From Al Kifl to Kufa to Najaf – we got glimpses of the most important Shia shrines in the world, but we were not allowed into all of them. A few moments of daily life in the souqs of Al Kifl and Najaf.

We did not cover much distance today, but the day was as full as any other. It started with an excursion to Al Kifl, a town which had been home to a large Jewish population until the 1950’s when the last of them emigrated to Israel. To this day, some of them are land- and homeowners in Al Kifl; but if they come to town, then incognito. According to our guide, Al Kifl is a town of lots of tension and occasional outbursts of violence. Sunnis, Shiahs, and nationalists are at each others’ throats even without the Jewish population.

We however, experienced nothing but a friendly welcome. The claim to fame of Al Kifl is a shrine dedicated to Ezekiel, a prophet mainly venerated in the Torah, but also mentioned twice in the Koran. The building goes back to the 14th century and is noteworthy for the fact that a former synagogue, still recognizable through several features, now functions as a mosque. The balcony for the women is still in place, and some Hebrew writing and some of the synagogue’s old frescoes are still shining through. It is also unusual that behind the mosque active excavations are carried out to unearth the building’s history. As the VIPs in town, we had to drink tea with the head imam of the shrine and sign his guest book. That happens to us here and there. We make it a point in writing notes in our various languages. At one point we were up to English, Italian, Swedish, Dutch, Norwegian, German, and Chinese. But some have left our group after 9 days; others only joined us for three days. We are now down to a mere four nationalities.

The oldest covered souq of Iran is adjacent to the shrine and we were allowed to stroll around in it almost freely. That is, if you ignore the four machinegun-equipped soldiers who walked in front and behind us and would not let us stray. We caused quite a stir in the souq. The town is used to foreign visitors, but mostly pilgrims from Iran and Pakistan, from Saudi Arabia, or Bangladesh; not to a mix of European and American tourists.

The next stop was Kufa, which has a 7th century palace called Dar al Imara, now in its third phase of excavations. In the early 20th century foreign teams started to excavate. Now, an Iraqi team is going to dig deeper. Hopefully, new discoveries will be made. Dozens of people were busy working at the site when we looked today. The excavation site is next to the two main Islamic attractions of Kufa: The house of Ali, the fourth caliph and first Imam of the Shiahs! The site you visit however, is a brick house which is only 9 years old! My sense of historical preservation was completely violated. A house 9 years old does not create a sense of a 7th century historically important place. But none of the Shiah followers seemed to care. They walked around, touching the walls of the rooms of the sons of Ali, Hussein and Hassan, looking at the library of Ali, admiring the fountain from which he drank and so forth and shedding a tear as if this is all the real thing. It’s fake; but I guess, as a nonbeliever I am missing the point.

To commemorate the spot for larger audiences, a mosque was built next to the house in the 7th century which has come down to us following numerous renovations. We were not allowed to even enter the courtyard. There were some unreasonable guards who would not even let us into the courtyards, even though Mohammed, our Iraqi guide from the ministry of tourism tried his best. He is a Devout Shia, but gets very upset when things like this happen and we are prevented from seeing holy sites.

Only 7 km from Kufa is Najaf, arguably the most important shrine in Iraq, even though it is rivaled by Kerbala, depending on the criteria you use. There is little that could top the tomb of the first imam – that would put Najaf in the lead in a historical sense. But the Kerbala shrines are related to the martyrdom of both Hussein, Hassan, and Abbas, and the notorious festival of Ashura is connected with Kerbala, putting that one in the lead on an emotional level.

In many ways we dreaded the visit of Ali’s shrine in Najaf. Yesterday’s experience of having to walk with the armed escort through town, being the center of suspicion and curiosity as a group at the check points, sticking out as unwelcome visitors with huge cameras at the shrine and then being denied entrance to the actual shrine did not sit well with most of us. As we consider ourselves travelers with the mission of building bridges, we created instead a huge divide. Most of us usually travel individually, try to interact with locals and behave respectfully towards the local religion. None of that was possible with our conspicuous escort. But we have little choice.

