In Karbala, Religious Grief Translates to Big Business

“By wearing black, they’re expressing their condolences to Imam al-Hussein’s mother,” Ghufran explains her children’s and her own wardrobe. Pious behaviour during the month, and during Ashura, is supposed to be a credit to the religious and Ghufran feels sure that wearing black clothes can only earn herself and her family religious merit.

And the cost of the black clothing and black fabric is nothing when compared to the importance of the memorial day and the devotion shown, she says.

“And I’m not the only one here who respects this tradition,” Ghufran explains. “There are a lot of people who wear black here at this time. They also hang black flags on their houses and put black cloth on the walls of their rooms.”

 And while many locals feel sad to be wearing black clothing and commemorating the death of a beloved icon, there is one contingent in Karbala who are not quite as distressed about the tradition: the cloth and clothing merchants of the southern Iraqi city. Black outfits and fabrics at Ashura mean big business for them. They prepare their stocks months beforehand and await the buyers impatiently.

“The prices do seem to go up every year,” Ghufran muses. She says she’s spent around US$115 on black clothing for herself and her family already this year and she agrees that, yes, the cloth merchants must be making good money on this tradition.

Only a few steps past Ghufran, Hussein Shihab is trying to attract customers into his store. “Sale, sale,” he calls. “Come in and see! Good quality, low prices!”

Shihab is 38 and he started his business selling black cloth and gifts on the pavement. Now he has a small store in a popular shopping street in Karbala’s centre – today the shop window is almost completely full of black clothing.

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