A Posh Ashura for Shia Elite
By: Zeinab Merhi
Published Thursday, November 22, 2012
A Beirut high school with a long history is the setting for a deluxe Ashura gathering that frowns on ritual weeping over the martyred Hussein, preferring to mourn him in a “rational” way.
The luxury vehicles arrived one after another to the school grounds. Each time a new car entered, its driver would rush to open the door for “the boss,” who would adjust his suit before stepping outside.
The “boss” would head inside the tent, while his driver looked for a parking space. Outside, the security forces were working hard to protect the visiting dignitaries.
This is the atmosphere of the Amilieh High School in the Beirut quarter of Ras al-Nabaa during the days of Ashura – a major festival for Shia Muslims that commemorates the martyrdom of Hussein, a grandson of the Prophet Mohammad and a revered Shia Imam.
There are many ways to mourn Hussein. Some make pilgrimages by foot to Karbala, Iraq where Hussein is buried. Others prefer to travel by limo to the tent erected at the Amilieh sports grounds.
This tent is like no other. It is perhaps even the only one of its kind in Beirut. Indeed, no wailing over Hussein or sounds of bereavement can be heard here.
The mourners sit on chairs, instead of the ground. The tent is reserved for “officials,” such as the representatives of the prime minister and the army chief, in addition to Shia MPs, ministers, judges, and military officers and their wives, who come to hear the elegies for Hussein. This also makes it the site of the official Ashura broadcast, filmed by the state-owned Télé Liban and broadcast on the day of Ashura.
Nada is not one of those officials. She comes every day to the Ashura gathering at the Amilieh tent because she lives in the area. Nodding disapprovingly, she swears that no one at the tent in question ever cries when hearing the elegies for Hussein, and says, “These people don’t know how to cry.”
She also criticizes the women attending the gathering, and the open buffet offering biscuits, Turkish delight, and “Abbas” cookies, named after Hussein’s half-brother and served in memory of his martyrdom.
The women sitting next to her look nothing like the typical mourners usually seen during Ashura. Most of them are over 55 and wear white translucent scarves, carefully placed over their styled hair.
Nada, who is religious, became upset as she spoke about the wife of her uncle, a retired army general. Although “she never stood on a prayer mat,” Nada says, she comes to the Ashura tent every year to hear the elegies and sermons about Hussein.
At the tent, which was put up by the Amilieh Islamic Charity Association, the attendees can be divided into two types: the ordinary residents of the area, who expect to see a normal Ashura commemoration; then, the “officials” and the long-time Shia residents of the neighborhood, most of whom are affluent.
For the sake of the latter group, according to Mohammad Hamada, the charity’s office director, Amilieh holds its Ashura gathering “away from exaggeration and excessiveness, as well as from fanaticism and political exploitation, to focus only on the true meaning of Ashura.”
Hamada continued, “There is no ritualistic self-flagellation, weeping, or crying here. We just narrate the events of Ashura in an objective, rational, and non-provocative manner, taking into account the environment in which we live.”
Needless to say, no Ashura processions originate from this gathering either. Instead, on the tenth of Muharram, the “ordinary” residents go to Dahiyeh, Beirut’s southern suburbs, to take part in the Ashura procession there, while the “officials” are taken somewhere else by their drivers after they are done with the gathering.
Concerning this, Hamada said, “Ashura processions are extraneous to the local tradition, and are an Iranian custom.”
The scene at the Amilieh tent does not appear all that strange, if we recall the history of the charity’s founder Rashid Baydoun. He founded the Amilieh Islamic Charity Association in 1923, which went on to establish a number of schools and clinics to primarily help the Shia community.
Starting in 1937, Baydoun became an MP, and went on to hold ministerial posts on three different occasions. Today, many senior citizens still speak about the grants and assistance given by Baydoun to put “Shia children” into school at Amilieh.
The Amilieh School began offering classes in 1928 in a modest building comprised of two wooden rooms and a stone room, which were later adapted to house an elementary school.
