Taziyeh in Motion: The Traveling Culture of Iranian Muharram Theater

Emerging Scholarship is a series showcasing the research and interests of new voices emerging from academia that focus on the social worlds, histories, and traveling cultures of Central and West Asia.

The following is a guest post by Sabrina M. Guerrieri. Guerrieri is currently completing her Master’s at University of Toronto’s Near and Middle Eastern Civilizations department where her aim has been to explore Pahlavi Iran’s role in the international development of Human Rights. Reflecting her own identity as a French Canadian/Québécoise of Italian and Uruguayan descent who has become somewhat of an Iranophile, Guerrieri’s interests lie in mosaic culture. An advocate of transnational methodology, she inconsistently flirts with independent documentary filmmaking, the field of her antecedent training.

Visual from the New York performance, taken from  Chelkowski's article: "Mohammad B. Ghaffari, Ta'ziyeh Director; an interview by Peter Chelkowski."
Visual from a New York performance of ta’ziyeh directed by Mohammad B. Ghaffari, taken from Chelkowski’s article: “Mohammad B. Ghaffari, Ta’ziyeh Director; an interview by Peter Chelkowski.”

During the month of Muharram, as the days approach the Ashura day of mourning, many of the world’s Shi’ite Muslims commemorate the martyrdom of Imam Hussein in a tradition known as ta’ziyeh. Denoting expressions of ‘sympathy’, ‘mourning’ and ‘consolation’, ta’ziyeh can be understood as an indigenous Islamic drama, or perhaps even, an avant-garde theatrical genre. Through performance, poetic recitation and song, the subject matter is always connected to the greatest calamity in the early history of the Shi’ites: the suffering and death of Hussein on the plains of Karbala in 680 AD.

While there is much debate surrounding the traditions genesis and genealogy, we can only theorize ta’ziyeh in Iran — where 40 percent of the global Shi’ite population live and thus a major center of taziyeh — as an actual dramatic tradition in its contemporary sense, beginning from the Qajar Dynasty, through the Pahlavi Monarchy, and up until the current Islamic Republic.

As known in Iran today, the tradition manifests itself in diverse ways among the country’s heterogenous population. Although ta’ziyeh’s religious and political weight has been subject to flux, it would be hard to deny the role that it has played in producing diverse nation-views via its twist on normative Islamic history.

Its resiliency to ongoing oppositional state efforts to either ban or co-opt the tradition, reflects ta’ziyeh’s ability to adapt to contingent conditions. Never static, it shifts continuously between different loci, making itself at home in motion. As a form of theatre, its performance is dependent on movement; there must necessarily be a change in position of objects with respect to time and space. When an actor playing the role of Hussein mounts his horse and fights a losing battle in the reenactment of the Imam’s martyrdom, physical displacements are made on stage.

When the audience assumes an active role in enhancing the emotional fervour through collective mourning, a spiritual transcendence towards repentance takes place. When participants are placed simultaneously in the performance as well as on the plains of Karbala many centuries ago, an altered sense of temporality is experienced; the present is merged with the past in a unified moment of intensity. Ta’ziyeh makes itself at home in motion, both figuratively, and in its literal sense.

Yet despite Hussein as its protagonist and Yazid as its antagonist, ta’ziyeh’s narrative remains that of a third-person objectivism; it surpasses what may first appear to be one dependent on the local, to one that embraces the universal. Mohammad B. Ghaffari, an Iranian émigré theatre director, confirms this universal narrative when displacing ta’ziyeh from its majority-Shi’ite environment, into both North America and Europe. By increasing ta’ziyeh’s inherent home in motion to one that includes geographical travel, Ghaffari asks us to rethink the cultural dimensions of human existence.

What are some of the ways that ta’ziyeh gets translated when traveling to foreign lands? What elements of the tradition are altered and similarly, what elements are kept in tact? How can a foreign audience negotiate themselves as alternative spectators? Can ta’ziyeh be a site of travel in itself? Exploring possible answers to such questions allows leeway into the ever-evolving global discussion of our complex and entangled modernity.

In a 2005 interview with Peter Chelkowski, a leading scholar of the topic, Ghaffari was asked: “Would you call the Trinity College performance a ta’ziyeh or a performance in the style of ta’ziyeh?” Chelkowski was here referring to the first ta’ziyeh performed  (Hartford, 1988) as art in a non-Shi’ite context for a non-Shi’ite audience. As Milla C. Riggio has highlighted, Ghaffari at this point in his career had already directed several ta’ziyehs in Iran, including a number of key productions in the 1976 Shiraz Arts Festival — a yearly international event held from 1967-77.

