Theresa Tharakan's Culture and Belief 12 Blog

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4th May 2012

C&B 12: An Experiential Learning Exhibit – Introductory Essay

This exhibit features six creative projects I have made in response to weekly readings for the course Culture and Belief 12: For the Love of God and His Prophet: Religion, Literature, and the Arts in Muslim Cultures. My goal for all of my projects was to convey a message to a viewer without requiring too many words. This class pushed me to think non-verbally in order to express myself, which was a breath of fresh air in light of the typical types of academic work I am usually asked to do. I found that many of the readings about Islam elicited particular emotions in me, making the course a truly experiential learning process. Therefore, the goal of this response work is to elicit emotions in the viewer, whether they are tenderness, passion, shock, anger, excitement, sadness, amusement, pity, or any other feeling that arises.

Bringing My Personality to the Creative Responses

One important theme of this course is that there is no singular culture of Islam – Muslims around the world come from a diversity of cultures and experiences, so when characterizing something as “Islamic” it is important to consider “whose Islam?” In my creative responses, I use art forms which represent my interpretation of Islam and my identity, rather than attempting to copy art forms of someone else’s Islam. Because of this, there is much one can learn about my personality by looking through my creative response projects.

For example, it may be clear to a viewer that I am a dancer because of my projects for Week 4 and Week 8. In Week 4, I use a flower collage to characterize the relationship between the Prophet Muhammad and the human soul as the relationship between a leader and a follower in a beautiful waltz. According to Ali Asani’s essay “In Praise of Muhammad: Sindhi and Urdu Poems”, the relationship between the human spirit and the prophet is often represented in Sindhi poetry by imagery typically associated with weddings, including “showers of flower petals” and “the fragrant wedding bed on which have been strewn pearls and roses” (162). Muhammad is often portrayed as a bridegroom who serves as a spiritual guide to the virahini, the bride who symbolizes the human soul. I immediately related the way the bridegroom guides the virahini on the path to truth to the way I must have faith in my dance partner, trusting that he will lead me to take the correct next step when performing. Furthermore, the wedding metaphor of Sindhi poetry reminded me of the Western tradition of a couple’s first dance at a wedding. I found that it was fitting to use dance as a representation of love and trust between humanity and Muhammad.

I also felt that dance was an appropriate way to express energy and inspiration that humans derive from prayer to Allah. In Week 8, I choreographed a qawwali dance with two classmates to a clip of the song “Allah Hoo” by Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan. We used South Asian dance techniques, which I had some experience with through my involvement with South Asian dancing on campus and from exposure I have had to Indian dancing through my Indian background. I enjoyed making this project because the rhythm of qawwali music is excellent for energetic dance steps. Initially when planning the project, I was unsure of whether we would be able to do the dance “correctly.” However, I realized that the purpose of qawwali is emotional expression – a qawwali singer expresses passionate love and devotion to God through his voice, and it is the energy of the music that makes the lyrics genuine rather than the use of particular steps. In The Shambhala Guide to Sufism, Carl W. Ernst quotes Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan’s explanation of his performances of qawwali music for western audiences: “The people of the West do not understand the language, but they understand the rhythm, and they enjoy it” (191). In light of this, we attempted to use the rhythm of the music to express the passion, energy, and joy felt by artists who use qawwali to praise Allah. I found this project rewarding because I was able to incorporate both an intellectual understanding of what qawwali means with a personal feeling of excitement that I have when dancing to rhythmic music.

It may also be evident to a viewer that I enjoy photography and fashion because of my project for Week 10, a photo shoot inspired by the Persian poem The Conference of the Birds by Farid ud-Din Attar. Each photo represents one bird’s excuse for why they do not need to go on a journey to find the Simorgh, their potential king. While doing the shoot, I was amazed by the way clothing can create such a strong impression of someone’s personality. Also incredible is how slight alterations in the way a model is positioned can completely change a viewer’s understanding of their character. The photo shoot was exciting because prior to the project, I had no experience with modeling in front of a photographer and I had never used a digital SLR camera before. However, it was more challenging than I expected. With responsibility as both photographers and models, my partner and I had to spend a long time adjusting our own and each other’s body positioning in order to clearly capture each bird’s key personality trait. We went through over a hundred photographs trying to select the few that told exactly the story we wanted to tell about the birds. This project was rewarding because it forced us to examine the characters in The Conference of the Birds from every angle – we had to simultaneously be them, empathizing with them as models, and critically examine them as photographers and editors to recognize their flaws in the way their leader, the hoopoe, does. The images from this project may produce a dual reaction in the viewer – at first one may sympathize with these characters or even find them attractive, but upon deeper reflection one can recognize their personality traits as weaknesses which prevent them from searching for the truth of Allah.

