KARBALA, Iraq – With thousands of other Shiite Muslims, I walked through the infamous “Triangle of Death” where suicide bombers, presumably Sunni extremists, had attacked fellow pilgrims two days before. Our trek covered 50 miles from Baghdad to the holy city of Karbala, and we passed through 14 cities, places best known as scenes of death, division and destruction.
On this, my second pilgrimage since the Americans overthrew Saddam Hussein, my fears turned to amazement as complete strangers, Sunnis and Shiites alike, opened their doors to me. The poor passed out food and sweet tea they could hardly afford. I began the walk as a spiritual journey, a personal opportunity to feel close to Imam Hussein, the grandson of the prophet Mohammed, who was martyred in the year 680. By the end, I found the spirit of my nation in roadside tents, modest homes and gifts of food.
The walk and the religious ceremony of Arbaeen commemorate the life of the great man for whom I’m named. The people of Kufa asked Hussein to save them from the oppressive rule of the Umayyad Caliphate, but then they betrayed him. During the battle of Karbala, Hussein was beheaded along with 71 of his followers, and the women and children were imprisoned. According to Shiite tradition, on the 40th day after his death his son, Ali ibn Hussein, returned his father’s head to his body, and it was buried with his body in Karbala. Arbaeen commemorates that day, and about 10 million pilgrims converged on the city this year to mourn his death and commemorate his life.
My pilgrimage started in central Baghdad, where I crossed the Jadriyah Bridge with dozens of other people. Tents were set up on the side of the road, where neighborhood volunteers offered us food and drink. I picked up a boiled egg sandwich and orange juice and tucked away biscuits and juice in my bag for later. In Saidiyah, the scene of fierce battles between Sunnis and Shiites, and Dora, a neighborhood where al Qaida in Iraq once targeted passing Shiite pilgrims, towering concrete walls brought me comfort. Two days before my walk, someone had thrown grenades into the crowd, killing three people, pilgrims like me.
It took me three hours to reach Baghdad’s gate in the south, where the road leads into what’s called the Sunni “Triangle of Death”. Around me, women clutched their babies, little boys walked close to their parents and the elderly marched on. At prayer time, I stopped at one of the roadside tents to pray. A young man sat with his two-year-old daughter in a stroller. Her legs were limp. She couldn’t walk, and he was penniless. “I can’t go abroad to treat her, I don’t have the money for such a trip,” he told me. “I hope that walking to Karbala with my little baby will give her the Imam’s blessing to help her walk.”
Here, in the Triangle of Death, I saw the greatest kindness.
People who earn six dollars a day opened their homes to passing pilgrims and offered them food. Women sat outside with their children and boiled hot, sweet tea for us. No one is as generous as the poor. In Mahmoudiyah, a mixed-sect slum, banners in support of militant Shiite cleric Muqtada al Sadr’s movement covered the walls. I tried to find a plug to charge my camera, but most people had no fuel to power their generators. I limped to a mosque searching for electricity, but even there it was dark. So I walked on to Latifiyah, passing a building that was hit by mortars last year, reducing it to rubble.
In Latifiyah, I met a mother and boy of four who was exhausted by the walk. They’d been walking for a full day until a cold rain had halted their journey and they found lodging with a local family. In Haswa, volunteers had set up dozens of tents so that pilgrims could eat, obtain medication and sleep before night fell. It was close to 5 p.m., but I wanted to reach Iskandiriyah, the midway point between Baghdad and Karbala, before dark. I arrived in Iskandiriyah just after sunset and heard the Sunni and Shiite calls to prayer. The crowd of dozens had grown into a sea of thousands.
A seven-year-old boy named Saif approached and offered me a place to stay. Three other pilgrims and I looked at each other, worried that it might be a trick by Sunni militants who wanted to kill us. Still, we followed the boy to a tiny dwelling where his family welcomed us.
Abu Saif, a Shiite man in his forties, opened his home to me and 14 other men. His wife cooked rice and hot stew, and he passed out blankets. He earns the equivalent of five dollars a day, but each day he puts aside 20 cents so he can provide food and shelter to passing pilgrims. I felt shame. My salary far exceeded his, yet he was offering me and so many others so much of what he had.
I slipped out to the market and bought cheese, cream, yogurt, olives and chocolate for his children. I knew that offering him cash would be taken as an insult. Before dawn, we woke up, ate breakfast and prayed together. My body was tired, but Abu Saif’s children encouraged me to go on. He had a baby, two toddlers, a five-year-old and seven-year-old Saif.
Saif looked at us.
“My father is too old to walk,” he said. “But you are young and you can walk, and one day I will walk, as well.”
We waited for the first rays of the morning light before we continued. Within 45 minutes, I arrived at the site of a bombing that had occurred three days earlier. At least 60 people died here, people making the same journey that I was. We recited a verse of the Qur’an for the dead. I looked around me and saw a series of black funeral banners draping the walls and four makeshift tombs of bricks that had been hastily set up and draped with Iraqi flags. Passersby had left roses and candles.
An empty stroller from a baby who was killed was left as a reminder. Three ID cards of the dead dangled inside it. No one had come to claim the cards and identify their owners. Both Sunnis and Shiites, both pilgrims and those who were serving them, had died here. Tears ran down my cheeks. On any other day, it could have been me. They had sacrificed their lives to make this pilgrimage. Around me, others cried for the victims. All of us were linked in mourning and in our love for Imam Hussein. We walked on and arrived in al Mussayib. Here people from all across Iraq came together.
By sunset, I could see the golden domes of the two Shiite shrines in Karbala, one where Hussein is believed to be buried and the other where his half-brother Abbas is buried. Abbas was also killed in the battle. He sacrificed his life trying to bring water to Hussein and his followers after the caliph’s army cut off the water supply. That night I couldn’t find a hotel room; Iranian and Pakistani pilgrims had booked nearly every one. I prayed in a roadside tent and then tried to make my way to Imam Hussein’s shrine.
The crowds were overwhelming. I gave up and returned to the tent to sleep. There I listened to a young man retell the story of the Battle of Karbala. I thought about what had happened there. Imam Hussein and his warriors had no water, no food, and they were facing an army of thousands. Imam Hussein was stuck in Karbala trying to make it to Kufa, where his followers had asked him to rescue them from Umayyad rule. He never made it. I was named after this man, but I saw that my sacrifices were small in comparison to his. In the morning, I tried again to get to the shrine of Imam Hussein. First, I went to the Imam Abbas shrine. I prayed inside for the health of my family, my friends and all those I love. In my last prayer, I prayed to save the Iraqi people.
At 11 a.m., I moved on, pushing through the crowd to make it to Imam Hussein’s shrine. The trip usually takes about five minutes. With the crowds of people, it took me two hours to make it to the first gate of the Imam Hussein shrine.
I got no farther. I prayed outside and I read verses from the Q’uran. Again, I prayed for my family and asked God to save the Iraqi people. They say that what you pray for in Imam Hussein’s shrine, whatever you pray for, you will receive. Maybe my prayers will be answered. McClatchy special correspondent Hussein Kadhim began his pilgrimage to Karbala last Tuesday. He walked for two days, and Arbaeen was commemorated last Thursday.