La dakaroise de l'Ashoura et des Maronites

Today is the Islamic holiday of Ashoura, which commemorates the death of the Imam Hussein at Karbala in Iraq (which I visited in 2003, although because of security concerns was not able to approach the mosque in which he is enshrined) in the year 680. Hussein, like his brother Hassan, was the son of Mohammed's daughter Fatima, and their father was Mohammed's cousin Ali (entombed at Najaf).

Without getting into a long dissertation about Shiite devotion to Ali and the rest of his descendants, suffice it to say that Ashoura holds great and somber significance to Shiite Muslims. In the Islamic world on the whole, however, its commemoration spans a continuum. On the far right, you have penitential types who express their distress over Hussein's martyrdom by flagellating themselves. Ouch. Somewhere in the middle, you have less dramatic individuals who consider the day one of reflection and sadness, analogous I suppose to Good Friday for Christians (or Sad Friday as it is called in Arabic, I dare say more fittingly) or Yom Kippur for Jews.

Then, on the left wing, you have what I witnessed last night here in Dakar. In Senegal, whose natives do not practice Shia Islam, the holiday is called Tamkharit (much like Eid al-Adha, celebrated at the end of the annual Hajj, or pilgrimage to Mecca, is called Tabaski – as depicted in this advertisement for end-of-the-year bank loans from French financial giant Société Générale, oh-so-piously posted on the back of a bus). On the eve of Ashoura, Senegalese children dress up (girls like boys and boys like girls), and a customary dish of couscous is prepared. It's a grand ol' time.

No wonder that some of my Lebanese friends here, Shiites who trace their origins to the village of Qana (known first and foremost as the site of Christ's first miracle and secondly as the target of deadly Israeli bombardments both in 1996 and 2006) have been mumbling and grumbling for the past several days (par exemple: il faut respecter le prophète, et il faut respecter sa famille!!!). For them, it is inappropriate to be joyfully celebrating the death of a saintly figure, depicted in this tapestry which marks Hussein's travels in Syria, Mesopotamia, and Arabia – my friend was keen to show this to me because Aleppo is marked on the map.

This is my first time witnessing Ashoura in a country with a Muslim majority, so it is unclear to me how it is "celebrated" elsewhere. Any instructive comments on that would be welcome.

Now, switching gears for a moment, but still discussing the Lebanese community here in Dakar, I attended once again a Maronite mass this past Sunday. I was amazed. Considering just how francophone Senegal is, and how indoctrinated in the French system were the Syrians who first came here, the mass was totally Arabized (allowing of course for the Qadishat, the consecration, and the other obligatory bits in Syriac/Aramaic). I mean, I've been to Maronite masses in Mount Lebanon that were more francophone than this one – here even the homily was in Arabic! Furthermore, there are some outstanding vocalists amongst the congregation. A real treat.

On the whole, the devotion to their heritage and language shown by Syrians here (both Christian and Muslim) is extremely impressive, and frankly, puts to shame what I have witnessed amongst their counterparts in North America (my own family included), South America, and Europe. But that leads to a whole other discussion of assimilation and the factors affecting it, which I will get to another time...