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Dying Art of Karbala's Shroud-Makers

Sales of mass-produced stenciled coverings outstrip traditional, hand-inscribed ones.
By IWPR trainee
  • Shrouds from the holy city of Karbala are prized by Shia Muslims. (Photo: Metrography)
    Shrouds from the holy city of Karbala are prized by Shia Muslims. (Photo: Metrography)

Razzaq Mustafa al-Katib inscribes holy verses on shrouds for Shia Muslims, dressing the dead for the life beyond.

Though he has done this work for decades, he says it still fills him with dread. To steady his nerves, he recites prayers from the Koran – the source for the verses he copies.

“I look at the shroud as a suit of armour that will protect the body in the grave, defending it from the worms,” he said.

Katib learnt his trade from his father, following a tradition dating back centuries in the shrine city of Karbala, south of Baghdad.

But while his verses may shield the dead, they provide scant protection from the market forces that are eating into his ancient profession.

The city’s shroud industry is increasingly relying on stencils to print verses that were once painstakingly applied by hand.

Merchants say their customers prefer the new, mass-produced shrouds because they are cheaper and can be made quickly to order. Skilled calligraphers say they are losing business as a result.

“In the past, I used to sell 20 shrouds in ten days. Now I sell ten in the same period,” said Katib, adding that the market had effectively been flooded by shrouds manufactured with the new technique.

Thousands of shrouds are manufactured in Karbala every year. Shia practice deems it holy for a body to be washed and prepared for burial in Karbala, before being interred in the nearby city of Najaf.

Both cities played a pivotal role in the history of Shia Islam and still dominate the spiritual lives of the majority of Iraqis, who are followers of the sect.

Karbala is home to the shrine of Imam Hussein, a revered Shia leader who was slain in the city in a decisive seventh-century battle.

The city’s soil is hallowed ground for the Imam’s followers and is used – occasionally with saffron – as an ingredient in the ink applied to the shrouds.

The choice of shroud can be a deeply personal affair for Shia Muslims, and need not wait until death. Many followers of the sect will buy their own shrouds to serve as a regular reminder of their own mortality, and as a spur to righteous conduct.

Many Shia customise their burial garb by choosing specific verses from the Koran, though readymade shrouds are also available in Karbala’s markets.

Hand-written shrouds can take several days to produce, while the ones stamped by stencils are usually ready in a few minutes.

The printed shrouds are cheaper too. At 7,000 Iraqi dinars (six US dollars) apiece, they cost at least half the price of a typical hand-written shroud.

High-end, hand-written shrouds, often made with saffron ink and covered entirely in Koranic verses, can take several weeks to produce and will sell for more than 100,000 Iraqi dinars (90 dollars).

Ibrahim Sayyid Zangani, the owner of a Karbala store specialising in shrouds, confirmed that the printed coverings were more popular with his customers.

Introduced in the late Nineties, the new type of shroud is only thought to have conquered the market after 2003, when demand began outstripping the supply of the old hand-written garments.

Zangani cited two factors behind this. Firstly, he said, the end of the rule of the former dictator, Saddam Hussein, led to a revival in Shia pilgrimages to Karbala. The city’s markets turned to the printed shroud to cope with the demands of thousands of pilgrims from other parts of Iraq and from neighbouring Iran.

Zangani said the makers of handmade shrouds were further over-stretched by the conflict that engulfed Iraq after the United States-led invasion in 2003.

“Many people were killed, so many more shrouds were needed,” he said. “Hand-writing could not satisfy such a high demand.”

Nevertheless, Zangani said he still made sure he stocked the hand-written shrouds, which some of his customers regarded as more authentic and accurate.

Critics of the printed shrouds say they are produced in haste and without close human supervisions, which increases the likelihood of errors. A mere slip of the stencil can alter the religious significance of the text.

Karbala residents appear to have mixed views on the subject.

“I prefer the hand-written shroud,” said Feras al-Tooma. “The printed one can contain mistakes or omissions which can change the whole meaning of a verse from the Koran.”

Saheb Musa Jafat, a shop-owner, said he too preferred the handwritten shrouds, “It is better in religious terms, because it does not contain spelling mistakes.”

However, Jumana Qasim, a housewife, said she would opt for the printed version, “Both are shrouds. The printed one can be bought anytime and it’s cheaper.”

Aqeel Jallob, a taxi driver, said he preferred the cheaper garment, “God will not look at the clothes a man is wrapped in but at his behaviour when he was alive.”

This story was produced by an IWPR-trained reporter in Karbala who did not wish to be identified.

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