Scenes of Mourning

The 10th day of Ashura, March 2, was a bad one in Iraq: bombs in Karbala, bombs in Khadamiya. After an afternoon spent in hospitals, I went to the central morgue in Baghdad. It was semi-refrigerated and clammy and smelled like sweetish cloying meat. Some bodies lay on the floor, twisted among blankets and bits of bloodied rag and clothing; some bodies, naked, were stretched out on autopsy tables, with parts of limbs and personal effects in trays to the side. The scene looked much, much worse than dead people do in movies. These were not simply cold bodies but shreds of people: the remnants of a child, a blown-off head, legs without any torso. The morgue official, an overly jolly man, picked up a half a jaw and wriggled it at us. “Look, you wanted to see. Look!” And in this nasty, cold, dismembered place of horror is where family members must come to identify their loved ones.

The day before the bombs, Khadamiya was bustling. Market traders took down their stalls in the narrow streets that run up to the four glistering golden minarets of the shrine to make room for the throngs of practicing flagellants who came to commemorate one the holiest events on the Shiite calendar. It was the first time in decades that Shiite Muslims in Iraq have been free do so. The festival marks a holy time of mourning for the grandson of the Prophet Muhammad, Imam Husayn. (For more on the festival, see this “Faith-Based.”) The scene: parades of drummers, with cymbals clashing, and files of men clad in black beating their shoulders with metal chain flails. Then came a parade of imams, from the first, Ali, to the 11th (the missing 12th imam was represented by an empty crib), some walked in armor, others on horseback.

Along the streets water was ladled into cups: Husayn died in battle, thirsty, and Shiites drink in remembrance of his thirst; similarly, old women moved through the crowds spraying rose water mist. Banners hanging in the tents for musicians displayed pictures of the severed head of Husayn, dripping with his martyred blood. Men had shaved their heads in readiness. In A.D. 680, Husayn, who died in the battle of Karbala trying to wrest control from Umayyad Caliphs, was deserted by his supporters. Ever since, Shiites have lamented their shame and hoped to expiate it with self-scourging.

“I serve Husayn. Look, see,” said a giant man dressed in a black tunic with a green headband, as he pushed his sons forward, two boys, about 8 and 9, wearing a white shroud over their black costume—better to show the blood—and daggers at their waists. Their father grinned like a pirate and cracked their skulls with his sword, just so. “Ha!” One of the boys flinched and had his ear twisted for it.

“For years we were prevented from doing these things.” They kept their flags and banners and ornate ceremonial staffs bricked up in false walls and hidden beneath floors. “We would go to our farmhouses to perform these things. Whoever was caught was killed.”

Were they worried about security?

“Within ourselves there is no limit to our sacrifice.”

And they chided me for letting an inch of hair show under my abaya and a woman came up to show me how to adjust it properly.

The next day the explosions tore up bodies and spilled blood. The streets in Baghdad seemed empty with shock. We drove toward Khadamiya to find the hospital where the hundreds of casualties had been taken. We were a Shiite, a Sunni, a Brit, and an American in the car.

“I think I am going to get a gun permit,” said the Shiite. We drove past a mosque that had wrapped its minarets in black cloth for mourning.

“At the hospital,” worried the Sunni, “they are going to find out I am Sunni.”

There were guards and guns and vigilantes at the intersections, and an angry, bitter crowd pushed at the security cordon around the emergency ward. Men shouted and wept and chanted Husayn’s name. An old man cried in a corner, another prayed under a tree. “Mossad,” we heard people say to each other as they explained what they had seen. “Missiles!” “God will punish them!”

The hospital appealed for blood and the waiting mass of victims’ relatives bared their forearms. To us, stupid press, sons of bitches, they spoke clearly so we would be sure to understand, all this was the fault of the Americans.

“Ask Bremer! Ask him for your answers!”

“The Americans are responsible because they know about these things!”

“The American helicopters left; they were flying and then half an hour before the explosions they stopped. This is all for the benefit of the Americans!”

“The order came from the Americans, the origins of this terrorism came from the Americans.”

I don’t understand why people believe the United States was behind the mayhem, but they resolutely do. They think that the Americans want to stay in Iraq and fomenting a civil war will allow them to pursue this ambition. As I have argued many times, it doesn’t make any sense. Yesterday, standing at the hospital I thought I caught a glimpse of an explanation for the stubborn insistence on blaming the United States: To many Iraqis, the Americans are the bad guys, and so when bad things happens it is the fault of the Americans. Similarly, to Westerners, al-Qaida are the bad guys and when bad things happen we blame Bin Laden nihilist ideology. In reality, though, neither side knows who planted the bombs in piles of garbage in Karbala, or who fired missiles into crowds or blew themselves up, as they seemed to have done in Khadamiya. We do not really know who does these things and none of us understand why.

Shiite blood and sacrifice and martyrdom were well served, in any case.

“I wish I had been standing there,” said one man outside the hospital, “to be a martyr for Husayn. Everyone here feels like this; we would be happy, our pride would flow from God. Every time we are hit we become stronger than before. My brother was executed in 1982; I have seven brothers. Death is nothing to us.”

As a crowd came out of the hospital, accompanying a corpse on a bloody gurney, a man in a yellow football shirt ran wailing away.

I continued to listen to the anger of portent. I told one man, a neat, polite man, that I was sorry for what had happened.

“You say nice words to calm us,” Jafer Ali told me, “but you people betray us.” This was the first time I’ve heard an Iraqi identify me personally with the occupying forces. It did not feel good to be put on one side, one side against another side. I was wearing a fully enveloping black abaya, but I have blue eyes and no one was fooled.

“We want to hold on to your words, but it is only chaos,” said Jafer. I looked around at the milling, gun-ridden, incoherent crowd and could not disagree. “Keep in mind,” he warned, “that day after day we will gather more faith in God. Days like this remind us of Husayn. We will be ready to fight. We are only waiting for the word ‘jihad.’ ”