A viewer of my work may also realize that I am a supporter of women’s rights because of my project for Week 12, a poster featuring the main character of the graphic novel Persepolis, Marji Satrapi, as a feminist. Feminist Coming Out Day aims to put a face to feminism in order to demonstrate the diversity of supporters that exist for gender equality during Women’s Week at Harvard and other college campuses. This poster demonstrates how feminism in Persepolis is relevant to women today because it represents the diversity of feminist faces, rather than portraying feminism as a one dimensional picture of upper- and middle-class white females in the United States. In an interview, Marjane Satrapi described herself as humanist rather than a feminist because she doesn’t believe that women are any better than men, but that all people are equally human.[1] However, her belief that men and women are equal in this sense is indicative of her support of the values of feminism, and her portrayal of women in her graphic novel was empowering to me as a female reader. Marji, her mother, and her grandmother are all strong female characters who stand up for themselves and fight for their freedom in their own ways. I found this inspiring because it broke down a stereotype that Iranian women are helpless and need Western “liberated” women to free them from oppression. I realized that to a Westerner unfamiliar with Marji’s story, it might be surprising to see a young girl in hijab as a face for feminism, but I believe that is exactly the purpose of Feminist Coming Out Day and the movement of third wave feminism – there is no single female experience and thus there is no single face of feminism. Thus, I found that making a poster for Women’s Week was relevant to my life and the lives of many of the women around me.

Common Themes of the Course

One of the themes of Islam I found myself constantly gravitating towards was that of beauty and passionate love between humans and Allah and Muhammad. This theme is commonly present in Sufi art forms such as poetry and music, and I found myself very focused on creating artwork that was beautiful in order to capture these sentiments. I used flowers in my collage for Week 4 because roses are often used as a symbol of the Prophet Muhammad’s beauty and grace. This is important because Muhammad serves as an inspiration to all Muslims as an example of an ideal follower of Allah, so Muslims mimic his actions, which they learn about through hadith, in order to achieve this grace as best they can. In our qawwali dance for Week 8, we used beautiful poses and wrist movements to demonstrate the beauty of God’s love and the way it inspires dancing. However, expressions of love for God and Muhammad are not limited to the genre of Sufi art. In my graphic novel strip for Week 2, I tell the story of a boy who believes the Qur’an is a tool which fosters unity and friendship among Muslims. I created this comic in response to Ziauddin Sardar’s essay “Reading the Qur’an,” in which he describes association of the Qur’an with his warm and loving home as he recalls reading the Qur’an in his mother’s lap. Similarly, the boy in my story thinks about his happy experiences reading the Qur’an with his mother. He thinks about the way Muslims around the world join together to love and worship Allah by performing salat. His feelings of love and warmth also cause him to think about the way the Qur’an inspires charity, or zakat, which is represented by an image of one man helping up another man. This idea of charity touches on the principles of social justice and helping the less fortunate which are essential to Islam. Sardar expresses frustration in those who misuse the Qur’an to reject love and peace in favor of “justification for misogyny,” “validation for hatred of others,” “oppressive laws,” and “arguments for superiority of certain classes and individuals” (9). Similarly, the boy in my story is saddened by two fighting men who are using the Qur’an to justify their aggression. He uses recitation from the Qur’an to inspire camaraderie between the two men. The boy effectively brings several members of his town together as they listen to his beautiful recitation. This graphic novel strip is an example of the way the Qur’an can inspire beauty and love in those who read it, if they choose to interpret it in a positive light.

