“It is an art, a delicate profession and a custom that involves a mixture of art and melancholy,” says Jafar al-Moussawi, the owner of a Karbala embroidery business, poetically. As an embroiderer, al-Moussawi is part of a popular profession in the southern city of Karbala, a major site of religious tourism for Muslims, home to some of the most important shrines and seminaries for Shiite Muslims from around the Islamic world. “This folk tradition is widespread in holy cities like Karbala, where there are many stores specializing in the production of embroidered flags used during religious festivals,” explains al-Moussawi, whose parents and grand parents also worked in this field.
Abbas al-Taei, one of the officials responsible for the organization of large religious parades that take place in Karbala, told NIQASH that he thinks the number of flags sold on special occasions is over 2 million. “It is not just visitors buying the flags either,” he says. “Residents of the city also buy them and they put them on rooftops, cars and shops. People buy all sorts of different sizes and shapes.”
Al-Moussawi says that making and embroidering flags has become the main source of income for his family and for many others in Karbala. And there are dozens of stores in Karbala\'s central city selling them. “But,” he warned, “the trade is slowly decreasing. Because now local merchants are importing goods from all over the world.”
Karbala plays host to two major religious occasions during the year that are of particular importance to Shiite Muslims. The first is the day of Ashura, which commemorates the day that one of the icons of Shia Islam, the Imam al-Hussein, grandson of the Prophet Mohammed, died in battle in 680 AD. The second is Arbaeen, a day that marks the end of the 40 day period of mourning for Imam al-Hussein. On either of those two occasions over 15 million visitors flood into Karbala to commemorate the occasion. During these holidays Karbala can look like a lot like one big stage – special religious drama groups act out the battles related to the holidays and they also carry flags with them. The rest of the city is decked out in more flags, also in black, green and red.
In a story on the events, the Asia Times explains that, “the red flag symbolizes Abbas, Hussein\'s half-brother (venerated because he fought alongside Hussein in Karbala), and also the blood of Hussein. The black flag symbolizes Hussein, and also sadness. The green flag symbolizes Imam Ali, and is also the colour of Islam”.
“Our unit produces a number of different kinds of flags,” says Haj Karim al-Anbari, who heads the embroidery division run under the auspices of the Imam al-Hussein shrine. “The main colours are red and black and they\'re all hand embroidered with calligraphy that says things like “Ya Hussein” [oh Hussein].”
Other flags have pictures of the battle or the victims of the battle; the embroidery unit also produces special orders like embroidered tableaus on request. The flags range in size from three to ten metres and many are sent to Shiite Muslim mosques all around the world as gifts so they can be hung on the religious days.
But a lot of the flags are also sold and the aim here is to make money for the shrines. “These items are sold directly to the public by the shrine\'s gifts department and the revenues are used to finance other shrine projects,” al-Anbari explains.
However several years ago, merchants in Karbala also started to import religious flags from countries like China. Safa al-Khafaji is one of those merchants. “At the beginning of each year we import a number of containers from China and Iran filled with variously sized flags,” he told NIQASH. “And we sell them to people participating in the parades and to people at the shrines. Sometimes we even distribute them free of charge to visitors when big merchants or leading politicians buy the flags and donate them.”
Al-Khafaji also adds that the flags, which cost between US$3 and 75 cents, are made of inferior fabrics; they can usually only be used once. Which compares badly with locally made flags. Mohammed al-Saykal owns one of Karbala\'s embroidery shops and he says that the flags they make, which they hand embroider using silk thread “of the best quality” with slogans like “I am your servant, Hussein” or “God\'s will be done”, cost around US$80 to US$100; an expensive flag like this will be around four metres in size.
For less expensive flags, a meter costs around IQD25,000 (around US$16), because the flag “can be used many times and for several years, in as many parades as you want,” al-Saykal explains. “They are much better quality than the Chinese ones.”
Despite all the incursions into Karbala\'s flag making market though, the highest flag in the city is still a hand embroidered one. It\'s the 20 meter flag, embroidered with the words “Oh Hussein”, flying atop the 80 metre flagpole in the middle of the city. Who made it? Artisans from the shrine of the Imam al-Hussein.