Why the Backwards Smile?

Slavs and Tatars

Reverse Joy

Veröffentlicht am 10.04.2018


Reverse Joy looks at the role of mysticism in the perpetual protest movement at the heart of the Shi’a faith for its radical reconsideration of history and justice. Inserting oneself, flesh and faith, into the events that transpired thirteen centuries ago; the collapse of traditional understandings of time; the reversal of the roles of men and women; and joy through mourning are only some of the topics discussed in this essay. Though each one of them demands an equally elastic and muscular understanding of the sacred and the profane that is often sorely missing from the burning political debates of our age.

Battered and bruised by a couple of decades of neo-liberal bathos, the term “triangulation” is in dire need of a detox, a sort of etymological enema. Its trigonometric definition gives us “a process to determine the relative positions of points spread over a territory from known points at either end of a fixed baseline, rather than measuring distances to the points directly.

We call this a faculty of substitution. There is some sass in this circumlocution: why go straight for the kill when you can circle it, tease it, taunt it out of its strict semantics?

In the social sciences, researchers use triangulation as a methodology, a cross-examination of approaches somewhat similar to what Americans call the “shotgun approach,” that is, if the said shotguns were aimed at each other. Such a counter-intuitive approach—looking at a something else as a prism on the chosen subject of study, going somewhere else that initially might not seem relevant instead of directly heading towards one’s destination—has become somewhat of a modus operandi for Slavs and Tatars, not to mention Talysh, Bulgars, Karakalpaks, and Kurds to name a few. So we turn to the Shi’a ritual of Muharram not necessarily to better understand Islam or the Middle East per se, but rather to better grasp our own understandings of modernity, history, and time. Reverse Joy looks at the complex constellation of Muharram, which over the course of thirteen centuries has taken on a near cosmic significance, beyond regional rivalries, and possibly beyond the faith itself to impact notions of identity, mysticism, protest, and resistance in the world at large.

It is safe to say that if the Gregorian calendar greets the New Year with a bang and a pop, the Islamic one often opts for a sob and a blubber. The first month of the Muslim calendar, Muharram—arguably the holiest month, even before Ramadan—has particular importance for Shi’as. On the tenth day of that month in the 7th century CE, Hussein ibn Ali, grandson of the Prophet Muhammad, was killed at the hands of the second Umayyad caliph Yazid I’s army. At the heart of the original schism between Sunnis and Shi’as, this act has played out over the centuries to devastating political and increasingly geo-political repercussions.

Following a contentious succession issue, Hussein and his followers refused to recognize the legitimacy of Caliph Yazid I and marched to Kufa to meet the inhabitants of the city in present day Iraq—and brief capital of the caliphate—who had professed allegiance to the former and requested guidance from the ahl al-Bayt, the Prophet’s family. The caliph’s 100,000-strong army intercepted Hussein and his handful of companions and relatives in the parched desert of Karbala, roughly 100 kilometers southwest of Baghdad. After several days without access to water, the caliph’s army, led by Shimr Ibn Zil Jawshan, killed all the men, some of whose bodies were mutilated (Hussein as decapitated), and took the women and children captive.

Every year Shi’as around the globe—from Lebanon to Iraq, Iran to Pakistan and all the way to Aceh, the northern tip of Sumatra—commemorate the martyrdom of the archetypal son Hussein during the month of Muharram in what Elias Canetti has called “an orchestra of grief.” Marches, drum beats, drama, dirges, and, perhaps most importantly, weeping, build to a climax on Ashura (literally “tenth” in Arabic to denote the day of the month of Hussein’s death). Yet despite—or perhaps because of—this intensive public display of mourning, a palpable sense of exhilaration or even joy seeps through the rituals. Often circumscribed in countries such as Iran, public space comes alive with the air of a street party.

A note on terminology

Since other skies tell other stories, perhaps it is best to clarify some terms:

Muharram: the 1st month of the year in the Islamic calendar, and used for the intents of this essay as an umbrella term to cover the various rituals and elements in the commemoration of Hussein.
Ta’zieh: a Shi’ite passion play performed in Iran depicting the events surrounding Hussein’s martyrdom at the Battle of ­Kerbala.
Ashura: the 10th day and climax of the month of Muharram, as it is the day of Hussein’s martyrdom.
Husseinieh: prayer or congregation hall named after Imam Hussein
Dasteh: a march, parade, or protest, the likes of which fill the streets during Muharram.

