Rabat - Ta’ziya is a performing tradition out of many that were celebrated in the East before the appropriation of the Western model.
Rabat – Ta’ziya is a performing tradition out of many that were celebrated in the East before the appropriation of the Western model.
Ta’ziya is a formulaic space resurrecting the historical memory of the martyrdom of Hussein –grandson of the prophet Muhammad (PBUH)—, his family and his companions who had refused to pledge allegiance to Yazid. I would like to maintain that this performing tradition is incontrovertibly the most tragic form of all the other Islamic performing traditions.
Historically speaking, on Othman’s tragic death, Ali was elected as his successor Caliph. The legitimate heir to the spiritual headship of Islam, as a temporal chief, Ali came before his time. Chivalrous, brave, and talented, his humanity and gentleness were mistaken for weakness. His short government was disturbed by internal rebellions. The first was suppressed without difficulty. While engaged in attending to the second, spearheaded by Muawiyah, who held the governorship of Syria, Ali was assassinated by a zealot, one of a body who in a foolish bid wanted to bring peace to Islam by the murder of both the Caliph and the rebel governor.
The latter escaped, but Ali fell a casualty of their fanaticism. Upon the murder of Ali his eldest son, Hassan, was elected to the Caliphate, but, fond of ease, he was easily induced to let go of his position in favour of Muawiyah. Muawiyah died in 680 A.C, and was succeeded by his son Yazid, the Domitian of the Arabs. Hussein had never conceded the title of Yazid, whose vices he despised and whose character he abhorred. Yet, when the Muslims of Mesopotamia invited and pleaded him to release them from the Omayyad yoke, he felt it his responsibility to respond to their plea. In 680 A.D., Hussein led both his family and adherents from Al-medina to Kufa at the request of his Muslim followers there. On his way to the city, and specifically on the plains of Karbala, he was intercepted by Yazid’s troops, which save for the women and a sickly child had him slaughtered along with his followers and escorts after a siege that lasted for ten days. His body was decapitated by Shimr, and the head was sent to Yazid in Damascus for display as a trophy, but was later buried with the body in Karbalaa. Therefore, the people of Kufa, the partisans of Ali, repented their failure to give Hussein their promised support.
Deserted by the Kufi Muslims, Hussein fought till death for his ideals in the face of oppression. The butchery of Karbala prompted a thrill of horror throughout Islam, and gave birth in Persia to an undying national sentiment. Indeed, for the Shiites, the killing of Hussein elevated him to the greatest martyr of humankind, and they strongly held that to shirk sustained thinking about redemptive priorities is neither good humanity nor good Islam. This comes clear in the following quotation:
The Saba’ites furnished the Shiite movement with a theological basis; and the massacre of Hussein, followed by Mukhtar’s rebellion, supplied the indispensable element of enthusiasm. Within a few years after the death of Hussein his grave at Karbala was already a place of pilgrimage for the Shiites. When the ‘Penitents’ (al-tawwabun) revolted in 684 they repaired thither and lifted their voices simultaneously in a loud wail, and wept, and prayed God that he would forgive them for having deserted the prophet’s grandson in his hour of need. “O God,” exclaimed their chief, “have mercy on Hussayn, the Martyr and the son of a martyr, the Mahdi, the Siddiq and the son of a Siddiq! O God! We bear witness that we follow their religion and their path, and that we are the foes of their slayer and the friends of those who loved them.” Here is the germ of the taziyas, or passion plays, which are acted every year on the 10th of Muharam, wherever Shiites are to be found.
The word Ta’ziya itself is an “expression of condolence in general or consolation,”indeed it means “expressions of sympathy, mourning, and consolation.” Mourning is meant for the dead, while consolation is intended for the bereaved. For the Shiites, ta’ziya represents an annual event commemorating the murder of Ali’s descendants. Samuel Chew avows that, “the tragedy of the house of Ali was not dramatized until quite recently, probably towards the close of the eighteenth century or even in the first years of the nineteenth.” This avowal is factual if Chew relates the performance of this event to the conventional stage before an audience who paid admission. However, since the second half of the 10th century, the event has been annually performed as a ritual drama in public places and in private homes during the first 10 days of Muharram, especially in Egypt, Iraq and Lebanon.Ta’ziya endorsed itself and gained import after Shiism prevailed and became the state religion of Persia (namely, after the Safavids came to power in A.D. 1502.)
