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Tuesday, 29 December 2009

Moharram and Ashura

Today is the twelfth of the month of Moharram, the first month of the Islamic lunar year 1431. But for all Shi’as worldwide this month is a time of mourning, commemorating the martyrdom of Imam Hossein, the Holy Prophet’s grandson, and his followers at Karbala, now in Iraq, in 683 CE.

The Imam’s camp comprising his followers and members of his family including women and children had its water supply cut off on 7 Moharram by the army of his enemy Yazid ibn Muawiyya. On the 10th of Moharram Yazid’s army and Imam Hossein’s seventy-two loyal followers engaged in combat which resulted in the killing of the Imam and all his soldiers and the captivity of his womenfolk and his ailing son Zain ul Abedin, who became the next Imam.

The significance of the Karbala massacre has come to symbolise the importance of standing up for Right against Wrong, at whatever cost. The Imam himself, and in fact his father Imam Ali and the Holy Prophet had known that he would be martyred there, but this was the only way that the purity of faith would be preserved: the martyrdom of a small group of men would henceforth live in the collective memory of believers as a triumph of good over evil.

So since Friday 18 December/1 Moharram young people all over cities and villages in Iran set up makeshift tents hung with green and black banners, in remembrance of the Imam’s encampment, and they gather in them every evening until the 10th of the month, listening to lamentations of the different events of the battle, beating their chests to the rhythm of the dirge and going on street processions that reproduce the Imam’s battle array, with drums, battle standards and a crier that chants the praises of the Imam.

The commemoration of Imam Hossein’s martyrdom not only keeps his memory alive, but alerts Muslims to the ongoing struggle against oppression and injustice, as it has done at critical moments in Iran’s history. (There is a mention of violence as a result of Moharram’s processions in E.M. Forster’s A Passage to India). Last year the beginning of Moharram almost coincided with the bloody events at the Gaza strip, with the first of Moharram declared a day of public mourning in Iran, and with people in mass rallies demonstrating against Israeli government violence.

The mourning ceremonies reached a peak the day before yesterday, the day of Ashura (the tenth of Moharram) with street processions of men and boys carrying out ritual chest-beating and self-flagellation. A far cry from Christmas back home; but then again, as the Greeks say, “opou yis, patris,” or “everywhere on earth is home.”

Beginning of winter

To all my readers: following the recent disturbances, Internet services have been erratic, so please excuse my tardiness in adding new posts. See next post too.

Update on Among the Iranians: on Monday 21 Dec. I emailed the proof corrections and the index to the publishers in Boston, so my involvement in the text is now complete.

That very same Monday night was the longest night of the year, the winter solstice, or Shab-e Yalda in Persian. Normally this is a celebratory occasion for Iranians: they gather in the houses of their family elders and spend the best part of the longest night of the year munching seeds, nuts and sweetmeats, taking auguries from Hafez’s collection of lyrics and keeping alive the hope of summer in the form of eating watermelon. (A greengrocer in a street behind the Parliament building in Baharestan, central Tehran, stocks watermelons all year round.)

I say “normally”, because this year this happy occasion coincided with the beginning of Moharram, the month of mourning for Imam Hossein, so things were rather low key this time around.
(to be continued in the next post).

Monday, 14 December 2009

Charity Wedding

Update on Among the Iranians:
On Saturday 5 December I received the complete, designed document of Among the Iranians and I spent the best part of last week checking the proofs and compiling a list of corrections. Last Saturday the next major task began: compiling the index, and then both corrections and index must be returned to Boston by Monday 21 December.

Last Tuesday my daughter’s high school organised a charity wedding, aiming to gather enough things for the jah├óz (dowry) of five needy young women about to marry. The headteacher liaised with a woman from Mashhad (a city in north-east Iran) who co-ordinated the charity scheme under which needy young women about to marry were selected to visit the school. The school asked the students’ mothers for contributions in cash and kind for the dinner and refreshments (fruit, cream cakes), ordered wedding dresses for the brides and also welcomed practical help in making up and hairdressing the brides on the day. All students, their mothers, relatives and other female guests were also invited to contribute cash or presents..
When I visited the school the day before the wedding, a pile of wedding presents had already formed in the staffroom: carpets, crockery and cutlery, electrical goods, blankets, tea sets, towel bales, prayer mats, clothes, lengths of fabric.
On the evening, girls were already singing and dancing when we arrived at the school’s assembly hall. The brides then came in among cheers and ululations and joined the dancing too. The merriment continued for the next two hours until the guests were asked to go downstairs for dinner. .
Dinner was cooked on the school premises and laid out buffet-style on a long table in the school foyer: chicken in red sauce, rice with barberries, potato salad, lettuce salad, drinking yogurt and soft drinks.

