A journey of love, sacrifice, and devotion: Photographing and writing on the experience of Arbaeen

“I hope all those who read this work are able to relate to this journey in their own way – be it by experiencing it in person or providing a new perspective.”

“I hope all those who read this work are able to relate to this journey in their own way – be it by experiencing it in person or providing a new perspective.”

After the release of their new book, photographer Ayaz Ali and poet Saarah Bokhari sat down with TMV to talk about the journey and experiences that went into the making of this groundbreaking new project, Arbaeen: A Lens into a Sacred Journey.

Photograph: Masood Naib Photography

Arbaeen: A Lens into a Sacred Journey is a first-hand glimpse into the world’s largest peaceful gathering, through intricate photographic documentation and poetic expressions on the theme of divine love. The book provides an insight into the life-defining stages of the journey undertaken by the millions of pilgrims on foot towards Karbala.

To learn more about the book or to purchase a copy of your own, click here. Additionally, an exhibit and Q&A session with both Ayaz and Saarah will happen on this Wednesday, the 30th of October, from 7-9:30PM at KSIMC of London, Wood Lane, Stanemore HA7 4LQ. An event offer provides £5 off the book price, so be sure to attend!

TMV: What do you try and achieve with your photography and poetry, and why is it so important to you?

Ayaz: I always aim to tell a story through my images. The idea is that the audience should be able to gauge the mood, the setting and experience the same process as I did when taking that particular image. Moreover as a photographer, I always aim to highlight something different for my audience – be it from a popular location or events from around the world.

I feel photography is very different to other visual arts. Each image has a story and potentially that story can be very powerful if captured at the right moment; many a times even more so than words. And I feel this is important in today’s world of social media, where there is now a shift to move away from the insta-gratification and focus on the narrative behind powerful images.

Photograph: Masood Naib Photography

Saarah: There’s a quote which says “what leaves from one heart, enters another.” Poetry is an art which gives motion to the deep and earnest sentiments of a soul. A poet is a witness to what they endure. It articulates the depths of a person’s inner self. From the spectrum of love to war, the words of great poets fascinate me.

In Islamic culture and heritage, poets in so few words would touch the essence of divine principles. Centuries later, their words still have the power to awaken reflections in the hearts of strangers. When it comes to being an expression of faith, poetry enters the realm of the sacred. There’s the nobility of etiquette involved. The poet can only hope to cleanse the mirror of their own soul, so what is said is a pure reflection of the intentions of their heart.

TMV: How did the idea for a book like this come about?

Ayaz: In 2017, I went on to Iraq for Arbaeen visitation for the first time. The experience of walking from Najaf to Karbala with millions and millions of other zuwwar was just beautiful. After the trip I spent some time researching to see what was out there in terms of a book on Arbaeen, especially one documenting the walk and the occasion of Arbaeen. I knew there was a lack of material on this but I hadn’t realised how little was available.

Saarah and I discussed what would be the best way to document this and present it for the wider audience. We were struggling to work out a narrative that worked for all audiences and it required a lot of discussions between us to finalise the narrative. Our vision was that this book to be something that highlighted the spiritual aspect of this journey as a zaa’ir, walking from Najaf to Karbala; and encompassing the different emotions on this journey. I envisioned that this would be highlighted best visually and through poetry, as these forms of expression are very relatable.

Photograph: Masood Naib Photography

Saarah: The aim of this book is to provide an insight to people of faith and no faith alike, into the magnanimous pilgrimage which annually takes place in Iraq. The poetry is a first-hand account of how the zaa’ir feels when journeying towards divine love. So, for people of other faiths, I hope it facilitates positive reflections regarding the essence of visitation to these lands. For Muslims, I hope the book sheds some light on the etiquettes and thought processes throughout the journey, and hopefully inspires people to attend to witness the vastness of it themselves. For those who have attended, I hope they find resonance with their own journeys.

Ayaz: This book is for all; people of faith and no faith alike. We spent nearly 2 years working on this and one of the key reasons why we spent this much time was to ensure the final version was such that the narrative would be for all. We wanted to provide an insight into this journey; this love that people share when it comes to Imam Hussain.