In reminiscence of Hussein’s heroic martyrdom, the Shiites per annum spend the whole ten days of Muharram mourning and lamenting as a way of redemption, indeed as an expression of grief. On this basis, they have invented a passion play enacted in three interrelated complementary parts, opening with majlis al-ta’ziya (mourning assemblies), followed by mawa:kib al-‘aza’ (mourning processions) and culminating in ma?had a?ura:e (presentation of the events of the tenth of Muharram).
Majlis al-ta’ziya takes place in a house or a hall. In this assembly a reciter relates a chapter of accidents pertaining to the Martyrdom of Hussein together with his family, boosting his narration with poems every now and then. On the 10th day, the processions/performances step out into the streets. The mourners march in a solemn convoy to Karbala, or the place representing it. Here they express their anguish and grief by mourning, and perform parts of the events of a?ura:e in a pageant. The slaughter of Hussein and his escorts forms the climax which deplorably shows the significant part of ma?had a?ura:e.
This performable compendious pageant recreates and revives the tragedy through acting and miming.Mohamed Al-Khozai maintains that this is a case in point from Arab culture where narrative expression employing prose, poetry and movement is purposefully deployed to bring to mind a crucial historical moment with the object of remembering and learning.
It is not easy to precisely ascertain who compiled the verses of the myriad of texts of Ta’ziya. Whether poets or not, devout Shiites who felt the urge could dextrously compose verses of majlis. Strangely enough, poets who wrote verses for majlis ta’ziya chose to remain anonymous. The producers/directors of a majlis ta’ziya often functioned as “play-doctors” and thereby freely changed the script. Now and again an actor altered his speeches during the performance of a majlis.
Despite the fact that ta’ziya did not produce a sophisticated performance style of dramatic literature, the Iranian ritual theatre attracted the attention of prominent dramatists worldwide such as Jerzy Grotowski, Tadeuz Kantor and Peter Brook. In his significant book, The Empty Space, Peter Brook shows a profound interest in building a strong relationship between audience and performer driven by gusto through and through. Additionally, he states that although the West strikingly craves for a ritual theatre, it has lost the ability to create such a theatre. In his quest for a spiritual tradition which he believed Western theatre had lost, Brook turned his attention to the East and encountered the ta’ziya tradition. He found and spelled out that the ritual theatre of ta’ziya contained many essentials which he opined fundamental to all theatre. He says in a conversation,
The ancient theatre clearly was, and theatre must always be, a religious action; and its action is very clear: it is that by which fragments are made whole… The great force of artistic events is that they are temporary glimpses of what might be, and there is a healing process attached to these glimpses.
In a related context, he strongly underlines the theatricality of this dramatic event, saying:
I saw in a remote Iranian village one of the strongest things I have ever seen in theatre: a group of 400 villagers, the entire population of the place, sitting under the tree and passing from roars of laughter to outright sobbing – although they knew perfectly well the end of the story — as they saw Hussein in danger of being killed, and then fooling his enemies, and then being martyred. And when he was martyred, the theatre form became truth.
Brook discovered the ta’ziya in search of elemental answers and came to the conviction that it significantly offered contributions. In the same vein, Lewis Pelly, a colonel in the British army, spent some time in Iran and was so impressed by the power of ta’ziya to move its audience that he took the time to collect fifty-two plays from oral tradition in spite of the fact that he had no specialised knowledge of theatre.Also, the French traveller J.M. Tancoigne describes one of ta’ziya performances held in Tehran around the beginning of the nineteenth century. He reports that:
On a theatre erected opposite to the king’s kiosk, is to be seen the family of Hussein, represented by men in women’s dresses. They are in great agitation, seem to have foreboding of the dismal fate which that Imam must experience in the plain of Kerbela, and make the air resound with shrieks and dreadful groans. Horsemen soon arrive, load them with chains and carry them off. The two armies of Iman Hussein and the caliph Yazid then appear in the square: the battle commences; Hussein soon falls from his horse covered with wounds, and Yazid orders his head to be cut off. At that moment the sobbings and lamentations of all the assembly are redoubled; the spectators strike their breasts, and tears stream from every eye! On the following days, the representation of this tragedy is continued; Yazid successively destroys Hassan and the two children of Hussein, who had fallen into his power, and a general procession terminates the fifth day.
