Al-Husseiniyya: performance and poets

November 01, 2003 12:00 AM

Epics told in Arabic dialects, such as Al-Hilaliyya and Seerat al-Zaher Baybars, are rich in form. Yet, the richest of all is Al-Husseiniyya, the epic story of the martyrdom of Hussein, grandson of the Prophet Mohammed.

An epic is the collection of poems that build around a set of events. The text changes every time a bard sings or recites parts of it. Yet Al-Husseiniyya is different: It includes poems in classical Arabic, prose incorporating verses from the Koran and texts of the Hadith (sayings of the Prophet), as well as simple songs and requiems in the Iraqi dialect.

Al-Husseiniyya thus incorporates a great body of poetry, starting with the earliest poem written about the massacre and ending with the most recent song by an Iraqi poet. Some of the earliest poems about the rights of the Hashemites were written under Umayyad rule, by a poet known as Al-Kumait Ibn Zaid al-Asadi. His poems are called Al-Mukattamat, meaning the “hidden ones,” or the ones kept in silence. Kumait was a Shiite. He believed that Hashemites had a divine right to rule and that the Umayyad caliphate was illegitimate. Of the Hashemites, he believed that the descendants of Ali, the Prophet’s cousin and son in law, and Fatima, Ali’s wife and the daughter of the Prophet, were the legitimate rulers and mentors of all Muslims. Because of oppression by the Umayyads he kept his poems secret. After the death of Hasan and Hussein, two sons of Ali, he believed, like many Shiites, that a hidden descendant of Ali would rise when the time came and save the Muslims. In his poems he imagined that leader was living in Mount Radwa in Arabia, guarded by lions, and two legendary rivers of water and honey led to the den. He wrote:

Ali and the three sons of his are the caliphs of Muslims, let no one doubt this

The first (Hasan) was the one of good faith, and he was betrayed

The second (Hussein) was one of justice, and he was killed by a tyrant

And the third won’t be seen until he holds the flag, and leads the men

Waiting in Mount Radwa in a lion’s den

Guarded by beasts and rivers of water and honey,

Until then.

Another early poet, Debel al-Khuzai, wrote in the Abbasid period. The Umayyads had been toppled by the Hashemites yet the new caliphs were not descendants of Ali, rather they were descendants of his uncle, Abbas. Poets were not persecuted if they wrote requiems for Hussein unless they directly attacked the legitimacy of the ruling Abbasid house. Debel’s requiem for Hussein was so passionate that, without directly attacking the Abbasids, his poem was considered a source of political instability. For that, he paid with his life. The poem starts:

Schools of Koran, no one is reading

The house of divine revelation is empty

Then he calls Fatima, the daughter of the Prophet and the mother of Hussein, to mention the massacre:

Oh Fatima, daughter of honor, weep for the heavenly stars dying in the desert

They died thirsty, at the bank of the Euphrates,

I wish I died with them before my time

Oh Fatima, had you seen Hussein, rolling on the ground, thirsty next to water

You would have struck your face, daughter of the Prophet

And wept until your tears made another river

The daughters of bastards are protected in palaces

And the women of the Prophet’s house and driven in the desert unveiled.

Both Kumait and Debel are frequently quoted by those who tell Al-Husseiniyya. Their poems are then complemented by songs in the Iraqi dialect or poems by later Shiite poets.

Al-Husseiniyya is recited every year on the anniversary of the massacre as part of Shiite traditions. The Iraqi dialect is used in telling Al-Husseiniyya regardless of the place where it is told, except for Iran, where it is told in Farsi.

Crying for Hussein is said to cleanse the soul. The sheikh would emphasize parts of great sorrow, like when Hussein’s brother and flag holder, Abbas, saw children dying of thirst and swore to bring them water. The Umayyads waited until he was holding the water in his hands, then cut them off. Here, the sheikh would describe how the water trickled into the sand, leading the audience to the violent grief that is characteristic of Husseiniyya sessions, and keeping the story vivid. It is common for Shiite women mourning a brother to recite the poems describing Zaynab’s grief over Hussein. In a sense every martyr reminds Shiites of Hussein, and Hussein reminds them of martyrs. Therefore in the epic, Hussein called the Lord of Martyrs.

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(The Daily Star :: Lebanon News ::