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In Iran, holiday and protest set stage for high drama

Celebrations of Ashura, always a dramatic street ritual among Shiite Muslims, are expected to include an element of political theater this weekend, fueled by Iran's postelection unrest.

December 26, 2009|By Borzou Daragahi

Reporting from Tehran — The haze from burning esfand, a Persian weed, and the scents of thick-brewed tea and rose water fill the black funeral tents that have bloomed across Tehran. Sweeping black banners of mourning and small green lights hang outside mosques.

In the Grand Bazaar, thousands of new customers have descended on the stands selling paraphernalia for the upcoming holiday. On the streets, at bus stops and on the subway, young Iranians ask one another: What mosque are you going to for the holiday? Are you planning to wear opposition green, or bring a green ribbon to flash when it's safe?

Ashura, the most emotionally charged religious holiday on the Iranian calendar, is almost here.

Wearing green and black, the Shiite faithful will beat themselves in ritual self-flagellation Sunday and perform elaborate passion plays reenacting the doomed 7th century battle of Imam Hussein, a grandson of the prophet Muhammad, to retain the throne of Islam.

"Ya Hussein!" the faithful will chant.

And this year, the chant will have an echo: "Ya Hossein! Mir-Hossein!"

Year after year, the Islamic Republic has appropriated the themes behind the centuries-old reenactments of martyrdom for its own ends, a grand political theater.

But a new force has appeared on Iran's political stage. Supporters of Iranian opposition leader Mir-Hossein Mousavi are determined to graft the green-themed movement born out of Iran's disputed presidential election onto Ashura, the culmination of the first 10 days of the Islamic month Muharram that marks Hussein's martyrdom.

"I've always gone to Muharram," said a 33-year-old Tehran actor and opposition supporter who asked that his name not be published.

"But this year is very special for me. What Hussein did, the pursuit of justice, the goal was the same.

"This year, you will see unexpected things on the street."

Theatrical history

Iran's political culture has long been interlaced with the theater of the streets, pavement morality plays pulling at heartstrings and loyalties, high-drama attempts to seize control of the political narrative.

Rowdy street battles accompanied the unrest surrounding the 1953 U.S.-backed coup that ousted Iran's democratically elected government. Rolling street protests swept away the shah's rule in the months leading to the 1979 Islamic Revolution.

Street theater has also defined Iran's year of domestic political turmoil.

It was on the streets near Azadi Square that hundreds of thousands of Iranians showed up in February to mark the 30th anniversary of the revolution, a defiant demonstration of strength and unity to the world.

On those same streets in the spring, supporters of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Mousavi faced off to demonstrate their magnitude in the days before the election. At one point, supporters of Mousavi formed a human chain along Vali Asr Street -- the longest street in the Middle East -- all of them wearing the green that symbolizes the campaign.

It was on the streets again that hundreds of thousands, some say millions, poured out in protest in the days after the disputed election in June.

Realizing the power of Iran's theater of the streets, a black-turbaned supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei took to the podium amid the protests, put on his sternest demeanor and demanded that the protesters leave the scene, or suffer the consequences.

For good measure, he began weeping at the end of the speech -- the aggrieved, aging patriarch, a theatrical signal. The Basiji militiamen picked up their batons, threw on their war colors and took to the streets against demonstrators.

A tentative outcry

Stage fright struck as she emerged from the subway station onto the street and into a crowd of bearded, helmeted militiamen. They eyed her menacingly, she said, and for a moment she considered heading back home to her parents, who had no idea she was here, alone, with a little green ribbon stuffed into her pocket.

But Mariam, a 25-year-old clerk at a shipping company who spoke on condition that her last name not be used, had rehearsed this role a hundred times in her mind as well as in previous encounters along Tehran's streets. So, on this September day, she waded nervously into the crowd of hundreds, not knowing who was friend or foe.

Suddenly, a single cry went up. "Marg bar dictator!" -- Death to the dictator. She looked around before hearing another voice: "Allahu akbar!" -- God is great.

Then two more voices. "Marg bar dictator!" A dozen more chimed in. She looked around again, noticing that hands were holding green ribbons, and pulled out her own, wrapping it around her fingers. The fear dissipated. She joined in the chanting, now a roar. The police officers and militiamen stepped back from the huge crowd arrayed against them.

"Our generation had a lot of fear instilled in us," she said later. "You went to a party, you're afraid. You have a boyfriend, you're afraid. You don't dare speak out.

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