Generosity, grief and the ‘black anaconda’: Inside the world's biggest annual pilgrimage

A British photographer documents the ‘raw emotion‘ of Arba'een – the movement of millions towards a small city in central Iraq – to mourn a man who died almost 1,400 years ago.Monday, 13 January 2020

By Simon Ingram
Photographs By Jonny Pickup

The lines start in all corners of the country. People of every age, wearing dark clothes, some holding flags, some dancing, some vocal, some reflective. Groups of men together, groups of women, families. The processions move along roads from every direction, all towards Karbala – which could be anything from a few hours, to over a week’s walk away. Look down on the country from high above and these processions might resemble a kind of slender-limbed starfish, with this city as its centre point. At roadside level, the locals use another animal as their analogy for the apparently endless, creeping line: they call it the ‘black anaconda’. 

However ominous the nickname, the annual pilgrimage of Arba’een brings a spontaneous and harmonious organisation – on a colossal scale – to this war-torn country. To Shia Muslims, this pilgrimage matters: so much so, it attracts between 10 and 20 million every year from around Europe, Asia and the Middle East. All converge on Karbala, in central Iraq, over two days in Autumn. It’s a tight squeeze: Karbala has a resting population of just under 700,000. Compare this to the famous vision of Mecca’s Hajj pilgrimage (2.5 million occupying a city of 1.5 million) and the scale of Arba’een begins to crystallise. It is the biggest annual pilgrimage in the world – by far.

British photographer Jonny Pickup documented Arba’een in October 2019. In recent weeks, political unrest in the capital Baghdad had seen thousands of anti-government protesters occupy Tahrir square to demonstrate against, amongst other things, Iranian and US political influence. The protests had paused for a fortnight to allow the observance of Arba’een. They’d resume again on October 24; and on November 29, Prime Minister Adil Abdul-Mahdi would resign. But for the moment, focus was on the pilgrimage, at the core of which Pickup observed was, simply, offering what you can. Nothing is paid for; food, drink, accommodation, medical care. During Arba’een, everything is given. 

“If you’re a local guy, you might save 10% of your salary to set aside, so when Arba’een comes, you can feed people.“ Pickup says. He mentions Iranians whose Ara’been gesture is to collect rubbish on the pilgrim trail. A Kuwaiti company that bought land off one route to build a food warehouse, converted into a huge kitchen to cook meals, for 10 days over Arba’een – over which it gives away literally tonnes of chicken, lamb, falafel. “There’s no structure to it. No one is in charge, No government organisation. Yet millions of people are fed, watered and sheltered for free. It just happens.”  

During Saddam Hussein’s dictatorship the Arba’een pilgrimage was outlawed. He would kill or capture all those that would illicitly make the walk. Hidden snipers would shoot on site and undercover police men would dress as pilgrims to catch those taking part. Here in Jarburiya, men break from their pilgrimage to smoke a free shisha on the side of the road, the same secret road pilgrims would use when it was banned. (Photo and caption by Jonny Pickup.)

Two adjacent holy sites in the city of Karbala are this pilgrimage’s destination: the Al-Abbas shrine, and the Imam Husayn shrine. The dark dress worn by many of the pilgrims (hence, ‘black anaconda’) acknowledges that Arba’een is a festival of mourning, and one whose complex origins reach nearly 1,400 years into the modern age. There are other signal colours, too: green is the colour of Muhammad. Red is the colour of love, of passion – and blood

The origins of Arba’een

All are symbolic in the story of Al-Husayn ibn Ali, the grandson of the Prophet Muhammad. Husayn was critical of the ruler of the Umayyad caliphate, a leadership that had ordered the assassination of Husayn’s father for dissent. Heading for the city of Kūfah to assist in an uprising, Husayn was intercepted by an army of 4,000 soldiers, sent by the governor of Iraq on behalf of the Umayyad. After a battle, he was killed in Karbala, on the banks of the Euphrates, on 10 October 680. The focal point of Arba’een is the Husayn Shrine – believed to mark the place where he fell. The nearby Al-Abbas mosque commemorates Abbas ibn Ali, a warrior who fought and died alongside his half-brother Husayn. Both are considered martyrs by Shi'ites in the face of an opposing Islamic rule, and their deaths are marked with Ashura, the 10thday of the first month in the Islamic calendar. Traditionally, Arba’een takes place forty days later. It takes many little less than that to make the journey for their Arba’een. 

People come from far away for Arba'een. People from Malaysia, from Afghanistan, Britain and many, many people from Iran – everywhere there is a Shia Muslim community. Many have little money. Fakhrnasim has spent 15 days journeying to Iraq from Pakistan. A cloth seller, it has cost him 60,000 rupees (£300) – a huge part of his annual income – and over a month of the time he has to make it. He is one of 57 just from his village. His reasoning: “We love Husayn. We do this journey, is no problem. He saved us.” Another, who Pickup gets chatting to in a Jordanian airport, is English and is organising groups from London to travel to Iraq for Arba’een. Some of the groups number over 300 people.

“When you’re talking about millions of people – 15 million, 16 million – it becomes abstract – you can’t picture that amount.” Pickup says. “Then when you really start to see the numbers… it is never-ending. When we drove out of Baghdad, even days before Arba’een itself, the lines were apparent, right outside the city. It’s maybe four hours' drive. The line was consistent the whole way. And it’s the same in every direction, every road, every back street.”