Visual from the New York performance, taken from  Chelkowski's article: "Mohammad B. Ghaffari, Ta'ziyeh Director; an interview by Peter Chelkowski."
Visual from the New York performance, taken from Chelkowski’s article: “Mohammad B. Ghaffari, Ta’ziyeh Director; an interview by Peter Chelkowski.”

Presented to an intentional audience as part of ‘Iran’s traditional heritage’ however, the performances of Shiraz did not incorporate any radical adaptations. It is only when the tradition underwent geographical travel from its original Shi’ite environment, did questions of nominal ‘authenticity’ surface. Chelkowski’s question tellingly suggests that when taken out of its Shi’ite context, ta’ziyeh must surely lose some of its traditional conformity and thus, seeming ‘authenticity’. While Ghaffari in the same interview stated that performing a ta’ziyeh for a non-Muslim audience would be like “taking a fish out of water,” he nonetheless believed its meaning could be conveyed through theatrical forms.

If ta’ziyeh is stripped of its most fundamental element — an environment that allows cathartic links to be forged between actor and the audience of one communitas — how can it retain ‘authenticity’ in cultural translation? In order to remain “faithful” to the original genre while also ensuring its legibility to a foreign audience, Ghaffari seems to have opted for an adaptation that accurately translates the meaning, rather than the idiomaticity of the source. The central thematic of ta’ziyeh has been persuasively argued by Hamid Dabashi to be the notion of mazlumiyyat (the absence of justice that signals the necessity of its presence), a theme evidently reflected in the binary of the ‘oppressed and oppressor,’ or more fundamentally, the ‘good and evil.’ This somewhat simple configuration has rendered the traditional theatrical genre malleable enough for numerous political re-appropriations.

It is what has allowed for instance, the profane and modern face of the antagonist to be given to various ‘oppositional’ groups as discussed in the Islamic Liberation Theology. As the the Islamic Revolution unfolded, the oppositional discourse that developed among the population against the Pahlavi monarchy, spontaneously equated Khomeini with Hossein and the Shah with Yazid.

Visual from the Trinity Performance, taken from Riggo's article "Trinity in Exile."
Visuals from the Trinity Performance, taken from Riggo’s article “Trinity in Exile.”

During the Iran-Iraq War (1980-88), a governing Khomeini consciously made use of ta’ziyeh to mobilize the masses against Saddam Hussein in order to inspire militant patriotism. Considering the war’s international context, figures such as Menachem Begin and Jimmy Carter were likewise targeted as oppressors as their fates intertwined with those of the Umayyads. Although these examples are specific to the Iranian context, there is an obvious universality to the Karbala narrative. It is to the notion of mazlumiyyat, a theme communicated through the rhetoric of pathos, that Ghaffari has faithfully conveyed in cultural translation.

For the Trinity performance as case in point, Ghaffari chose The Taziyeh of Moses and the Wandering Dervish. Asa playlet usually attached to one of the main ta’ziyehs in the Muharram repertory, Ghaffari intended to displace emphasis from religious tropes indexing local customs, towards the theme of sufferance as a universally available experience. The story as transcribed by Riggio, tells of a dervish whose preoccupation is of course, nothing less than the veneration of God. After having a dream of hell, the dervish begins to question the goodness of the ‘Compassionate and Merciful’. Moses, within a descent motif, is given the task of returning the dervish to the mystical path of Truth. After several unsuccessful attempts, Moses reveals to the dervish through a flashback technique (a common ta’ziyeh convention), three different tableaux of worldly injustices whereby the dervish cries: “My God, one hell is not enough!”


Exercising artistic liberty, Ghaffari effectively juxtaposed the suffering of one people with that of others, in turn giving greater human scope to what is essentially a universal cultural theme. For instance, although the first flashback tableau revealed a symbolic abstraction of Hussein’s assassination, the second depicted the Saigon execution of Nguyễn Văn Lém, and the third, the stoning of a Saudi princess (Misha’al bint Fahd al Saud?) who had become pregnant outside the bonds of wedlock.

