Ta’ziyeh, the mourning play of Iran

Muimulbuka: the conjurer of tears

This is one of the lines that most struck me when reading about ta’ziyeh in Eternal Performance: ta’ziyeh and other Shiite rituals, a book edited by Peter J. Chelkowski. Ta’ziyeh is a genre of theatre performed in Iran that literally means ‘mourning play’. It is the passion play of the Shiite Muslims the most important ta’ziyeh tells the story of The Martyrdom of Hussein. A director of ta’ziyeh would be known as muimulbuka, though now the term ta’ziyeh gerdan is used. Ngũgĩ references Pio Zirimu, an Ugandan linguist and literary theorist, who coined the term “orature”. The term connoted an oral narrative system as it involved “the use of utterance as an aesthetic means of expression”. Ngũgĩ unpacks this term till it is not only about storytelling from the oral to the aural, but he really explores just how transcendent orature really is.

Centered in a public space outside, Ta’ziyeh is a genre of performance that seeks to remove the walls existent between spectator and performance. In fact, in this genre the actors are non-professional; members of the community participate in the ta’ziyeh. The stage is round, allowing for a sense of community and interaction throughout the whole play. It also creates a sense of acknowledgement, that the people are part of the story and are not simply watching it. Every year the story of Imam Hussein is acted out, and each time people will respond with grief over the tragic ending.

Pitika Ntuli beautifully writes that “[orature] is the conception and reality of a total view of life…. the capsule of feeling, thinking, imagination, taste and hearing” (Ngũgĩ 115). Orature then becomes not only about what is spoken, but about an entire experience in itself. Ta’ziyeh is transcending, appealing to the “physical, spiritual, and emotional links forged between the actors and the audience, as well as among the audience” (Chelkowski 204). Everyone is allowed to watch. Ta’ziyeh is a ritual. Schechner talks in depth about the relationship between theatre and ritual, with the former having been derived from the latter. The power behind ta’ziyeh lies in that it is a genre that is able to momentarily dissolve social class disparity as the ritual engages the audience in the act of remembering a moment in history. For at least the time that it is shown, there is a sense of communal bonding as people are able to engage with the story. The same story is told every year, but this does not mean that the way it is told is static. Ta’ziyeh is constantly changing year after year as “it needs to grow and develop its own adaptive style while remaining true to its origins and traditions” (Chelkowski 90). Ta’ziyeh is ever evolving, whilst never straying away from its intent.

Works Cited:
Chelkowski, Peter J. Eternal Performance: Taʻziyeh and Other Shiite Rituals. London: Seagull, 2010. Print.
Thiongʼo, Ngũgĩ Wa. Penpoints, Gunpoints, and Dreams: Toward a Critical Theory of the Arts and the State in Africa. Oxford: Clarendon, 1998. Print.


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