The Politics of Arbaeen: Transcending Militarized Urbanism in Iraq’s Shrine Cities

Alex Shams, University of Chicago

 

“As we got closer to Karbala,” Zaynab explained, her voice tense with emotion, “the streets were so filled the van couldn’t move. They wanted to drop us at the shrine, but the crowds were so large that we got out on the road. We walked the 15 kilometers to the center, surrounded by thousands of Iraqis. On either side, there were people pouring tea and passing out snacks. It was incredible.” Zaynab is a 72-year-old Iranian woman who visited Iraq on pilgrimage in spring 2003, soon after the US invasion.[1] Unintentionally, she witnessed the first open Arbaeen walking pilgrimage after decades in which it was restricted under Ba’athist rule.[2] The commemoration of Arbaeen has grown immensely since, attracting upwards of 20 million pilgrims from across Iraq, Iran, Pakistan, Afghanistan, India, Lebanon, and beyond as millions of Iraqis provide food, drink, and lodging free of charge.[3] For Zaynab, as for the approximately 3–5 million Iranians who today join yearly, Arbaeen is “another world,” a temporary urbanism that offers visions of an alternative social order in which horizontal relations of care take precedence. She noted:

When you’re on Arbaeen, there’s no difference between rich and poor. Everyone is equal. It’s like you’ve entered another world without differences. Everyone is concentrated on the path. For days, no one takes any money out of their pockets to pay for anything; it’s all free. The route is full of people handing out things; there’s so many, there’s not an inch of space between them.

When Zaynab first visited, she encountered Iraqis walking freely toward Karbala. Yet to come were the attacks, civil war, and violence of occupation that would engulf Iraq, including repeated bombings targeting shrines and pilgrims. Iraq’s shrine cities—Karbala, Najaf, al-Kadhimiya, and Samarra—would be reshaped into urban fortresses surrounded by blast walls and checkpoints. These changes were wrought by the urban planning policies enacted under US occupation (2003–2011) and later by Iran’s Setad organization (2004 to the present) that coordinated the expansion of shrines with Iraqi authorities. In the name of countering “terror,” both the United States and Iran militarized Iraq’s urban landscape and embedded sectarian divisions into the built environment. But Arbaeen, a largely grassroots event organized collectively by thousands of local religious associations, has evaded these state projects, offering a glimpse of another, albeit temporary, reality that begins exactly where the shrines’ concrete walls end. While narratives of Iraq since 2003 have focused on fears of violence, at Arbaeen a different vision emerges.

In this essay, I examine the reshaping of Iraq’s shrine cities since 2003, focusing on three actors: the US military occupation, the Iranian state, and Arbaeen pilgrims. I argue that two distinct urbanisms emerged. First, I look at how US and Iranian state actors reshaped Iraqi cities through security urbanism based on a “counterterror” imaginary, naturalizing sectarian fear.[4] I then examine Arbaeen’s modern evolution, arguing that it has evolved from a form of political protest under the Ba’athist regime to a temporary urban sphere and the largest transnational Shia Muslim public space. I analyze these urbanisms from the perspective of Iranian, South Asian, and Iraqi pilgrims, locals, and planners as well as Ba’athist and British colonial archives.

War on Terror Urbanism

The development of Iraq’s holy cities—Najaf, Karbala, Samarra, and al-Kadhimiya—is tied to the shrines at their heart, which for centuries have attracted pilgrims, merchants, and students. In the 1800s, their populations were a cosmopolitan mix of Persians, South Asians, Arabs, and Turks, and their charitable endowments, called waqf, were sustained by a transregional Shia Muslim network looking more to Lucknow, the Deccan, and Tehran than to Istanbul.[5] British colonization besieged these connections, as borders became more rigid and led to expulsions of those deemed non-local according to emergent definitions of Iraqi identity. This process continued after independence, undermining the shrine cities’ prosperity, culminating in the Ba’athist regime’s mass deportations of Iraqis suspected of having Persian heritage. At Arbaeen in 1969, hundreds of thousands were expelled to Iran—representing 6 percent of Iraq’s population.[6] More were deported throughout the 1970s and 1980s.[7]

