On the 2nd of October the annual Ashura festival started. This ten day festival of mourning remembers the third Imam Hossain, particularly focussing on his bloody murder.
It’s probably the strangest festival we have ever encountered and we’ve been fortunate to have passed through a number of cities and towns to see how it’s played out in different places.
At first glance, the ten days are seemingly marked by uplifting evening gatherings of worshippers who meet in the main square every night to chant, play very large drums and listen to a select group of singers reciting the story of Hossain. The proceedings are heartfelt but relaxed with different generations getting involved and a communal feel about the whole experience.
Explore a little deeper however and you begin to see some rather quirky traditions which make the whole thing start to feel all rather macabre.
Almost everyone, especially in more rural areas, wears black for the full ten days. Remember this is supposed to be a period of national mourning. When we cycle through a town it can feel a little sinister, especially with all the women waring jet black chadors which ripple eerily around them in the autumn breeze. Black bunting hangs over the streets above.
Public outpourings of grief are common especially during the evening ceremonies. You may see some people discreetly lying on the floor weeping genuine tears.
Men preform a ritual dance with sticks or chains (many of them go into a trance like state) and the crowds will beat their chests or head in time to the music while repeating the name of the Imam or reciting some of the religious texts.
Parading through the streets with drums and flags is also widespread and it was once common practice for the men to flagellate themselves with chains.
This practise has fortunately now been made illegal but the chains are still sold openly in shops.
Whether it’s mainly ceremonial or the real practise is still widespread we don’t really know – we’ve seen a bit of both!
Lots of people decorate their cars with red paint which oozes down their windows and headlights and in Tabriz even the water in the fountains had been turned red in commemoration of the Imams martyrdom. Restaurants also play mournful vocal music dedicated to the remembrance of his death. We even cycled by a market place where a makeshift stand was blasting out a recording of sobbing voices into the crowd of shoppers.
Even cartoons on children’s television tell the story of Hossain’s murder. His crying horse always features heavily in the story and the killing scene gets pretty graphic!
We’d be missing Haloween back home but we sort of feel we’ve had our very own in Iran!