Despite the many of examples of love and beauty that Muslims can find in their religion, I recognize that the history of Islam is not entirely blissful. In fact, it includes many instances of pain and suffering. The ta’ziyeh is a drama which Shi’ites use to relive the death of Husain, who they believe to be the rightful successor of Muhammad due to their relationship by blood. There was one scene from “The Miracle Play of Hasan and Husain,” as translated by Lewis Pelly, which I felt was particularly striking: Husain’s son and nephew are killed in his arms and he lifts his blood-stained hands to heaven to utter a funeral prayer for them. This imagery was profound because it was simultaneously full of despair from tragedy and strength from Allah. I chose to respond to this scene of the ta’ziyeh in Week 5 with an Expressionist drawing in order to convey these different sentiments using color contrasts and pencil strokes. The experience of creating this drawing was an emotional one – rather than planning out details as I typically did with my other creative responses, I allowed feelings to guide me in making it, and in doing so experienced a sense of emotional catharsis. This type of response was important because the drama of the ta’ziyeh is meant to engage audience members emotionally so that they truly experience Husain’s suffering. Through this drawing, I was able to express the theme of suffering but also transcendence as part of the Shi’ite experience.

Another important theme I observed in the course readings was the weakness of human nature. It seemed that in order to obtain strength of character, one must work hard and often struggle to understand Allah, even though no human is ever able to achieve a full understanding of Him. Human weakness is clearly seen in The Conference of the Birds, in which each bird comes up with an excuse for why they do not want to go on a journey to find the Simorgh, their potential king. Each bird represents a single human fault, as portrayed in my photography project from Week 10, while the Simorgh is a symbol of the mystical truth of God. This story serves as a metaphor for the way human faults, such as greed, pride, false piety, and cowardice, get in the way of the search for Allah. Furthermore, when people interpret the holy word of God from the Qur’an to justify violence and hatred, as is shown in my comic strip from Week 2, it is evident that they are weak in character and shrouded in darkness. For those who can reject these faults, Muhammad serves as a guide and a leader to bring human darkness to light, as is seen in my collage from Week 4. Husain used prayer to obtain strength from Allah in the midst of tragedy, as seen in the drawing from Week 5. Human weakness is an important aspect of Islam because Muslims pray to Allah, read the Qur’an, and look to Muhammad as an example for human behavior in part to derive strength from God.


The body of work I have produced here is meant to communicate the emotions which I personally experienced while reading for this course. The graphic novel strip from Week 2 conveys feelings of warmth and unity that a child experiences when reading and reciting the Qur’an, as well as the feelings of outrage he experiences when others abuse the Qur’an by using it to justify violence and hatred. The flower collage from Week 4 illustrates the loving devotion and trust that Muslims feel towards the Prophet Muhammad. The Expressionist drawing from Week 5 is meant to provoke feelings of sadness and despair that Shi’ite Muslims experience when reliving the death of Husain, descendent of Muhammad; it also expresses the power and strength Husain possessed during this time of sacrifice, inspiring Shi’ites to garner this strength from Allah as well. The qawwali dance from Week 8 communicates the beauty Sufis find in prayer to Allah and the energy they derive from prayer through music, which can be used to bring them to a state of ecstasy. The fashion photography project from Week 10 depicts various human faults which the devout must overcome in order to find Allah’s truth; viewers of these photographs may empathize with these character flaws and simultaneously recognize them as obstacles to an understanding of Allah. The poster from Week 12 breaks down stereotypes about women and feminism in Iran and in Islam in general; it is meant to give a feeling of empowerment to feminists of all cultures and identities.

If I have done my job correctly, a viewer will encounter a broad range of emotions in this body of artwork, reflecting the great diversity of Islamic experiences. When asked “whose Islam?” these projects represent, I would say that these works are illustrative of my own interpretations of Islam as I experienced them through this course. Your job as viewer is now to allow yourself to view Islam through my eyes. I have purposefully created an exhibit that is not about reading as much as it is about feeling. When you view these pieces, I ask that you take a moment to really experience them. Before you think about each one, just look, feel, and react.

[1] Ghadishah, Arash. Interview with Marjane Satrapi. “Questions for Marjane Satrapi.” ABC News, 2006.

