Every day is Ashura and every place is Karbala
That year autumn started with gusts of winds carrying dust, bits of hay and the stench of dung. Dark grey clouds gathered and frowned over the village. Flocks of carrion crows invaded rooftops, branches of trees, edges of the walls—cawing incessantly. The village folk were agitated because they were going to commemorate Ashura. Morose-looking, bearded young men were dressed in long, black shirts. Women, wrapped in black chadors, scurried silently in the narrow lanes and alleyways, looking like ravens with feathers ruffled in the cool, autumnal wind. A sombre mood reigned everywhere. Some rough-looking men with coarse beards and dishevelled hair were cleaning and preparing the square in front of the mosque for the big event.
Farhad was too busy playing with his friends to care about what the grown-ups were doing or saying. He heard the words: martyrdom, self-sacrifice, Karbala and Imam Hussein, but they were meaningless to him. Farhad imagined Ashura would be a religious play similar to Ta’zieh. He thought he would enjoy such an event.
The evening of Ashura, Farhad’s grandfather’s house was crowded with relatives and neighbours. Some old men—sucking hard at their chibouks or opium pipes, letting the smoke out from among their dark lips—were passionately relating to one another events of Ashura that they had heard from mollahs. The women were either serving men with tea or sitting in a corner listening respectfully. A thick smoke hung in the air, obscuring the view.
Farhad, having played the whole day in the lanes and the neighbouring fields, fell into a deep sleep in the corner of the room.
When he woke up, he stared at the ceiling, wondering where he was. He looked around and listened carefully. The room was pitch-black. He stretched his right arm to touch his little brother—the mattress was empty and cold. He quickly sat up and pricked up his ears. He did not hear the soft breathing of his mother who always slept beside him on the left, no snoring of the grandparents who slept in the room on the right. Only then did he hear the gentle rustling of tall poplar trees, drifting in through the open doors of the room.
Farhad began crawling on his hands and knees on mattresses, tugging at the sheets and feeling the cool bolsters. A deathly silence reigned in the room. The door of the room on the right, in which the grandparents usually slept, was shut. This room had another door that led into the inner rooms at the far end of the house in which grains were stored in drums—inhabited at night by jinns and malicious demons, who snuck in through a hatch which opened out into the wilderness at the back of the house.
A pale, sickly light was pouring into the room from the yard. Farhad stood up, groped his way towards the door on the left corner—near the wall—and stood in its threshold. The black silhouettes of poplar trees stood against the dark background of the short, mud buildings of hammam and the market place. The buildings looked like giants—squatting and whispering to one another. The small brook crept from under the wall near the inner rooms and crawled through the yard, hissing like a huge serpent with shiny scales. Farhad looked up at the sky—it was laden with dark clouds, weighing upon the village, oppressing its inhabitants. Above the mosque, beside the graveyard, there was a faint, murky glow. The distant sound of wailing women was coming from the outskirts of the village. The noises made by the creatures of the night were interrupted by the howling of some stray dogs that wandered at night in the ruined manor houses of the feudal lords of bygone years. When the dogs were terrified they would run out of the village, gather together and howl till daybreak.
Farhad squatted against the wall, frozen like a chick in the shadow of an eagle overhead. Every object in that yard had turned into creatures, glaring at him across the gloom. At the end of the platform, stretching in front of the bedsitting rooms up to the inner rooms, he saw a one with a trunk-like nose crouching in the corner. Farhad could not take his eyes off it. It was motionless and silent. As he stared, gradually it became clear to him that it was in fact the large jar of water wrapped up in rags to keep it cool. The gigantic nose was nothing but the ladle hanging from the neck of the jar.
Farhad began trembling and whimpering quietly, looking around with wild eyes. A creaking noise startled him. It was the large, wooden door of the house being slowly pushed open. A dark form stepped in and walked towards the rooms. Farhad cringed and crawled backwards inside the room and leant against the wall, hugging his knees. The sound of the steps approached the platform. The figure stood in the doorway and looked inside.
“Farhad, is that you?” said the form in a low voice. “I’ve come to fetch you. The ceremony will start soon.” It was the voice of his youngest auntie. “You were in such a deep sleep we couldn’t wake you up,” she went on.
Farhad stood up, walked to the platform, put on his givehs, tucked his shirt in his trousers and followed her. She was veiled from head to foot in a black chador.
When she reached the door of the house she stepped outside and disappeared from view. Farhad came to the door, stood there and looked to the left—nothing but shadows of some walls against the bleak sky. He looked to the right and saw his auntie standing against the high wall of the house. She beckoned him to follow.
