In the town of Noush Abad in central Iran, genies, prophets and archangels travel alongside Imam Hussein to Karbala, in a locally interpreted Ashura procession marking the martyrdom of the third Shiite imam.
The mourning days of Tassoua on Wednesday and Ashura on Thursday commemorate the death of the grandson of the Prophet Mohammed in 680 at the Battle of Karbala, located in Iraq.
The event that pitted Imam Hussein and dozens of his loyal followers against the troops of the Caliph Yazid has become one of the founding tenets of Shiite Islam, the predominant faith practiced in Iran.
Across the country, ritual processions as well as Tazieh, or street performances re-enacting the events of Karbala, and narrative poems, tell the story of Hussein’s martyrdom and how he stood his ground against the tyrant.
In Noush Abad, a conservative town of 12,000 in the north of the Kashan region, mourning ceremonies begin with a large costumed procession through the city: Hussein, his family and followers, shadowed by the enemy army commanded by the infamous Shemr, who ultimately kills the imam.
This Tazieh is one of the few to incorporate the prophets of different religions, as well as archangels and genies –- supernatural creatures that according to local legend inhabit the deserts of Kashan.
After realising Hussein was en route to his doom, the legend goes, they came forward to offer him assistance -- only to be sent away by him.
“It is special to the region,” says Abbas Alavi, the main organiser of the event. Some 1,500 participants, mostly locals, gather each year to re-enact the story of Karbala, he says.
“Many ask to play a special role, especially that of Hussein because he is a charismatic character. But there are also roles that nobody wants, including that of Shemr,” the bloodthirsty warrior who kills and beheads Hussein.
Ali Aghazadeh, 52, who had the honour this year to play Hussein, is overcome with emotion as he prays in his white tunic embroidered with gold, while sporting a green turban: “I was not sure they would choose me, others are better than me,” he sobs.
Ahmad Haddad, another 52-year-old with a long grey beard, is less satisfied. He has landed the role of Shemr.
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Large red feathers in helmet
“It is necessary that someone plays this role. I am happy to be part of the procession but not happy with my role,” grumbles Ahmad, whose character is recognisable by two large red feathers that adorn his helmet.
The procession moves off, led by an array of prominent religious figures: Adam, Noah, Abraham, Solomon and Jesus, as well as Islam’s Prophet Mohammed and the first Shiite Imam, Ali.
The last two have their faces covered with green cloths, as Islam does not allow their representations.
Then comes Hussein on a horse, carrying his six-month-old baby in his arms, followed by his family, relatives and followers, in a caravan of four camels.
Genies, a dozen boys aged between 10 and 12 and wearing black tunics, their faces painted in black and arms and legs in red, surround King Zafar as they follow the caravan.
Archangels and children dressed as angels precede Shemr’s troops.
They march to the beat of drums and clashing of cymbals as the air fills with the acrid smell of Esfand, or wild rue, which is placed on burning coals.
During the ceremony, women wearing the traditional chador shout encouragement to the passing heroes as the religious fervour builds in the conservative town.
Other women recite verses from the Koran or chant over and over, “O Hussein O Hussein.”
“Hussein is the perfection of Islam, someone willing to sacrifice his infant, Ali Asghar, for his religion,” says Akbar Mirhashemi, one of the organisers.
“Hussein is all about sacrifice, brotherhood and strength. And we followed his teachings in the war against Iraq, where many martyrs fell,” adds the “sayyed” -- a direct descendant of the Prophet Mohammed.
After about two hours, the procession reaches the scene of the battlefield where a storyteller recites versus from the Koran, while thousands of spectators gather around the field.
“O Hussein, I wish this crowd had been with you in Karbala to assist you,” shouts the storyteller.