Performance integral to story of Hussein’s death

October 04, 2003 12:00 AM

Performance is part of the meaning of oral poetry. While epics such as Al-Hilaliyya depend on singing bands of bards, and epics such as Seerat al-Zaher Baybars are read from a book by a seated story teller, telling Al-Husseiniyya is both a work of art and a religious duty. It is told in mosques and in special places where Shiite Muslims gather, holding the same name as the epic: Husseiniyya.

The epic is told by a sheikh or mullah rather than a bard. Hussein being the Prophet Mohammed’s grandson and a holy figure to Shiite Muslims, telling the story of his martyrdom is believed to have an emancipating effect on the souls of those who tell it and those who listen. In most cases the story of Hussein’s martyrdom is told from the point of view of Zaynab, his sister. Zaynab witnessed the death of 70 of her cousins and brothers in the town of Karbala, near the Euphrates. Hussein, who had rebelled against the rule of the Umayyad Caliph Yazid Ibn Muawyya, entrusted her with his children and nephews in case he was killed. Listening to Al-Husseiniyya is, metaphorically, listening to Zaynab’s lamentations. The performer would stop every now and then to remind the audience that they were here to share the pain of Zaynab, as if by that they were paying her their condolences.

While Zaynab is the dominant story teller in Al-Husseiniyya, other characters in the epic become story tellers too. The structure is fluid: The performer would go back and forth in time, first telling the documented historical event in classical Arabic prose, then retelling the scene in verse and in the  colloquial Iraqi dialect, making the characters speak.

For example, using classical Arabic prose, the sheikh would tell you the story of Ali, the surviving son of Hussein, who passed by a butcher in Madina, years after the massacre. Ali hears the butcher asking his assistant: “Did you give that lamb water before killing it?” The assistant says yes, so Ali asks the butcher: “Is it your habit to give water to the lamb before killing it?” The butcher answers yes. Ali then bursts into tears and looks toward Iraq (where Hussein and the rest of the family’s men died thirsty) and cries:  “Peace be upon you, O Hussein!”

Here the sheikh would interrupt his prose with a painful, musical tone and sing the following poetry:

A lamb is not killed until it is given water to drink,

And the son of God’s Messenger is killed thirsty by the Euphrates!

They were all gone, and they did not bid us farewell

And all they left was fire, burning in my heart.

I swear by God, if those who are gone ever come back

I will fill the desert between Medina and Karbala with roses!

The last line refers to the Shiite belief that a descendent of Hussein will appear at the end of time “to fill Earth with justice, just as it has been filled with oppression.”

By making the characters, most of whom are holy figures, speak in the everyday language of contemporary Arabs, the performer brings them to life. The audience then identifies with the characters ­ every sister of a martyr identifies with Zaynab, every mother identifies with Fatima, every young man with Ali, the surviving son of Hussein.

The sheikh telling the epic adopts a Koranic tone when he is talking in classical Arabic prose. There is great resemblance between the sound of musical prose used by Shiites in Husseiniyya and the manner by which Orthodox Christians read through the Bible on certain occasions. Then, when the sheikh comes to poetry, the tone changes, expressing great pain. Sometimes the sheikh himself would burst into tears along with the audience. When poems are being sung in this painful manner, the rhythm is kept by groups of the audience, hitting their chests with their palms. This is not only a sign of grief but also a sign of regret that those people were not there to fight alongside Hussein.

The ritual of regret is known in many other cultures and religions. Yet on many occasions in Islamic history, the poems written, said and sung in memory of Hussein’s martyrdom led, among other things, to real revolutions. The first revolution after the massacre at Karbala, against Umayyad rule, was called the Revolution of Regret and was led by people who did nothing at the time to save the Prophet’s grandson.

This mixture of grief, regret, anger and the will to self-sacrifice is still provoked by Al-Husseiniyya whenever it is read. Al-Husseiniyya sessions played a role in bringing down the shah’s regime in Iran, where the people identifying with victims of the massacre identified the shah with Yazid, the illegitimate tyrant. The epic used to have similar effects on fighters of the Lebanese resistance struggling against Israeli occupation. Few epics in the world have had such a crucial function in the social and political life of the people who made it.

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(The Daily Star :: Lebanon News ::