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Grief is a thing to be sung: solace from Shi’a lamentation

By Aleeha Zahra Ali

A year and a half ago, I learnt what grief was. Before that I had known waves of sadness, despair, depression, heartbreak and anger. But grief was a different monster, an all-encompassing ocean, one that faithfully and indiscriminately stalks the human experience. And when grief found me, I wanted to run out of my skin.

In August of 2021 I was in Amsterdam, mid-way through my PhD fieldwork and conscious that my time and funding were limited. My field had finally become accessible as pandemic restrictions began to ease. Despite the sluggishness that weighed down my days, that made my muscles heavier and my joints stiff, I decided to continue working.

Muharram, the first month of the Islamic lunar calendar, was just beginning and ushered in a period of intense ritual practice for the Shi’a Muslims that I work with. On the first day of Muharram, I bound my hair and dressed in black from head to toe, preparing to attend a majlis sermon. I would continue this routine for the next ten days. Majlis sermons are a 1400-year-old practice in Shi’ism. They commemorate the Battle of Karbala, which was on the tenth of Muharram 61 A.H (After Hijra). Karbala was a monumental moment in Shi’a history, one that preceded the Shi’a-Sunni split and set the cornerstone of Shi’a rituals.

On the very first day, I walked into a room of women dressed in the same black uniform. For the next 10 days this routine would repeat: I attended majalis sermons twice a day. Once in the afternoon, for about 4 hours, and once at night. The ritual was tiring. It began with an hour of laments in the form of poetry, called marsiyyeh. Anyone from the congregation could join and recite a lament of their choice. The laments were usually in Urdu, Punjabi, and Seraiki, a linguistic map of where the Dutch congregation’s – and my – roots are: in Pakistan’s Punjab and Sindh regions.

During the first days my head would wander, tuning out the rhythmic laments. I would bow my head as women around me wept, and try to ignore the ball of grief itching in my throat. If something interesting or noteworthy happened, I would add it to the fieldnotes I was taking on my phone. The second phase of the ritual was a sermon, a powerful speech given by an orator. The sermon was vivid, evoking scenes from an old brutal battle. Sometimes I would interrupt myself picturing the blood and gore described, or catch myself wincing in response. A Shi’a majlis is always characterized by ritual weeping at the end. Both men and women openly cry, curling their bodies, bowing their heads, and sounding out their sorrow. At this moment, I would bow my head and listen, while my own emotions remained wound tightly in my chest.

The ritual ended with us standing in a circle, thumping our chests for about half an hour. By the end my arms would ache, and I would count thumps to pass time. When leaving the majlis, my grief would stay snaked heavily around my shoulders.

Things began to feel different after a few days, however. I began to look forward to the poetry that told the same stories over and over again: about children torn from mothers’ arms, about virile young men felled from their horses too soon, about brave women unveiled and imprisoned. I thought my grief was a solitary thing, but in the room full of sobbing women I understood that the only thing special about it was that it was new to me. The people around me, however, were enacting a centuries-old understanding of grief, one that was both commemorative and anticipatory. Wrapped in my lone experience I had simply forgotten it, despite having grown up with these rituals in Pakistan.

One afternoon, towards the end of a majlis, the entire room began to sing a well-known Urdu lament. I remembered a few words and joined in. We drew in a breath in tandem, and exhaled out the words together. After a while we began to thump our chests. Our arms rose together, in one rhythm, and the room was permeated. Thud, thud, thud. I could feel my own palm on my chest, and when the women slowed or quickened their pace, I would know. And I would follow.

Feeling tired began to feel good. The aches in my arms began to comfort me. The ball of grief stuck in my throat found old unravelling words – words that weren’t my own. It gave me something to say, when I couldn’t think of anything for myself.

One evening, about 7 or 8 days into Muharram, the ball in my throat unspooled down, flowing into a thumping arm, streaming down my face. I found the relief of weeping, and found myself in a room of women doing the same, sob to sob.

For centuries, Shi’a rituals have embodied grief, and have been ways to process ages-old collective memory and trauma. By setting aside a certain amount of time every year, people can collectively experience grief through the rituals of Muharram. The motions of chest thumping perform pain and bring us back to our bodies. Individuals process their own emotions, but many of the attendees do not lament for themselves. It is precisely the process of lamenting for other people, for ancient stories, that makes majalis so powerful. By the time my fieldwork ended, and I folded away my black shalwar kameez, I remembered the closing words of a lament that my mother always played at the end of the mourning period:

“Agar zindagi rahi to aglay baras
Hum hain aur ye gham”

“If my life remains until next year,
It will be us and this grief again”

Aleeha Zahra Ali is a PhD-student at Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam. Her research is titled ‘Digital Mourning: YouTube Majlis amongst Shi’a Muslims in Europe‘ and is part of the project ‘Mediating Islam in the Digital Age’.

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