Visitors flood into the southern Iraqi city of Karbala during the second of two major religious holidays of particular importance to Shiite Muslims. Over 15 million visitors arrive in the city, a major site of religious tourism for Muslims, and home to some of the most important shrines and seminaries for Shiite Muslims from around the Islamic world. The streets are crowded with pilgrims and performers, as special religious drama groups act out scenes related to the holidays.
But not all of the activity is spiritual. As a city Karbala makes a lot of money from religious tourism and this is particularly true of the holiday of Arbaeen. This day comes after 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 following holiday, Arbaeen, marks the end of the 40 day period of mourning for Imam al-Hussein. This year Arbaeen is on December 2. And during Arbaeen, visitors are here for around ten days. Catering to them are all kinds of sellers and stands on the streets, all of whom who are really only in business during these two money-making holidays.
Jassim prefers not to talk too much about profits for fear that others might be jealous or angry.
Some of the vendors are unemployed people, others are salaried employees who take the opportunity to double their income. It is also clear that some of the vendors are from out of town, from Najaf or as far away as Babel. They come to sell their goods and make money and also avail themselves of the services offered to pilgrims by religious authorities free of charge, such as free accommodation, food and drink.
Some vendors sell the kinds of things pilgrims might need – such as religious flags, rosaries or a second pair of shoes or socks. Others tend toward souvenirs or toys that pilgrims will want to take back to their homes. Some visitors to Karbala believe that, even though they could get that same doll or flag back home, the ones they buy in Karbala are lucky or particularly blessed. They think buying items in this holy city means their personal fortunes will improve.
The opportunistic salespeople don't have any specific part of the city they sell in. They jostle for space on roads most used by visitors, as well as on roads linking Karbala with another holy city in the area, Najaf.
Intersections are a favourite spot and there are a number of vendors in the crossing where the road to Twairij goes into Karbala, at the Ibrahimiyah intersection. They're selling all kinds of things here, everything from toys to flowers, religious oils, rosaries, clothing and flags, as well as sweets. Religious songs played over loudspeakers compete with the traders' pitches, as they yell out their offers to passers-by.
“My profits are nearly half a million [Iraqi] dinar a week, for two or three weeks,” Maytham Kathem, one of the traders at this intersection told NIQASH; that's around US$414 a week. “And that's about triple my salary.”
Kathem's brother, a lawyer, is also here; he's over the road selling other goods. “He is making about four times the money he earns working in administration at the university,” Kathem notes. “He comes here every day after office hours to make extra income for his family.”
Further into the city we meet Mukthar Hamid - he is another seasonal trader but of another subset; usually he's unemployed but he's spent a long time preparing for the Arbaeen sales. The 23-year-old borrowed money from his father and paid IQD300,000 (around US$250) for goods he could sell during the holiday. Like many of the other vendors here, Hamid comes from one of the poorer parts of town. He stored the goods at home in his neighbourhood, al-Hay al-Askari in western Karbala, until now.
Hamid has set up his stand on a street near the entrance to Karbala's old city, along the always-crowded Imam al-Hussein street. He almost never leaves his spot and even sleeps next to his goods. If he left, he knows some other vendor might steal his position.
“I don't know how much money I will be able to make but in other years I've made about double what I invested,” explains Hamid, who hopes to be able to pay his father back quickly. “It's very easy to make money here.”
Sitting not far from Hamid, is Zaki Jassim. What he is selling is not all that dissimilar from what his friend, Hamid, is selling. Socks, black children's clothing, toys and other items. While some vendors have bought their stock from local wholesalers, others, like Jassim, go to Baghdad to get better prices. He bought most of what he is selling from a shop in Baghdad for about IQD500,000 (around US$414) and he's working here with his 17-year-old son to sell it all.
As a civil servant in Karbala, Jassim says he earns around IQD450,000 a month (around US$370). “But it's not enough to cover my family's expenses so I make use of this holiday to increase my income by selling gifts and jewellery.”
Jassim tells NIQASH he would prefer not to talk too much about profits for fear that others might be jealous or angry. But he confirms that, just as in other years, he won't make a loss and he will make a profit. “I am selling items for more than double what I bought them for,” he says. “For example, this toy has a wholesale price of IQD250 [around US$0.20] but I can sell it here for IQD1,000 [around US$0.82].”
Despite the rampant commercialism involved in selling to out-of-towners, the pilgrims themselves don't seem to mind the higher prices. One visitor from the Iranian city of Susangerd said he was happy with the rosaries, oils and sweets he bought in Karbala because the recipients back home will feel blessed to receive them.
Iraqi man, Murtada Jawad from the city of Diwaniya, visits Karbala often and buys gifts and souvenirs every time, mainly for his children and his wife. Jawad says he's spent about IQD25,000 (about US$20) on gifts this time but that he feels that the prices are fine compared to prices back home.
The prices of the gifts he buys are very cheap compared to the prices in his city. “Anyway it's a very small amount of money compared to the joy that the presents will bring to the hearts of those who receive them,” he says philosophically.