As far as the performance space of majlis ta’ziya is concerned, it may beperformed in a variety of locations. Indeed, performances have been staged in open fields, at the crossroads of streets, in the courtyard of private homes, and within edifices erected for the sake of housing ta’ziya productions. Whenever accessible, a raised circular podium functions as the major performance area. The spectators surround this platform, leaving a number of aisles unoccupied for entrances and exits. Convoluted yet also lofty productions may also erect supplementary stages which extend into the audience and are deployed for the staging of short parts of action. Intermittently, a scene may involve the combined use of supplementary and underlying stages.In this way, the performance space thrusts on the audience and encourages the onlookers to engage in the performance.
As to the setting, the non-use of curtains as well as the non-elaborate preparation of décor makes the action of a staged majlis easily flowable from one space to another. Lighting effects are not deployed to mark scenic divisions. One reason for this has to do with the fact that performances are not restricted to evenings; they may occur outdoors during daytime. Developed technical equipment may be unavailable. So, by circling the space flanking the podium twice, a journey is indicated. The removal or addition of a piece of furnishings is in the main sufficient to propound a new situation, and should further information proves requisite, an actor smartly presents it in his speech.
Ta’ziya productions make use of fairly few props and minimal scenic decorfor practical, decorative or symbolic purposes. Swords, daggers and shields are amongst of the realistic props deemed implements of battle. The water skin and the ring worn by Hussein are other realistic props, which are loaded with symbolic meaning. They are intended to alleviate and quench the thirst of fatigued champions.Other props such as decapitated heads, detached hands, torn mannequins and dummy bodies are constructed prior to the production to produce particular effects.
As to the costumes, theyare colour-coded to maintain a rigid visual depiction of villains and heroes. Antagonists are donned in red, while male protagonists are attired in green or white and female protagonists are attired in black. The symbolism indicated by these colours is relatively flagrant and palpable. Red attire signifies the bloodthirsty and murderous nature of the antagonists. Green wearers are associated with the descendants of the Prophet, yet the white colour represents burial shrouds. Black signifies mourning. Angels, ghosts, and fairies put on specialized attire to distinguish themselves from the rest of the characters.
As to acting, religious characters, preachers and their acolytes equally partake in the making of ta’ziya. The descendants of Hussein, called sayyids, monopolise the important roles which impart them the rightful claim for gifts from patrons.Strikingly, some of the most difficult roles to cast are those of the villains – Yazid, the Umayyad head of state, and Shimr, the military commander who decapitated Hussein— in that they will always symbolize evil. As the plot unfolds and as Shimr sets upon and beheads Hussein, no onlooker is astonished to see Shimr in tears for the oppressed Imam, for it is obvious it is not Shimr crying but the performer. Performers develop a representational style in which they recite the lines of the character but do not become one with the character.For this purpose, the text or the actor’s lines are read from a piece of paper even when the ta’ziya performer knows his lines by heart. Here is a case in point in which an actor became too engaged and needed to remind his audience that he is Mr. Sulaymani acting Abbas while reciting an ode that he himself compiled. At some point during his part,, he highlights the distinction between himself and the character he was playing:
I am not Abbas; neither is this Karbala
I am Sulaymani, the slave of the King of heavenly power.
Gestures signalling mourning and grief such as throwing straw on the head and beating the chest are interestingly pregnant with religious and psychical dimensions.Remarkably, these “dramatic” conventions are not proper to Islamic cultures alone, but are typical to Middle Eastern cultures as well and, in the main, extend back to pre-Christian funeral and interment rites and rituals. Another exemplary gesture bearing symbolic implication emanates from the spectators themselves, and largely pertains to the Islamic convention of collective involvement in obsequies and the last rituals of the dead. When the body of a martyr is carried through the audience to be placed on stage, those who are close to the procession strive to lend a hand. The spectators not close enough to actually assist in carrying the body stretch out their hands to show their help and support.
