Blood and Ecstasy
The gutters flow crimson in downtown Zanjan from tens of thousands of sheep being slaughtered on the street and given away with rice to the several hundred thousand people cramming in for the marches. The dish, chelo gosht, is warming in this north-western city spread below snow-streaked ranges; the night breeze is frigid but so terribly sweet after Tehran. We arrived last night and today is Tasua, the eve of Ashura. I stand on the edge of a bloody jube and wave a small black flag that a friend of Mehrak has given me as vast lines of men stomp past smacking their chests and singing. Ahmad, a tall, leonine young computer salesman who seems to know just about everyone – soldiers, cops, marchers, butchers, knife sellers – thought it might help me join in the Shiite carnival of grief, but now he wants to give frowning lessons. ‘More sad,’ he says, pulling a misery face and punching me in the arm. ‘Feel the pain.’
I laugh and he hits me again.
‘Show more pain. Or is it not hard enough?’ He cocks his fist, his black eyes boring into mine, and then bursts out laughing, setting me off too.
‘No,’ says Mehrak, grabbing hold of me, his face tight. ‘Don’t laugh. It is very dangerous. People here are extremely serious about Islam. They have extremely strong belief. You are the kafir here, and the only kafir. What do you think will happen if you insult them? Don’t make any attention. Don’t laugh.’
Cheeks burning, I pull my thermal cap lower and turn back to the parade, trying to ignore Ahmad’s grins and pokes to the ribs. The marchers come in huge groups, each trailing a man standing on a pick-up truck covered in funeral wreaths and laden with a generator and loudspeakers, who blasts out rolling, bludgeoning chants about Karbala – or, as it sounds in the guttural roar, KAR-BA-LAAAAAAAAAAAAA. Each side of the march, the narrow streets are solid with spectators singing along and smacking their chests or waving flags. Family groups and others lean out of upper-floor windows lining central Zanjan. My hotel room overlooks one of the main routes and squares, and when I finally shut my window at one am last night the shuffling, stomping, shouting processions were still powering on, or overpowering on, as it felt after a day of hammering, concussive chants about death and glory in Kar-ba-la.
Mehrak has spooked me about being the only kafir in Zanjan. This is no cross-pollinating Latin carnaval bursting with eccentricity, irreverence, flamboyance, horn sections, sex and flesh of every colour. This is a male and singular drumbeat of Shiite grief. I keep my eyes down when police and soldiers are near but it is deeply unnerving knowing that the Basijis are just men in the crowd. Must stay very low-key.
‘Come,’ says Ahmad, taking my elbow and dragging me through layers of bystanders until we burst through into the marching zone. A panicked-looking Mehrak is right behind. Ahmad taps the back of a marcher who lifts his hand off the man behind, opening a spot for us. I’m shaking my head but Ahmad just drags me in and gets stuck into the chant. Ahmad lands his left hand on my shoulder and I plant mine on Mehrak’s, so come what may we’re in the line now, right feet forward for the stomp followed by a shuffle with the left. Flag up with the beat, and another short thrust and then thump, hand on the chest. We’re mirrored by a second line of marchers, while men patrol the centre yelling and shaking their arms at us to go harder and harder. Also free-ranging in the middle are young men wielding huge flags, red for blood, white for sacrifice, black for mourning, and Islamic green, the traditional colour of Mohammad’s family.
Ahmad says he has something he wants to show me tonight so we peel out of the parade, but the streets are so crowded that it is difficult to move. ‘Off the road,’ he says, leading us into an alley winding through an old walled section of the city and into the internal courtyard of a mosque. Men stand around chatting and Ahmad talks to a few while Mehrak shelters me. ‘It’s okay,’ Ahmad says, drifting back over. ‘Look,’ he says, pointing at a taped-up poster of the Supreme Leader in which Khamenei’s eyes have been painted red and his mouth torn out.
‘Wow, they’ll be in trouble, won’t they, if someone sees that?’
‘Bale,’ says Ahmad. ‘Let’s go.’ We climb another small set of deeply-worn stone steps into a lane that twists onto a street marginally less jammed than the last one. We stick close to the shop fronts – diners, knife sellers, clothes and grocers – and make some progress, gradually overtaking a march in which many of the chest-beaters wear headbands. Ahmad puts out his arm, stopping Mehrak and me, and stares at the group. ‘They are a Basij mosque,’ he says, talking about the plain clothes militia that the government dispatches to beat the hell out of protesters and dissenters.
