By Maryam Dehkordi
October 01, 2020
For several years now, the anniversary of the start of the Iran-Iraq war has been marked with ceremonies across major cities in Iran, especially those that were badly affected by the ensuing destruction. One of these involves “dusting” the graves of the war dead – but not all of them.
On Thursday, September 24, 2020, the IRNA news agency published a collection of photographs entitled “Dusting the tombs of the Sabian Martyrs in Ahvaz.” The pictures showed the families of people killed in the eight-year war, flanked by police officers and other officials, cleaning up the graves and headstones of their loved ones.
The pictures, though, were met with mixed reactions online. Some cyberspace users belonging to the Mandaean community, followers of an ancient religion who number in the thousands in Iran, insisted the images were staged and part of a propaganda campaign by the Islamic Republic. By contrast, they said, their own rights including the right to rest in peace are being trampled on in Iran. As one of Iran’s least-known and worst-persecuted religious minorities, Mandaeans are often neglected by the regime even after their deaths.
“Some years ago in Ahvaz, a Mandaean father and three of his children died in an accident. The mother and her only surviving child performed the burial rites in sorrow and with the help of some of their friends.
“The day after the burial, the mother and her son went to visit their loved ones. They found that locals, who knew it was a Mandaean cemetery, had placed old tires around the fresh graves and set them on fire. This grieving woman has been suffering from nervous disorders ever since. She never recovered from it.”
This is what Selim, an Iranian-born Mandaean from Khuzestan province, recalls of the country he left behind ten years ago. Adherents to his ancient gnostic faith are forced to endure to systemic discrimination in the Islamic Republic, from cradle to grave – and thereafter.
For the most part, Selim tells IranWire, he could deal with the difficulties this caused him in Iran. “I never hid my Mandaean identity,” he says. “This made it impossible for me to continue my studies at university, and to have bitter memories of my childhood and of encounters with my peers.
“But what bothered me the most was the disrespect of other people toward Mandaean graves. There was never a time when I went to the local cemetery and did not encounter a scene of desecration.”
The fact that Mandaean cemeteries are separate from public municipal graveyards, Selim says, “shows that we are considered second-class citizens.” Citing a childhood memory, he says part of the reason for the abuse of Mandaeans by Muslims is they think Mandaeans are “unclean.” This idea, he believes, has been inculcated in the local population by Shiite missionaries.
A False Narrative of ‘Impurity’
“Unfortunately, the ‘impurity’ of religious minorities is taught to children in schools,” he says. “We are known in Iran as the ‘People of the Book’. But there is a difference of opinion among the scholars as to the purity or impurity of the People of the Book.
“Once, when I was thirteen, I was returning home from school with a close friend. One of the neighbours approached my friend and told him, ‘This one’s unclean; you shouldn’t be friends with him. I was very upset, and tried to explain who we were. But my best friend, falling under his influence, broke my heart.”
A number of Shia Muslim jurists have issued fatwas on the supposed ‘impurity’ of the People of the Book, and as a consequence it has become a near-consensus in parts of Iranian society. In some of these edicts, people are told to avoid eating or drinking with utensils that have been used by the People of the Book, or to eat their leftover food. One goes so far as to say that a Muslim that shakes hands with a Person of the Book should wash their hands afterwards. Down the decades, these decrees have embedded themselves in the Iranian Muslim psyche and led to discrimination against Mandaeans.
Segregation and Destruction of Mandaean Graves
“The Mandaeans of Ahvaz are not allowed to be buried in the public cemetery,” Selim tells IranWire. “A plot of land next to the main graveyard has been set aside for this purpose instead. We are discriminated against by the government in life and death.”
The images published by IRNA to mark the 40-year anniversary of the Iran-Iraq war also appear to confirm the segregation. The photos show the war martyrs’ section of the public cemetery in Ahvaz, a high-density area that is covered up and protected from the elements. The war dead section on the Mandaean side, by contrast, is in a remote location and not covered at all.
Mandaeans believe that the body must be pure at the time of death and in the moments that precede it. They bathe their dead and dying in the waters of the river, then place them in a coffin and bury them in the soil among the reeds, tied with the fibers of a palm tree.
“There are special pipes in the homes of many Mandaeans,” a member of the community, who asked not to be named, told IranWire. “The pipes are for water from the river, because it is not always possible to bathe people who are dying or have died in the river. We respect this and respect the rights of other citizens too.
“The burial of a deceased Mandaean is carried out by four people, called Ashkanda. After this ceremony, food is distributed among the poor to bless the spirit of the person who passed away. The attendants’ clothes are also often white. There’s nothing strange about the custom. But rumors about us cause Muslims to show us disrespect.”
This Mandaean Iranian citizen said that despite the efforts made by his colleagues to pacify their Muslim neighbors, the Mandaean cemetery in the city of Susangerd, Khuzestan, was dashed to pieces by locals. “Not only did the Iranian government not stop this, but Mandaeans have also witnessed the destruction of the old temple and 12 buildings belonging to them in Ahvaz municipality in recent years.”
In 2015 parts of the cemetery were destroyed – or perhaps, demolished – in an incident that was met with widespread protests. Several graves were found crushed over a period of 40 days and in the aftermath, Mandaeans were told they could not bury their dead at the site anymore.
“We never created a problem for the Islamic Republic,” says the Mandaean local, “but we face never-ending problems finding employment and work. We have always been discriminated against. We do not want this to get worse. We do not know who is angry with us, nor who would do this to the gravestones of our dead.”
More recently the Islamic Republic has attempted to defend its abysmal record of maltreatment of Mandaeans in Iran. This has been achieved in part by broadcasting video reports of their religious ceremonies, and of the burial ceremonies of prominent Mandaean figures such as Sheikh Jabbar Tavousi, known as the leader of the community in Iran, or the “dusting of the tombs” of Mandaean war dead.
But Selim says this is propaganda. “The publication of these pictures may help show the human face of the Iranian government, but what will happen if a Mandaean citizen stands as a candidate in the city council or parliamentary elections? Will he be heard if he protests against his deprivation of education?
“Since 2015, the destruction of the Mandaean tombs has occurred many times in different parts of Iran. But have our protests ever been heeded?
“These insults are not just about us. Most religious minorities, whose burial and funeral forms are different from those of Shiites, have faced such insults.”