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A Tale of Two Cities

by CORRESPONDENT in Tehran

28 Dec 2009 05:209 Comments
18_8710180360_L600.jpg[ feature ] For two months, life in a religious family or for those in a small town in Iran seems to have come to a standstill. No weddings, no talk of new engagements or "khastegari," no big parties.

People do not purchase new furniture, and housewives have suddenly stopped discussing the need to buy new household appliances.

These are the months of Moharram and Safar, the first and second months in the Islamic Calendar. Moharram begins with the death of the Shia Imam, Imam Hossein, and is commemorated yearly throughout Iran. The month of Safar ends with the death of Prophet Muhammad, along with the death of the second and eighth Shia Imams, which is why these are months of mourning with little "shogoon" (luck) to begin life's important tasks like getting married or purchasing a new home.

The greatest event held is the one to commemorate the death of Imam Hossein in what is believed to be a defining moment in the existence of Shia Islam as we know it today. Hossein Ibn Ali, the grandson of the Islamic prophet Mohammad, along a small group of soldiers, fought the army of Yazid -- the tyrant caliphate -- who had declared the prophet's successor. The legitimacy of the caliphate and the leadership of the Islamic community were central to this conflict.

According to Shia Islam, Hossein's army of roughly seventy men was defeated by the enemy, and the body of the dead, including Hossein, was later mutilated. To commemorate and mourn this loss, ceremonies are held across the country, starting from Day 1 of Moharam (10 days before the death of Hossein) and go on every night, until the date of his death, on the 10th of Moharram.

The Islamic state has invested heavily in the story of Hussein and his martyrs to the point that the story has become a hallmark of the political establishment and the martyrs of the Iran-Iraq war, as well as the political assassinations of the early 80s in which a number of notable figures are compared to the martyrs of Hossein.

The defining message of these ceremonies is the rise of the oppressed against tyranny, and while the state has been able to present itself as the oppressed side for three decades, this year, that narrative has fewer followers.

Every year, around this time, a big black cloth is draped in every street corner, in every city. Aside from the mosques, which hold their own ceremonies, huge black tents called "tekkiyeh" are erected. Young boys in the neighborhood gather every night and organize their own events.

Moharram is a social event as much as a religious one. It is also a festival of spectacular proportions with music, song and dance. Every afternoon is permeated by pounding drums, along with the warm, whining voice of a man singing in the distance. Little tables are put out in street corners and young boys, wearing black with green scarves around their necks, hand out milk or tea or sharbat (sweet drinks).

Every night, after the drums and singing, a large group of men walk out into the neighborhood, beating on their chests in rhythm or using small, dangling chains to self-flagellate. A singer walks in front of the group along with men carrying drums, as they gather in song. This crowd is the notorious "dasteh" (group), the long line of mourners which hits the streets nightly.

The state has feared these groups for the first time this year. Ashura has always given people an excuse to mobilize spontaneously, without permits and without excuses. Across Iran, the ceremonies are held in various ways and with varying customs. A myriad of customs take place within Tehran alone.

In uptown Maydan-e Mohseni (Mohseni Square), boys and girls gather for an "Ashura Party," as they call it. A singer sounding much like the famous Iranian pop singers, Siavash Ghomeishi or Sattar, intones for the martyred Imam Hossein, while mourners dressed in their best, pancaked in makeup or hair lathered in grease, laugh away and exchange phone numbers.

In midtown Maydan-e Haft-e Tir (Seventh of Sqaure), boys and girls go their own way and the adults indulge in serious "azadari" (mourning). But downtown, particularly near the bazaar, the "real" thing takes place. Teenage boys in jeans and Nike T-shirts, young and old men in various wardrobes chant away while all the time hitting their backs with small metal chains. Everyone is in serious mourning, and there is no joviality. The women -- tagging along, as usual -- listen to the singer's voice, talk and cry.

