The Vibrancy of Ta’ziyeh

In an earlier post I talked about ta’ziyeh, the Iranian passion play of the Shiite Muslims Every year people gather to watch the ta’ziyeh of the story of The Martyrdom of Hussein. Watch this video to get a sense of what a ta’ziyeh looks like.

One of the things that struck me when watching this video was just how vibrant a ta’ziyeh is. The public space and the costumes of the performers are colorfully decorated. Each actor is easily distinguishable because of the colour of his costumes. Men play the role of women in a ta’ziyeh, and so are dressed in full black. The actors speak into microphones, leaving behind an echo once their line is complete. This exaggerates the performance, but it can also be said to serve as part of the act of remembrance. Ta’ziyeh is ultimately about the important of remembering and honouring Imam Hussein. It is about exploring the notion of justice through the story of Hussein. Chelkowski writes that for the Shiites, “the original promise of Islam to deliver earthly and eternal justice in the world is kept doctrinally alive in the charismatic figure of the Imam” (Chelkowski 182). Representation then, becomes fundamental to the story and also to how the ta’ziyeh is performed. It always has to be made clear that the story that is enacted is in fact a performance, and so there is always a director present on stage to assure the audience that this is just acting. There then becomes this interesting dynamic between reality and acting, what is real and not. If a ta’ziyeh were ‘overplayed’, then this would in fact be considered an insult because it would mean that the actor is assuming to be Imam Hussein rather than serving to represent him. With the director on stage, the colourful costumes, the marking of where the performance is taking place within the public space, and other characteristics, create a sense of fluidity between the imagined and reality. Or, to put it in other terms, between the memory and the act of remembering.

Through the video we can hear the musical side of ta’ziyeh, as well as a rather daring aspect to it because of the presence of the horses (who seemed a little disturbed by the booming sound of the microphones). A ta’ziyeh itself though is a complete sensory experience. It is about how an audience and the performers can be connected physically, spiritually and emotionally. Chelkowski, through diction and imagery, writes of how “the scent of rose water, wildrue, and incense blend with the smoke of tobacco from waterpipes, and sweat from the huddle crowds” (Chelkowski 203). Notice in the video how, in keeping with Islamic traditions, men are seated separately from the women. Men can be seen gathered around the performance, whereas the women view from above in the balconies. In a way this asserts the fact that ta’ziyeh is a man’s play; only men can act in a ta’ziyeh and even play the roles of women. I believe that this does not serve to undermine women, but to protect them and even give them a status a importance as ultimately the story of Imam Hussein is about how he risked his life to save the lives of the women and children in his community.

I so look forward to the day I can experience the magic of a ta’ziyeh in Iran.

Works Cited:
Chelkowski, Peter J. Eternal Performance: Taʻziyeh and Other Shiite Rituals. London: Seagull, 2010. Print.


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