It is a usual sunny autumn day in central London, but something unusual is about to change the tone of routine city life. Despite the sunshine, it is cold. Normally, no one comes out of their houses midweek on a working day unless it is absolutely necessary. The people are in small and large groups passing through the great archway at Marble Arch, walking towards Hyde Park Corner. They are all dressed in black, as though going to a funeral.
Preparations are underway and the procession is gathering momentum. In a corner, a few guys are testing the audio systems and others are getting their percussion instruments ready. Who are these people? Where do they come from? What is it all about?
In a short time, the green grounds of Hyde Park are painted black with green and red flags flying in the air. The faces are content with moderate smiles but covered in sadness and sorrow. Men and women, young and old, children and even infants are seen in the motional, emotional mass. A very heavy sense of grief fills the air. The crowd gets bigger and bigger.
The sound of the drum, cymbal and trumpet move the assembly and they start chanting sombre slogans. The men beat the drums harder and harder with a stick. There are also those who knock together brass cymbals. Another player blows into his trumpet synchronizing with other instruments to fill the air with triumphant melancholy.
The soloist takes the lead and sings bitter songs. He starts by reciting Quranic verses and continues the lamentation by reading monody and threnody. His shaken voice has its own tragic melody.
Bystanders are wondering who they are grieving for. Whose mother, father or loved-one has just passed away? Is it for someone famous or a known politician? There is no church, no mosque or cemetery nearby. What is it all about?
The beautifully decorated flags and banners with inscripted words curved in Arabic are a display of the poetic art of calligraphy, which carries the religious and spiritual messages of the procession. There are also placards written in English with messages about freedom. I can see younger people putting on red and green headbands with Arabic words. Even children and infants have them on.
The assembly moves from the park and pours like a black river through Bayswater Road. People are still joining the procession from all different directions. I cannot see the end of the procession any longer. The men are grouped together and the women are marching in another group behind them. The women are mostly covered in headscarves. I also see two young girls with long hair and red headbands in contrast to other women in the crowd.
There are many different groups from diverse ethnic backgrounds. They mostly look like Middle Eastern and Asian. But there are also Africans and Europeans. A number of scholars and community leaders lead the procession.
The people beat their hands slowly onto their chests in grief and as a mark of sorrow. As the singer increase his tones, the hands go higher and higher and the beating of the chests become faster and harder. There is a tonality in the harmony of the movement of hands and beating of the chest.
I see some in the crowd who are weeping. The sadness, mourning and heartache bring tears to the mourned faces. The people who are listening to the symphony of the moving procession try to hide their tears.
What brings this passion and sensation to the streets of London? Is it a spiritual love beyond meaning known in our material world? Is it crazy to ignore the fatigue and chilly weather, to get leave from work, and make a day out with the whole family to participate in such an event? The infants in pushchairs, the disabled man in the wheelchair, the old hunchbacked woman leaning on her stick, they are all coming together to share the same inspiration. The legacy of a man whose message of freedom has echoed through centuries and has not been faded by the passage of time.
There is a very loud roar and clamour in the crowd that affects onlookers. The songs of cortege call the name of Husain, the grandson of Prophet Mohammad who was martyred viciously in 681 CE. A great man who sacrificed himself and freed his soul for his cause and principles, to revive the seedling tree of Islam.
All Muslims mourn in the grief of Husain, but the Shia (dotted all over the globe) pay particular attention to annual gatherings such as this. The communities mostly originate from Iran, Pakistan, Lebanon, India, and Syria. There are also European convert Muslims who take part in the procession. They leave their business, schools and daily activities to join in the mourning of Husain.
Who was Husain? Why was his convoy stopped? Why he did not submit to oppression? For what sin he was killed?
Husain lost an imbalanced war against tyranny and oppression but has won the heart and spirit of his followers over the last thirteen centuries. He perished in the middle of a desert in Iraq along with his 72 companions in front of a large army. In the silent hot desert of Karbala, near the banks of the river Euphrates, he shouted, “Is there anyone to help me?” At the time no one heard his voice except his companions.
The oppressors assumed that they had killed Husain and silenced his voice. However, since then his message and cause not only did not die but also his voice has been echoed more widely and remains for ever. His soul is with us and witnesses how his message has carried forward into our modern time even onto the streets of London.
Who was Husain? What made him a freedom fighter, a legend and iconic figure who inspired not only ordinary people but also scholars, writers, poets and politicians. There is no single book which can define his mission. The words of some famous historical personalities may shed light onto his great character. Mahatma Gandhi, the Indian political and spiritual leader says: ”I learnt from Husain how to achieve victory while being oppressed”.
Husain and his sacrifice are remembered for his cause and not because of his death. His death was a new beginning. He was born again by his death to live forever. Husain says: “I would rather die on my feet (with dignity and self respect) than live on my knees (accepting injustice).” In his words: “Death with dignity is better than life with humiliation.” His words of wisdom guide believers and non-believers when he says: “If you don’t believe in any religion and don’t fear the Resurrection Day, at least be free in this world.”
Charles Dickens, an English novelist describes Husain’s mission as a sacrifice for Islam and says: “If Husain had fought to quench his worldly desires, then I do not understand why his sister, wife, and children accompanied him. It stands to reason therefore, that he sacrificed himself purely for Islam”.
Thomas Carlyle, the Scottish historian and essayist talks about his admiration for Husain’s victory despite all odds: “The best lesson we get from the tragedy of Karbala is that Husain and his companions were the rigid believers of God. They illustrated that numerical superiority does not count when it comes to truth and falsehood. The victory of Husain, despite his minority, marvels me!”
The procession in London which has taken place for the last 27 years has been held to awake humanity and, according to Sarojini Naidu (writer and poet): “… After thirteen centuries, the inspiration of Imam Husain’s example still shines, in undimmed splendor, to guide countless seekers after truth and freedom”.
The traffic is jammed in one side of the road and it flows very slowly on the other. As the procession proceeds, I have one eye on the crowd and another on onlookers. There is mixed emotion among people in the procession. Some of them are deeper in mourning and others look like participants going with the flow. However, the light of Husain has invited them all to his ceremony.
I can also see varied feeling among the spectators. Some of them are amazed, taking pictures and wondering how to find out about the cause of the procession. They approach marchers to seek information. I can see them reading the flyers given by organisers. On the other hand I can also see other people who are anxious about the traffic jam and looking at the marchers with anger. The woman on a double decker bus looks furious at being held in traffic. There is nobody there to explain to her the cause. I wish I could reached her to find out what she knew and what she wanted to know.
I have often wondered whether it is right to bring mourning and lamentation to the streets of a secular and glamorous city such as London. However, when I observed the procession, which carries the universal message of Husain, and saw all the emotions and reactions, I realized that this procession is in line with many other demonstrations and protests that take place in London. It is the beauty of living in London that has a very high degree of tolerance to embrace all ethnic communities and propagate diversity. There is a freedom of expression and Londoners are open to hear all voices.
Edward Gibbon, an English historian and Member of Parliament said: “In a distant age and climate, the tragic sense of the death of Husain will awaken the sympathy of the coldest reader”.
The dramatic and tremendous movement of the procession on one of the busiest streets in London, holding traffic for a few hours, is indescribable. The faces, appearance, messages, and melody of an orderly procession and every step taken arouse the empathy of the coldest onlooker and invite them to his universal message of freedom from any kind of oppression. The message that goes beyond any border and meaning, inviting thinkers, philosophers, believers of all schools of thoughts and faiths, even attracting non-believers and atheists.
curtsey of Mohammad Reza Amirinia