This year however, everything was different. Zanjan, Isfahan and Tehran have been the sites of demonstrations great and small for the past few days. Rumors circulated of the formation of a "Council for Moharram Crises" to crackdown on any anti-government protests.

This was later denied by Tehran's police chief.

But this crackdown has been felt across the country. Husseiniyeh Ershad, the famous mosque Ali Shariati, once delivered fiery speeches. Now led by reformists, it has been shut down. Across Iran, mosques and tekkiyehs have been closed. Tekkiyehs in Mohseni Square were forced to close because of crowds shouting "death to the dictator" in the midst of the ceremonies. Some streets in Tehran, which have traditionally been flooded with mourners, are ghostly quiet.

A state which has always heavily promoted and advertised these ceremonies is now trying its best to control them. And it has been able to contain and silence the mourners systematically. Few groups (dastehs) have been able to go out into the streets at night. This is unprecedented in the past 30 years.

The noon of Ashura (the tenth of Moharam when it is believed Hossein was killed), the most important event in the 10-day ceremonies, was the site of countrywide protests. I was part of the demonstrations planned from Imam Hossein Square to Azadi Square.

I was near Hafez Bridge and in that area, militias scattered among the protesters fired tear gas and shots in the air, but until 1:30 p.m. when I left, things were peaceful. People had made small fires in the street and were trading cigarettes to blow smoke in each other's eyes and mouths to alleviate the stinging of tear gas.

The protesters came prepared with flags and instruments of Ashura, and local mosques and tekkiyehs were deserted, their members having joined the protests. A few times, when some demonstrators engaged in joyful claps or chants, others in the crowd discouraged them from doing so -- not wanting to be seen as anti-religious by pro-government supporters.

This was cause for much riot when Mohammad Khatami was a candidate a decade ago and Mir Hossein Mousavi had earlier sent a warning asking demonstrators to respect the mourning rituals.

Demonstrators were heard shouting: margh bar dictator: "death to the dictator."

Vasiyateh Montazeri, margh bar dictatory: Montazeri's legacy was to fight dictatorships.

Ya Hossein, Mir Hossein

Azast azast emrooz, roozeh azast emrooz, mellateh sabz-e Iran, saheb azast emrooz: today is a day of mourning, the green nation of Iran is mourning today.

Een hameh lashkar aamadeh, aleyheh rahbar aamade: This army has come to stand against the Leader.

Ma ahleh Koofeh nistim, Hossein tanha bemanad: We are not like the city of Koofeh [the city, which, according to Shia tradition, neglected to join Hossein's army], we will not leave Hossein alone Ma ahleh Koofeh nistim, poshteh Yazid beestim: We are not the city of Koofeh, we will not stand with Yazid.

Een mah, mah-e khooneh, Yazid sarneghoone: This is the month of blood, Yazid will fall.

The demonstrators on Hafez Street reported that Enghelab Square was the site of bloody confrontations, but people still managed to remain calm. They had formed links which would bring news and reports from other parts of the protests. If militias had crowded in one neighborhood, they discouraged others from entering those areas and found other routes.

One could only feel humbled standing in those crowds. Young and old, families, pregnant women, grandmothers, the disabled, children, women veiled from head to toe and young girls with vibrant makeup -- one could catch glimpses of everyone in those lines. Tear gas flowed everywhere, and although we burned inside, the crowd was bursting with life.

Under Hafez Bridge, thousands of demonstrators gathered, carrying green ribbons, pulling them out from under their veils or jackets and holding them up high, chanting in unison when the crowds formed.

Smoke drifted aimlessly, and our eyes and throats continued to burn, but the crowd felt neither hopeless nor scared. I was shocked to later witness and hear about other parts of the demonstrations.

As far as my eyes could see, I saw thousands of protesters in peaceful harmony without a hint of violence. But even on a day like this, one can see how divided this city has become. I left the demonstrators early to go to a mosque in uptown Tehran where a diverse population always gathers. While the mosque is located in uptown Tehran, the population is very diverse because the mosque is run by organizers from the province of Khuzestan in Southern Iran and thus people from this province who live across Tehran gather there.

