Seventh Edition September 2004 - Shahrivar 1383
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Imam Hussein, A Real Man
Ashura Rites Revive Debates About Islam Among Iran's Youth

Nahid Siamdoust

These days, the resolute eyes of a beautiful man dressed in robes of verdant green, the color of Islam, gaze at Iranians across the country from large canvases ornamenting the streets. The martyrdom of Imam Hussein, the Twelver-Imam Shia sect’s third Imam, is commemorated across the Shia Muslim world. But nowhere are the rites and rituals as elaborate and widespread as in Iran, the only Muslim country with above 90% Shia population.

Since Friday more than two weeks ago, mournful boys and men of all ages have marched the streets dressed in black, thumping huge Yamaha drums and clashing large golden cymbals, solemnly beating their chests in sympathy for Hussein’s cause and suffering, followed by women and girls.

The Imam’s battle at Karbala is the historically defining moment for Shia identity. Processions begin on the first of the month of Moharram, climaxing ten days later to Ashura, the day on which Imam Hussein was slain.

“In modern day terms,” explains cab driver Ali Purmohammadi, “the people of Kufa in modern-day Iraq sent Imam Hussein an email, telling him of the terribly misguided rule of Yazid in Arab lands, the human rights violations, the slavery, the oppression and tyranny, all in the guise of Islam. They pleaded, “Would you please rescue us and lead us to the right path?” Purmohammadi pauses to pay closer attention to the street where slaughtered sheep lie on the ground and another is being beheaded. It’s a ritual to sacrifice sheep on important religious events and distribute the meat among family, friends, neighbors, and the needy.

Imam Hussein heeded the call of the oppressed, but when he reached Karbala, close to Kufa, his group of 72 members - consisting of men, women and children - was faced with an army of thousands, equipped with frightening armor. Yazid asked Hussein to submit to his rule. Unwilling to compromise with a ruler he viewed as the destroyer of Islam, Hussein took to the battlefield and was beheaded. To this day, Imam Hussein’s martyrdom epitomizes the path of justice and defiance against oppression.

In most Iranian neighborhoods there is at least one grassroots group called hey’at, organized and financed mainly by residents. In the nine days leading up to Ashura, these hey’ats organize mourning gatherings, make and distribute lunch and dinner to the neighborhood, and march the streets daily to demonstrate their passion.

On Ashura, people pour into the streets to watch the testosterone-filled processions, where young men march in-step and beat their backs with chains that leave them black and purple, wave flags and carry heavy metal structures as wide as twenty meters, called alams. A fully Iranian invention that combines Persian and Islamic emblems, the alam symbolizes Imam Hussein’s courage to fight against oppression.

“It isn’t proper to weigh the alam,” says 33-year old Ali Bakhtiari, with sweat running down his forehead and veins bulging from his pumped biceps, as he takes a rest from lifting. “Imam Hussein carried the weight of the world on his shoulders, he showed us the path of light. No one can boast about carrying the alam, even if it weighs 500 kilograms,” adds Bakhtiari, who leaves his job as tailor for ten days each year to join his neighborhood hey’at, “for the love of Hussein.”

Iran wasn’t always crazy about Hussein. After the Arab invasion in the seventh century, the country’s Muslim population was predominantly Sunni for centuries. It was only about 500 years ago that the founder of the Safavid Dynasty embraced Shiism in order to unify a scattered nation, and mobilize it against the aggressions of the Sunni Ottoman Turks.

More than 1300 years after his death, Imam Hussein, the grandson of the Prophet Mohammed, called the “Lord of Martyrs,” holds an important spot in the hearts and imaginations of Iranians. Most know his axiom by heart, “Better to die in dignity than to live in humiliation!” Still, the message of Imam Hussein’s battle at Karbala holds different meanings for the lives of Iranians today.

Standing behind a three-feet tall samovar on the sidewalk in southern Tehran, 14-year old Fariba pours tea for the passersby. She has made a nazr, a wish. They are as eager to drink the tea as Fariba is to provide it. The tea for Imam Hussein will bring blessings for both sides. That explains why even chic uptown women with the latest Chanel sunglasses and Gucci purses are not ashamed to stand in line just to get a serving of Imam Hossein meal, wherever it is handed out.

“He was a real man,” says Fariba, offering sweets in between, “he sacrificed his life for Islam. Today’s men don’t have that sort of courage.” The high school freshman looks at a severe looking bearded man she suspects of being a basiji, an Islamic militia member, and lowers her voice, “Most importantly, Imam Hussein preached the right Islam. These people today think that if you listen to music, or if your hair spills out from underneath the veil, you’re not a Muslim. They got it wrong,” she whispers with eyes radiating confidence.

Around the block in this conservative neighborhood, a family has transformed their house into a hey’at. In the yard, several professionals, including a judge, sweat in the heat raised by stove fires boiling six pots large enough to contain three adults, move around hectically, stir, wash, fill food containers, and work to feed two thousand people.

