Sharing and caring: The generous vibe of Ramadan in Karbala

For many Muslims in Iraq, visiting shrines is an essential part of holy month

A stall offers free tea and water for pilgrims outside the shrines of Imam Hussein and his brother Imam Abbas. Sinan Mahmoud / The National
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In the Iraqi city of Karbala, Ramadan is a time of great significance and celebration, bringing a unique and special atmosphere to the streets.

In the heart of Iraq, Karbala is home to numerous historic sites, including the shrines of Prophet Mohammed's grandsons, Imam Hussein and his brother Imam Abbas.

During the Islamic holy month, pilgrims from across Iraq and other parts of the world converge in the city to pay their respects and participate in the many religious and cultural activities that take place.

“Ramadan days here are different from others in the year due the special atmosphere and the prayers from here have special taste,” Ayoob Youssif Aziz, 30, a waiter from the nearby city of Najaf, told The National.

During the first 10 to 15 days of Ramadan, the owner of the cafeteria where Mr Aziz works closes it down, giving him an opportunity to take his family on trips outside Najaf.

We pray for Iraq and for every Muslim going through difficult situations
Ayoob Youssif Aziz, a waiter, 30

Their favourite places to visit are the famous Shiite shrines. This year Mr Aziz started by visiting Baghdad, where he arrived on Tuesday and spent a night near the shrine of the eighth-century Imam Moussa Al Kadhim.

He arrived in Karbala on Wednesday morning.

“We pray for Iraq and for every Muslim going through difficult situations,” said Mr Aziz, sitting on a carpet in the shade outside the Karbala shrines with his wife and three daughters, who are aged one to three.

Imam Hussein, Imam Abbas and dozens of their family members and comrades were killed in a battle in 680 AD with the army of the second Umayyad caliph, Yazid ibn Muawiyah.

The Al Taf battle was part of a dispute over who had the right to be the spiritual leader of Muslims after Prophet Mohammed.

For many Muslims, Ramadan is a time of spiritual growth and self-reflection, and it is no different in Karbala. The act of visiting the shrines, offering prayers and supplications, and taking part in the various religious and cultural activities, is believed to bring more blessings and rewards.

Some of the worshippers spend the day inside the ornately decorated and gold-domed shrines, praying and take part in educational programmes such as Quran recitals.

Others prefer to remain in the marble-paved area between the two shrines, where they can stay cool in the shade of shelters fitted with whirling fans.

Inside a three-storey annexe to the Imam Hussein Shrine, volunteers in blue caps and white aprons bend over large steel cooking pots, packaging meals for iftar.

Volunteers prepare the two separate dining halls for the meal, while others roll out red carpets in the marble courtyard to create an outdoor dining area. Men and women are segregated.

Known as Mudhif Imam Hussein — "mudhif" meaning guesthouse in Arabic — the organisation was established in 2006 to offer free meals for pilgrims, volunteers and staff at the shrines.

During Ramadan, it serves up to 3,000 iftar meals a day, using more than three tonnes of ingredients, according to its deputy head Mohammed Ibrahim Hassan. That number increases to 4,000 at weekends.

The meals include rice with either red meat or chicken, lentil soup, bread, yoghurt and dates.

“I can’t really describe my feeling when serving the pilgrims, it’s something beyond the words,” Mr Hassan told The National, sitting in his office and checking bills with his employees.

“I feel great pleasure, happiness and pride.”

As the sun begins to set, the area around the shrines comes alive with the cheers of pilgrims and the aroma of delicious food.

Some families bring their own food while others wait for the mudhif meals or buy food from nearby restaurants.

At night, Karbala is illuminated by colourful lights and decorations, creating a festive and welcoming atmosphere. Children play in the yards and streets, and vendors sell traditional sweets and snacks.

Some people capture the moment with group pictures with the shrines in the background.

For Haider Aqeel Naeem, a medical student from the southern province of Diwaniyah, visiting Karbala is also a chance to catch up with friends.

“It’s an amazing atmosphere,” said Mr Naeem, 24, sitting cross-legged on a mattress near the shrines with friends from other provinces.

“The atmosphere of reverence and devotion, meeting friends and mingling with other people here is enough to change the mood.”

Updated: March 31, 2023, 6:00 PM