Photo Essay: Namaz Jomeh
by GABRIELA MAJ in Tehran
25 Jun 2010 18:32
Twenty-first anniversary of the death of Ayatollah Khomeini.
The women-only car on the Tehran subway was completely full, but at every station more black chador-clad bodies found a way to push in. It was ten in the morning on June 4, 2010. We rode like this for a long time, longer then I had expected. Every stop a white-knuckled, sweat-slicked battle. It was only when the train was beyond the city limits and the waiting crowds on the platforms thinned that the fight for space and comfort eased, everyone shaking and leaning with the motion of the car in unison, waiting with resigned patience for our stop, waiting for Haram-e Motahar Station.
Pressed up against each other like black sardines, we neared our destination. The women spontaneously broke out in chant, several phrases about the love of Allah. A single voice began the chant from somewhere deep within the chador thicket. The words picked up force as they made their way from mouth to mouth, a forest fire in Farsi. It reminded me of sports fans on their way to a game, the only other situation in which I have heard people singing together on the subway. Only on this occasion the tone was more solemn, the cadence slow and heavy, the pitch one of exaltation. A requiem fit for an ayatollah.
When the doors finally opened at the last station, the women poured out while crowds emptied simultaneously from the men-only cars. Chaos on the platform, sweat-drenched screaming children, more pushing and pulling, everyone trying to make phone calls, desperately searching for their family members. Bodies moved as if caught in a river after a storm. The seething crowd made its way out from under the surface of the earth through a bottlenecked passageway. A straining human chain of men braced itself against the deluge dividing the genders so that women ascended via the escalators on the left while the men walked up the stairs alongside them to the right.
At the gates of the station, fierce sunlight temporarily blinded the anxious crowd. There was more shouting, more searching. Women cloaked in black wearing white visors and gloves waited for their husbands, children held posters of Khomeini, black flags flew in the electric blue sky, and neon orange popsicles dripped down bare hands and chins, the midday heat an unbeatable enemy.
People had arrived in droves by bus, by car, by train, and on foot from across the entire country. For every person from Tehran there seemed to be a hundred rom somewhere else -- a small town, from another city, from where the satellite television channels had been successfully blocked that week. In Tehran, though I had heard people complaining of headaches supposedly caused by satellite-blocking signals, the BBC and CNN were on every private television I encountered. In cities such as Shiraz or Esfahan, however, there were only the seven government-regulated channels in recent days, airing documentaries about Khomeini's achievements and the martyrs of the Iran-Iraq War. The sanctioned newscasts announced that the crowd I stood among was two million people strong. Indeed, the masses stretched out as far as the eye could see, but they were too loosely knit to be confident that the enormous figure was accurate.
The sun was unleashing a 40°C assault. There was dust and chaos at the water trucks. Green-uniformed Basijis with rifles and nightsticks wove their way through the crowd while military helicopters chopped through the air. Ayatollah Khamenei's voice boomed over the stadium loudspeakers. He shouted about murder on the flotilla and about the blind eye the world had turned to the crimes of Israel against Palestine. He spoke for a long time, and I had many translators that afternoon as I made my way toward the interior of the shrine. Some of the people spoke about Khomeini and the liberation of Iran from beneath the oppression of the British. Some spoke of the courage of Hamas. One woman bought me a lemon ice cream; another gave me a handful of sour green plums. "He says Iran will not be controlled by America. Iran will not be forced to purchase their uranium. He says Iran will not be robbed like it was when the Shah was in our country." There was a roar from the crowd, many fists raised in the air with anger and conviction.
When the Supreme Leader finished his address, the masses rose to their feet, everyone facing in the same direction. The crowd fell silent and still. Even the children froze in place. It was time to pray. Allah-o Akbar. Khamenei's words whispered their way through the air. The ancient invocations amplified over the loudspeakers cast a spell. The people began to whisper in response, reaching their hands toward the sky, palms facing upward, mouths moving in unison to a rhythm known by heart, then bodies kneeled and foreheads pressed to tiny disks of dried earth from holy Karbala. As the people prayed, the Basijis stood guard, guns loaded, nightsticks glistening, beads of sweat trickling down their cheeks and darkening their green collars.
With the main building filled to capacity, crowds had assembled outside on the small lawns and vast expanses of concrete. They stood on prayer mats and newspapers in socks or bare feet. Some tried to shield themselves from the sun with straw hats or blankets, but ultimately there was no refuge. The heat rose from the ground like water, shimmering and distorting the battalions of women around me. Small frenzies erupted around those who fainted, momentary tears in the densely woven carpet of praying people. The heat poured down from the sky, an insistent, blistering onslaught. At moments, through the sweat in my eyes, it seemed to me as if there was one single piece of black chiffon, draped and billowing, a thousand meters long.
Photos and text by Gabriela Maj.
Copyright © 2010 Gabriela Maj, Tehran Bureau