Jeans and chadors as Iran capital marks Ashura
A troupe acts out a scene from Islam's first century at a crowded tent in Tehran's Grand Bazaar, while in another part of town youths sporting tattoos and wearing torn jeans watch a procession. The two settings reflect the increasingly contrasting ways that people in the Iranian capital are marking Ashura – one of the holiest days in Shia Islam which this year fell on Thursday.
Ashura marks the murder of Hussein, a grandson of the Prophet Muhammad killed in the year 680 while refusing the Caliph Yazid's right to rule the Islamic world. Every year for around two weeks before Ashura which falls on the 10th day of the Islamic month of Muharram, Iran undergoes a transformation to mourn his death, with black flags hoisted and commemorations across the country.
"Every nation is kept alive by its culture, beliefs and rituals," says Rahim Khastou, a lecturer on cultural studies at Karaj Azad University. "Ashura is one such instance that has had an defining role in the Iranian society."
Ashura in Iran
Muharram is the first month of the Islamic calendar. On the tenth day, Ashura (the number ten in Arabic) will be celebrated to commemorate the massacre of Hussein and 72 of his relatives and companions by the Umayyad Caliphate in Iraq in the 7th century. By Eric Lafforgue
The most impressive Hussainiya can be found in Kashan, a two-hour drive south of Tehran. The “Mad of Hussein" meet there every afternoon during the month of Muharram. At the mention of his death, screams of pain can be heard in the Hussainiya, men start weeping like children and sobbing
Heading up the Ashura parades is the alam – Hussein’s coat of arms. The alam is decorated with feathers, flags and verses of the Koran engraved on the flexible metal blades, which sway like the branches of a tree. The metallic artwork represents the hand of Abbas, flag bearer during the battle of Karbala
The city of Korramabad in western Iran hosts a unique ceremony – the Chehel Manbar or 40 Pulpits – on Tasua (the 9th day and eve of Ashura). Men and women must light 40 candles and place 40 sugar cubes in 40 different locations for their wishes to come true (successful studies, making money, finding a good husband, etc)
An Iranian Shia Muslim couple mourn Imam Hussein on the day of Tasua, their faces covered by a veil. This is unusual in Iran, where women usually just cover their hair with a scarf. On Ashura men also cover their faces to avoid being recognised when making vows. Also, many prefer to remain anonymous out of modesty
The most zealous also make a vow of silence for the day and walk barefoot as a sign of penance. Since they must remain silent, these three Shia women have knotted their chadors together to avoid getting lost
An Iranian woman with green veil covering her face holding a baby doll in her hands. The baby doll represents Ali al-Asghar, Hussein's young son who was killed in Karbala. Many woman carry around baby dolls on Chehel Manbar to demonstrate their wish to bear children soon
An Iranian Shia Muslim man lies in a mud pond as he takes part in the Kharrah Mali ritual during the Ashura ceremony. In the Iranian culture, mourners cover themselves in mud during the burial of a much beloved person. Recreating this gesture for Hussein is a way of showing him devotion
Iranian Shia Muslim men gather around a bonfire after rubbing mud on their bodies to mark the Ashura ceremony. A few mutter prayers as their teeth chatter with cold – it′s freezing at 5 am
An Iranian Shia Muslim woman stands in front a bonfire after rubbing mud on her chador. Women are usually chaperoned by a male relative who smears them with mud before accompanying them to the fire where other men are standing – a rare moment of men and women mixing together
Ashura is an emotional time of year for many religious Iranians: covered in dried cracked mud, this old man looks like a statue in the pale neon lights of the shop fronts. He cries inconsolably, invoking Hussein’s name
This Iranian Shia Muslim woman stands in front of an old wooden door after rubbing mud on her chador during the Kharrah Mali ritual
Guided by the Maddah's voice, circles are formed. Thousands of hands slam chests in perfect synchrony. The temperature rises and easily exceeds 50 degrees. Bodies jump and sway to the hypnotic beat of a chorus whispering "Hussein, Hussein"
In the city of Bijar, which is populated by Iranian Kurds, pilgrims pour mud on their heads during an Ashura procession. The most fervent ones empty a full bucket of mud on their bodies. They bear the symbolic coffin of Hussein aloft
Iranian Shia men covered in mud beat themselves with iron chains during Ashura. They consider the flagellations with zanjirs (steel chains attached to sticks) as a way of sharing Hussein’s suffering
Babies are dressed up like Hussein's dead son, Ali, who was killed when he was 6 months old in Karbala. These clothes have been given out for free by an Iranian charity for more than 15 years. Parents are very proud to show off their children dressed up like this
The passion play watched by hundreds of people at the Grand Bazaar is about Hussein and his last stand at Karbala. For those watching, from pensioners to housewives and their children, neither the stifling heat nor the fact that more than a millennia has passed since Hussein's death matter as they beat their chests as a sign of grief.
Many see the plays as an inspiration for their faith and the principles they believe Islam stands upon.
Azam Ardestani, a 49-year-old housekeeper, says Ashura "shows that we should only follow truth and righteousness and that we should be prepared to defend what's righteous."
For Sajjad Teymoori, a 28-year-old civil engineer, it's a symbol of standing up to persecution. "We value Imam Hussein because he gave everything he had for God, to fight oppression and tyranny."
Ceremonies held in the Grand Bazaar are known for sticking to traditions and rigorously abiding by the rules of Islam. Most of the men watching on are dressed in plain black clothes and women are clad in full-length black chadors. A short distance away from the tent, men and women queue separately at stalls where vendors have served up food to passers-by for decades during Ashura.
But that's not the case for all of Tehran.
In the middle class neighbourhood of Aryashahr, to the west of the city, many of the young men and women joining a late night Ashura procession sport tattoos and are dressed in torn jeans and low-cut blouses – hardly conforming to the strict Islamic dress code.
With police looking on, they mingle with ease and many strike up new friendships as they wait for the procession to get underway. Although they aren't widespread, such gatherings are growing and for the more traditional minded they are an anathema.
Ehsan Hesabi, a 34-year-old shoemaker who attended the play at the bazaar, sees these new gatherings as the work of the enemies of Islam.
"They want to distance us from Imam Hussein. They want us to forget the blood he shed... The enemy wants to culturally separate us from traditional mourning which sheds tears for Imam Hussein."
Mehran Hosseini, a 34-year-old who was at Aryashahr, says however such processions appeal to the younger generations.
While the commemorations that older people attend might be more educational, "when it comes to our generation, the circumstances have changed" and many younger people don't like them, says Hosseini. "The way someone dresses is just a matter of personal taste. It isn't an indication of someone's beliefs deep down inside. Anyone can mourn in their own way."
Khastou, the university professor, sees change as inevitable.
"Just as the ceremonies today are different from those 30 years ago, so were those different from ceremonies held 60 years ago," he says.
But while Khastou believes even the newer ceremonies can help create cohesion among the different strata of society, he warned about the rituals losing some of their meaning.
"Should there be a reduction in the dimensions of Ashura and should it lose its essential meaning and substance, then there is the potential for the ritual to become a carnival, where although the subject is sorrow and grief, in practice it becomes a fun and recreational pastime," he adds. (AFP)