Najaf and Karbala

A few days ago I went on a strange trip to Najaf and Karbala. It wasn’t the regular religious sightseeing trip people go on. No! It was a midnight Ramadan bonanza!

We left around 5pm and made our way to Karbala and the drive was a challenge to say the least. I always wondered why people attached towels to the windows of the passenger seats and that day I found out why. The sun created this unbelievable localized heat that tanned one side of my face in a matter of minutes. The sun glasses I was wearing were of no help whatsoever and my eyes still ache from that day. I learned my lesson though.

We arrived in Karbala minutes before the breaking of the fast but to our disappointment no parking places were available! Imagine this; an entire city with no parking places left! It was such a serious issue that the police patrolling the main roads advised the inter-city drivers to go to the neighboring city or return home. This was easier said than done! Najaf may have been no more than 25 minutes away from Karbala but since we were approaching the breaking of the fast, we could no longer move until we sat down for a futoor (breaking of the fast meal). Ramadan is pretty tough in Iraq. You cannot consume any water or food from the breaking of dawn till sunset. Which is not so hard when it comes to food but is incredibly difficult because you have to refrain from drinking any water. Just to give you an idea of what Iraqi heat is like, yesterday we had 39 degrees of dry, freaking DRY heat. And there is no such thing as cool shade. The heat and dust seep through every freaking crack.

We drove along a small promenade which lead to a high road. There we were caught in a two lane road to Najaf and the nearest exist was the first entry to Najaf. Futoor came and went and we were still sitting in silence with parched lips and headaches caused by dehydration. We finally spotted a small cash&carry kind of shop which served intercity kiosks. To our luck they had a small section of drinks for the regular shopper. We bought a few drinks and some water and took on the final stretch to Najaf.

We arrived in Najaf almost an hour after Futoor. I have been to Najaf before and all I can say is that I hated it the last time. Not only is it impossible to be on the street without a black Iraqi Abaya but it is also very tourist and “kafir” unfriendly. Granted, religious tourists were treated like the locals but anyone who did not come for Imam Ali’s shrine was quickly singled out. So obvious was their rejection of foreign visitors that they filled roads which lead to land plots with signs that explicitly forbade any international investors from entering.

In Najaf we went to visit Imam Ali’s shrine and there we saw the strangest people. Let me tell you, 50% of all the visitors are not there for religious reasons. You can easily point them out. They are mostly men in their late teens early twenties, clad in nut-crushingly tight pants and lounging around the interior walls of the shrine. They are not straight, or gay or even bisexual. They have their own sexuality called anything-that-has-a-pulse. Since Iraqi society treats premarital sex and homosexuality as criminal sins, those young men have no outlet whatsoever and end up resorting to alternative sexual activities.

We finished our visit to the shrine and had a strange old meal. I must say that this meal was the highlight of the entire trip. No don’t get me wrong, the food was not that special but the way that it was served and the other costumers made that dinner a very memorable one. The table was an advertisement for a different restaurant which sported a baby as its mascot. Not only was the image of the baby very scary but also very entertaining. The couple in front of us had a falling out and the man told his wife that he will divorce her. He left her sitting on her own. She did not sit alone for very long! A different man came and sat next to her. They had a gloomy dinner together… man… now I am bummed…

Then after we did our religious “duty” we thought that we still had the power to go on a midnight trip to Karbala. We took the same road back and landed in the heart of Karbala, exactly where we could not find a parking space earlier. Now that the Futoor was over and the visitors had left the city, we managed to find a car park.

Karbala… karbala… what can I say.., Well, Karbala deserves a blog entry on its own because DAMN that place was dysfunctional. It is like visiting an alien planet and learning the language of the natives only to discover that their plan was to destroy you all along. Why am I saying this… Hold on for a blog entry regarding Karbala.

We did the religious stuff there and I listened to some good old techno on the way back. There we got stuck in a side road where the asphalt was worn down by Turkish trucks. I got out of the car and helped push and believe it or not, but this was the highlight of the trip.

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