The Shi’a Samba

Shi’ism is a transnational faith, and as such its rituals and rites have been indigenized and syncretized the world over. Perhaps more than other Muslim rituals near or far, Muharram recalls a different holy festival, from another faith altogether. Scholars of Shi’ism, from Seyyed Hossein Nasr to Henri Corbin, have often pointed out the unlikely affinities between Shi’ism and Catholicism: from the idea of transubstantiation to the proliferation of saints and their veneration. We can add another spoke to this wheel, for in many ways Muharram resembles Carnival, but in reverse.

While the Shi’ite holy month focuses on mourning, Carnival is a celebration. In the former, men and women refrain from wearing any color and opt instead for various shades of black, while the latter presents the exact opposite, a Technicolor explosion including a whole pantone range of skin and flesh rarely, if ever, witnessed in the Muslim world. In Rio de Janeiro, the drum beats to an Afro-Brazilian rhythm of batucada samba; while in the streets of Tehran, heavy and hypnotic, the Muharram percussion provides an amplified base-line to the sinezani (chest-beating), zanjirzani (self-flagellation with chains), or in rare cases, qamazani (gashing the forehead with a sword).

During Carnival, be it in New Orleans or Salvador de Bahia, the streets buzz with booze, perhaps a nod to the syncretic bacchanalian origins of the festival. Meanwhile, during Muharram, you’d be forgiven for thinking the offerings are spiked, as the mourners reach an ecstatic state not often associated with tea and hot milk. In Rio, competing samba schools are the pride of each particular neighborhood; Tehran’s neighborhoods also prepare several months in advance for their competing dastehs or parades, exclusively led by men, including chanting and self-flagellation. As part of the Muharram rituals, women huddle in groups behind and around the men. You’d be forgiven for thinking you’d arrived at a kind of Middle East-Side Story. The shortest or youngest men march in front, as if to form a human equalizer. Then, by the time the tallest arrive from the back, the pounding of chests, drum beats, chains, and stomping have reached a fevered pitch. A slight detour or pause to visit a tomb along the way serves as a reminder of Karbala, where Hussein’s tomb resides.

While massive floats take center stage in Brazil, in Iran a make-shift scenography presents the Battle of Karbala via a motley range of symbolic paraphernalia and anachronistic props and tableaux vivants atop flat-bed trucks. Flags and intricately stitched banners with incantations to Hussein and his relatives (Abbas, his half brother, Zeynab, his sister) feature prominently in the processions, as do devotional items such as rugs, mirrors, and silks.

To push the parallel to its breaking point, perhaps it is worth noting the similar adoption and subsequent appropriation, by Brazil and Iran, of an event originally associated with another place. For before the Brazilian Carnival there was the Venetian one, and before Iran’s Muharram ceremonies there were Iraq’s.

The Persian Playbook of Protest

The story of Shi’ism is one of perpetual protest. This is evident in everything from the minority status of the faith (vis-à-vis Sunnism) to the traumatic event at the heart of Muharram and the schism that crystallized the denomination. Often used to different ends—be they political, national, strategic, or social—the archetypal story of rising up against oppression or injustice has not only been a protest against something but also for something—nowhere on such a large scale as in Iran, where it has served to help construct and reinforce a national identity.

Beginning in the early 16th century, the Safavid Empire’s conversion en masse of Iran into a Shi’ite country and the adoption of Shi’ism as the official state religion served two main purposes: one, to create a distinct, coherent Persian identity vis-à-vis the perceived threat of Arabization, which accompanied the arrival of Islam in the 7th century; and two, to counter the threat posed by two Sunni neighbors, in particular the Ottoman Empire to the west and to a lesser extent the rise of Uzbek power to the east with the Shaybanid Empire. Three centuries later, in the 1930s, on the heels of a coup and a newly minted dynasty, Reza Shah banned such Muharram rituals as dasteh and ta’zieh (passion plays) out of a concern that these could be used to mobilize the people to demonstrate.

Throughout the 1970s, growing discontent with the regime saw Mohammad Reza Shah invariably cast as Hussein’s killer, Yazid, during the yearly Muharram ceremonies, with the Iranian people playing the supporters of Hussein. Protesters at political marches would hold signs with the words “Ma Ahl-eh Kufa Nistim,” meaning “We are not from Kufa”—an allusion to the inhabitants of Kufa, who treacherously withdrew their initial support from Hussein.

