Allow me to set the scene.
In the past four years I have visited Iraq five times. Four of the visits have been for charitable purposes and to take part in a widely unknown pilgrimage called ‘Arba’een’. Arbaeen is the largest annual gathering of any religion globally. It is predominantly, the Shi’a sect of Islam, who commemorate the martyrdom of Imam Hussain, the Grandson of the Holy Prophet Muhammad. Due to Covid-19, this year’s commemoration only attracted 15 million pilgrims.
The commemoration begins by walking from the Shrine of Imam Ali in Najaf, to his son’s – Imam Hussain in Karbala. An 80km walk that lasts between 3-5 days at a steady pace. On the way, there are approximately 1500 Mowkibs (tents) that are spread at various intervals along the side of the motorway. Yes, you’re literally walking in the desert with a concrete motorway running through it. Whatever image you are conjuring up right now – that’s the one. Mowkib number 1500 will get you to the outskirt of Karbala.
Pilgrims can take rest, eat, drink, bathe and recuperate before moving on. You will see all religions; Coptic Christians, Sikhs, Hindus, even Atheists come and show their respects to a human who stood up and sacrificed themselves, alongside his friends and family, by standing up against oppression.
Something to bear in mind is that during the time of Saddam Hussein those who attempted this walk were persecuted, and many were killed by firing squads at the side of the road. This walk is now a show of solidarity and defiance.
Every year, we go and set up a stall offering free authentic Punjabi chai and food for all. And this year we can’t. But that’s not the loss I would like to talk about.
When I went in 2019, my friends and I stopped at a shop. A very typical looking Iraqi-Arab stall you see in the movies. One that sells all sorts of ornaments, scents and religious artefacts. As a present, the owner gifted me a tusbeeh. Rosary beads. They were deep, ruby red in colour and consisted of 33 oval, almost see through like, beads. I kept them with me wherever I went. I could twist them around my wrist and thumb, and it looked like I had some designer bracelet. I would use them to pray and say my daily affirmations. I touched them on the holiest of holy shrines throughout Iraq, hoping to infuse them with over a thousand years of Ibrahimic spirituality that I can only dream of attaining. This tusbeeh soon became my very blessed and treasured beads.
Shortly after coming home, I lose them. They are nowhere. I tip my house upside down (who hasn’t done that when they’ve lost something) Nothing. Days missing turned into weeks, weeks turned into months. I started to think that maybe I wasn’t worthy of them – perhaps through my own ‘unspiritual’ daily actions or thoughts. Crazy, I know, but I was looking for a reason.
Then in August 2020, as I was deep cleaning my car, I found them tucked away under my car seat, lodged between the carpet and chair slider. There is an Allah! I wanted to shout ‘Allah ho Akbar’ but I offset that against the reaction of my very white, middle class neighbours.
I promise myself that they are not leaving my side from now on.
Forward to September 2020. I’m in London. I leave the hotel and I know they are in my pocket. I check and, I think, I place them in my hoodie pocket – I think. You know what’s coming… I lose them – again. I call all the places I’ve visited. Nothing. I check under the car seat. Nothing. Suitcase-car seat-restaurants-hotel-car seat-suitcase-clothes-suitcase-car seat-clothes-restaurants-nothing. They’ve gone. Truly gone. I am gutted.
That tusbeeh has been on a physical, mental and remarkably spiritual journey with me. To me, it represented everything good in the world, in people and in humanity. It had touched the holiest of ancient places, shrines and mausoleums that are jotted all over ancient Iraq, many of which are difficult to get to and are literally in the desert, away from modern civilisation. One place I visited was a water well that was built 1400 years ago, that has been known to contain healing properties. It’s the holy grail of water wells.
I could go on and on, but I have finally come to terms the tusbeeh isn’t coming back. So, it’s time to shift my consciousness. I know I’m upset because I wanted to keep all to myself. Like Golem in Lord of the Rings. But perhaps, my time with it had come to an end. Perhaps it was time for the beads to move on and infuse someone else’s life. Perhaps I left them on Portsmouth’s pebble beach and the tide has taken them, only for them to pop up and be picked up by a passer-by in another continent.
Wherever they maybe, Mother Earth has them and I’m happy to let them go. They benefitted me, calmed my thoughts and listened to my prayers. I know they will do the same for someone else.
This post was originally written for Lessons in Loss series by And Smelly . There are many other beautifully brave and humorously heart warming Lessons in Loss, and we recommend popping over and having a read.