Wednesday, October 3, 2007
Good Mourning Al-Hassa
Usually during Ramadan, the streets and shops open and are all lit up as life begins after Taraweeh prayers finish around 8:30pm. Since we haven't bought the kids their Eid clothes yet and time's running out, we decided a few days ago that we'd go out after prayers last night. We picked up some of DD's nieces for the trip and set out before 9pm but, something wasn't quite right.
Daisy: Traffic seems unusually light going through the souk.
DD: What time is it? All the shops are still closed.
Daisy: Prayer's done with, is there something special going on for the Shia today?
Ah yes, this must be the reason. I vaguely recall seeing an unusual amount of black clothing on offer at the markets during the past few weeks.
Shia make-up around 1/3 of the population of Al-Hassa as well as there being small groups of Sufis and almost every denomination of Sunni Islam as well. Because the tenuous tranquility of the town exists at the expense of our Shia neighbors freedom to practice religion and express themselves as THEY deem correct, we Sunnis are usually completely unaware of various Shia customs and religious practices.
Although we Sunnis work, study, and many times live next to Shia Hasawis, the topic of religion is verboten due to its volatile nature and the gag-order that's been imposed on the Shia minority . Sunnis and Shia don't pray together and Shia have their own masjids, labeled "Husaynias", which they go to for prayer but are restricted by the government to announce only the Sunni call to prayer at Sunni designated times over the loudspeaker because it differs slightly from that of the Shia. Marriages between the sects are also virtually unheard of in Al-Hassa and if it does occur, it would usually be a Sunni man with a Shia woman. Due to the lack of genetic homogenization, Hasawis can easily distinguish on-sight which camp one belongs to due to the distinct facial features and mannerisms each group exhibits which may not be apparent to a non-Hasawi observor.
With respect to any Hasawi Shia that may be reading this and to the education of all my readers...I know I'm only touching the tip of the iceberg in my description of the rift that exists between the two sects as well as the ensuing discrimination and although I sympathise with their plight. I won't pretend to completely understand its ramifications as a member of the majority.
Measures have been taken(read "smackdowns") by several institutions such as schools and companies to quash the expression of many Shia religious observations; the most obvious to Sunnis are the various days of mourning which Sunnis do not acknowledge. Due to nepotism, tribe pride, and wastafarians running rife and most times, unchecked, Shia have long been kept out of even the most basic employment by the Sunni majority.
Like many minority populations, such as Jews in Europe, this has forced them into self-employment and +90% of the women's souk in Al-Hassa as well as most of the gold-merchants are Shia-owned. The majority of times, speaking from my own experience, this isn't a problem as I observe Sunnis buying from our Shia businessmen without reservation.
Now, back to our shopping trip gone bust:
DD quickly called one of his Shia acquaintances to ask him what's happening...no answer. Then he tries calling one of his Shia-knowledgeable cousins while driving through a ghost-town of a souk. He confirmed that Shia were indeed, mourning the assassination of Ali ibn Abi Talib (RAA), the cousin and son-in-law of the Prophet (PBUH) who died on the 21st of Ramadan in the city of Kufa in 661 CE. This is one of several days in which Shia observe mourning but Sunni Muslims in Saudia, although we highly revere Ali (RAA), do not. We Sunnis in Saudia only observe the two Eids within the framework of our religious practice. Had so many shops not been closed for mourning, we would have never noticed/remembered the event.
Determined to salvage the evening, we decided to seek out a restaurant. We will try shopping again tonight but not before we consulted our Shia-"expert" again to confirm the mourning would be finished by then to avoid another wasted trip out. Driving through town armed with our renewed inter-cultural understanding of our Shia brethren, we took notice of the vast amount of businesses closed during peak shopping times. Whole swaths of town were as black as the clothing Shia children were wearing while walking to "Husaynias*" in stark contrast to the Ramadan lights on open Sunni businesses.
DD: "I can't believe I've lived here all my life and didn't realize what was going on!"