The Ashura: Back Then and Now

By Abbas Djavadi – Today is Ashura, the 10th day of the month Moharram of the Islamic calendar, the day of martyrdom of Imam Hossein, the Prophet Mohammad’s grandson, in the year 61 of Hijra (AD 680). I grew up in a very traditional and religious Shia family in Tabriz, Iranian Azerbaijan, during the Shah’s rule. The overwhelming religious culture said that Imam Hossein, as a true and last defender and just follower of the Prophet and his cousin, Imam Hossein’s father, (Hazrate) Imam Ali, heroically and selflessly fought with just a few dozens of poorly armed but absolutely dedicated and selfless followers against the blood-thirsty Yazid, the son of the Umayyad caliph Moaviyeh outside of Karbala, in central Iraq. He knew well that he couldn’t win against thousands of soldiers and the well-eqipped army of Yazid, the symbol of injustice, arrogance, and oppression. But he fought, was brutally killed so that the idea of Shia, the just one, following the path of the Prophet and Islam, could surivive — and win at last, some day in future.

For teenagers like me in those 1960’s, it was a time of sorrow and grief, yes. But the schools were closed for a few days. We went out to see the processions: people wore black shirts, marched through the streets, sang «nohas» and shouted «Ya Hossein-e Mazloom!»… «Hossein, Hossein, Ya Hossein…» Most of the marching people were slightly striking their chests as a sign of grief. I was, too, occasionally.

Some were striking their backs with chains and some, I heard but didn’t see myself, were cutting in their heads with knifes so that blood colored their faces — all a demonstration that: we are with you, Ya Hossein, and want to feel what you felt, and sacrifice our lives for the real faith as you did. At that time, this whole rememberance was rather something traditional or ceremonial. Nothing to do with politics.  Yes, the same Ashura, the same Imam Hossein. Then it was more religion, more a social event, the Ashura, a gettogether, but also rememberance, and grief. Now it is grief, and politics, a lot of politics. And everyday, all year. The government and the newspapers say this year Ashura is happening in Gaza. Then, we didn’t even know what «Gaza» means …

Now, thinking back, I would say, maybe the idea of losing your Self in a spirit of devotion or sacrificing your own life for an ideology or religion was there, in our  culture and religion, but it was something private. Not politicized or instrumentalised for the benefit of a political ideology, or group, or person. Maybe because the ruling Shah, whom I first loved with 15 and hated as I was 17, didn’t allow it to grow, to organize, and to overhaul the whole society. Later it was too late.

Religion was no ideology, let alone a state ideology, let alone one imposed upon you, your dress, your behavior, your shaving or veil, «chador.» My mother was a deep believer and faithful, but still tolerant and quite liberal toward others and us, the kids. She wore the chador, as did my older sister. My younger sisters usually didn’t and it bothered nobody. Not my mother, not my father (who was anyway much more liberal), not the school or the policemen on the street.

Religion was something for home, in mosques, and in occasions like Ashura. After Ashura we went back to our normal life, to schools, to cinemas, and watched Spartacus or listened to Ray Charles. It was a pleasant time, actually, although we were living in an underdeveloped country and in an authoritarian regime, but still a widely tolerant one, at least compared to this, the Islamic Republic.

What happened to us? I am wondering what this little girl, maybe 2-3 years old, with the banner «Ya Martyr Hossein» at an Ashura commemoration somewhere, will think about the Ashura of her childhood or teenage time after 30 or 40 years …