I had the rare opportunity to attend Ashura in the city of Ashkezar near Yazd, Iran. In 2014, for the first time, foreigners, non-believers, were allowed to attend. According to their data, around 450 foreigners attended Ashura in Ashkezar in 2017. It was Sunday, October 1st. In the morning we took a minibus to the place of the ritual. We stopped halfway. They invited us to the house, where we rested in the shade and in the beautiful garden. They gave us food, lamb in a sauce with boiled rice, a variety of sweets, dried fruits, and pastries. And bottled water. We received a scarf with the inscription in English Hossein means love, justice and freedom, Yahossein.
Then they took us to the venue itself. As guests, we got a room on the gallery floor, for the best possible view.
And then it started. A parade of wagons depicting various historical events. Everything from the Karbala massacre to the present day. The procession lasted several hours.
Men dressed in black. Women and children watch from the sidelines. A terrifying moment when thirty thousand men shouted in unison and hit their chests with their right hands.
And finally Nakhl Gardani. Nakhl Gardani (Persian: نخل گردانی) is one of the mourning rituals which symbolizes the funeral procession of Imam Hussein. Nakhl means palm tree in Persian language. It is a symbol of the coffin (casket) of Imam Hussein, which is used during his symbolic procession ceremony. Nakhl is a wooden structure shaped like a tree leaf. Nakhl, which resembles a chamber with a gabled roof, is covered mainly with black cloth. Nakhl is a hefty and massive structure; therefore mourners lift and carry it in big groups. Crowd of mourners go under the Nakhl and lift it, along with those who had already settled there, all beating their chests with great weeping and wailing. They then walk around Hosayniya while carrying the Nakhl three or five times and finally put it back in its place.
Ashura (Arabic: عَاشُورَاء, ʿĀshūrāʾ, [ʕaːʃuːˈraːʔ]) is a day of commemoration in Islam. It occurs annually on the 10th of Muharram, the first month of the Islamic calendar. Among Shia Muslims, Ashura is observed through large demonstrations of high-scale mourning as it marks the death of Husayn ibn Ali (a grandson of Muhammad), who was beheaded during the Battle of Karbala in 680 CE. Among Sunni Muslims, Ashura is observed through celebratory fasting as it marks the day of salvation for Moses and the Israelites, who successfully escaped from Biblical Egypt (where they were enslaved and persecuted) after Moses called upon God’s power to part the Red Sea. While Husayn’s death is also regarded as a great tragedy by Sunnis, open displays of mourning are either discouraged or outright prohibited, depending on the specific act.
In Shia communities, Ashura observances are typically carried out in group processions and are accompanied by a variety of rituals ranging from weeping and shrine pilgrimages to the more controversial acts of self-flagellation and chest-beating. In Sunni communities, there are three rounds of fasting, based on Muhammad’s hadith: on the day before Ashura, on the day of Ashura, and on the day after Ashura; while fasting for Ashura is not obligatory, it is strongly encouraged. In folk traditions across countries such as Morocco and Algeria, the day of Ashura is variously celebrated with special foods, bonfires, or carnivals, although these practices are not supported by religious authorities. Due to the drastically different methods of observance between Sunnis and Shias, the day of Ashura has come to acquire a political dimension in some Islamic countries, and particularly in Iran, where Shia Islam is the official state religion.
Since this significant time in history, Ashura has manifested in ritual mourning, remembrance, and atonement as a form of holding witness to the moral principles of Islam through Imam Hussein’s refusal to assimilate to tyranny. Physical rituals take the form of prayers, Quranic recitations, sermons, and elaborate processions and reenactments of the Battle of Karbala.
As is common within Islam, distributing free food to honor the sacrifice of others is a mainstay ritual of Ashura.
In Iran, traditional food is distributed as Nazri (free food), like Ghorme Sabzi or Adas Polo, but the most traditional meal prepared for distribution is Gheymeh or Gheymeh Nazri.
The food is considered holy for anyone who eats it or makes it. It is given free by individuals and private groups as a way of completing an offering made to God in honor of Hussein’s martyrdom.
Often cooked in enormous copper pots over wood-burning fires, and then served in disposable containers, the food is believed to have benefits both physical and spiritual.
As I was walking in front of the Jameh Mosque in Yazd late that evening, a middle-aged man on a motorcycle stoped next to me. He said something and offered me a bowl of food. A Nazri.
A few months later, I found an Iranian TV report on Ashura in Ashekezar quite by chance on YouTube. And somewhere around the fifth minute, me in the foreground…