Turning the sacred into an instrument of joy
November 13, 2001
Change in Iran: An Eyewitness Account of Dissent, Defiance, and New Movements
for Rights by Behzad Yaghmaian (2002, State University of New York).
Yaghmaian is an associate professor of economics at Ramapo College of New
It was the Month of Moharram again, around the Norouz (New Year) I recall.
It was in Moharram that, nearly fourteen centuries ago, Imam Hossein, the
third Shiite Imam and a grandson of Mohammad the prophet, was martyred with
seventy-one comrades in a war with a large army of enemy soldiers in the
desert of Karbala.
I remembered Moharram from my childhood days in Tehran"a month of
mourning", self-beating, religious parades at nights, and free food
on the day Imam Hossein was martyred. I always liked going to the parades
with my friends. We could stay out until really late at night.
We also beat our chests imitating the adults, men in black shirts, and
the kids who seemed much more devoted than us. They cried for Imam Hossein,
beat their chests nearly to death, passed out, and were carried away by
the men in black. Brave, heroic, and devoted, they were envied by other
kids. Oh, how much I loved to be able to cry like them, and get carried
away by the men in black. But I could not. I was not really hurt, no matter
how much I tried to convince myself of the psychological pains of the loss
of Imam Hossein thirteen hundred years back. I guess I was not a good Shiite.
That was then. Now I was back in Tehran during the month Moharram many
years later. This was Moharram in the Islamic Republic, the state that celebrated
the martyrdom and dying for God and Islam, and made a virtue of mourning,
self-beating, sorrow, and worldly pain. This was Moharram during the 20th
anniversary of the Islamic Republic: no music on radio and television for
a month, unshaved men in black shirts, Quran readings, black flags, and
magnificent religious parades
Having spent long hours writing, tired of staring at my computer screen,
I heard the phone ring. "You are invited to a party tonight, a Hossein
Party," said the happy young relative, wishing to show me "the
other side of the Islamic Republic." I laughed, thinking that this
was a bad joke by my bored relative. A joke this was not! I was told of
Hossein Parties across the city that night. Curious and tired of writing,
I accepted the invitation.
A mild night in early spring, I waited for my sixteen-year old relative
in front of her parent,s flat, waiting for the "girls" to get
ready. And the girls appeared before my eyes in a column of seven. They
came dressed up, made up, wearing loud lipsticks and shoes with high soles
-- the fashion in the Islamic Republic. They came with nicely brushed hair,
scarves pushed back to reveal their young hair, and the scent of all types
of expensive and cheap perfumes filling the fresh air of this early spring
On our way to the party, we were joined by other teams of young teenage
girls and boys, all dressed in their best, wearing strong perfumes and colognes,
joyfully marching towards the big party of the night. Youthful laughter,
occasional ringing of cellular phones in the hands of the voyagers of joy,
and secrets whispered into the ears of friends -- this was the night I went
to a Hossein Party in Tehran, twenty years after the victory of the Islamic
And finally at the Hossein Party, I stood in the middle of a street in
the state of disbelief. A bright street, busy, noisy, and active -- this
was the site of the Hossein Party I attended in the 20th anniversary of
the Islamic Republic. I stood facing the local high school with walls covered
with black and green flags, loud Quran recitation from the loudspeakers
inside, and young men going in and out of the school, looking busy and important.
Hundreds of teenage boys and girls, festive looking and beautiful, they
created a spectacle of defiance in the Islamic Republic of Iran. Boys on
one side of the street, girls on the other side, boys driving around in
fancy cars, girls going up and down eyeing the boys -- they were the boys
and the girls of the Islamic Republic on the night before the martyrdom
of Imam Hossein. They stayed out late, marched in the parade, returned to
the school and stuffed their sensual selves with the free food -- rice and
curry, the courtesy of the Hossein Party!
Boys in blue jeans, hip hairdos, and cool shirts. They stroke their chests
in mourning, blinking at the girls marching behind them. Girls in expensive
shoes -- their best shoes indeed. They paraded, chanting words of "sorrow"
after their heroic boys. Eyes meeting eyes, hearts opening to hearts, the
sensation of desire and lust in the air, they exchanged phone numbers in
opportune moments, secretly arranged dates, found new mates, and made a
theater of deviance under the watchful eyes of the bearded men of the Islamic
They sinned, broke rules, transformed mourning into joy, and self-beating
into sensual body movements of young men and women in search of love. They
were the children of the Islamic Republic.
The next morning I was on my way to the Caspian Sea with friends for
a short vacation away from the chaos of Tehran -- a ritual for all the fortunate
citizens with a car, a villa by the sea, or money to pay for exorbitant
rental prices during national holidays. Excited about the night before,
I told a friend about the Hossein Party and all that I saw with my astonished
It was only then that I realized I had not been to the best of the parties,
that my friend had spent the night at the Grand Hossein Party on Pasdaran
Avenue, "chasing girls", and finally succeeding in giving his
phone number to someone at 4:30 in the morning. He was indeed happy that
I had a memorable time by the beautiful Caspian Sea.