project be granted the intercession of Aba Abdillah on that final day. may we remember him, pledge our allegiance to him, and pledge allegiance to his descendant, the Imam of our own time. may we live a life with soft hearts but strong convictions, being blessed enough to choose the Ahlulbayt in every moment of this life – inshaAllah becoming worthy of their embrace when we finally meet them in the next.