In magical Najaf the old stories are still the best

World View: The Shia record of governance here is not good, but the city's ancient heroes remain untarnished

Share
Related Topics

There is no city like Najaf, which stands on the edge of the desert a few miles west of the Euphrates in Iraq. It was in nearby Kufa in 661 that Imam Ali, the son-in-law and cousin of the Prophet Mohamed, was badly wounded by an assassin and, as he lay dying, instructed his followers to strap his body to the back of a white camel and, where the camel stopped, to dig his grave. On this spot grew up the shrine city of Najaf, a place of pilgrimage for the Shia and home to many of their leaders, such as Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani.

In other religions, believers venerate martyrs who died many centuries ago, but Iraqi Shi'ism is unique because so many of its martyrs have been killed in the past 40 years. There is Mohammed Baqir al-Sadr, revolutionary theologian and opponent of Saddam Hussein, who had him executed in 1980. In 1991, Shia rebels seized the city, and were slaughtered when it was retaken by Saddam's tanks. Later in the 1990s, Mohammed Sadiq al-Sadr created the Sadrist movement with its potent mix of revivalist religion, nationalism and social and political activism, before he was shot dead, with two of his sons, by killers sent by Saddam. In 2004, Muqtada al-Sadr and the Mehdi Army battled the US army street by street for control of the city.

The blood has not stopped flowing. I visited the shrine of Imam Ali, passing through the outer gate with its entrancing tiles of green, blue and yellow, then walking through the courtyard to the shrine's inner doorway of beaten gold. I was standing with a crowd of pilgrims pressing their hands or banners to the grating around Imam Ali's tomb when I was pushed aside by men bearing a wooden coffin under an embroidered cloth. Somebody whispered that it was the body of one of the 200 or more Shia killed by al-Qa'ida bombs over the previous week. It was being taken, as is the custom, through the shrine before being buried in the vast Wadi al-Salaam cemetery.

A crucial question for the future of Iraq is the degree to which the Shia will retaliate against the Sunni for killings primarily directed against Shia civilians. The last time this happened, in 2006, Shia revenge attacks turned into a pogrom of Sunni in Baghdad, as a result of which survivors fled or were forced into enclaves that are today vulnerable to renewed Shia attacks. On the other hand, the Iraqi government is stronger than it was and the Shia religious leaders do not want a sectarian war.

Najaf has again become a great centre of religious learning. Sheikh Mahmoud al-Jayashee, a member of the Hawza, a Shia seminary, told me that there are between 30,000 and 40,000 religious students here, compared with about 800 in 1990, when Saddam Hussein limited numbers by conscripting Iraqi students and denying visas to foreigners. He confirmed that teachers and students in the Hawza remain deeply divided between the political and social activism of the Sadrists and the larger part of clergy who believe religion should focus purely on the spiritual. There is also resentment against the Sadrists for provoking a destructive battle with the Americans in Najaf in 2004.

The Shia have coped bravely with oppression and persecution down the centuries but their record in wielding power has been much less creditable. Sheikh Mahmoud agreed that the giant construction project at the west end of the shrine – two storeys above ground and three below – was out of keeping with the poverty of so many in Najaf. The pilgrims bring money and the city is richer and safer than many in Iraq, but some 40 per cent of its people still live in poverty, their shabby clothes showing that they barely scrape a living as day labourers in construction and agriculture.

The Shia takeover of the state has not brought better government. I was visiting the flood-stricken area west of Najaf where a four-day downpour earlier this month led to roads, houses and entire villages being swept away. Nobody was doing much to help survivors aside from the Red Crescent and the Sadrists. But, right in the middle of the newly created swamps, we came across the middle section of an enormous bridge standing on concrete columns. I thought at first that the force of the flood water might have broken off the sections at either end. But, examined more closely, it became clear that the bridge had never been finished, but stood looking like a colossal symbol of Iraqi governments' liking for immense, expensive and useless projects while people lack clothes, food and shelter.

There is more to Najaf than blood and poverty. I was being guided by Sayid Sa'ad Aziz al-Hilli al-Moussawi, a shopkeeper and community leader, in a working-class neighbourhood called Jadaid al-Rabiya, built on an escarpment from which one could see "the Sea of Najaf", a large lake swollen by the floods. Mr Moussawi said he had fought US troops in 2004, but the battle that really excited him was one that had happened more than 1,300 years earlier, when Imam Hussein and his brother Abbas had been killed in the Battle of Karbala in 680: the central religious drama of the Shia faith. Every year, Mr Moussawi helps organise a play – rather like a Christian passion play – which is a full scale re-enactment of the battle. He said he did not care how much money he spent buying props, while people in his district somehow collected 20 to 40 horses for riders on opposing sides.