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30th April 2012

Week 8



The qawwali is a Sufi musical form common in South Asia which praises God. According to Carl W. Ernst in The Shambhala Guide to Sufism, music and particularly the human voice are used to bring out powerful emotions in praise of God in the Sufi tradition (180). The qawwali is known to have brought listeners into ecstasy, such as Qutb al-Din Bakhtiyar Kaki, who was in ecstasy for three days and died when the singer stopped mid-verse (186-187). It is apparent that qawwali is a musical form which can inspire emotional ecstasy in the devout who listen to it.

We chose to choreograph a short dance to this clip from the qawwali “Allah Hoo” by Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan. This song has a lively beat which was enjoyable to listen to and inspired dancing. Ernst describes Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan as “a Pakistani singer trained in Chisti qawwali ritual” who “records in the world music genre and collaborates with American musicians on movie sound tracks” (180). He notes that qawwali is a form of music which became popular internationally because of its enjoyable rhythm, even among audiences who cannot understand the words. The line used in this clip, “jab na thaa kuch yahaan, thaa magar tuu hi tuu,” translates to “at that time there was nothing except you.” This refers to a time before the world existed and there was only God, so the song is about total and utter devotion to God. For me personally, the repetitive nature of the lyrics for this portion of the song (repetition of “Allah Hoo”) helped me to really experience it as a chant of praise, even before looking up the lyrics.

In our dance, we attempted to convey the spirit of the song through our South Asian choreography. We begin by bringing our hands up to the sky and back down to the ground to represent the relationship between humans on Earth and Allah in the heavens. We spin with our scarves in a fashion similar to that of the “whirling dervishes” who lose themselves in ecstatic prayer while listening to music. We raise our arms with simple and elegant wrist motions to demonstrate a call to Allah to grant us his beautiful presence. We took advantage of the rhythm to do very enthusiastic steps, demonstrating how the music filled us with energy. Towards the end, the three of us spin together to demonstrate the way Muslims around the world come together in praise of Allah. We appreciated that we could take a Western approach to interpreting the song and still capture an important aspect of qawwali as a form of prayer, which is the energy of the rhythm. Through this dance, we attempted to demonstrate a close connection to the music and an understanding of its meaning as a loving and ecstatic communication with God.

Link to complete song:

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29th April 2012

Week 10

I was inspired by The Conference of the Birds by Farid ud-Din Attar to design a fashion photo shoot. Each photograph represents one of the birds who gives an excuse to the hoopoe for why not to look for their potential king, the Simorgh. Fashion is an excellent medium to represent each bird because it’s about image and influencing others’ perceptions by putting up a front. Similarly, each bird in the story behaves one-dimensionally in an attempt to convince the hoopoe that their identity excuses them from the journey. Each of these birds personifies a single fault of every human, so we used the same two models to represent multiple birds. I combined each of the individual photographs to create one larger image, representing how these multiple facets of a personality overlap and interact with one another in a single person.

We designed outfits and poses to fit the personality of each bird. The heron in all black looks longingly towards the others, as the miserable heron in the poem loves the sea where “no one hears [her] desolate, thin cry” (47). The hawk boasts of “grand connections in the sky” (45), staying close to the center of power, crouching in grey clothing with little personality of her own but gazing up at the influential homa. The vain homa claims to “soar and fly on lofty aspiration’s lordly wings” (43), so she wears a suit skirt and a trench coat to represent her hunger for power in business. The nightingale is infatuated with a rose, saying, “her buds are mine; she blossoms in my sight – how could I leave her for a single night?” (36). She wears pink, holding a rose and demonstrating her delusional love with a kiss. The proud peacock in his many-colored splendor describes how he “was once a bird in paradise” (39), wearing a bright blue showy dress and jewelry to show off. The parrot is colored “the earth’s variegated green” and searches for “the stream of immortality” (38). Thus, the parrot is dressed in earthy tones and is on the ground but looks off into the distance, thirsting for immortality. The miserly owl searches for hidden treasure among ruins, saying, “love is solely for gold’s buried glory” (48). The owl is in simple tones but remanis fixated on a gold chain. The self-righteous duck believes he is “the purest bird that ever flew or swam” (40), wearing all white and standing haughtily. The partridge says his “one desire is for jewels” (42) so she is covered in jewels and gazes at a string of pearls. The timid finch says she is “less sturdy than a hair” (49) so she sits in the corner, dressed in pink and looking childish to represent weakness and immaturity. I chose not to create an outfit for the hoopoe because the hoopoe has great depth of character that the other birds lack while they make their excuses, and thus can’t be easily represented by just a few clothes.

