How frightening was the night. There was darkness everywhere. Nothing was visible. A desolate, brutal, friendless desert, barren rock, desolate hillocks, no sign of other humans, nor any way of discerning where the path to be taken lay. The roar of wild animals terrified the children, they hid their faces in their mothers’ bosoms and wept uncontrollably. The mothers recited verses from the Qur’an and showered their children’s faces with blessings. And what can one say about the heat! God help!
But the Prophet’s family did not let go of their fortitude. There was no water in sight. Most of the stock had been depleted after it was shared with Hurr’s army. If instead of giving them water, Husain and his companions had attacked the thirsty soldiers they could have finished them off within minutes. But even the thought of doing something like this would have been abhorrent to the Prophet’s grandson.
The sun’s heat was punishing since daybreak. The air was still. Everyone was drenched in perspiration, the delicate faces of children were scorched in the heat, the horses were panting with thirst. At a time when even the animals go into hibernation, the Prophet’s beloved grandsons were drifting in the desert, their hair matted with sand, the children sobbing and pleading for water.
“My lord, do you plan to kill my children from thirst?” Bano cried out to Husain from her palanquin. “My six-month-old baby who is still nursing, is weak from the lack of water, the other children’s lips are also dry and parched.”
“My dear Chacha Jaan,” Sakina pleaded with Abbas, “I feel stifled inside the palanquin. Please take me in your lap. Dear god, let me inhale the cool air outside. How lucky you are, enjoying the open air, while we are shut in in here, unable to breathe.”
The children’s pleas broke Husain’s heart. At least inside the palanquin they were protected from the brutal sun. Indeed, pain and sorrow are the only legacies his children received from their father. The Prophet of god had shown the world the righteous path and, today, his family was enduring trials and tribulations at the hands of his people in the middle of these bleak deserts.
Hurr’s contingent rode off quickly after depositing Husain’s caravan on this hellish trail. There was no choice but to continue in the direction of Karbala. The enemy had him trapped.
The Imam looked out at the vast, stretching plain of Karbala. His heart overflowed with emotion. “There, we have arrived at our destination,” he said to himself with a faint smile. “From here, we neither have to go forward nor back.” The earth smelled of the grave. He reigned in his horse. Zainab looked at him fearfully and clutched her bosom.
“Why have you stopped, Bhai? What is this place? There is no habitation here, no village. For god’s sake, please move on from here. I’m frightened. How can we stay here?”
“One can’t go beyond one’s destination, Zainab,” Husain said.
“But my heart is pounding, the children are weary, Bhai. I can feel the stench of blood coming from this wretched earth. The sight of the vegetation here is frightening, the flowers prick the eyes like thorns.”
“You are imagining all this, Zainab. This is the same place that we have often seen in our dreams, during moments of uneasy sleep. This looks very familiar. Look, ahead is the river, Alqamah, we will pitch our tents on its banks.
Zainab glanced at the river and shuddered. “Oh god, is this a river or a mirage? Are these bubbles or human skulls floating in the water? Are these waves or swords clashing with each other? I cannot bear to look.”
“You’re tired, Zainab, when you have rested you will not feel so anxious,” the Imam said, trying to comfort her.
“Bhai, why do I feel like this? For no reason I feel my heart sinking. Look how Asghar sobs. It’s said that innocent young children can sense what lies in the Beyond. Sakina is cowering with fear, too.”
“Be strong, Zainab.”
“The sound of the crashing waves is breaking my heart. Oh god, who is this lamenting so loudly? Has someone drowned in this wretched river?”
“Your imagination is leading you astray.”
“Something tells me that if we stop here our lives will be in danger.”
“O daughter of Ali, if you are so anxious then the others will lose courage as well. It was in our fate to come to Karbala. Now we will be here forever. If the governor permits, we will set up residence. Let me find out who owns this land. Come here, boys, go to the neighbouring village and find out who owns this land.”
Some of the young men left to carry out Husain’s command.
Then Husain said to Ali Akbar, “Your aunt always imagines the worst. This is the same place where Baba pitched his tents many times. The long journey has tired her out. Do you know, this is sacred land. We will stay here and will bless it with such prominence that people will come here from far and wide to learn and study. A person’s actions can make a place great. If we act with valour, then angels will bow before this land in reverence. Islam will come to life here once again in all its glory.”
Everyone alighted from their camels and horses and started walking around. The sight of water revived their spirits. A mood of merriment rippled through the group. The air was filled with the musical sound of children’s laughter. The waves of the water leapt to kiss the feet of Husain, and were immortalised.
Husain placed his hand on Ali Akbar’s shoulder. “Ali Akbar, do you like this place?”
“It is a unique location, and as for the river, it seems to be flowing down straight from paradise.”
On hearing this praise from the lips of young Ali Akbar, the waves swelled with pride, the river tumbled along playfully, and the earth was blessed with the season of spring. Coming from paradise, the breeze rushed to the river and whispered that it was the chosen one,
Rise up, you foolish one, good fortune awaits you,
Imam Husain comes to you to wash for his prayers,
Rise, you lucky one, and touch his feet,
You are about to receive the same stature as Kausar,
Your dignity will surge,
Husain comes to bless your waters with good fortune,
His footsteps will tread on your banks,
Your name will be celebrated for centuries,
And you, blessed one, your name will be taken with Husain’s.
Every particle danced with joy, the desert and the wilderness were transformed into paradise, the desert glimmered, and radiance burst forth everywhere. The river lavished sparkling froth at the Imam’s feet, the waves sprang up to caress them. Good fortune spread through the land. Flowers bloomed wherever the Imam set foot, the blossoming buds burst into laughter, Karbala’s fortunes rose higher than the heavens.
