Shia blood spills from ritual to cruel reality: Robert Fisk, in Nabatea, witnesses a gory demonstration of southern Lebanon's savage past and present

THERE WAS blood in the gutters, on the steps of the mosque and across the roadway. There were men drenched in blood, slapping their wounds, splashing the stuff down their clothes and on to those of us who chose to watch. There was blood spattered on our own shirts, even our camera lenses.

After a few minutes, you realised that blood had a kind of chemical smell, and that those young men who were weeping and crying out, 'Hussein, Hussein, we love you,' had become intoxicated by it. Their own blood, mind you, razored out of their heads by a man in a butcher's smock with a cigarette hanging from his lower lip, each devotee shrieking with joy when the blood ran down his forehead.

Whence came this fascination with gore? Could not the Lebanese Shias have celebrated the martyrdom of Hussein with less savagery and more prayer? In the town square of Nabatea last week, opposite the Husseiniya, below the stage where the seventh-century massacre of the Imam Hussein, grandson of the Prophet, son of Ali, was re-enacted in grotesque detail, there were hundreds of young men swamped in their own blood.

Ridiculous, disgusting, bizarre - the adjectives flow as easily as the blood. It seemed intensely tribal, a wretched ceremony commemorating a bleak act of Muslim betrayal.

Every year, the Shias of southern Lebanon gather here for Ashoura, to remember that day in AD680 when Hussein and 71 of his family and friends challenged the Omayyads' Sunni rule on the battlefield of Kerbala. The Caliph Yazid cut them all down as surely as Saddam Hussein cut down their descendants in the very same city of Kerbala after the 1991 Gulf war. So this was, in its way, not a tribal rite but a passion play - as powerful to its adherents as any Golgotha - commemorating with blood, sweat and tears the slaughter of one of the founding fathers of the Shia faith.

And do we not - the very barbarity of the Ashoura commemoration prompts such questions - also honour the cult of blood in our literature? 'See where Christ's blood streams in the firmament,' Marlowe's Faustus observed, seeking one drop to save his soul. Macbeth feared the blood of Duncan and Banquo, for blood is a threat as well as a symbol of sacrifice - 'Blood will have blood.' And Genesis is supposed to teach us that 'whoso sheddeth man's blood, by man shall his blood be shed'. But that is to romanticise the town square at Nabatea, with its garbage tip and its soft drinks stands and its wailing, shouting mobs of young men - hundreds of them - running in circles, towels to their blood-drenched heads.

It was, in its way, an organised affair. The nationalist Shia Amal movement held Nabatea in the morning, its supporters walking in from the hill villages opposite the Israeli front lines, queuing at the mosque for those three ritual slices of the razor blade at the front of the head, and then slapping their hands on to their foreheads until the wounds had opened and drenched their clothes. Beneath the mosque's portico, squads of chadored women sobbed in mourning - genuine tears that plopped on to the marble floor - as Hussein's 'martyred' youth cried outside in the sunlight, their weeping as frightening as it was symbolic.

The martyrdom of Hussein at Kerbala confirmed the schism between Sunni and Shia Islam - the former believing that scholars of the Prophet should lead the faith, the latter that only the Prophet's family could provide God's representative on Earth. But Nabatea proved that the Shia faith itself is divided. Not until the afternoon were the pro-Iranian Hizbollah allowed to parade through the town, and when they did so there was neither the bloodshed nor the fanaticism of the morning. Serious young men, they marched in black uniforms, carrying paintings not of Hussein, but of guerrillas holding Kalashnikovs, crushing Israeli flags beneath their feet.

Sheikh Mohamed Hussein Fadlallah, Hizbollah's spiritual mentor, was to condemn the blood fantasy of Ashoura that same night. 'Savagery,' he called the ceremony. Shias had a duty to devote their energies to the battle against Israel's occupation of southern Lebanon, not to these 'folkloric' activities. And so it was, as the Hizbollah guerrillas marched into town - slapping their chests with a drumbeat of fists, rather than cutting their faces - that the Israelis flew two high-altitude reconnaissance fighters over Nabatea, their sonic booms audible even above the din of seventh-century mourning.

Ashoura, though few of those present can have known it, had claimed a real Shia martyr a few hours earlier. There were no speeches about him, no condemnation of his death, which was as real as the blood on the streets of Nabatea. We found his home that same afternoon, in the pretty little village of Chakra, south of the Litani river. It was a simple story, far easier to understand than the split within Islam.

Youssef Ali al-Amin was 10 years old and had been playing opposite his father's carpentry shop at 10.30 in the morning when a spray of bullets decsended on the village. The Hizbollah had been firing rockets into Israel's occupation zone, and gunmen in the nearest Israeli position - either Israelis or members of their proxy South Lebanon Army militia - had fired a burst from a machine-gun at Chakra. 'I was in my shop and I heard the firing,' Youssef's father Mohamed said, head in his hands, shoulders heaving with grief. 'Youssef was hit immediately, just next to the heart. He tried to run towards me and got to the entrance of my shop and fell below the carpentry table. He was covered in blood. We got a car and put him in the back seat, but he died within five minutes, on the way to hospital. He was my youngest boy.'

Mohamed broke down in front of us, his tears more moving than any shed in Nabatea. He found a snapshot of Youssef and his two brothers, playing with his parents round a snowman in their garden. Youssef, in the third year at his village school, was a cheerful soul; in the picture, he is giving a mock salute to the photographer, his face full of mischief.

We walked down to Mohamed's shop in the late afternoon. He blamed the Israelis, of course, and the Americans, and he talked of Bosnia in a rambling, rather incoherent way. It was there we saw Youssef's blood, beneath the carpentry table where the boy had fallen. Not pools of it, just a few very faint splashes of brown, the blood of an innocent, far more powerful than the stage-managed gore of Nabatea. Youssef's death, however, did not even make the Lebanese papers. He was a small, easily forgotten sacrifice.

(Photograph omitted)

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