riderless horse returns without Hussein on Moharram MuharramTonight is Moharram1 and the entire slum is awake and engaged. Peregrine has gone to sleep because she’s not feeling well, but there’s too much energy in the place to stay quiet in the room. So I go out, without purpose or direction.

I wander about the slum. A boy is excited to see me and says hi.  An acquaintance pulls me into a chair next to a huge cauldron of chai and offers me some. The boy sits across from me. We make a bit of small talk, I appreciate the hospitality, and I get up again.

I end up in the vicinity of a home where Peregrine and I used to stay. I pause in indecision, and a former neighbor asks, “Where are you going?”

“Uh, just wandering…looking at tazias.”2

“Oh, then come over here, there’s a tazia right here!”

She pulls me over into a tiny gully, and I see that she isn’t directing me to the doorway display that most tazias enjoy, but back into a home. “Go ahead,” she insists. I’m a bit shy to be going inside, but proceed on her insistence.

Tucked in around a tight dirt alleyway is one of the poorest families we’ve ever known. Inside their home a beautiful tazia is set up. The paper-and-sticks structure appears only slightly less substantial than the family’s own plastic-and-sticks residence.

Several children and a few adult women are sitting in front of it, praying. They see me and invite me to sit down with them.  I politely excuse myself and try to turn back. “No, no, I’m sorry, I don’t want to disturb your peace, see you again.” They insist again, saying, “You must sit, auntie wants to speak to you.” When I understand what they are saying, I notice that around the corner just out of my view, the matriarch of the family is sitting down. I can’t deny her, and so I sit down in their midst.

We don’t know her well. The one time Peregrine and I visited her home together, she broke down crying as she showed us her incredibly poor residence. This time the tazia gives her more confidence as a host. She welcomes me, asks me how I doing, asks where Peregrine is and how she is doing. The other women listen with rapt attention and toss in their questions too. Many of the children listen to us, while others continue praying their night’s vigil.

I note that this is not going to be a short visit and get used to the idea. I am uncomfortable as an outsider in a place of prayer and a man in a place of women and children. On the other hand, everyone is so peaceful and so respectful that I begin to feel at ease.

One young woman in particular engages me along with the matriarch. Their questions run the gamut from my religious beliefs to what I cook in my home. My statement that Peregrine cooks the rotis while I cook the veggies elicits laughter and surprise. My statement that I follow Isa the Messiah and that we don’t practice the same traditions elicits what appears to be respect. Most of all, everyone wants to just to get to know me better and treat me well.

When I first sat down the women offered me some sweets that had been prepared specially for that night. As time draws out, they begin offering me more and more – lentils…chicken curry…more sweets.  I refuse everything the first two times it is offered, but it becomes clear that they won’t be satisfied with my visit unless I have some of everything they have. The young woman giving me the food, the same one who has been asking me questions, looks so proud of what she has to give and a huge smile never leaves her face. I eat the treats they lay before me and contemplate, not for the first time, the amazing circumstance of this incredibly poor family in a plastic-and-sticks home in the mud serving and feeding me with all they have to give.

I have come here to serve the poor, and once again I am struck by how deeply even the very poor want to serve me. I feel we’ve shared a sacred space tonight.


[1] Moharram is the annual remembrance of the death of Hussein, the grandson of Mohammed whom Shia Muslims believe was the rightful leader of all Muslims. A dispute over leadership succession led to a very one-sided conflict between the factions, where Hussein’s much smaller forces were overcome and killed. Shia Muslims are those who claim Hussein as the rightful leader, whereas Sunni Muslims recognize the caliphate that opposed Hussein as the rightful powers. The split between Sunni and Shia exists to this day. 

[2] Tazias are symbolic, often towering crafts representing the mausoleums of Karbala, and are created and displayed during Moharram.

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