The high resolution original photographs can be viewed by clicking the images below.



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29th April 2012

Week 12

I chose to make a promotional poster for Feminist Coming Out Day featuring Marji, the main character of Marjane Satrapi’s autobiographical graphic novel, Persepolis. I feel that this poster is an appropriate representation of Marji because she is a strong female character who inspires other young women to think for themselves. For me, reading Persepolis was a meaningful experience because I saw the film several years ago, when I was about Marji’s age at the end of the novel. Marji was a role model for me as someone who isn’t afraid to stand up for what she believes in and is unapologetic about her opinions.

Marji embodies the phenomenon of third wave feminism, which avoids any singular definition of femininity. Third wave feminism recognizes that no two female experiences are the same and in particular acknowledges that cross cultural differences exist in women’s lives and values. Marji’s story is one of a young girl in Iran struggling to find her identity along with many other women who battle for their own freedom, without attempting to conform to any particular Western definitions of liberty. Marji is empowering because she fights for her ideas about freedom and right and wrong. For example, she wears nail polish and refuses to take it off, even when her parents warn her that she may get arrested (119). When the veil becomes mandatory, she goes with her mother to protest it and pass out flyers because she did not believe the veil should be required (76). She enjoys Iron Maiden, Kim Wilde, and Michael Jackson, and she openly wears “punk” sneakers, denim jackets, and tight jeans, even though these tastes are not consistent with the values of the revolution (131-133). This portrayal of her and similar portrayals of the women around her break down the stereotypical image of women in Iran as victims of oppression during the revolution. Instead, they were highly active in asserting their beliefs and defining their own identities. Thus, Marji and the women in her life are exactly what feminists look like.

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7th March 2012

Week 4

Week 4: Expressing Devotion to Prophet Muhammad


Weddings! What enjoyment, what fun!

On the Prophet’s wedding night, the huris [paradisical virgins] make joyful noises


The parrots in the meadows, the nightingales in the gardens;

The bridegroom mounted the horse, [seated] on a gold saddlecloth

The Lord sat on the bed; roses strewn on the cushions!

Come Muhammad, come and meet the “rebel” ‘Abd ur-Ra’uf


–          Maulad 10 (165), ‘Abd ur-Ra’uf Bhatti (d. 1752), translated from Sindhi

In Sindhi poetry, the Prophet Muhammad is commonly depicted as a lover or bridegroom, while the virahini, a loving and yearning young bride, is a representation of the human soul. The virahini has an intense desire to be in Muhammad’s presence. According to Ali Asani’s essay “In Praise of Muhammad: Sindhi and Urdu Poems”, imagery typically associated with weddings, including “showers of flower petals” and “the fragrant wedding bed on which have been strewn pearls and roses” (162) are symbolic of the marriage between human spirit and the holy love of the prophet.


I chose to depict this wedding imagery using a collage of flower petals, which represent the joy, beauty, and love of a marriage. I have shown a couple dancing, with Muhammad in white petals as a symbol of purity and the virahini in pink petals as a symbol of femininity. The pressed roses in the background allude to the fragrant beauty of the wedding bed as ‘Abd ur-Ra’uf described. Their dance places Muhammad in the position of leader, while the virahini is the follower – this demonstrates his role not only as the beloved, but as “a guide and leader to the truth” (174). In ballroom dance, a follower must trust that her leader will steer her in the right direction. In Islam, the Prophet serves as the supreme example of how to live a holy life. Here, Muhammad shelters and cares for the virahini as she places all her faith in him, demonstrating how the Prophet provides love and guidance to all of humanity.

