British Photojournalist Emily Garthwaite Reflects on her Arbaeen Experience
“It’s a walk of peace…that has to be prioritized above everything else.”
Emily Garthwaite, a London-based photojournalist focusing on humanitarian and environmental issues, has recently travelled to the holy cities of Najaf and Karbala in Iraq, to complete her second walk for the Muslim pilgrimage of Arba’een. Speaking to Salim Kassam, The Muslim Vibe’s Chief Editor on this week’s podcast, she discusses both faith and religion, the media blackout of the world’s largest peaceful pilgrimage, and what contribution she has to offer the Western world to help raise awareness not only about Muslims, but about the inclusivity of Arba’een as well.
Listen to the full interview here
“This was the most lifechanging trip of my lifetime…I have never seen such genuine kindness.”
Arba’een marks 40 days after the day of Ashura and commemorates the death of Hussain Ibn Ali, the grandson of the Prophet Mohammad, who was killed alongside his family members and close companions in the city of Karbala in the year 61 after hijra. Every year, millions of pilgrims flock to Iraq to remember Imam Hussain and the stand he took against the tyrant Yazid. With numbers as high as 15 million this year, the numbers of pilgrims and observers increase every year, with not only Shia Muslims but Hindus, Christians, Buddhists, Sikhs, and others coming together to remember Imam Hussain and the lessons he taught on social justice and peace.
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I’m struggling to find the words but would like to say a huge thank you to everyone who has messaged me. Farzan took this photo of me yesterday on top of the shrine. I’m so looking forward to sharing all the photos from Arbaeen with you soon. This project has changed my life and I’m honoured, humbled and overwhelmed by the public support. I have had some fantastic meetings today about future work in the Middle East, and I can’t wait to share it will you all soon. Thank you Iraq for welcoming me into your country with open arms. I’m truly humbled. Emily x . . . P.s Here’s to making social media a happier, more positive space for everyone 🕊💞
“Arba’een is kindness. Generosity. Integrity.”
Completing her second pilgrimage to Najaf and Karbala this year, Emily was first asked to witness and document Arba’een in 2017 by the Iranian Arts Institute, who wanted a photojournalist that could document the world’s largest annual gathering from a cultural and historical point of view, rather than from a religious standpoint. Understanding the monumental task she was faced with because of the lack of media coverage on Arba’een, Emily explained how important it was to normalize both the people and the country of Iraq in order to truly appreciate the beauty of Arba’een. Although attracting people from all corners of the world, almost all the pilgrims wear black in order to respect and mourn the death of Imam Hussain, and this one was one of the challenges she faced in not putting off Western onlookers. She questioned whether Arba’een would have a different image if everyone was dressed in white, but stressed the need to remember that despite the masses of black-clothed pilgrims, its important to not politicize Arba’een and remember the true essence of it: walking and praying in Karbala is a sort of allegiance to remember to stand up for justice and speak out against any oppression in the world.
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This photograph was taken today inside Imam Hussein’s Shrine in Karbala, Iraq. I will wait to share my work from Iraq but this photograph is of great importance to me, and the subject. Farzan is my guide, my friend, translator, my hero and a second father to me. We’ve walked almost 100km together, shared food, musings on life and religion, we’ve laughed and cried (sometimes at the same time) and I have cherished these moments. Farzan is a devout Shi’a Muslim and represents all the wonderful values of this faith. This is the moment he prayed for Imam Hussein and I feel so blessed to have been there with him. I remember playing ‘Into My Arms’ by Nick Cave to you on the riverbank near Al-Hillah when the moon was low and us discussing faith, and all its shades. I cherished this moment too, and so many others.
“I’m not a member of press, I’m just a pilgrim.”
