Cooking for masses on religious holidays in Iran is basic to the Shia Iranians
Free food is good. Free Persian food is fantastic. But even better is free Persian food served during religious holidays in Iran in honor of Shi’ism’s greatest.
A frequent opportunity in Iran is to eat fantastic meals at no cost just because it’s a commemoration of an important religious event and the whole country shuts down. And believe me, there are a lot of religious of holidays in Iran.
If you get the chance to attend a religious event in Iran, don’t pass it up. Besides the free food, you’ll learn a lot about the Persian mindset. The people at the events typically are very welcoming toward the stranger.
Saeideh and I have experienced this multiple times all over Iran. In Mashhad, I’ve even helped prepare the food – a special honor for Shitte Muslims – although I must confess I was there mostly out of curiosity and, of course, for the free food.
Here’s a story of feasting on food prepared in the honor of Imam Hussein in Mashhad, which is Iran’s top destination for religious tourism.
My religious holiday in Iran
Mashhad, IRAN – I’m standing hungry and curious in front of a decrepit 3-story building near the center of Iran’s spiritual capital and second largest city. Land in this neighborhood is so desirable that many homes have been replaced by hotels or shopping malls. Yet, this place sits empty except when its wealthy owner feeds people by the thousands.
The yard is full of men and boys, all dressed in black, as is everyone all over Iran during this nationwide holiday known as Ashura, the commemoration of the 1336th anniversary of the death of Imam Hussein, a grandson of the Prophet Mohammed and the third of the 12 imams Shia Muslims revere as the infallible successors to the prophet.
I am introduced to our host, Mr. Imani, a 70-something industrialist dressed in a frayed mismatched suit who today is continuing the Ashura feeding tradition his father started decades ago. (My wife’s family has an automatic invitation every year because he’s a distant relative.)
Religious holidays in Iran: The wealthy industrialist Iranian
I ask the old man how many people he will feed today.
He throws up his chin and looks me over cautiously. I hear the mutterings of my companions behind me and now I wish I knew how much they told the host about me. It’s a visitor from abroad — that much he’s been told, I sense. It occurs to me I might’ve been too forward prying into a tradition of which I only have childhood memories.
His disheveled white hair, thick gray stubble and aged clothing are of any old man signaling terrestrial poverty and spiritual piety in a city filled with mullahs and pilgrims. But the eyes – well, the eyes are of an industrialist, piercing, knowing, fearless, calculating, the eyes of a man used to making a quick study of a juicy business deal, in the back of one of a luxury sedan, dressed in an impeccable Armani suit, or in an office covered edge to edge with priceless Persian rugs, surrounded by fawning underlings. This city has no shortage of those men either. The humble clothing could be just for the occasion.
“I don’t know. I just put out the food and someone else makes up the difference,” he says and twists a finger skyward.
“But in order to feed so many, you must do some planning, no?” I ask. Damn, another prying question pops out. Dude, did you just question the man upstairs’ miracles?
Religious events in Iran: Sometimes silence is better
He seems a bit irritated now. And I wanna kick myself. He glances at the scene before us and sighs. The noon air is saturated with the delicious steam from the giant copper pots of stew a dozen boisterous, mostly bearded men in black are stirring. More men in black are cutting up stacks of bread and arguing among themselves. Others are rushing in and out of the building with giant metal trays used to carry the food. There are no women cooking, I notice. Wait a minute, no female guests either. There are no women anywhere. Iranian men cooking and serving themselves but the rest of the world still calls them chauvinists.
A few guests are hunched over a little mosaic pond washing their faces. Everything is old and gritty and carelessly patched with cement, except for the ornately framed pictures of dead relatives prominently displayed on an embroidered tablecloth.
I notice a murder of crows fighting over a chunk of bread, which at first I mistook for a pack of cigarettes. Instantly, I remember the writing teacher who taught me how to create image-moments to stretch real time into psychological time to add suspense to a story about, say, irritated industrialists posing as pilgrims or crows fighting over cigarettes. Just invent a prop, the size of a deck of cards or smaller, doesn’t have to fit the scene, and stick it in the middle of dialogue or action. Everything is fiction anyway, the teacher insisted.
“Like I said,” the old man finally responds. “I set it out for maybe 1,000 and someone else takes care of the rest.” Again, he twists a finger upward.
Ah, I recall another Middle Easterner who used to do the same; I am about to say but the old man quietly moseys on.
