It is Muharram, the month of the martyrdom of Imam Hussein, and the female-run husseiniyya in West Beirut is packed with women dressed in black. As the sounds of Lebanese and Iraqi Arabic dialects, as well as Persian, fill the hallways of this Shi‘i community center, the female religious performer (qari’a) signals that the ritual program (majlis) will begin shortly. She is an Iraqi, and while she reads from her thick notebook, a woman standing next to her reads the same text in Persian for those in the audience who do not understand Arabic. Some of these women are Iranians who have married into Iraqi Shi‘i families of Persian descent who settled in Lebanon after being expelled from Iraq by the deposed Baathist regime.
Under the pretext of purging Iraq of disloyal citizens, the regime expelled large numbers of Iraqi Shi‘a during three periods since 1975. At the time of border disputes with Iran in 1975, at the beginning of the Iran-Iraq war in 1980 and again in 1990–1991 during the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait and the subsequent Shi‘i uprising in southern Iraq, Saddam Hussein’s government forced Shi‘a out of Iraq, mainly to Iran, Syria, Jordan and the Gulf states. The displaced of 1975 and 1980 included those Iraqi Shi‘a of Persian origin commonly referred to as ‘Ajamis. Many of them wound up in Lebanon, where they have constructed a distinct Iraqi Shi‘i identity that sets them apart from both the Lebanese Shi‘a who comprise roughly 40 percent of the population and the Iranians who serve in the Islamic Republic’s outreach institutions.
The Baathist regime labeled the ‘Ajamis as spies for Iran, excluding them by definition from mainstream, Sunni Arab-dominated Iraqi nationalism. The exiled Iraqi Shi‘a, however, have constructed alternative visions of Iraqi nationalism that downplay differences between Sunnis and Shi‘is, as well as those between Iraqi Shi‘a claiming local Arab descent and those of Persian background. They take pride in the fact that they are Shi‘is from Iraq, bearers of the Iraqi Shi‘i rituals and traditions that they consider most authentic, pertaining in their view to the land of the most sacred Shi‘i holy sites, where the key events in early Islamic history leading to the emergence of Shi‘ism unfolded.
In Arabic, the term ‘ajam refers to people who do not speak Arabic or whose first language is not Arabic, in particular Persian speakers. At the same time, ‘Ajami is a designation used to refer to people of Persian descent. Among Arabs, the word can be derogatory, referring to those who speak Arabic in a manner evaluated as incorrect, and by extension labeling them as foreigners, assimilating them to Persians as a historical “other” of Arabs. Nevertheless, ‘Ajami is also the self-description of a Persian-speaking Shi‘i merchant community that migrated from Safavid Persia to Baghdad, which was held by the Safavids from
1508–1533 and 1622–1638. The Persian ‘ulama and religious students who moved from Qajar Iran to Karbala’ and Najaf in the eighteenth century are also considered part of this ‘Ajami community. In fact, at the turn of the twentieth century, approximately 75 percent of the inhabitants of Karbala’ were of Persian origin and spoke Persian. After the creation of modern Iraq in 1921, many continued to live in Baghdad, Karbala’ and Najaf, and even spread to other regions in Iraq. In 1924, the Iraqi Nationality Law was introduced, obliging these ‘Ajamis to either accept Iraqi nationality or leave the country.
Hostility towards Iraqis of Persian descent increased, so that by the end of the Iraqi monarchy in 1957, only 12 percent of the population of Karbala’ were known to be of Persian origin. The identity and rights of these Persian migrants and their descen- dants remained a bone of contention between Iran and Iraq for most of the twentieth century. However, with the exception of one episode in 1975, it was not until the beginning of the Iraq-Iran War in 1980 that large numbers of ‘Ajamis were expelled in an organized manner from Iraq. They were forced to depart within days, without their belongings.
Some ‘Ajamis who came to Lebanon as refugees in the 1980s and 1990s did so because of their ties to ‘Ajami traders who had settled in Lebanon in the 1950s and 1960s. Others, just like other Iraqi Shi‘a, came to Lebanon to seek asylum through the UN, and saw Lebanon as a transit point to a Western country. As of 2001, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees reported 1,828 Iraqi refugees in Lebanon, most of them Shi‘a. These numbers reflect only those who applied for UN refugee status and not those staying illegally in the country. After the 2003 US invasion of Iraq, according to the Beirut daily al-Safir, the number of Iraqis in Lebanon rose to about 40,000. The Lebanese state has often arrested and detained these refugees under a law preventing foreigners from illegally entering Lebanese territory. In December 2001, Lebanese authorities even deported about 300 UNHCR-registered Iraqi refugees to Syria, whose authorities in turn deported them to Iraq, thereby violating Article 31 of the UN Refugee Convention, which holds that states should not penalize asylum seekers for illegal entry.
In order to protect these ‘Ajamis and other Iraqi Shi‘i asylum seekers and refugees, a team of Lebanese human rights activists calling themselves the Ad Hoc Committee for the Support of Non-Palestinian Refugees and Asylum Seekers was founded in September 2000. They seek an end to the arbitrary arrest, detention and deportation of these refugees, who often hide in the southern suburbs of Beirut and in the Palestinian refugee camps. Samira Trad, a London-trained Lebanese lawyer and a member of the committee, has repeatedly been arrested by Lebanese security for supporting these Iraqis and for voicing her concerns about human rights violations in Lebanon.
