Somber New Year in Muharram - Guest Post by SR
I have been in Lahore on business since Christmas and want to rush back in time for the New Year. The return journey is unnecessarily long because of the draconian gasoline (petrol to the Brits) rationing in anticipation of an impending military conflict with neighbouring India. Long gas lines along the highway add extra hours to the trip.
I finally return home from Lahore to a sleeping family at 11:15 PM.
“Happy New Year Honey,” I whisper in my wife's ear, careful not to wake up our five-year-old who is sleeping with her. There is no response...
I repeat the greeting. Again no response. Gently stroking her hair I whisper again, "Happy New Year darling, I'm home." With eyes still shut she mumbles something incoherently, turns over and becomes motionless again. I give up and head to my study downstairs. Half way down the stairs my flashlight (Brit: 'torch') dies and darkness fills the house. (Eleven to midnight is scheduled 'load-shedding' time. That is a euphemism for rolling blackouts that are now a staple of daily life in this energy starved country. Power generation today is about 65% of total demand, so they have to 'shed' i.e., switch off 35% of the 'load' at all times, one hour at a time in any given sector, multiple times a day.)
In 2008 AD, December 30th was also Muharram 1st, 1430 AH, the Islamic New Year. The 'AH' is for 'after hijrat' ...i.e., the day Muhammad moved from Makkah to Medina, circa 532 AD.
Muslims do not have joyous celebrations at the beginning of the Islamic New Year because the first month, Muharram, is not associated with merry making. So this Gregorian New Year came at a rather unfortunate time for fun loving Muslims. The party scene is completely mute.
First of Muharram would otherwise have been a convenient day to celebrate throughout the Muslim world except for an odd tragedy that occurred in the fourth decade after Muhammad's death. His grandson, Hussain, was slain at Karbala (in today's Iraq) owing to a dynastic contest. This tragedy has resonated down through the centuries and is the main inspiration behind the great Shia-Sunni schism in Islam. Today, the first ten days of Muharram are days of mourning for the Shia. The Sunni, who do not get into the passion play and self-flagellation, only pay lip-service to Hussain and his father, Ali, as they make symbolic gestures of respect. They try not to hold wedding ceremonies and music festivals for the first ten days. This is a bit more than just humouring members of the Shia sect, it helps avoid Shia-Sunni violence which is always just beneath the surface. (Some radical sub-sects of the Sunni, such as the Wahhabi and the Deoband crowd, even consider the Shia as heretics.)
The phone rings at five minutes before midnight. It is Carolyn's friend, Rachel, from England calling to wish us a happy new year. They have already begun breaking out the Champagne a few hours early. She points out that it is almost midnight in Islamabad and wonders what we are doing to usher in 2009...?
It is only the year 1430 here, I have to remind Rachel. I sit in a pitch dark house with a faint candle light flickering on the mantle piece above the fake fireplace. In five minutes we should cover five centuries and it will be 2009 when the lights come back on.
Five minutes later I go to the kitchen and bring back two glasses, place them across the table, one for me one for my ghost companion, and pour some single malt scotch in one. It is going to be straight, or 'neat' as the Brits would say. With power down we are also out of running water.
It shall be another three hours before we zoom back into the darkness of 1430. Total darkness comes and goes in Islamabad every three hours as we hurtle back and forth between the 21st and fifteenth centuries, AD to AH and back again. But the Dark Ages that cloud the collective mind in this Land of the Pure are slow to change.
PS: Bright eyed and bushy tailed my cheerful family gives me hugs and kisses as I wake up after a mere four hours, a mild hangover headache notwithstanding. Carolyn is her perky self again and I am the grump. That’s the family of a Lark and an Owl.