They say that cameras never lie but most people would agree they have the power to mislead. How often have you seen television news coverage of what looks like an intimidating crowd of religious fanatics, their fists raised in the air, the eyes rolled back in religious fervour, chanting something you assume must be rather aggressive and unpleasant?
When we found ourselves outside a shrine in central Tehran on a holy day we got caught up in such an event. The sight of marching gangs of men singing in the square filled us with a mix of fascination and fear. There's always the little nagging voice at the back of your head saying "Watch out! This could turn nasty" and as I tackled the ethical dilemma of whether to get my camera out or not, the voice was getting rather insistent. "You have no idea what's going on here, maybe it's time to turn tail and get out".
Fortunately I ignored the voice but I'll admit I kept back from the crowd and left it to the men folk of our group to go off and explore. I didn't think my western interpretation of the Iranian dress code was going to endear me to a large crowd of religiously excited worshipers. As we stood at the edge of the square listening to the singing, we could hear the echoes of more groups heading our way, working their route through the bazaar towards us. Group by group the men came streaming into the square. In most cases there were one or two younger men at the front carrying large banners. Behind the flag carriers there were often holy men in long black robes with black turbans on their heads followed by dozens of men of all ages, mostly dressed in black. Not religious black mind you - mostly normal black shirts and black leather jackets.
As they entered the square each group raised their voices and found a space to gather together. Singing at their own pace and often out of time with the other groups, they gave it their all. Their arms were flying; punching the air or open palmed then slapping their chests or clapping their hands, they beat out a rhythm to accompany their words. As each group took its place, another group with their flags and their holy men came down the steps and took their place in the square and struck up their songs. The cacophony of voices and melodies grew and grew until we were humming along, tapping our feet and itching to punch the air in support.
Of course we hadn't a clue what they were singing but it was a sound of rejoicing and praising rather than anger or distress. Women standing near us at the outskirts of the square saw our cameras and encouraged us to take photos - either of them and their children or of the singing men. They offered us food - dates, small cakes, even handfuls of pistachios were pressed upon us. They made it clear that nobody would mind us taking photos and that we were extremely welcome to stay and enjoy the fun and the celebrations, even if we had no idea what was going on. Women and their husbands came over and asked where were we from and what had brought us to the square to join the festivities. We waxed lyrical about what a beautiful place the shrine was and how honoured we were to be included in their event and they seemed more than happy with the responses.
Whilst the men did all the singing, black-chador wearing ladies gathered across the square holding large banners covered in calligraphy. Not being allowed to sing wasn't going to stop them from expressing a written opinion on this important day. We stayed for about 30 minutes taking photos, talking to the locals and having a very jolly time. We'd learned some important lessons about not jumping to conclusions; that fists can be raised in joy as well as anger, that eyes roll back in ecstasy as well as ire and that beating your chest can sometimes just be a great substitute for beating a drum and isn't about some primitive form of self-flagellation.