Lebanon marks Ashura in the midst of economic crisis

A man hoists a flag as onlookers clap during the "al-Nabda" Ashura commemoration. (TNA)
5 min read
21 August, 2021
This year's Ashura commemoration was marked with acts of community support as Lebanon's economic crisis deepens.

As the Imam's voice boomed over the speakers, men of all ages cried, holding their face between their hands and rocking back and forth, their bodies shaking with grief. The Imam recited the story of Hussein's death, wiping the tears from his own eyes as he read. Every time he took a breath, the sounds of sobbing worshippers filled the silence.

Outside the mosque in Khandaq al-Ghamik in downtown Beirut, children gathered in front of tables handing out the sweet cheese dessert, Kunafeh, while volunteers handed out bags of lentils and other dried foods to families. Despite the occasion, the air was jubilant, with children running up and down the streets waving flags with the name of Hussein embroidered in sweeping gold letters.

Worshippers were gathered to observe Ashura, the commemoration of the martyrdom of Hussain Ibn Ali, the grandson of the Muslim prophet Mohammed. Hussain was killed during the Battle of Karbala, after refusing to submit to the authority of the Ummayad caliph. After his death, Hussain has become a symbol of resistance and moral purity for Shia Muslims.

Worshippers mourn Hussain during a ceremony in a Beirut mosque. (TNA)
Worshippers mourn Hussain during a ceremony in a Beirut mosque (TNA)

Each Ashura, Shia publicly mourn the death of Hussain through marches, public gatherings, and in some cases, self-flagellation. Not all Shias practice self-flagellation, with many Iranian clerics forbidding the practice and Shia Militant group Hezbollah condemning the practice.

This year's Ashura gatherings were especially poignant for followers in Lebanon as they were prevented from holding public commemorations last year due to Covid-19 restrictions. "It feels like a community again," one worshipper told The New Arab.

Towards the end of the Imam's speech, worshippers began to gather outside the mosque to participate in acts of self-flagellation. Men waved black flags while others beat drums and blew a small bugle.

With each beat of the drum, worshippers cried out and hit themselves. Some whipped their backs with heavy chains while others struck their foreheads with razors and the flat of swords. They moved in rhythm with the drum beats and encouraged each other as they struck themselves, blood splattering on one another with each blow. Blood ran down their faces and bodies, coating the surgical masks they wore to prevent the spread of Covid-19.

Beside the exalting worshippers, members of Lebanon's Civil Defence disinfected and cleaned wounds.

Soon, the ritual ended and worshippers lined up in two rows in a practice named al Nabda, clapping in time as men strode up and down the column, hoisting huge black flags with Hussein’s name written on it. The crowd soon gathered around four young men, who whipped their backs with chains as cymbals crashed and the crowd chanted.

An infant commemorates Ashura with his mother in Khandaq al-Ghamik in Bierut, Lebanon. (TNA)
An infant commemorates Ashura with his mother in Khandaq al-Ghamik in Bierut, Lebanon (TNA)

Acts of community support

Lebanon's Ashura was unique this year not just for the surgical masks, which donned the faces of worshippers, but also for the dire economic context in which it took place.

Lebanon is currently undergoing a protracted economic crisis, with the vast majority of its population plunged into poverty and its currency undergoing hyperinflation. Severe fuel shortages have grounded much of the country's businesses to a halt and left its population sitting in the darkness as generator owners’ fail to secure diesel.

The Lebanese state has been largely absent throughout the crisis, and the country is still ruled by a caretaker government which, after 10 months, has yet to form a successor government.

During this Ashura, some believers took it upon themselves to support their own communities through charitable initiatives.

A group of young volunteers, working with the UK-based organisation "Who is Hussain", organised a charitable campaign entitled "Ten days kindness" to mark the first ten days of the Islamic month of Muharram, leading up to Ashura.

Each day, the organisation - with its some 500 volunteers in Lebanon - performed different charitable acts, including distributing female hygienic products, handing out hundreds of food boxes to families, organising a blood drive and debt forgiveness-programs to struggling small businesses.

On one day, volunteers visited small businesses throughout Beirut and bought out all their products, leaving them for the owners to give away to anyone in need.

The idea is to kickstart "cycles of kindness", Batoul Iskander, a volunteer with Who is Hussain, told The New Arab.

"We are empowering people to give back to their communities, to remind people to look out for the people around them," she said. "Once you start giving back to your community, you’ll never stop."

A man pours sweetened rose water over Kunafeh, a sweet cheese dessert, during Ashura commemorations. (TNA).
A man pours sweetened syrup over Kunafeh, a sweet cheese dessert, during Ashura commemorations (TNA)

Though the organisation led charitable drives each year for Ashura, this year was especially critical, given the grim economic situation in Lebanon. This year, the organisation had a tenfold increase in the requests for assistance.

"Usually, we have to hunt for people to assist. This time, people are reaching out to us," Iskander said.

One of those helped by the organisation was Abu Hussein, an 82-year old man who runs a small orange juice stand on the side of the road in Bierut's southern suburbs, Dahiyeh.

Abu Hussein worked as a cleaner for the Beirut municipality for over 40 years, and used to live relatively comfortable off his pension from the city. However, the severe devaluation of Lebanon's currency meant that the value of his pension has practically dwindled to nothing.

After costs, Abu Hussein takes home about 130,000 Lebanese lira, or about $11. With this money he supports himself and his wife, who requires medical care due to an injury sustained in an Islamic State attack in Dahiyeh some years earlier.

When Who is Hussain approached Abu Hussein one day and offered to buy all his product for the day, he was elated. The amount they bought was equivalent to about 20 days of sales for him.

"I would never ask anyone for anything, but acts like these leave you feel as if someone is looking out for you," Abu Hussein said.