Under Saddam Hussein, state suspicion targeted both shrines and their pilgrims.[8] In 1977–1979, as the state increasingly repressed independent social organizing, Iraqis turned Muharram commemorations into protest spaces, which in turn triggered bans on Shia Muslim rituals. During the 1991 uprising, shrine courtyards hosted large protests, acting as open public spaces. Authorities directly attacked them, and subsequently bulldozed large sections of Karbala and Najaf’s historic cities, ostensibly to ease overcrowding but more likely to facilitate military access.[9] Authorities feared grassroots walking pilgrimages like Arbaeen because they viewed them as impossible to fully control.[10] They allowed pilgrims to drive to shrines but conducted education campaigns warning Iraqis against walking, labelling the practice as heretical, “backwards,” and a “Persian innovation” (bid’a farsiya).[11] Iraqis defied authorities by avoiding checkpoints and walking on small paths along the Euphrates, while thousands more opened their doors to pilgrims, risking imprisonment, torture, and forced conscription if caught. Iraqis turned pilgrimages into acts of grassroots solidarity. In 1995, thousands left Baghdad’s Shia suburbs to walk to the shrine in Samarra, where locals, overwhelmingly Sunni, met them with food and drink.[12] Shia rituals became sites to defy repression by building networks of friendship across Iraqi society. This mirrored events during the 1919–1920 Iraqi uprising against British rule, when religious rituals became sites of pan-Iraqi solidarity against colonial domination.[13]

In 2003, a US-led coalition invaded Iraq and overthrew Saddam Hussein. The military occupation soon provoked revolt. The coalition responded with heavy-handed tactics that did not spare shrine cities. In 2004, US forces responded to an uprising in Najaf by assaulting Wadi al-Salaam, the largest cemetery in the world, and Imam Ali’s shrine, where insurgents took refuge.[14] As the occupation dragged on, the United States became an urban planner, enveloping Iraq’s cities and shrines in checkpoints and walls. Concrete T-walls—often between a dozen to 20 feet high and weighing thousands of pounds—played a central role in remaking Iraqi cities.[15] Originally developed and deployed on a grand scale by Israel’s military, they were initially imported from the United States, creating hundreds of millions of dollars for concrete companies and contractors.[16] These concrete walls dramatically reshaped Iraqi cities, creating a pedestrian-hostile geography of roadblocks that limited mobility and produced massive traffic jams. Alongside tanks and bullets, the urban planning of the War on Terror produced a thriving political economy—and in the process, converted shrine cities into militarized fortresses.[17]

 

A US military helicopter fires into Wadi al-Salaam cemetery in Najaf, Iraq in 2004.

The golden dome of the shrine of Imam Ali can be seen in the background (Public Domain).

Simultaneously, US authorities plotted out Iraq’s self-governance, producing a political system organized not around equal citizenship but sectarian identity.[18] Similar to colonial-era governance such as the French constitution for Lebanon, Iraq’s political system—first instituted in 2005—mandated that Iraqis vote according to sectarian identity. While US administrators imagined they were organizing society based on already-established Iraqi identities, by making political participation dependent on sect they were institutionalizing and crystallizing it to an unprecedented degree.

At the same time, Wahhabi-inspired groups like al-Qaeda launched attacks against Shia Muslim holy sites and pilgrims. These triggered reprisals by Shia Muslim outfits against Sunni civilians, which escalated into sectarian civil war. Military authorities began using T-walls to divide Iraqi cities in the name of security.[19] Militias were using violence to divide Iraqis based on religious identity; the military took the process a step further, making sectarianism concrete, literally etching it into the urban landscape. These walls provoked protests by Iraqis. Many feared that by turning vague lines into fixed borders, the United States was delineating where militias should engage in ethnic cleansing. In a 2008 march, protestors decried plans to “turn the city into a big prison,” opposing a wall that would surround the neighborhood of al-Adhamiya, located immediately beside the shrine neighborhood of al-Kadhimiya.[20] One demonstrator compared it to Israel’s wall in the Palestinian West Bank. The walls, however, continued to go up, with US military authorities likening the walled enclaves to “gated communities.”[21] The walls acted as a materialization of potential threats, indicating the constant need to be afraid of those beyond them, producing “security affects” that materialized a horizon of forever conflict and division.[22] As anthropologist Kali Rubaii notes, “Iraq became an archipelago of T-walled enclaves, which now often appear more and more as if they offer protection from the world they have produced,” a physical manifestation of “counterterror” and sectarian security logic.[23]

