Sunday 18 July 2010

Drawing Lessons from Zacharia...

Today is the 5th of of Sha'aban  i.e the 1st Sunday of the Islamic month preceding the month of Ramadan (month when the message was revealed and when Fasting takes place) in the Hijri (Hijra means exile) Islamic calendar.

There is NO other country in the Middle East, Arab or Muslim world that celebrates this date, except in Iraq.

I am not quite sure if Shias or Christians celebrate it or not, but as far as I can remember my family has always done so - we call it simply Zacharia (in reference to the prophet Zacharia). And I distinctly remember that all our family, sect and religion confounded, Sunnis, Shias, Christians would gather at my grandmother's place on the 1st Sunday of Sha'ban at sunset for the celebration.

My mother and aunts in turn - upheld the tradition and they never fail to commemorate the prophet Zacharia.

For me, it has always been a very special event. Something mystical about it. Some members of the family fast from food and drink, some fast from talking from dawn to sunset. I tried that a couple of times, fasting from talking - it was dead easy...I don't speak much anyways...I guess that does not count as fasting then. I am not sure if writing would be considered breaking the fast, since writing is also a form of speech - I suppose.

Zacharia is very special to me, ever since I was a child. First, I love the candles burning for the occasion. Each person present, lights a candle and makes a wish. If their wish comes true, they are to organize a Zacharia celebration the following year. I usually light several candles, for all the people I love and care about and I even light one for my enemies- actually my mother suggested that one. She said pray for their guidance, because if they are guided they will get off our backs...Since 1990, I have always lit a special candle just for Iraq, its people, its land, its women, men and children.

The wish you make has to remain a secret until it materializes...and I have lit many candles since the 90's...

The other thing I love about Zacharia is the food prepared. It is not any kind of food, there's a typical Zacharia menu so to speak. A mixture of salty and sweet.

In my family, the salty stuff is usually the following :

Dolma also called Dolmades in Greek. OK let's get this straight. Dolma is NOT a Turkish dish nor a Greek one. I have studied the matter closely and according to archeologists, the first to cook DOLMA and encrypt it cuneiforms were the Mesopotamians. Sumerians and Co. were the FIRST people to encrypt their recipes on cuneiforms and one of the recipes was DOLMAS. So NO arguing here about the origins of Dolma.

So what is Dolma? It basically consists of stuffed vegetables namely - wine leaves, bell peppers, onions, courgettes, aubergines and tomatoes. Stuffed with spicy minced meat and rice or you can have it just plain vegetarian with rice alone.

Then another traditional salty dish is "khobz orog" - bread from Uruk. Homemade flat bread, baked with a little minced meat, parsley, spices and the distinct yellow of Turmeric. There is also another "orog - uruk" prepared which consists of fried flattened out spicy meat balls.

Also, there must always be some leafy green on the table. Usually reeshad - something akin to parsley that you are to eat as some piece of communion along with the bread...

As for the sweet stuff - it is most definitely distinct and only prepared for this particular occasion :

- Zarda - Haleeb is one of them. Zarda-Haleeb is basically 2 rice puddings. One cooked in date syrup *black and the other cooked in milk *white -- with the wonderful aroma of rose and orange flower water

and last but not least, Simsim - grilled sesame seeds grounded with sugar.

Just writing about it, I can now understand why Zacharia is a typical Iraqi tradition with its "orog - Uruk" food of Dolma and the rest...the black and white...

The other most distinctive feature of Zacharia is candles. You are to adorn preferably white candles with green branches and only light them once the sun sets...and when you light your candle, you make your wish and pray and then eat in remembrance of Zacharia's answered prayer...

I am curious, I want to understand why prophet Zacharia out of all prophets...

So I turned to the Koran and read Surat Maryam - where Zacharia, Jacob, John the Baptist, (Yahya in Arabic, Hanna in Aramaic), the Blessed Mary (Maryam) and Issa (Jesus) are mentioned...

