Ashura, the 10th day of Mahe Moharram, marks the Battle of Karbala, when Emam Hossein, along with the male children, adolescents, and adults of his entourage became martyrs at the hands of Yazid’s evil and irreverent army. (Get the Skinny Right Here
). About 72 lives, including that of Emam Hossein’s 6-month-old son, facing an elite force of thousands, were eliminated. Today represents the most intense and widely shared mourning period for Iranian Shi’a, when the most illustrious, laborious, and baroque services take place.
Beneath all the pomp and circumstance put forth by the masses, a scattered minority of Iranians practice an alternative rite, one that is outlawed by Iran’s government, and vehemently disdained by the vast majority of Iranian Shi’a.
Ghame-zani, or Shamshir-zani is a ritual in which males—adults, adolescents, and sometimes boys 9-10 years of age—shed their own blood as sacred testament to the blood spilt by Emam Hossein and his followers, over 1400 years ago, in the Battle of Karbala.
We had to wake up at 4:30 a.m., before the crack of dawn, or morning prayers, to make it to the event on time. Driving straight through red lights, the streets deserted and blanketed in the stillness of night, we had little concern about arriving late. But as we neared Hosseini Bazaar, we noticed cars turning back; police had been stationed all around the vicinity, up to a mile in every direction, blocking all major routes for would-be spectators. After being denied means of access to a few streets, we pummeled through side alleys, instead, parking about two blocks away from the bazaar.
When we approached the bazaar’s surroundings, we saw crowds of people—mostly men—with photography and video equipment to capture the affair. After a public service of morning prayers, the roughly 200 spectators headed for the bazaar.
Prior to the start of the ritual, men stood around in their brilliantly white robes, some smoking cigarettes, others lost in contemplation or grieving for the loss of the Emam. Smoking cigarettes supposedly increases the blood’s viscosity, so that one doesn’t turn into a gushing geyser. A man handed out folded white robes to men just arriving, or to those suddenly swept up in emotion, impulsively deciding to participate in the march. Many brought their own machetes, swords, or other lengthy blades, lustrous and sharp, so as not to create painful slips of wrist.
In Ghame-zani, the sharp edge of the sword is brought down with a quick and precise tap to the center frontal region of the cranium. Since the strike must be delivered with caution, delivered only firmly enough to break the skin, a person familiar with the task carries it out for those who are not.
Some people will agitate the center of the frontal region of their skulls by smacking it a bit prior to the event. The idea is to cause the area to swell, so that the skin breaks easier, and blood flows faster. Others, after receiving their swift tap, will try to rub the laceration aggressively, so that it stimulates more blood flow. There are even a few participants who, with each step, deliver a fierce thwack to the same spot, but with the flat side of the blade, which would result in hemorrhaging.
Overall, the participants themselves appeared to be in meditation, as their bloodied faces remained focused straight ahead, the ruddy quality gradually changing to a pallid glow. Whether old men, college-aged guys, wheelchair bound veterans of the Iran-Iraq War, or even adolescents, the fiery with which they forged ahead was compelling. Even when a man, drenched in his own blood (OK, just thought of a line from “Dodge Ball”—Nobody makes me bleed my own blood.
), passes out in mid-step, the procession doesn’t flinch. Instead, without hesitation, the fallen man is promptly picked up by whichever four marchers are nearest, and lugged off to one of the nearest ambulances stationed around.
During the event, it’s obvious the participants do not sense pain from their wound. The area of the head that makes contact with the blade allows for painless bleeding, an adequate amount of blood flow, and quicker healing than other spots, if all is carried out properly. But the recovery time is another story. Those with foresight try to pack mud on their heads after bleeding a bit, in order to close the gash.
Overall, the whole idea of Ghame-zani is to show empathy and compassion for Emam Hossein and his company by bleeding. But the vast majority of Iranians believe this behavior is blasphemous because the Quran wholly forbids self-mutilation.
Furthermore, even though this sacrificial practice is illegal, Iranian authorities try to contain it, rather than immobilize it completely. One way to do this is to block main routes to the event, so that fewer people can attend. Another tactic is to restrict the festivities to a fixed time frame, preferably an unfavorable hour, such as the break of dawn, to limit the influx of spectators. Finally, besides attempting to make the event difficult to attend, thus curbing the potential for a large audience, these measures allow for the state to better protect both the marchers, and the spectators. Ambulances wait on hand to provide immediate healthcare to men who’ve lost too much blood, or to onlookers who suddenly fall ill. Also, containment allows for a certain degree of standards to be applied, so that participants don’t accidentally kill themselves. If authorities decided to halt the whole experience, they might inadvertently push it underground, where anything goes.
Incidentally, the bloody scene lasted about an hour, and as we all shuffled out at around 7a.m., stopped at the free sugar and tea tents, picked up some breakfast packs (religious holidays bring plenty of edible freebies), and piled into the electric lime BMW, circa 1975, of my cousin’s friend, my buddy Leila and I chatted about the whole experience. Then, Leila noticed a drop of blood under her pinky nail. Immediately after, I found a speck splattered onto the inner thigh of my jeans, an area hidden beneath my coat. Just so it's clear, despite the virtual bloodbath we had just witnessed, it wasn’t until the discovery of someone else’s blood on me that I began to feel grossed out.