Shortly after my to Iran, arrival at the beginning of October, I noticed at various cities some shops dedicated to the sale of flags and banners dominated by the black colour, with Arabic inscriptions. From day to day it seemed that these shops increased in number or simply just became more evident, in the bazaars and city streets, exposing also more goods that also included scarves, pants, shirts and veils.
But it was on the second day after arrival in Kashan, when the moon is no longer visible in the sky, that I felt that something had changed in the city… streets decorated with banners, bazaars corridors decorated with flags, all invariably black with green or red inscriptions, many women in chador, men in black shirt… a kind of collective mourning. It was the beginning of Muharram the first month of the Islamic calendar that begins with the new moon, making the dates movable in the Gregorian calendar.
Muharram is the second most sacred celebration for Muslims after the Ramadan, and for the Shiites (Shia) sect has a special meaning as in the 10th day of Muharram, the Ashura Day, is celebrated the death of Hussein (Husayn or Hossein), grandson of Muhammad and one of the 12 Imams (sort of saints or apostles of Muslim religion) the prophet’s successors.
In the year 680 AD, Imam Hussein and 72 of his followers were surrounded for nine days, going through suffering without food and water, been killed on the 10th day at the Battle of Karbala and the survivors imprisoned. This episode, seen as a struggle between good, Hussein, and evil, personified by Caliph Yazid I that commanding Arab troops invaded Persia, marks the split between the Muslim Sunnis (Sunni) and Shiites (Shia).
These events occurred 1335 years ago, are celebrated in a intense and emotional way with the manifestations of grief and pain become more intense, more strict black clothes for both men and women, processions, weeping and crying, beating with the hand in the chest, and with the men carrying heavy floats over the head or shoulders, or practicing self-flagellation with chains that are thrown on the shoulders against the back during processions.
The last three days are the most important; feeling tension in the air with the arrival of dusk, when the celebrations starts, on the streets or in mosques, reaching its peak in the tenth day, Day of Ashura, which means “tenth”.
During the days before the Ashura, songs related to the martyrdom of Hussein, sung as a lament, following the rhythm of the drums beat, spread in the streets, coming from shops, cars or houses. The same rhythm that drives the night ceremonies, of chest beating and shooting currents; an intense and heavy rhythm, and a male dominated ceremony where women have a secondary place.
All this devotion, were is not unusual for people to cry, the songs like wails, the black that dominates the decor and the clothes, the excitement and intensity placed in the ceremonies, create an extremely intense and emotional atmosphere that can only be experienced on site. According to tradition who shed tears during Ashura, have their wishes fulfilled by Imam Hussein, and it is not uncommon to see men cry following the words of a speaker who chantings recounts the martyrdom of Hussein.
A quick look can see all these exaggerated manifestations with religious fanaticism, but what I felt was a deep and honest devotion… with a hint of competitiveness and even exhibitionism in the way young men beat their chests, knowing that are observed by women at the masque galleries.
The day after the Ashura, carried out the Ashura Carnival: a parade were groups of people and cars show the various episodes of the martyrdom of Hussein and his followers. At the end of this procession resembles a carnival parade, but instead of fun dominates a serious atmosphere of sorrow, but already away from the intensity of the previous day.
The celebrations end on that same night with the people gathering at mosques and squares elsewhere in the city of Yazd, where he watched the last days of Ashura, to light candles which gives a special atmosphere of calm and serenity.
The Ashura is celebrated all over the world where you are presented with a Shiite community, and the celebrations in Iran much more moderate than is often found in images from other countries like Pakistan or Iraq where the self-flagellation of practice is taken to extreme, causing serious wounds in participating, attitude condemned by many religious. Iran this practice is forbidden, and despite the ills left by the violent beating of hands against his chest, and shoot chains against the back, does not reach exaggerated proportions or trance states, with the population showing restrained, despite the bustle and excitement that sits in the air.
Being in Iran during Ashura, by chance, was certainly a unique, intense and unforgettable experience, while at the same time been a period a bit “heavy” resulting from all solemnity and austerity that has spread among the population, that not so let him show the usual generosity and sympathy.
During these days it is offered tea in small stalls improvised a bit all over the place, and sometimes is also offered food, as Gheimeh a lamb stew, with lentils and vegetables served with rice and Sholehzard, a rice pudding with saffron. Other traditional meal is the ash soup, with lamb that is cooked by volunteers all night, getting ready the next morning for being distributed on breakfast.
During Ashura, in particular in the last 3 days:
The last three days most of the shops are closed, including banks, exchange shops, restaurants, grocery stores, etc… yet lots of food is distributed free during the celebrations near the mosques, at some shops, bakeries or by local people. As alternative just left the hotel restaurants.
Many bus services, both local and long distance are canceled.
Should dress modestly, avoiding shiny or light colors clothing, special inside or nearby the mosques… but for tourists these rules are always more loose.
As it is a period of grief and mourning, should be avoided public show of great enthusiasm, dancing, listen to music, laugh out loud …
Imam Hussein Fan Club:
The Ashura is celebrated across Iran, in cities as in small towns, and celebrations can be seen both on city streets or mosques, being the free access. Inside the mosques the men can stay in the main ground, but the women usually must go to galleries on upper floor or stay in reserved areas on the back of the mosque.
A bit by chance, I joined a group called Imam Hussein Fan Club, which no commercial intentions organized tour for tourists present in Yazd, during the last days of Ashura. This group, made up of tourist guides had also the aim to encourage the so-called “religious tourism” and above all promoting Iran in terms of tourism, tried to clean the image of Islamic radicals that often this country is cataloged.
An excellent organization that provided access to reserved areas at the mosques, transportation to visit other ways to celebrate Ashura away from the center of Yazd, and even some meals. However, all this organization offers little space to anyone wandering on their own, with the various elements of the organization not giving much freedom of movement.