Again, we were walked like a herd of sheep with our armed guards to the shrine. Again, we were given a hassle about entry. Again, we had to deal with a mosque PR person who would not shut up about the detailed history of the mosque’s architecture as well as the genealogy of all the people affiliated with Ali – something none of us can keep straight. How much more would we have preferred to just be left alone to sit quietly in a corner and to watch the life at the shrine: People resting, praying, reading, playing, chanting, or beating their chests. Instead we were given batches and had to follow that PR person who compulsively did his job even though hardly anyone listened… We then were dragged into the guest reception room where we were offered a nice can of juice and then off we were again to look at some construction part of the mosque. What we really wanted to see was the shrine but we were given no hope. A signing of the mosque guest book was next, a group picture for the mosque chronicles followed, as well as another speech about Islam wanting the shrine of Ali to be there for not only Muslims, but Christians and Jews of the world alike. At that point, I whispered to our Italian guy: And why don’t they let us into the shrine if that’s what they have in mind? Our PR person must have sensed our frustration. All of a sudden he talked about a present and pulled us along to yet another corner of the shrine. We were handed a plastic bag with a propaganda brochure and a shrine photo and thought we would be sent back to our shoes again. But as if he had an afterthought, the PR person asked us: “Do you want to see the shrine?” What the heck did he think we came for?! Of course, we wanted to see the shrine!! It is clearly a matter of interpretation if infidels are allowed into holy shrine areas or not. Earlier today in Kufa, the answer was a rude “No”, but here in Najaf, quite unexpectedly, there was a “Yes” in store for us. We were thrilled.

The next 15 minutes will easily become the most memorable moment of all of my time in Iraq. None of us could have imagined what was ahead of us. And since we had to swear we would not use our cameras, there is no image of this. Men and women were separated by our PR person and the women were handed over to two feather-duster holding female authorities. The one with a pink feather-duster went in front, the other with a light blue one followed in our rear. A narrow passage led into the actual shrine area. There is nothing unusual about the shrine: A sarcophagus is covered with a green cloth and surrounded by a square box lined with silver (or was it gold?) metal grid which everyone is trying to touch. Women get access to only a small portion of the shrine, less than one quarter. As we got closer to the shrine, the sea of wailing women tightened around us. But beneath all the wailing and shouting there was also a healthy sense of survival. I will remember it as elbow-kicking madness!

I wish I could have recorded the fierce determination in the faces of some of the women to get to the shrine and touch it. We were supposed to hold on to each other, but other women were shoving their way between us. The feather-duster women struck the worst of them with their sticks trying to get us through to the metal grid, so we could touch it. Only one of us made it. The rest of us just went with the ebb and flow of pushing bodies and let it go. The feather dusters were quite horrified to see us give up, but we assured them that Donna, our first woman, had touched the shrine for all of us and that by touching Donna, we would all get enough of Ali’s blessing. All this in sign- and body language. The hilarious thing was that Donna, in the shove and push she had to endure at the shrine, had a woman step on her chador just at the moment she was touching the shrine; and so there she stood without head cover. She fixed herself up as fast and best as possible. But all of us looked rather disheveled after we were pushed out again of this madness. As we were in the shrine area, one of the women seemed to object to our presence. The pink feather duster in response simply whacked her! That put her in her place. After all, there were orders by the highest mosque authorities to get us to the shrine and they were determined to fulfill their mission. After we were satisfied by touching Donna, both feather dusters delivered us back to the PR person.

The guys were already waiting for us. With more than ¾ of the shrine area all to themselves, they had experienced nothing of this sort. Is it just the male discipline and reverence in the presence of the holy or is it simply the extra space? Hard to tell.

Good night.

3 comments so far

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  1. Your description of the shrine visit with the pink feather dusters created the most hilarious images in my head!
    I really had to laugh out loud about the whole picture and was reminded of my visit to the Lenin mausoleum in Moscow with the long line of Russians waiting to see their “ Prophet” and we as foreign guest were ushered in front of the line …no shoving there … the guards kept it under control. I’m sure you have seen it too!
    To bad you couldn’t sneak a photo!

  2. What a story of push and shove surrounded by feather dusters. I’m sorry that you do not have pictures but my imagination is having a holiday anyway.

  3. Give me some more of that equality Islam is so famous for!