Najaf Needs Gatekeeper for Keys to the Holy City: By MU’AN FAYYAD

Commentary, Pacific News Service
Tuesday August 31, 2004

(Translator’s comment: Grand Ayatollah Sistani has brokered a peace in the embattled Iraqi city of Najaf where the followers of Muqtada al-Sadr have been fighting American and Iraqi forces. This column written by a close advisor to the Ayatollah appeared in the influential London-based Arab daily Asharq-al-Awsat and was probably approved by Ayatollah Sistani himself to go out no later than August 22. The reason was that in Iraq the main contending parties had already reached the accord that was announced after August 22.  

At the end of this abridged translation the author Mu'an Fayyad says, “After all the Companions [of Muqtada as-Sadr] belong to the same culture as ours.” That is the key to what the rest of the world knows now—the old Ayatollah and the young firebrand have come to terms.  

But the real heroes are the many thousands of Najafis and their supporters. They forced both Muqtada as-Sadr and the Americans to realize that the power of people can move mountains. Or as Mu’an Fayyad writes: “The people took over responsibility. They and others learned how to cooperate with each other.” What Najaf is looking for now is a kalidar, or a gatekeeper, who will take custody of the keys to the city.)  


LONDON - The citizens of Najaf have long been preoccupied with keys that can open up the locked places in the Shrine of Imam Ali. Some still think the keys can lead to palaces or reveal treasures. Some talk about the “seven rooms” that will turn into one room. They call it the “difficult way.” According to popular belief, if a key opens up these doors, they will get blessings from God and good luck. Others who open a door will fulfill their dreams, mostly “meaning their troubles will go away.” All Najafis know their city has great heritage value for Arabs and Muslims.  

Even if the keys bestowed were only symbolic, like giving “keys to the city” to some honored person from afar, they have value. A look at the houses, markets, motels, schools and tombs show Najafi citizens have both material values and concern for their city. Before the recent fighting, Najafis kept their city very clean. They believed they were given keys that allowed them entry into the urban culture. And the Ayatollah appointed a gatekeeper whose religious responsibility was to preserve the keys to the culture.  

But Najafis now do not have a gatekeeper because, as a religious figure, they were subject to assassination. Last year pro-Western Iraqi Shi’ite leader Sayyed Abdul Majid al-Khoei was assassinated. He lost his life trying to defend the Kalidar, Persian for gatekeeper. Since then the Najafis have had no gatekeeper.  

But the people took over the responsibility. They and others learned how to cooperate with each other in handing out keys.  

Some of the new interim gatekeepers were Persian. In fact the Persian word for gatekeeper, kalidar is widely used in Najaf. In Iraqi Arabic the word is “keeper of the couches.” So Najafis cooperate with each other in handing out keys and couches. The Shrine has not only a religious function but also a social, economic and, especially, a political function. The keeper of the keys has to be honest, otherwise, the Shrine cannot function.  

The temporary gatekeepers are deeply concerned about the future of the Shrine and the Imam Ali culture. From London come voices of worry from exiles. Ordinary families demand that the tombs be protected. “We need a Kalidar to assume religious responsibility to protect our heritage,” they say,  

What we see in the media is appalling when it comes to preserving the keys of the culture. The Companions of Muqtada al-Sadr keep saying, “We don't know of any keys handed over to some else.” But they also say, “Most, but not all, of the keys are accounted for.”  

Nevertheless, some aide to the temporary kalidars could have given away keys to some Persians. We ordinary folk want nothing more than that all the keys are accounted by a real authority. We are worried about the treasures in the Shrine.  

We don’t understand why our keys should be turned over to outsiders. After all the Companions of Muqtada al-Sadr belong to the same culture as ours. Anyway, they have not yet renounced us. We and they are the same Najafis and we both adore going on a visit to the Imam Ali Shrine and sitting on the sacred couches.  


This commentary originally appeared in Asharq al-Awsat and has been translated by Franz Schurmann.ô