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Tavziyeh in Exile: Transformations in a Persian Tradition Milla C. Riggio Even among relatively well-informed Americans and Europeans , the notion lingers that there is no Muslim drama.1 To the contrary, in an array of contemporary Muslim plays three different forms of drama indigenous to Iran stand out: ruhozzi or farcical plays; khaymah-shab-bazzi, or puppet plays; and, most originally , ta'ziyeh khani, also known as shabih khani.2 Each of these dramatic forms has a rich and complex history, but the plays which most fully reflect the uniqueness of the non-Arabic Persian cultural identity within the largely Arabic Muslim world are the tasziyeh khani ("mourning songs"), traditional festival plays which commemorate the slaughter of Imam Husayn, the grandson of Muhammad, on the plain of Karbala. The assassination of Husayn, supposed to have taken place on Ashura, the tenth of Muharram, 61 A.H./680 CE., forms the centerpiece of the annual Persian celebrations of Muharram, the most sacred religious event for Shi" i culture. Like the ministry and crucifixion of Christ, which engendered the separation of Christianity from Judaism, Husayn's claim to the Muslim caliphate (legitimated by his relationship to his father Ali and his grandfather Muhammad) and his subsequent assassination are crucial to the division between ShP ite and Sunnite Islam. In addition to plays, the Muharram festival rites include tasziyeh processions and narrative readings known as rawzeh khani. Celebrations of Muharram are not in themselves uniquely Persian. The ritual commemoration of Husayn's death, which in most Shi~i cultures centers on ta'ziyeh processions with banners and/or commemorative tombs, has a long history in other countries—e.g., Pakistan, India, and Lebanon.3 What distinguishes the Iranian Muharram ceremonies from others is the complexity of the actual drama, which along with the rawzeh 115 116Ta ziyeh in Exile khani tells the story of Karbala. These plays reflect the strength of culture that enabled the Persians to maintain a strong sense of artistic and even national identity separate from that of their Arabic neighbors. Overrun by Arab Muslim armies at the end of the Sassanian Period, 641 CE., the Persians proved to be astonishingly resilient . They resisted assimilation into the Arab world by maintaining their own customs, their own language (infused with Arab words), and even their own local governing authorities. The independence of the Persians is evidenced in the strength of their artistic traditions, particularly, as Walker Conner has argued, in the presence of "artists who persisted in painting the human form despite the Islamic prohibition."4 Indeed, it may have been in part a need to reassert a cohesive and independent identity that led Persians to embrace the minority sect of Shi" ism as the national religion in the sixteenth century.5 And from the beginning Muharram celebrations played a role in the evolving nature of Persian Shi"ism. Though the plays probably did not exist before the middle of the eighteenth century, the rituals and processions received state support from the moment that Shi" ism was adopted as a state religion in Persia.6 During the nineteenth century , Muharram celebrations reflected the interaction of Persia with Europe. The primary Persian theater for ta'ziyeh performances , known as Takiyeh Dawlat, was, for instance, modeled on the Royal Albert Hall of London. And though he had never personally seen ta'ziyeh performances, Matthew Arnold was able to write an extensive essay on these plays after reading accounts by a French nobleman.7 Plays which under the Qajar shahs of the nineteenth century had represented the glory of Persian Shi" ism (with the shahs themselves occasionally lending their carriages to the processions ) became sources of embarrassment for the Pahlavi family in the twentieth century. As part of the Pahlavi efforts to stress and renew the strength of the Persian legacy of Iran, Reza Kahn, the first Pahlavi ruler, moved within a few years of his coronation in 1926 to outlaw the Shi"i Muharram celebrations, particularly the plays that celebrated the martyrdom of Husayn.8 Ironically , the rituals that had attracted Europeans in the nineteenth century became the symbol of anti-European and anti-Western revolutionary fervor during the period of the...


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pp. 115-140
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