A short time ago the month of Moharram, which marks the start of the New Year according to Islam, has begun. In the past I have been in Ajmer, India when Moharram started and I think back with mixed feelings to it as it was a difficult time for me.
In the India where I was Sunni and Shia Islam are not two separate worlds. On the dargah of Khwaja Sahab there is for some time no qawwali. Because I followed everything in a Sufi khaneqah with its stressing of the importance of ‘Ali you can understand that Muharram is an important month.
People remember the sad fate of Husain, the grandson of the prophet, who became a martyr in Kerbala. The activities start on the first day of Moharram and end on the 10th, the actual day of martyrdom. Many households, both Sunni and Shia, do not make any fire on the 10th of Moharram.
Every evening my shaykh and I went out to listen to a pious sermon. For me it was very difficult, because it took so long a time every night. We have attended speeches, which lasted 4 to 6 hours and all in Urdu of course. I saw the one delivering the speech using all the tricks he had in his sleeve, big and sudden movements, using a loud voice and then changing it to a very soft pitch. Every day hours and hours of speech and I understood nothing.
I assume that my shaykh, being aware of my level in Urdu, used it as a kind of ascetic practice, to stay awake for long hours in the night. Of course breakfast came at its usual time, so no possibility to rest. The only thing I understood during 10 long nights was the following: “Gibson’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire” and then it went on for hours (and hours) in Urdu.
I have to admit that the worst in me came to the surface. If you would have known what things were present in my mind you would not like to be my friends anymore. I could almost kick some of these preachers. But I also remember that afterwards one of them shook hands with me in such a friendly way, that I immediately forgot all about my aggressive feelings. The long hours of sitting (straight back, not leaning against anything, legs folded underneath me) and understanding nothing were a real and very hard test for me, but I thought afterwards that if I could cope with that I could cope with everything.