When Farhad reached the small space beside the house, he stood and peered into darkness. Four narrow lanes opened into the space. Not a soul was coming or going. As he looked at the lanes stretching like giant snakes whose tails were lost outside the village, Farhad could just make out a faint medley of noises coming from the direction of the mosque. Three figures in chadors emerged from the opposite lane, glided silently beside the wall of a house to the front of hammam, spoke quietly to his auntie and then they all took the lane leading to the mosque. Farhad followed these women.
When the group of women reached the space in front of the mosque they stood and looked around. Farhad caught up with them and peeped from behind their chadors. He saw a throng of women and men sitting round the small space. Lanterns were peeping out from among the branches of the ancient elm tree. A line of men wearing shrouds, slowly, in-step, were moving round the elm tree, chanting with rough voices. The lanterns were casting a glow, tinged with murky saffron colour, on their faces. They all had dishevelled black beards, wild eyes and shaven heads. The motley faces of the crowd appeared like grotesque demons painted against the dark backdrop of the night. All the other sounds of nature were muted, as if all the creatures either had escaped to their holes in the ground, in the crevices of the walls, in the tree trunks or had deserted the village—knowing instinctively that something gruesome was about to happen.
The three women each took a different direction and all melted into the crowd, leaving Farhad’s auntie behind.
“You wait here. I’ll go and find your mother,” she whispered. She stepped into the sitting mass of village folk and was instantly swallowed up by the crowd.
Farhad hid behind a tree. All of a sudden he heard some men singing a mournful kind of dirge. These lamentations rose slowly until they became deafening. Farhad, overcome by curiosity, peeped from behind the tree, expecting to see a Ta’zieh. What he saw did not look like a Ta’zieh—it was the most gruesome scene he had ever witnessed:
All of a sudden the shroud-wearing men stopped chanting. The heads of the crowd jerked, like marionettes, towards them. Each man drew out a cleaver from under his shroud. They held the cleavers upright in front of their faces, wielding them right and left and moving in step with others. As they moved round the elm tree they began chanting some elegies in praise of Imam Hussein and all the martyrs of Karbala. The chanting grew louder and louder till it turned into a tumultuous racket, sounding like braying of some mad donkeys. Women began to wail hysterically, babies started to howl, and old men wept loudly, slapping their own foreheads. When the mayhem reached its peak, all the men in shrouds chanted discordantly in rough voices: Hussein, Hussein, Husseinam. Hussein, Hussein, Husseinam...and began to brandish their cleavers, slashing their own foreheads in rapid succession. Blood gushed out from their foreheads and trickled down on their faces, streaming down to their black, tangled beards. They went on slashing their foreheads and intoning the name of Imam Hussein. Streaks of dark blood filled their mouths and then squirted out in all directions as they chanted. The fronts of their shrouds were soaked in blood that shone in the sickly glow of lanterns. The blood then dripped on the floor, turning the soil into dark red. The square now looked like a slaughterhouse. A woman suddenly stood up holding her baby, scrambled through the crowd, now in height of frenzy, found her way into the square, and offered her child to one of the cleaver-brandishing men and screeched, “I want to sacrifice my child for Imam Hussein.” Some men leapt out of the shadows, grabbed and dragged her out of the space while she was shrieking and protesting like an animal being carried away to be slaughtered. Other women tried to do the same but were overpowered by some men.
As Farhad watched these grotesque events unfolding before his eyes, his body started to shake uncontrollably. A big, cold hand was placed on his eyes and he quivered like a little sparrow clutched by a mischievous boy.
“What are you doing here, Farhad?” someone asked in a low voice. Farhad recognised the voice of his youngest uncle. “Come on, let’s go home,” he said, gently pulling Farhad away.
The following morning Farhad was woken by sounds coming from the yard. He found himself in his bed, the daylight was pouring in and sounds of life filled the air. The village had woken up and was noisily stretching itself. Farhad sat up and looked about him. Everybody was sleeping peacefully around him. He was surprised to see his mother still in bed. He saw his grandfather busying himself as usual in the yard. Farhad rubbed his eyes, stood up and walked sleepily to the door. The yard looked glorious in the golden sunlight of the early morning. The leaves of the poplar trees were rustling cheerfully. The little brook was gurgling happily as it passed through the yard. Farhad felt so much joy in his heart but then he remembered the events of the last night and thought perhaps it had all just been a bad dream.
He startled when his grandfather shouted at him, “Come on, Farhad, get dressed quickly, we’re going to buy some fresh meat.”