The battle scenes are choreographed sequences bearing resemblance to dancing patterns. In the main, the battle commences in the performance space and then continues off stage. In the brief ensuing fight, the protagonist may depart pursued by the antagonists, and promptly re-enter attired in a blood-spattered and torn shroud yet apparently still being chased by the villains. Often, the killing of the hero happens off stage and his body is carried out before the audience.
Several symbols are for the most partwrapped in the intricate folds of the performances of ta’ziya andare as meaningful to refer to as they are copious in number. For instance, there are audio-visual symbols present in the performance. There is the shroud, a visual symbol of martyrdom. There are red stains of blood signifying wounds, yet green versus red colours are indicative of good and evil. The giving out of water represents the thirst from which Hussein’s family suffered. Good characters chant their odes, whilst bad characters declaim their lines. Both the cast and spectators engage in a chest beating and lamenting to form a unified expression of grief against the oppressors and a unified expression of condolence for the oppressed. In this vein, Beeman maintains that “the flexibility of representation in ta’ziya through costumes, props and language serves to reinforce the connections between the action and the everyday lives of the spectators.”
At this stage, I am able to notice that the drama of ta’ziya contains three fundamental elements belonging to the European conventional drama: plot, mimicry and characters playing on a stage before an audience.Another analogy between ta’ziya and the European play is manifested in the audience helping the actors act out and partake in the story. In the European passion play as in ta’ziya during certain episodes, the audience participates in the performance. Ta’ziya is also characterized with another lineament of overarching significance to ritual drama: the chorus.Sometimes the audience acts as a chorus in ta`ziya, and members of the audience also beat on their chests as an act of emotional discharge. In Pr. Khalid Amine’s words,
The performance becomes a yearly occasion whereby the Shiites’ historical guilt is re-enacted leading to a collective emotional discharge and purging of their souls. The performance contains many grotesque elements of real torture and violence which the performers willingly inflect upon themselves. It becomes one of the greatest redemptive acts in history.
I venture to maintain that ta’ziya resembles the European passion play in that the antagonists malignantly and viciously slaughter the protagonists. Ta’ziya ends with the episode of the final slaughter of Hussein, but the European Passion Play contains one more act in which the resurrection of Christ is enacted.
However, Ta’ziya was unwittingly considered by Peter J. Chelkowsky as “the only indigenous drama engendered by the world of Islam.” This Chelkowskian Eurocentric statement tends to foolishly and ignorantly stigmatize and exclude as well other time honoured, performing traditions entertaining Muslims throughout millenniums, a statement so typical to the western dynamics of excluding otherness. To put it differently yet critically, by saying that ta’ziya is the only dramatic genre and form invented by Muslims, Chelkowsky seems unable to emancipate himself fromthe tendency of exclusion, which is premised on the false dogma of Eurocentrism, adding up largely and significantly but also unknowingly to the estrangement of the Eurocentric mind. In this respect, Pr. Khalid Amine maintains that “ta’ziya remain[s a] proof of a substantial theatricality in the Islamic traditions that remained unnoticed or rather ignored.” Indeed, naturalist Eurocentrism is as false as day is plain to everyone with open eyes.
I observe that the concept of ta’ziyaperformances remind us of its similarities with the fundamental concept of dramatic performance: a group of people gathered in front of a space to see a group of actors performing a story, which is surely like a myth, a story they already know. I may also make a few observations that ta’ziya is, like the Dionysian festival in ancient Greece, is held per annum with advance preparation. The performance is intended to honour and venerate a religious figure and to evince sincere emotions for him into the bargain. Yet “[w]hile Pharaonic drama was confined and died within the temples, the ta’ziya was not restricted to its Husseiniya but stepped out on the street.” It is characterised by its participative energies which imparts it the status of an enormous performing event wherein everybody is acting and playing. On the thematic plane, the story of Hussein perfectly represents the model of a tragic hero par excellence. His consciousness of his foredoom in Karbala is attested in Shiite sources in which he states that he utterly resigns himself to the will of God who destined his demise to occur in that place at that time. This reminds us of the inevitable prophecy in Greek tragedy.