Among the Iraqi Shi‘is and ‘Ajamis I came to know, there existed a sense of estrangement from both Iranian official institutions in Lebanon and from Lebanese Shi‘a, for different reasons. While some of the older ‘Ajami families have maintained commercial ties to Iran, as well as links to the Iranian government and the Iranian religious elite in the field of Islamic publishing, most ‘Ajamis are disappointed in how little Iranian institutions in Lebanon, with their vast financial resources, care about their fate. Most of the ‘Ajamis I met think of Iraq as their homeland, and none ever mentioned Iran as an eventual place of return, despite their Persian origins. It is worth noting that lower and mid-ranking ‘Ajami mullahs officiate as preachers during Muharram and other special occasions in Iranian-influenced mosques and husseiniyyas in Lebanon. Speaking Arabic in an Iraqi dialect, which many Lebanese Shi‘a consider to be most authentic and appropriate for these occasions, these ‘Ajami mullahs also stand for Iranian interests in the Arab world for many Lebanese Shi‘a.
For their part, ‘Ajamis and other Iraqi Shi‘is feel a certain moral superiority over Lebanese Shi‘a. One ‘Ajami woman recalled her shock, upon arriving in Lebanon in the 1960s, at being confronted with so many “ignorant” Shi‘a. A Lebanese Shi‘i woman, knowing that this ‘Ajami woman had come from Karbala’, asked her to teach her a bit about “Muhammad and Fatima.” The ‘Ajami woman was taken aback at the disrespect this Lebanese woman showed for the Prophet and his family, not using honorifics, but speaking “as if the Prophet Muhammad and Fatima al-Zahra’ were her next-door neighbors!”
Believing that their rituals and beliefs are more authentic than those of Lebanese, because, as they put it, Iraqis “have drunk the water of Karbala’,” Iraqi Shi‘is are doubly disappointed by what they view as the lack of respect and attention from Lebanese parties and institutions. De facto, the social and charitable organizations of Hizballah or the party’s former spiritual head Sayyid Muhammad Hussein Fadlallah are open only to those who follow the party line or are the followers (muqallids) of Fadlallah. In the eyes of many ‘Ajamis and other Iraqi Shi‘a, while their Lebanese co-religionists speak of pan-Shi‘i solidarity, in reality there is no concern for the plight of Iraqi Shi‘is resident in Lebanon. The Iraqis mainly consider Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani their marja’, the learned cleric from whom they accept guidance on spiritual and other matters, but they receive only modest monetary and in-kind support from Sistani’s office in Beirut. Sistani does not maintain schools and hospitals in Beirut, and his followers can make use neither of Hizballah’s facilities nor of Fadlallah’s. One ‘Ajami woman whose husband urgently needed an operation recalls how she went to Fadlallah’s office only to be rebuffed empty-handed, even though she saw his attaché “holding bundles of $100 bills in his hands on a Friday afternoon.” Her husband eventually died.
Faced with these difficulties, ‘Ajamis and other Iraqis in Lebanon have built their own social networks, of which the West Beirut husseiniyya is one locus. Commemorations of the birthdays of the Prophet Muhammad and members of his family take place here, as do celebrations of weddings. Along with the institutionalized meetings at the husseiniyya, which they share with Lebanese and Iranians, ‘Ajami women meet on a regular basis in the home of one of their number for Qur’an readings and commemorative performances.
Another important institution for ‘Ajamis is a tiny restaurant in Bir al-‘Abid, a heavily Lebanese Shi‘i neighborhood in the southern suburbs of Beirut. The owner is an ‘Ajami woman who had lived in Karbala’ for 18 years before being expelled in 1981. While she caters for the husseiniyya, the Iranian Cultural Center in Beirut and other Shi‘i-run institutions, she considers her main work in the restaurant and the mission of her life to be helping the Iraqi Shi‘i poor. In a way, her establishment functions as a one-person NGO, a multi-purpose social and ritual center.
It is a place where old clothes are collected to be distributed among the disadvantaged, whose grievances are regularly given a hearing, and money for relatives still in Iraq is collected. She also accepts monetary contributions, which she then doles out according to her own assessment of recipients’ needs. She is known for matchmaking between Iraqi Shi‘i men and Lebanese Shi‘i women, an undesirable arrangement for many Lebanese families, as according to Lebanese law neither the husband nor the children of such marriages will be eligible for Lebanese citizenship. The restaurant is a regular meeting point for many ‘Ajamis and other Iraqi Shi‘a.
‘Ajamis’ Shi‘i identity, precisely Saddam’s justification for their figurative and literal expulsion from “Arab” Iraq, is for them the proof of their Iraqiness. Iraq, for the ‘Ajamis, is another way to refer to the chief holy sites of Shi‘ism. In their eyes, as well, being Iraqi gives them a privileged position in the Shi‘i world. Many Iraqi Shi‘a I met compared pre-invasion Iraqi society positively to the multi-confessional society of Lebanon, pointing to Sunni-Shi‘i intermarriage as an example of how everyday sectarian differences in Iraq are much less evident. They blamed Saddam Hussein’s regime for sowing sectarian and ethnic dissension. The ways in which ‘Ajamis have created an Iraqi identity oppose the dominant trend in Saddam’s Iraq to define the country as exclusively Arab. The example of ‘Ajami Iraqis shows, in fact, how ethnic categories such as Arab or Persian are categories of political practice and are not necessarily useful as analytical tools.