Wearing black during the holy Islamic month of Muharam is a sign of respect, local woman Ghufran, explains. She’s standing on a shopping street in Karbala, looking for more black clothing today. And it’s a tradition she inherited from her mother and one that she will pass on to her own five children, she adds.
“Every year my children wear black clothes at the beginning of Muharam,” the 43-year-old explains. “They only change back into other colours after Ashura.”
Ashura is an important religious festival for both Sunni and Shiite Muslims but for Shiite Muslims it is particularly important because it involves one of the most significant figures in their creed, the Prophet Mohammed’s grandson, the Imam al-Hussein. Ashura is more of a memorial than a celebration, and it involves a tradition of symbolic mourning for his death. Locals in Karbala, with its Shiite-Muslim dominated population and its series of important Shiite sites and seminaries, are particularly observant of Ashura.
During Ashura there are many rituals performed such as self flagellation in mourning - some of the best known images from Ashura are still those of devout men cutting and whipping themselves until they bleed - giving away food, placing red and black flags and cloth around the house, fasting and wearing black.
“By wearing black, they’re expressing their condolences to Imam al-Hussein’s mother,” Ghufran explains her children’s and her own wardrobe. Pious behaviour during the month, and during Ashura, is supposed to be a credit to the religious and Ghufran feels sure that wearing black clothes can only earn herself and her family religious merit.
And the cost of the black clothing and black fabric is nothing when compared to the importance of the memorial day and the devotion shown, she says.
“And I’m not the only one here who respects this tradition,” Ghufran explains. “There are a lot of people who wear black here at this time. They also hang black flags on their houses and put black cloth on the walls of their rooms.”
And while many locals feel sad to be wearing black clothing and commemorating the death of a beloved icon, there is one contingent in Karbala who are not quite as distressed about the tradition: the cloth and clothing merchants of the southern Iraqi city. Black outfits and fabrics at Ashura mean big business for them. They prepare their stocks months beforehand and await the buyers impatiently.
“The prices do seem to go up every year,” Ghufran muses. She says she’s spent around US$115 on black clothing for herself and her family already this year and she agrees that, yes, the cloth merchants must be making good money on this tradition.
Only a few steps past Ghufran, Hussein Shihab is trying to attract customers into his store. “Sale, sale,” he calls. “Come in and see! Good quality, low prices!”
Shihab is 38 and he started his business selling black cloth and gifts on the pavement. Now he has a small store in a popular shopping street in Karbala’s centre – today the shop window is almost completely full of black clothing.
He spent around US$4,400 on a variety of black outfits, in different sizes, for both sexes and for children. “But that’s not actually such a lot of money compared to some people in this town,” Shihab says. “Some people are spending double or triple that.”
“I couldn’t buy any more anyway because my shop is too small and I can’t fit anything more in there,” Shihab tells NIQASH. “But other merchants have more space. They’ve bought more and they’re going to make a lot of profit this month.”
And it was no gamble making such a substantial investment in this stock, Shihab says. Ashura will come again. “I may not be able to sell all the goods this month. But I’ll be able to sell it on other religious occasions that are similar or I can sell it next year,” he explains.
A few doors down from Shihab’s store, a group of older women are gathered in front of the window of a store owned by Haj Jalal al-Saffar; they are interested in the rolls of black fabric inside.
Some locals open up their houses so that friends, family and neighbours can gather there and share condolences on the memorial day. There are also special marquees and certain inner city sites used for the same purpose. And the most common décor in all of those open rooms is swathes of black fabric hanging on the walls.
Al-Saffar, who owns two stores in Karbala, one which sells clothes and another that sells fabrics, reckons that as a result of that kind of interior decoration, he’s sold hundreds of meters of black cloth this month: “Ordinary citizens bought it but so did the administrators of the Imam al-Hussein shrine and various other organizations”.
“And the customers don’t just come from Iraq. Often they’re from other Muslim countries too,” he says.
Back outside his store, the women are still admiring the fabrics. “But we don’t need to take any cloth to a tailor,” notes one of them, Sijad, 62. “Today all of the black flags that people hang on their houses are made in China.”
A lot of the black clothing comes from China too, says another Karbala shop owner who wished to be known only as Amir. “They are printed with phrases in Arabic glorifying the battle in which the Imam al-Hussein was killed and other similar slogans. It’s as if the Chinese know a lot about Islamic history,” Amir said, amused.
Like the other shop owners that NIQASH spoke to, Amir doesn’t want to talk about how much money he makes selling black clothing during this holy month. But like the other store owners, he admits that it’s an especially profitable time of the year. But that’s something that anyone can tell simply by walking Karbala’s streets at this time of the year – there are so many stores selling black clothing and so many customers buying, and wearing, it. It’s clear that in Karbala, the wintry season of sadness for some is a spring time of booming business for others.