Feeding the masses seen as pious during religious holidays in Iran
“This is their belief. This is how things go around here,” a companion whispers in my ear as he leads me toward the building that an old man owns but only God uses. We take off our shoes, shelve them at the door, and follow an usher in a house owned by a wealthy man but used by God.
Indeed, a miracle might be needed because every room I pass is filled with people sitting cross-legged on Persian rugs eating or waiting to be served. It’s a tight squeeze in the stairway as people who already ate leave to make room for new arrivals.
I look up and see a patched ceiling ominously curved downward. “This whole building will go down in a couple of years — hopefully without the guests inside,” someone quips.
I’m not worried. In fact, once again I have that warm feeling I get in my gut when being treated by Iranians. They are fantastic hosts.
Glad to be in an “insider situation” during religious holidays in Iran
And also there’s the excitement of being led into another insider situation in Iran and being privy to an aspect of the Persian and the Shia mindset perhaps unknown to or ignored by Westerners who consistently misread Iranians and Shias and commit incredibly stupid mistakes in this part of the world.
We sit in a corner of the third floor. Just in our room, at least 50 others are waiting to be fed. Everyone is in black, but the mood is chirpy. Some are showing each other the latest social media click-bait on their smartphones.
The food is abgoosht — lamb stew, beans, onions, chickpeas, potatoes, bread — softened over many hours of slow cooking overnight. It’s by far the best abgoosht I’ve ever had. We quickly tore the sangak bread into the stew and woofed it down, no prayers, no waiting.
“Don’t we wait until everyone else is eating, too?” I ask, chewing and taking notes simultaneously.
Nazri food is a tradition in Iran beneficial for everyone
“What? No way,” a companion says. “Write this down: patience is not part of the deal.”
Then I’m told I was just fed by Imam Hussein (also spelled Husain, Hussain or Husayn). It’s a win-win exchange that goes like this:
Mr. Imani and his team of volunteers fed us because they see it as an honor to hand out nazri (Persian: covenant or promise) food on behalf of Imam Hussein, who died near Karbala, Iraq, defying the corrupt Ummayad dynasty.
Imani could be doing this just to honor Imam Hussein or because, at some point in the past, Imam Hussein answered a prayer and Imani vowed to reciprocate. The exact reason is only Imani’s business.
Those who ate were also honored by the Imam’s invitation and some believe the food itself is anointed and its consumption would bring blessings.
Thus, both the givers and the receivers play a vital role in this manifestation of hospitality to strangers — prototypically Iranian — coupled with commodification of belief.
Nazri feedings and similar hospitality are practiced by Shia Muslims worldwide. Iraqi Shia expend enormous resources feeding and housing pilgrims to Imam Hussein’s tomb in Karbala. Iranian pilgrims typically return from Iraq with remarkable stories of hospitality. More than once I’ve heard pilgrims say they were literally man-handled into accepting free food and lodging by Iraqis determined to perform as Imam Hussein proxies.
The gift culture is part of the Persian / Iranian mindset
The gift culture runs deep in Iran and, of course, the true motivation behind all gift-giving can be endlessly debated. But whether it’s pride, manipulation, obligation, religious tradition, or true altruism, Iranians simply enjoy giving and cherish its reciprocation — physical or spiritual.
“They say give if you want to be happy,” says my wife, Saeideh, who single-handedly drove leftover food from her father’s funeral to a desperate neighborhood one winter night and watched the hordes of destitute materialize out of the dark, like zombies in a horror movie.
“Notice, they say give if you want to be happy, not if you want to make others happy. It’s all about the giver, not the receiver.”
Free food on religious holidays in Iran
For the poor, nazri food is heavenly, especially when its distribution goes on all day and every day during parts of the months of Ramadan, Muharram and Safar.
“That’s when we all got to eat like kings. We didn’t even bother with cooking anymore,” says a former employee of my wife, who grew up with 12 siblings in a destitute home.
And because it’s honorable to eat nazri food, it’s practiced in every neighborhood during religious holidays in Iran, even in Tehran’s fanciest, where people might pull-up in Mercedes Benz and BMW’s and stand in line for nazri takeouts — a practice lamented by those who say the food should go only to the needy.
On the way home from Imani’s, I saw people all over Mashhad eating and drinking from single-use containers, while walking, sitting on sidewalks, even picnicking on the street median.
The mourning of Imam Hussein continues for 40 days after Ashura, at which point nazri feedings go into high gear again. I’ll be there, hungry and grateful.