Mr Moussawi took us to a small pond with rubbish floating in it; in the play, it represents the Euphrates to which Imam Abbas went to get water for the thirsty women and children of their besieged camp. Detected on his return with a water skin, Abbas fought until his arms were cut off as he stood with his back to a palm tree where he was battered to death. Mr Moussawi showed the palm tree they used for Abbas's last stand, adding that they erected real tents for the play then set fire to them. He said proudly that the re-enactment last month was watched by 50,000 people. In Najaf there is a sense that what happened 1,300 years ago and what happens today have blended together and it is this that gives the city its magical quality.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Office / Sales Manager

£22000 - £32000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Established and expanding South...

Recruitment Genius: Administrative Assistant / Order Fulfilment

£14000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An exciting opportunity to join a thrivi...

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant

£18000 - £23000 per annum + Uncapped OTE: SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consulta...

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant

£18000 - £23000 per annum + Uncapped OTE: SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consulta...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

Syria's Kurds have little choice but to flee amid the desolution, ruins and danger they face

Patrick Cockburn
A bartender serves two Mojito cocktails  

For the twenty-somethings of today, growing up is hard to do

Simon Kelner
Refugee crisis: David Cameron lowered the flag for the dead king of Saudi Arabia - will he do the same honour for little Aylan Kurdi?

Cameron lowered the flag for the dead king of Saudi Arabia...

But will he do the same honour for little Aylan Kurdi, asks Robert Fisk
Our leaders lack courage in this refugee crisis. We are shamed by our European neighbours

Our leaders lack courage in this refugee crisis. We are shamed by our European neighbours

Humanity must be at the heart of politics, says Jeremy Corbyn
Joe Biden's 'tease tour': Could the US Vice-President be testing the water for a presidential run?

Joe Biden's 'tease tour'

Could the US Vice-President be testing the water for a presidential run?
Britain's 24-hour culture: With the 'leisured society' a distant dream we're working longer and less regular hours than ever

Britain's 24-hour culture

With the 'leisured society' a distant dream we're working longer and less regular hours than ever
Diplomacy board game: Treachery is the way to win - which makes it just like the real thing

The addictive nature of Diplomacy

Bullying, betrayal, aggression – it may be just a board game, but the family that plays Diplomacy may never look at each other in the same way again
Lady Chatterley's Lover: Racy underwear for fans of DH Lawrence's equally racy tome

Fashion: Ooh, Lady Chatterley!

Take inspiration from DH Lawrence's racy tome with equally racy underwear
8 best children's clocks

Tick-tock: 8 best children's clocks

Whether you’re teaching them to tell the time or putting the finishing touches to a nursery, there’s a ticker for that
Charlie Austin: Queens Park Rangers striker says ‘If the move is not right, I’m not going’

Charlie Austin: ‘If the move is not right, I’m not going’

After hitting 18 goals in the Premier League last season, the QPR striker was the great non-deal of transfer deadline day. But he says he'd preferred another shot at promotion
Isis profits from destruction of antiquities by selling relics to dealers - and then blowing up the buildings they come from to conceal the evidence of looting

How Isis profits from destruction of antiquities

Robert Fisk on the terrorist group's manipulation of the market to increase the price of artefacts
Labour leadership: Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea

'If we lose touch we’ll end up with two decades of the Tories'

In an exclusive interview, Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea
Tunisia fears its Arab Spring could be reversed as the new regime becomes as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor

The Arab Spring reversed

Tunisian protesters fear that a new law will whitewash corrupt businessmen and officials, but they are finding that the new regime is becoming as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor
King Arthur: Legendary figure was real and lived most of his life in Strathclyde, academic claims

Academic claims King Arthur was real - and reveals where he lived

Dr Andrew Breeze says the legendary figure did exist – but was a general, not a king
Who is Oliver Bonas and how has he captured middle-class hearts?

Who is Oliver Bonas?

It's the first high-street store to pay its staff the living wage, and it saw out the recession in style
Earth has 'lost more than half its trees' since humans first started cutting them down

Axe-wielding Man fells half the world’s trees – leaving us just 422 each

However, the number of trees may be eight times higher than previously thought
60 years of Scalextric: Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones

60 years of Scalextric

Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones