I was lost amid a flowing sea of black — black veils, black chadors — and I could not find my mom. All the women looked alike, tearful, brows furrowed in the same pained expression. I was one of them — 15 years old, dressed in black from head to toe, frowning out of the frustration of losing my mom to the crowd.
We moved slowly, observers of the mourning Ashura procession taking place next to us in the street. “Hossein jaanam, Hossein jaanam” the parade of men chanted rhythmically, beating their chests. A bearded, middle-aged man led the rest of the men in a garbled prayer. Sobbing into the megaphone, his cries echoed throughout the street.
I sat on the curb and watched the slow-moving procession. As it made its way down the street, one of the young men in the parade smiled at me. Dressed in a tight, black T-shirt, his hair slicked back in a ridiculous fashion, he beat his chest, his eyes on me the whole time. Then, he pursed his lips and winked at me.
This was Ashura in Iran. It was not the Ashura I was used to.
• • •
Ashura is a Shiite Muslim holiday commemorating the martyrdom of the Prophet Mohammad’s grandson, Imam Hossein, who was murdered by the army of the caliph Yazid. Yazid was a leader regarded to this day by Shiites as illegitimate — a man who often went against the Prophet’s example and the teachings of Islam. Unable to bear the ruin of the Islamic community as a result of Yazid’s rule, Hossein and his supporters rebelled against the caliph. The ensuing Battle of Karbala, which took place in present-day Iraq, resulted in the massacre of Hossein and many of his followers.
Ashura is not simply about Hossein’s death. It’s also a time to remember his father, Imam Ali, who was killed many years before him during the month of Ramadan while he prayed peacefully at a mosque. It’s about the Shiite struggle against oppression. And it was the result of the age-old dispute between Shiite and Sunni Muslims over who should rule as caliph, ultimately leading to a rift between the two sects.
Ashura has always been a part of my Shiite Muslim life. I remember being 6 years old and attending prayer service with my family at a mosque in California’s Bay Area. Hundreds of Shiites, mostly Iranian, would attend. The prayer room was immense. People sat against the walls, outlining the room in black. The women and men separated themselves, in accordance with Islamic custom. I sat next to my mom, barely able to make out my dad’s expression from 50 feet across the room.
The chanting and prayers would begin and I was soon surrounded by sobbing women, their faces buried in their hands. My mom would hang her head solemnly and I’d lose her to the crowd.
The congregants’ sobs confirmed the gravity, the unquestionable seriousness of Ashura. Hossein died and somehow that affected me. Before long, I learned to cry for him, too.
• • •
During my first Ashura in Iran, I was lost in a country that, I assumed, even as a 15-year-old, was as deeply religious on the inside as it seemed on the outside. The green banners that decorated the streets with the Islamic shahada were, I imagined, perfect reflections of the people. I thought Iran was a country where all people embraced their religion and were actively engaged in it. They didn’t force themselves to cry. They cried because they needed to.
But with a simple wink, everything seemed to change. Suddenly, Ashura in Iran, in the busy, metropolitan capital of Tehran, where young women wear stilettos and get nose jobs and young men listen to Metallica and pluck their eyebrows, became a ceremony of contradiction.
I looked away from the young man and allowed the crowd to pass me by. The chants grew distant and I glanced up at the almost empty lane that was left behind. Eventually, the procession would make its way back down the street, but I had detached myself from it, if only for a while. I loosened the black veil I was wearing. It felt suffocating, a useless form of protection against men who managed to scrutinize me as they beat their chests.
“Everything we have, we owe to Ashura,” Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, leader of the Islamic Republic, had said years before. During the revolution, Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi was often likened to Yazid. Iranian soldiers were sent to fight the Iran-Iraq War as followers of Imam Hossein, modern-day warriors in Hossein’s ancient battle. When my mom cried during Ashura, she said, it was in mourning for a dear cousin she had lost in the war.
• • •
In today’s Iran, Ashura commemorations seem religiously significant only for the elderly. But for many young people, it’s a social activity they can partake in without breaking laws or upsetting their parents. It’s not only about Hossein or the Shiite struggle. It’s a tool to help young Iranians cope within the cruel confines of imposed religion — hiding their deeds behind veils of black.
As Ashura commemorations in Iran continue this year, I remember those young men in the parade and the young women, who stood watching, careful to mask their amusement. I remember eventually finding my mom in the crowd, her face serene and sober, and silently walking back to my grandma’s house with our heads down.
Hossein died more than a thousand years ago and we manage to stay in that past, crying fresh tears over an ancient story, ignoring the oppressive reality with our faces in our hands.
Elham Khatami, a former Post-Gazette intern who grew up in Shaler, is a reporter for CQ Roll Call in Washington, D.C. (firstname.lastname@example.org; Twitter: @ekhatami). The Day of Ashura fell this year on Nov. 14, but commemorations continue through Dec. 3.