In the next few months I will be experiencing the feeling of seeing a lot of things for the last time. I have entered my last year in Iran, a country that has changed me in many ways.
The most important being the way I perceive it, and specially its welcoming and kind people. When I landed three years ago, I tried to come with no expectations and with an open mind. What I experienced since has exceeded any expectations or misconceptions I might still have had.
So until it is time to bid farewell I will be writing about things I will probably not experience again in my lifetime. Starting with the important Ashura, the mourning rituals that mark the death of Imam Hussein, the grandson of the prophet Mohammad. Hussein was killed along with his family and supporters in 680 AD during the battle of Karbala in Iraq.
Every year I have been in the streets of Tehran along with thousands of people to capture these important rituals. These have a strong religious meaning but as an outsider and a non muslim observer, Ashura has been a way of witnessing also a strong community spirit, where families, neighbors and friends participate and spend time together.
It is important to say that in Iran (unlike Iraq where the men bleed profusely during Ashura) it is forbidden to cause any injuries to yourself during the rituals. Around the city, food and drinks are offered for free to anyone who wants and men work together to hold the very heavy Alam which can weigh up to 300 kg.
The Alam is usually transported by van to the place where the procession is going to begin.
Just before it starts, people start gathering. Families arrive and choose a good spot, preferably near the front where children can see better.
When you start hearing the drums, you know they are coming.
The men with the zanjeers or chains follow closely and move in a synchronized harmonious way.
Children are also allowed to participate under the attentive eyes of their parents. Even girls if they are at a very young age.
Then it is time to move again. There are other places where I know there will be processions, this time more Alams will be present. When I arrive, the square is filling very fast.
Parking places during Ashura are almost impossible to find, so some families come in alternative transportation. It never ceases to amaze me how many people can sit on a motorbike. And yes, no helmets and no worries apparently. Traffic is slow moving, so this becomes a common sight.
There is an expectation in the air. Everyone awaits and can see the Alams being put into position.
Moving them requires strength and skill to keep the balance. Some of the men intensify their bodybuilding training a month before to be able to carry the weight. Each man take turns and can only move the heavy Alam a few meters until somebody else takes over. You can see the effort and determination and the help given within each group.
And how well these long groups move in unison.
For those who don’t have the zanjeers or chains and for everyone else who is watching, it is traditional to touch your heart at the same rhythm.
Incense is also used during Ashura, enveloping everybody around.
Young and old, this is a religious tradition that runs across generations and that is how it is kept alive. Although there are many young people who do not participate and even avoid Ashura, there are always others that are willing and happy to participate.
In the afternoon, I went to Tajrish, the square not far from where I live. Tajrish is home to my favorite bazar and also the shrine Imam Zadeh Saleh, which is always busy with pilgrims and during prayer times. When I arrived, another group was present followed closely by a big crowd.
When the sun went down, a performance telling the martyrdom of Imam Hussein and his family started in a stage outside the square. Over the last three years, I have watched a lot of performances during Ashura but this one was really outstanding.
Usually, during Ashura everyone dresses in black, the exception being the costumes of the performances. These are bright and colorful. The actors tell the story in a dramatic way and the public reacts emotionally, many people breaking down crying.
It is also custom during Ashura to light candles in the evening outside the shrine. I bought some and lit them with a nostalgic feeling that this was my last Ashura. I wished the best for this country that has welcomed me with open arms and for the people, some of them friends that I’m hoping will always be in my life. May the future be bright and peaceful!
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