Relevant to America’s own history, the tableaux were accompanied by American gospel music with lyrics that sung of enslavement and plea for liberation. Again, emphasizing Ghaffari’s effort at contextualizing the particular through the universal, the angel Gabriel was casted as an African-American gospel soprano, Moses as an African-American basso and the dervish as a Korean baritone. The dervish, whose dances were escorted primarily by Indian flute music, at one point melodically recites an edited and English version of a Rumi poem that went:

I am not Christian, Jew, Pagan, Muslim.

I am not of East nor West; land nor sea.

I am not of nature nor of spirit.

I am not of India, of China, of Bulgaria.

I am not of Iraq nor of Khorasan.

I am not of this world nor of the next world.

I am not of heaven nor of hell.

I am without body and soul.

What is accentuated here is not the preaching of an ostensible liberal idealism, but rather, Ghaffari’s means of salvaging ta’ziyeh’s most fundamental element— that is, what was thought to have been lost in cultural translation. Via multiple representations of humanistic values, the demarcation that separates the ‘I’ from the ‘Other’ is blurred, superficially between cultures yes, but more importantly, between actor and audience. What is blurred essentially concerns theatrical form and not content; the ability to create an environment that allows cathartic links to be forged between actors and the audience of one communitas.

The loosening of cultural boundaries encourages the audience to negotiate their role as normative spectators, i.e. from a more passive to active engagement. What ultimately gets salvaged, is the experience of an ‘authentic’ ta’ziyeh. In other words, it matters not if the links forged are religiously inclined, for what does matter, is the level of enthralment produced wherein the theatrical ‘fourth wall’ is disseminated and suspension of disbelief is significantly heightened.

Chelkowski notes how the well-known dramaturge Peter Brook, after first experiencing an Iranian ta’ziyeh in 1969, had been impressed by what is interpreted as its level of enthralment: “This is what has been missing from Western theatre for a long time.” A large part of what has attracted theatre enthusiasts such as Brook to the ta’ziyeh tradition, is in no doubt related to a nostalgia for a perhaps mythical time when Western audiences were equally engaged in a unified theatrical experience (see Daniel Mufson’s Hip Hop comparison).

Although focus here has been given to the Trinity performance because of its inaugural value, Ghaffari’s other ta’ziyeh productions in Paris and Avignon (Avignon festival in 1991 and the Festival dAutomne in 2000), as well as in New York (Lincoln Centre Festival in 2002), can be argued to have aimed for a similar audience negotiation. Ta’ziyeh scholar Rebecca Ansary Pettys for instance, in her review of Ghaffari’s most recent production, self-discloses to having been deeply “transported” by the experience despite being a non-ideal member of a non-ideal audience. She was able to attain such a cathartic experience she indirectly explains, through the rhetoric of pathos that spoke of sufferance as a cross-cultural communicative device—its “eternal performance” as Chelkowski would put it.


Pettys’s use of the word “transported” is particularly fitting to a ta’ziyeh in motion:  it defines both the act of being emotionally moved, as well as the act of being physically carried from one place to another. Ghaffari’s traveling ta’ziyehs have become important intercultural sites where diverse cultures have and can continue to encounter, collide, and communicate.

For instance, Ghaffari’s 2002 New York ta’ziyeh that took place shortly after the 9/11 proved highly problematic. Although the show did ‘go on’ after heated debates and logistical obstacles, critical reaction the festival’s director Nigel Redden explained, was extremely varied; some did not know what to make of it, some saw it simply as an artistic portrayal of historical events, but many, saw it within the context of current tensions in the Middle East or within American-Iranian diplomatic relations. As one art critic sarcastically wrote after twenty-eight Iranian performers were denied visas: “I never thought I’d live to see the day when the stability of the U.S. would be threatened by a troupe of actors… Even at the height of the Cold War in the 50’s, Russian artists were made welcome in this country.”

Moses and the Wandering Dervish, to return to our main exemplary, ends with Moses giving no explanation to the dervish as to the existence of sufferance and worldly injustices; rather, he leaves the stage silently as the dervish remains singing and whirling to the verses of Rumi’s poetry. Instead of rejoicing in the reaffirmation of justice, the audiences is left with drawing their own conclusions.

The loss of body and soul that the dervish represent does not refer here to the fusion of the mystic with the divine but perhaps… the loss of the sense of self that is naturally rooted in the culturally constructed boundaries that we define as our human existence. What ta’ziyeh fundamentally has the potential of offering, is a symbolic site to travel towards; a meeting place where the idiosyncrasies of our modernity may be better understood. Yet another way ta’ziyeh makes itself at home in motion.


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