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The Ashura Of My Younger Years

Iranians mourn during the Ashura ceremonies at the Karbala Mosque in Tehran in 2007.
Iranians mourn during the Ashura ceremonies at the Karbala Mosque in Tehran in 2007.
December 27 is Ashura, the 10th day of the month Muharram of the Islamic calendar. It is commemorated to mark the day of martyrdom of Imam Hussein, the Prophet Muhammad's grandson, in the year 61 of Hijra (680 AD).

I grew up in a very traditional, religious Shi'ite family in Tabriz in northwestern Iran, during the shah's rule. The predominant religious culture said that Imam Hussein, as a last, true defender and just follower of the Prophet and his cousin, Imam Hussein's father, Imam Ali, heroically and selflessly fought with just a few dozen poorly armed, but absolutely dedicated and selfless followers against the bloodthirsty Yazid, the son of the Umayyad Caliph Muaviyeh outside of Karbala, in today's Iraq.

Imam Hussein knew well that he couldn't win against the well-equipped army of Yazid, himself a symbol of injustice, arrogance, and oppression. But he fought nonetheless and was brutally killed so that the idea of Shi'a, the just one, following the path of the Prophet and Islam, could survive --and win some day in future.

For teenagers like me in the 1960s, Ashura 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," poems of grief, and shouted "Ya Hussein-e Mazloom!". "Hussein, Hussein, Ya Hussein." Most of the marching people would strike their chests as a sign of grief. I did too, occasionally.

Some would strike their backs with chains and some - I'd heard, but never saw myself -- would cut their heads with knifes so that blood streamed over their faces. It was all to say: "We are with you, Ya Hussein, and want to feel what you felt, and sacrifice our lives for the true faith, as you did."

At that time, this whole commemoration was something traditional, ceremonial. It had nothing to do with politics. Then it was a religious and social event, the Ashura, a get-together. Remembrance and grief.

Now it is grief and politics, a lot of politics. Hate and a lot of slogans. "Down with..." or "Death to..." for political opponents -- even those who are Shi'ite clerics -- and moderates, and everybody and anybody who is not fully behind the current rulers of Iran.

And the new spirit of Ashura is a year-round phenomenon. Last year, the government and the newspapers said Ashura was happening in Gaza. Back in the '60s, we didn't even know what "Gaza" meant. This year, the authorities are out to make Ashura a day to condemn their domestic opponents -- their own former brothers and sisters, youths, women, and whoever does not support Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei or President Mahmud Ahmadinejad.

Private, Nonpolitical Faith

When I look back now on the Ashura of my youth, I would say that maybe the idea of losing yourself in a spirit of devotion or sacrifice for an ideology or religion was there in our culture and religion, but it was something private. It was not politicized or instrumentalized for the benefit of a political ideology, group, or individual.

Perhaps this was because the shah -- whom I adored when I was about 15, but whom I began to hate by the time I was 17 -- didn't allow it to grow, to organize, and to overtake the entire society.

Back then, religion was not an ideology, let alone the official ideology. It was not imposed upon you, determining your dress, your behavior, your shaving.

My mother was a deep believer and faithful, but she was tolerant and liberal toward her children and others. She wore the chador, as did my older sister. My younger sisters usually didn't, and it didn't bother anybody. Not my mother, not my father (who was much more liberal anyway), not the school or police officers on the street.

Religion was something for home and mosques and for occasions like Ashura. After Ashura, we went back to our normal life, went to school, watched "Spartacus," listened to Ray Charles. It was a pleasant time, actually, although we were living in an underdeveloped country with an authoritarian regime. But it was still a widely tolerant land, at least compared to today's Islamic republic.

What happened to us? I wonder what an Iranian teenager attending this year's Ashura processions in Iran will think about the Ashura of his or her teenage years two or three decades from now.

Abbas Djavadi is associate director of programming with RFE/RL in Prague. The views expressed in this commentary are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL