Day 13 (cont) Najaf
At 5pm we made our way to the holiest shrine for Ali Ibn Abi Talib, the Prophet’s cousin, at the Imām ‘Alī Mosque in Najaf. I was very apprehensive about doing this and felt very vulnerable. The shrine was originally built in 977 and the rebuilt several times until the 16th century. It’s the site of a horrendous massacre of Shia worshipers by Saddam’s troops, and is the Shia’s primary pilgrimage shrine, so it’s insanely busy even though this is not a festival day. Having said all that, it’s also breathtakingly beautiful. It’s massive and was lit up with neon and hundreds of coloured lights. The effect should look garish but instead it looked magnificent.
Several thousand pilgrims had come to pray and there was no way I could get away with not being fully covered, despite the 103 degree heat. I was handed a black nylon burka that was so slippery it fell away from my head at every opportunity, so I spent the whole visit using two hands to clutch it firmly and panicking every time it got away from me. Why doesn’t it have any zips, buttons or velcro to make it secure? Is it just hand-out ones that are like this?
We waited uncomfortably in a side room until we were escorted into the main area. Large groups of pilgrims were praying fervently (and I mean fervently), beating their chests, calling Ali’s name and crying – some hysterically. It was intensely emotional and electrically charged. I have never felt so scared in my life because I was totally out of my comfort zone and knew I hadn’t a chance to talk my way out if something went wrong.
The site of Ali’s tomb in the inner shrine is forbidden to women but I was able to view the vast Hall of Mirrors from the doorway and was stunned by its beauty. The tall, heavy doors are carved and enameled with gold, the glass reflecting the thousands of lights back into the shrine in dazzling bursts. I then exited as quickly as a slippery burka allowed.
One our way out K was waylaid by a man who spoke angrily to him and K reacted badly. It took a while to coax it out of him but it turns out that the man was an Iranian cleric who wanted to know what K was doing with the “dirty dogs”, so K responded in a like fashion. K said that that most of the pilgrims are Iranian and that Iraq has a big problem with them bringing intolerance and fundamentalism back into the country. He doesn’t like them.
We walked back via the back of the shrine, past the vast mosque extension costing millions of dollars and financed by the Iranians. There have been two bombings in town today and several people killed but we didn’t hear any sirens. There is no sign of any extra security. Indeed, there’s fewer check points here than in Baghdad. Poor people.