The transnational tropes of the Battle of Karbala did not have time to gather any dust before they were trotted out again, less than a decade later, during the IranIraq War. All the elements were in place, including a theocratic regime only too willing to instrumentalize faith in the service of power. A cruel tyrant had strayed from the faith–in this case Saddam Hussein, the secular Baathist, fit the bill like a glove—attacked an innocent, deeply religious population, as the Iranians saw themselves. Faith and national identity were once again conflated with numbing efficiency as hundreds of thousands of young Iranian men, inspired by the example of Hussein Ibn Ali, the Prince of Martyrdom, chose death themselves by going to the Iran-Iraq front.

In the early 21st century, the first Islamic theocracy since the 11th century had hit a wall. After three decades in power, a revolution, several purges, an eight-year war with Iraq, and finally a thaw in the early 2000s, the Iranian revolution was beginning to eat its own children. The regime’s ideology of revolutionary Islam—having read the playbook of its antithesis, the Russian Revolution of 1917—had exported itself throughout the region and positioned itself in the vacuum left by the former Soviet Union as a loud, effective, if unequal, counterweight to the West. Following the contested 2009 presidential election in Iran, instead of turning away from the religion whose theocracy had oppressed them, the Green movement turned to the story of Hussein and Muharram to reinvigorate the faith in what had become a staid demonstration of official power in recent decades. The dastehs and various ceremonies served as an effective platform for those who felt the vote count in favor of incumbent Mahmoud Ahmadinejad had been fraudulent. Government-sanctioned violence on innocent protestors only further burnished the parallels in the minds of a population raised on a yearly dose of cosmic injustice and martyrdom.

Ayatollah Hussein Ali Montazeri, once anointed to succeed Khomeini as Supreme Leader before being sidelined due to his critique of the regime’s mass executions of political prisoners in the late 1980s, was a vocal opponent of the 2009 election results and accused the government of “declaring results that no one in their right mind can believe, and despite all the evidence of crafted results, and to counter people protestations, in front of the eyes of the same nation who carried the weight of a revolution and eight years of war, in front of the eyes of local and foreign reporters, attacked the children of the people with astonishing violence.” When Montazeri died on December 19, 2009, just days before Ashura, it was one coincidence too many for the reeling authorities. For the first time since the revolution, a theocratic Shi’a regime moved to restrict the very Muharram ceremonies at the origin of their faith, the very same ceremonies once outlawed by the shah.

“Time … it’s on its side, yes it is”

At the heart of the various rituals and rites that make up Muharram is ta’zieh, a passion play that re-enacts the Battle of Karbala. Considered to be the only native drama in the Muslim world (before the arrival of contemporary Western theatre in the 19th century) ta’zieh continues to play a far more important role in the daily lives of Shi’ites than the comparison with Christian passion plays might lead one to believe. Peter Brook called it “the unconscious avant-garde of the poor theatre,” and the ritual had a tremendous influence on several 20th century theatre directors, including Brook himself, Jerzy Grotowski, and Tadeusz Kantor, who were committed to disrupting if not outright eliminating the traditional divisions between audience and actors.

In the ta’zieh this generation of experimental theatre directors from the 1960s and early 1970s hit a Brechtian jackpot. A theatre in the round was often used where spectators mingled with actors. Actors carried the script in their hands to keep any sense of naturalism at bay, reminding the audience they were only acting the parts. Though they knew their lines perfectly, this distancing effect (Verfremdung) was not only avant-garde; it was avant-tout necessary to pay at least lip service to Islam’s prohibition on figuration. Men played the roles of women. Directors would sometimes mount the stage to give indications.

Perhaps the most intriguing element of the ta’zieh, though, is one that has strictly nothing to do with it: anachronism. Without the slightest segue from the events surrounding the Battle of Karbala, at times actors bursts on stage alternatively playing Alexander the Great, Tamerlane, or figures from current events in guriz, or diversions. Anachronistic costumes, props, and stage sets are also used: 19th century European travel writers, those purist guardians of coherence, would inevitably remark with a mix of outrage and fascination that actors representing the caliph’s army were decked in Qajar-era uniform or French army outfits from the era of Napoleon III. As Peter Chelkowski has noted in his seminal study, Ta’zyieh: Ritual and Drama in Iran, the passion play operates along three registers of time: the literal time of the audience members (i.e. 2018), the representational time of the scenes being depicted (680), and the non-time of the anachronism (be it 4th century BCE or 1977). Not only do these guriz further remind the audience of the construct of the theatre, they also send up the constructs of time itself, slicing it into wide cross-sections.

