I think I was about 5 or 6 years old when I first heard the story of Karbala. My dad's car needed something fixed so he took me with him to one of the garages on Budaiya Highway near Al-Qadam (there's a whole row of them). While the car was being fixed me and my dad stepped outside, and after a while he pointed to the signboard of a neighbouring garage (pictured above) and asked me if I knew what "Karbala" means. I said I didn't, so he proceeded to tell me.
He gave me the abridged version: The Prophet's grandson went to face the army of the evil Yazid in the battlefield of Karbala, on the bank of the Euphrates. There Imam Hussain and his companions were denied water, and then mercilessly massacred. I remember him telling me something about Abbas and Sakeena (Sukaina) but I can't remember what exactly. My father delivered the story to me in a few minutes and that was it. That was all I was told about Karbala by anyone for maybe 10 years. In all of my useless Islam classes, or books about Islam that my parents gave me, I don't think I ever heard the word Karbala being mentioned. There was praise for Imam Hussain and "Bibi" Fatima, but nothing about what happened at Karbala.
During my childhood though I do recall my father frequently getting into discussions about Karbala with his friends and elder family members. It seems that their generation knew much more about it than my generation. While I was at college I also noticed that Urdu literature and music before the 80s was filled with references to Karbala, written and enjoyed by Shias and Sunnis alike. And about a year ago while discussing the recent Shia-Sunni violence in Pakistan with my father, he told me that when he was growing up in Pakistan it was quite normal for Sunnis to attend the Muharram majalis and processions organized by Shias.
The change it seems came about during the Wahhabi/Salafi onslaught on Sunni Islam and, in the case of Pakistan especially, the proxy wars played out by Saudi Arabia and post-revolution Iran in the 80s. I don't know enough about how the Shia side responded, but certainly among Sunnis there was a growing tendency to try to distance themselves from their newly found foes. Under the guise of a quest for the "true" Islam, many Sunnis begam to sternly disapprove of anything that resembled a Shia ritual, regardless of any inherent value it may or may not have. And so it seems that today much of the Sunni world has all but forgotten the Tragedy that took place in Karbala.
So my aim during this period is for me, as a Sunni (that's what I'm told I am), to be able to reclaim Karbala. Just in the same way that the stories of Jesus leave an important message for all humanity, so too do those of Hussain and Karbala (and there are many similarities in the interpretations of the suffering of Jesus and Hussain). For there still exist in all corners of the world today people who are oppressed at the hands of modern day Yazids. In the words of the late great Urdu poet Josh Malihabadi:
O Josh, call out to the Prince of Karbala [Hussain],
cast a glance at this twentieth century,
look at this tumult, chaos, and the earthquake.
At this moment there are numerous Yazids, and yesterday there was only one.
From village to village might has assumed the role of truth,
Once again, Human feet are in chains.
And that provides one way of understanding the famous words of Imam Ja'far al-Sadiq:
Every day is Ashura and every place is Karbala