Shiite Muslims worldwide are commemorating the most important days in their faith’s history during the first month of the Islamic calendar, known as Muharram.
The commemoration features public scenes of emotional self-flagellation in remembrance of the Shiite saint Imam Hussein, who died a violent death in A.D. 680.
But in Iran, such sacred rituals are complemented by a modern twist, as residents race around this city to take advantage of copious supplies of free food.
Known as nazri, the food is considered holy for anyone who eats it or makes it. It is given free by individuals and private groups as a way of completing an offering made to God in honor of Hussein’s martyrdom.
Kiosks called hayats are set up all over Iran. In the capital alone, there are now nearly 13,000 registered hayats making offerings of food or drink. Everyone from rich bazaar merchants to high school kids takes part in the cooking and serving of the food.
For Iranians who want to maximize their haul, a new Web page has mapped out locations offering nazri, along with the date and time of giveaways as well as the type of food available.
“We felt that our traditions aren’t moving forward quickly enough with the speed of technology and decided to use these tools along with our old traditions,” he said.
The selection at nazris includes a wide range of snacks and beverages, from hot cocoa and simple sweets to more elaborate Iranian dishes. The most popular nazri food is gheymeh, a stew of lamb, tomatoes, yellow split peas and dried lemons.
Often cooked in enormous copper pots over wood-burning fires, and then served in disposable containers that litter city sidewalks for weeks, the food is believed to have benefits both physical and spiritual.
The long lines in residential neighborhoods, and traffic jams caused by drivers who stop in the middle of the street to pick up nazri, provide a festive air that contrasts with the processions of chest-beating mourners.
“Yes, we’re mourning the loss of our most important martyr,” said Jamshid, an accountant who asked to be identified only by his first name. “But this has really become a big party for Imam Hussein.”