During the holy month of Muharram, people take pick axes to our traditional understanding of time, compressing it to make ancient history contemporary for all intents and purposes. Via the dynamics of the theatre. Via one’s reflection in the mirrors hung on a nakhl, where supplicants crowd around and carry the cypress-tree-shaped funerary bier symbolizing Hussein’s coffin. Or by pinning the portrait of a deceased family member onto the processional banners next to the names of the Ahl-al Bayt, the Prophet’s family. By linking a current injustice to a previous one and vice versa, a current death to an historical one, one’s own image to that of Hussein, a holistic, transmogrified appreciation of the complexity of any given challenge can begin to take shape: one that is far removed from the amnesia-prone specialization that has plagued the past century.

The Tiny Tots of Tragedy

Despite the blood, guts, and gore of Muharram, children play an important—if unexpected—role throughout the ceremonies. Like the adults in the ta’zieh, the children also disrupt the traditionally understood boundaries between audience and actors. Parents dress up their children with a keffiyeh, sometimes no larger than a handkerchief, draped around their little heads, for the part of Ali Asghar, Hussein’s newborn child and the youngest martyr of the Battle of Karbala. Posters, banners, and murals abound with Hussein holding up the body of his six-month-old-son who had been killed by an arrow to the neck. Every year on the morning of Ashura, women take their little children to a husseinieh to re-enact the moment of bereavement at having lost their newborn baby. Cribs are built, draped in green, where alms—in the form of money—are given. Mothers wait in line to place their children momentarily inside the crib, swimming in a sea of rials and reverse blessings. Contrary to the superstition that one should not tempt fate by imagining or even re-enacting a tragic sequence, these supplicants substitute their own compassion and sympathy for the holy family, who 1300 years ago was denied this basic right by the caliph’s army.

Little children are perhaps best suited to punch holes through the dark shrouds that officialdom uses to cast the month in a somber light. While their parents shed tears in the husseiniehs—prayer spaces named after and devoted to Hussein—listening to the rozeh and nohehkhani—emotionally-charged oral tales surrounding the Battle of Karbala—little boys and girls see their parents’ praying postures as make-shift jungle gyms, climbing in and out of their shoulders, arms, and legs, blithely unaware of the solemnity of the event. Children out the latent sense of mirth specific to any mourning as a necessarily atavistic observance of life: they tend to see any gathering in public space, regardless of the premise, as a joyous occasion. To paraphrase Ol’ Dirty Bastard, aka Big Baby Jesus, who was many things if not familiar with the powerful trope of kids: “I don’t know how you all see it, but when it comes to the children, Muharram is for the children. We teach the children.”

Metrosexual Muslims

Muharram also turns upside down the heavily polemicized and often misunderstood gender roles in Islam in general and in Iran in particular. Perhaps because few of us have fathers who ever let a tear escape in our presence, the sight of a grown man crying represents a challenge to order. The sight of hundreds or thousands of grown men sobbing together though is a welcome annihilation of that order, at least momentarily, releasing a near anarchic, ecstatic energy, the most compelling and contagious of the many installments that make up the holy month of Muharram. The beating of chests, the self flagellation, and most importantly the weeping all serve as parabolic expressions of solidarity and lamentation and regret that they could not be present at the time, to fight and die alongside the Prince of Martyrs. At husseiniehs, a cantor tells one of the many stories surrounding the Battle of Karbala, pausing in mid-pathos to weep. All of a sudden, rather brusquely, he steps out of character to exhort the audience to weep some more. Haleh Anvari perhaps put it best: “Muharram is the only time of year when the roles are reversed: men become the weepers, the performers, and the women the observers.” While the men two-step to the rhythm of the beating drums and beating chests, the women gather behind, to the right, left, shadowing the men, thick, like their mascara, with the intrigue and desire of the preceding eleven months.

Since the Iranian revolution ushered in a theocratic regime, Tehran’s public space has withered away to a devastating degree, with one of the most visible scars being the capital’s lobomotized nightlife. Once glamorous and seedy in turns, poignantly captured in Behrooz Vosooghian’s nocturnal cross-town crawl in Kandoo (Beehive), the night has too often withdrawn into the faux titillation of the private domain. A crude blame game could point fingers at the faith itself. Instead, Iranians have turned to Muharram, the original élan of the Shi’a faith, to reclaim the night. At street corners, young boys offer tea to drivers gridlocked in end-of-the-year traffic. Scaffolding and black fabric for make-shift husseiniehs sprout up on sidewalks like so much urban fungus. Chinese-made ghetto blasters pump rozehkhanis with a bassy beat that would make Detroit and even its surrounding largely Sunni Arab-Americans proud. Young men and women put on their Friday best, to mingle in public on perhaps the only sanctioned flirting occasion of the year, the closest thing to a block party in the Islamic Republic.

