There were various meetings in Najaf and Karbala on the campaign trail for List 569, and it was natural to visit the shrines in these two cities. Entering, there is always a grand ritual of being greeted at the outer door by men in red fezzes with green cloth in the middle. Known as the servants of the shrine, these men take visitors inside the tomb area and read the prayers that comprise the visit. I was surprised by the powerful reaction of some of the men with us who broke down weeping when the servants started reciting the prayers. It was impossible to sit and reflect in silence because of the weeping and the noise.
Najaf and Karbala are Iraq’s two holy cities. They are also the two holiest cities of Shiite Islam worldwide, because they host the shrines of Imam Ali (the Prophet’s cousin and son-in-law) and Imam Hussein (Imam Ali’s son), respectively. Religious dress code is vigorously imposed. These shrines carry the same weight that the Vatican does for Catholics, perhaps more so, and it is fairly common to see young religious clerical students, just as you see young seminarians walking the streets of Rome.
The shrines are very ornate inside. The tomb is protected by a cage designed like a grid, which visitors grab onto to look inside. These grids are as close as you can get to the tomb itself. I noticed several green pieces of cloth tied to the grid as markers of a request a visitor had made to the imam. Shiites commonly make a wish to one of their imams after a pilgrimage to the shrine; they give charity once that wish comes true.
The Imam Ali Shrine in Najaf is the smaller one, with an elaborate silver cage that carries the weight of history. It is very delicately engraved with elegant patterns along all four sides of the square. The workmanship is Indian, commissioned and contributed by the Shiites of India several centuries ago. Their relationship to the holy shrines is a long one that often entails providing funding and upkeep of the structures.
After the shrine, we visited one of the four leading ayatollahs in Najaf, Ayatollah Ishaak Fayad. The most revered and influential is Grand Ayatollah al-Sistani, who has played a leading role in helping the Iraqi political process by calling for restraint and rapprochement between the sects. Like Sistani, Fayad is not a native of Najaf. He is a Hazara Afghan who originally came to Najaf to study. He is an endearing man with striking Mongolian features, sharp bone structure, and great humility. He speaks Arabic fluently with a heavy Afghan accent. His office is a humble room with cushions on the floor. He sits in a corner of the floor at a small, low desk stacked with books and with a telephone on the side. There is a medieval feel to the place: He is a man so advanced in the study of philosophy, logic, and jurisprudence, located in a simple setting far away from our high-tech world. You can tell he is a committed pencil-and-paper man.
Ayatollah Fayad bemoaned the pitiable condition of the Iraqi people, who, he feels, are still suffering from the neglect and carelessness of the state. He was particularly vocal regarding the international reaction to the bombings and deaths in Iraq, which, as far as he is concerned, no one condemns sufficiently. It’s “as if the blood of Iraqis is cheap,” he kept repeating, recalling the outraged reactions toward terrorist attacks elsewhere in the world. He also bemoaned the state of education in Iraq, drawing comparisons to Pakistan and Afghanistan. The situation struck me as unusual. There was a cosmopolitanism to sitting in traditional, conservative Najaf with an Afghan ayatollah, discussing world affairs. Yet it made sense, because Najaf is a university in the etymological meaning of the word, where students have been coming for centuries to seek erudition.
Lunch came several hours later in Nasiriya and was eaten next to the river among the palm trees. It was hosted by List 569’s local candidate in the region, which is called Soug el Shoyouk (the Market of the Sheiks). I nearly lost my handbag trying to walk to the main house in the dense, excited crowd.
The highlight was a poetry competition in which men, young and old, summed up their complaints and demands in rhyming verse. Animated poets repeatedly yanked out microphone wires as they moved around. After enough pushing and shoving, I decided to find my way to the roof of the main house to look at the view of greenery and palm trees and perhaps to glimpse the nearby marshes. What really took my breath away were the enormous pots of stew that were boiling behind the house, while hundreds of plates of rice were being served for the more than 3,000 invitees.