Iranians are criers. This might be why they are so fond of Bollywood films. Someone always dies. Everybody cries. Ashura commemorates the death of Hussein (or Hossein) and, I am not an expert here, the roots of the split between the Shi'as and the Sunnis. Or maybe it is just the heart of the split, I don't know.
Parades of men and boys march on the street. "Every neighborhood has its own group. Their importance is measured by the quality of their heiyat [I guess in English this would be a kind of mix between a cantor, a choir, and a marching band], these [Persian word that I did not quite catch for something we don't have in American English but are probably best described as decorative things that are more than banners because they are heavy and substantial] that they carry, and the rhythmic marching. It's a big deal preparing for Ashura."
"K used to march. You should have seen him beating himself," K's nephew said.
"Until I was 14."
Three of us walked about 1/2 mile to see our neighborhood's heiyat. We followed the group as young men hit themselves with metal whips in time to the chanting. The man doing the chanting had as beautiful a voice as I have ever heard. You could spend days listening to him sing without getting tired. I have heard better voices, more emotional voices, more interesting voices, but rarely have I heard a voice that had less bathos and more beauty. We walked past sheep patiently waiting for their time to die, drivers angrily trying to make their way through the small streets, onlookers like us, and a sheep whose time had come. The heiyat marched into a private garden and prayed for or with a family that had just killed a sheep. The family brought out juice and cookies.
The next day K and I made our way to an area of Tehran where at least 100,000 men (and maybe 100 girls) marched in the streets. Rows of men and boys (and the occasional girl) beat themselves in time to the chanting. "That is real exercise," I told K. "These guys must be exhausted."
Each group had its own mantle or banner (think: heavy!), its own amplifier and speakers, and its own hazzan singing chants about the battle in which Hossein lost his life. I heard "Karbala, Karbala, Karbala," and "Hosseinjan, Hosseinjan, Hossienjan" for hours.
We must have walked at least 9 miles with the heiyats. "If I had grown up here," I told K, "I would have dressed like a boy and joined one of the heiyats."
"I know," he said.
We saw men on horses and camels dressed as their heroes from the battle that cost Hossein his life, babies dressed in traditional Arabic headdress and long white shirts, and rows and rows and rows of men in black beating themselves. "Why do you just see babies dressed like Hossein? Why not boys too?"
"I think there is something about giving your baby to God or something like that. That's why. I don't know."
Many families make food for the multitudes of people wandering the streets. This is not Halloween type food, you know a piece of candy or a caramel apple. No, this is Food with a capital "F." K's sister-in-law had a sheep killed and made a dish of lentils and potatoes and mutton. His sister's family made vats of a delicious rice-pudding with saffron and almonds. "This family has fesenjoon that you would not believe," N told us pointing to a door. "And they are giving away chicken with rice," she pointed to another door. "It's really delicious."
On our walk, we were offered cookies, dates, fruit juice, and lots of water (luckily). We could have lined up for meals, but we did not.
"The heiyat came by my mom's house," K's sister told me. "Sixty people lined up in front of the house to pray with us. They sang our mother's name. It was so beautiful."
His niece told me about it too in typical 4-year old fashion: "And then, and then, and then, there was the heiyat and they were all in front of the door, and they were all singing. It was fun."
When we got home from our hours of watching the men marching, we heard about the bombings in Karbala and other cities in Iraq. It seemed so pointless and endless: that a holiday commemorating a battle fought more than 700 years ago could still be the source of fresh pain and renewed fighting seems tragic and senseless to me. I could just imagine how the singing about Hossein and the battle he lost in Karbala must have felt to Shi'as that day. But I also could not imagine.
"When our neighbor got home and heard the news, he had a heart attack and died. His sons were in Karbala. They were fine, but their father died."
A couple of days after the event, 5 of us found ourselves in a car heading south. In the driver's hometown, we saw about 10 buses loading up. "They are going to Karbala," our driver said.
"They must be brave," A responded.
"Or they don't have televisions," I said.
We drove on and listened to the radio. "You should hear what the Iranian government is saying," K said. "They are saying that the bombings were the work of the Mossad, the Americans, and Al Qaeda."
"That's what they are saying."