KARBALA, Iraq - With thousands of other Shiite Muslims, I walked through the infamous "Triangle of Death" where suicide bombers, presumably Sunni extremists, had attacked fellow pilgrims two days before. Our trek covered 50 miles from Baghdad to the holy city of Karbala, and we passed through 14 cities, places best known as scenes of death, division and destruction.
On this, my second pilgrimage since the Americans overthrew Saddam Hussein, my fears turned to amazement as complete strangers, Sunnis and Shiites alike, opened their doors to me. The poor passed out food and sweet tea they could hardly afford. I began the walk as a spiritual journey, a personal opportunity to feel close to Imam Hussein, the grandson of the prophet Mohammed, who was martyred in the year 680. By the end, I found the spirit of my nation in roadside tents, modest homes and gifts of food.
The walk and the religious ceremony of Arbaeen commemorate the life of the great man for whom I'm named. The people of Kufa asked Hussein to save them from the oppressive rule of the Umayyad Caliphate, but then they betrayed him. During the battle of Karbala, Hussein was beheaded along with 71 of his followers, and the women and children were imprisoned. According to Shiite tradition, on the 40th day after his death his son, Ali ibn Hussein, returned his father's head to his body, and it was buried with his body in Karbala. Arbaeen commemorates that day, and about 10 million pilgrims converged on the city this year to mourn his death and commemorate his life.
My pilgrimage started in central Baghdad, where I crossed the Jadriyah Bridge with dozens of other people. Tents were set up on the side of the road, where neighborhood volunteers offered us food and drink. I picked up a boiled egg sandwich and orange juice and tucked away biscuits and juice in my bag for later. In Saidiyah, the scene of fierce battles between Sunnis and Shiites, and Dora, a neighborhood where al Qaida in Iraq once targeted passing Shiite pilgrims, towering concrete walls brought me comfort.