Next door in the curtained-off section, women in chadors are sitting on the ground, listening to a mullah talking about Imam Hussein’s life, crying and slapping their chests. Mohadesse Javadi, the house owner’s daughter, says the life of Imam Hussein is extremely pertinent today. “All days are Ashura and all lands are Karbala,” says the 21-year old theology student. “We must always defy oppression, whether it’s Yazid or the United States. The US is the de facto Yazid of our times, raping borders and disrupting people’s security.”

Further uptown in the trendy Mohseni Square, young boys and girls have gathered as in recent years, for “love and fun,” as one of them says. They are wearing the latest outfits and coiffures, eyeing each other, socializing, and “seeing and being seen,” as another puts it. This square has been a trouble spot for some years, attracting young uptown kids who call this a “Hossein Party.” This year a stage has been set up further down the square to transfer attention from the Hossein Party to the Battle of Karbala. On stage, a man points to images on a canvas and recounts the events of Ashura in a dramatic fashion.

The two girlfriends Sara and Sareh stand and listen intently. They are part of the minority, as the majority prefers to socialize away from the stage. “Islam has lost its meaning for many. That is the only way you can explain those air-headed girls over there, who care more about make-up and clothes than anything else,” says 25-year old architect Sara with a condescending tone. “They’ve shown a face of Islam that only demands prayer and fasting. But prayer and fasting are only means to reaching the ultimate goal, to be close to God.” Sareh jumps in, “Islam guides us to Think Well, Speak Well, Act Well, just like the Zoroastrian tenet. At least tonight, out of respect for Imam Hussein, they could have stayed home.”

“I respect Imam Hussein,” protests 19-year old Atila, his stylishly gelled hair reflecting the green lamps on the trees. “I don’t drink alcohol during this month,” he says, puffing on his cigarette, “but how many nights do you think we have for socializing outside? Very few, three at most. Unless Iran wins an important soccer game, then maybe four.” His friend Abuzar, 19, chips in, “No one says Islam is bad. But where are we supposed to go?”

“All the kids you see today,” says 28-year old architect Kamyar Tezval, “used to have their cartoon programs on TV interrupted by the Quran and the call to prayer.” Watching the passion play with his wife, his eyes like those of many others are filled with tears, Tezval adds, “The Quran is a beautiful thing. If you read it, you will love it. But if they constantly beat you over the head with it, you might end up developing an aversion.”

In a neighborhood not far away, a crowd of a different sort is mourning Imam Hussein’s martyrdom. The up-and-coming Helali, a maddah, who laments and sings on religious events, is leading the gathering. His audience consists of young people representing the polar opposite of the kids at Mohseni Square. They are firm supporters of the regime and many of them are basijis. The lights are switched off as Hellali eulogizes in his melodic way, denigrating himself and lamenting that he’s not pure enough to visit the Master’s (Imam Hussein) tomb in Karbala. You can hear the men on the other side of the curtain beating their bare chests. Some of the women get up and begin thumping their chests, too, lost in a trance.

But even many of the uptown kids listen to Helali’s tapes around the month of Moharram. He uses rhythmic melodies, and has even borrowed from Persian hit songs produced in Los Angeles for his performances. “It’s like a weapon in a war,” says the charismatic 22-year old, “the enemy might use it, but if I use it with the right purpose, there’s nothing wrong with that. The Quran, too, is melodic.” The soft-spoken Helali wears the sort of long beard that instantly signals his religiosity. He says those who make the kind of music coming out of LA might sing for the devil, but he and his likes sing for Imam Hussein. “Us Hosseinis are very rich. Not everyone is capable of loving Imam Hussein.”

On the night of Ashura, as predicted, Mohseni Square becomes the site of clashes. Basijis from other parts of Tehran raid the square on their motorbikes and start beating the kids, some of whom flee and are given refuge in the hallways of house owners around the square. The police fire several shots in the air, and soon, the crowd disperses.

“We all know each other,” says 20-year old computer studies student Arash, as he walks away from the square with his friend, his trendy scarf waving in the winter air. His father calls on his mobile phone to make sure he’s safe and on his way home. “We’re all the uptown kids. The basijis know they can scare us away with a few club hits. They can’t do this with downtown kids. They would fight back. We just run away,” he shrugs.

On their way home, the two friends stop at a candle stand. On the night of Ashura, people burn candles everywhere, on sidewalk stands, in mosques and councils, to lighten up Imam Hussein’s first night in the other world. As an image of the Prophet Mohammad’s grandson looks on, the two friends light a candle and make a wish. “I can’t say what I wished for, or it wouldn’t come true,” says Arash. “That Iran may beat Japan in the upcoming soccer game,” his friend throws in, laughing and patting Arash on the back.

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