The Iranian Setad-e Bazsazy-e Atabat Aliyat (Headquarters for the Reconstruction of the Exalted Thresholds, henceforth, Setad) emerged in this context. In the 2000s, as Iranian pilgrims poured across the border, they encountered scenes of neglect and warfare. Influential voices called for Iranians to aid their “brotherly” nation. Among them was General Qassem Soleimani, who was present during the US assault on Najaf and credited the scenes he witnessed for spurring him to establish Setad.[24] Originally focused on architectural renovation, Setad brought experts from Iran to rebuild the shrines. The influx of funds and expertise was welcomed by the Iraqi shrine authorities. Setad began to focus on expanding the shrines, acquiring vast swathes of the shrine cities. Over time, projects became increasingly ambitious: the Najaf shrine’s footprint expanded to 22 times its previous size, while Imam Hussein’s shrine in Karbala expanded 14 times. They grew larger and more luxurious, outfitted with air conditioning and 24-hour electricity, even as infrastructure failed across Iraq. Although these projects spurred an economic boom, the lack of participatory planning led to complaints against Setad, which works almost exclusively with Iranian companies, especially those linked to the Revolutionary Guards. In the multi-billion-dollar project to expand the Najaf shrine’s central plaza, for example, 85 percent of profits reportedly returned to Iran.[25] These contributed to a perception among Iraqis that Iran was “taking over,” especially as Iranian security apparatuses used Setad to expand their influence.

These projects went hand-in-hand with continued security construction. T-walls reshaped the urban experience, producing a sense of threat reverberating long after the bombings ceased. This situation is most striking in Samarra, north of Baghdad. After several shrine bombings, the US military created a walled-off path for pilgrims leading to the shrine at Samarra’s heart. In the process they eliminated the tourist bazaar, removing the main source of income for many local residents. After the United States left, the walls remained, adopted by Iraqi and Iranian actors overseeing the shrine.[26]The walls represented  a transfer of the infrastructural practices and imaginaries of US counterterror urbanism, cultivating a shared and tacit “common sense” of how to understand Iraqi society.[27] When I visited in 2018, pilgrims entered through a walled corridor, overlooked by deserted buildings cleared of residents. They walked through a militarized bunker, in fear of those behind the wall. Indeed, the sense of threat is repeatedly stressed in the stories of pilgrims to Samarra, even in the absence of present danger; I heard religious preachers in Iran point to the experience of visiting Samarra as a way for pilgrims to meaningfully understand and feel the persecution faced centuries ago by the Prophet’s family. Pointing to the securitized architecture, parallels are drawn between pilgrims and the Imams buried at the shrine, both braving danger amidst ghuraba (strangers). The shrine was long a symbol of Samarra’s identity, the keys entrusted to a local family.[28] But the wall now deems local residents, who are overwhelmingly Sunni, as outsiders, producing sectarian division spatially and economically.

Pilgrims walk in the passageway through the heart of Samarra toward the shrine.

The buildings visible over the walls are emptied of residents. (Photo: Alex Shams).

General Soleimani once described Setad as having “rescued” the shrine from ghorbat, or estrangement. Today it has been brilliantly rebuilt, its golden dome brighter than before. But standing in the walled corridor, it feels that the shrine’s ghorbat has become permanent, as Samarra’s people have become strangers, ghuraba, in their own city. Once a symbol of coexistence—a Shia shrine protected by Sunni locals whose economy catered to Shia pilgrims—it is today an icon of division. The urban policies of the US War on Terror’s forever war have been adopted by Iranian authorities, who frame regional wars as “Defense of the Shrines,” a never-ending conflict protecting Shia Muslims from unknown threats, as well as by local militias. They view Iraq as a battleground, turning cities and holy sites into bunkers whose architecture justifies endless military intervention.

