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Hassan Blal / Alamy Stock Photo

Photo series: Hassan Belal’s Yawm Ashura

Photographing highly religious events can be quite a fraught undertaking. It’s a personal experience so documenting these days is difficult unless you’re part of the accredited media. But what if you’re not shooting for news? Syrian photographer, Hassan Belal, tells Alamy how he documented Yawm Ashura thanks to a well-connected cab driver.

Yawm Ashura takes places every year in the Muslim world. It’s the tenth day of Muharram – the first month in the Islamic calendar. For most Muslims, Ashura is a day of voluntary fasting to commemorate the day that Moses was saved from the Pharaohs when God created a path in the sea.

It’s also a day of mourning to remember Hussein ibn Ali for Shia muslims. He was the grandson of Islamic prophet Muhammad who was martyred in the Battle of Karbala. The day is punctuated by morning rituals as well as plays to re-enact the martyrdom.

But when Hassan was asked to cover the event, he hadn’t managed to get hold of a press pass. Access is everything in photography; without access, there are no photos.

Undeterred, Hassan jumped in the taxi and headed towards Damascus wondering how he was going to get access. To his surprise, the taxi breezed past the checkpoint at the capital. So Hassan asked about his driver. It turns out he fought with the Abu al-Fadl al-Abbas Forces who control the southern area of Damascus on behalf of the Syrian government.

But the journey wasn’t over yet. Hassan needed to get to Sayyidah Zaynab. Luckily, his new favourite taxi driver had all the access he needed. And to his surprise, the driver was willing to help.

The next morning, Hasssan joined the throng on their morning ritual at 5am. Shia men and women would be dressed in black parading through the streets while slapping their chests. A natural rhythm lingered in the air as a sudden chorus of chants came together only to ebb away again.

Hussein was known for his compassion and integrity, and so it shows in days like Yawm Ashura where Muslims come together in a show of unity.

For Hassan, it was a hugely emotional event: “I was sad because I knew that I can’t reach this area easily again, so I took a lot of pics to document the event as much as I can.”

There was plenty to document too – an overwhelming amount really. With so many people walking in tandem, it can be tricky to find the details. But Hassan’s mind was particularly tuned in on this day.

He tells me about the emotional significance of it all. “I was scared for the first man who carries the flag because it’s so heavy and nobody thinks about him. There’s a lot of religious energy too with everyone slapping their chests in time with the music and their walking pace.”

Hassan finds it hard to put into words how he really felt though. Emotions are hard to explain, especially when it’s concerning big religious events like this. There are still feelings we just don’t have words for. But that’s why non-verbal communication is so important.

Stepping in time with Yawm Ashura

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Hassan Blal / Alamy Stock Photo

Walkers arrive at the entrance of Sayyidah Zaynab, Damascus.

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Hassan Blal / Alamy Stock Photo

A soldier from Abu al-Fadl al-Abbas paused for a photo beside a chef.

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Hassan Blal / Alamy Stock Photo

Men celebrate the occasion by slapping their chest in time with music as is customary in Shia Islam.

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Hassan Blal / Alamy Stock Photo

Two children, one of them barefoot as is customary with Shia Islam during the march, help out organisers with distribution of food and drink.

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Hassan Blal / Alamy Stock Photo

Shia women dressed in traditional black and parading through the streets of Sayyidah Zaynab.

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Hassan Blal / Alamy Stock Photo

Men chanting and waving during the march through Sayyidah Zaynab.

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Hassan Blal / Alamy Stock Photo

Food is a big part of Yawm Ashura. Soldiers of Abu al-Fadl al-Abbas Forces cook for people during this religious event so that everyone has the energy to keep on marching.

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Hassan Blal / Alamy Stock Photo

People make their way down the main street of Sayyidah Zaynab, Damascus.

Matt Yau

Matt started off as a live music photographer covering up-and-coming bands in Brighton, and since then has become enamoured by the power of pictures. With a penchant for storytelling, he's on a mission to uncover unique images from the Alamy library and tell the story behind them.

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