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Middle East Kavitha Dispatch

The Jesus of Iran
April 26, 2000

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Somber music fills the air.The streets are crowded with processions of men hitting themselves over the shoulder with metal chains to the beat of the gloomy drum. Women and children line the streets sobbing and comforting each other. All the businesses are closed and everyone is wearing black....I checked the papers, and can't find any news of the death of a national or international figure...what could have happened that has caused so much grief throughout Iran?

Remembering Imam Hussein

A song of mourning for Imam Hussein.

Click here to listen.

You must have the RealPlayer.

When our car was stopped for the 5th funeral-esque procession in less than a mile, I finally asked our guides, Louie and Hadi, what was going on. They laughed at my clueless-ness, and told me that the nation is mourning the death of Imam Hussein. What? Imam Hussein? No wonder I didn't find the death announcement in the paper, they are mourning the death of someone who died over 1300 years ago!

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Imam Hussein is the 3rd Imam in Shiite tradition, the grandson of the prophet Mohammed, who was martyred in the Battle of Karbala in 680 CE. Iranians are taught from a very young age about Imam Hussein and his "epic struggle between truth and falsehood". Story has it that Imam Hussein lived during a time when the corrupt Umayyad Caliphs ruled over the Arabian empire.

He appealed to them to turn away from their greed and to turn towards a more just, Islamic rule, but they would not listen. Scared of all the support the Imam had, the Caliph set out to defeat him and his followers. On the 9th day of the religious month Moharram, Hussein and his followers left Mecca. The next day they were stopped by the Caliph's army at the town of Karbala in present day Iran. Imam Hussein immediately put down his weapons and appealed once again to the Caliph to turn away from his greed, and told the Umayyads that he was willing to forgive their sins. "But they burst upon him with arrows and swords and martyred him."

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The strong language used in mosques and schools and on the radio to relate the story of Imam Hussein help explain why people feel so strongly about his death. "...He drew the line between virtue and vice." The Caliph's army offered to spare his life if he gave in to their rule, but "Imam Hussein had the courage to choose martyrdom. The power of love for Islam and for his people transcended physical death. 'Although the world appears beautiful, the hereafter is even more beautiful. Why should we be afraid of death?' he said. He and his companions who were savagely murdered exhibited virtue, vigilance, and valor."

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Just as we were lucky enough to witness Iran's biggest national holiday, No Ruz, we are now lucky enough to witness Iran's biggest religious holiday too. On the 9th and 10th days of the Islamic month Moharram, virtually all of Iran shuts down. Everyone wears black, and many men will continue to wear black for 40 days, the traditional Islamic period for mourning a death. Black flags are flying through all the streets, and every neighborhood has black tents set up for men to gather, pray and remorse. Every TV station shows live coverage from the large mosques of people weeping. On the streets are endless processions of little boys and grown men hitting themselves with metal chains to the sounds of morose drums.

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Watching all the images of the sobbing and crying, I couldn't quite believe that all these people really felt so devastated by the death of a man who died so long ago. "Is everyone really so sad? Or are they just putting on a show because they're supposed to?" I asked Louie.

"No, they really are sad. You have to understand that from a very young age they are taught terrible stories about how this man suffered and how ultimately he died for them."

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But still 40 days of wearing black? Hitting yourself with metal chains? Crying all day long? It seemed a bit obsessive to me, until Monica reminded me of where we were last year at this time. Last year, Monica, Shawn and I were struggling to cross the Darien Gap and were stuck in a small town on the Pacific Coast of Columbia called Bahia Solano during Semana Santa, or Holy Week. Our boatman would not sail for two days and all the businesses were closed. I remembered the big procession that the whole town came out for, with a heart-wrenching image of Jesus dragging his cross behind him. People were crying in the procession and in their homes.

"Yes, Imam Hussein is like the Jesus of Iran," explained Louie.


somber- dark and gloomy
procession - the act of moving along or forward; progression
martyred - put to death for religious beliefs
just - morally right or righteous
vigilance - alert watchfulness
valor - bravery
morose - melancholy; gloomy

It seemed strange to me that Iranians would mourn the death of someone killed over 1300 years ago. Then again, all over the world people mourn the death of Jesus Christ who was killed 700 years earlier! But Iranians seem to carry their mourning to a whole new level. Imam Hussein is especially beloved here in Iran, and Iranians feel as though they carry his torch. Sheep are sacrificed during these days and the blood is left flowing on the streets to show that Imam Hussein's sacrifice hasn't been forgotten. Iranians feel that all those people who died during the long Iran-Iraq war were also martyrs following Imam Hussein's lead in dying for a just cause.

As I go to sleep to the sounds of funeral processions outside my window, I am appreciative of life and of all the sacrifices many brave souls have made throughout history to get us to where we are today.


p.s. - Please e-mail me at

Jasmine- Tehran - The BIG 10
Kavitha- The Great Satan
Monica- Failure, and What We Can Learn from It
Team- Punishing Iran: 20 Years and Counting
Team - Earth Day: a Celebration and a Reminder

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