Two weeks ago, Tehran, as well as many other cities in Iran, were once again the scene of mourning rituals for the 1364th anniversary of the alleged killing of the third Shiite saint (a.k.a. Imam). To Iranians, religious and non-religious alike, the whole practice has become as ordinary a phenomenon as a rainfall in the autumn, but for many, especially the people in the West, such ferocious display of grief over the death of a person who has been dead for the past fourteen centuries is simply unfathomable. It might be a perfectly valid question to ask why the ritual is performed by the Shiites with such intensity and passion that often leads to violent, obscene and barbaric performances, but I am personally more interested to know why people still perform the ritual at all.
When I was an elementary school boy, in our "religious teachings" course, they used to tell us all about the gory details of that day's battle. About how the hands of the brave brother of Imam were chopped off, or how Imam's little child was brutally killed, or how the Imam himself was beheaded by his enemies; and then the teachers told us about how it was our religious duty to cherish and revive the memory of the grave injustice that befell the Imam. "Alright," I used to say to myself, "but why in the world do you people have to hit yourselves and scream like maniacs?" It was as if the whole enterprise seemed perfectly justified, and all I could not understand was merely the way it was conducted. At some point I actually used to feel guilty that I could not shed a tear for the man who was said to have been deserted by his friends, betrayed by his allies, and decapitated by his enemies. Never in my wildest imaginations as a child, dared I question the authenticity of all those emotions. It all seemed genuine to me. I cannot blame myself for that. It was the early 1360's and I was just a kid.
Some people, especially mothers, vow to cook and give away food on the day of Imam's alleged martyrdom if "God gives them what they have wished for." A huge number of people usually line up to get a piece of that food, not necessarily because they can't afford to buy food, but because it is believed by some that "Imam's food," as they call it, has healing powers; or at least that's the excuse for demeaning themselves for getting a lousy piece of that food. (Picture by: Nader Davoodi, courtesy of iranian.com)
Things did not however remain the same. Sometime between now and then I gradually started to develop this, sometimes explicit and sometimes prudent, feeling of contempt towards everyone and everything that exhibited any religious flavor or tendency. Regardless of what caused this feeling, which might partly be due to the contemptible nature of many of the people who claim to be the representatives of different religions, it all led me to this rather immature, simplistic, and typically mediocre conclusion that all those who practice religion, especially Islam and Shiism, are plainly stupid, well-below-average-intelligence individuals. "What else in the world do these idiots need to see before they finally realize how stupid this whole thing is?" I kept asking myself. "Haven't they seen too much already to still believe in the rubbish preached by a Mullah? - The likes of that Mullah who had the run-away girls in a so-called Center for Islamic Orientation work as prostitutes, or the one who made women into doing him sexual favors in exchange for a legal permission to annul their marriage to their abusive husbands?" I came to this conclusion that no individual with the least bit of sanity and common sense would continue to believe in this nonsense of tragedy, let alone mourn over it with such ferocity, and sometimes, barbarity.
This year, however, something happened that made me reevaluate my argument and the conclusion I had reached at. A group of people, mostly young men and women, or better to say boys and girls, from the northern, typically rich, neighborhoods of Tehran, gathered together, and in their own "eccentric" way, performed mourning rituals for the death of the Imam. Never mind the events that occurred afterwards and their being beaten up for their "eccentricity", and for perverting a noble practice of savagery into nothing more than the little girls' softball. This whole event demonstrated the different roles such ceremonies and rituals play in the lives of different people.
My previous conclusion was based on the premise that every religious ceremony signifies the deep religious beliefs of its participants; that every public display of religious convictions is yet another blessing extended to the regime by the people; that all those who hold and participate in such ceremonies truly grieve the death of someone killed fourteen centuries ago, allegedly for the noble cause of keeping "the pure Mohammedan Islam" alive. The truth is, Muharram today is nothing more to many people in Iran than what the Oktoberfest is to the Germans, or corrida de toros is to the Spaniards.
The heavy iron emblem of the mourning platoon, called "Alam" in Farsi. It is usually carried by one man ahead of the rest of the mourning crowd. In this picture, people watching the young man bear the heavy thing on his shoulders reward him with some cash. (Picture by Soheil Poorgolnar. Courtesy of 7sang.com)
It is a time of year when people can gather together and break out of the habit of living a metropolitan life in which every one is busy and no one will even notice if the next door neighbor is dead in her apartment. It is an excuse to stay out all through midnight and early in morning. It is the time when boys meet girls. The youth of the neighborhood proudly show off their muscular abilities to the girls by skillfully handling the big heavy iron emblem of the mourning platoon. It is a time for them to exhibit their underappreciated vocal and musical skills, and again, to some it is merely a business. Big season to sell sheep for sacrifice, to get subsidized rice and other much-craved-for necessities from the government to cook a bit for the poor and take the rest to one's own home. To a few, it is still a time when they can shed a tear. For what? It does not really matter. It could be for your dead loved one, your long lost love, your failed exam or your shattered dream, or simply for nothing but to do what you rarely get the chance to: to cry and unload yourself, to get a good dose of "the opium for the masses". And yet, it is the season for the savage fanatics, to wail, scream, and beat on their empty skulls, and sometimes even slash their head, or that of their baby, with sharp blades.
I do not intend to question the authenticity and sincerity of the feelings of the very few who actually believe they should bemoan the death of their holy Imam, and I still am disdainful of the not so few individuals who insist on keeping alive the traditions and the practice of savage men in the twenty-first century, but I think the reason why such rituals are still being so widely performed today, has very little to do with beliefs or religion per se. In a country where big crowds of people in the streets are considered a threat to the "national" security no matter what their cause, be it demonstrations or merely victory celebrations for the national soccer team, an occasion such as Muharram serves as a rare opportunity for many to pursue their own agenda without major fears of harassment by the regime.