Posters of “Defenders of the Shrine,” Iranians who died fighting in

regional conflicts, on a street in Tehran, 2017. (Photo: Alex Shams)

Heterogeneous Spaces

But something remarkable happens on the road between Iraq’s two most important shrines: a grassroots pilgrimage that is today the largest yearly gathering on Earth. During Arbaeen, 25 million people gather to walk from Imam Ali shrine in Najaf to Imam Hussein’s shrine in Karbala, greeted by millions along the way providing everything free of charge. Iraqis line the road passing out refreshments from simple structures called mowkeb. In the mornings they invite pilgrims to bread, eggs, and tea; in the afternoon, cauldrons of stew followed by sweet Iraqi coffee; and in the evenings, dates covered in tahini and coconut flakes or vermicelli bathed in condensed milk. “Ya zowar! Sharakou mn el tabarouat! Mowafageen inshallah! Mansoureen!” they yell, smiling to an unceasing crowd slowly drifting forward. “Pilgrims! Take your share of these offerings! You will be successful, God willing, you will be victorious!” The joy is palpable as a social dynamic emerges that is very different from the state-dominated shrines at its edges.

Arbaeen is one of the great untold stories of post-invasion Iraq. Southern and central Iraq empty out yearly as nearly half the country takes part. “About two weeks before, me and all my friends from the local husseiniya travel to our mowkeb on the Najaf-Karbala road,” Haydar, originally from Hilla, explained to me during an interview.[29] Husseiniya are local associations focused on Muharram commemorations. They collect donations during the year to fund the mowkeb, which line hundreds of miles around Karbala, but only come alive at Arbaeen. While the Iraqi state provides security, it is absent from the pilgrimage itself; the mowkeb are Arbaeen’s central organizers.

Arbaeen is a temporary reorganization of society on a mass scale, centering a radical equality removed from US and Iranian state counterterror and economic logics. It is no wonder people call it “another world.” Arbaeen resembles a Bakhtinian “carnival” in the way hierarchies collapse to allow free and open communication between people from near and far, and how young people, women and men alike, enjoy social freedoms.[30] Although Arbaeen marks a mourning holiday, the mood is joyful. Along the way, connections are formed across social and geographic boundaries. Every act of friendship acquires greater meaning in the pilgrimage as it is imbued with thawab, religious merit.[31]

Pilgrims walk along the Arbaeen route (Photo: Alex Shams).

As Iraq has become increasingly repressive, Arbaeen offers possibilities for expression of dissent. Amidst recurring protests in 2018–2022, in which security forces killed hundreds, protestors advertised their beliefs during the pilgrimage. In 2019, protestors carried signs reading “Today I am a pilgrim, tomorrow a revolutionary,” while others carried Zulfiqars and crosses, expressing their rejection of sectarian politics.

An Iraqi pilgrim holds a sign in solidarity with protests in Basra along with a cross and Zulfiqar, symbolizing inter-religious unity, 2018. (Photo: Alex Shams)

Arbaeen provides a space for activists to meet free of surveillance. It is also revolutionary in the material realities it produces. The necessity of cooking food for thousands means that Iraqi mowkeb are well-trained in the art of feeding crowds and possess the tools to do so. When protestors demanding an end to the sectarian political system occupied Baghdad’s major squares, their presence required a constant supply of food. The massive woks and pots used during Arbaeen were re-used, facilitating the emergence of spaces of revolution in Iraq’s capital.

Preparing kebab and socializing at an Arbaeen mowkeb.

(Photo: Alex Shams)

Arbaeen’s significance is not limited to Iraq; it has emerged as a transnational Shia Muslim space for new forms of belonging and subjectivity. Posters highlight political prisoners in countries as diverse as Azerbaijan, Nigeria, Turkey, and Saudi Arabia. Since 2010, yearly Iranian attendance has soared from around 40,000 to nearly 5 million.[32] For Iranians, Arbaeen is a religious space free from their own government’s meddling. Some carry portraits of alternative religious leaders, such as Ayatollahs Sistani and Shirazi, in simple but powerful expressions challenging Iran’s ruling ideology, based on the supremacy of Ayatollah Khamenei. It has provided a space for bridging tensions between Iranians and Iraqis, who were on opposite sides of the 8-year-long Iran-Iraq War. And for Shia Muslims from countries where they face persecution, Arbaeen represents a space of visibility and solidarity like no other.

