Friday, June 23, 2006

Ashura (10th Muharram)-- Pics

It seemed a fitting day for such a tragic day. The sky was overcast and gray, and there was a light drizzle the whole time. This helped keep the day cool and bearable as we marched in the procession and observed the ceremonies. It also lent a sorrowful atmosphere to everything, and at the time I thought wow, rain in the desert, how special. But considering it was a desert, we saw several days of rain over winter and spring. I learn something new every day.

I don't know if I should say this, but I did "enjoy" myself. It's a nice atmosphere, where everyone is out, women, children, men, families, friends. Free drinks (juices, tea) and even some free food are served along the processional route. These are called "nazr" foods, as they are the result of someone's "nazr" or oath being satisfied. I know there's a term for this in English, but it escapes me. Basically you pray for something, and if it is fulfilled, in return you feed people.

When it was over, it was kind of sad because we'll have to wait again until next year for people to be in the same public space again. Even on this day, boys were "cruising" up and down the streets, and girls were giggling coyly as the boys walked by. The universality and inevitability of human mating rituals never cease to amaze.

Walking. Chanting as well, but I didn't know the words so I just listened. It sounded nice and melancholy.

A standard. The night before, these were lit up with lights and fire.

AliBob had the camera. The head tapping is a ritual expression of mourning. We women followed behind the men. The men were allowed to participate in other mourning rituals, while the women were only allowed to walk and do the head or chest tap. There was a lot of wailing on all sides.

Interesting art. AliBob can probably explain this better than I can.

More mourning.. the uniformity is interesting.

Many baby boys were dressed up in this outfit to represent Imam Hussain's 6-month old son who was shot dead with arrows when he lifted him up to ask for water for the children, who had been without water for 10 days in the desert in July.

The inside of part of the Imam Khomeini wing of the Masuma shrine. Beautiful and understated (as opposed to the mirror mosaics dominating everything else). This is also a common area where families can be together instead of segregated by gender.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Salaam Sara,

When I came to Iran two years ago, it wasn’t a totally new experience for me. My father is an Iranian, so we would spend occasional summers in Iran’s Azerbaijan province. What was new for me, however, was Qum. And living here. The only signs of the Islamic revolution in my dad’s city were the giant pictures of Imam Khomeini and Agha Khamenei just about every-single-where, but besides that, the society was like Tehran….in terms of the odd catcalls to passing women, lax hijab, and the lack of spirituality altogether. Having grown up in a family loyal to the Islamic revolution in Iran, I never felt as though I was actually in “Iran,” but rather a little wannabe America.

Then I came to Qum. I was two months pregnant, with awful morning sickness, and a particular disdain for the big black tent that I had to wear. And because I felt so sick and nauseous all the time, I would go out in the chador, but I didn’t care what would happen to it. I remember one of the first experiences I had with those nosey Islamic Qumis in an internet café, where I felt like puking as I wrote my e-mail. I was typing and my chador was completely open from the front, exposing my black monto and scarf—or my “hijab underwear.” This older lady went up to my husband and told him that I needed to wear the chador properly. No need to tell him; I heard. When we left the café, I spend the rest of the day ranting about how if she wants to follow a super-strict form of hijab, then kudos to her, but I felt my hijab without the chador was fine. Because I happen to be in your culture, I’ll respect that and don the chador, but don’t tell me how to where it. You don’t know I’m pregnant and about to vomit.

I had similar experiences with not wearing socks, with my sleeves going up a few inches, and exposing four strands of hair. Despite the few good ones, I hated the people. I hated the stares. Even when they weren’t looking I felt they were judging. I never felt subject to so much judgment before. I felt that every part of my body was suddenly wrong.

And I expected everyone to understand this.

