Mosques, Martyrs, and Men in Chadors: Travels in Iran During Muharram

Iran feature

PART I: The Prince of Martyrs and the boys that followed in his footsteps
I arrived to Iran on the first day of Muharram, the month of mourning for Imam Hussain which reaches its peak in Ashura, the most important religious holiday of Shi’a Islam.

In the days leading up to Ashura a festively morbid atmosphere permeates the country – black flags fly at full-mast, complemented by countless little black flags strung along rooftops and between streetlamps.

A large fountain at the center of the roundabout spouts red water, symbolizing the blood of martyrs, and even some of the cars driving around it have received a makeover for the occasion, with slogans written on the rear window and fake blood smeared on the hood and trunk.

Men and women, all in black, spend their evenings in Hussainias, large congregation halls, to mourn the death of Imam Hussain, meet up with their friends and enjoy the free food that is distributed at the end of the service. In order to keep mourners in top form makeshift tea- and food stalls spring up all over town and give out free tea, cocoa and sweets to passersby.

During this month even Ayatollahs Khomeini and Khamenei, the omnipresent past and present Supreme Leaders of Iran, are reduced to sidekick status as drawings of Imam Hussain take center stage, gazing soulfully from billboards, posters and bumper stickers.

With long wavy brown hair, full lips framed by magnificently shiny facial hair and green eyes lined with black kohl, Imam Hussain looks unnervingly like Angelina Jolie with a beard, and is every bit the heartthrob that the adoring masses deserve. He even has a white steed, though the poor animal is usually depicted pierced with arrows and smeared with blood.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

So what is all the fuss about? If you are not familiar with Shi’a lore, here are the CliffsNotes: As the Prophet Muhammad died in 632 he left no male heirs, causing a dispute over his succession. One group supported Ali ibn Abi Talib, the Prophet’s cousin and son-in- law, and supposedly an all-round good guy.

With long wavy brown hair, full lips framed by magnificently shiny facial hair and green eyes lined with black kohl, Imam Hussain looks unnervingly like Angelina Jolie with a beard, and is every bit the heartthrob that the adoring masses deserve.

His supporters called themselves the party of Ali – Shi’a Ali, or simply the Shi’a. Ali’s claim to the caliphate was ignored and three others took the throne before he became caliph in 656, only to be murdered five years later by his political adversaries and becoming the first Shi’a martyr.

As the line of Syrian caliphs that claimed the caliphate became increasingly worldly and nepotistic, Ali’s son Hussain decided to overthrow them in order to restore the Islamic values of social justice and, by becoming caliph himself, return the caliphate to the family of the Prophet. Though not part of the official party line, the thought of avenging his father’s death must have further spurned on Hussain as he embarked on a pilgrimage to Mecca to carry out his plan.

What followed is the massacre that is mourned and re-enacted every year in Shi’a communities across the world – Hussain and 72 of his supporters, along with his brother and six-month- old-son, were massacred by the army of Yazid after refusing to swear allegiance to him, giving their lives to protect Prophet Muhammad’s legacy.

Some scholars claim that the battle of Karbala, in today’s Iraq, marks the beginning of Shiism as a religious movement, rather than a political one, and it remains crucial to understanding contemporary Shi’a and Iranian society.

The deaths of Ali and Imam Hussain mark the genesis of a cult of martyrdom which was used to great effect in the months leading up to the 79′ revolution, as Khomeini politicized an old saying: “Every day is Ashura and every place is Karbala”.

Parallels were drawn between Hussain’s quest to wrestle the power from a power-hungry and corrupt ruler and the Iranian people’s struggle against the Shah, endowing it with an air of religious legitimacy that reached far beyond the urban politically engaged masses. However, the Iranian reverence for martyrdom only reached its full and bloodiest political potential during the Iran-Iraq war (1980-1988), which claimed over half a million Iranian lives.

When Iraq invaded Iran in 1980 Khomeini was quick to declare the defense of Iran a Holy War. The propaganda machine worked overtime, again comparing the war to the battle of Karbala and fondly proclaiming Iranians to be “a martyr-breeding nation”.

Thousands of volunteers, some as young as thirteen, joined the Sacred Defense. Some of them cleared minefields by walking across them, with a key to heaven hung around their necks; they would call out Imam Hussain’s name as their body was blown to pieces.

Because you see, one does not simply die in a Holy War. Rather, one is martyred, the soul ascending directly to heaven even as the mangled remains of the earthly body still twitch and spasm in agony.

Iran Travel

Iran Art

Thousands of volunteers, some as young as thirteen, joined the Sacred Defense. Some of them cleared minefields by walking across them, with a key to heaven hung around their necks; they would call out Imam Hussain’s name as their body was blown to pieces.

Not surprisingly, no high-ranking clerics chose to experience this “sweet martyr’s death” firsthand. Instead, Khomeini refused a peace offering in 1983 even though Iran’s invaded territory had been reclaimed and the offered $70 billion in war reparations could have saved the crippled economy.

The war needlessly dragged on for another five years and a cynic might say that the estimated 200.000 soldiers who died after 1983 sacrificed their lives not to protect their country or religion, but simply because the government needed them to die in order to maintain their hold on power.

Walking around towns and villages in Iran today, one is observed from all sides by the war martyrs who stare down from murals, billboards and countless sun-bleached posters. Young men with thick black beards and young boys with peach fuzz on their upper lip, some laughing and others affecting the determined look of a holy warrior.

To this day, the traumatic collective memory of some 300.000 young men who sacrificed their lives comes in handy as way of guilt-tripping the nation into obedience.

Walking around towns and villages in Iran today, one is observed from all sides by the war martyrs who stare down from murals, billboards and countless sun-bleached posters.

After all, “the martyrs fought for Islam and the revolution, not for democracy”  and by criticizing the war or the regime that came to power with the Islamic Revolution one implicitly dismisses the volunteers of the Sacred Defense as gullible fools.

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.

No Comments Yet

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>

*