Said Hawa, Syria
Qusay Saddam Hussain
After walking for several minutes between dilapidated mud houses, through alleyways too narrow to accomodate a car, the door of the Tekyeh was before me. Through it lay what seemed like another world, a visit back in time to Middle Ages and a drama that took place in 680 AD, the battle of Karbala which is acted out at this time of year, throughout Iran, in a variety of plays, known as the Tazyeh.
Is it a circus, an opera?
The atmosphere is unusual, to say the least. Many spectators are sobbing and crying, while others chat happily together, drinking tea. Is it a theatre, an opera, a circus? At this stage it is impossible for the uninitiated to know. Sometimes the actors declaim their part melodramatically before suddently bursting into song,. Accompanied by an “orchestra” of trumpets, drums, clarinets and flutes, characters dressed in chainmail and metal helmets engage in astonishing duels and the clash of swords and shields drowns out the music and song.
We have been projected into the Middle Ages, to the battle of Karbala. Every year, in hundreds of villages, towns and cities in Iran, companies of amateur and professional actors replay the events of Muharram 680 AD when Hussain bin Ali, the prophet Mohammed’s grandson was defeated by the forces of Yazid bin Muuawiya. The events of Karbala, which climaxed with the death of Hussain on the tenth day (ashura in Arabic) of the month of Muharram, gave birth to Shiism.
A living lesson of history
The Tazieh is a living lesson of history, unique in the islamic world. Sometimes considered a primtive art form, Tazyehremains popular and expensive. The inhabitants of the small village of Bazargan collected the sum of six and a half million rials -- the equivalent of about four years of wages for an ordinary worker -- to pay the company that played in their village. What drives these villagers, and thousands like them throughout the Islamic republic, to sacrifice so much money?
Mostly, explains villager Hassan Habibollah Reza, it is an act of faith. Hassan recounts tales of wishes made and prayers fulfilled. He tells the story of childless couples who make a wish on Ashura’s day. If they are rewarded with children they are happy to contribute generously to the Tazyeh the following year. Another neighbour of Hassan’s had fiver daughters. He donated 20.000 rials to the Tazyeh when his wish for a son was granted.
The centuries old fight between good and evil
For Shia muslims the tragedy of Karbala is more than the quarrel which set Hussain bin Ali against Yazid bin Muuawiya in the battle for the caliphate in the year 61 after Hejira, and caused the split between Shia and Sunni muslims. What is typified by Karbala is the centuries old fight between good and evil, between the oppressed and the oppressors. It underlines the importance of the basic human right to rebel against injustice and suffering.
Hoping to enter the city of Kufa, his father Ali’s old “capital”, Hussain wanders in the desert with a group of 72 followers -- mainly his enlarged family and a few faithful devotees. Today, the city of Karbala and Hussain’s grave mark the location where the group were surrounded by an army of thousands. Hussain and his partisans suffered terrible thirst before being picked off by the arrows of the ennemy. On the tenth day of this unequal fight, Hussain finally died, killed by Shemr, one of the chieftains set to fight against him.
Anonymous authors have embroidered on this theme over centuries. Many plays, each one based on a special event or on the actions of a particular member of Hussain’s family, have been written. These are the Tazyeh’s which continue to enjoy such popularity, versions of the same story but told from a different perspective. Around a relatively simple historical event, generations of authors have woven plays full of humanity and emotion.
All Iranians know the details of the battle of Karbala but to help the audience follow the train of events the “good” characters -- members of Hussain’s family and his partisans -- wear predominantly green clothes and sing in soft, melodious voices, whereas the “bad” characters -- Hussain’s ennemies -- are dressed in red and perform their parts raucously.
On Ashura’s day the cycle of plays reaches its climax with a performance of the Tazyeh staguing Hussain’s death. His murder is performed in the most dramatic way. Sometimes the actor playing his killer, Shemr, halts his performance and speaks directly to the audience, informing them it is time to pray for that which they most want to achieve. “Pray to have your sins forgiven, your hidden diseases cured and to bring God’s benediction upon those who helped in the preparation of this Tazyeh”.
Besides the so-called professional groups which are more or less supervised by the government, there are the amateur actors who keep the art form original, helping it to evolve, rather than become stylised and rigid. Ramazan Farook is one of the latter. As Moin al Boqa, or Master of Tazyeh, at Rey, a suburb on the outskirts of Teheran, he is an outstanding personality who has devoted most of his life to the Tazyeh. His story is all the more astonishing because his own master, the person responsible for influencing and coaching him, was a woman.
“Seventy years ago this place was still in the countryside”, explains Ramazan Farook. Every year in the month of Muharram people celebrating Hussain’s death would mount a procession and then act out a small war. A short scuffle would take place, Imam Hussain was killed and it was all over.
Awoman called Khale Pir decided Rey could do something rather more impressive to celebrate an important event like Karbala and decided to form a company herself. Khale Pir died three years ago at the age of 90. Ramazan is the only survivor of her many students but with a similar enthusiasm to that of his teacher he continues to inspire students with a love of Tazyeh. At present he has 60 people under his tutelage, 25 of who are women. “in memory of one woman, I created twenty five”, he quips.
Ramazan Farook has no fears that Tazyeh could disappear with the accelerating modernisation of Iranian society. “If and when it had not existed in cities for particular periods, because of the rulings of certain dynasties, it has continued to survive in the villages. The Tazyeh will never die, Tazyeh is eternal..
(The Middle East magazine, June 1995; VSD, 11 Mai 1995)
Droits de Reproduction strictement réservés © Chris Kutschera 2002
Stag Hunting, France