Three days in Karbala


Last week I spent three days in Karbala, a city about an hour north of Najaf. Like Najaf, Karbala is a holy city for Shia Muslims, containing the shrines of Imam Hussein and Imam Abbas. A group of artists who work with the Muslim Peacemaker Teams hosted me.

On Wednesday, June 29th, Fatin al-Jumaily and her husband Wathiq drove from Karbala to Sami’s house in Najaf to pick me up. I met Fatin last August when she came to Minneapolis as a featured Iraqi artist in the exhibit, The Art of Conflict. Her paintings and presentations in Minneapolis focused on the experience of women in the Iraq War. She and Wathiq came to pick me up in Wathiq’s brother’s car, a 2007 Hyundai, because it has air conditioning and their’s doesn’t.

On the way to Karbala we were stopped at one check point. The army officer asked about me and Wathiq said I’m an American Muslim going to visit the shrines in Karbala. I’m not Muslim, but the army officer let us pass without further questions. Later that evening I saw that people from all over the world, including some from the West, come to Karbala to visit the shrines.

For more photos from Karbala, visit:

We arrived at Fatin and Wathiq’s house around 6 pm. They are poor and have a very humble house, but Fatin prepared snacks (we ate dinner much later) and they had gifts waiting for me–a set of headphones and a planner with a calendar and maps of Iraq. We talked about Fatin’s students (she’s an art teacher at a public school close to their house) and her hope to continue her education in art history. A couple of years ago her students sent letters and art drawings to a school in Minneapolis as part of the Letters for Peace program of the Iraqi and American Reconciliation Project.

After about an hour we left the house to visit the shrines. Fatin and Wathiq live about 5 minutes from the shrines by car, but the two neighborhoods are very different. The streets near Fatin and Wathiq’s house, like many streets in Karbala and Najaf, are broken, bumpy, and narrow. Often there are large obstacles in the middle of the road, such as a pile of dirt, that must be avoided. Garbage and rubble line the streets and progress is slow.

Around the shrines, the streets are clean and the buildings are beautiful hotels and apartments. Because the shrines attract religious tourists from all over the world, both the government and private sector in Karbala invest in maintaining and developing the surrounding area. Tourism is a big industry in Karbala, but it also highlights the stark contrast between areas with foreign money and those without.

Lack of government services for Iraqis, such as street cleaning and maintenance, is one reason Iraqis remain unhappy with their government and with the United States. The last few decades have been brutal for Iraq’s development: the invasion of Kuwait and subsequent U.S. bombing and U.N. sanctions throughout the 1990s, the 2003 U.S. invasion and bombing, and the dissolution of the Iraqi government and years of warfare. Now that there is a degree of stability and the country has some oil wealth, it is difficult for Iraqis to accept the inability of their government (and of the Americans) to build roads and create a steady supply of electricity.

We parked about 10 blocks away from the shrines (no cars are allowed near them) and walked the rest of the way. The streets were crowded and lined with shops. Small parks with pools of water provided rest.

As we approached the shrines, people crowded in and out of large open-air tents with powerful coolers blowing cold air. We left our shoes and my camera in a storage building outside the shrine and went in. It was a very spiritual place. The main room was about 6 stories high and filled with thousands of people praying and resting. We sat down for a while and I watched people go by and listened to the lecture being given by the Imam.

After about half an hour we went to visit the actual shrine, which is a smaller room within the building that contains the grave of Imam Hussein. The grave rests near the place where Hussein, the second grandson of the Prophet Mohammad, was killed during the Battle of Karbala in 680 AD. On one side of the battle was a small group of Hussein’s supporters (Fatin told me 70 people) and on the other was the army of Yazid, the caliph who Hussein refused to recognize. Hussein and all his supporters were killed and are regarded as martyrs by Shias.

After seeing the shrine we sat for a while longer in the main room and listened to some kids practicing recitation of the Qur’an. Fatin and Wathiq talked about coming to the shrine nearly every night and I played with the Misbaha, or prayer beads, that Sami had given me.

The next day we left early to visit Fatin and Wathiq’s families, who live on farms outside of Karbala. We spent only about an hour with Fatin’s family and the rest of the day with Wathiq’s. When we arrived at Wathiq’s house his father greeted us warmly in the reception room and we drank tea with his siblings.

Wathiq is the oldest son of his father’s second wife. In all, he has nine brothers and sisters and several nieces and nephews, many of whom live at the family house. Fatin and Wathiq joke about the practice of taking two wives, which is still common in the “Reef,” or countryside. Fatin makes a choking gesture to indicate what she will do if Wathiq wants to take a second wife.

We ate a large meal of rice and chicken prepared several different ways. The family was curious about what an American was doing in Karbala and Fatin and I tried to explain. After lunch Wathiq’s father gave me a dishdasha (a traditional robe) to wear and we took a nap for about an hour and half. Later the oldest son of the family, who has four children of his own, gave me a tour of the farm. He was a soldier under Saddam but lost his position when the U.S. dissolved the army after 2003. He now works as a night-time security guard at a Pepsi distribution center across the street.

We returned to Karbala that night and had a late dinner with the group of artists who work with Sami and MPT. I had seen many of their artworks in Minneapolis so was happy to put a face to their names: Anwr Qmr, Maher Sabbar, Ibraheem Hussein, Esam Sahib, and Hazim Al-Ashhab. The conversation focused on art and America; they were mostly pessimistic about Iraq’s future and didn’t seem interested in talking about it. Ibraheem, Maher, and Anwr all told me they would like to come to the U.S., to visit and perhaps to live. After dinner we got ice cream at a busy road-side shop.

I spent the next morning with Anwr’s family. Anwr showed me many of his paintings and gave me several to give to his friends in Minneapolis. Anwr’s family is wealthier than Fatin and Wathiq and he and his wife have their own computer, which he uses to talk with several friends in Minneapolis.

Later that afternoon Ibraheem and Maher picked us up and we drove about an hour to Hilla for an art exhibit. Hilla is also the location of the ancient city of Babylon and is a cultural center for southern Iraq. The exhibit featured work about mythology and the creation story, and the curator, a prominent art critic in Iraq who speaks fluent English, pointed out the recurring presence of “the apple.” The artist whose work was featured gave a short presentation and other artists made comments and asked questions.

That night I stayed with Maher and his family at their brother’s house in Karbala. The next morning Ibraheem drove me back to Najaf.