A few months ago I published a comprehensive guide to Travelling during Ramadan, the holiest month of the Islamic calendar. Today or tomorrow marks the beginning of another important month for observing Muslims, and one that can also impact even the best laid travel plans. Note: this guide is intended to describe the practical implications of travelling during Muharram, and does not explain the scriptural recommendations about travelling during this month.
Alawa Bibi Ashurakhana (mourning house), Hyderabad, India, during Muharram in 2012
What is Muharram?
Muharram is the first month of the lunar calendar, and although a minority of Muslims wish each other “Happy New Year”, for most this begins a solemn period of memorial. The 10th day of Muharram was the day on which the Prophet Muhammad’s (ﷺ) grandson, along with his family members and camp of followers, were massacred near Karbala in modern day Iraq in the year 680AD. Observant Shias in particular spend the whole month in mourning, climaxing on 10th Muharram (known as the Day of Ashura) with huge public processions that can close down entire countries. For more about this, read my article about Muharram from last year. This year Muharram will begin on the 2nd or 3rd October, and the Day of Ashura will be on either the 11th or 12th October – check local sources for the exact date.
One of Hyderabad’s ashurakhanas (mourning house)
Will Muharram impact my travel plans?
The extent to which Muharram will impact your travel plans varies greatly, from country to country. The main factor is the number of Shia in the country you intend to visit. Needless to say, Iran (with around 90% Shia) practically shuts down for two days – the 9th and 10th of Muharram – and many offices even close for the first ten days. Pakistan, Azerbaijan, Lebanon, Bahrain, Afghanistan and Iraq (with large Shia populations) all observe public holidays on the 10th Muharram, and usually on 9th as well. In all of these countries offices will be closed, roads will be frequently blocked with mourners, and emotions run very high, very publicly.
If you are in a country with a smaller percentage of Shia, such as Turkey, Kuwait, India, Bangladesh, or Yemen, the day might officially be a working day, but particular neighbourhoods with large numbers of Shia will close and the roads will be busy with mourners – ask locals for advice.
The population of Shia in other countries such as Malaysia or Indonesia, or any Arab country not listed above, is very small, and therefore life continues as normal. The Shia in the UAE are mostly foreign workers, and in cities like Dubai mourning processions are held in private quarters while life continues as normal outside.
Zuljinah horse in an Ashura procession
What should I do if I am in a city/country marking Muharram and Ashura?
This depends on your level of interest, logistics and security. The basic rule is to ask your local host or hotel reception for advice. If you are particularly interested in witnessing a mourning procession, then ask if there is a way that you can visit without seeming insensitive – it’s not a tourist attraction. A local guide could perhaps take you there, and at the same time help you figure out a way to navigate a city that has been shut down and its streets heaving with mourners.
If you go, be prepared for a very intense experience. The level of grief has to be seen to be believed, and is often not suitable for anyone with a weak stomach. Chanting, singing songs of memorial while weeping is just the beginning. Expect to see mourners hitting their chests and heads in extreme grief, while in Iran mourners whip their backs with chains until bruised. In India, Pakistan, Afghanistan and Iraq, large numbers of mourners often slash their backs, chests or scalps with bladed whips or swords, an extreme display of grief and devotion. Streets in the wake of the procession are filled with splashes of blood, and closer to the action even some onlookers experience a bit of splatter. Visiting a procession is not for anyone who feels faint at the sight of blood, nor is it a casual day out.
“Zanjeer zani”, the ritual self-flagellation, in Lahore, Pakistan
In Pakistan, Afghanistan and Iraq, Ashura processions have been the target of terrorist attacks in the past due to their perceived sectarian nature. Mobile phone networks are often jammed and roads are blocked by security personnel. Add to the mix lots of crying, chest beating, chains and blades being swung around, and it’s easy to see why many locals consider it “too dangerous”, and spend the day inside instead. Whether you attend a procession or not is your choice, but follow the local news and make yourself aware of the local socio-political climate.
A Shia mourning procession in Lahore, Pakistan
So, should I go?
Travelling in Muharram, and especially on the 9th or 10th Muharram, can present an obstacle to your travel plans if you are in a country which holds large processions. It should not force you to cancel your plans, unless you had any specific plan for those two particular days, but it does represent something to factor into your planning. If you attend a procession as an onlooker, be logistically and psychologically prepared, and if you choose not to, then spend the day in the hotel watching movies and ordering room service.
Have you ever travelled in a Muslim country during Muharram before? What was your experience like?