Overwhelmed with emotion, Husain closed his eyes and said, “It is such a peaceful place, the fragrance of the breeze is intoxicating, my eyes seem to be closing of their own accord.”
The children were splashing noisily in the water. In the desert, splashing water over each other is considered a sign of goodwill and love because water is nature’s most beautiful gift.
“Abbas, have our tents pitched here. But first ask Zainab which direction she wants them to face. The women’s tents should be set up some distance away from the river. People will be constantly walking by and it will disturb them.”
When Abbas asked his sister, she said, “Why do you ask me? Pitch the tents where everyone agrees it would be best. Although Bhai is right, it is better that the women’s and children’s tents are not very close to the water or the little ones will want to stay in all the time. But don’t set them up too far or we won’t be able to see the water. The river is beautiful. The mind feels comforted just looking at its gushing warmth. But why then, is my heart sinking?”
“Abbas, tell the children to stop playing in the water, the air is becoming cooler now,” said Bano.
“I cannot get them away from the water! Tell Fizza to show them her stick, then perhaps they will listen.”
“Let them be,” said Zainab. “Let them play a little while longer. They have seen water after a long time. They will come out when they are tired.”
Husain Ibn Ali smiled and said, “How little one needs to live a happy, contented life. Being far away from our homeland and our home, we thought we would never find peace or comfort anywhere. But look, just seeing this river has wiped out all our sorrows, the pain of having lost everything has vanished. We do not need palaces. We will build small, simple houses, create a new settlement, cultivate gardens and plant flowers. A new spring will mark our lives.”
“The mosque will face the river.”
“We should lay down the foundation for the school and library first.” Zainul Abidin had a great love for learning. He was unwell and yet his palanquin was strewn with books.
“We should first plan for a food market.” Fizza was concerned about cooking, about pots and pans. Everyone laughed.
“Abbas, you’ll see what a beautiful city we’ll build here. It is possible to turn forests and deserts into lush and fertile areas. We are only a handful of people right now, but soon others will begin to notice us. There won’t be a dearth of hardworking individuals and in no time, a peaceful city will be built at here.”
The tents were unloaded, tent canopies were unpacked, screens began to be hammered in, coils of rope were unwound. Forgetting all their troubles, the Prophet’s family started dreaming of a new world.
But in one instant these dreams were dashed.
Suddenly, clouds of dust rose from the north and enveloped the entire valley. People paused in the middle of their work to see what was happening. In the far distance, they saw an armed contingent advancing in their direction.
Abbas called out to his companions. “Be alert, comrades! We don’t know whether they are friends or enemies. There are some barbaric tribes that have made looting their occupation. But it seems like there are only a few of them.”
Then they spotted another contingent. The darkness in the forest deepened, the mountains and valleys trembled with the thunderous echo of war drums, the bosom of the earth throbbed with the beat of horses’ hooves.
The contingents advanced at great speed and began forming columns on the banks of the river, right in front of the tents.
Abbas called out to the servants, “Go and ask them what they are doing. What is this disturbance? We have set up camp here and these fools are forcing their way in, raising clouds of dust. Tell them to pitch their tents further away.”
Just then, the commander of the contingent came forward and said, “Our armies will be camping on the banks of the river. Can you people move away and pitch your tents at some distance from this spot?”
“But does the bank of the river end here? You can set your tents further downstream.”
“This entire area is under the army’s jurisdiction.”
“What do you mean? From here, all the way down the river?”
“If you like this particular location so much, it is all right, we will move. We will have to pull up our tents.” Abbas was fuming but he restrained himself.
“This entire area belongs to the army. You’ll have to move away from here. Our forces need a large space. There are ten thousand soldiers coming from Kufa, and several armies are expected from Syria and Rome. Other contingents from elsewhere are also making their way here, two thousand from one region, four from another. Space will be constrained. You people should set up your tents somewhere far away from here.”
“How dare you, you wretch!! How you dare issue commands to us?” Abul Fazl Abbas was livid. “Who do you think you are? We can destroy you in an instant. Who are you to tell us what to do?”
“I haven’t made up these orders, I’ve been commanded to convey this to you. I’m just passing on the message.”
“You will regret engaging with us like this. Do not be misled by our numbers. Courage and bravery are what count. If we decide to fight, we can move heaven and earth. Do not clash with us or you will suffer. We will draw a line of blood down the heart of this river. Our tents will be pitched here and anyone who tries to stop us will be crushed.”
Abbas’ anger was well-known. It was as if a volcano had erupted.
The soldiers found themselves living through a bizarre experience. Their spears were raised, their swords were drawn, their bows had been strung with arrows. Yet, their heads were bent in shame and remorse, their eyes were lowered, their hearts were pounding, their bodies trembled in the presence of the loved ones of the Prophet. They silently cursed themselves. Even a lakh of them were simply a fistful of dust before the Prophet’s family. They cowered behind their shields.
Such was the dread caused by a handful of tired and weary people, a dread that made warriors sweat with fear. Hearing Abbas’s voice, the others also came forward quickly. Everyone’s anger was roused. Habib Ibn Mazahir reached out and strung an arrow on his bow. Abu Tamama and Ibn Sa’ad drew their swords, Qasim was incensed, Ali Akbar’s brow was furrowed in anger, Zainab’s innocent boys, Aun and Muhammad, also leapt to retrieve their swords.
The soldiers cringed in fear when they saw this. A huge army, one that was growing in size with every passing moment, flinched at the sight of just a few young angry men.
Excerpted with permission from One Drop of Blood: The Story of Karbala (Ek Qatra-e-Khoon), Ismat Chughtai, translated from the Urdu by Tahira Naqvi, Women Unlimited.