I am in a small south Tehran workshop of one of the last living masters of the art of alam, a heavy metal installation filled with intricate figurines and engravings, used in Shia Muslim ceremonies marking the martyrdom of Imam Hussein and those who fought by his side at the battle of Karbala in AD680 against an army loyal to Yazid, caliph of the emerging Muslim world.
According to the Shia narrative, Yazid had robbed Imam Hussein, grandson of the prophet Muhammad, of his rightful leadership of all Muslims. The story of Karbala marks a significant break between Sunnis and Shia, and remains at the centre of Shia beliefs and customs. The alam has evolved over the centuries from the battle standards carried at Karbala by the Imam and his followers.
For Master Fooladgar, creating an alam is a labour of love as well as art. “I know there are many who will say my words are hooey, but it is passion that moulds the iron into lions, deer and birds,” he says. “They just don’t believe in this stuff. But I have lived it, I have seen it, I believe it. My work is very labour intensive, but I don’t even feel it.”
Master Fooladgar is in his sixties and wears a hearing aid. His hands are as black as the inside of a chimney in winter, and the deepest lines run across his palm, reminding me of the path of a drying river.
I wonder what decades of hitting metal can do to a body. As if reading my mind, he tells me: “This is a dying art because sitting behind a desk is far easier. There has to be passion in this work, a passion that does not count a salary, that doesn’t constantly evaluate cost and profit, that doesn’t mind standing up around metal for ten hours a day.”
He tells me he was only recently able to afford to buy a home, a 600-square-foot apartment in south Tehran. “God was kind. I was commissioned to make two alams this year, and I also took out a loan.” He says no more than five or six people are making alams in Iran today in the traditional way.
The alam, which can weigh up to 300kg, is carried by the man leading the procession of mourners during Ashura, the tenth day of Muharram, when mourning for Imam Hussein culminates on the anniversary of Karbala. The alam is a physical representation of symbols and allegory: Yazid’s army cuts off water to Hussein’s camp, the fight for justice continues to the end, when only a small band of women and children survive.
In its middle of the alam is the tiqe, a long sword-like structure engraved with poetry about Hussein, the names of the prophet Mohammad and his children, and verses from the Qu’ran. The artist’s imagination makes one tiqe look very different to another, despite common themes.
Adorned with feathers, the alam has a variety of figurines, including lions, birds and a flying horseman, a winged creature with the the body of a horse and the face of a man. Each has a story. The horseman, for instance, symbolises the creature that took the Prophet Muhammad on the miraj, his night journey to Jerusalem and heaven.
When the first of Muharram comes around, all across Iran tents (known as hey’at – literally group) echoing the tents of Karbala are put up for mourners to congregate every night. The material for the tents can be hand-embroidered and passed down through generations. Traditions of the hey’at vary from city to city and even village to village, but there is always mourning music, called nohe, and usually dinner for at least two nights as the community comes together through the story of Hussein.
The better the provisions, the most popular the hey’at, an old shopkeeper in south Tehran tells me: “I joined my first hey’at when I was ten. A month before Ashura we were always scrambling to find the best nohe khan.” The nohe khan is the man who sings the Ashura mourning songs.
Tazieh, a play re-enacting Karbala, once saw local residents play the same roles year after year. But it is now mainly performed by stage actors, and infused with elements of popular entertainment: some of the tazieh in Tehran last year would remind you of Game of Thrones.
According to Master Fooladgar, the alam was first ordered as a military symbol by Mahmoud, leader of the Ghaznavid empire, in the 11th century. Leading his troops to Armenia, he thought Muslims needed a symbol to carry, just as Christians took the cross. Others date the alam to the Safavid dynasty (AD1501-1736), which ushered in a wave of vibrant Shia Islamic art.
Isfahan, the Safavid capital, is the city best known for alam creations and many alam masters have lived there, including during the Safavid era of Haj Taher, who many b
elieve took the art to its highest form. Master Fooladgar remembers moving to Isfahan aged 14 to study under Haj Ostad Mohammad Johari.
“Master Johari had no children at the time, so I lived with them,” he tells me. “Then his wife became pregnant after many years of marriage, and they had a son, who continues to work and send art to all over Europe. When he was born, I came back home to Tehran.”
Since then, Master Fooladgar has worked for over 40 years creating about 130 alams. He also designed the metal-smith curriculum for Sooreh Art University in Tehran and taught there for the first few semesters after the programme was launched.
“One of my best students was a young girl who weighed no more than 50kg,” he says. “But she hit that iron with a fierceness and strength I have not seen in most men.”
His eyes beam as he says this. But while some of his students are now renowned artists and one, a girl, made an alam for a final project, none took up alam-making as a trade. “This profession, which is all physical labour and little rewards, is not one any young person today would want,” he explains. “Selling the individual figurines to collectors offers a far better income.”
Master Fooladgar believes alam art is misunderstood and neglected. “The religious people say it is all superstition - the figurines, the symbols. The non-religious ignore us. No one really takes time to understand what this structure is and the place it holds in our tradition.”
Most years, he receives only one or two commissions. Any profit is small: while an alam can sell for around 150 million tomans (about £35,000 or $56,000), the cost of the gold alone is 60 million. Clients are not, as I expected, institutions, but mainly individuals “with money and zeal”. While every established hey’at has an alam, the rest of the year alams of this calibre are kept in the owner’s home as an art piece.
Master Fooladgar also has a hand in gilding, and once the individual pieces of the alam are built, they are taken to a workshop to be etched with gold. “A mesqal (four grams) of gold takes about four days to set. Multiply that by the size of the alam and your head will spin at how much work goes into it.” He says that he’s taught five previous helpers in the shop to gild and they now do most of the work in another workshop some miles to the south.
Master Fooladgar is the pride of the neighbourhood. In the few hours I am in his shop, several old men stop to say hello. One, Mash Hassan who later goes to buy him lunch on his motorcycle, keeps telling him: “oossa, morgha ro neshoonesh bede” [master, show him the birds].
Master Fooladgar ignores him at first, then turns around, opens a box and brings out a metal candle holder with figurine of a bird, gilded with delicate gold lines. I am spellbound at its intricacy, especially when I remember it has been fashioned from the big, cold sheets of iron in his shop.
I ask him about the calligraphy on the two oldest alams he has in the store, one of which is over 30 years old. These days, the calligraphy you see on most alams (including the one he is currently working on) is simple etching on the metal. On the old pieces, however, the calligraphy is deeply cut, in a very delicate handwriting.
“These were done by the late Master Nasser Ahmadi, who passed away last year. After him, the art died out, there is no one who knows how to implement calligraphy on metal at this level.”
He speaks of the dozens of “world class” artists he knows in the city, who are hungry, sick or cannot afford their rent. His eyes fill with tears as he speaks of Master Farahani, a renowned painter of the coffee house tradition whose family, once he died, could not afford to pay the medical fees and therefore secure the release of the body. “I called the academy [the Iranian Academy of Arts] and said you keep this man’s work in your own museums, but his family can’t pay to get his corpse out of the hospital.”
I hear the school bells ringing, and within minutes, groups of children start walking by the store. This is an old neighbourhood, near Khorasan Square, and although most of the street has been taken over by apartment complexes, it has partly managed to keep its old time charm.
I ask him if he thinks his passion for teaching has passed on. “My son is my student, and this is one of his first alam pieces,” he says, pointing to a smaller alam beside his own. Walking in, I remember I was charmed by this piece because it seemed a son to the alam sitting in grandeur to its left.
More than anything, Master Fooladgar is weary of alam peressy (alams made with moulds), which he says sell for one to three million tomans (£233-£700, $374-$1122). “Taking an ancient art and mechanizing it kills the art all together. But they don’t care, it’s a lucrative business.”
This reminds me of how much the ceremonies of Ashura have been mechanised: not just with ready-made alams, but with mass-produced flags and tents, and with mourning music adapted from pop tunes. Walking by hey’ats every Ashura, you can tell a ready made alam, even from far away. These days in Tehran, a well-established, historic hey’at can be recognised by the alam they own, but to see such works, one needs to go far into the old quarters of south Tehran.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Muslim World Today.