AL-KIFL, Iraq, Dec. 2, 2015 – Our journey to Karbala takes us onto unpaved roads through Iraq’s beautiful farmland to the banks of the Euphrates River, where, waiting on the banks for travelers, we meet Saad Akish. With the traditional Iraqi greeting of clasped hands and embrace, our host welcomes us and we cross the Euphrates River to his small island estate.
Saad Akish, a kind and humble man, is revered as a local hero. He is yet another Iraqi to share a remarkable story of the people of Iraq and the brutality of Saddam Hussein’s reign. On this small island of Al-Kifl, where some historians believe the prophet Thy Al-Kifl is buried, he said, “The visitation of Arbaeen during Saddam Hussein’s time was not like today. Saddam banned religious rituals with large congregations. He wanted to kill the remembrance of Imam Hussain.”
During Saddam’s time, Akish risked himself and his family to help and protect the visitors of Imam Hussein.
The authorities were after the visitors. They would arrest them and throw them in jail. We tried to facilitate their secret movement during the nights through the forests and host them in our houses during the day so they can rest.
As we listened to Akish sitting in the shadow of his home, looking over the Euphrates, his two younger daughters came forward, each holding a tray laden with fresh dates and figs harvested from the island. Jalal, my traveling partner, and I took one of each, and Akish insisted we take more.
Akish continued to explain the horrific stories of the visitors who defied an old regime and persisted in performing the Arbaeen walk. “We lighted torches for the visitors to follow at night so they can find their way. My place was a sanctuary for the visitors because security personnel were not able to cross the river.”
Akish paused for a second. He put his head down and started tearing. Choked up, he said, “It was a struggle. They used to fire shots at the visitors. One time, eight visitors drowned as they were crossing the river and the police firing at them.”
This was not new information for me. My father-in-law and uncle used to perform the Arbaeen visit every year. They shared their stories with me before. The danger and risk they experienced; the will and courage they possessed, it was “all for Hussein,” they would utter.
Akashi wiped his tears and smiled. “It is the blessings of Imam Hussain that kept this alive. With the grace of God, it is growing every year now. People are walking freely.”
I asked him, “Do you still serve the visitors?”
Akashi smiled and put his arm around me, grabbing the tray to offer more delicious dates.
“Our whole life is dedicated to serve the visitors. It is our way of life.”