Shias holding their evening prayer in the holy sites of Karbala, Iraq
Georges Malbrunot

KARBALA — Inside the shrine and mosque covered by mosaics, the crowd is rushing to touch the silver edge of the martyr's tomb. Among the crowd is Manjour, 37, who came all the way from Gurajat, India, to honor his "leader," Al-Husayn ibn ‘Ali, the third Shia imam.

Even as fierce battles and terror attacks have plagued Baghdad and Mosul to the north, millions of pilgrims travel here each year from across the Muslim world to pay homage to Imam Husayn, next to whom lies the remains of his eldest son, Ali al-Akhbar, and 77 other martyrs of the battle of Karbala in 680, the starting point of the Sunni-Shia war that continues to rage 14 centuries later.

Across from the Imam Husayn Mosque stands the great mausoleum of his half-brother Abbas in Karbala, a city largely dedicated to its glorious Islamic past. "Husayn and Abbas embody courage," says Mohammed Rahim, an Iranian who is visiting Karbala for the seventh time. "They are examples we have to follow."

Each year, an estimated 30 million Shia pilgrims flock to the holy city of some 1.1 million residents. Two religious foundations oversee the two mausoleums like mini empires. And though a lucrative activity, it is out of question for the corruption-plagued government of Baghdad, even though it is Shia, to get involved in the foundations' business.

"With 6,500 employees, we are like a small nation that works quite well, without corruption," says young Ayatollah Sheikh Ahmad Safi, who runs the Abbas mausoleum foundation. "All the investments we make are without the intervention of Baghdad. Iraqi politicians sometimes come to see us and ask us for advice, but they never follow them."

His foundation only receives 10% of the donations and taxes collected by Shia clergy for Karbala sanctuaries. The Husayn foundation receives 80% of the donations, making it the most valuable religious foundation of the Shia community. In Karbala, pilgrims and honeymooners alike can stay in one of several newly built resort hotel. A major new airport, named "Imam Husayn," is set to open between Karbala and the neighboring holy city of Najaf, with the capacity to welcome 20 million passengers annually. It is part of a network aiming to link key Shia religious destinations in Iran, Syria, Lebanon, Yemen, Pakistan and India.

The growth in Karbala is a kind of revival

The Husayn foundation is spreading its influence globally in other ways. In January, it opened an office in Paris, while a Koranic Sciences center has opened in Indonesia and a cultural center in Denmark. It also publishes a trimestral French-language revue called Renaissance ("rebirth").

The activity reveals the current state of mind of Iraqi Shias: "Karbala was partly destroyed by Saddam Hussein's Army after the uprising of 1991," recalls Riad al-Hakim, son of a top Shia cleric imprisoned between 1983 and 1991 before fleeing to Iran. The current power and growth of Karbala is a form of revival, with hopes that it can become a new hub of the "Shia Axis' that spreads from Iran to Lebanon through Syria.

Outside the Husayn Mosque, hundreds of women wearing chadors are waiting in the scorching heat to come inside. Under tight security, every worshiper must go through a meticulous body search to get close to the tomb. For a good reason. These huge religious gatherings are a target for ISIS, the Sunni Islamic terror group, which Shias are now actively combating.

"Our men fought in the battle of Mosul," says Ahmed Rida al-Khafaji from the militia of Husayn mausoleum, which numbers 3,500 soldiers.

Milita fighters receives a $750 monthly paycheck from the Kafeel Society, which manages the foundation as an empire. Such daily products as Kafeel Yogurt, Kafeel Cola and Kafeel Water are provided by the society. But Kafeel also controls the trade of weapons with Iran.

Imam Husayn Mosque in Karbala Photo: Larry E. Johns SFC

A few miles away from the city center stands the organization's latest pride: a brand new hospital ranked as the fifth most modern in Middle East. The healthcare facilities include 220 beds, and brings in top doctors from all over the world, from Australia to India to France. A surgeon, showing off a state-of-the-art U.S.-made MRI machine, notes that the hospital received patients from marginalized minority Shia communities in Saudi Arabia and Bahrain.

Karbala's institutions, however, have a complex relationship with the world's leading Shia nation, Iran. Teheran has made several donations in recent years to renovate the mausoleums, but a kind of rivalry is never far. The holy Iranian city of Qom is constantly fighting to impose its supremacy on the Shia world, and disputes over religious doctrine are common. Alaa, an Iraqi philosopher, says the disagreements run deep. "We refuse the Iranian government system based on the supremacy of religion over the temporal dimension," he says. As many of Iraqis, Alaa considers himself as an Arab Shia, not a Persian one.

A guide in Karbala notes that most Iranian pilgrims do not speak Arabic, and describes the Iran-Iraq relationship in the Shia sphere as "bittersweet" throughout history. More recently, Iran has focused on ensuring the security of their own compatriot pilgrims in Iraq, who tend to stay in their own hotels and spend Iranian currency.

