Monday, February 16, 2004

Thursdays (In general)

Thursday is the day when people go to the graveyard. There is a kind of carnival atmosphere there. Families picnic. Friends meet. Trucks with huge speakers playing loud music drive by. Men sit crying on top of the speakers. A bus filled with mourners pulls up. They have their own DJ. To my untrained ear, the DJ sounds like he is representing the local rock and roll station on-site at the mall. I am tempted to walk over to see if I can win a t-shirt or some similar trinket.

So many young people are buried in the cemetery: most burned to death in car accidents. Their families sit by their graves. Strangers comfort them. The strangers squat in front of the grave, place four fingers on top of the marble slabs, and say silent prayers.

Fresh graves have fresh mourners whose pain is obvious to all. Those graves are covered with dirt instead of marble. Flower petals cover the dirt.

When someone young (I am not sure how young) dies, young men follow the corpse rhythmically hitting themselves with metal whips (they probably have a name). They turn right, hit themselves; face forward, hit themselves; turn left, hit themselves; move forward. They are chanting something. The corpse of the young person is carried on the shoulders of friends and relatives. He is inside of some kind of green tent.

You know how you always hear that people in non-Western cultures think that you are stealing their souls when you photograph them? I think it is only us Westerners who really believe that. People here do not mind if you photograph them in their most intimate moments. They thank you for the photograph. It is only the Iranians who have lived in the West who seem to mind.

February 11,2004

Last night was the beginning of revolution week. It's been 25 years since the revolution that changed Iran. K and I are in his hometown, not in Tehran. Last night at about 9:30, we were sitting on the porch when fireworks started. People were yelling and fireworks were going off. K's sister came out, "Is that gunfire?" she asked. Then she remembered, "Oh, the revolution…" and she went back inside.

"You would not have believed what it was like," K said. "The government made a rule that people could not go out onto the streets after 6:00. They thought that would control the demonstrations. Instead, families went out on their roofs. Everyone went onto their roofs. If you did not go, then your neighbors would wonder about you. So the ruling forced even more people to demonstrate against the government."

We heard a man with an incredibly loud voice call out "Allah Akbar!" (It sounded more like: Allah-o-Akbar, the way he shouted.) Other voices answered. Women and children answered from the roofs around K's mother's house. This continued for about 20 minutes.

"Was it like this during the revolution?" I asked.

"Yes. But it was much more. It was amazing," K said. "You cannot imagine the experience."

"No I can't."

February 8, 2004s

When someone dies in Iran, the whole neighborhood knows. Posters are made announcing the death and the picture of the dead person is Xeroxed and pasted on walls. People paint announcements on black banners and hang them on the house. Mourning prayers are played on a tape recorder. The tape is not the best quality, and it is played too loudly to be anything but annoying.

The mourning is operatic. At times it seems almost too rhythmic and beautiful. At times it seems like you are listening to a post-modern composition. People cry and yell and mumble and chant. The room quiets and then a fresh mourner enters, and the crying begins all over again. The family does not sleep. They have to be forced to eat or drink.

Tea is brought out in little cups on bowl-like saucers. People cool the tea in the saucers. Dates sprinkled with coconut are passed around. Little white, sugar candies sit mostly untouched in glass bowls.

The men and the women sit separately. The men are quiet and sad. If you touch them, they cry. The youngest men sit with the women or alone.

After the death, the body is washed. Soon after the body is washed, the person is buried. The person gets wrapped in a shroud. First she is brought back inside her home for a minute or two. While she is there, a sheep gets sacrificed and the blood runs into the street. After the sacrifice, she is taken to the cemetery. The neighbors come out of their houses and cry for the mourners.

At the cemetery, the men stand closest to the body. The women stand beside the men. A mullah prays and chants and says a few words. Every time he says "Allah Akhbar," people raise their hands beside their heads.

When he is finished, the dead person is carried to her grave. She is buried in her shroud standing up and facing Mecca. More prayers are said. People beg for money. In 10 minutes the dirt is back in the grave. Flowers are placed on the new grave, and her family kneels down to pick the flowers and spread the petals on the grave. Maybe someone tries to throw himself on the grave. Maybe the others pull him off.

There are a few people who boss the others around: don't cry, God will help you, sit here, get on the bus, sit there, don't sit here, don't sit there.

My father hates it when people say, "It's God's will." "I wish I could get some comfort from that," he says, "but I cannot."

The first day, you imagine that these people will never laugh again. But they do. Children come to the house and take away the pain. They tell stories about the person they love. Those stories make them laugh and cry at once.

On the second day, some have lost their voices. Families, friends, organizations, and others post announcements of the death all over town. That announcement may bring hundreds to the mosque where there is a 2-hour service. The men and the women sit separately. The women's room is big and covered with carpets. There are a few chairs for the immediate family. Everyone else sits on the floor.

In the middle of the room, there is a photograph of the dead person. Two black candles are lit. Sweets and Kleenex are placed in front of the photograph.

Tea is brought throughout the service. The granddaughters and the young grandsons serve the tea and sweets. Before the service begins, a man with a beautiful voice sings a couple of songs. Everyone cries. When he finishes, a different more nasally voice is piped into the women's room. It is the mullah who chants to the men in a separate room.

I feel sorry for the men who have to sit with the mullah. I think they must have to pay attention. The women pray and chant at times. During certain prayers, they all cry. Most of the time, their children play quietly with each other while the women talk in small groups.

I think that everything must be harder for the men. They are so alone. I see this when I pass the men's room. They sit quietly, apart. The women are not alone. As soon as decorum allows, the men join the women at the house. They don't want to sit in separate rooms away from their wives and their sisters and their cousins and their nieces.

On the seventh day, everyone comes together again for lunch and a short ceremony followed by a trip to the grave. If it is a woman who has died, the women pray together in a quiet room in the house. Chanting is passed from woman to woman. It can be a truly beautiful and moving ceremony, and the one I attended certainly was.

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