‘What – those guys are Basijis?’ I ask.
‘Bale. Very bad, very dangerous.’ He clucks his tongue in disapproval.
If I see them perhaps they’ll see me, but flanked by Ahmad and Mehrak I creep forward.
The regime goons have the pugnacity of a volatile sporting team – the casually-worn aggression generally so absent from Iran. Milling thicker on the road than most other marching groups, they crane their necks, peering all about to claim their share of the pious limelight. They jostle and herd each other, hands everywhere as their throng engulfs the street. There are a few stereotypical martyr beards but many are too young to shave. I wonder who among them swung clubs at yesterday’s protest here and helped fill Zanjan’s jails.
‘Do you have any friends who are Basijis?’ I ask Ahmad.
‘No. You cannot.’
Mehrak is not sure if we are going the right way, and I ask where we’re headed.
Ahmad smiles, and claps his hand on my arm. ‘We go to a mosque where you can see something special.’
Teenage boys, men and music spill all around the mosque as we make a midnight approach. Half a block away Ahmad stops us to say that kafirs are forbidden to enter and there will be trouble if I am noticed. ‘Don’t speak. Don’t show your eyes.’
We join a flow of men heading towards the throbs and faint wails, and climb the steps to a kind of foyer, but I don’t see too much because it’s barely lit and I’m looking at the ground to hide my infidel eyes. Staff hand out cloth pouches for shoes to be bagged and dropped into barrels. One of the mosque crew is right next to me and I swivel away but Ahmad moves between us, taking two pouches and then gesturing for me to head in.
Mehrak shields me as we zip through the door and around a heavy curtain, emerging into a circular, domed furnace of heat and sound. I gaze dumbstruck: hundreds of men and boys stripped to the waist are leaping into the air and banging into each other as a trio of musicians thrash out an overwhelming cacophony of twisting, intertwined rhythms. A vocalist almost eats his microphone as he hunkers down in a rapid, heavily distorted chant of ‘Hussein-Hussein-Hussein-Hussein-Hussein-Hussein-Hussein-Hussein’ while another unleashes an incendiary account of the torments of Karbala: a performance beyond the most narco-assisted extremes of any psycho-rocker I’ve seen. And all the while their percussionist pounds out convulsive funk rhythms with brutish speed. Above the band hangs an enormous silk banner painted with a desert scene where lightning bolts pierce a burnt-orange sun dripping with blood as a riderless horse wanders the sands near chador-clad women lost in grief.
I’m about to lose my fucking mind, and the shirtless men hurl themselves higher and higher, smashing their chests as they fly, whipped up and up by a man in the centre swinging an immense black flag of death in wild arcs. The air is so thick and hot it burns my teeth and chokes me in its stench of superheated, supersaturated male flesh. It is all I can do to stand in this vortex of the blood god.
Two soldiers carrying AK-47s and binoculars enter the gloomy lobby of the high-rise Sepid Hotel, where I am the only guest. They talk to the woman at reception and then walk upstairs. I’m feeling so profoundly unwell, so fatigued, so weak-lunged and so nauseous, that it might have been a relief had they detained me, thereby excusing me from this morning’s garden party. But here’s Mehrak, right on time in his father’s car.
‘My mother was worried you would not have breakfast,’ says Mehrak, passing over a spoon and a bowl of porridge and shreds of lamb. Ahmad also scores a bowl of halim when we pick him up on the drive through the gritty but spacious Zanjani suburbs. Huge Farsi script has been fashioned in white on a hill overlooking the city, and Mehrak says it means Mahdi. Mehrak say this is also the meaning of Valiasr, the street bisecting Tehran. Many names; many faces. Mehrak takes the Tabriz road, and we drive north-west through a rocky, scrubby countryside. It is a bleak morning.
‘Where’s the garden?’ I ask, head pounding, chest wheezing. Last night’s plunges from frigid night to steaming mosque and back again did me in.