I had left the smoke and dirt and screaming voices only to come upon obedience and silence. Standing in this place, it was as if nothing had ever even happened. It was almost impossible to believe that I was in the same city, in the same country, only a half an hour away from the protests...

... Until you catch little hints and glimpses of resilience. In the long lines, we women stood for food. One woman wearing a green scarf around her neck shouted, "The lord to bless Ayatollah Montazeri's spirit" and to "ask the lord to protect our young who are on the streets today." A number of women responded in agreement. But some women beside me were from the other camp and bickered under their breath: "Since when do women interfere in politics?," they asked.

I responded: "Why can't women interfere in politics?"

One answered: "They can, but political gestures are not appropriate for mosques."

I said: "But today is Ashura, what is more appropriate than remembering the young who are arrested, beaten and killed in our own country right now?"

She explained: "These are all lies and rumors."

I said: "My friend was killed. It wasn't a rumor."

They turned their heads and stopped talking.

Over the microphone, we heard the speaker ask the crowd to say praise to "the great leader Ayatollah Khamenei" and there was a loud respond in unison, as great as the ones for Ayatollah Montazeri just a few minutes before.

This city is truly divided.

The cell phones have stopped working. I know nothing of what is now going on in the demonstrations. This crowd is calm and quiet. You could stand here and think everything is business as usual. You could live this tumultuous day without hearing or seeing a hint of protest.

Shamsolvaezin, renowned Iranian journalist, told the BBC about the state media's coverage of the demonstrations today: "They prepare reports as if they live on a different planet."

It is not just state TV, but people who live on very different planets these days. And this is the irony of it all. You can live in Tehran today in the midst of war and chaos. You can live in Tehran oblivious to it all. I saw a magnificent protest today bursting with life and hope and peace (and tear gas). But there was blood, too, and chaos and death.

Tehran is on fire and enveloped in smoke tonight. Mohseni Square is under siege by militias, and the frightened, bloody demonstrators are seeking refuge in people's homes. The militias have been crowding the square since the afternoon, shouting and wielding batons at anyone who fails to move swiftly past them. Families are out in the streets again carrying grocery bags, to show that they have an excuse for passing through. Kaj Square and upper Valiasr are scenes of demonstrations and clashes with guards. Just a few hours earlier all our neighbors opened their doors to bloody and bruised demonstrators.

Tehran will not sleep tonight. It will burn in fire and smoke and blood. But that is the Tehran I have come to know. In this same city, many will lay soundly in slumber. Many will sleep never having heard these cries or never having felt the sharp, stinging batons. We truly do reside on different planets it seems, while still working and studying and living in the same city. The question is, when or how will these different planets collide?

Archive photo.

Copyright © 2009 Tehran Bureau

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9 Comments

I disagree with the writer about the fact that Tehran has divided into two camps. Truth is the gap and division existed long before Ashura and even before the fraudulent election. What has happened is that the hidden, suppressed and controllable gap has come fore after the election, it is no more under control, the division has erupted the seemingly obedient social sphere. And it is a class gap, racial gap and cultural gap as well as a political gap. What happened to Tehran in particular and to Iran in general is that the coup was taken as a dislocative event by the society. It has displaced the problematic social order. A new order is replacing the pre-coup one.

Didaar / December 28, 2009 11:47 AM

This is exactly the problem that I worry most about. The religious masses of south Tehran, the regime's support base ... how many are they, how blindly loyal are they?

Are they resentful toward the "shomal shahr" (uptown rich)? Is it they who form the ranks of the Basij citizen militia?

What outreach can the Green Movement do to get through to them, to foster political awareness?

How can you make a woman who thinks "women should not be involved in politics" understand the concept of civil rights?

The movement's greatest challenge - after removing the ruling hardliners -- will be to bridge this gap of the two Tehrans and the two Iranians.

