Beirut, Lebanon – About 20 women wearing scarves and black dresses entered a building in the southern suburbs of Dahiyeh in Beirut on Saturday evening.
Women, from teenage girls to grandmothers, took to the rooftop to join a one-hour mourning ceremony in commemoration of the seventh-century death of Imam Hussein, the grandson of the Prophet Muhammad.
Saturday night marked the 10th night of the Islamic month of Muharram, Ashoura.
This year, Ashoura fell under a 17-day national lockdown imposed by the Lebanese government on August 21, following a spike in coronavirus cases and deaths following a massive explosion at the port from Beirut earlier this month.
Lebanon, with 16,275 reported cases and 155 deaths, has banned all social gatherings, closed businesses and shops and imposed a nighttime curfew.
The restrictions mean that there have been no street processions or large public gatherings for Ashoura.
Thus, several people from the neighborhood decided to organize small gatherings on their roofs and balconies instead.
“The community element of Ashoura is very important to us,” said Fatima Kanso, 24. “So we got the idea to hold a majlis on the roof in the open air [gathering] above four buildings in the block in order to regroup while respecting the restrictions. “
Adamant to commemorate
Fatima stood guard at the roof door, checking each woman’s temperature, sanitizing their hands and making sure they were wearing masks before showing them to their seats.
As an organizer, she arrived early to organize 35 plastic chairs – the maximum they could accommodate at the event – in a way that ensured social distancing.
“We are keen to organize our mourning ceremonies no matter what the circumstances,” Fatima explained, handing a younger family member bags containing cakes and a drink to place on each chair.
“We wait for Muharram every year, so the idea of holding a solitary majlis at home this time around was very painful,” she said. “When our leaders ordered us to comply with the restrictions, we had to find a way to do so while respecting their instructions. “
Prior to Muharram’s start, Lebanon’s two main Shiite movements, Hezbollah and Amal, told their supporters to respect housekeeping measures, advising against any public gatherings.
In a televised speech, Hezbollah Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah urged compliance with coronavirus restrictions, encouraging his supporters to commemorate Imam Hussein’s death at home or via the live broadcast.
‘Double the grief’
Together with her mother-in-law, Um Ahmad, Fatima had spent the day preparing meals for the poor and preparing a meal of wheat and chicken for the participants.
As she arranged the platters of pastries on a table, her husband Ahmad Kanso, a locally known Muharram poetry reciter who came to conduct the ceremony, set up the speaker system in a small room on the roof.
He explained that the speakers allowed the four women-only rooftop gatherings to follow his recitation and other neighbors to participate from their balconies.
“I’m used to being in a room full of thousands of people, especially that night,” said the 26-year-old.
“Even though we feel double the pain this year – the pain of Imam Hussein’s death and the pain of not being able to cry together – it is a blessing to continue to come together like this.
Each evening, the young reciter began his ceremony with a poem and then a short story recounting the life and death of a prominent figure in Shia Islam who was killed during the Battle of Karbala.
For Muslims, the death of Imam Hussein is a symbol of resistance against injustice and oppression.
As Ahmad rolled up, several women were hunched over, sobbing into their sleeves.
Like many others, Abeer al-Aseely, 45, who attended the ceremony, found the lack of public gatherings this year painful but realized that efforts to stem the spread of the coronavirus were greater.
“For the first time in my life, I am not attending the large street processions and the usual public gatherings,” al-Aseely said. “It’s painful, but our health and safety are more important. ”
As calls to adhere to strict health guidelines have fallen on deaf ears in some countries in the region, including Iraq, which has seen crowds of Shia Muslims flock to Imam Hussein’s shrines in Karbala, the situation in Lebanon was relatively contained.
“Some people have bypassed the coronavirus restrictions in the past 10 days, but for us it’s a huge responsibility to do everything right,” al-Aseely said. “It’s just social distancing, or canceling ceremonies altogether. “