‘Garden?’ says Mehrak. ‘Oh, in Amin Abad.’ He points in the direction we’re travelling.
We pass an upside-down car, its occupants sitting in the dirt tending to their bruises. Every few kilometres police stand watching the traffic. ‘Think there’ll be any problem with the cops?’ I ask.
Mehrak shrugs, but Ahmad says no. ‘My friends do this every year,’ he tells me.
‘What do they think about the ayatollahs saying it is haram?’
‘They do not agree. Many people do not agree with the ayatollahs, many times even ayatollahs do not agree with other.’
‘What do you think?’
‘People can do it if they want,’ Ahmad says. ‘It is between them and Allah. They do it for a good reason: because they love Imam Hussein. As for me, I prefer what you saw in the mosque.’
‘You do that?’
‘Aren’t dancing and displays of the flesh forbidden in Iran?’
‘You can do anything for Imam Hussein.’ Ahmad grins and stretches back in his seat.
Twenty kilometres from Zanjan we reach a dirt-poor settlement of mud-brick houses. It is Amin Abad and my spirits sink to see police at the turn-off. They have stopped a car heading in and are questioning the driver. But they ignore a pick-up that barrels by them, and then another car, and we take the plunge, driving past and up a road narrowing into a rugged alley of dirt and mud. Mehrak has to go slowly and really work the wheel, taking care to steer well clear of women in full chadors leading children through the labyrinth of alleys lined with high walls. There are men on foot, too; men with moustaches and pockmarked faces, men with caps and grey beards, and young sharpies stepping gingerly in leather slip-ons and white socks. My jaw is tight with apprehension about the relentless, concentrated, grinding exposure of being a kafir voyeur hanging around in a tiny garden of devout Shiites on their holiest day.
The track is getting thick with traffic and the walls are now lined with parked cars.
‘They aren’t all going to the ceremony, are they? How many people usually?’
‘About a thousand.’ Ahmad tells Mehrak to park as soon as he sees a space.
Out in the teeth-chattering air we join a stream of people walking towards the fringe of this hard-scrabble village. A pair of policemen stand straight ahead eyeballing us all and Mehrak steps around to block their view of me but there’s not so much need anymore; I’m an old hand at shuffling with my head down and gloves buried in pockets – the trudge is automatic. If more Iranians wore sunglasses then I’d have mine on but very few seem to wear them, so downcast it is. The cops don’t look twice. A kid soon does, however, and the tubby little boy walks almost backwards so he can keep checking out the alien blues.
Stalls give away hot, sweet milk which I want to drink more and more of but we trek on through mud and litter to a football pitch built on a slope. The police are hovering so we walk to the summit of the pitch and watch its perimeter fill with a circle of about a thousand people. I try texting Arman to ask if he made it to Tabriz, but the SMS won’t send. I try texting Mehrak, who’s a foot away, but again there’s no service.
‘Look at his head,’ Mehrak says, nodding towards a man in front of us whose crown has a hairless patch exposing a pink and scarred scalp. ‘He has done it many times.’
A dozen or so men make their way into the centre of the pitch carrying a black banner and loudspeakers set on poles. The two policemen soon join them and word spreads that they have said ghammeh zani is prohibited and anyone practising it will be arrested.
‘It will happen,’ says Ahmad.
Within minutes the scarred man and a bunch of his companions walk from the pitch and disappear down the side of a ravine. Shortly afterwards we hear the sound of chants and cries of ‘Ya Hussein!’ The police don’t move.
‘They’re not going to arrest them?’ I ask.
‘Two police and a thousand believers? The police don’t want to get killed,’ says Mehrak. ‘They will stay away.’
People start peeling off to the ravine. From the top we look down on about twenty men locked in a marching formation, the same as last night – left hands on each other’s backs or shoulders, right feet forward for the stomp – but now the steel of twin-edged swords shines from the right hands of several.
We skid down the dirt slope to join a swelling audience of men gathering at the bottom; women in chadors form a jagged black line across the top of the ravine. Some husbands stay with them up on the lip of the dirt wall, others squat a few yards down the face, holding the hands of the more adventurous of the numerous little kids.