 See for example M. Rezvani, Le théâtre et la dance en Iran (Paris Maison : neuve et la rose, 1962)
 The historical information here are taken from Ameer Ali Sayed’s The Spirit of Islam: A History of the Evolution and Ideals of Islam (London: Christophers, 1922). See chapter VIII (from 268 to 290).
 See Reynold A. Nicholson, A Literary History of the Arabs (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996), PP, 217-218.
 See Landau, Studies in the Arab Theatre and Cinema (Philadelphia: U.P.P., 1958), p, 5. For more details see Pettys, Rebecca’s The Ta’zieh, Ritual of Renewal in Persia (Indiana University, 1982)
 See P. Chelkowski, “Ta’zieh: Indigenous Avant-Garde Theatre of Iran,” Performing Arts Journal, 2, 1977. PP, 31-40.
 Ali was the Prophet’s cousin and the husband of his daughter Fatima. He became the fourth Caliph in A.D. 656.
 See S. Chew, The Crescent and the Rose: Islam and England During the Renaissance (New York: Octagon Books, Inc., 1965), PP, 229-230.
Ta’ziya is performed publically, especially in Iran and Iraq (majority Shiites), whilst it is performed in private houses in other Sunni Muslim countries, where the majority are Sunni Muslims.
 Persia’s intimate relationship with the house of Ali was a result of Hussein’s marriage to the Iranian princess, Sharbanu, daughter of the last Sassanian king, Yazdajerd.
 This majlis was established by Zainab, the daughter of Ali and the sister of Hussein to commemorate the tragedy of Karbala.
 For more details about the events of Karbala, see Peter Chelkowski (editor), Ta’ziyeh Ritual and Drama in Iran (New York: N.Y.U.P., 1979), pp, 12-22.
 See Mohamed Al-Khozai, The Development of Early Arabic Drama: 1847-1900. London: Longman, 1984. pp, 25-29.
 See Elwell-Sutton, L.P. “The Literary Sources of the Ta’zieh” in Ta’zieh Ritual….pp, 167-168, ‘Anayatullah Shahidi “Literary and Musical Developments in the Ta’ziyeh” in Ta’zieh Ritual…., pp. 41-43, and Beeman, “Cultural Dimensions of Performance in Iranian Ta’zieh” in Ta’zieh Ritual….p, 25.
 See Peter Brook, The Empty Space (New York: Atheneum, 1968).
 See “Learning on the Moment: A Conversation with Peter Brook,” Parabola, 4 May, 1979, p. 52.
 – Parabola (1979).
 For more details see Lewis Pelly, The Miracle Play of Hasan and Husain (London: Gregg International, 1879).
 See F. Tancoigne, A Narrative of a Journey into Persia and Residence at Tehran (London, 1820), PP, 169-201.
 See P. Chelkowski, “Ta’zieh: Indigenous Avant-Garde Theatre of Iran,” in Ta’zieh Ritual….p, 5.
 See Samuel Peterson, “The Ta’zieh and Related Arts,” in Ta’zieh Ritual….p, 69.
 See Chelkowski, op. cit. Pp, 9-10.
 Ibid., p, 9.
 See R. Strothman, “Ta’zieh,” in Ta’zieh Ritual…., pp, 711-712.
 See Mayel Baktash, “Ta’zieh and its Philosophy” in Ta’zieh Ritual…p, 106.
 Ibid., p, 108.
 See Parviz Mamnoun, “Ta’zieh from the View Point of Western Theatre” in Ta’zieh Ritual…..p, 158.
 See Chelkowski, op. cit., p, 6.
 See Margot Berthold, A History of World Theatre (New York: Frederick Ungar, 1972), P, 27.
 See Beeman, op. cit., p, 28.
 See Khalid Amine, Moroccan Theatre Between East and West (Le Club du Livre de la Faculté des Lettres et des sciences Humaines de Tétouan, 2000), P, 26.
 See Peter J. Chelkowsky (ed), Ta’zieh: Ritual and Drama in Iran (New York: New York University Press, 1979), P, 1.
 See Moroccan Theatre between East and West, P, 28.
 See The Development of Early Arabic Drama 1847-1900, P, 28.
 See See Khalid Amine, Moroccan Theatre Between East and West (Le Club du Livre de la Faculté des Lettres et des sciences Humaines de Tétouan, 2000), pp, 26-27.