In this simple gesture...
We arrived in Masshad in the evening, just as the first snowfall of the season blanketed Iran's second city. No rivalries with the capital, no inferiority complexes plague Masshad, home to Ferdowsi, Iran's epic poet, and closer to Turkmenistan and Afghanistan than Tehran. With only four days to go before the cosmological climax that is Ashura, the country was in the full throes of the commemorations marking the holy month of Muharram and we were pleasantly surprised by the way the city was lit at night, in particular the red flood lights bathing the fountain at Maydan Bayt al Moqadess. When we awoke the next morning, no amount of prayers to Imam Reza, whose shrine brings over 20 million pilgrims to the city each year, nor any regimen of Miami bench presses could have prepared our neck muscles for the double take at the sight of what greeted us outside the hotel as we discovered the water itself glowed red, in day as in night.
In this simple gesture, the city authorities have, wittingly or not, married high highs with low lows, bringing together two ends of the spectrum often considered antithetical or incommensurate: the tragedy of martyrs' blood with the playfulness of a fountain . Reverse Joy unearths the palpable joy and ecstasy that accompanies the ritual mourning of Muharram. We've often embraced the advantages of intellectual acrobatics but this is the first time we've witnessed such feats of metaphysical agility, balance, and coordination.
It is safe to say that, if the Gregorian calendar greets the New Year with a bang and a pop, the Islamic one opts for a sob and a snivel. The first month, Muharram– second in holiness only to Ramadan–has particular importance for Shi'as. On the tenth day of that month in the 7th century CE, Hussein ibn Ali, grandson of the Prophet Muhammad, was killed at the hands of the second Umayyad caliph Yazid I's army. At the heart of the original schism between Sunnis and Shi'as, this act has played out over the centuries to devastating political and increasingly geo-political repercussions.
Every year, Shi'as around the globe – from Lebanon to Iraq, Iran to Pakistan and all the way to Aceh, the northern tip of Sumatra – commemorate the martyrdom of the archetypal son Hussein during the month of Muharram in what Elias Canetti has called ‘an orchestra of grief’. Marches, drum beats, drama, dirges, and, perhaps most importantly, weeping, build to a climax on Ashura (literally tenth in Arabic to denote the day of the month of Hussein's death). Yet, despite – or perhaps because of – this intensive public display of mourning, a palpable sense of exhilaration or even joy seeps through the rituals. Often circumscribed in countries such as Iran, public spaces come alive with the air of a street party.
Equal parts research and original work – a public sculpture in Jerusalem, Łodz, and Vancouver, an installation at the GfZK Leipzig, a performative lecture, and essay – Reverse Joy served as the first installment in Slavs and Tatars's third cycle of work The Faculty of Substitution. Replacing one thing for another, telling one tale through another, The Faculty of Substitution looks at substitution in the widest sense, materially and phenomenologically: in the case of Reverse Joy, adopting the inner-most thoughts, experiences, beliefs, and sensations of others as one's own in a search for self-discovery.
Reverse Joy looks at the role of mysticism in the perpetual protest movement at the heart of the Shi'a faith for a radical reconsideration of history, and thus justice. Inserting oneself, flesh and faith, into the events that transpired thirteenth centuries ago; the collapse of traditional understandings of time; the reversal of roles of men and women; and joy through mourning all demanded an equally elastic and muscular understanding of the sacred and the profane that is the down payment towards any meaningful social change.
Battered and bruised by a couple decades of neo-liberal bathos, the term ‘triangulation’ is in dire need of a detox, a sort of etymological enema. Its trigonometric definition gives us ‘a process to determine the relative positions of points spread over a territory from known points at either end of a fixed baseline, rather than measuring distances to the points directly.’ There is some sass in this circumlocution: why go straight for the kill when you can circle it, tease it, taunt it out of its strict semantics?
In the social sciences, researchers use triangulation as a methodology, a cross-examination of approaches somewhat similar to what Americans call the ‘shotgun approach’, that is, if the said shotguns were aimed at each other. Such a counter-intuitive approach – looking at a something else as a prism on the chosen subject of study, going somewhere else which initially might not seem relevant instead of directly heading towards one's destination – is crucial for a comprehensive understanding of an idea or topic. So we turn to the Shi'a ritual of Muharram not necessarily to better understand Islam or the Middle East per se; but rather to better grasp our own understandings of modernity, history, and time.
Reverse Joy looks at the complex constellation of Muharram, which over the course of thirteen centuries has taken on a near cosmic significance, beyond regional rivalries, and possibly beyond the faith itself to impact notions of identity, mysticism, protest, and resistance in the world at large.
SLAVS AND TATARS is a faction of polemics and intimacies devoted to an area east of the former Berlin Wall and west of the Great Wall of China known as Eurasia. The collective's work spans several media, disciplines, and a broad spectrum of cultural registers (high and low) focusing on an oft-forgotten sphere of influence between Slavs, Caucasians and Central Asians.