Return to Seyeda (Lady) Zeinab—now secured and in protective hands
By Franklin Lamb
Seyeda Zeinab, Syria
During a meeting at the Dama Rose hotel in Damascus the other morning, this observer was briefed by ‘Abu Modar,” a reputedly battle-honed field commander of the “Death Brigade,” a unit based in the northern Syria Eskanderoun region, north of Latakia. Abu Modar explained that he personally had chosen the rather peculiar name for his outfit to symbolize the willingness of its members to die for their cause—protecting Syria.
“Before each battle or each mission I ask my God to let me die defending Syria”, he explained. “If we are involved with a joint operation with Hezbollah, who are much admired because of their honesty and trustworthiness, I lead my men to the front line and ahead of Hezbollah troops out of respect for them and because we Syrians believe that as their grateful hosts we have this duty.”
The gentleman began explaining the history of his militia, one of thousands (both pro-and anti-government) operating in Syria these troubled days. It is a history that included some of his predecessors fighting with the PLO in Beirut during the summer of 1982, but as he was relating all this, his phone rang. The conversation was not long. The caller, he informed this observer upon ringing off, was his “contact,” advising him that certain intelligence sources had received information overnight that an individual had been observed in the vicinity of Zeinab’s shrine placing a parcel of explosives into a vehicle, presumably with the intention to detonate it near her resting place. This riveted my attention, in part because this observer was scheduled by chance to join an army escort the next day and visit the historic site, located about 40 minutes south of Damascus. Nearly two months ago the government regained control of the area, but there are still some snipers around, I had been apprised by friends. Abu Modar’s specific mission was to take some of his commandos and kick in the door of the suspect’s house sometime during the night, arrest him, and turn him over to someone for interrogation. His mission struck me as simple enough and he was matter of fact in outlining his plan.
“We do this sort of mission often. This is part of our expertise, and we do it whenever we are asked by Resistance friends and Syrian authorities. It spares the army for their normal work on battlefields, and our unit is specialized, and from long experience we have acquired certain useful skills.”
I demurred when he invited me to join him, explaining I was a bit out of shape and did not want to get in the way of his men’s work or potentially hamper their operation. But he insisted, saying that I could stay in his jeep and just observe, and he doubted that I would be in any serious danger. I was tempted to accept his invitation, and agreed to his proposal to meet after lunch to finalize our plans for that night’s outing. At this point, however, I called a trusted and knowledgeable Syrian friend, who knows a lot about these matters, and she seemed exasperated I would even consider tagging along with the Death Brigade.
“Absolutely not Franklin! Khalas! (finish!) You are visiting Seyeda Zeinab bokra with the army and you are not going with anyone else!”
Frankly, I was a bit relieved by my friend’s unequivocal counsel, and my new pal from the “Death” militia (who is acquainted with her) sportively understood. An interesting anecdote was at this point related by my interpreter: that Abu Modor had laughed and claimed a badge of honor upon recently being shown YouTube videos regarding his macho, George-Patton-style exploits in Qusayr, and in villages around Qalamoun, and rebel claims that he and his brigade were “the number one pro-regime murderers in Syria.” I might also mention that the “Death” unit is part of the not-well-known-in-the-West Popular Front for the Liberation of Iskanderun (PFLI), currently fighting rebels north of Latakia, in the mountains bordering Turkey, and whose forces have also periodically spent time guarding the resting place of Zeinab.
The geographical place name “Seyeda Zeinab” can be confusing for an untutored foreigner, the reason being that it may refer to a group of five small cities in the governorate of Damascus—Al Zeyabeya, Hujayr, Husseiniya, Akraba and Babila—or, alternately, to the sacred burial place and shrine for Zeinab bint Ali, the daughter of Ali, the first Shia Imam, and his first wife Fatima. Zeinab was also the granddaughter of the Prophet Mohammad (PBUH) and the sister of Husayn and Hassan. Her shrine and pilgrimage destination are located in the small town of Seyeda (Lady) Zeinab, but given its fame, the name also refers to a wider area. As a holy shrine and place of prayer and scholarship, one imagines this place to be in the category of perhaps Qoms in Iran, and Najaf in Iraq. All three attract thousands of pilgrims and tourists, and since the area surrounding Seyeda Zeinab was liberated and essentially pacified by the Syrian Army recently, visitors are again arriving daily from countries including Yemen, Bahrain, Iraq, Iran, India, Pakistan and Lebanon, among others.
The Mayor of Seyeda Zeinab, this observer’s gracious host, is Mohammad Barakat, a Sunni engineer from Homs, roughly in his early 50’s. His staff is of mixed religious backgrounds, and, as with most Syrian citizens I have met over the past three years, was essentially blind to and uninterested in sectarian differences in existence before the current crisis. All the mayor’s staff members are working long hours these days, responding to numerous requests for post-liberation help, appeals which they try their best to accommodate with their limited available resources. My three-hour discussion with Mayor Barakat was interrupted perhaps as many as a couple of dozen times by the appearance of an aid often seeking his signature or mayoral stamp on citizen petitions covering anything from requests for food stuffs, problems with housing, or attempts to find employment with a municipal project now getting started.
