The documentary Karbala: City of Martyrs presents the viewer with a close-up look at the city Karbala itself, along with the pious crowds and the turmoil within the city caused by sectarian tensions—in addition to several personal accounts given by Shi’ites of the pilgrimage process and the celebrations. It is a taxing time for the pilgrims who must overcome fear of violence to travel to Iraq, brave the potentially dangerous journey across the unstable country, and then spend several days (or even months) within a city that makes a prime target for sectarian violence. Many of the pilgrims even undergo voluntary harm, fanatically shedding their own blood to express their long standing grief at Husayn’s death. Throughout the city Shi’ites hold fast to their iconic celebration, going about their pilgrimage with lively determination or grim resolve—but never backing down.
Husayn was not a recent martyr; his death was in 680 of the Common Era. And yet his martyrdom and that of his followers’ still burns brightly in the collective memory of the Shi’ites. It is from this defining moment in history, in which the Shi’ites split from the Sunnis, that the Shi’ites draw the sheer tenacity to endure the sectarian violence raging within Iraq at the time of the documentary’s filming (and today, too). Despite a death toll in the hundreds within Karbala the ceremonies went on and one of the pilgrims even declared those slain to be martyrs. The bombs only fed the still-burning fires of Husayn’s martyrdom, the deaths occurring in these modern times being added on to the mournful traditions of the past. In a darkly fascinating sort of way, the death toll seemed to fit right alongside rituals such as the reinacting of the burning of Husayn’s tent. Moreso than it does in most other places history repeated itself in Karbala.
Much like the early Christians we studied earlier in the class, the Shi’ite pilgrims only seemed to draw strength from the enmity of others. In the face of an attack by sectarian forces within Iraq the Shi’ites banded together, helping to transport the injured and defiantly remaining in the streets, packed together like steely soldiers determined to see a mission through. And in a sense they were exactly that: an army on a mission to ensure that tyranny would never keep them down again—to honour Husayn and all others who died within Karbala and to ensure that the collective memory of these martyrs goes on.