I hope all those who read this work are able to relate to this journey in their own way – be it by experiencing it in person or providing a new perspective. I hope the images and the poetry convey the different emotions that one experiences as a zaa’ir on this journey.

TMV: Why is a project like this so important? And why do you feel so passionately about it?

Ayaz: I feel given it’s been over 15 years since the fall of Saddam and in this time Arbaeen has grown year and year on yet the coverage of this event in the mainstream media remains very scarce. Moreover there is a negative impression when it comes to Iraq due to the different wars the country has gone through. It is essential that we highlight the positive stories to change this impression. In keeping with this, we hope that the book will encourage others to share their work and build on the event of Arbaeen.

I feel passionate about the book due to my own journey over the last few years and especially during the years of having been on this visitation. I wanted others to understand why as Shia Muslims there is deep reverence towards Karbala. I feel this work provides an insight to all regarding this as well as the occasion of Arbaeen; people of faith and no faith alike.

Photograph: Masood Naib Photography

Saarah: It’s important to provide a personalised insight into this journey from the lens of pilgrims who have experienced the magnanimity of Arbaeen. It’s important to capture our own narratives, to tell our own stories, to write our own history, because the divine essence of pilgrimages can easily be erased in contemporary media, in favour of a purely historical, secular or sociopolitical lens.

I feel passionate about the book because of how much Arbaeen has moulded my life direction and inspired my decisions. No two trips were the same: after visiting the sanctuaries of holy personalities, their life stories would inspire me with a different take or new perspective in my own life. If they are considered ‘alive’, it suggests there are eternal lessons hidden in their names – lessons, for which it is upon us, to make a reality in our own lives.

TMV: What were some of your personal experiences during the making of this book?

Ayaz: This was very different to what I am normally accustomed to in my photography, but I loved the challenge. It was complex and it made me think outside the box for some of the images as the conditions weren’t always ideal photographically, while at other times it was a case of being patient and waiting for the right moment. Also when documenting a journey like this, you interact with many people; locals and foreigners, and this provides a great insight into culture and history.

Over the two years of documenting this journey, there have been many different experiences which have highlighted different elements. For instance meeting a Bedouin tribe member who brewed and served traditional coffee to the zuwwar, or listening to accounts from the families that served the pilgrims during the time of Saddam, or experiencing the famous chai on the road to Karbala. However if I was to pick one memorable moment I think it was witnessing the sunset over the two shrines from a rooftop; that was special and is one of my favourite images in the book too.

Photography: Masood Naib Photography

Saarah: This journey was complex, I enjoyed the vast components to it and the new experiences along the way. It was the intertwining of two forms of artistic expressions, and ensuring synchronicity across both. In addition, it has been produced for an array of audiences: Muslims, people of other faiths and no faith alike; for people who have been for Arbaeen, and people who have never been; for people who have heard of it and people who have never heard of it; for the secular lens as well as the spiritual.

My inspiration is Sayeda Zainab – after all, the march of millions in Arbaeen takes place in her honour. When I consider what a monumental task she had on her shoulders, and the grace through which she sailed through her trials, it gave me a yearning for her story to be known. Her journey from Damascus back to Karbala epitomises what it means to be a lover who seeks to follow in her footsteps.

Photography: Masood Naib Photography

My journeys to Iraq over the past ten years, and Arbaeen for the last seven made her life story, as well as the story of the Imams, more alive in my eyes. Each visitation would differ to the previous, because of where I was in life. The writing includes a collection of poems and prose I’ve written through the last seven years of being present in Iraq during Arbaeen. When writing upon my return, I would attempt to experience the feeling of being back and present in Karbala.

I’ve learnt that before undertaking such service, it’s important to purify yourself. Starve any distractions. Focus on your intentions. Connect to your internal peace. And pray for your acceptance.

To learn more about the book or to purchase a copy of your own, click here.

An exhibit and Q&A session with both Ayaz and Saarah will happen on this Wednesday, the 30th of October, from 7-9:30PM at KSIMC of London, Wood Lane, Stanemore HA7 4LQ. An event offer provides £5 off the book price, so be sure to attend!

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