Arbaeen’s growth has attracted attention from states and militias. Today, Iran’s government sponsors hundreds of mowkeband Iraqi Shia militia actors try to steer it into a symbol of sectarian identity. Arbaeen’s evolution as a Shia transnational event could potentially feed into these politics, reflecting the context of its emergence: military occupation, sectarian governance, and civil war. But because it is grassroots and temporary, no actor has managed to dominate Arbaeen. In contrast to the quest for neat division and perfect renovation that guide US and Iranian urban policies, it is precisely Arbaeen’s messiness that creates a space of momentary possibility in which friendship can disrupt sectarianism’s securitized logics.[33]

Recently, non-Shia Iraqis have increasingly taken part. In 2018, convoys of Christian Iraqis participated holding large crosses. They were welcomed not only by fellow pilgrims but also at Imam Hussein’s shrine, where their arrival was enthusiastically announced over loudspeakers. For non-Shias, participation is an act of faith in the possibility of a non-sectarian future through “embodied friendship” in the present.[34] In a society where sectarian difference has been instituted and violently policed for two decades—and in which pilgrims are still targeted by bombings—their presence disrupts dynamics of power that depend on neat sectarian categorization. Arbaeen may be a Shia pilgrimage, but the infrastructure it creates is a heterogenous space, allowing for complicity and dissent between those who refute sectarian logics, reminiscent of when Samarra’s residents welcomed those taking part in illegal pilgrimage under Ba’athist rule.[35]Fostering an egalitarian spirit characterized by horizontal relations of care, Arbaeen creates possibilities of solidarity.

 

A group of Iraqi Christian pilgrims hold a cross aloft as they approach

 Imam Hussein’s shrine during Arbaeen in 2018. (Photo: Alex Shams)

In a country, region, and world of ever-expanding walls, where shrines have become bunkers and the future has become a space of terror rather than hope, it is precisely these temporary spaces that allow us to dream of alternatives. Zaynab, the pilgrim whose words opened this article, explained:

When you leave and return to your life, you long for Arbaeen. You don’t understand why the whole world can’t be like that. There are 90-year-olds walking, children running. People from all over the world, Muslims and Christians. It’s impossible to describe. You have to see it for yourself.

 

 

An Iraqi pilgrim walking with a sign that reads:

“Today I am a pilgrim, tomorrow I am a revolutionary.”

(Photo circulated anonymously through the internet)

 

[1] Interview. Conducted by Alex Shams. Oct. 11, 2018. Tehran, Iran.

[2] Arbaeen marks the 40th day after the Ashura holiday, which commemorates the Battle of Karbala in 680 AD when Imam Hussein and other members of the Prophet Muhammad’s family were killed by forces loyal to the Caliph Yazid. Although marked as a tragic event by all Muslims, it is particularly important for Shia Muslims, the vast majority of Arbaeen pilgrims.

[3] Iraqis, who are about 80–90 percent of the pilgrims taking part, walk from wherever they are toward Karbala. Non-Iraqis, for the most part, arrive in Najaf and from there walk to Karbala, which usually takes about five days.

[4] For more on “security urbanism” see: Glück, Zoltán. “Security Urbanism and the Counterterror State in Kenya.” Spaces of Security: Ethnographies of Securityscapes, Surveillance, and Control, edited by Setha Low and Mark Maguire. New York: New York University Press, 2019.

[5] For more on the politics of pilgrimage in Iraq’s shrine cities in the 19th and 20th centuries see: Cole, Juan. Sacred Space and Holy War: The Politics, Culture and History of Shi’ite Islam. London: I.B. Tauris, 2002; Jabar, Faleh. The Shiʻite Movement in Iraq. London: Saqi, 2003; Nakash, Yitzhak. The Shiʻis of Iraq. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1994; and Shams, Alex. “From Guests of the Imam to Unwanted Foreigners: The Politics of South Asian Pilgrimage to Iran in the Twentieth Century,” Middle Eastern Studies 57:4 (2021): pp. 581–605.

[6] Hamdan, Faraj Hattab. “The Development of Iraqi Shi’a Mourning Rituals in Modern Iraq: The ‘Ashura Rituals and Visitation of Al-Arb’ain.” Arizona State University, ProQuest Dissertations Publishing, 2012: pp. 74.

[7] It is difficult to estimate how many people were affected by these deportations. Beside the 1969 deportation, there were numerous episodes of mass deportation in the 1970s and 1980s, with the majority of affected individuals being forced across the border to Iran.