In nearby Najaf, another Shia holy city, Sheikh Ali al-Boudeiri admits that "both Iran and Iraq share interests, but the political price is paid only on our side." He denounces what he calls the "two faces' of Iranian policy in Iraq: The first one, more obvious, consists in trade and exchanges; The second face is more hidden, aiming at a general control of Iraq. That, in some fundamental ways, would begin at the holy sites in Najaf and Karbala.

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Pomp And Pirouettes: When Ballet Stars Bid Farewell

On June 11, the prima ballerina Eleonora Abbagnato bid farewell to the Paris Opera, under the gold roof of the historic Palais Garnier. It's an obligatory passage for Parisian ballet dancers of a certain age, a moment that is often happy, always dreaded and sometimes salutary.

Ballerina Eleonora Abbagnato performing at her adieux
Eleonora Abbagnato Official Instagram Account
Cecilia Delporte

PARIS — With one last look at Chagall's enchanting fresco, at the teachers who watched her grow up, at the stage that saw her blossom, Eleonora Abbagnato took her final bow. Never has a star ballerina's farewell been so dramatic, as her big exit was postponed by three cancellations due to a strike, and then the pandemic.

"I'm always positive, I think that destiny does things well," she says in her dressing room a few days before her "adieu." "I knew this evening would eventually take place!" This artist, who wanted to model her last dance on Le Parc by Angelin Preljocaj, ended up dazzling the crowd in a tribute to Roland Petit, which nicely echoed her career.

"He is someone I knew at the age of 10, so it was important to me to perform a ballet by this choreographer. The last time I danced Young Man was for Nicolas Le Riche's farewell, I was four months pregnant! It all began with Roland, and it all ends with him." The ballerina has lost none of her taste for the stage, but there are traditions that forge an institution: At the age of 42, each Opera dancer must leave the premises with a final au revoir to the public and the company.

"It's probably less painful than in other foreign companies, especially Anglo-Saxon ones, where there is no age limit but you are summoned to be told that you are no longer in the shape you were when you started out," says the former star Agnès Letestu. But how will this particular evening be remembered, as a rite of passage or the beginning of a new life? "The farewell is both a moment of extraordinary love with the hall, the orchestra pit, the backstage area ... and at the same time the turning of a page in the history of this institution. Even if the phoenix always rises from its ashes through the appointment of a new star," says Brigitte Lefèvre, the Paris Opera's dance director from 1995 to 2014.

No faux pas when choosing the last dance

This uniquely talented artist deserves the same exceptional ceremony created for the departure of Elisabeth Platel in 1999 and Carole Arbo two years later, which was televised for the very first time. For these kinds of events, the star's personal life comes into play — family members are present in the room, children occasionally come on stage. A perfectly choreographed protocol is followed to a tee, mixing various speeches with the arrival of the Minister of Culture; sometimes a special distinction from the Order of Arts and Letters is awarded. Moments of grace are sprinkled throughout the evening, such as the improvised dance between Aurélie Dupont — the director of dance at the time — and the departing star Marie-Agnès Gillot. The festivities continue into the night, charged with excitement and emotion.

These farewells are planned two or three years in advance when the time comes for the dance director to curate the future program. Aurélie Dupont, like Brigitte Lefèvre before her, likes to ask the star which ballet they prefer as their parting performance and which partners should accompany them.

These are intense moments sometimes experienced as mourning.

"There are some dancers who don't want to say goodbye because they don't like it, because the program doesn't suit them or because they don't feel fit enough," says Agnès Letestu. "I wanted to leave the Paris Opera with La Dame aux Camélias. I had talked to Brigitte Lefèvre about it. Except my farewell was scheduled before the ballet was programmed, so I had to find another one, but I did not agree. So I proposed to her to come back and dance it one month after I left the company, which was quite unusual."

Among the most requested works are the legendary ballets Giselle and L'Histoire de Manon. "The stars like to start with love stories that end badly. Everyone wants a ballet with real drama, in two or three acts, rather than a little pas de deux," says Aurélie Dupont. Dupont's first choice, La Dame aux Camélias, had already been scheduled two years earlier for the farewell of Agnès Letestu, so she settled on Manon. This work, heavy with meaning, was Dupont's big return to the stage after a serious knee injury in 1998, when she feared she could no longer dance.

Eleonora Abbagnato performing her final "adieux" at the Paris Opera

Like going to the guillotine

As for the brilliant Karl Paquette, it was with Cinderella — a ballet dear to his heart — that he retired at the Opéra Bastille, Paris' second opera house while many dancers prefer the old charm of the more famous Palais Garnier. "The story is funny, the ballet very narrative — one of the most beautiful successes of Nureyev. I loved the golden costume, the scenic effects, the finale of the grand pas de deux. The strongest moment was my entrance on stage in Act II to great applause, even as the musicians continued to play," he recalls.