After spending another year and half in Qum, I can’t say that I’ve become used to it. If I were to read your post a year ago, I would have felt as though I had written it. And now that I am reading it today, I still agree with you on most of it. Being born and raised in the carefree, individualist culture that America is, I considered those hijab tips an affront to my personal faith in God. I felt that in front of all who were present, my faith was being stripped from me and I was this godless woman who doesn’t even know how to observe the apparent laws of Islam, so how could I possible have any form of spirituality?
But in hindsight I think I was being a bit one-sided, and the only way I could make sense of it was to change my mindset. The women (and occasionally men) in the café, taxi, convenience store or on the street are part of a specific set of social conditions that make them who they are. In Islam, there is the concept of “amr bil ma’ruf wa nahy an al-munkar” (enjoining virtue and forbidding vice). And the way the more traditional cities of Iran (like Qum) have interpreted and implemented that is by making the laws of Islam (one of the most apparent being hijab) a permanent and loud presence in society, thereby maintaining the peoples’ sensitivity to the laws. Islam is a communal religion, and even though Qum might have a lot of other un-Islamic practices (especially in terms of treatment of others), this city has been able to preserve one social responsibility that is prescribed by Islam. I know that being in what we perceive as full hijab—in the women’s section—at night—it becomes overwhelming when a bit of wrist seems to offend the eyes of others. It’s just a few inches of wrist, but this is where that communal responsibility comes in. If Islam prescribes a certain limit, and we (however accidentally), pass that limit, it is important for us to be made aware of it, and keep us sensitive to it.

That isn’t to say that the way and extent to which this Islamic concept is often carried out are necessarily right—especially in terms of priorities. Some of the more jolting experiences are a result of the “enjoining virtue and forbidding vice” being carried out wrong, or out of place. Still, it’s a different mindset that is involved: spirituality is a communal as well as an individual experience, and we have a responsibility towards each other in that regard.

It’s true that if they want to practice Islam, why not practice other stuff as well, like how to treat foreigners, not ripping people off, and an infinite number of other un-Islamic practices that they have. But I think that the few that they are holding on to is what is preserving their Islamic identity. It may be a rude approach to the right way, but it’s better than nothing. And the people here are used to it and take it in the spirit it was intended in. It is us, the individualists who feel that all our faith is locked up inside and no one needs to know about it, that are prejudiced towards seeing it as judgment or criticism.

Some instances of amr bil ma`ruf and nahy anil munkar may infringe on a person’s freedom, especially when it isn’t an actual religious obligation that is involved. But that’s partially unavoidable, and it’s not necessarily worse than the none-of-my-business/devil-may-care apathy of America in maintaining a cohesive, healthy society. Ultimately, the solution probably lies in raising people’s cultural standards and religious awareness so they can be better judges of where (and how) to say something and where to let things be.

A lot of the people who stop you to let you know your hair is showing are actually doing it out of respect, with the assumption that you wouldn’t want it to show. Just as they would respectfully look away if the wind blew off someone’s hijab, they guess you’d want to know if it has slipped without your knowledge. It’s a cooperative mindset, not—at least not always—a holier-than-thou one.

As for their treatment of foreigners….you couldn’t have put it any better. I completely agree with you that Iranians have major issues with the treatment of foreigners and lack whatsoever any degree of customer service. The bureaucracy is overwhelming, with any attempt to get any paperwork, visa, etc issues accomplished virtually impossible. I hate going to administrative buildings because I know I will have to spend hours there, and they assume I have all the time in the world to spend with them. When I would go for my monthly sonogram at the doctor’s office, I would yearn for my doctor in Fairfax. I was just another number. Doctors here have attitude, workers have attitude, everyone has attitude. Religious or otherwise.

Sorry for being longwinded, but I felt compelled to respond.
I learned about you guys after you had already left, otherwise I would have loved to meet you here.

Fi amanillah,

8:55 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Salams Sara and Bob,

We are coming to Qom on August 30th. I was wondering if there was anyone you knew who was an "honest" taxi driver to pick us up at the airport in Tehran and take us to Qom in the morning, stay with us, and then take us back to the airport in the afternoon. We have been before and we just hate to be cheated by rogues who approach us at the airport. As well, if it is possible to have a hotel room for the day may make our "daytrip" to Qom a little more comfortable. Any recommendations? Thanks. Please e-mail me back at

Mahmood Kara

5:38 AM  

Post a Comment

<< Home