Many Happy Returns, Twelfth Imam!

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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 daytime affair.

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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.

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