Religious Plays Gaining Popularity in Iran Again

TEHRAN (FNA)- Traditional plays held during the month of Moharram, the first month of the lunar Islamic calendar, are growing in popularity once again throughout Iran.

Taziyeh, a dramatic genre performed by Iranian Shiites, commemorates the sufferings and martyrdom of Imam Hossein, the grandson of Prophet Mohammad (PBUH) and the third Shiite Imam, along with all the male members of his family, relatives, friends, soldiers who all together formed a 72-member army in an unequal war with a 30,000-strong army of the enemy in the desert of Karbala in eastern Iraq around 14 centuries ago (in the 7th century AD).

The Imam and 72 of his loyal friends and followers were massacred by the troops of the Caliph in 680 at a place close to what is now Karbala, Iraq. The enemy army even killed his 6-month-old son after days of thirst.

It is performed mostly during the first 10 days of Moharram, before or after mourning ceremonies that include Sine-zani (chestbeating) processions, and culminating on the 10th day, known as Ashura, which this year falls on Jan 7.

Mohsen Mirza-Ali, 25, is a professional Naghal (storyteller) and taziyeh actor who also plays the drums. He has dedicated his life to the genre.

“At least five generations in my family were taziyeh performers before me. The love of the Imam gives me great motivation to keep the family tradition of taziyeh-acting alive,” he told the National.

Mirza-Ali knows dozens of the plays of the taziyeh repertoire, many of which recount the battle of Karbala and the sufferings of the Imam. He is currently researching to identify and learn all of them, a difficult task given that the exact number of taziyeh plays is not known as there are numerous local variations. Some estimate there to be more than 80.

According to Morteza Safaiee, 75, a retired clerk who has performed in taziyeh plays for most of his life, there are 20 directly related to the story of Ashura alone, some recounting the story of the 10 days leading to the martyrdom of the Imam, with others telling individual stories of Ashura, like that of a young Christian newlywed man who converts and is killed fighting alongside the Imam.

Safaiee first played the role of a child in a taziyeh when he was five years old with the encouragement of his father, who was also an actor. He then graduated to other roles as he grew older.

The plays are performed anywhere – on street corners or temporary structures or even in the middle of a town bazaar when shops are closed – with the most significant celebration on the day of Ashura.

On this day, Imam Hossein, his male children and his companions were beheaded by the caliph’s troops and the female members of the household were taken captive.

During the performances, antagonists, who are themselves devotees of the Imam, occasionally provide the audience with clues of their devotion to the Imam in verbal or in symbolic forms. On occasion they even step outside of character for a moment to cry with the audience for the Imam.

“I always play the antagonists, but it is out of devotion to the Imam. It is just a role that I have to play,” said Davoud Abaiee, 53, a veteran taziyeh actor who has performed in Moscow and in many Iranian cities.

“Our performance was very well received in Russia,” he said according to the National.

Documentation shows communal mourning ceremonies for Imam Hossein have been around since at least the 11th century, but taziyeh is thought to have emerged much later, probably in the late 17th or early 18th century.

Traditionally the members of the audience stand or sit in a circle around a slightly raised stage. They are continuously engaged by the performers who incite responses from them, such as praise for the Prophet and his household.

The antagonists’ costumes are usually red, while protagonists are dressed in green, the color said to be sacred to the Prophet’s household, or in black. A piece of white cloth thrown over the shoulder heralds the approaching death of the character wearing it.

Although women are among some of the most ardent patrons of taziyeh, they do not perform in plays for religious reasons. Women’s roles are played by boys or young men covered head to toe.

Taziyeh stage decor and props are always simple. The Euphrates River near which the battle of Ashura took place is symbolized by a basin of water placed on the stage.

Music plays an important role and much of the dialogue is sung by the actors.

“Taziyeh has always played a dynamic role in our religious, social and political life by recounting the sufferings of Imam Hossein and prophesying the ultimate destruction of the forces of evil, even if they look triumphant right now,” said Akbar Tasvirsaz, a student of performing arts, as he watched a performance in front of Tehran City Theater on the sixth day of Moharram this year.

Ali Saeedi, 25, a shoe salesman, said the current attacks on Gaza hold relevance to the taziyeh.

“As Israel pounds the besieged Gaza and innocent Palestinians are massacred, the grief for the Imam and his household hits the soul even harder. The sufferings of the Gazans strongly refresh the memory of their sufferings 13 centuries ago. I guess I am not the only one to feel like that now.”

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