These are intense moments sometimes experienced as mourning, like when Marie-Agnès Gillot cried heavily before her final step onto the stage. On that fateful day, Agnès Letestu says she felt a very special sensation, strengthening her senses, from her vision to her hearing. "Everything was multiplied tenfold," says Letestu who, a few months earlier, had the feeling of going to the guillotine. "I was very stressed four months before, I was afraid of hurting myself and not being able to dance, of not being up to it, of not enjoying every moment, of crying," says Aurélie Dupont, whose farewell was finally a calming moment. "I especially remember the applause, people were shouting, standing — it lasted more than 20 minutes. And this love is only for you."

I couldn't let myself be overwhelmed by emotion!

Nicolas Le Riche, now director of the Royal Ballet of Stockholm, evokes a "very strong feeling of corporation, of belonging to an institution that we celebrate at the same time." He was the only artist to bid farewell not to a ballet, but to a "special evening" of total freedom, mixing pieces like L'Après-midi d'un faune by Nijinsky and Béjart's Le Boléro. On stage, tributes were paid in his honor by prestigious guests such as singer Matthieu Chedid and actor Guillaume Gallienne.

"I found this repertoire, which transcended the ages, very moving. I received a magnificent note from Nijinsky's daughter. It's an evening where everyone is allowed to be moved and to live these emotions, except the person who is leaving. I couldn't let myself be overwhelmed by emotion, otherwise, I would have taken a step on stage and collapsed!" he recalls. How long did it take him to prepare such a spectacle? "I feel like answering in the manner of Coco Chanel, who made her hat in two scissor strokes. 'But it only took you two minutes?" says a disappointed customer. 'No, Madam, it took me a whole life," she replies. The same way I drew on all that I lived through," says the dancer.

Group photo of Paris Opera dancers in white tutus dancing in front of the Palais Garnier, with placards in protest of the French government's plan to overhaul retirement age

Paris Opera dancers perform in front of the Palais Garnier to protest the French government's plan to overhaul retirement age — Photo: Maxppp/ ZUMA

To each their own swan song

While Laëtitia Pujol hesitated a long time before making her farewell, hoping to leave discreetly, others end up with departure full of pomp and circumstance, sometimes to their surprise. "It's a moment you think about all the time without really thinking about it. I certainly wasn't looking forward to it and wanted something intimate. This was the opposite," says Karl Paquette. "The director of the Paris Opera at the time, Stéphane Lissner, wanted to leave on the symbolic day of December 31. "I was doubly pressured because the farewell was broadcast in the cinema, and each of my movements was immortalized. On the last day, you are in a particular state of conditioning because you are saying goodbye to 25 years of career and nearly 42 years of life. You have to protect yourself."

When the farewell came, it was a relief.

Only Benjamin Pech experienced his farewell, an evening in February 2016, as a liberation. And for good reason: "I had a hip injury in 2014. I was diagnosed with rapid degenerative arthritis. To remedy it, I needed a hip replacement. My farewell was scheduled for 2016, so I decided not to have the surgery and continue until then. For two years, I held on by dancing practically on one leg and had to turn to a repertoire that was no longer athletic but theatrical, with compositional roles that opened up other perspectives. Isn't a dancer above all someone who comes to deeply impact the spectator? When the farewell came, it was a relief," he says.

The star had chosen to dance alongside Sylviane, an 84-year-old spectator and one of his lifelong fans, who was present during rehearsals, but unfortunately became ill on the day of the performance. Pech took his leave on a program that included Le Parc by Preljocaj, the very piece that gave way to his injury: "I have come full circle."

Bidding farewell to the word "adieu"

Shortly after his or her performance, the future retiree must pass on their dressing room to another star, a moment that is "both very sophisticated and archaic. There are the great speeches, which say that this house will always be yours, but in reality, it becomes otherwise," says Brigitte Lefèvre. "You close the door, you leave and it's over," says Eleonora Abbagnato. But how do these artists project themselves into the future? "What is traumatic is that we are heavily drilled since we entered the dance school at 8 years old, with a professional outline where everything is already decided. How can you exist professionally when you have garnered such admiration, even fascination until now? At 42, most people are in the middle of their career, ours is coming to an end," says Benjamin Pech, who has become ballet master at the Opera of Rome, directed by Eleonora Abbagnato.

It is not a door that closes, but rather another door that opens.

While many stars go on to create or run a company, many experience a profound period of confusion. "I was secretly hoping that someone would call me for a position, that I could be of some value, but it didn't happen that way," explains Nicolas Le Riche. "I had already enrolled at Sciences Po for schooling [in management and leadership]. I had to create my own opportunities."

To remedy this uncertainty, Aurélie Dupont now offers support for company members, offering them a skills assessment and training beyond dance. In the future, Nicolas Le Riche would like the word "adieu" to be replaced by the idea of celebration. "It is not a door that closes, but rather another door that opens." Because under the gold of the Palais Garnier, the stars are eternal.

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