On the same night a van would transport the gifts and cash donations to Mashhad, where they would be distributed among the brides. This was the first time I went to a charity wedding but, as I understand, charity weddings are usual in Iran. In Iranian culture, since marriage is a highly desirable state, it is expected that everyone will marry, sooner or later. According to custom, the responsibility of providing accommodation rests with the young man, but the provision of furniture, carpets and all life essentials lies with the bride. In the case of needy families for whom it may be hard to buy even the necessaries, charitable people co-ordinate the collections of cash and dowry items. Those who can help, welcome the opportunity to help others in order to please God. (For more on the marriage process, wedding celebrations and more, see Among the Iranians, chapter 8)

Monday, 7 December 2009

Among the Iranians: Update

The designed document arrived in the early hours of Saturday for proof-checking and indexing, both of which need to be complete by Monday 21 December.

On the PR front, last Thursday I contacted a few people with a request for pre-publication endorsements and I am very pleased that I have now got a good number of acceptances, including a few prominent academics whose work is connected with Iran.


Among the Iranians: A Guide to Iran’s Culture and Customs

In the wake of the current media focus on Iran’s nuclear technology development and its place in Middle East politics, the West continues its quest to understand this paradoxical nation: its politics, yes, but also its people, their culture, and even the everyday customs and rituals. Among the Iranians presents an inside look at the hidden “rules” that exist among Iranians, from polite behavior and the underlying cultural notion of face to gender roles to the image that every Iranian wants to project to the world. Western readers may be familiar with a stereotyped view of Iran’s unchanging “high culture” in its great mosques and squares and to some extent its classical literature in the poems of Hafez and Khayyam. However, this book aims to convey the nitty-gritty of everyday life in Iran: how to queue for bread, how to get a job done in a government office, dress codes and degrees of piety, marriage as a connection between families, the elaborate system of Persian politeness.
Written with a mix of personal observation and intercultural theory, the goal of Among the Iranians is to open people’s eyes about the fascinating everyday reality of Iran—in short, the book seeks to explain everything you ever wanted to discover about Iran’s culture and customs, but didn’t even know to ask.

The web links:

Intercultural Press/Nicholas Brealey Publishing:

Amazon US:

Amazon UK:
Author’s blog:

Yesterday's Feast: Eid Ghadir

Yesterday was Eid Ghadir, a very important celebration for Shi’a Muslims. On this day the Holy Prophet returning from his last pilgrimage (‘the farewell pilgrimage’), he stopped the caravans of the pilgrims at a place named Ghadir Khomm. Then he told the Muslims that whoever loved him should love Ali, his cousin and son-in-law, and that whoever recognised him as his Master, should recognise Ali likewise.
For Shi’a Muslims this day marks the establishment of the Holy Prophet’s spiritual succession (Imamate), and it is a day on which the descendants of the Holy Prophet (seyeds) are especially honoured.
Hossein’s maternal grandmother was a seyed, so every year on Eid Ghadir all the family and acquaintances visited her and received a newly-minted banknote with her stamp on it. Since she passed away over two years ago, one of her sons carries on the tradition, so yesterday we were invited for lunch to the house of Hossein’s eldest uncle. He has four sons and four daughters, all married, twenty-one grandchildren and three great-grandchildren. Most of these were there yesterday, plus his sister-in-law and her husband and son, and us four, so altogether about forty people sat down to lunch, which was brought from outside in two huge aluminium pots and served there: rice with fava beans (broad beans) and chives, and chicken in red sauce, served with fresh salad, drinking yogurt and jelly for desert.
I coudn’t help thinking that my father would go mad in such a gathering; he can’t stand the noise of as few as four people, so I kept worrying that this gathering would be too much for the uncle, who has been bedridden for the last seven years. I asked his wife.
“Oh, no,” she said, he absolutely loves having people around him. I just dread the evening when everybody will be gone and it’ll be just the two of us again.”

When Hossein sat on his bed to chat with him, the uncle mused, “Is there any joy greater than having one’s children and grandchildren around?”