NABATIYE, Lebanon – Hundreds of bloodied faces fill Nabatiye Square on a Saturday morning in southern Lebanon, some belonging to children too young to walk. Boys and men are casually wielding swords large enough to be visible from a second-floor balcony. In the sun, their open wounds ooze, and the air is rancid with raw flesh, a heaving mass that smells like a butcher’s shop.
This bloody spectacle is an annual practice on the Day of Ashura, the tenth day of the first month in the Islamic calendar, when Shiite Muslims come together to mourn, with self-inflicted punishment, the battlefield death of Imam Hussein bin Ali bin Abu Taleb, a grandson of the Prophet Muhammad. In the town of Nabatiye, men show solidarity with Hussein by making small cuts to the crown of their heads before repeatedly striking themselves to ensure the incisions do not clot. The practice is symbolic, to express regret that the mourners are not able to fight alongside Hussein 1,335 years ago. But this year, the self-flagellation has taken on a more desperate quality -- many in attendance believe they are continuing Hussein’s fight on the battlefields of Syria, where the Lebanese Shiite militant group Hezbollah has been fighting alongside the Syrian regime of President Bashar Assad.
Even women, who usually abstain from the cutting ritual, are now choosing to participate to show their solidarity with Shiite fighters in Syria. Zeina, just 17 years old, who gave only her first name, was one of those who took part.
“I felt it was time to share the love for Hussein,” Zeina said, adding that this year was especially important to honor the imam because of events in Syria.
Thousands of Hezbollah fighters have been deployed to Syria to battle the Sunni Muslim-dominated Syrian opposition forces. Among the various opposition factions are the Islamic State group and Jabhat al-Nusra, al Qaeda’s branch in Syria, both Sunni extremist movements that make a habit of killing Shiite Muslims.
The Sunni extremists in Syria “are the descendants of the people who killed Hussein, they are the same,” Ali, a Shiite resident of Nabatiye commemorating Ashura, told International Business Times, on condition of anonymity.
Ali, brandishing a sword wrapped in a blood-stained white sheath, was among those who cut themselves to venerate the memory of Hussein. His 4-year-old son, wearing a white sheet drenched with blood, looked as if he was in shock, drooling from an open, slack-jawed mouth.
Children as young as two months are ritually cut, a Red Cross worker told IBT. Every year, the Red Cross, along with several local aid groups, sets up tents around Nabatiye Square to treat and bandage head wounds. The Red Cross alone treats roughly 1,500 people during the event, most of them children. Aside from head wounds that need to be disinfected, many people faint from the combination of the heat, the crowds and a loss of blood, the Red Cross worker said.
Not everyone endorses the liberal volumes of blood spilt on this square. There are more productive ways, some say, of showing support for fighters in Syria.
Hezbollah leader Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah has tried to ban the practice, following the lead of the founder of the Islamic Republic of Iran, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, who said the Quran forbids a Muslim from harming himself.
“Haram [forbidden]. It’s not allowed; they should donate their blood instead for those in Syria,” a senior Hezbollah official told IBT while looking at photos of bloodied Shiites in Nabatiye later that day.
Others present at the ceremony agreed.
Israh Ayoub, a devout young woman wearing a chador (clothing that covers most of a woman’s body but not her face) attended the event but did not take part in the self-flagellation. For her, Ashura provides the religious backdrop to Syria’s war, but she argues that the blood sacrifice to Hussein is better made on the battlefields of Syria, just as her husband, cousins and almost every eligible man in her family are doing.
“Ashura is big school, it graduates people [so they can] be martyrs for the right cause,” she told IBT. “As far as the bloodshed, I am against it. The people who do it can go to Syria and shed their blood there.”
Shiite Muslims were not the only ones present at the bloodletting ceremony. Sister Lucie Akle, a Maronite Christian nun, attended Ashura wearing her nun’s habit and a silver cross around her neck. She comes every year as the director at College Notre Dame d’Antoine, a Catholic elementary and high school in Nabatiye where many of the students are Shiites.
“It’s their faith that pushes them to do this, and it’s my faith that pushes me to be here,” Sister Akle said. “We have many students who have martyred parents [in Syria]. When the family is mourning we go to help them.”
Sister Akle stood among dozens of Shiites watching events from a residential balcony, the same spot where, some 30 years ago, the townspeople protested the Israeli occupation of southern Lebanon by pouring hot oil onto Israeli soldiers during Ashura.
People here take a long view of history, relating recent conflicts to the struggles of Islam's founders. Three decades ago, Shiite Lebanese equated the Israeli occupation of southern Lebanon with the Battle of Karbala in Iraq in 680, where Hussein was killed fighting the army of Caliph Yazid, to whom he had refused to pledge allegiance.
Today, Lebanon’s Shiites are fighting, and some are dying, in neighboring Syria where the group also known as ISIS has declared its own caliphate, not unlike the Umayyad Dynasty that begat Caliph Yazid. For Shiite Muslims the parallels are clear.
Ayoub believes her husband, along with his comrades, shares Hussein’s warrior spirit. For Ayoub, the Shiite militants in Syria are fighting to protect Lebanon’s Shiite community, just as Hussein heroically resisted the unjust Yazid, a sentiment echoed throughout Nabatiye.
“We are very proud of our men in Syria,” Ayoub said. “If they didn’t fight these people, [ISIS] would be here killing us and raping us.”