Ireturned to Iraq in March 2004 during ʿAshura, the commemoration rituals of the martyrdom of the grandson of the Prophet Muhammad, Imam Husayn, in the seventh century. It was a year after the US invasion and occupation of Iraq, and it was the first time ʿAshura was publicly celebrated because it had been banned during Saddam Hussein’s regime for over thirty years. In the face of random violence and repression, I became preoccupied with the concept of trauma and bereavement, memory and witnessing, and performative embodied and creative practices as sites for the intervention, reinterpretation, and transformation of the dystopian reality in Iraq. My encounters during ʿAshura with the women in my family and community in Baghdad and Karbala brought me closer to an embodied practice for coping with the violence and day-to-day reality in Iraq. ʿAshura’s ritual practices manufactured a community of witnessing and remembrance across time that is now confronting radical political and social transformation.1 These creative and performative embodied rituals provide a structural framework to commemorate the past, a methodology to survive a chaotic present, and the means to create a resistance movement.
The Second Room of the Sacred Spaces Art Installation
Two years later I constructed a four-room art installation, Sacred Spaces, in the Falaki Gallery at the American University in Cairo, Egypt, that experimentally [End Page 268] decoded ʿAshura commemorations and the journeys pilgrims undertook to Karbala in 2004.2 In this article I focus on the second room.
The art installation brought into play an experiential approach to remembrance and memory, archiving and repertoire, and embodiment and performance. My work is informed by Diana Taylor’s (2003, 192–93) work, which sheds light on the different ways of arranging, conveying, and disseminating memory: “The archives . . . can contain the grisly record of criminal violence—the documents, photographs, and remains that tell of disappearances. . . . The repertoire . . . holds the tales of the survivors, their gestures, the traumatic flashbacks, repeats, and hallucinations—in short, all those acts usually thought of as ephemeral and invalid forms of knowledge and evidence.” The art installation and written work are also informed by interviews with women in my family and community and participants and bystanders in the rituals and performances.
The installation simulated ʿAshura rituals and pilgrimage to Karbala, inviting the audience to walk through the space as a multilayered interpretation of ʿAshura, exploring new relations between performative embodied practices and witnessing and the possibility for reparation. Replicating the pilgrim’s journey, audience members navigated the multiple objects, such as the black silhouettes, until they reached the shrine (figs. 1–2). Such navigation between space and matter is meant to assist pilgrims in transcending their specific realities, to create a rupture in their everyday lives, and to encourage them to enter a liminal space. This in-between space represents the experience pilgrims undergo. Um ʿAli, my aunt, affirms that these performances allow the community to transcend their predicaments by projecting their pain and suffering into the calamity of the Karbala narratives. She [End Page 269] claims that the shrine and the rituals are portals for pilgrims to cross time and space to connect to a higher plane that provides comfort and minimizes their own pain and suffering compared to this catastrophe. The Karbala narratives epitomize Shiʾi history of martyrdom, which must be placed in a universal narrative of redemption. Performative rituals are not merely cathartic and a quest for deliverance; they also symbolize unequivocal devotion and a pledge to their imam to continue his revolutionary message for justice.
The tension between the fixedness of the centripetal art installation of Husayn’s shrine as opposed to the marginal, fluid, and disembodied black silhouettes hanging across each corner of the shrine was evident in the second room. On the other side of the shrine, I placed a black mantelpiece against a dividing wall. The black box supports a bowl filled with green ribbons of various sizes.
Reconstruction of the Shrine
The second room of the art installation reconstructed the shrine, which...