I left the holy city of Qom with its dozens of mosques and religious schools, in the early morning. Drizzling rain and an eerie mist obscured my visibility across the open plain. I was now well into my solo, on foot crossing of the Islamic Republic of Iran, from the Caspian Sea to the Persian Gulf. Just weeks previous to entering the country it had been revealed that the Iranian government had been keeping under wraps a nuclear facility outside the city I had just left. Sensitive military sites, let alone those of the nuclear persuasion and wandering foreigners do not a good match make.
By day, I often came within a few hundred metres of artillery emplacements. Young soldiers sat or leaned upon the huge cannons talking, smoking and gesturing animatedly. Wherever I found myself at dusk, I was overlooked by military installations, all strategically placed, every one had a fine view over the rolling hills and small valleys within which I needed to pitch my tent. Stumbling on and on through a seeming ocean of brown, tussock strewn mounds, as the dark of night set in, I would quickly erect my tent and eat my meagre bread and cheese dinner, as the generators powering the lights of the bases, dulled under camouflage netting, hummed endlessly away. Occasionally, laughter or the crashing of metal drifted down through the small valleys to where I lay.
As I slept my mind drew vivid images of an elite group of Revolutionary Guards on patrol, coming across my camp and hauling me off for some serious questioning. My fantasies never eventuated. It would seem that the elite of Iran’s military were no match for me in my glow in the dark, fluorescent safety-coloured kit. I remained invisible as I headed south across the plain.
Our path seemed to lead us deeper and deeper into a labyrinth of narrow paths and dirt plazas. The way was lit by flickering and intermittently powered light bulbs.
Early one evening I stumbled into the small town of Natanz, limping on my bruised, swollen and damaged feet. A fast pace over rough terrain in order to avoid suspicion close to the nuclear site had caught up with me. Friends in Qom had phoned ahead and detailed a local man named Adi to look after me. A curious character, he was keen to explain himself, proudly announcing not to be Muslim. He believed in no god, but towed the line in a society where open declaration of non-belief is not really an option.
Strangely enough, Adi requested I join him that evening in attending Islamic religious theatre. A curious offer after his assertion of non-belief.
After a short drive across town and now on foot, Adi led me down red powder dust alleyways amongst finely constructed, mud brick dwellings clearly many hundreds of years old. They looked unchanged in that passing of time, still solid and strong. Twisting and turning, looping back upon ourselves I quickly lost all sense of bearing. Our path seemed to lead us deeper and deeper into a labyrinth of narrow paths and dirt plazas. The way was lit by flickering and intermittently powered light bulbs. A final turn and we were faced with a set of massively built, heavy wooden doors which were strengthened with ancient steel supports. Thin lasers of light escaped from beyond the entrance at the hinges, above and below. The unmistakable murmur of a significant crowd drifted through these same cracks. A scattering of men were collected along the walls of the alley, smoking acrid odoured cigarettes and talking in low, deep voices. Their interest was piqued by my presence and quite possibly my bright blue sweater and black trucker cap had a hand in it as well. No matter. They returned my greeting with warm smiles that belied their gruff demeanors.
As though our arrival was forewarned, one of the enormous doors, slowly creaked open. At Adi’s insistence, I crossed the building’s threshold. We had entered an arena known as a hoseinieh, built specifically for the performance of ceremonies during this particular period. The theatre I had come to witness was part of the commemoration of the death of Imam Hosein ibn Ali in the Battle of Karbala. As a martyr he had become a most important figure in Shia Islam, the dominating code of Islamic worship in Iran. By happenstance I found myself walking across the country during a month of worship in the Imam’s honor that would culminate in Ashura - a day of mourning and self-reflection.
The sights, sounds and smells that greeted me in the hoseinieh came from an ancient time and assaulted my senses completely. The room was a huge complex with a roof of rough canvas covered in hundreds of Islamic motifs supported in the middle by two huge wooden columns. Thick, white smoke hung in the air and yellow straw covered the floor. Hundreds of black-cloaked women sat and whispered to each other on one side of the hall or in stalls above, while stoic black-shirted men occupying the other spoke with serious faces. Children ran between the crowds of people, laughing and screaming.
I watch from a safe distance as Imam Hosein and his small group of followers are attacked by thousands of armed troops. I see them fall one by one, as hundreds of arrows rain from the sky.
In 2010 Mark walked solo, over 60 days and 1700km across the entire Islamic Republic of Iran with an aim to reveal a country much misunderstood and misreprestented in the West. Read more at www.markkalch.com/expeditioniran/
The centre of the floor was dominated by a small raised platform constructed of roughly hewn stone. On it, a troupe of actors played out the death of the Imam and his comrades in a performance known as ta'ziyeh. Their clothes a swirling mix of black, red and green. No other colours shone. In fact, my own attire was perhaps the only in the room to display it at all.
The echo of music and yelling, amplified by a giant sound system, reverberated throughout the hall as the players met in mock conflict. Throats of the child actors were cut and their bodies fell to the earthen floor, spewing fake blood which formed in pools around them. It was an intimidating scene, yet powerful and heartfelt. I felt privileged to witness it unfold. Under this roof, inside this hall, time was no more. In my mind I was in the year 680 AD, in Kufa, a small town in Iraq, just south of where modern Baghdad now stands. I watch from a safe distance as Imam Hosein and his small group of followers are attacked by thousands of armed troops. I see them fall one by one, as hundreds of arrows rain from the sky. Finally, Hosein stands alone, his small son lying in his arms, dead from an arrow through the throat. The soldiers surround him, striking him to the ground before ending his life.
A hand on my shoulder from behind pulls me from my trance. It is Adi asking if I would like to take photos. I am itching to try and capture some of the feeling contained within the walls of the arena but I am torn. All around me, men, young and old are crying and chanting. To intrude with my camera does not seem appropriate. I voice my concerns which are waved away by the non-believer, Adi. He pushes me closer to the stage. I see several video cameras set up on tripods already capturing the spectacle. They appear awkward and out of place in the room. My camera whirrs and I record as many frames as I can. Another hand on my shoulder, but this time not from one I know. An old man, grey haired and bearded, as tall as me and at least as wide, shakes his head. The message is clear and made all the more so by the glares from a handful of the crowd. It would seem my camera was not as welcome as Adi would believe. A smile from the elderly man eases my embarrassment and trepidation slightly, as I melt back into the crowd. I feel like an infidel or kaffir, a non-believer, who has just been caught red-handed.
Thankfully it is not 680 AD, my life is spared and I can handle a few dirty looks.