Academic journal article Alif: Journal of Comparative Poetics

From Sacred Ritual to Installation Art: A Personal Testimony

Academic journal article Alif: Journal of Comparative Poetics

From Sacred Ritual to Installation Art: A Personal Testimony

Article excerpt

This article uses gender to interpret sacred space and ritual. Focusing on the ritual of 'Ashura, the author examines the processes whereby three generations of Iraqi Shi'a women have negotiated and reconstructed their identities vis-a-vis the Iraqi state and US invasion. It examines the relation between the city of Karbala and its pilgrimage industry, and the way it has been used for political agendas. Discussing her installation exhibit of the sacred ritual, the author invites the reader to embark on a journey to identify different layers of meaning and history.

A Personal Journey to Sacred Ritual

I returned to Iraq in 2004; it was a journey marked by an increasing preoccupation with the notion of the sacred. I sought out ways to make sense of the complexity and extent of suffering and atrocities inflicted by the invasion, wars, and totalitarian state onto the Iraqi landscape and its people, daily embodying the terror and tragedy of the destruction. How is it that people endure and cope with their realities? How does the invocation of the sacred allow for the expression of their daily experiences? How is that expression germane to their resilience? The reach for the sacred through the ritual of 'Ashura (1) amidst the decay of the present allows for a manifestation of the metaphor of salvation. I found that it was limiting to my attempts to reckon our current reality solely through an intellectual process. In addition to the political and economic frameworks and programs, I found it necessary to explore people's daily lived experiences--a perspective that is often marginalized. Creative and spiritual practices, including ritual, performance, visual art, music, literature, and narratives, were the additional dimension that represented these experiences more fully. In addition, these expressions could potentially reconstruct the narrative to inspire healing and hope. Historically, women have maintained their position as transmitters of culture, history, and narrative from generation to generation. Hence, a focus on creative and expressive practices allows for recognition of women's contributions to historical, political, cultural, and spiritual processes that might otherwise be marginalized.

My focus on these practices was provoked by my encounter with female members of my family in Baghdad and, later, in Karbala (2) during the lunar month of Muharram, where 'Ashura is commemorated. I documented the ritual through film and photography; it was the first 'Ashura celebrated with this magnitude because it was banned under Saddam Husayn's regime for over thirty years. It was there that I understood that people chose creative and spiritual practices to express their personal, political, and socio-economic struggles. These expressions included the ta'ziyeh, the staged performance of the historical event, the ritual of qirayih, which includes mourning gatherings, the eulogizing of ahl al bayt (the family of the Prophet), the creating of religious and political murals, posters, installations and altars, and mass political protests, among others. These creative practices are steeped in the tradition of commemoration of the Karbala battle and express the trauma that ahl al bayt experienced and its significance in the development of the Shi'a movement.

The narrative of the role of Zaynab (Husayn's sister, Ali's daughter, and the Prophet Muhammad's granddaughter) at Yazid's court became the defining moment for these commemorations. Her cathartic recounting of the traumatic events of the Karbala battle served to honor Husayn and his seventy-two followers' resilience and strength. In this way, it marked a historical moment that transformed--through her eloquent and moving narrations--a tragic defeat into a memorializing that instigated the birth of the Shi'a movement and traditions. Her testimony came after witnessing the brutal battle and massacre of her brother, sons, and other family members, and after she was chained to the surviving women of the Prophet's family, dragged from Karbala to Kufa in Iraq, and taken to Yazid's court in Damascus. …

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