Our Man in Karbala | People & Places | Smithsonian

Our Man in Karbala

Coming to terms with Shiite beliefs

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In October, Andrew Cockburn spent two hectic weeks in Iraq reporting our story on the Shiites (" Baghdad when the man suddenly stood up and announced he had to attend a majlis aza'a—a ceremony of mourning—for a high-ranking officer in the Badr Brigade, the Shiites' unofficial army. (He had been killed in a car crash.) Cockburn invited himself along and soon was hurtling toward SadrCity, the huge Shiite slum that has lately seen deadly clashes between Shiite fundamentalists and American soldiers. At the ceremony, Cockburn and his senior Shiite companion were ushered to a line of chairs reserved for dignitaries. "So for the next hour I accepted the condolences of sobbing Shiite guerrillas," he says.

A few days later, Cockburn was in Karbala, one of the Shiites' holiest cities, to observe a 15th Shaban celebration, which drew more than a million people to a plaza adjoining two of Shiite Islam's most sacred shrines. After several hours, Cockburn and some companions decided the time had come to leave. But the way was largely blocked by jostling celebrants, and the bus merely inched along for 90 minutes—"the scariest of my life. Hurting someone could have had very nasty consequences." Less consequential, but more surprising, was meeting a Baghdad book merchant who had spent two years in prison for selling a bootlegged translation of a book about Saddam Hussein that Cockburn and his brother Patrick wrote in 1998. It turned out the man was actually nostalgic for the excitement of the bad old days. Selling books without fear, he told Cockburn, just "wasn't the same."

About Carey Winfrey
Carey Winfrey

Carey Winfrey was Smithsonian magazine's editor in chief for ten years, from 2001 to 2011.

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