Experiencing Ashura

Tehran, Iran

I arrived in Iran on the first of Muharram (the first month in the Islamic calendar). At first I didn’t know what that meant.

The moment to come to Iran was perfect. The first 10 days ofMuharram Shia Muslims mourn for Imam Hussain – one ofMohammend’s grandchildren – who was killed by his political and religious rival Yesid near Kerbala.

This incident eventually lead to the split of Islam into Shia and Sunni sects and seems to have an impact not only on the region, but from today’s perspective, on the entire world.

For now there are two important aspects that I can identify.

Firstly, there is the rivalry between the sects which at times is quite bloody, as, for example, we can see in Iraq today.

But more importantly: A cult developed around this incident: For almost 1400 years every year the Shia Muslims mourn for ten days (those ten days Hussain was trapped in the desert before being killed) and castigate themselves because supposedly they have betrayed the Prophets grandson. This castigation starts with hitting yourself and even goes on to “suicide”… to die a martyr like Hussain… going straight to paradise!

So what’s the impact of that: Religious leaders abuse that cult! Ayatollah Khomeini definitely has taken advantage of this cult for his sake, like the Islamic Revolution in Iran, which has a much bigger impact on international relations and world politics than mostWesterners today realize. And more importantly, this cult can be exploited to excess, potentially having an even bigger impact on world politics.

So much for the politics…

This whole cult has also a strong influence on Iranian culture. Iranians like to “sacrifice” themselves in daily life. It manifests in simple things. For example if you accidentally hit someone and say “sorry” the answer is “please” whereas in English you would say “no problem” or whatever. “Please hit me!” This is something very Iranian and perhaps even one of the most essential aspects of Iranian culture, and therefore their whole life. It starts with simple things like language and ends with things like children walking through minefields sacrificing their lives like Hussain.

One lesson learned is: Iranian psyche is very masochistic!

So for ten days people spend on the streets following the processions or taking part, hitting themselves on their chests with their fists or with chains on their back, mourning for Hussain and that their failure to help him. Some people hit their heads with knifes (in closed rooms as it is legally forbidden nowadays). And you have people in public rooms having some type of ritual dances, reminding you rather of a discotheque than a religious ritual. In fact the “Hussain”-chanting sounds a bit like Ragga Dancehall at times.

Well, this is perhaps a major aspect of this whole cult today. Of course there are many that are really into this ritual. But most people seem to take advantage of the fact that they can go on the streets, meeting people and partying, let’s say, “the Iranian way”!
This is as good as it gets, partying publicly in a country where dancing and music are forbidden in public.

And the same seems to be true for demonstrations… more people here seem to go to demonstrations because they like to gather with people in public rather than supporting anything of what that guy with his beard is yelling into the microphone.

Some seem to be really into it with their heart (much less than it might seem when watching Western TV). Most seem to enjoy the party 😉

So I have to stop here… this is it for today… of course I’d like to write more as there is so much more going on inside and outside of me… but I have to leave for now…