ALISADES PARK, N.J., April 6 - He makes
grown men weep with his singing. Fans set up Web sites and address
him as "Master" and "Dear Brother" in e-mail messages from thousands
of miles away. Powerful clerics are said to know his work.
But in this town near the George Washington Bridge, Mesum Abbas
Naqvi inhabits the role of a typical suburban teenager, playing
football and Xbox (Grand Theft Auto: Vice City is a favorite),
watching Mr. Bean DVD's and "chilling" with his cousins.
Mesum Abbas, as he is known professionally, is 14 and something
of a prodigy in the world of Shiite Islam. Since the age of 2, he
has been a reciter of nauhas, the ritual lamentations that accompany
Shiite devotions around two holy days of the faith, Ashura and
Arbaeen, which is marked this weekend.
His cassettes, CD's and DVD's sell all across his family's native
land, Pakistan, where 20 percent of the population of 140 million is
Shiite. Mesum is also in demand for live performances at Shiite
mosques in New Jersey, New York and elsewhere in the United
"I feel good about myself when I do this because I'm spreading
the word," said Mesum, who is given to the monosyllabic answers of a
teenager with a shadowy mustache and recently changed voice.
But any awkwardness melts away when he sings. Sitting on a
leather couch in his living room, he becomes a picture of
self-possession, closing his eyes, holding out his hands, palms up,
and letting out a keening tremolo tenor. His voice swoops up and
down, easing into notes or clipping them off. He tilts his head with
emotion and gestures with his hands as he chants in Urdu:
The women and children have gone
When I go home,
If you are not there with me
I am going to die.
The speaker in the song is Zeyneb, the sister of Imam Hussein,
the grandson of the prophet Muhammad. Hussein is revered by Shiites,
and his death at the hands of an overwhelming force of rival Sunni
Muslims near Karbala in 680 is commemorated on Ashura and 40 days
later, on Arbaeen. It was a defining moment for Shiites, the
minority branch of Islam, which holds that Ali, Hussein's father,
was the rightful successor to Muhammad.
Shiites mark the events by striking themselves, often with blows
of the hand to the chest, with flails or with blade-tipped chains,
which are more typical of Pakistani devotions. The flagellation is
done in processions or inside a mosque.
It is a way of expressing penitence or sorrow over Hussein's
death and of showing regret for not being present to help Hussein,
writes David Pinault, a scholar of Islam at Santa Clara University,
in his book "The Shiites." The actions are not only an expression of
piety but also an assertion of Shiite identity.
The nauhas are a critical part of the devotion. The flaying is
done in time to the laments, and recordings often have a track of
rhythmic thwacks laid over the recitation. Mesum said that he tried
the flaying briefly but that it wasn't for him. He also said that
his father had been a regular practitioner in his youth.
One video of Mesum's performances, "Tears of Sorrow," shows
fleeting scenes of men slapping their chests as a little boy with a
mop of black hair recites. It is Mesum, age 7, filmed at a mosque in
What motivates him? "He wants me to spread his message," Mesum
says of Hussein, "his message of standing up for what's right, and
that justice always wins." Mesum said he believed that God chose to
bestow such talent on him "to show other children that if children
at the age of 2 could spread the message, why can't you?"
Mesum's father, Syed Naqvi, called his son "God-gifted" and said
he had his first inkling of the boy's ability when he heard him
reproducing nauhas played in the house. Over the years, Mesum has
been trained by experts during visits to Pakistan.
Mr. Naqvi, 40, who runs a medical diagnostics business in
Bayonne, N.J., manages his son's career closely, allowing him to
perform only on weekends during the 10-week period surrounding the
holy days. This year, Mesum earned $60,000 for his work, some of
which goes to charity.
Thousands of Mesum's recordings have been sold, Mr. Naqvi said.
His videos are broadcast on Urdu-language satellite networks, and
offered for sale on Shiite Web sites.
And word has filtered back that the likes of Grand Ayatollah Ali
al-Sistani - one of Iraq's most important Shiite religious leaders
and a force to be reckoned with in the United States' struggles
there with Shiite militants - and Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah
Ali Khamenei, know of Mesum's recitations, Mr. Naqvi said proudly.
Certainly Mesum has fervent fans here. "When he reads, you get goose bumps,"
said Asad Rizvi, 21, of Edison, N.J. "He can take an average written lyric and
make it into the most amazing thing you can hear. If you see him live, the hair
on your hands stands up."
take a more measured view. "He is a kid; he is trying hard," said Shahid Tanvir,
47, a recent arrival from Pakistan who was working in an audio-video shop on
27th Street off Lexington Avenue, in Manhattan. "I am too old and have heard
many senior people."
Nauha reciters develop large followings, and Mesum receives four to five
e-mail messages a day. Many more come in at the beginning of Muharram, the
Muslim month when Ashura occurs. He does not have time to answer them all. Mr.
Naqvi takes on the task, so fans do not think Mesum rude.
He uses his son's computer, in a room the boy shares with his 7-year-old
sister, Fatima, whose fuzzy stuffed animals and floppy dolls dominate the décor.
An 18-year-old cousin, Salman Rizvi, and Mesum's mother, Sadaf, also live in the
house, whose walls are adorned with posters of Mesum's album covers.
Mesum is an eighth grader at Palisades Park Junior-Senior High School. His
closest friends know of his talent - even have his CD's. Mesum said he spent a
brief time in the school chorus but dropped out. He did not like the music. It
sounded too irreligious, he said.
He said he tried to pray at least four times a day. During the football
season, Mesum plays halfback and linebacker for the town's eighth-grade team,
the Tigers. He is an honors student and says he hopes to go to medical school.
Speaking over a dinner of egg drop soup, saffron rice and chicken prepared by
his mother, Mesum said that he wanted to improve his performances, perhaps
branching out into Arabic or Farsi nauhas, finding better poetry and increasing
his tonal range.
For now, he was relieved that the busy nauha season was almost over. "I don't
have to worry about making time for my homework," he said, soon heading to his
room to do quadratic equations.
Thanks to DANIEL J. WAKIN and Richard Perry.