In 1947, the main building known today as the Amilieh High School in Ras al-Nabaa was inaugurated, and in 1967, al-Safa mosque was added to the complex, named after Haj Amin al-Safa, who helped fund its construction. It is worth mentioning that Baydoun was the first person to put up a tent for the purpose of commemorating Ashura in Beirut, in 1929.
Baydoun never tried to conceal the fact that his main concern was to help and support his community “that was denied its rights.” In 1938, he sent the League of Nations a letter “to protest the disregard for the rights of the Shia in the Republic of Lebanon.” An answer to his letter came not long after, stating that there were “no educated youths in the Shia community.”
This prompted Baydoun to publish an ad in the Lebanese daily an-Nahar, calling on “educated Shia youths” to send him their names and the type of degrees they held to “rebut Geneva’s allegations.” In the same year, the Shia figure took his first trip to Africa, to raise money from the expatriates living there for his charity.
Hajja Um Mohammad remembers this trip well. She recalls the thousands who gathered to greet Baydoun upon his return from Africa, and the red sand that was spread on the ground that day for him, from the Sodeco district of Beirut all the way to Ras al-Nabaa.
In addition to the red sand, palm trees were aligned on both sides of the route that Baydoun took, along with banners welcoming the return of the “leader” who was then carried on shoulders.
In those days, no one rivaled Baydoun over leadership of the Shia community except Ahmad al-Asaad, the country’s speaker of parliament from 1951 to 1953. Or rather, it was Baydoun who rivaled Asaad.
Hajja Um Mohammad remembers that whenever the Young Pioneer organization – founded by Baydoun in 1944 – encountered the supporters of Asaad, a quarrel was inevitable.
Although some individuals who were contemporary to that admit that the “leadership” of Asaad was superior to Baydoun’s, they are inclined to support the latter.
For them, Baydoun gave back much more than Asaad, who “was chiefly interested in his personal affairs and his family’s interests.” But Baydoun did not have children to whom he could leave his legacy behind, despite the prayers of prominent Shia cleric Sayyid Mohsen al-Amin.
Baydoun accepted his lot in life, and went back to helping his community. In 1953, he inaugurated new mathematics and philosophy classes at the Amilieh School, which he offered to all students free of charge.
Baydoun was best known for seeking to improve education in his community, but he is also famous for slapping a Senegalese soldier in front of the Parliament building. The soldier had tried to prevent him from attending a session to draw up a new flag for independent Lebanon in 1943.
Baydoun also helped MP Saadi al-Munla and MP Saeb Salam – who became prime minister later on – sneak in to attend that same session.
Anyone who enters the Ashura tent today may observe that most attendees in the first or last rows consist of Amilieh alumni. Indeed, many of the Shia elite had graduated from this high school alongside “ordinary people” like Nada.
Musa al-Sadr in Amilieh
Though the Amilieh Islamic Charity Association, and later on the Amilieh High School, became famous thanks to Baydoun, another important figure has marked their histories: Imam Sayyid Musa al-Sadr.
On 27 June 1975, Sadr held a sit-in at the Safaa mosque. He would later go on a hunger strike to protest the civil war, and said he would only end it “when the country overcomes the crisis and the guns are silenced.”
To this day, the Amilieh High School keeps a dossier bearing the name of the famed imam. The dossier contains pictures from his sit-in, including ones showing Sadr together with Adel Osseiran, Ghassan Tueni, and Riad Taha. The dossier also contains the contract signed by the imam with the school to handle religious education classes for senior grades, from the school year of 1960-61 up until 1964-65.
In the contract, one can read that Musa al-Sadr was paid an annual salary of LL1200, about $400 at the time, for his services. Deeper in the dossier, one can find his handwritten resignation letter to the school’s administration, where he expressed his regret that other preoccupations and duties meant that he could no longer continue his role at the Amilieh High School.
This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.