The Mourning of Muharram and the day of Ashura in South Lebanon

The unusual calm which reigns in Sour seems rather surrealistic after having spent a bit of time in the chaos of Beirut, but appeased I get out of the bus and enjoy a gentle breeze on the seafront. Walking towards my flat I notice dark banners hanging from balconies, trees have been wrapped in black cloths. Most of the folks I cross are also dressed in black and the cars too have been decorated with flags which have the same motives as the banderoles on the balconies. We have just entered the first month of the Islamic calendar, during the first 10 days the Shias who mostly populate the south of the country will celebrate the Mourning of Muharram. Also referred to as the remembrance of Muharram these days mark the anniversary of the Karbala battle in which Imam Hussein ibn Ali, the grandson of the Islamic prophet Muhammad was defeated by Umayyad caliph Yazid I. Shias consider Imam Hussein to be the rightful successor to Muhammad. On the tenth day, known as Ashura they will celebrate the killing of Hussein, his family and his partisans. During this period, Shias will celebrate in congregation halls called Hussainas.

Following the sounds of singing prayers, the next day, I search for the ceremony’s hoping to convince the mourners to let me photograph their celebrations. After a 5 minute walk by the seafront, a man dressed in black with a radio and a logo of political group Amal printed on his jacket, block’s my way and the next thing I know is that I’m asked to justify my presence in the area and that my bag is being thoroughly searched. The reason of my search is that the elongated shaped bag of my tripod has the unfortunate tendency to be confused with the one of a rifle. Usually that resemblance was a good way to laugh with strangers or at least to arouse curiosity leading often to a portrait. However, community tensions and the overspill of the syrian crisis this year have put the celebrations under active surveillance by their organizers. Hezbollah Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah during a speech given on the first day has asked his supporters to cooperate with the army in order to help prevent incidents. Satisfied by the explanations given to him and amused by the respects paid in my basic arabic, the guard let’s me pass through and I enter the secured area where cars are being evacuated and final preparations are being made. The person in charge seems quite pleased to let me photograph the celebrations and for the following days he will make a point into giving me warm welcome.

Songs start blasting out of the speakers at 3pm, slowly people arrive and gather in front of the Husseina. My camera is set, I have my finger on the cable ready to release the shutter, in a few minutes women are going to arrive from the opposite neighborhood, they will cross the roman ruins and arrive gradually to the Husseina. The music, their black robes and the slowness of their pace gives the scene a solemn atmosphere. In the middle of the room a man is reading prayers while men and women separated, commemorate their prophet.

I pack my equipment and leave the mourners to their grief. For the whole ten days these ceremonies will occur throughout the town leading to the last day : Ashura.

Unfortunately I was arrested and told that for exceptional security reasons it be impossible for me to continue taking pictures without formal authorization.

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