Faith and Sorrow Interlace in Tehran

Iran Materials 19 January 2008 12:30 (UTC +04:00)

( The Washington Post ) - Ali Akbar Assadi entered the dark room in downtown Tehran, only to be blocked by a wall of men. The air was moist from sweat. Darkness engulfed him as he made his way forward.

All around Assadi, men thumped their chests, faster and faster, to the hypnotizing chants of a religious singer somewhere in the blackness. "Oh Hussein!" the singer wailed, calling out the name of the most revered figure in Shiite Islam. "Oh Hussein!" the crowd thundered, over and over again.

As the men started their final prayer of the evening, Assadi managed to reach the light switch at the back of the room. He carefully waited until God had been praised to the fullest and then turned on the fluorescent lights. "Dinner for the guests of Imam Hussein," he announced with a smile. "This food is given in the name of the lord of the martyrs!"

On Saturday, Shiites all over the world will commemorate Ashura, the day their third imam, or holy leader, was killed in battle in the 7th century. The story of Hussein's death inspires many deeply religious people in this overwhelmingly Shiite society and helps explains Iran's "culture of resistance," as politicians here refer to their international posture.

Assadi, a gray-haired man of 54, organizes the yearly commemoration in a working-class south Tehran neighborhood centered along Tous Street, where he owns an ice cream parlor. He also manages the area's privately run takyeh, or religious community center, where he handles not only the light switches but also takes care of the chains used for harmless self-flagellation during Ashura processions and leads the 20-member kitchen staff. During the 10-day tribute, workers serve 1,200 meals a night.

Ashura at Assadi's center is a family party and a yearly reunion for former neighbors who travel from across Tehran, and sometimes farther, to participate. On Friday, excited children played outside, women in traditional black chadors, covering all but their faces, laughed with friends wearing loosely draped head scarves. Cups of hot milk warmed hands in the frigid Tehran winter. "I like everybody to feel at home here," Assadi said.

But the deeper meaning of Ashura wasn't forgotten. "Imam Hussein gave himself, his family, his small baby in the path of God," Assadi said. "This was the ultimate sacrifice, so that we Shia could live the way we wanted."

Sitting cross-legged, with their heads bowed in mourning, Assadi and about 200 other men listened to the religious singer's version of the events of more than 13 centuries ago. He began with the people's plea: "They had asked for you, oh Hussein."

Nearly five decades after the death of the prophet Muhammad in 632, Muslims remained sharply divided over who should lead the faithful as caliph. Most wanted tribal elders to choose the successor from the community, while others insisted that the caliph come from the prophet's family. This dispute is the origin of the schism in Islam between the majority Sunnis and the Shiites, or partisans of Ali, the prophet's cousin and son-in-law. Ali was caliph from 656 until he was assassinated in 661 as the two camps struggled for power.

In 680, Ali's son Hussein received a letter from the people of present-day southern Iraq complaining of oppression under the caliph. "And Hussein set out with his 72 companions, facing the enormous armies of Yazid," the singer chanted as he continued to relate the story. For 10 days, Hussein and his family and followers roamed the desert plains near Karbala. Yazid, whom Shiites consider a sly, ruthless liar, offered to spare Hussein's life if he would swear allegiance to the caliph, but Hussein refused. On the 10th and final day of the battle - "ashura" means "10th" in Arabic - Hussein and most of his party were killed, their heads placed upon spears and paraded around.

"But you, oh lord, you stood up for what is right. You faced the oppressors, pursued justice. With your selfless death you saved the reality of Islam," the singer recounted, his head bowed. He sobbed into the microphone, unable to continue.

Hussein's example still drives Iranian politics. "Everything we have, we owe to Ashura," the late Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, founder of the Islamic Republic of Iran, said repeatedly. During the run-up to the Iranian revolution in 1979, Khomeini often portrayed Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, the U.S.-backed autocrat, as a servant of Yazid. At the highpoint of the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s, Khomeini ordered his troops to capture the Iraqi city of Karbala, where Hussein is buried in a shrine. They were unsuccessful.

Assadi sees himself as having fought Yazid during the war. With his father, Assadi battled to prevent the Iraqi army, which was supported by many Western nations, from invading Iran. Assadi's father and 41 other sons of Tous Street were killed. "They were martyred, like Imam Hussein," he said. "They too sacrificed themselves for the greater good."

Assadi had arranged for the traditional nightly processions of Ashura to pause at houses of the war dead. During one parade, neighborhood boys, dressed in thick winter clothes, walked in front bearing red and green flags. Men marched in two rows, and a religious singer walked with a microphone, wirelessly connected to a cart carrying a generator and loudspeakers. Right behind them, teenage boys banged huge drums. As the parade moved through the streets, women peeked from behind curtains. "We send out love, so the martyrs won't be forgotten," Assadi said.

In perfect unison, following the rhythm of the drumbeats, the men started beating themselves with bundles of short, blunt chains tied to a wooden handle, an expression of self-sacrifice that symbolizes their devotion to Hussein. A gory display in some countries, self-flagellation that creates wounds is banned in Iran.

People handed out warm chocolate milk and sweet cakes as the blood of slaughtered sheep ran through the white snow into the gutter.

Mohammed-Hussein Zareh, 45, walked piously at the end of the procession. With his dark suit and polished shoes, he was not dressed for the cold, but he said he didn't mind. During the war, his skull was hit by shrapnel and his brother was killed. "We learned from Imam Hussein that when danger lurks, no matter the size, we must not back down," he said.

Asgar Eskandari, 32, equated the United States with Yazid. "When they bully us about our nuclear program, they use their might to impose their will upon us. Like Imam Hussein, we will stand up against oppression."

In a system in which politics and religion are combined, Iranian leaders often refer to Hussein. Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said this month that Ashura celebrations "must be anti-oppression and anti-hegemony and must be leveled at Yazids and Shemrs of the present time." Shemr was Yazid's general.

Assadi disparages politics. "I have nothing to do with it," he said, standing in the kitchen and handing out the first portions of food to the local faithful. "But the religion and culture of Iran have roots in the blood of Imam Hussein. That is for sure."