Festivals & Itineraries

Sunday 2 to Tuesday 4 November

When I am planning an itinerary I generally avoid local holidays. The tourist sites may be closed or so popular for locals that they are overcrowded. The day-to-day life is different, parts of the city may be closed. A bit like trying to find something to do on Christmas Day in Melbourne.

It was like that in Ashgabat, Turkmenistan when we were there for Independence Day. There was a street parade which we were lucky enough to watch. But businesses were shut and you certainly didn’t get a feel for the soul of the city.

But our experience in Yazd for the the period of mourning & lamenting, called “Azadari”, remembering the Martyrdom of Imam Hussein, was a very different experience.

Yes the city shops were closed, which was unfortunate for us, as our hotel was off a tiny arcade in the bazaar in the ancient part of the city.

But the Iranian people were so welcoming and wanting us to experience this very holy event.

In fact the whole of our time in Yazd was consumed by the festival.

On our first evening, our hotel suggested we go to another in their chain for dinner. What we didn’t understand was that this hotel was actually hosting an event for the mourning ceremony. We were shown to the tourist tables at the back of the dining room and sat with a delightful Berlin couple Mike & Evelyn. We were given tea and Yazd cakes, flavoured with cardemon and cinnamon.

The women were sitting on Iranian couches with their children, mostly in black chardors. Men and young boys were standing at the front, all wearing black shirts and pants. A leader on stage started to chant – it sounded like a story, and the men responded with chants and pounding their chests. It was captivating. The performance continued for about a half hour, listening, chanting, pounding. The pounding was a complex action of arm raised and then hitting the chest (matam). Sometimes one hand, sometimes both.

And then the men walked out and another group entered the venue and the performance started again.

We learned that each neighbourhood develops a performance and they spend at least a month rehearsing it prior to this mourning ceremony. It is a competition. And the performances are broadcast on TV. Groups take it in turns displaying their performance at various venues around the area. Each group representing a neighbourhood.

The performances stopped and we were given dinner. Rice with meat, coke and yoghurt. The food is prepared and given away as part of the Imam Hassein ceremony (nazar).

The next day was the ninth and second last day of the mourning period. We we’re taken to the Mosque Roze Mohammadieh (Hazireh) to see another performance. The venue was larger and the performers filled the venue. Women had gathered on the roof top under awnings. We had joined a mixed group of tourists, with guides hovering over us.

As tourists Bruce & I were separated. Bruce was at ground level with the men. I was led upstairs to the roof top to sit with the women. The women would move aside and push me to the front so that I had a better view. They were also taking photos, chatting, nibbling on snacks and keeping docile children under control.

In the evening we saw more at the Shah Zadeh Fazel (shrine). Bruce & I were able to stay together under the watchful eye of our tour guide. We were taken up numerous steep steps to watch the event from above. The “Fans of Imam Hussain” group were documenting the event and asked us to participate in interviews – “What do you think of the event?” “How can it be improved for tourists?” and many other questions.

We watched the breast beating (Singh-zani) where the men chanted. Neighbourhood groups of hundreds of men would file into the place and perform, as they had been practicing for the past month. It was melodic chanting following the leader. Hands were raised in unison and then pounded onto their chests to provide the rhythm to their song as they paid respect to the martyred Imam Hussain. Old men and young boys, even toddlers on their dads shoulders were a part of the choir. Each choir numbered hundreds.

As one group completed their performance another group moved in, bringing their sound system and banners. It was chaotic at the change over.

The women, in their black chadors sat in a separate section and also filled the roof top, taking photos of the men’s performance as were the tourists.

Following this we were taken to a home where food was again provided.  The giant pots that the food was cooked in were in the front garden.  Various friends and visitors took it in turn to stir the meat and bean stew.  Cooking was a slow affair, commencing at first light for the evening meal.

The last day of the festival is different. It is Ashura, the tenth day of mourning. Once again a group of tourists and their guides were assembled and as guests of the Imam Hassein Fan Club we were bussed to Mehriz to see the parade which is a reenactment of the beheading of Imam Hassein. Men pounding their backs with chains (zanjeer-zani), goats slaughtered over the drains during the parade, floats portraying  various parts of the story. Horses and camels richly decorated. Babies dressed in green proudly held by their fathers, representing the 7 month old son who was also slain.

The tourists were given VIP treatment, walking alongside the parade, encouraged to take photos of the floats, the actors and the onlookers, and then taken to the top of the gate of the mosque for a birdseye view of the parade. Then the inevitable lunch, this time provided by the governors of Mehriz. At this point Bruce and I realised that every meal we had eaten in Yazd, the cups of tea and coffee and the cakes had all been provided by the neighbourhoods participating in this mourning ceremony.

The last ceremony we watched, in another city called Taft, was carrying Imam Hussein’s symbolic Coffin (nakhl). This is a massive structure in the shape of the national tree, a cyprus. It is covered in black cloth which has many symbols, including the story of Hussein’s death, printed on it. After a lot of chanting and praying, 300 or more men ran into the area, hoisted the nakhl onto their shoulders and carried it around in three circles.

The ceremony finished with burning the tent of Imam Hussain.

After the ceremony was finished we were again interviewed for the documentary. It would be interesting to see the finished documentary, although I would expect most of our contribution would end up on the cutting room floor.

It had been an interesting and intense few days.