Shia pilgrims gathering in front of the shrine of Imam Hussein (RA). PHOTO: AFP

Arbaeen: “If you want to see humanity living and breathing, experience this walk”

Despite being at war for almost 50 years, the way its people open their hearts and homes and serve you is unbelievable

Syeda Sana Batool November 14, 2018
The 40th – or Arbaeen in Arabic – holds great significance in the traditions of Holy Prophet (PBUH) and Ahle Bait (AS). Arbaeen marks the completion of Ashura, the day when Imam Hussain (RA) was martyred on the planes of Karbala. Since then, his followers and lovers walk to their beloved as they feel his plight as their own.

The walk particularly takes place in the memory of the return of Imam Hussain’s (RA) family from Syria, after getting freed from the shackles of Yazid. People from different parts of the world participate in this event, which remained banned during Saddam Hussein’s regime.

The Arbaeen walk – a spiritual journey of love

Scent of musk, mixed with that of rose petals, filled the air as I left Najaf for Karbala on foot. I was to travel among hundreds of others on a road stretching over 88 kilometres between two cities in southern Iraq, from the door of the shrine of Imam Ali (RA) in Najaf to the door of the shrine of Imam Hussain (RA) in Karbala. While walking, I noticed banners and flags in shades of red, green and black fluttering along the road that leads to Karbala. An avalanche of men and women, young and old, children and disabled, all marched in one direction as a collective as far as the eye could see.

Seeing hundreds of people marching in one direction makes one wonder what drives them to walk unarmed, fearlessly, along with their babies and the elderly, amidst the lingering deadly threats by the Islamic State (IS). These devotees, not only including Iraqis but also millions of Pakistanis, amongst other nationalities, are driven by their love for Imam Hussain (RA), the son of Imam Ali (RA) and the grandson of the Holy Prophet (PBUH).

While walking on the road called “Tareeqatul Ahrar” (the road of the free) in Iraqi tradition, I got the chance to talk to a number of people. I met Noore Maryam, a Pakistani settled in the UK, who told me,
“People rightly call it the journey of love.”

Iraq has been a war-torn country for almost 50 years, but despite this, the way the people of Iraq, from Najaf to Karbala and throughout this walk, open their hearts and homes and serve you with all they have with humility and compassion, is unbelievable. This classless and non-discriminatory walk is a perfect model of how an equal and healthy society should be, which is mesmerising to say the least. The display of brotherhood one gets to experience during this walk is a miracle in this age and era, where the capitalist system has almost destroyed the humanity in humans.

Being a six-time Pakistani visitor of the magnanimous pilgrimage of Arbaeen, I tried to capture some seemingly common yet amazing moments during this walk. I did, however, struggle to do so, for even the wide lens of my camera had too narrow a range to cover the outpour of love, compassion, generosity and kindness displayed by pilgrims, called the Zair-e-Imam Hussain.

A group of men walking barefoot, carrying flags in their hands and tied around their chests, looking straight ahead with grief-stricken eyes; an old man on a wheelchair, driven forward in the same direction by his young daughter walking swiftly; a baby wrapped in winter clothes clinging to her mother’s arm; a man on crutches; a blind man treading ahead with a stick, composed and calm; a two-year-old girl standing unattended, handing out tissues to the zaireen (pilgrims); a man pleading with the walkers to have food at his house while standing in the middle of the road, saying,
“O Zair! Come have food for the sake of Imam Hussain (RA), for the love of Imam Hussain (RA).”

It is hard to capture the sentiment behind these acts of compassion and devotion through any camera or words.

Even more awe-inspiring is the sight of thousands of tents with makeshift kitchens, set up by local Iraqi villagers. They provide the zaireen with nearly everything they need, from freshly prepared meals, places to rest, diapers, a shoe-polishing service and foot massage for tired pilgrims, to all sorts of medical assistance. Such devotion shown by these poor, war-stricken people makes one wonder what the driving force behind this selfless hospitality is.