Recent history

Echoing these original tensions in a more modern scene, Saddam Hussein’s dictatorship – fearing uprising amongst the amassed crowds – made public observance of this Shia pilgrimage illegal. Dissenters were imprisoned, or executed. Police would dress in pilgrims’ clothes to catch dissenters. Following the toppling of Saddam, chaotic years of conflict dominated by the threat of Al Qaeda and ISIS made observing Arba’een a mortal risk. A network of secret signs were employed  – a white arrow or cross, for safe, or not – indicating back streets off the main routes. Such subterfuge now unnecessary, in its place there are now swimming pools, and shisha houses lining formerly secret pilgrim paths. 

Today – despite Arba’een exhibiting the confidence of a people free to articulate their beliefs – there are still many complications. The shadow of the recent protests, but also of years of violence that have kept Iraq in the headlines for all the wrong reasons. 

The state-sponsored Hashd Al Shaabi militia, or Popular Mobilisation Force (PMF) – revered by many pilgrims for their role in the defeat of ISIS – are reminders of violent times all too recent. Their march at Arba'een, signified by their green berets, and the line of war widows who follow them, are a solemn presence. So too are the many who hold photographs of loved ones lost in recent conflict. One man, 60 year-old Naim, carries the image of his son Amer, killed by ISIS in 2015. He wants his son to see Hussein’s shrine. Not even death will stop him, he says.

‘Raw emotion’

As the culmination of Arba'een approaches, inside Karbala the crowds grow. Over a week the shrine’s footfall builds and builds, until the holy dates of 19 and 20 October. The busiest times are the early hours, 3-4 in the morning, when the day’s heat has dissipated, making the extraordinary crowds more bearable. There is more of an intensity, as well as, according to Pickup, raw emotion. “Arba’een is emotion. Shi’ites feel a lot of sadness – firstly that Husayn was martyred, and then for the women and children of his family, who were paraded across the middle east, and humiliated. They hold them very dear.”    

Different Shia groups culminate in Karbala for Arba’een, and with them come different ways of showing their respect for Husayn. Tribal groups from the south violently and repetitively hit their faces as they walk through the shrines. Some, even hit their backs with chains (something discouraged by the government and shrines). It's said before Husayn was killed, he had called upon his followers to provide an army, and was promised 100,000 men. But when the time came, they fled. This flagellation is a way for pilgrims to repent for their forefathers' cowardly act. (Photo and caption by Jonny Pickup.)
Photograph by Jonny Pickup

The two shrines sit hundreds of metres apart: groups register, move in a long line into one, then proceed to the next. Men and women segregate according to Islamic custom. People weep, cry, clutch their chests. Some read the Quran, some pray. Many – hundreds at a time – try to touch the tombs at the centre of the shrines. Physical contact; the end of the pilgrimage.

“The feeling inside that inner tomb – it is such an overwhelming, condensed emotion in that room. It’s unbelievable.”

Jonny Pickup

It is unknown how much of Husayn’s body is buried here; both he and his followers were mutilated and dismembered, their body parts ‘cast around in the dirt.’ Some pilgrims symbolically cover themselves in dust, their t-shirts streaked with pale, sandy marks, some in the shape of hands.

Others find more physical ways to be close to their martyr, through symbolic suffering, or penance: flagellation. It isn’t encouraged, but it happens. Most notable is a ritualistic beating of the face amongst some pilgrims from the south as they walk through the shrine; punishment for ancestors who didn’t come to Husayn’s aid.

A mobile cart pushed by the crowd pumps out a techno-style beat, over which Arabic poetry is read out by a man with a microphone. Everyone down below dances, hands in the air. A British doctor has travelled to Iraq to work in a medical centre here. His Arba’een gesture, his giving, is to offer free medical care to those on the pilgrimage. Many do the walk barefoot, so blisters and bad feet are a common complaint. But so are injuries to the ribs: from crushing, in the final squeeze to the shrine. The crowds are a risk: just weeks earlier during Ashura in Karbala an accident during the ‘Tuwairij run’ ritual saw 31 killed and 100 injured in a stampede.

“The feeling inside that inner tomb – it is such an overwhelming, condensed emotion in that room. It’s unbelievable,” says Pickup. “There’s an inner passage, you’re in this queue of people, you start to lose your ability to navigate. You’re just in this crowd, being pushed along. Then you slowly get into this inner circle, people just climbing over each other, doing anything to touch this tomb. People shouting ‘HusaynHusayn.’ Chaotic, but also a kind of beauty to it. I don’t think I’ve ever experienced such raw emotion.”

Back to life

Then, finally, rest. On the streets, “you see sleeping bodies everywhere,” Pickup says. “In construction sites, stacked in empty building blocks, on the streets, on rooftops.” Eventually, piled into trucks, buses, cars, people begin to make their way back to their own individual lives – many of which live with continuing modern unrest.

Usama, from Baghdad, sees the principal of protests in his home city as a mirror for the meaning of this pilgrimage: “What Husayn did is similar to what the young people are doing now,” he says. “If there were protests now, I wouldn’t be here. I’d be there. What happened [in Karbala] 1,400 years ago is happening now again.” But amidst the pilgrimage itself, despite scattered reports of tensions the abiding mood is one of collective, emotional worship. “During my whole time there I didn’t see one problem, no rioting, not one aggressive thing.” says Jonny Pickup.

Such is the scale of collective generosity that on December 14 2019, UNESCO added the provision of services and hospitality during Arba’een to its Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.

Mir, from India, travelled from India as part of a group of 12. “I feel so touched when I see the way people give, irrespective of creed, religion, race or colour.” he says. “It transcends the problems of humanity. People care for each other – that’s what Arba’een means.”

Follow Jonny Pickup on Instagram.

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