Why the Backwards Smile?

There’s been a surprising tolerance in recent years for complexity in our understanding and perception of if not resistance to social and economic equality. It’s almost become a habit to say that the challenges facing us as a society can no longer be addressed in isolation. Nonetheless, the role of faith, spirituality, or even organized religion are often kept at a distance, quarantined by leftist intellectuals in the West and liberals in the Middle East alike. One has only to look at the whitewashed absorption of such disruptive figures as Gandhi, Martin Luther King, or the Catholic Church during Solidarnosc in recent history. Grass roots, bottom-up self-organization today is is seen as a self-evident challenge to the stasis of entrenched power; yet very little is said of another directional urgency—not just bottom-up but also inside-out. To what extent can a revolution of the inner world impact the external, material world surrounding us? Is it not odd that we have left religion aside, conceded it to others, for a century or two, and yet have the chutzpah, the gall to object when that faith is used against us by others? How do we, as those committed to pluralism, heterogeneity, and tolerance, expect to have a credible voice on matters concerning faith, in the eyes of those who practice, if we ourselves are not engaged with faith?

Cassandras like to say we’ve been here before—that the financial meltdown and Arab uprisings of the early twenty-first centuries recall 1848, nay 1917, or better yet 1968. They are not mistaken: simply their tone lacks the necessary mirth. For the dour warnings belie a simplistic, linear, and literal understanding of time, the exoteric and esoteric, much less joy and mourning itself. Repetition is not something to be avoided but rather celebrated. As the Muharram rituals point out, we have indeed been here before, and we plan to be here again: every day of every week, every week of every month, and every month of every year.


Equal parts research, public intervention, sculpture, and lecture-performance, Reverse Joy was first presented at the Galerie für Zeitgenössische Kunst (GfZK) in Leipzig as the third installment of a multi-chapter and multi-venue group exhibition Scenarios about Europe in 2012. This text is adapted from the same-titled lecture performance, which has been presented at the New Museum in NY; HKW, Berlin; and Secession, Vienna.


P. 88: Still from Reverse Joy, 2011–present, lecture-performance, 50 min. To commemorate the dead, both historical figures (Hussein and his followers) and loved ones (family members, martyrs of Iran-Iraq war, etc.), fountains are often dyed red during the month of Muharram.— p. 89: Still from Reverse Joy, 2011–present, lecture-performance, 50 min.— p. 90: – A hejleh or mobile shrine, often used to commemorate the dead, is lifted and carried back and forth on mourners’ arms. – Slavs and Tatars, 79.89.09 (detail), 2011. — p. 91: – A member of Hussein’s family (in green) is struck down by Shimr’s army in a ta’zieh, southern Iran, 2010. Photo by Mehdi Khosravi. – Nakhl in Mehriz, Iran. Photo by Amir Mohammad Zare Zadeh. Often in the shape of a cypress tree, a nakhl (literally ‘date palm tree’) is a tall wooden structure meant to symbolize Hussein’s coffin. Many towns and villages in Yazd province have their own nakhl. During Muharram, nakhl gardani is a ritual where mourners carry the structure from one place to another, like a funeral procession. When clad in mirrors, the nakhl becomes an embodied projection of oneself and one’s present into the fabric of the 1300 year old mourning rituals. – Husseinieh in Tehran, 2011. — p. 92: – Slavs and Tatars, Reverse Joy (Muharram), 2012, Muharram banner, fountain pump, plastic bowl, water, pigment, 35 x 150 x 105 cm. – Children participating in a parade during month of Muharram, Tehran, 2011.— p. 93: Slavs and Tatars, Mystical Protest, 2011, luminous paint, Muharram fabric, fluorescent lights, colour sleeves, cotton, 240 x 620 x 15 cm. Installation view at Ujazdowski Castle Centre for Contemporary Art, Warsaw.

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Slavs and Tatars

ist ein Künstlerkollektiv, das sich in seinem Arbeiten mit einem Gebiet östlich der ehemaligen Berliner Mauer und westlich der Chinesischen Mauer widmet. Diese wurden in Einzelausstellungen in Museen auf der ganzen Welt präsentiert, u.a. im MoMA in New York, Wiener Secession, SALT Istanbul und Kunsthalle Zürich. Slavs and Tatars haben bislang acht Bücher veröffentlicht, darunter eine Übersetzung der legendären Satirezeitschrift Molla Nasreddin (derzeit in der 2. Auflage bei I.B. Tauris).
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