Shirin / December 28, 2009 11:39 PM

Response to Shirin

Copy and print loads of graphic simple pictures of murdered people, write ont hem what happend, and annonymously spread them in the southern parts..

Omid / December 29, 2009 6:02 AM

many thanks for wonderful summary of events seen and for sharing with us what is going on on the street of my beloved country. please continue to cover, get the news out and enpower people to stand up against tyrany

maziar / December 29, 2009 8:45 AM

I AGREE WITH SHIRIN. THERE HAS BEEN ALWAYS TWO IRAN: ONE SMALL MINORITY - 10-15% AS I GUESS - WHO IS NOT REALLY RELIGIOUS AND NATIONALIST AND LIKES THE WESTERN TYPE OF LIFE - LIKE ME -
AND A MAJORITY OF - 50-60% AS I GUESS - WHO SEES HIMSELF WINNER IN THIS REGIME. THE 25% TO 40% CHANGE THEIR CAMP BASED ON THEIR FINANCIAL SITUATION.
TO ME AS A EX-JOURNALIST AND NOW-PHYSICIAN THIS CLASSIFICATION RESULTS IN A VERY UNSTABLE COUNTRY.
THE RESULT HAS BEEN THE ASSASINATION OF RULER, REVOLUTION OR COUP D'ETAT ALMOST EVERY 50 YEARS.
THE OTHER PROBLEM NOW AND IN THE PAST IS AND WAS THAT OPPOSITION IS NOT HOMOGENE AND HAS NO PLATEFORM.
SO THE CHANGE ALWAYS RESULTS IN BLOODSHED AND ANOTHER EPISODE OF DICTATORSHIP.

mansoor mosley / December 30, 2009 3:27 AM

Iran is basicaly an arab country, run by azari turks and some persians, they speak a language that is basicaly rooted in Arabic, and people look like arabs to me in streets. the religion is also very Arabic. I hope these people realize is about time they come and join the mother land and forget about Aryan stuff and atish parsti( worhipers of fire). these people need to realize they are condemed to these violence every 20 or 30 years and cound never be like european of even like india with democracy please stay Arab

khalid / December 30, 2009 10:04 AM

Khalid what are you on? Iran is not an Arab country.Never has been and never will be. The articles of clothing forced upon people will be replaced over night. Try to hold a conversation with a Persian speaking person and experience first hand your lack of communication.I am a proud Azari, an Iranian to the last drop of my blood.I suggest you expand your knowledge if you feel Iranians are fire warshipers.Isn't it interesting the only two wards mentioned by you "atish parasti" are totally Persian? Khalid?
The barbaric Islamic Republic is history.Never again in proud Iran.

Babak / December 30, 2009 6:43 PM

Khalid yes that is exactly what some outsider idiots wanted to impose on us an Arabization of Iran. Good news to all Iranians and bad news to you and others who can't bear it: This arabization has miserably failed. I am coming from south east of Tehran, not a rich area, my grand pa was a pious man! Interestingly people in Iran, even the religious ones want to see its separation from politics.

I promise everybody that many supporters of Ahmadinejad are fed up with system too just like many people in the green but the only reason they are angry is capitalist policies of Musavi's camp. They saw Ahmadinejad helping them with money in their villages. They chose Ahmadinejad over musavi but they do not like the Islamic Republic system...we should find our common points and unite for an Iranian republic.

Taraneh / December 31, 2009 1:44 AM

@Alkhalid
Arab unity is a substance for a belly laugh.
Look at Iraq. Ever since 1958 there have been 4 coupe de etat, 4 assassination and 1 execution of different leaders, massacre of Faisal family, generals, numerous civil war, 5 full blown wars within span of 50 years, ethnic cleansings and continuous social disorder.
Is that your definition of arab unity?
And I will not waste any band with talking about Lebanon, Yemen, Egypt and Omman.
At the end I would like to suggest practical (not verbal)unification of entire arab nations with their palestinian brethren before worrying about a Persian Nation. I hope you catch my drift.

Aryajet / January 4, 2010 8:39 PM