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7th March 2012

Week 2

Week 2: Constructions of Islam


In his essay Reading the Qur’an, Ziauddin Sardar describes his experience reading the Qur’an as he grew up, resulting in his association of the Qur’an with his warm and loving home. Sardar notes that there exists an immense variety of interpretations of the Qur’an, but he expresses his frustration in those who misuse the Qur’an to reject love and peace in favor of “justification for misogyny,” “validation for hatred of others,” “oppressive laws,” and “arguments for superiority of certain classes and individuals” (9). He explains that humans must think and reflect about the meaning of the Qur’an in the circumstances of today, rather than blindly use its words to justify wrongdoing by assuming they have “absolute understanding,” which is not a characteristic of any human, but of God alone (10).

In this short graphic novel strip, I tell the story of a boy who witnesses two men fighting with each other and misusing the words of the Qur’an to justify their anger and hatred. The boy is upset and feels helpless at first. He thinks about the times he would sit with his mother and read the Qur’an, just as Sardar did as a young child (3), and goes to pick up his Qur’an. As he is reading, he thinks about what the Qur’an means to him: friendship, charity, unity, and light. An image of one man pulling up another man from the panel below him demonstrates charity, or zakat, as he is helping someone who is less fortunate that him (as they are in two different panels and thus two different social circumstances). Friendship and zakat are further demonstrated in an image of two men sharing a goose. The boy thinks about the potential unity of all Muslims, joined in prayer over the words of the Qur’an, demonstrated by the image of Muslims performing salat. He imagines that the Qur’an should bring light to darkness, like sunrise.

After contemplating these ideas, the boy decides to take action. He walks over to a spot near where the men are fighting, sits down right on the ground, and begins to recite. He quickly gains the attention of passerby and people in a nearby house, as well as the two fighting men. They drop their fists and come over to listen to the recitation. Sheepish about their argument and hearing words of peace and unity flowing from the mouth of a young boy, the men shake hands in forgiveness, as a crowd gathers to listen to the beautiful sound of the Qur’an. This conclusion represents the peace and harmony that can be achieved by reading the Qur’an with an open mind and reflecting on how its messages can be best incorporated into daily life.

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21st February 2012

Week 5

Week 5: Expression Theology through Drama: The Iranian Ta’ziyeh


“As he tasted a drop of water, he was pierced in the mouth with a dart; and his son and nephew, two beautiful youths, were killed in his arms. He lifted his hands to heaven – they were full of blood – and he uttered a funeral prayer for the living and the dead” (6).


This scene from “The Miracle Play of Hasan and Husain,” as translated by Lewis Pelly, is extremely powerful. Upon reading it, I could not dispel the image from my mind. This scene from the ta’ziyeh is significant because it can elicit an emotional response in the audience as they relate their life’s suffering with that of Husain. This characteristic of the scene is illustrative of the ta’ziyeh as a whole, which is commonly used by Shi’ites in Iran as a way to relive the death of Husain, who they believe was the true successor of Muhammad because of their blood relationship.

I used an Expressionist-style drawing in order to capture the emotional turmoil Husain experienced as he sits, praying to Allah for the newly dead youth and his recently murdered brother, Hasan. I decided to leave out fine details of the drawing and use forms and color to express themes of family, grief, betrayal, and transcendence. Green is used here to symbolize Muhammad’s tribe and make the family connection between Husain and Muhammad explicit. Husain lifts his arms in the air in prayer and the blood stains on his hands, and his mouth from the dart) are indicators of betrayal and the tragic loss of his family members. The theme of family betrayal is one that instills empathy in any audience member as they relate their personal suffering and their love for their family with Husain’s.

However, Husain’s ability to lift his hands and pray is also a symbol of his power and strength, which were given to him by Allah and which he maintains as he transcends from the earthly world to the spiritual one. The contrast between earthy colors of the ground and cool, dark colors in the sky can be interpreted as the contrast between the earthly and spiritual world. The mix of dark purple and green in the sky shows a mix of darkness due to grief with a promise of eternal protection of Muhammad’s family. The green Qur’an by Husain’s side is indicative of his family’s eternal connection to the holy words of Allah (a metacosmic phenomenon), which he uses to maintain his spiritual strength (a microcosmic quality) while the orange sword lying by his side is now useless to him, as a product of the earthly world (a macrocosmic object). This theme of hope and transcendence gives audience members hope that their suffering will be relieved. In these ways, the drama of the Ta’ziyeh can reach out and grab the heart of the audience member by engaging him emotionally.


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