Another circle of swordsmen has formed, the colliding chants of the two groups messy and loud. The participants are aged from their late teens to their sixties, most being in their twenties. Some of the older men have the worn faces and clothes of poverty while plenty of the younger ones are flash in designer jackets and jeans. Only three or four have the cultivated anti-vanity of the cookie-cutter fanatic: surplus jackets and choppy beards under dumb, hateful eyes. Watchers press in holding up cell phones and camcorders.
Blood trickles brightly down the face of the scarred man we saw earlier, but I never saw him cut himself. He is talking to someone holding a squirt bottle – of antiseptic presumably – and a bag of dressings. Now another man detaches from the circle, stepping into its centre and raising a sword in both hands. The mustachioed gentleman in his late forties rocks on his feet with the surges of the chant, tilts the sword down and whips it back. Bang, bang, bang, bang, bang; he slams the top of his head again and again until an aide stops him with a hand to the shoulder. The hacked man drops to a squat, blood running onto his black shirt. He shows no pain and doesn’t seem to be breathing hard; he just stares into the forest of men’s legs until someone brings a bottle and squirts his wounds. The medic dresses the deepest cuts and winds a bandage from under the man’s chin up around his head. By the time he finishes another bleeder is waiting. The medic moves straight on. No gloves.
‘Infections not a concern?’ I ask Mehrak.
He shakes his head. ‘They believe Imam Hussein will heal them, and maybe a glass of whisky tonight.’
For more than ninety minutes the swords swing nonstop. The ravine is strewn with bloody bandages, and I’m so ill that I squat among them, unable to stand for long and too queasy to move up the slope. Men mill about with bloody and bandaged heads, smoking and watching ever more join their ranks. Ahmad has been bandaging and his hands are stained with blood and antiseptic. I stand again as he brings over his friend Roozbeh, who has organised much of this. Roozbeh, who runs a construction company, is a foppish fellow with a dreamy air. He is unusually colourful in a pink sweater. ‘You are welcome here,’ he says, taking my hand, even as his eyes track an ankh-shaped blood pattern on the back of a shroud-wearer walking by.
‘Thank you. Have you ever done this?’ I ask, knocking on the top of my head.
‘Yes,’ he says, his eyes now on mine. ‘Every year for five years.’
‘What does it feel like?’
Roozbeh takes a deep breath. ‘I cannot speak of it. All I know is that I miss Imam Hussein.’
Almost two hours now and I’m shaking and trying to think about being far away but the chants and Ya Husseins and blood and the impossibility of getting warm keep me entirely in the present. Loudspeakers have even made it to this spiritual abattoir, with the rants and chants jarringly loud. Mehrak has seen enough too, but Ahmad is still on bandage duty and until he is finished we are staying in this bitter, barren ravine.
‘Old man,’ says Mehrak. I think he’s talking about me but then he nods towards the far edge of proceedings, where a dense mob of shroud-wearers is hard at it.
Struggling to my feet, I see a man who must be in his seventies winding himself up for a cut. He’s a firebrand, too, putting the young motor-mouths to shame with the vehemence of his calls. His last cry is to the holy handless Abolfazl before letting rip with the steel of God. Clonk. Mehrak and I look at each other. It’s the day’s crispest sound of sword on skull. Clonk. He does it again and I have to squat. Clonk. Clonk. Clonk. Clonk.
Finally, it’s time to leave – but first we eat. The queue on the edge of the village for chelo gosht is long and slow and I need to lie down but my friends are hungry. The cooks have run out of meat, but a beautiful, purplish-dark, long-coated sheep is led past to have its throat slit.
‘Salam.’ It’s Roozbeh, his head wrapped, blood on his face and clothes, his expression soft and dreamy. ‘Khoda hafez,’ he says, wandering into the village. ‘Khoda hafez,’ says Ahmad, and turns back to Mehrak and me. ‘For Roozbeh, he cannot cut himself with other people around. He helps everyone, all day, and when there is nobody left he takes the sword for Imam Hussein.’
The cell phone wakes me up with a message. It’s night and I’ve been asleep since stumbling back in from Amin Abad. The text service must be working again. It’s Mehrak: Look at TV. I heave myself up, switch the TV on to the news channel. Tehran torn by riots. Police cars on fire. Banks burning. Government buildings attacked. Dead people.