In Muslim countries it’s normally the call to prayer from the mosque that regulates our day but recently we’ve become accustomed to a new rythym; the nightly sound of drum beats and singing that signals Moharram. The Sh’ia ceremony marks the martyrdom of Imam Hossein, the grandson of the Prophet Mohammed, and it’s one of the most important religious events for Sh’ias.
In the last day or two you’ve probably seen pictures on the news of the shrine in Kerbala, Iraq where Hossein was killed in 680 CE. Millions of pilgrims make the trip at this time each year to remember Hossein’s tragic death but the event is not only commemorated in Iraq. Here in Iran, every city, town and village has its own way of keeping his memory alive. For over a week now we’ve watched parades in the evening made up of dozens of men walking down the street, flailing themselves with chains to steady drum beats. The whole country wears more subdued colours and mosques are draped in flags. It’s an intense experience and one we can’t help but notice. Even as we write this in our tent, set well away from the nearest houses, we can clearly hear the drums and singing from two villages.
Although we’ve been interested in the ceremony, we didn’t realise its climax, the day of Ashura and when Hossein died, was today so when we rolled into the town of Firuzabad expecting to buy food we were dismayed to find everything shut. We stopped in the town centre, looking left and right for anything open at all, and soon a crowd gathered. A few confused moments followed as everyone tried to speak to us in Farsi but it never takes long for an English speaker to appear and this time our translator turned out to be someone who’d lived in Birmingham, England for four years. He confirmed what we’d feared – everything was shut for the holiday – but then volunteered a nice alternative. “Come with me and we will go for an Ashura lunch,” he offered. “The food is free, for the whole community.” Within half an hour he’d led us to his family home, run to the mosque for lunch and brought back a feast of chicken and rice. So delicious and a real treat for us.
Well and truly full, and after making our excuses for not staying the night, we carried on down the road. By now the wind had turned against us so we didn’t get far before we decided to stop by some hills to find a place for the night. We thought we’d rolled off the road unnoticed but not so. Within five minutes three young men were eyeing us up, then they went away, only to return with a family of eight who also looked at us for a while. No one spoke English. They stared at us, we wondered when they would get bored and go away so we could find a hidden spot for our tent. Mobiles were pulled out, an English speaker was found and we had a nice chat about all the attractions in the area but bizarrely no clarification as to what our host of onlookers wanted. After a bit longer we gave up and set up our tent anyway and everyone eventually went away.
We thought that was the end of it but countries like this are always full of surprises. After dark, two of the original men who “discovered” us returned, this time with Sianmac, a university student who spoke excellent French and English. That changed everything. We chattered on for a good half hour – distracted only by a fabulous meteor streaking through the sky – and made them tea. They didn’t appreciate our tastes though, herbal tea without sugar didn’t play well on the Iranian palate! As the night got colder they waved goodbye but with a promise to return tomorrow morning with bread. We’d asked if there was a bakery in the village and they insisted on delivering bread to us. We were touched.