“Passengers please prepare for landing.”
I hold onto my seat and look out the window. My stomach jumps as the plane hits the ground and I closed my eyes to feel the earth beneath me.
“Allahuma sali a’la Muhammad wa ale Muhammad” — peace and blessings be upon Muhammad and the family of Muhammad, the passengers on my flight landing in Najaf, Iraq, collectively voiced prayer. On this plane, I was not an outsider. Nobody glared at me as I walked down the aisle, silently wishing that my seat was not next to theirs.
I think about my reasoning, my state of mind undertaking this journey as I bid farewell and walk toward the crowds of the largest annual gathering in the world. My yearning to begin sets in as I join the 14 million pilgrims determined to walk 50 miles to reach the holy city of Karbala.
Everyone was walking for the same purpose: to commemorate the struggle of the grandson of the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him), Imam Hussain (alayhi as-salam).
The struggle of Imam Hussain is one that speaks to each person making this journey, and so many more around the world. He stood against the tyrant Yazid, refusing to give his allegiance and accept him as the leader. In response, Yazid’s army of 30,000 killed Imam Hussain and his 72 companions on the desert plains of Karbala over 1,400 years ago. Yazid cut off water from Imam Hussain’s army and family, including women and children, for three days. After Imam Hussain and his army were killed, the women and children were taken captive until they were finally set free to bury their loved ones. This return to Karbala is called Arbaeen, the Arabic word for 40, as it was 40 days after the initial battle. This commemoration is sacred to Shia Muslims, the smaller of the two main sects of Islam — although Sunni Muslims also respect Imam Hussain.
I started my journey at dawn and felt the Iraqi sun rise overhead. I watched the people around me; some were not wearing shoes, or carrying simple string backpacks, or setting out to walk with only the clothes on their back. I saw an old, blind man walk down the long stretch of road on his own, only his guiding stick as company. I thought about how much I was carrying on my back, and the shoes on my feet as reminders of what I have and what acts as a distraction to me. I saw parents pushing children in strollers, and children pushing parents in wheelchairs.
With each step I took on this dusty, uneven road, I tried to remember my destination, and look up to the flag people waving around around me with the words “Ya Hussain” — “Oh Hussain” — written on them. Walking continually for multiple hours, I remembered how Imam Hussain walked back and forth unsure of how he would tell his wife, Rabab, that when he asked the opposing army to give his 6-month-old son water, they shot an arrow through his throat. I remembered the heat of the sun on the day of Ashura — the day of the battle — and the thirst of the army, women and children. I remembered each story that I’ve heard told from the halls of my mosque, year after year, the grief still fresh.
I walked, and remembered. And so I ensure no one forgets, I kept walking.
The strength of the people I saw around me gave me more determination. Every time someone in my small group became tired, I walked with them and listened to the poetic retelling the stories of Karbala, for the journey is both collective and individual. When walking became difficult for me, people did the same. I started to realize my potential to do good was greater than what I had originally understood it to be. This journey rejuvenates my understanding of what it means to struggle in the way of God.
Above all, it is the generosity of the Iraqi people that astounds me most. Every year, Iraqis who live a life of simple means save money to help serve every pilgrim who walks.
As I walked, every necessity was provided for me. People stand in the middle of the road, carrying plates of food, bottles of water, bread and tea. Children as young as two stood, poured water, sprayed perfume or handed tissues to pilgrims to practice this tradition of generosity. Massaging the feet of tired pilgrims gives them pleasure, as they know and understand the love that makes you walk for almost three days. No one expects anything in return.
People opened their homes or “Mawkibs,” places built for pilgrims to rest or stay the night. They stopped to ask me where I traveled from, and are surprised to learn I came from America. They ask me how long it took me to reach, as many of them came from Iran or other Iraqi cities.
They ask me what it’s like to be a Muslim in America.
I return to this question as I return to my regular school routine. This journey that I long to take every year is unknown to most, as is the story behind it. And as many people asked me why I was spending a week in Iraq during the school year when I have no family there, I could not find the words to explain what it means to me. It is seldom spoken about in comparison to the narratives of hypocrites in the media, who use Islam as justification for their actions put on the forefront, just as Yazid and his follower. This is the picture of Islam I’m often painted with, and as I have already felt this since I have been back, as I am starting to enter the workforce.
For me, the walk this year was especially astonishing, as it was only seven months ago that I was too ill to come to school. To look back at how life has changed in such a short time feels unreal. Now, every new challenge I face feels like the walk. Every time I feel a situation is impossible, I remind myself that there were times during the walk that felt impossible to me as well, but my potential is so much greater than what I credit myself with. I remember the generosity of the Iraqi people and the simplicity of those around me, all centered around one goal.
I remember what it means to keep walking.