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Black is Beautiful in Iran: Experiences of an American in Iran

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Often, among Westerners, black is perceived as being symbolically associated with Gothic styles, or to put it more frankly as being associated with the “dark side”. However in Middle Eastern nations like Iran you may find black is the most common color worn by men and women and totally associated with goodness and purity. As we enter the month of Muharram the Islamic New Year, tis the season to embrace black in Iran.

It is quite the tradition for most people to wear black. Black is such a common color/tone, or what have you, here in Iran that I often stop traffic in my tropical prints, white abayas, and colorful hijabs. My styles give off some shock value in Iran, since black holds so much cultural and religious value here during Muharram (the month associated with Hussein’s (as) martyrdom during the Battle of Karbala). Lately, I have resorted more often to wearing black mantos and dresses in order to prevent any unwanted reactions. Sometimes my bright and bold dresses are a dead give away that I am not Iranian. I am confronted by people saying, “Turkyman?” Chinese?” Arabia?” hardly anyone would guess that my nationality is American–it is rare US Americans travel to Iran regardless.  I have to admit, being the loudly dressed tourist is quite fun at times and a real conversation booster, but now I am more eager to “grow up” and adapt to this beautiful new culture fixated on black.

Recently, I have found beauty in black–spiritually and culturally. On my previous trip to Iran, I failed to see some elements in Iranian culture that I am now taking great notice of. I found something profoundly beautiful in black–in recent days–when going to a shrine or wedding party where black chadors are dropped to reveal hidden beauties underneath. Once, I wrote of my experience in Iran which really brought the nature of the black chador to my attention: “I danced with one of the most beautiful brides of Iran today. I usually do not dance at weddings–but when she singled me out with her youthful gleaming smile to join her on this very special day–I gave in. I had fun, for the little time I spent with such an amazing family who lived in a village near the forest. It is always entertaining to see what mysteries are revealed under the chadors of a woman at these Persian weddings…The styles, the colors, the sensuality, the boldness and beauty you would never guess could be underneath the layers of something so modest as a black chador.” Culturally, during moments like this I have grown fond of the chador: something I used to dread putting on before entering areas where chador is required. Nowadays, I take my chador with me everywhere and have become quite a chador freak in the shopping centers. Asides from the cultural aspects of black there are also the spiritual ones.

Spiritually, Shi’a Muslims wear black clothes during the month of Muharram, most Islamic countries are Sunni. Iran, however, consists of 90% Shi’a Muslim, making up a very small percent of followers from the Islamic faith. Therefore, Muharram is not only special because it is the first month of the Islamic New Year (Happy New Year by the way)–which is recognized by all Muslims: Muharram is sacred to Shi’a Muslims who mourn the martyrdom of one of their Imam’s the grandson of the Prophet Mohammad (as), Hussein (as). He was killed by the army of Umayyad Caliph Yazid. The first days of this month are made special by commemorating Imam Hussein (as) via teachings and majalis (special events). Shi’a Muslims you will find traditionally wear more black clothing on this day as symbolic of their mourning and love for their Imam (as). Children are seen scurrying to and from school in tidy black shirts, which they do look so dear in. “The mourning reaches its climax on the tenth day, known as Ashura, the forces of Yazid killed 72 individuals who fought, including Imam Hussein(as) on this day”:–So it is considered Mustahabb (highly recommended) for Shi’a Muslims to wear black this month. Shi’a do wear black during other parts of the year, including the Shi’a Ulema (scholarship) and Maraje’ (high scholars). In fact, some Ayatollahs tend to wear black year-round, and very rarely do we see them without a black cloak. Also female scholars, military, police, government employees and religious students are often seen wearing their black chadors beautifully with pride.  “In fact, the Shia Maraje’ have declared that wearing black is Mustahabb. On his official website, Grand Ayatollah Lankarani was asked if wearing black was Mustahabb, to which he replied: “Since it [wearing black] is considered respecting the signs (of Allah), it has legal preference. Moreover, prominent scholars such as late Ayatollah al-Uzma Broujardi used to wear black…”

This month of Muharram/Mourning and my new experiences with chador in Iran, have encouraged and enticed me into wearing black more often.

That is my new commitment to self in adapting culturally and spiritually, and hey why not? Black is Beautiful. Beauty has shown me it’s face once more, and it hides in the most unexpected places of Iranian culture…

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