In his bee hive of an office, the mayor used a pointer to highlight locations on a large wall map hanging next to his desk, the map illustrating areas where repair and construction projects are being readied. Mr. Barakat enthusiastically proclaimed, “2014 is the year we intend to start and finish area restoration work, and we take pride in the prospect that what we achieve here in Seyeda Zeinab can be a model for restoration work all over Syria that hopefully can begin soon.”
Barakat and three of his staff members accompanied this observer on an informative and inspiring tour of the Mosque and Shrine of Saeyda Zeinab. The shrine, our hosts informed us, is an example of Shia architecture, and the dome is made of pure gold. The grave of Zeinab is enclosed within a raised, crypt-like structure centered directly beneath the massive golden dome. The doors of the shrine are apparently also made of pure gold, with mirror works on the roof and walls. The minarets and the entrance gate of the holy shrine are covered with Iranian moarrahg tile designed by the famous Iranian architect and tile artist Ali Panjehpour. My colleague from the mayor’s office allowed me to finger one and explained that each 4 x 4 inch tile, of which there were hundreds of thousands in the complex, cost more than $100 USD. There is also a large mosque adjoining the shrine which this observer was advised can accommodate more than 1,300 people and a further 150 in the attached courtyards. The two tall minarets, one of which was damaged by a rebel mortar, dominate the architecture of the mosque as well as a large souk on the other side of a newly-built security wall.
In the cavernous nave of the Seyeda Zeinab, just next to the beautifully inlaid, elevated crypt holding her remains, approximately 50 men were performing mid-day Salat al Duhr prayers. Some were in camouflage uniforms and appeared to be on military leave or from the security units guarding the inside and perimeter of Zeinab’s Shrine.
This observer did not want to awkwardly press his hosts for details regarding the identities of the armed men guarding Seyeda Zeinab or where they are from. Some Western media sources have speculated that Shia fighters from Iraq and Lebanon came to Syria to protect Seyeda Zeinab following the desecration in Iraq of the tomb of Hajar Bin Aday. Several sites on the Internet published reports claiming that a takfiri group exhumed the tomb of Bin Aday, who was one of the most prominent Muslim leaders at the time of the Prophet Muhammad and who was loyal to Imam Ali bin Abi Talib. Bin Aday’s remains were reportedly taken to an unknown location. This observer infers that Hezbollah is currently a prominent presence guarding Seyeda Zeinab, and my Syrian companion noted Lebanese accents in the guard station at the entrance.
At the entrance to the women’s area, several women were praying and others appeared to be part of the shrine’s Women’s Auxiliary, or Guild, as they directed visitors while graciously assisting and providing female visitors with black chadors upon entering the sanctuary. One charming middle age woman, who appeared to be Iranian, smiled knowingly at me, and with a twinkle in her eyes jokingly offered this visiting American a chador as “a gift and souvenir from our Holy Shrine and from our community—to take back to your country, in appreciation of you not bombing us…yet!” And she laughed at her own joke, as did all who heard it, including the mayor, some nearby soldiers, and teen-aged visiting students.
Photo 2/25/14 shows the Gold Dome and the column that was damaged by a mortar round and the new security wall in the background.
Update on the capture of the bad person sought by Abu Modar
Well, did Abu Modar and his “Death Brigade” get their man?
They did indeed, and it was the night before this observer’s arrival at Seyeda Zeinab. Abu Modar detailed to this observer and a few of his militia guys the evening’s events as we made plans to leave the next morning for the Iskandroun region and an interview the PFLI President, Ali Kyali. The capture, it seems, came about not by kicking in the alleged bad guy’s door, American SWAT team-style. Rather, the suspect was stealthily followed and, during the early morning of 2/25/14, apprehended at one of the Syrian army checkpoints that surround the village of Seyeda Zeinab.
Such incidents make it clear that Seyeda Zeinab is still a target of some jihadist types given its great importance to Syria, the region, and among Muslims globally. Yet across sectarian divides here there are growing signs of the great majority of the exhausted populations being ready, to a degree, to forgive and forget at least some of the events of the past nearly 36 months.
Visiting Seyeda Zeinab is a wonderful, solemn, exhilarating and inspiring ecumenical experience—one highly recommended to all tourists planning to come to the Syrian Arab Republic as improving security conditions begin to allow for the return of international visitors.
May the Sainted Martyr, Zeinab bint Ali, whose life was devoted to charity and to nursing others, and who is a model for all humanity of resistance and defiance against oppression and all forms of injustice, forever rest in peace.