WASHINGTON, October 29, 2015 — Every year since the fall of the Baathist regime in Iraq, millions of people have traveled to the shrine city of Karbala to visit the grave of Hussain, the grandson of the Prophet Muhammad. In fact, millions traveled to his shrine even before the Baathist regime was toppled, despite the suppression they faced in doing so. This has been going on for nearly 1,400 years.
The journey of these travelers builds up towards the commemoration known as the Arbaeen, an Arabic word that translates to “the 40th.” It is the 40th day of mourning after Ashura, the event where Hussain, his family, and companions were massacred by an Umayyad army of 30,000 in 680 AD.
My colleague and lifelong friend, Abathar Alkudari, and I will be traveling to Iraq next month to participate in this walk. Yes, it’s a walk. People walk anywhere from 50 to more than300 miles to Karbala. Not because they can’t drive or lack means of transportation. They choose to walk to relive the memories of Hussain’s sister Zeinab. She was an eyewitness survivor of the massacre and a captive who endured its aftermath.
Our interest in this journey comes from our work as analysts of international affairs with a focus on the Middle East, as well as our background as American Muslims with deep roots in the region.
We want to see first hand why millions of people — Muslims and non-Muslims alike — walk to this place every year. What does it mean to the person walking? Is it simply a spiritual ritual practiced by religious observers? Is it a visit of tribute and respect? Could it be a stance of defiance against ISIS extremists who systematically target these travelers as heretics? Perhaps all of them.
In participating in this walk we wish to experience what millions of people experience every year in their journey and showcase those real-life experiences. At the same time, we will be highlighting key social, cultural, political and economic observations during the journey as it relates to the Middle East and international affairs.
We will be on the ground, with the people, capturing the journey. We plan to walk, talk, live, eat and share experiences with these travelers. Through writing, pictures, and short video clips we will share the experience with the many who have never seen this yearly event. From the U.S. to Iraq, from Detroit to Karbala, our journey begins Nov. 19, 2015.