Identifying not as a Muslim and staying firmly away from the “white woman” narrative, Emily explained however that those identities did not matter during Arba’een. She admits that religion has always been a hard topic for her, but during her walk to Karbala she managed to see past that and to be touched spiritually about faith like never before in her life. When often discussing religion in the West, it can be hard to “see the good”, she admits. “But Arba’een is the good bit,” she says, and it helped her understand religion better as a source of inspiration and empowerment. Walking 80km to the city of Karbala, she felt like there was a build-up to something. Her tears, at the end of the walk, when she stood overlooking the city of Karbala on the roof of the shrine, were a product of each step she had taken both physically and spiritually on her journey during Arba’een. There was a realization on her part that she was a part of something greater and that there was truth in the feeling and emotions evoked from Karbala.
“This doesn’t have to be about religion, its more about the space that Imam Hussain provided for all of us”
One reason why she felt a particular necessity to document Arba’een is because of the large media blackout of it. Emily admits that it was extremely frustrating and almost hurtful, just how surprised people were reacting to the positive narrative she was showcasing to the world. Banned by Saddam Hussein and targeted relentlessly by ISIS, Arba’een remains one of the most resilient and powerful gatherings of a peaceful commitment to justice. Pilgrims, from all walks of life and from nations around the world, manage to come together once a year to remember the strength of peace.
So why is there such a hesitancy to document and celebrate the beauty of Arba’een? Emily remembers, in particular, some comments made about her photography, in that people were so surprised at how friendly and kind “they” seemed. Why “they?”, Emily kept asking herself, “why not just say it — why not call Iraqis ‘Iraqis’?”. “Every nation is beautiful”, Emily stressed, so why should it come as such a surprise that Iraq is beautiful? Countering both the media blackout as well as the negative portrayal of Iraq, Muslims, and Arba’een was daunting and exhausting. But her strength came in the fact that she wasn’t representing anything, and that she wasn’t acting on behalf of any narrative — she was simply documenting her own experience. “I’m merely a storyteller,” she says, and from the beginning was only documenting the truth of the beauty she experienced herself, without focusing on whether it was a positive or negative narrative.
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Today I was granted access by the Ayatallah Sistani to visit the shrine of Imam Hussein with my camera. I also had a fascinating meeting with Sheikh Abdul Mahdi al Karbalaie and Iraqi religious leaders who shared their experiences in Iraq and the impact of Daesh. Among other topics, I spoke to him about the importance of positive stories in Iraq and greater access for international journalists. Thank you to the Iraqi authorities for entrusting me with this responsibility. I couldn’t be prouder to be here, and am so thankful.
“You managed to humanize a people who are often referred to as ‘they’.”
Focusing on the importance of showcasing and exhibiting her work in Europe and North America, Emily believes it is now her duty to use her stance as a white, Western woman who was not raised in Islam to act as a bridge between those who participate in Arba’een with those who have never heard of it before. Stressing the fact that Arba’een is not just a Shia or Muslim pilgrimage but for everyone from all walks of life, Emily feels compelled to reach out to as many people as possible and to as diverse communities as possible. There is no political or hidden agenda to Araba’een, she says, it is just a religious but more importantly, a humanistic commitment to social justice and empowerment. Despite the stresses of having been on such a personal journey that was broadcasted to the world, Emily still feels the importance of reaching out to as many people as possible; and has already planned her third trip to Arba’een next year. “I can’t stop thinking about Arba’een”, Emily says, “I just have to go.”
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I’ve never been a religious person. The closest I’ve felt to God has been in nature or in my family home. Faith has never featured in my life and it didn’t in 2017 when I witnessed Arba’een for the first time. It is such a large part of people’s lives across the globe and I could never understand it. I think storytelling requires a mutual understanding and I always knew I couldn’t relate. . . I was sent this photo, and Farzan and I never recall it being taken. I thought I should share it. We were leaving and I fell to my knees and prayed for him. I think he’s praying for me too. I don’t know who I was praying to but that is irrelevant, and more importantly, that’s ok. It was a feeling of faith in something greater than myself. In this moment I felt the weakest and the strongest I’ve ever felt. I felt the happiest and at the same time the saddest. I spoke to a number of people afterwards and they told me this feeling is called serenity.
You can listen to Emily’s full interview below.
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Also published on Medium.