Muharram is a month when Iranians think most Shia muslims around the world mourn the death of the third Imam Husayn, the grandson of prophet Mohammad.
There are some tragic stories about him which might make you cry despite not being Iranian. They say he was the son of Imam Ali who was the son-in-law of prophet Mohammad. As all muslims believe he was a good guy who never committed any sin (he is one of the holy 14 imams) in his entire life but his head was chopped off when he was starved after many days.
Muharram is a month in the Lunar calendar and the death of Imam Husayn happens on the 10th of this month. However, since Iranians are pioneers both in excessive partying as well as mourning, they start the mourning from the beginning of the month. Some families have this ritual that every night they throw a mourning ceremony in the houses and invite someone who tells poignant stories about Imam Husayn and his friends to make people remember them and the sacrifices they made for Islam.
When the crying ceremony is over they serve food. The food can be any traditional Iranian food. I mean you cannot really expect spaghetti or pizza or hotdog for example, but mainly rice and stew. ghormeh sabzi, kebab rice or lentil rice are some of those dishes. And as dessert as shole zard or saffron rice pudding is a crowd pleaser. The people who afford the food are often the ones who have made wishes during the year and that their wishes have come true and as a sign of thankfulness they are willing to give food away. The food is cooked by some devoted religious people who believe helping the mourning in any way is going to help them in their lives, that imam Husayn is going to protect their family and friends.
The food is prepared in huge pots and pans and since I have been involved in the preparation process, I can tell you it is so much fun. Women sit around and gossip and pick vegetables and chop onions. Cooking the rice and the stew are the tasks that are mainly handled by more professional and older women who have more experience in the kitchen.There is something about the taste of this food. Maybe you cook the same food at home with the same ingredients and just follow all the steps, but to be honest, the taste of the food you eat on these nights and cooked in these ceremonies is something you can never forget your entire life. The religious people tend to believe it is Imam Husayns presence that helps improve the taste of the food. I quite like the ritual. Helping around, dishing up the food and smelling the food all night long.
Besides the mourning and food rituals, there are some street mourning displays too. Mosques are the main responsible organisation or sometimes private organizers. The displays are called Daste which basically means "groups". In the group depending on the size of the Daste, there are people who play different musical instruments. The instruments vary from trumpets, flutes and bandoneons. I have never seen a guitar or violin or cello for example. There is a very traditional instrument which creates a clanking sound. It consists of two metal boards like lids of a pan and the player clanks them against each other to create that kind of alerting sound. There is a singer in the Daste who sings utterly sad and distressing songs and the players find a rhythm to play with him. Women and children are only bystanders who either stand still and watch the groups go by one after the next or they walk with them to eventually enter the mosque for dinner and prayers. One can also stay in and watch the groups at their home windows and cry secretly and make wishes.
Seeing people coming together, cooking, hosting, praying and even mourning together in this month is really fascinating.
I told you all about Muharram and charity food. The charity food is called Nazri and it is not just for the month of Muharram. Throughout the year, people make wishes and pray to God to make their wishes come true. In return they do something good for the poor or in general for others. The Nazri can vary from lighting candles in the holy shrines, giving away sacks of salt, candies, bread and cheese bites, rice dishes with stew or grilled meat, shole zard or saffron rice pudding, halva (which is the mixture of flour, sugar and oil cooked and shaped in fancy forms or just straightened on a platter) or dates that can be pitted and filled with a quarter of a walnut and dusted with shredded coconut. The latter two can also be taken to graveyards to be given away as a sign of remembrance of their dead family members and friends. It is expected of the person who takes one to eat to say prayers for the dead before eating it. If you are richer or what you wished for is bigger and more impossible, you make a bigger wish like throwing a banquet and serving all sorts of foods, drink and desserts and also give food away as your guests leave.
The presence of food and the importance of its role in the Iranian culture are purely inseparable extensions to my country Iran.