WikiLeaks: US Embassy's Report on Ashura Chest-Beating, Bloodletting and Mourning Processions in Manama (Part 2)

2016-10-28 - 3:50 p

Bahrain Mirror (Exclusive): During the Ashura photos and flags crisis in 2005, the US Embassy in Manama found itself compelled to learn more about the Shiite religious holiday of Ashura and the commemoration rituals of this particular occasion practiced in Bahrain. So the Embassy did its research and released an impressive, extremely detailed report in just a few days.

This report- which was sent as a cable to the US Department of State on March 9, 2005- is one of the most significant official documents that shows how much knowledge the US diplomatic corps has of the meanings behind Ashura, its cultural and sociological backgrounds, the rituals and ceremonies practiced in Bahrain, in particular, to commemorate it, and all the details surrounding this occasion, including its religious and doctrinal aspects.

The cable gives a historical and religious background on the Shia-observed holiday of Ashura. It also details how the various methods of commemorating Ashura reflects different schools of thought in the Shia community. The US Embassy report offers a comprehensive overview on the Ashura observances, in Bahrain particularly, meticulously describing the religious rites held during this holiday, from participation in Ma'tams (Shia assembly halls), chest-beating, bloodletting (called al-Haidar), to traditional mourning processions as well as modern ones, where musical instruments are used.

Perhaps, this cable is the most inclusive "western" documentation of these religious rituals. This undoubtedly raises many questions as to why the US Embassy is so interested in all of these details, and how they would be reflected in its stances, views and understanding of the Shia sect, as well as the political and social events that take place in the island kingdom.

The cable of Canonical ID (05MANAMA347_a) that included this information was classified as "Secret". In the United States, secret material would cause "serious damage" to national security if it were publicly available. The following are the details on the traditional Shiite Ashura holiday listed in the cable:

Long Tradition of Ashura Observances
3. (SBU) The Shia-observed holiday of Ashura, commemorating the killing of the Prophet Mohammed's grandson Hussein in Karbala, runs for the first ten days of the Islamic month of Moharram. The holiday reaches its peak on the 9th and 10th of Moharram, coinciding with February 18-19 this year. With some 70 percent of its population Shia Muslim, Bahrain is the only GCC country that permits widespread public Ashura celebrations. Bahrain's Shia are proud of their unique status in the region: one contact boasted that the Shia had carried out their traditions for centuries before the ruling (Sunni) Al Khalifa family came to the island.

4. (SBU) Ashura is best known for images of the faithful marching in processions covered in blood from self-inflicted sword and knife cuts on their heads and backs (called "haidar" in Arabic), symbolizing the suffering of Hussein. While this striking and gruesome scene was visible in downtown Manama, particularly on the morning of the 10th of Moharram (February 19), Bahraini Shia note that there is much more to the holiday than blood-letting. They note that this year in particular, Shia assembly halls ("ma'tams") in both the capital and smaller towns and villages organized regular lectures on the events and personalities surrounding Ashura, "passion plays" portraying the suffering of Hussein, blood drives to support local hospitals, and papier-mache reproductions of Hussein's martyrdom reminiscent of Christmas nativity scenes. On a vacant lot across the street from the landmark American Mission Hospital in downtown Manama, Shia clerics, at least one of Iranian origin, gave lectures in fluent English to interested foreigners.


Variety Among Rituals of Procession Participants

5. (SBU) Although less bloody, the Ashura processions of the evening of the 9th of Moharram, February 18, were nonetheless remarkable for their size, variety, and religious fervor. With the exception of a group of about 10 young men who struck their backs with swords and knives, the many thousands who marched did not cut themselves. Organized by ma'tams, most groups (men-only) walked in rows accompanied by riderless horses, preachers broadcasting chants via mobile speaker systems, drums, banners, and the occasional mock coffin. One group was accompanied by a marching band whose members wore identical black satin uniforms with gold sashes, similar to the spectacle of a New Orleans Dixieland jazz funeral procession.

6. (SBU) The ma'tams are identified by their location in a particular area of Bahrain or by the ethnic origin of the members. There are ma'tams for Shia of Bahraini origin, called "Baharna;" of Persian origin but with Bahraini citizenship, called "Ajaam" (some of these families have been in Bahrain for generations but are considered to be Persians); guest workers from the sub-continent, mostly Pakistanis; and Saudis from the Eastern Province who can practice their faith in relative freedom. Each of the groups performs a particular style of self-flagellation in unison. Many tap their chests gently with their right hands; others have complex, dance-like rhythmic movements resulting in a hard chest smash with both hands; other groups swat their backs with strands of chain-link attached to wooden handles. There is some measure of "having fun" and teenage testosterone-fueled one-upmanship in the enthusiasm some of the faithful demonstrate. Small groups of what appear to be brothers, cousins, and best friends urge each other on to ever higher frenzies of shouting, praying, and pounding.  

7. (SBU) The route of the procession is lined with stalls organized by ma'tams, distributing hot and cold drinks and food free of charge to any and all present, including (clearly non-Bahraini) Emboffs. Volunteers at the stalls went out of their way to make foreigners feel welcome, personally delivering food and drink to those standing in the immediate area. They also walked with participants in the processions for short distances, plying them with refreshments like spectators passing drinks to marathon runners. Many women and children watch the processions from the sides of the street or from windows, adding to the almost carnival-like atmosphere.


Public Displays of Shia Luminaries

8. (SBU) There were numerous photographs, including some very large ones, of Khomeini and Khamenei along the procession route in central Manama. Pasted on the walls were posters featuring the two Iranians as well as Hizballah SecGen Nasrallah. Although Emboffs did not see any Hizballah flags, other spectators did. Some posters protested Article 56 of Bahrain's 2002 constitution, which grants a general amnesty to, among others, security forces personnel accused

by Shia of torturing and killing detainees during strife in the mid-1990's. These posters displayed photos of the bodies of those killed in clashes with security forces and while in detention. A few participants in the processions wore badges saying "Death to America" and "Death to Israel" in Farsi.  

Shirazis at the Extreme

9. (C) According to Shia contacts, the various methods of commemorating the death of Hussein reflect different schools of thought in the Shia community.  Bahrain's Shia follow many different trends within the Shia sect, including those of Khomeini/Khamenei, Al Khoei, Fadlallah, Sistani, and Shirazi. In the late 1980's, Khomeini issued a fatwa saying that performing haidar, the blood-letting, is "haram," or religiously unacceptable.  He recommended that Shia donate blood instead. The large majority of Bahrain's Shia still follow this instruction. However, just two years ago, Grand Ayatollah Mohammed Shirazi, the (now deceased) leader of the more radical Shirazi movement, disagreed and issued a fatwa saying that haidar is religiously acceptable. His fatwa coincided with the greater political openness in Bahrain initiated by the King's reform policies, and adherents of the Shirazi philosophy moved quickly to resume this bloody practice, which many non-Shirazi Shia view with disgust.  

10. (C) The Al Qassab ma'tam in downtown Manama is the center for Shirazis in Bahrain. It is run by the Al Alawi family. Minister of Labor and former exiled dissident Majid Al Alawi is from the same family, but he is not close to the branch involved in the Al Qassab ma'tam. Our contacts say that almost all the men performing haidar in the Ashura processions are members of this ma'tam. One contact claimed that many of the Saudi Shia who come to Bahrain for the holidays are members of the Shirazi movement and also cut themselves in the processions.

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Arabic Version


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