Part 2: Mosques, Martyrs, and Men in Chadors

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Esfahan  – An evening at the mosque

Whew, we made it through! Still with me? Now let’s return to the present day in Esfahan, where my dad and I have just managed to cram into Monsieur Ali’s two-seater pickup truck.

The three of us are off to the mosque while Monsieur Ali rattles on in heavily accented French and we do our best to keep up. Once there Ali proudly herds my father into the men’s area, seemingly eager to show himself in the company of a foreigner who has both a white beard and a BMW motorbike.

I enter the female area with Ali’s relatives and am promptly put in the care of a young woman who seems to be somehow in charge of the place and is inexplicably carrying a colorful synthetic duster. The woman who was supposed to bring me a spare black chador is nowhere to be found and I suddenly find my dark red headscarf completely scandalous.

Where from?

From Slovenia…. Ex-Yugoslavia.

Ah, Yugoslavia… Welcome!

She smiles at me with genuine warmth, as though nothing could please her more than an inappropriately dressed Slovenian girl coming to her mosque and blocking everyone’s view with her six foot frame.

Thanks! Thank you so much for having me!” I gush, desperate to make her like me. I smile. She smiles. We have run out of shared words and as I survey the room I feel that sense of unease I have always associated with partaking in religious ceremonies, whatever the denomination.

Even as I try to compose my face into what I hope is a cheerfully pious expression my mind goes back to all the ways in which I am unsuited to be here. Those late mornings in Berlin, walking home from a club, bleary-eyed and still buzzed from the excesses of the previous night.

All the little lies I’d told in the course of my life, and all the big ones, that round of Bulmers I’d forgotten to pay for, the many merry moments of extramarital bliss and my uncompromisingly atheist convictions. I am the only woman not wearing black and I do not understand a single word that is being sung. I feel horribly out of place.

A little boy, still unsteady on his chubby feet, stumbles towards me and stares, unsure what to make of me. His mother smiles at me and nods her head in greeting. Along the far wall I see a group of old women with sunken grief-stricken faces, thumping their chests and crying for Imam Hussain – it strikes me that at least some of them probably lost their own sons in the Iran-Iraq war and mourn for them as well.

Among the younger crowd the atmosphere is more informal, with young mothers pacifying their children, teenagers texting on their smartphones and a little girl spending most of the ceremony deciding whether her chador might not be put to better use as a cape.

Men and women in Iran

I relaxed. I was not in a church back home, pretending to know the words to Holy Father for the sake of my religious relatives. I was not expected to fit in here – I was glaringly, obviously not one of them, and everyone was happy to welcome me in their place of worship nonetheless.

A hand tapped me on the shoulder and I turned to see an old woman with the determined face of a benevolent matriarch. “You. Sit here with me.” She commands, patting a patch of carpet by the wall. I move over and she smiles approvingly. I feel as though I have been stamped with a seal of approval and spend the rest of the ceremony by her side, listening to the singing and watching the crowd.

Sooner than I had expected the singing dies down and the lights come up. A flurry of excitement goes through the crowd as men enter the female section, carrying crates full of styrofoam boxes. Free food!

I relaxed. I was not in a church back home, pretending to know the words to Holy Father for the sake of my religious relatives. I was not expected to fit in here – I was glaringly, obviously not one of them, and everyone was happy to welcome me in their place of worship nonetheless.

Whenever I talked to Iranians about Muharram the one thing they could all agree on was that the food was a big draw. I was given a box full of delicious saffron rice with lentils and raisins. All the women in my immediate area had focused their attention on me – Will she eat it? Will she like it? Will she tip it over the front of her shirt?

Before I had the chance to do any of these things the Synthetic Duster Lady appeared to collect me – my father and Monsieur Ali were waiting for me. After being photographed with every woman and baby in sight and also, for reasons unknown, with a table, we finally made a dash for the exit.

One foot already out of the door, I was intercepted by a young woman egged on by a giggling friend. “Hello, welcome,” she starts and falters, unsure of how to continue. “We are very happy that you are here, that you see our religion. Please, tell your friends that our faith is not… is not dry, is not angry. [sic]”.

Many of the Iranians I had met seemed to be painfully aware of the bad reputation that their government has earned them abroad and her earnest request has been echoed throughout the country, by people young and old – tell you friends back home that we are not crazy terrorists, tell them that we are friendly and happy people.

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Yazd  – The Imam Hussain Fan Club 

The next morning we loaded the bike and headed for Yazd, where I quickly invested into a black robe and headscarf. By then, the upcoming Ashura was all anyone talked about and in the Silk Road Hotel, a popular backpacker haunt, members of the self-proclaimed Imam Hussain Fan Club made rounds every evening, inviting tourists to join them at the Hussainia.

Many of the Iranians I had met seemed to be painfully aware of the bad reputation that their government has earned them abroad and her earnest request has been echoed throughout the country, by people young and old – tell you friends back home that we are not crazy terrorists, tell them that we are friendly and happy people.

They had a set schedule of events for the upcoming week and by the third night I seemed to be the only person that hasn’t jumped on the bandwagon yet. The general consensus among the guests was that these PR-conscious religious evenings had little to do with real life, but a group expedition to a Hussainia was our best shot at a nightlife without breaking the law and so, sick of drinking tea and reading all evening, I finally decided to tag along.

We were herded through a separate entrance and upstairs onto a balcony reserved for tourists and an Iranian film crew tasked with documenting all the happy tourists that have come to see the ceremony.

In the women’s section directly beneath us only faces and hands were visible against the uniform black. Some of them were looking up, watching us watching them. The whole setup was intensely voyeuristic and despite the overly chipper members of the Imam Hussain Fan Club assuring us that we are most welcome I felt like I was intruding.