They are all mentioned in this Surat- Surat Maryam.

So I read it...Zacharia asks the Lord for what seems to be the impossible. The Lord answers his prayers and gives him John the Baptist - Yahya. Yahya in Arabic means the one who resurrects...

In that Surat, Allah says - peace be upon Yahya the day he is born, the day he dies and the day he is resurrected again. The sentence is in the present tense. I could not help but notice that.

Then the Surat talks of Maryam and the virgin Birth of Issa.

I will focus on prophet Zacharia's prayer and how it is answered - John the Baptist, or Yahya or as the Arab Christians call him - Yohanna al Ma'madani.

I am not sure if there is an equivalent figure to John the Baptist in Mesopotamian mythology, someone to be born in the most impossible of circumstances...something that would explain only why Iraqis celebrate the day of Zacharia with their "orog - uruk"...I am not that knowledgeable in ancient history to make draw correlations but am very curious...

So when am that curious, I follow things through with the little knowledge I have...

The first thing that comes to mind is the Sabaeans of Iraq. (if you click on that link, you will see a picture of a Sabaean boy and notice a green leaf stuck out from a white cloth. White candles are used in Zacharia and green leaves are stuck to them - a detail. Also do check out the other pictures and commentaries).

What I do know is that the Sabaeans of Iraq are the followers of St John the Baptist. And that they were an integral part of the Iraqi mosaic of sect and religious affiliations before that mosaic crumbled into a thousand pieces with our "liberation" - our Evangelical American Liberation. A side note - according to the statistics available, there were over 70'000 Sabaeans-Mandaeans in Iraq up to 2003. Today, in 2010 there are only 7'000 left of them!

So my curiosity drove me to research more and I fell upon the Holy text of the Sabeans Mandeans called the Ginza Rba.

From the little I read, I was phased...and I must admit this is the first time I take a close look at their Holy Scriptures.

I see the mention of Buddhas (those who attain enlightenment), I see some absolutely wondrous stuff like this opening line - Verse 1-In the Names of the Great, First, Foreign LIFE. From High Light Worlds transcending all struggle, let healing, vicariousness and purity be given me

Then verse 33 - No wailing of the dead is in that place, nor barrenness of beings. No dragging of the dead before one, for it is not contaminated by the dead ones.

And some more verses...can't quote them all but do click on the link above - and for those who are so inclined they must be read - they are absolutely amazing and are so much in line with the spirit of the Koran even though there are centuries dividing them apart...Incidentally, the Sabaeans are considered as people of the Book (along with the Christians and Jews)

I will quote some more...

109. To you my chosen I say, to you my believer I explain: Fast the great fast, not the fast from food and drink in the world.
110. Fast with your eyes from winking and gawking and do nothing evil.
111. Fast with your ears from listening at doors which are not your own.
112. Fast with your mouth from sacrilegious lies and love not falsehoods and gossip.
113. Fast with your heart from bad intentions, and hate, jealousy and breach it not with your hearts. One who tends toward jealousy is not called a perfect one.
114. Fast with your hands from the act of murder and commit no theft.
115. Fast with your body from the wives that are not your own.
116. Fast from kneeling to adore Satan and kneel not before deceitful icons.
117. Fast with your feet from cunning paths toward things that are not yours...

and verse 121-My chosen, have no confidence on the kings and potentates and the unyeildingness of this world, nor on armies, weapons, fighting, crowds, which are enwrapped and entangled in her, and those who are brought together in this world for the sake of gold or silver...

and it goes on and ends with - And Life is victorious over all struggles!

For a short synopsis on Sabaeans-Mandaeans you can also check this link.

I don't know what to make out of all of this...I see a thread connecting it all.. Mohamed, Zacharia, St John the Baptist, Maryam, Issa...-- they all resurrect today for they have never died --- today on that special occasion, together, always as One.

Picture of Zacharia celebration in Baghdad - Courtesy from Baghdad_page/Twitter.