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Bahrain: Celebrating the Imam Al-Mahdi’s birth

In the middle of the Islamic month of Sha’aban, the month before Ramadan, festivities take place all over Bahrain celebrating the date of Imam Al Mahdi’s birth. The occasion is called Nasfa [Ar], and it is not just a Shiite religious feast, but an event celebrated by Bahrainis of all communities.

The Twelver Shi’a believe that the Imam Al Mahdi is the twelfth Imam and the ultimate saviour of humankind; they believe he is currently in hiding or occultation and will one day return to bring justice to the world. Rayyash marks the Imam Al Mahdi’s birth date:

تصادف هذه الليلة مولد منقذ البشرية وصاحب العصر والزمان الامام المهدي المنتظر عجل الله فرجه الشريف وتمر هذه الذكرى ونحن اصبحنا اليوم أحوج من أي وقت مضى لهذه الطلعة البهية بعد ان إنتشر الظلم والجور في انحاء المعمورة فعجل سيدي ومولاي ضهورك لتنشر العدل والقسط في زمن قل فيه العدل
Tonight coincides with the birth of the saviour of humankind, the awaited Imam Al Mahdi (may God hasten His return). This occasion comes at a time when we need His reappearance, more than any time before, after injustice made its way into this world. I am looking forward to Your re-emergence to spread justice at a time in which there is so little.

‘Nasfa’ comes from the word for ‘half’, and it is similar to the festival which takes place halfway through Ramadan called Girgaoun (in fact many people call this month’s festival Girgaoun, too). Children visit houses in the neighbourhood wearing traditional outfits, and are given sweets and money. One blogger, Ali, believes that something has changed in recent years, though:

ساعات يقولون ليي ، تتكلم عن قبل كأنك شايب ، كم عمرك اللي تقول جدي !
فعلاً أتكلم عن قبل لأن فعلاً شهدت تغير واضح في عدة أشياء ، أعني تغير ملحوظ بحيث يقارن الوضع اليوم بالوضع قبل 10 سنوات ..
من ملاحظاتي من جولة سريعة في ليلة النصف من شعبان ، أن نسبة كبيرة من الأطفال بصحبة الخادمات بدلاً عن الأمهات أو الأخوات .. الخ حسب ما جرت عليه العادة ..
فيما سبق كانت الليلة فرحة للصغار و فرصة للتواصل بين الكبار ، و مع كل زيارة لأي بيت ، نسمع عبارات الترحيب و السؤال (شخبارش ؟ شخبار أمش ؟ (مع إنشاد الأطفال و عبارات الشكر بعد حصولهم على الحلويات و ما شابه . ما الذي نسمعه الآن ؟
Sometime I am told, ‘You speak about the past as if you are an old man – how old are you to talk like this?’
It’s true that I speak about the past, because I really have witnessed a clear change in a number of matters; I mean a noticeable change, if you compare the situation today to that of 10 years ago.
One thing I noticed on my quick tour around on the night of the Nasfa was that a large proportion of children were accompanied by housemaids instead of their mothers, sisters and so on, as used to be the case.
Previously it was a night of joy for children and an opportunity for the adults to catch up. With every visit to a house you would hear greetings and the questions ‘How are you? How is your mother?’ along with the children’s singing and their expressions of thanks after they had been given sweets and the like. But what do we hear today?
هدرة “بربرة” الخدم بلغتهم ، وويا الجهال اذا عطيتهم شئ قالوا : بـــس هـــذا ؟
نعم البيوت تتفاوت في ما تعطيه و لكن الأساس في فكرة التوزيع هي التبرك و المشاركة في الفرحة و ما شابه ، لكن أرى أن الأطفال حالياً لا يقنعون بأي شئ .. سابقاً كان البعض يتحايل بطريقة (عطيني حقي و حق أخويي و حق ولد اختي و حق و حق… ) الآن لا ! بكل “گساية” عيون يطلبون المزيد.
الرغبة في المزيد سلوك طبيعي بلا شك ، كنا سابقاً نتداول خبر أي بيت يوزع “ربية” ، حيث ان الغالبية توزع “اربعانات أو نص” ، والربية كانت مبلغاً جيداً .. و دلالة على غنى أصحاب البيت المعين !
لكن لم نكن بهذه “الرزالة” أبداً ..
We hear the din of the housemaids babbling in their language, and alongside that, if the children get given anything they say, ‘That’s all?’
Yes, houses vary in what they give, but the principle behind distributing things is that of blessing and sharing joy. However I can see that children now are not satisfied with anything. Previously some of them would try by saying, ‘Give what is due to me, and my brother, and my cousin, and…’ But now, no! With bare-faced cheek they ask for more.
Undoubtedly the desire for more is a natural one; we used to spread the news of any house giving out 100 fils coins [approx. US 25¢] while most were only giving out 25 fils or 50 fils. One hundred fils was a decent amount – and an indication of the wealth of a certain household!
But we were never, ever this greedy…

Nasfa sweets
Photo credit:Maitham Al Mubarak

If you visit a traditional neighbourhood on the night of Nasfa you will see brightly coloured bunting and lights everywhere. Music is played, and stalls are set up to serve food to passers-by. People in cars are not forgotten; boys and men stand in the middle of the road and hand out snacks, drinks and toys to each passing car. But Ali thinks there is a negative aspect to this too:

الأمر الملاحظ الثاني هو نقاط التفتيش و السيطرة ، عفواً التوزيع ..
حيث تقطع الشوارع الى مقاطع فيما بينها يقف شخص أو أكثر لتوزيع المعلبات و الحلويات و بعض الوجبات ..
فكرة طيبة بلا شك ، لكن بطبيعتي أرفض فكرة الموضات و المنافسة ، كون “بيت حجي فلان” يوزعون لازم احنا نوزع ؟ نوع من الهرار ..
قد يتضايق البعض من الازدحام أيضاً لكن سعة الصدر مطلوبة في هذه المناسبات السعيدة .. فلا أحد يود الجلوس في ركن من منزله و العالم تحتفل في الخارج ..
The second thing I noticed were the checkpoints and positions for controlling – excuse me, for distributing…
Where the streets cross each other, one person or more will stand handing out cans of soft drink, sweets and some snacks. This is no doubt a good idea, but as is my nature, I reject the idea of fashion and competition. Does the fact that Hajji So-and-so’s household is handing out things mean that we have to? It’s a kind of nonsense…
Also, some may get annoyed at how crowded things get, but patience is required on such happy occasions. No one wants to sit in a corner of his home while the world is celebrating outside…

For bloggers’ reports on Nasfa last year, see here.

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