NAJAF, Iraq, November 29, 2015 – Imagine the challenge of a 10-day road trip, by foot, carrying only a backpack with essentials – minimal clothing, hygiene items, and medication.
You have only $50 in your pocket. You have no reservations at any hotels. You carry no food and do not eat at any restaurants.
You complete your trip successfully and return home safe and sound.
Not only is it imaginable, it is the reality here in Iraq. This is the scenario for millions of Iraqis that set out, with the love of Imam Hussain in their hearts, from their homes to one destination: the land of Karbala and the Shrine of Imam Hussain ibn Ali.
Millions, from different walks of life, are on the same road heading to the same destination.
Along that road are thousands of “mawakib tents” and buildings established by people along the road to Karbala filled with volunteers that guide the travelers, offering many services – all voluntary – to those that pass.
The mawakib, or procession, tents are essential to the journey; they are the hotels and restaurants for the travelers; but in the spirit of the season, their services, from food to lodging, are free of charge during Arbaeen.
This trip is made possible for millions all thanks to the mawakib volunteers and those that provide physical necessities, like food, water, and tea, to the pilgrims.
They provide space for the visitors to perform their prayers. They offer blankets and pillows at night for the visitors to sleep. Some of them even offer free Wi-Fi, phone charging, phone calls, massages, and educational literature.
We visited one of the mawakib tents in the heart of Najaf across from our hotel where we stayed before starting our journey to Karbela, on foot. It is one of the largest mawakib in the country. They serve about 30,000 meals a day and host more than 10,000 visitors by the end of the night. We visited during the day.
The head of the food services spoke to us.
“We are here to serve the visitors of Hussain. All of these volunteers work non-stop to prepare, cook, and serve the food.” He rushed to take care of something before coming back and continuing. “We serve approximately 10,000 plates every meal. We have two dining tents set up, one for men and the other for women.”
We learned of a large family from Mosul that comes to this mawkib every year to manage the food services during the duration of the Arbaeen season.
Unfortunately, for the last two years, they were forced to flee their homes after ISIS’s takeover of Mosul.
They are currently displaced but are hopeful to one-day return home.
Mohamed, a 15-year-old teenager is at this mawkib stop. He was working diligently passing out the food. I took him to the side and had an exchange with him.
“We had to flee when ISIS took over. They were brutal and merciless,” Mohamed told me. With his head down saddened, he added, “I am currently not going to school.” I looked at him and attempted to uplift his spirit, “Mohamed, God willing, you will return to your home safe and proud.”
Mohamed continued his day serving the visitors. He seemed genuinely happy and high-spirited passing out the food. The visitors were also smiling and grateful to Mohamed for his services.
We asked the volunteers why they offered their time, money and effort to provide these services. Each and every one of them would reply with the same five words, “The love of Imam Hussain.”