For some reason I don't clearly understand, a stream of sadness seems to run through Iranian culture. One that you can feel while listening to Badizadeh or Banan, reading the Shahnameh or just looking at every day lives.
The sounds keep coming and coming and don't stop 'till noon. A drum followed by another instrument that I can't quite recognize. How many more days of this? I check the calendar and feel like hitting my head against a wall. This year, Noruz holidays and Ashura, which are the complete opposite of each other, have coincided.
People are always ready to start their azaadaari, or mourning for the death of the prophet or other holy men, ten days ahead of time. But when this same religion gives them a holiday to celebrate, they shrug it off with a minimal observance.
The money, time and energy spent for uncheerful occasions can't at all compare with anything else. A distant relative's funeral must be attended, but going to a wedding isn't as necessary. Mourning for the death of a loved one must at least take 40 days, but births are never considered that big of a deal. In Iraj Pezeshkzad's My Uncle Napoleon, Farokh Legha seems to be an exaggerated version of Iranian society.
Though most people blame the government for this sad, gloomy atmosphere, it's easy to see that they themselves perpetuate it in many ways themselves. Even before Islam, a ceremony much like Ashura was held in some parts of this land. Called “Kin-e Siavash”, it was held to honor the memory of a great but innocent prince mentioned in the Avesta, whose end was not the happiest of ones.
People mourned and cried for their lost warrior — and they haven't stopped since.
It's weird to see the differences in holding a ceremony that seems to have clear rules. In uptown Maydan-e Mohseni, boys and girls gather for an “Ashura Party” as they call it. A singer sounding much like Siavash Ghomeishi or Sattar, sings away for the martyred Imam Hossein, while mourners dressed in their best, pancaked in makeup or hair dipped in grease, laugh away and exchange phone numbers.
In midtown Maydan-e Haft-e Tir, there is democracy — boys and girls go their own way and the older people indulge in their own activities.
But downtown, particularly near the bazaar, you can still see the “real” thing. Teenaged boys in jeans and Nike T-shirts, young men and old ones in various wardrobes, chant away while all the time hitting their backs with small metal chains. And women — tagging along in the back, as usual — listen to the main singer's voice, talk away or cry.
Things can get messy sometimes.
— “Get back to where the other women are sitting. You shouldn't be standing in this truck.”
— “But you let those two boys go up with their camcorders.”
— “This is my truck and I can do whatever I want. Go back.”
— “But this ISN'T your truck…”
We raise our voices, and almost start shouting, getting a little nasty. Then another man, who looks like a complete version of a “Haj Agha” with a huge belly, messy beard and a shirt that's dangling out of his trousers, comes our way. He sounds a lot nicer than he looks. He asks what the argument is about. He agrees to let me go up in the truck, if I fix my rousari. I obey willingly, since I can't film anything on ground level.
Then comes a sound best described as jingling bells but much different than that, followed by drums. A group of men, form a circle, holding drums or another instrument I've never seen. They start playing while moving huge red or black flags in the air. The musicians have a leader who stands in the middle of the circle, a clean-shaved man wearing a black suit who guides them along. They play for about 15 minutes and then suddenly stop.
The orator starts to talk about the martyrdom of Imam Hossein, his sister, his sons and his 72 followers. The men form big circles, beat their chests, and move to the rhythm of the music.
After a while, another man starts talking over the speakers and asks people to sit down. Mourners sit under trees, near the square or just in the middle of the street. They have their hands covering their faces and seem to be crying, which makes me feel guilty because I'm not.
I watch that huge crowd with wonder. It is a sad story, but all these tears could not be shed just for that. This is a chance so they can cry for their personal problems or terrible ordeals which seem to have no end.
It's an opportunity to scream out for their burdens, sick children and unpaid bills in front of everyone else without having to feel embarrassed, without having to get beaten or sent to jail for “disturbing the peace” or “insulting” the government. It's a problem that has existed in this country for far too long, showing itself in different ways and changing its appearance every few years, never giving the anyone the freedom to scream out and be heard.
It is the story of a group, far away in time and place, who've had a terrible burden in their lives. The story is much different from what people in Iran are suffering from, but it's suffering just the same. They are martyrs they CAN cry about.
The legend of Ashura — or Siavash for that matter — has not lived on this long just because of the those who made them happen, but because of all of these people in front of me now, and the many who came and went throughout the centuries past.
People are carrying different strange-shaped objects — large flags, metal birds, lamps and hands on top of sticks held up high. I'm reminded of the beautiful green tents with many decorations built in Abyaneh, a village in Kashan. The tents and the figurines seems to hold a mysterious kind of beauty.
This whole ceremony, in a way I can't quite understand, seems to have those qualities as well.
“Want to see it again next year?” My uncle asks.
“Not really sure. . . ” and we head back to the car.
The following night, while sitting comfortably at home, I hear them again. The dasteh is out chanting. Every neighborhood has one. A group of one or two hundred men meet at a large black tent called the tekiyeh, put up especially for the Moharram mourning ceremonies.
The local dasteh has passed by my house the last few nights, but they're awfully quite tonight. I peek through the window. They are holding candles and murmuring. This ceremony is called Shaam-e Gharibaan, held in memory of all those who survived that terrible war in Karbala 1,321 years ago.
Tomorrow the huge black tent will be put away; the flags will be brought down and saved for next year.
There exists a weird kind of atmosphere throughout the city during these days of mourning; a gloomy kind of feeling that scares and saddens, and makes me feel like I'd like to sleep in for the next few days.
Maybe it's the black flags, or the sound of drums that never stop, or the simple fact that more than a few thousand years after Siavash's death, or a thousand after the Imams, people are still grieving.
Najmeh Fakhraie is a 17-year-old student in Tehran.