On fake beards

Considering the choices that I have made and the kind of places where I have decided to spend my time, in the last few years I have learnt to pretend not to listen, I have become quite good at pretending to ignore what I don’t want to hear. Unfortunately it does not work all the time, and yesterday was one of those days in which it did not work

Yesterday was the Day of the Ashura, when the Shias commemorate the martyrdom of Hussain, the grandson of the Prophet Muhammad in the battle of Karbala in 680 CE.

The celebration of Ashura is marked by a profound mysticism, the public demonstration of sorrow and a collective catharsis performed through self flagellation.

Bare-chested men and boys beat themselves with chains and knives, year after year, so as not to forget a massacre that occurred more than 1300 years ago.

I have been wanting to witness this event for a very long time and this year was the first time that I thought I was in the right place at the right time.

For the whole of last week Kabul got ready for the event: the city filled with black drapes and flags and temporary kiosks made of fabric and decorated with verses of the Quran where passer-bys would be offered sweets and cups of tea.

From the loudspeakers of the mosques, the evening prayers were full of laments and tearful rhythms: an emotional crescendo in preparation for today’s event.

The tensions between Shias and Sunnis make of the Ashura a delicate time, which in Afghanistan inevitably translates into a high security issue.

Last year, one of the main processions in the old city of Kabul was the target of a terrible attack where 59 people died and 134 were injured. For this year’s Ashura the whole city was in a situation of red alert, with the army deployed to grant security and foreigners kept indoors in a lockdown.

All considered, I decided that I wanted to go despite the warnings as it was a risk worth running. And, after all, I am pretty convinced that it is statistically impossible that the same target can be hit twice in a row. A flawless logic, I told myself.

Until someone, who has always respected my choices, made me think.

He told me: “You can only go if you find a fake beard to go in disguise, otherwise you don’t go.”

Pretty daring to tell me what to do or not to do”, I thought, and I told myself that even this time I could get away pretending not to listen.

But I was wrong.

I spent the whole night looking for fake beards in the metaphorical cupboards of the reasons why I wanted to go and in the material ones of the possible ways in which I would handle a situation of risk. I built in my head disguises, strategies, motivations, explanations. And in the end, with a little bit of frustration, I decided not to go. Not for my safety, but for the desire to acknowledge the care of those – like my family, like him – who accept my freedom irrespective of their own worries and concerns.

Luckily yesterday not much happened, the celebrations went smooth and I stayed at home.

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