event conference on the Art and Material Culture of Iranian Shiism


Conference Events

Thursday 6th July

Official Beginning of Conference:

"From the Desert of Iran to the Tropical Forests of Trinidad via India: Muharram Rituals on the Move." 

A Presentation by Prof. P. Chelkowski
45 min

A slide illustrated lecture that will trace how the bier of Hussein in the Karbala desert was transformed into a mausoleum and an ambulatory ritual in India and then was further transported with other Shiite rituals to the Caribbean basin by indentured laborers in the mid-nineteenth century. 


Friday 7th July
The Procession of the Captives: a Shiite Tragedy

A film by Sabrina Mervin 2006
54 min

Kfar Kila, a Shiite village in South Lebanon, along the Israeli border, was devastated
by the Lebanese civil war and twenty years of Israeli occupation, which ended in 2000.
Under the surveillance of two religious men, a group of villagers stage a play. It is a ritual theatre play, relating the epic of the family of the prophet Mohammed, a central theme in Shiite Islam mythology. The two religious men become the narrators, introducing us into this world.
After the Imam Hussein is martyred in the battle of Karbala in 680, his family is captured and brought before the court of Caliph Yazid in Damascus. The play narrates the appearance of the holy family before the victorious caliph, who loses face in front of his own people, when, in the succession of oratorical retorts, the victory of justice over oppression, of good over evil, is revealed.
Excerpts show the major scenes of the play up to the liberation of the prisoners, when they are authorized to leave for Karbala to lament their dead. These scenes constitute the framework of the film and are interwoven with scenes from a rehearsal and comments by the director, the actors and religious persons about the staging of the play. The mason and the bus driver have left their daily occupations and overcome their political differences to gather around this work that is also an act of faith for them, which will be rewarded in the afterlife.
The film develops on three levels: the play, real life and an in-between space of family and familiarity, where the relation between mythology and reality unfolds, between past and present, and between love and devotion for the sacred figures that inhabit the actors and become role models. Everyone expresses his commitment, his emotions, and his story, in which also the characters of the play emerge.
From the leisurely atmosphere during the preparation of the play, we shift little by little and pass to the experiences of the personages in the film, their feelings and sorrows, silenced by some, expressed by others. The play ends with lamentations on the tombs of the martyrs at Karbala. The audience is in tears.
Inconspicuous in these images, a worldview emanates, the worldview of Shiism, and in bits and pieces, the recent and troubled past of this region appears.

Thursday 8th July
Standard bearers of Hussein, Women commemorating Karbala

A film by Ingvild Flaskerud 2003
35 min

The title “Standard bearers of Hussein, Women commemorating Karbala ” has two sources: I was asked by one of the participants in the film whether I could call the film “Standard bearers of Hussein”. She explained that she and her female companions are supporters of Hussein, just like the men we can observe in the street processions. Differently from men, women do not carry standards; nonetheless, they do religious work for Hussein. I liked the idea, and added the second part to the title as a clarification for a non-Shiite audience.

The film is intended to illustrate and connect with research already published on Shiism and women and religion in Islam. The original footage included shots of both men and women’s ritual performances, whereas this edited film concentrates on women’s involvement in ritual practises. The motivation behind this focus is that there is less written on the topic of women’s involvement than on men’s ritual performance. In the film, I wanted to introduce women, as I have learned to know them in ritual contexts, as competent, knowledgeable, and autonomous ritual performers.

I also wanted to address what I perceive as a methodological challenge: Why Muslim women have, at least until recently, been less visible in ritual studies compared to the representation of men? I suggest the explanation might be that women’s rituals are public in a manner different to that of men. As I show in the film, men’s ritual performances may take place in the street and, consequently, this may make them more accessible and easily documented. In contrast, women’s rituals more typically take place in restricted public but female-segregated spaces. Hence, the researcher has to seek out these rituals and preferably be a woman to get access to them. I have tried to illustrate this point by editing the film in the following way: I begin by showing the public common space of the street where men’s rituals are performed, and where women are just onlookers. Next, I move into the domestic public female spaces to document their practises and present their beliefs. Towards the end, I return to the street and the male dominated activities. Literature on the commemoration of Karbala has tended to focus on the activities taking place during Muharram, and in particular during the first ten days of the month, up until Ashura. Here, I wanted to show that the mourning season extends into the following month, Safar, and that that period includes many rituals that are held to be very important.

This editing was intended to serve yet another important purpose: Can we, by observing women’s ritual performance, begin to comprehend the spirituality involved in men’s street processions during Muharram? On one hand, Iranian authorities have used religious street processions for their own political purposes. On the other hand, in the Western press, religious street processions have also been associated with politics. Moreover, the exhibition of well-organised numerous groups of men, the shouting, the sound of drums and commotion, can be easily interpreted as alluding to war (i.e., the battle at Karbala ), and through street processions men can effectively express strength and courage. But one can wonder whether there something other than aggression and violence related to the Muharram rituals? In women’s rituals, there is a clear focus on mourning for the martyrs at Karbala and their sufferings, combined with the devotees’ personal worries. Can these aspects throw any light on how we may understand Ashura? In the final sequence, by showing the street procession in slow motion, accompanied by a female voice singing an elegy, I wanted to challenge the viewer’s perception of these rituals and their spirituality. In doing so, the film is not simply about women and religion, but addresses deeper spiritual dimensions of Shiite rituals. I have therefore tried to focus in particular on the emotional aspects of the participants’ ritual engagement.

It is, however, difficult to represent rituals on film since most actions have implicit symbolic meanings. The challenge is, how to make those meanings explicit to the viewer? To some extent viewers should be able to appreciate ritual symbolism through the visual encounter. But I felt it necessary to “assist” the viewers’ comprehension of what was going on. I therefore chose to let the social actors talk about the meanings of the rituals. Also, I expected the audience to know very little about the history of Karbala , and I made a short visual narrative introduction, based on the popular visual iconography commonly found in this social environment.

As a final note, it has been important to select images and footage for the film production, which were acceptable according to contemporary Iranian, or Shiite, understanding of decency, as explained to me by the social actors. I think this is an important ethical principle. Before editing the film, I asked permission to use the various sequences included. The main participants in the film have received copies of the production, and have approved the final result.

These two Films will be shown in the Nissan Lecture Theatre, St.Antony's College.





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invited artist negar assari-samimi

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