[8] This historical sketch is based on research in the Ba’ath Party Records at the Hoover Institute as well as interviews with Iraqis. For a more general overview, see: Fahd al-Qaisi, Muhammad and Ali Khadr al-Akili. “Mawqef al Solta al Hakemah man Ziyarat al Arba`in 1968–2003 [The Position of the Ruling Authorities on the Arbaeen Pilgrimage, 1968–2003],” Karbala Center for Studies and Research, 2019: pp. 75–98; Hamdan, Faraj Hattab. “The Development of Iraqi Shi’a Mourning Rituals in Modern Iraq: The ‘Ashura Rituals and Visitation of Al-Arb’ain.” Arizona State University, ProQuest Dissertations Publishing, 2012, as well as Alshamary, Marsin R. “Prophets and Priests: Religious Leaders and Protest in Iraq.” Massachusetts Institute of Technology, 2020.

[9] Zubaida, Sami. Islam, the People and the State: Political Ideas and Movements in the Middle East. I. B. Tauris, 2010: p. 93.

[10] Authorities devoted huge amounts of time and energy to policing the streets of Shia-majority regions during the Ashura ritual season. In 1995, for example, authorities in Dhi Qar and Basra provinces assigned 25 percent of the total police force to be present on the street during Muharram 1–6, 50 percent during Muharram 7–8, and 100 percent during Muharram 9–11, indicating the high level of threat they perceived from the street processions. Hizb al-Baʿth al-ʿArabi al-ʾIshtiraki. Hizb al-Baʿth al-ʿArabi al-ʾIshtiraki [in Iraq] Records, 1968–2003. Baʿath Arab Socialist Party Regional Command Collection (BRCC). Boxfiles Dataset. Hoover Institution Archives. Box: 3134.  01_3134_0002_0325.

[11] BRCC, Letter from the Ba’ath Party: Baghdad al-Karkh Section, Number- 002/2, 5/1997, To: Baghdad al-Karkh Section Branch Leaders. Box: 3134, 01_3134_0002_0008.

[12] BRCC, Box: 3134, 01_3134_0002_0125.

[13] Batatu, Hanna. Old Social Classes and the Revolutionary Movements of Iraq: A Study of Iraq’s Old Landed and Commercial Classes and of Its Communists, Baʻthists, and Free Officers. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1978: p. 23.

[14] For detailed analysis of the uprising from the perspective of the US military, see: Wright, Donald P. and Timothy R. Reese, The United States Army in Operation Iraqi Freedom, May 2003-January 2005: On point II: Transition to the New Campaign. US Army Combined Arms Center, 2008: pp. 39–41, 323–337. For a broader analysis of the rise and fall of Sadr’s Mehdi Army, see: Krohley, Nicholas. The Death of the Mehdi Army: The Rise, Fall, and Revival of Iraq’s Most Powerful Militia. London: Hurst and Company, 2015.

[15] Different walls have different names according to their sizes, each named after different US states such as Texas, Colorado, and Alaska. In Iran today, concrete blast walls are referred to in Persian as “New Jersey.” See Spencer, John. “The Most Effective Weapon on the Modern Battlefield Is Concrete.” Modern War Institute, United States Military Academy West Point, Feb. 12, 2018, https://mwi.usma.edu/effective-weapon-modern-battlefield-concrete/.

[16] Rubaii, Kali. “’Concrete Soldiers:’ T-walls and Coercive Landscaping in Iraq.” International Journal of Middle East Studies 54 (2022): pp. 357–362.

[17] For an overview of concrete barriers as part of US military strategy in Iraq, see: Sharp, Deen, “Concretising Conflict,” The Journal of Architecture 27/1 (2022): pp. 6–12.

[18] Haddad, Fanar. Sectarianism in Iraq: Antagonistic Visions of Unity. New York: Columbia University Press, 2011: pp. 150–151.

[19] Izady, Michael M. “Urban Unplanning: How Violence, Walls, and Segregation Destroyed the Urban Fabric of Baghdad.” Journal of Planning History 19/1 (2019): pp. 60–61.

[20] Rubin, Alissa J. “Outcry Over Wall Shows Depth of Iraqi Resentment,” New York Times, April 23, 2007. https://www.nytimes.com/2007/04/23/world/middleeast/23cnd-Iraq.html.