Farhad put on his givehs and dashed to the brook. He sat on a stone, splashed his face with cold water, dried his face with the lap of his shirt, tucked it into his trousers and ran after his grandfather who walked briskly out of the house. Farhad was running, skipping behind him and every now and then he kicked a pebble he found lying on his path. When they reached the space in front of the mosque Farhad saw a group of women with their chadors wrapped round their waist were sweeping the soil mixed with dark, dried-up blood. Some young men, hidden among the branches of the ancient elm tree, talked loudly while removing the lanterns from its branches. The village folk were scuttling here and there, passing through the space, going about their daily lives. A group of men and women clustered around the butcher, talking at the tops of their voices. Farhad peeped from behind his grandfather.
The butcher, a squat, bearded man with shaven head, grabbed a sheep, pushed it down on the floor, put one leg on its neck and slit its throat with one swipe of his sharp cleaver. The blood squirted out of the sheep’s throat, splashing on the butcher’s black trousers, black shirt and givehs. The sheep’s body twitched a while, kicked the earth but soon lay there lifeless. The butcher stood up, lifted the carcass with his strong hands and hung it on a hook on top of three wooden poles by its hind legs. Next he skinned the carcass skilfully, cut its belly open, let the glistening, greyish and crimson guts hang out, and began hacking off the shoulders and legs.
Farhad was watching the butcher from behind as he raised the cleaver high, chopped the meat and bones, splashed blood everywhere. The dripping blood from the neck of the carcass was made a dark-red pool on the soil just beneath it. When the butcher turned to greet his grandfather he saw the butcher’s face. A cold shiver ran down his body. The butcher’s beard was like a thick tangle of black wool. There, on top of his forehead, was a deep, fresh gash filled with dried-blood mixed with ash to heal the wound.
On the way home Farhad held the fresh meat in a white cloth. The bundle was soaked in blood—it dripped and made a trail of dark-red drops behind him in the soil. When they reached a brook that ran along the path Farhad saw a man sitting on a block of stone, splashing water on his face and hands. When the man turned round to look at them Farhad saw a deep, fresh gash on his forehead filled with ash. Farhad ran quickly and clutched his grandfather’s hand. His grandfather held his hand absentmindedly. As they walked Farhad was staring blankly down at the path before him. His head was filled with chaotic noises, among which he could hear: Hussein, Hussein, Husseinam. Hussein, Hussein, Husseinam... He shook his head as if to shoo away a swarm of obstinate gadflies that badgered him.
Back at home he played as usual until lunch time. When everybody settled down for their afternoon nap he snatched his catapult and ran out of the house. The whole neighbourhood was sleeping. Sparrows were hopping about on the edges of the walls and among the poplar branches, bickering noisily among themselves.
“What a racket they’re making today!” thought Farhad, looking up menacingly. He turned left and came to the ruins of Madrasah, the abandoned schoolhouse. He stood under a willow tree near the brook and gazed up into the branches, like a hunter of primeval times. He spotted a baby sparrow sitting on a low branch, twittering and quivering its wings nervously. Farhad took out his catapult, grabbed a handful of small pebbles and shoved them inside his shirt. He put one in the leather pocket of his catapult and aimed at the baby sparrow. After missing his target a few times, he finally hit the sparrow smack in the middle of its chest. The sparrow tumbled down from branch to branch and fell on the edge of the brook with its wings spread out pitifully. Farhad pounced over the brook and crouched beside it. He snatched the little bird and held it in his trembling hand. Its heart was throbbing rapidly, its body was quivering with fear and its ruffled feathers were hot with sweat. Farhad snapped a twig from the tree, used it to tie the sparrow’s legs to a low branch, walked a few steps back and pelted it with pebbles till all the feathers were soaked in blood and its skin was torn into pieces. Some bits of feather and flesh, mixed with blood, spattered on the tree trunk.
Exhausted and feeling grotesquely gratified, Farhad squatted down on his haunches on the edge of the brook. He then gazed for a long time, as though in a trance, at the dark-red bundle of flesh, bones and feathers dangling on the branch. As he gazed, a surge of emotions rose from the depths of his being. His body was on fire. Tears welled up slowly in his eyes, trickled down his cheeks, scorching them like molten lava.
He stood up, pulled the mangled body of the baby sparrow off the branch, frantically scratched a hole at the bottom of the tree and buried it. He then placed a large stone on the spot making it look like a tiny grave. He squatted beside the brook, washed the soil mixed with blood off his hands and splashed his face with water. Then he stood up and walked towards the house.
Whenever Farhad played with his friends near Madrasah, he threw secret glances at the tombstone he had made for the little baby sparrow.
Ashura - The tenth day of the holy month of Moharram in which Imam Hussein, the grandson of the Prophet Mohammad, was martyred in the Battle of Karbala centuries ago.
Giveh - A type of cotton sandals worn especially summer in rural central Iran.
Hammam - A public bathhouse
Ta’zieh - A play re-enacting the martyrdom of Muslim religious figures.