As the singing began the men, crushed together in a large mosh pit on the other side of the fence, began to chant along and thump their chests in unison. I watched them for a while, transfixed by the rhythmic beat, the haunting melody and the view of a thousand men moving and singing as one.

Men in Tehran
Photo credit: Zvone Šeruga

Look at them! Crazy! You can just imagine them with machine guns up in the air, preparing to go to war!” Exclaimed the plump Latvian man next to me who, as I had already established, took great pleasure in making obtuse comments. He had been in Iran for  a couple of weeks and had experienced the gentle kindness of Iranians firsthand.

But old habits die hard and despite overwhelming empirical evidence to the contrary he stubbornly conflated all displays of Islamic faith with violence and terrorism. Suddenly I felt tired. I knew that the Imam Hussain Fan Club only wanted to help tourists understand Muharram and Islam, albeit packaged in tidy little morsels of educational fun.

But what use is that if people only see what they want to see? I left the balcony and walked back to the hotel fuming all the way.

Taft – The Day of Ashura

The first thing one sees when approaching the Ashura celebrations in Taft are hundreds of people either eating or milling around for free food. Food from the mosque, from the stalls surrounding it, from the passing trucks.

A large stall distributed tea and sinfully delicious sweet milk with cardamom and pistachios while families spread picnic blankets on the roundabout’s manicured lawn and enjoyed their meals, oblivious to the racket around them.

Further past the tea stall was the main square, black with people and dominated by two giant portraits of Khomeini and Khamenei who were observing the crowd with benevolent smiles behind white beards.

During his lifetime Khomeini was portrayed as an almost prophetic figure, with a black beard and a thunderous expression, but after his death the propaganda machine decided to turn him into the kind-eyed grandfather of the nation.

Countless portraits of young martyrs hung from the rooftops, which were also crowded with people.

Iran Men and Women
Photo credit: Zvone Šeruga

A procession of trucks towing makeshift stages made their way around the roundabout and through the city square, each portraying a different event from Karbala – the villain Yazid, in gaudy clothes, sitting on a throne.  Yazid’s soldiers, dressed in red, guarding the river so Hussain’s men could not drink from it.

A body hanging from a noose and countless bodies on the ground. Finally, Hussain himself, bloody and pierced with arrows. A few women gasped and wailed upon seeing Hussain’s body, but most cared more about the men distributing bread from the last truck.

I lingered for a while, then made my way through the crowd, past the roundabout filled with picnicking families and into the adjacent street where the atmosphere was more jovial. A parking lot had been transformed into an open-air theatre and actors were re-enacting the battle of Karbala, which mostly includes a lot of horse-riding and one dejected-looking camel.

In true Shakespearean fashion, the wife of Hussain was played by a man in a chador. On the street men with teapots were making their rounds, refilling empty glasses and giving out sweets.

A body hanging from a noose and countless bodies on the ground. Finally, Hussain himself, bloody and pierced with arrows. A few women gasped and wailed upon seeing Hussain’s body, but most cared more about the men distributing bread from the last truck.

Groups of women sat on the wall overlooking the horse-mounted thespians, gossiping and laughing, while the younger crowd looked delighted at finally being able to mingle with the opposite sex and practice their flirting skills.

I walked around without a real goal or purpose, taking it all in. Eventually I made it back to the main square, where the crowd has become denser as the singing and chest-thumping reached its peak.

While self-flagellation is an integral part of Ashura, blood-letting and cutting has been forbidden in Iran. Instead, the men symbolically lash their backs with light chains while crying for Hussain.

Men in Iran
Photo credit: Zvone Šeruga

It would have been easy to pick and choose, to play along with the familiar tropes of Muslims as religious zealots bent on waging Holy War, but that would have been neither true nor particularly insightful.

While self-flagellation is an integral part of Ashura, blood-letting and cutting has been forbidden in Iran. Instead, the men symbolically lash their backs with light chains while crying for Hussain.

Granted, the average Shi’a volunteer might be more willing to die for his country and, by extension, for his faith, than an 19-year- old professional soldier who only joined the forces so he can afford to go to college afterwards. But this fact only inspires prejudice and fear because it is a contemporary phenomenon and because these men are on “their” side, not “ours”.

Meanwhile the men of myth and ancient lore who fearlessly walked into battle, certain of their demise, are praised as “real men” – the Vikings who yearned for Valhalla and death in battle, the fearless Spartans.

These days most educated young Iranian men and women detest the fetishization of death and its political  exploitation, dismissing Ashura as “ignorant”, or “just for show”. Indeed, while the singing, thumping and wailing might be the most recognizable, and the most exotic part of Ashura, it was also a very small part of it.

For most people, the religious holiday is an excuse to get out of the house, meet some friends, eat, laugh and gossip. Despite the morbid undertones of the event, everyone was exceptionally friendly to me, keeping me in steady supply of tea and sweets and eager to talk about Iran and life in Europe.

My father had spent the day taking photos in the front of the square, in the middle of that large singing, chest-thumping, self- flagellating crowd full of men, and found them all to be unfailingly lovely people. And no, no one has tried to “convert”us.

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Rather than the religiously-obsessed wild-eyed maniacs that a Westerner might imagine them to be, I found the everyday Iranian to be extremely tolerant in his beliefs and eager to reach out and connect with the wider world, which has so narrow-mindedly branded them as hysterical Muslims.

Kaja Šeruga

Kaja Šeruga is Slovenian by birth, a cultural anthropologist by education, non-fiction writer by passion and, due to lucky parentage, a world-traveller since the age of five. She is currently doing an international master's degree in Global Studies, focusing on global migration flows and forced displacement. She can be found somewhere between Berlin (HU), Buenos Aires (FLACSO) and Delhi (JNU) or online at www.ramblingdays.com.

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