When I first noticed my birthday this year would coincide with the
birthday of the Twelfth Imam, a revered figure in Shi`ite Islam, the
possibility of a scheduling conflict didn't occur to me. After all, the
Twelfth Imam, also known as the Hidden Imam or the Mahdi, has been
occulted since 874 A.D., and the festivities held in his honor are usually a
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But the night of my birthday party I noticed the
neighbors across the street weaving colored lights into the trees of
their huge yard frontyard, unfurling a Koranic banner from their second-story balcony, and arranging dozens of chairs around their veranda.
Within an hour their guests had taken up all the parking spaces in a
three block radius, and a speaker attached to an immense sound system
began congratulating everyone on the Twelfth Imam's birthday. The voice
launched into an excited sermon, detailing how God concealed the Mahdi --
the last in a line of Shi`ite imams descended from the Prophet Mohammad --
and would only bring him back at the end of time to bestow justice to
mankind. Soon you couldn't even hear the phone ring in my apartment. I
began text messaging my friends that my party was postponed until next
week. Sharing a birthday with the Twelfth Imam, it turns out, is like
being born on Christmas. You just can't compete.
With my party off and the din rising, I resigned myself to sitting on
the balcony and spying on the neighbor's festivities. The buffet tent and the
chairs were filled with men, so the female members of the household were
either invited to an all-women's Twelfth Imam birthday party, or
confined to the house. I couldn't see the speaker, but his voice transfixed the all-male
assembly, rising to extol the Mahdi's virtues (immortal, pure)."He may
even be among us right here right now, in this very gathering!" he
exclaimed, looking about exaggeratedly. The idea that the Twelfth Imam
could be present, either invisibly or in the bodily guise of an ordinary
guest seated on a folding chair, led the assembly to a sort of climax,
and afterwards everyone drove away in late model cars.
Iranians have celebrated the Twelfth Imam's birthday for centuries, but
it was only after the 1979 Islamic Revolution that the holiday was
celebrated by draping Tehran in tinsel and colored lights, much like a
Western city during Christmas. The government honors the Mahdi's birthday
with more fanfare than it treats other arguably more prominent Muslim
holidays. This year, out on a short trip for groceries, I ate Mahdi
birthday cookies on one street, and was offered a cold fruit drink at a
nearby square. The result of this government-nurtured devotion to the
Mahdi has transformed the piety of millions of Iranians to frenzied
worship bordered on superstition.