[21] Yates, Dean. “Baghdad Wall Sparks Confusion, Divisions in Iraq.” Reuters, April 25, 2007. https://www.reuters.com/article/us-iraq-wall-idUKL2317282720070425.

[22] Masco, Joseph. The Theater of Operations: National Security Affect from the Cold War to the War on Terror. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2014.

[23] Rubaii, Kali. “‘Concrete Soldiers,’” 360.

[24] “Ravayat-e Bonyangozar-e Setad-e Bazsazy-e Atabat-e Aliyat Az Arezouyesh Baraye Towse’eh-ye Haram-e Samarra [The Tale of the Founder of the Headquarters for the Reconstruction of the Exalted Thresholds About His Wish for the Expansion of the Shrine of Samarra].” Setad-e Towse’eh Va Bazsazy-e Atabat Aliyat, Jan. 7, 2020, https://atabat.org/fa/news/497/روایت-بنیان%E2%80%8Cگذار-ستاد-بازسازی-عتبات-از-آرزویش-برای-توسعه-حرم-سامراء-فیلم.

[25] International Quran News Agency. “Mantegh-e Towse’eh va Bazsazy dar Atabat: Sud-e Eqtesadi ya Raf’-e Niyaz-e Za’er [The Logic of Expansion and Renovation of the Threshholds; Economic Profit or Addressing Pilgrims’ Needs,” Feb. 9, 2020. https://iqna.ir/fa/news/3783100/منطق-توسعه-و-بازسازی-در-عتبات-سود-اقتصادی-یا-رفع-نیاز-زائر

[26] This includes Iraqi non-state actors as well, including militias like Saraya al-Salam.

[27] Chu, Julie. “When Infrastructures Attack: The Workings of Disrepair in China.” American Ethnologist 14/2 (2014): pp. 351–367. See also Larkin, Brian. “The Politics and Poetics of Infrastructure,” Annual Review of Anthropology 42 (2013): pp. 327–343.

[28] Jiyad, Sajad. “Samarra: Shi‘i Heritage and Culture.” In The Shiʻa of Samarra: The Heritage and Politics of a Community in Iraq. London: I. B. Tauris, 2012.

[29] Interview. Conducted by Alex Shams. Nov. 30, 2019. Tehran, Iran.

[30] Bakhtin, Mikhail. Rabelais and His World. Trans. by Helene Iswolsky. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1984, pp. 7–8, 65–66, 92.

[31] On the political possibilities of friendship see Derrida, Jacques. The Politics of Friendship. Trans. by George Collins. Verso, 2020.

[32] For more on Iranian participation in Arbaeen see Mazaheri, Mohsen Hessam. “Arbaeen Irani [Iranian Arbaeen]. In Piadehravi-ye Arbaeen[“The Walking Pilgrimage of Arbaeen”], edited by Mazaheri, Mohsen Hessam, Nashr-e Arma: Tehran, 2018.

[33] One can think of this space of possibility as being part of the “surrounds,” a space that creates the possibility of new propositions and produces “the rehearsal of experimental ways of living that circumvent debilitating extraction, surveillance, and capture—for the time being.” See: Simone, AbdouMaliq. The Surrounds: Urban Life Within and Beyond Capture. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2022, p. 6.

[34] I draw on Hussein Ali Agrama’s analysis of inter-sectarian fasting between Christians and Muslims in Egypt to think about how friendship can disrupt power in quotidian ways. Agrama, Hussein Ali. “Friendship and Time in the Work of Talal Asad.” Religion and Society 11 (2020): pp. 16–18.

[35] This can also occur for transnational Shia visitors. In Iraq, many South Asian pilgrims visit the town of al-Kifl, which is located smack in the middle of Karbala and Najaf—and is historically Iraq’s most important Jewish pilgrimage site, with a synagogue adorned in Hebrew calligraphy sitting at the heart of the mosque. Iraqi custodians do not hide this fact, though it is unclear if tour guides highlight it. Shams, Alex. “A Jewish Shrine inside a Mosque: The History of Ezekiel’s Tomb in Iraq.” Ajam Media Collective, March 3, 2019. https://ajammc.com/2019/03/03/ezekiels-tomb-jewish-iraq-muslim/.