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Other than the two lines of men stepping in rhythm to a deathly slow drum beat, I knew exactly what was coming. I've been partial witness to such activities before, yet this time around I figured I should look on with the many others who nonchalantly witness this annual Shia ceremony. I was too squeamish though, not yet toughened to the Iranian ways and chose to hide, cowardly, behind a screen again.

I raced around, double-time to the beat, framing shots and occupying my mind with documentation. My pacing was mirrored by the... butcher, I guess, as we both condensed time before our work begun. It seemed the two lines of men, whipping their backs to the beat, had reached the appropriate point, the drum beat changed pace: quickened with three bass beats to the snare. The chants of "Hossein" blended back-to-back as the sacrificial sheep was rotated on its back by two helping men. I watched through the display on my camera phone whilst pressing the capture button repeatedly, seeing staggered shots of the butcher opening the neck of the sheep thus transfering the bright warm blood to the tarmac. I was alone in fascination, measured by my little brother who chuckled before telling me that it was "disgusting".

My Dad had been alluding to the many rituals throughout Moharram, a period of remembrance for the Shia faith, where the battle of Karbala and Imam Hossein meet with unpleasant consequences. Yet there is still a lot I must learn of this story or at least be taught. My ignorance however was not acceptable during this period and I could not help but seem to agitate my family by what seemed like normal behavior. As I was dragged around on this national holiday I would often stumble on words that required stern correction and actions that required rapid amendment. This fueled a frustration as I found it ludicrous that I should be scolded without enlightenment or warning.

The lights went out in the local mosque I visited with my cousin in Tehran. Many men rushed forward to sit before the celebrity Maddah (a person who sings/praises the Imams). Almost with the first of many "Hossein"s that were to follow I heard a loud... whimper, I think. It had to be, these two days are not for laughing I was assured. This triggered more feedback as the mosque flooded with groans, whines and tears. I itched to ask my cousin what was happening but didn't wish to interrupt the unfolding scenes.

The men started slapping their heads with the lyrics, beating their chests for a rhythm and crying out of time. There seemed to be three parts to this composition, mixture of Arabic and Farsi verse, broken with a repetitive "Hossein" chorus, and later, two rotating circles of topless men alternating in verse. The beat jumped between two tempos, firstly slapping with one hand followed by occasional slaps with two - hard slaps followed by really hard slaps. The questions mounted, before they clotted inside me resulting in a rare moment of silence in my head. I absorbed the moment, wide eyed, open mouthed and all ears. The celebrity Maddah continued, waving his torch around and occasionally bringing it to a booklet in his other hand. The whimpers followed his words as he guided us through this 2-hour episode, only twice having to hang-up his mobile during the proceedings.

Following the ceremony and meal my cousin was keen to join his friend in a visit to Shariati Street. I joined them on the short walk in the rain only to later realise the real purpose of our visit. It appeared that we'd turned up at a carnival, yet such things would be strictly forbidden. Bad weather had not deterred the many girls and boys from turning up to parade themselves. Such a serious and sorrowful occasion seems to have provided the means for mixed socializing - unheard of here. I was amazed at this bipolar occurrence as I looked on at the cracks in the street bursting with an eager and lustful youth sniffing at each other like dogs. My father later informed me that this used to be the illicit way the girls and boys would find their husband's or wife's but now apparently they look for someone to play with. It's funny what does and doesn't change.


  • Perhaps because it is such a solemn time people prefer not to discuss it altogether for newcomers? The majority of information I gathered regarding Muharram was through research I did myself since I was so curious.
    Anyway, the Maddah was on his phone?! The fact that he'd answer at all or not bother to turn it off or at least put it on silent... and during such a holy time for Muslims!
    What was the explanation for what occurred in the masjid? I've never heard of such a thing, but alas, many acts that occur within masjids remain mysteries to me.

    By Anonymous Tahereh, at 7:29 AM  

  • erm, the first sentence would make more sense had it read "Perhaps because it is such a solemn time Muslims prefer not to discuss it altogether to newcomers?"
    meh, bebakhsheed, man emshab khaily khastam.

    By Anonymous Tahereh, at 7:41 AM  

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