Once you pass the army checkpoints and fortified military positions, you are almost to the gold-domed shrine that is the burial place of Zainab Bint-Ali, granddaughter of the Prophet Mohammad and a revered figure for Shia Muslims.
At the entrance to the nearby market is a checkpoint manned by members of the local Popular Committees. Once inside, the alleys are lined with signs in Farsi. Many of the shops cater to the busloads of Iranian pilgrims who used to make pilgrimages to this area on the southern outskirts of Damascus.
In the market, business does not seem booming. Trade has dwindled since pilgrims have become targets of kidnappers. Unsold goods are piled up in the stores. Most shops display portraits of Hezbollah Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah alongside Bashar al-Assad. Shia religious slogans are plastered on all surfaces. Banners call for the shrine to be defended until martyrdom.
To enter the actual shrine, you must first undergo a search conducted by the Abul-Fadl al-Abbas Brigade, the main protectors of the site. Young men, their badges identifying them as members, smile before searching visitors, and apologize to them afterwards, explaining that it is due to the security situation.
Inside, calm prevails. Three young boys converse in a language that turns out to be Baluchi. They have come from Pakistan with their parents to visit the shrine, explained their father Hassan. His niqab-covered wife refused to speak, but when asked why they chose to make the journey at this time, Hassan explained that he made a vow and is fulfilling it.
Elsewhere, a man in his sixties from Bint Jbeil, Lebanon clasped the silver lattice-work that encloses Zainab’s tomb. He kissed it and recited religious entreaties for the well-being of his family, he said, and for Syria to overcome its crisis.
Barely half a kilometer to the west of the shrine lies the small village of Jiera, where rebel groups operate. They sometimes trade fire with members of the Abul-Fadl al-Abbas Brigade, mostly at night. Recently the gunmen have become less active thanks to the brigade, and the area has become relatively safer, but not entirely.
When the muezzin belts out the call to prayer, the shrine is transformed into a beehive. It is as though the entire neighborhood has congregated. At nightfall, the shrine is locked, security is heightened, and the adjoining streets become a virtual military zone. Brigade members are deployed in substantial numbers since clashes occasionally break out.
One member explained that gunmen take advantage of the densely built-up neighborhoods to the west of the shrine to stage hit-and-run attacks and fire mortars. They are invariably beaten back, he said, and have failed to reach the shrine itself, although they managed to damage an outer wall with a mortar shell.
This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.