I asked one Iraqi and he said,
“It’s love for our Master Hussain (RA) and our promise to him to serve his visitors. We have been doing this for centuries, and our coming generations will keep on doing it for the king of martyrs Imam Hussain (RA).”

A Coptic Christian priest who was part of the zair told me,
“Hussain (RA) is not limited to any faith or religion. He is the universal symbol, till the end of time, of righteousness over wrong, and resistance over tyranny and oppression.”

Along with people from different countries, such as Kuwait, Nigeria, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Lebanon and India, there are more than 10 Mowkib (places for rest and food) managed by Pakistanis on the road where this walk takes place. The makeshift kitchens serve hot meals and Pakistani chai 24 hours a day to millions of zaireen for almost 10 days.

A message given to one British-Pakistani doctor during the walk was,
“If you want to see humanity living and breathing, experience this walk.”

The 88-kilometre walk finishes at the shrine of Hazrat Abbas (RA), the brother and the flag-bearer of Imam Hussain (RA), who is regarded as the symbol of loyalty in the history of Karbala.

For me, the Arbaeen walk is a journey on the road built upon the finest virtues of humanity – kindness, empathy, respect, freedom, and above all else, love. No visitor of this pilgrimage ever returns to their pre-walk existence; a spiritual transformation can be promised after the walk. It feels as if you have conquered death and discovered love – the two questions every being in this world is seeking answers for.
Syeda Sana Batool The author is a freelance writer, passionate photo and videographer and a student of MS Journalism at CEJ, IBA. She tweets @S_Xaidee (
The views expressed by the writer and the reader comments do not necassarily reflect the views and policies of the Express Tribune.

Facebook Conversations


Faiza Noor | 1 year ago | Reply | Recommend A beautifully written piece about journey of love. I also had my first experience of Arbaeen in Iraq this year and no other journey in the world can be more worthy of this. The hospitality of Iraqi youth, old and children is amazing. They are truly keeping their promise to Imam Hussain AS. Thank you Sana for penning it down and delivering your gift to others too.
Patwari | 1 year ago '...hospitality of Iraqi youth, old and "children" is amazing....' The children offered you hospitality? How so? What exactly was the hospitality these children offered? Iraq is a dirt poor country. With barely any infra structure and looks like the ghetto version of Pakland. Nobody knows where the oil money goes, in Iraq. From all the huge mega oil sales. It simply disappears. Does not trickle down to the average Iraqi. Not at all. Corruption is rampant. You will not believe this is an oil producing and selling country, when you visit it. Security at the Imams rauzas is provided by privately funded Shia militias. Not the Iraqi govt. Only God knows how many militias are there in the country. Just a few years ago there were raging battles with ISIS at some Shia Shrines. You can still see the bullet holes. The militias defeated ISIS and were victorious. And massive traffic traffic jams on the highways, perpetually. Because of security road blocks by the Iraqi Army. There are suicide bombers. You never when or where they will strike. The Iraqi Army is basically busy fighting and crushing ISIS or Islamic State of Iraq and Shams. ISIS is almost destroyed and eliminated now. So, again, what hospitality did these children offer you?
Patwari | 1 year ago | Reply | Recommend Have seen and traveled on this roadway. Or highway. With countless Mowkibs, resting places and serais. Not during Muharram or Arbaeen, though. It was during ziarats. The Imams rouzas in Najaf and Karbala plus the pilgrimage sites in and near Kufa and Samara are very awe inspiring. It is hard to describe the sentiments and the compassion evoked. Hur bin Rihayi's tomb is about three miles from Imam Husayn's [RA] Shrine. Rest of the martyrs of Karbala are also buried in/near Imam Husayn's [RA] shrine.
Faiza Noor | 1 year ago I suppose Hur bin Rihayi's tomb is 3 miles away from Imam Ali AS shrine( it's near to Najaf). Imam Hussain's shrine is in Karbala which is around 90 km away.
Replying to X

Comments are moderated and generally will be posted if they are on-topic and not abusive.

For more information, please see our Comments FAQ