Most people know little about Moharram except what they see on the streets - a procession, a tazia with mourners in black beating their chests. Some may have seen men, even little boys hitting themselves with chains, blades, swords. Few people have a chance to experience the storytelling that lies at the heart of the mourning.
The story has been told, year upon year, since 680 AD. It is a story that was told mainly by women who survived the massacre of one branch of the family of Prophet Muhammad.
Muhammad succeeded to a great extent in uniting several warring clans and tribes in Arabia in his own lifetime. It was clear that the new faith was gaining ground but soon after Muhammad died, there were disagreements over succession - who would get to lead these newly united people? There were already conflicts about where Caliphs could be buried since that could become an argument for rebels, a rallying point of sorts.
The third Caliph, Uthman, was killed. The fifth, Hasan who was Muhammad's grandson, abdicated, letting Muawiyah take charge for the duration of the latter's life. But later Hasan was poisoned. Muawiyah named his own son, Yazid, as successor. This was not acceptable to some leaders, certainly not to Hussain, who was Hasan's younger brother.
He refused to accept and endorse Yazid as Caliph, and chose to leave Medina with his family and supporters. They headed towards Karbala (now in Iraq) but found no safe refuge. Yazid's forces surrounded them, neither letting them proceed towards Damascus nor letting them return to Medina. The soldiers also cut off access to the river. Finally, there was a battle. There were only 72 men on Hussain's side and all died, barring one.
We don't know exactly how many women and children survived. They were held captive and, the story goes, their veils were torn off to humiliate them publicly. How they lived afterwards, we do not know. That was not the story they told.
The story they told was about Karbala. They were determined not to forget nor to let others forget. Centuries passed and still the story is told. Mournful dirges, elegies (called "nauha" and "soz") show different facets of the tragedy, adding layer upon layer of grief.
What does a tragedy mean, after all, if we give it a single word - massacre? How do we honour those who are killed even though they do not want bloodshed? They who die must not be reduced to a statistic. They must not be remembered as mere contenders for power. Therefore, the poetry is in the voice of a beloved who must witness a tragedy.
Zainab sees the camp being set on fire. Through a nauha, we see it happening as if we had her eyes. We hear the voice of a little girl, Sakina, as she waits for her father to return. There is Kasim, newly wed and a lifetime stretched out on the horizon of his dreams. There is his aunt who thinks it was just yesterday that she was cuddling him in her lap. There is Hussain, holding a baby dying of thirst, hoping the enemy will take pity on the child at least. There is Abbas, trying to fill a water skin though he is already wounded, but still trying to get back to the tents where the women and children are waiting.
If the story is told well (with passion but without the unnecessary theatrics that professional tellers are wont to employ), listeners weep spontaneously. They weep not only because of what happened centuries ago in a faraway land. They weep because they find in their own hearts an echo of the love and loss and horror described by the storyteller.
What Yazid wanted was to crush dissent, get rid of the opposition. The only way to thwart him was to keep the memory of dissent alive. We would do well to remember this. Moharram is about remembering. It is a salute to those who stayed to fight even though death was certain. But it is not about merely feeling their pain. It shouldn't be reduced to ritual enactments of bloodshed. It certainly shouldn't be about picking a side or a name to hate. It is a time to remember how great tragedies are the result of someone wanting power and dominion at any cost. It is a time to remember the full cost of each human life. Far too often, we seem to forget.
(Editor's note: An earlier version of this article mentioned Akbar as a newly wed. It's Kasim who is newly wed and not Akbar. Akbar's wedding is Zainab's dream, never realised.)