Children's foreheads slashed in Muslim saint's name
The 6-year-old boy screamed and shook his head to avoid the razor blade. But his father held him firmly as Hajj Khodor parted the boy's black hair and sliced his forehead three times with the blade.
Ali Madani's cries became more violent as blood gushed from the wound, covering his small, terrified face.
His father and a few other men, waving daggers, broke into a religious chant, recalling how the 7th-century Shiite Muslim saint, Imam Hussein, was decapitated, his head placed on a lance.
In marking the holiest day of Ashura, some Shiites believe children should learn at an early age about Hussein's suffering, which is at the heart of their faith.
Lebanon's top Shiite cleric, Ayatollah Mohammed Hussein Fadlallah, has banned bloodletting during Ashura, even for adults.
Clerics in mainly Shiite Iran forbid it as well, saying the practice is un-Islamic because it harms the body.
But traditions die hard, especially in a rite as fervent and emotional as Ashura, marked Tuesday by Shiites across the Islamic world.
In the southern Lebanese town of Nabatiyeh, hundreds of nervous young boys -- ranging from early teens to toddlers -- were ushered by their fathers into a hall hung with black banners and paintings of Hussein's last moments.
Hajj Khodor, a businessman and organizer of the Ashura ceremonies, and several other men wiped blades with alcohol before swiping each boy three or four times on the forehead.
Some boys cried and resisted, but the cutting proceeded.
"We're used to it," said Mahmoud Jaber, 43, who brought his five boys and two girls for the ritual. "We've been doing this since we were kids. I started when I was 3. It doesn't hurt because the cry of pain goes away with the faith."
Hussein Shihab, 13, wrapped in a white sheet symbolizing Hussein's burial shroud, said he felt a burning sting -- "from the alcohol" -- as the blade hit.
His father, Jaber Shihab, told Hussein not to be "a wimp," and to "be brave" as a reporter photographed him after the cut.
It was "for the sake of Hussein" that he had his head cut, the boy said. "Because blood came from Hussein's head. They cut his head off and blood flowed."
In the Ashura rites, Shiites march in huge processions, beating their chests in mourning for Hussein's martyrdom at Karbala -- a city in present-day Iraq -- in A.D. 680. The most fervent cut themselves with swords or razors or lash themselves with razor-lined chains to draw blood.
The bloodletting is a reminder of Hussein's suffering, as well as punishment for the failure of Muslims to help Hussein in his battle against Islamic ruler Yazid, leader of what became the majority Sunni branch of Islam.
Hussein was the son of Ali, the Prophet Muhammad's cousin, who Shiites believe should have been his rightful successor. The loss at Karbala effectively consigned Shiites to minority status in the Islamic world -- and it became a symbol of the sense of oppression that runs through the sect's beliefs.
Women in Ashura processions usually confine themselves to striking their chests with their fists, without drawing blood. But in Shiite areas of Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, India and elsewhere, processions of men marched drenched in blood -- along with boys.
In the Nabatiyeh hall, splashes of bright red blood covered the floor from the cutting. Some of the children held back tears and tried to put on a brave face as Hajj Khodor sliced the skin of their foreheads.
Their reward was fruit juice and cookies.
A father shoved a pacifier into his toddler's screaming mouth, the boy's forehead stained with blood.
Ali Madani's screams did not save the 6-year-old from the razor blade. His father, Bilal Madani, said his son was crying because the smell of blood scared him.
Afterward, Ali said he was happy he had gone through with it -- "for Hussein's sake."
What did he expect in return?
"God will make me do well in school," he said, sipping juice from a straw.
Hajj Khodor, wrapped in white and wearing a white turban, said he has done cuttings on boys as young as 1-month-old and men as old as 100.
Asked if it was difficult for him to hurt the children, he said: "The child doesn't understand what's going on. The parents are faithful and believe by doing this, their children will be protected and will enjoy a long life."
Hind Abinabi, a 52-year-old Shiite woman and mother of four, said to maim children was not only cruel, but also against the religion.
"When the rest of the world is going to the moon, look where these people are -- still drawing blood from their heads," she said.
One boy's screams and resistance Tuesday did pay off.
"No, no, I don't want it," the terrified boy kept yelling at the top of his voice.
After a few failed attempts, his mother quietly walked him down the stairs and out of the hall.
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