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Ibn Battuta

Fire-dancing in Wasit, Iraq

Battuta, Ibn: "Fire-dancing in Wasit, Iraq", Tradition & Art 071, p. 6 , Athens, I.O.F.A., September – October 2003. From the book: Voyages. Traduction de l'arabe de C. Dufremery et B. R. Sanguinetti (1858). Paris, Maspero, 1982. [Trocadero]

                             Fire-dancing in Wasit, Iraq

Ibn Battuta, a learned Moslem from Morocco, one of the earliest travellers to the Orient, arrives in Iraq sometime around the year 1335.

When we halted at the city of Wäsit the caravan stopped outside it for three nights in order to trade. This gave me the opportunity of visiting the grave of the saint Abu’l-‘Abbas Ahmad al-Rifä‘ï, which is at a village called Umm ‘Ubaida, one day’s journey from Wäsit. I asked the shaikh Taqï al-Dïn to send someone with me to conduct me to it, and he sent with me three Arabs of the Banü Asad, who are the occupants of that region, and mounted me on one of his own horses. I set out at noon and after spending that night in the enclosure of the Banü Asad we arrived at the hospice at noon on the following day. It is a vast convent in which there are thousands of poor brethren. Our visit coincided with the arrival of the shaikh Ahamad Küjak, the grandson of the Friend of God Abu’l-Abbäs al’Rifä ‘ï, whose tomb we had come to visit. The shaikh had come from his place of residence in the land of Rüm [Anatolia] in order to visit his grandfather’s tomb, and it was to him that the headship of the hospice had descended.

When the afternoon prayers had been said, drums and kettle-drums were beaten and the poor brethren began to dance. After this they prayed the sunset prayer and brought in the repast, consisting of rice-bread, fish, milk and dates. When all had eaten and prayed the first night prayer, they began to recite their dhikr, with the shaikh Ahmad sitting on the prayer-carpet of his ancestor above-mentioned, then they began the musical recital. They had prepared loads of firewood which they kindled into a flame, and went into the midst of it dancing; some of them rolled in the fire, and others ate it in their mouths, until finally extinguished it entirely. This is their regular custom and it is the peculair characteristic of this corporation of Ahmadï brethren. Some of them will take a large snake and bite its head with their teeth until they bite it clean through.

Anecdote. I was on one occasion at a place called Afqänbür in the district of Hazär Amrühä, which is at a distance of five nights’ journey from Dihlï, the capital of India. We had encamped there on a river called the river of al-Sarw. This was in the season of the shakäl (shakäl in their language meaning rain), which falls at the time of the summer heats. The river was coming down in flood from the mountains of Qaräjïl. Now everyone who drinks from it, whether man or beast, dies because of the falling of the rain on poisonous grasses. We stayed by this river for four days without anyone going near it. There came to me there a company of poor brethren who had iron rings on their necks and arms, and whose chief was a coal-black negro. They belonged to the corporation known as the Haidarïya and they spent one night with us. Their chief asked me to supply him with firewood that they might light it for their dance, so I charged the governor of the district, who was ‘Azïz known as al-Khammär (an account of him will be given later), to furnish it. He sent about ten loads of it, and after the night prayer they kindled it, and at length, when it was a mass of glowing coals, they began their musical recital and went into that fire, still dancing and rolling about in it. Their chief asked me for a shirt and I gave him one of the finest texture; he put it on and he began to fall about in the fire with it on and to beat the fire with his sleeves until it was extinguished and dead. He then brought me the shirt showing not a single trace of burning on it, at which I was greatly astonished.

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