I was inspired by the ta’ziyeh, which was highlighted in Week 5 along with the divide between the Sunni and Shia communities (effectively called “communities of interpretation”). Firstly, the ta’ziyeh, as an art form and practice, is very moving. It is the dramatic reenactment of the massacre of Hussein and his followers by Yazid, on the plains of Kerbala in 680AD. Hussein, the grandson of the Prophet Muhammad, was the leader of a faction that believed descendants of the Prophet had the divine right to rule, while Yazid was the leader of a faction that believed in religio-political authority, beginning with the election of Abu Bakr. The former became the Shia Muslims and the latter became the Sunni Muslims. Ta’ziyeh uses spare props and costumes, is performed “in the round” (immersing audience in the action), and is performed annually in Iran where there is a large Shia population. In class we watched a clip documenting ta’ziyeh. It showed audience members of all ages are crying, even though they have seen this reenactment many times. It is not surprising that the story is often touted as the greatest act of sacrifice.

I was also inspired by what Ceyhun said in class. The theme of Western scholarship is an undercurrent that runs through this course. I appreciate that we examine how Western notions have colored perception, and in the instance of the ta’ziyeh, it draws onto a larger conversation about how Western studies have placed Sunni beliefs and practice above Shi’a ones. That is why studies in ta’ziyeh are lacking/stalled, why one of the articles was from the 1979 and are both by Peter Chelkowski. Western control on information is more pervasive than we sometimes realize. I noticed this in my personal life as well. As an actor, I have studied the works of Peter Brook and Jerzy Grotowski. In “Time Out of Memory,” Chelkowski writes that these artists were informed by ta’ziyeh’s performer-audience dynamic. Never once had this been mentioned, and I became angry, because these men are renowned theater makers in the Western world, whose works are seen as “original” and do not mention the appropriation of Persian sources.

Thus, the close study of ta’ziyeh enables the preservation of a specific and unifying art form. It allows us to consider the large scope of a cultural studies approach and zoom into the Shiite experience, which is often untouched.

Combining ta’ziyeh and the need to expand beyond scholarship dictated by Westerners, I decided to write a fictional diary entry of a Westerner, who is watching a ta’ziyeh for the first time, at the Lincoln Center in 2002 (as mentioned in “Time Out of Memory”).I chose a Western perspective, because this is a viewpoint one does not ordinarily read about or expect when it comes Shi’ite rituals. I chose a documentary-style approach to emphasize the immersive experience that one would undergo, to allow the reader a pseudo-firsthand experience.

The entry begins with some mundane details, which serve to ground the reader in the story and create a more believable narrator. By the third paragraph, he/she mentions ta’ziyeh and his/her lack of knowledge on the subject. I tried writing this in a conversational tone so as to not seem didactic. The next paragraph describes the drama, but in terse, broad strokes. This is because after watching the ta’ziyeh videos myself, I realized that I didn’t understand much of it. I only remembered particularly vivid moments and the general energy of the production, so instead of describing the event in detail, I recounted it as a person who has just experience something new would. Finally, I end with the writer’s musings, to show that the event sparked something in him/her and hopefully he/she will learn more about it.

Date: July 17, 2002

Today was not different than any other day. In fact, I walked up 9th avenue as I often do each morning. It was brisk day, not unbearably hot. I stopped at 112th street and made my way back to Columbus Circle.

What was extraordinary was my ticket to the ta’ziyeh performance at the Lincoln Center. Mark’s ticket, to be exact, but he had a last-minute conflict so I went in his place.

I admit, I should have looked up ta’ziyeh in a dictionary or on the web, because I had no idea what I was getting myself into. Mark mentioned that it was a Persian drama, but left me wholly unaware of plot and details or language! Would I understand the performance?

I walked into the theater, 15 minutes early as I often am and waited in anticipation. I was expecting a ritual. But the next – oh, I can’t remember how long it is – the show – the drama – flew by. It was the most interesting performance. The performers were intensely physical, dancing, projecting, in a way that was at once presentational and evocative. Their steps were deliberate, controlled; their motions were explosive. At points, it was very graphic. One of the actors wiped his sword back and forth in a menacing manner. 

And the voices. Clear and strong enough to move mountains. If there is one thing I want to remember from the play, it is the strong voices.

I can’t say I understood it – the nuances and all – but it was downright visceral.

I questioned Mark about it later. He knows quite a bit about it. Long time fan, he said. Anyways, it is the specific story of Hussein and his entourage in Kerbala. His massacre by an opponent (I forget his name) is what marked the split between Sunni and Shia Muslims. And supposedly, performed every year in villages and large public spaces. I realize now, too, that this is the form Peter Brook was raving about – “extraordinary theater,” he called it – and I am glad to have seen it.