This is one of those posts about a very obscure term that took me some trouble to elucidate, so that I want to save others the trouble should they run across it. I’m reading Oleg Zaionchkovsky’s short novel Петрович [Petrovich], a series of episodes in the life of a young boy, and in the course of a description of Persia in the early twentieth century there is a mention of “кровавая процессия «шахсей-вахсей»” [the bloody shakhsei-vakhsei procession]. There’s a Wiktionary entry for «шахсей-вахсей» which told me that it meant “a Shiite religious ceremony imitating the suffering and death of Imam Hussein” and had the stress on the final syllable of each half of the compound, but of course I wanted to know the origin, and Wiktionary just said “Происходит от ??” Some googling turned up Muharram in Iran, which includes this enlightening section:


Another glorious ceremony held during the mourning days of Imam Husayn in Iran is the “Shah Husayn” ceremony in Tabriz. This ritual, called “Shakhsi” in the local dialect, begins a few days before Muharram and continues until the noon of Ashura.

In this ceremony, the mourners in the black form a human path. They move a special stick from head to toe. These movements follow a chant “Shah Husayn” (Shakhsi) and “Vay Husayn” (Vakhsi) of the mourners. Shah Hussein’s religion is a symbolic behavior; It seems that the mourners are leaving for Karbala and standing next to the companions of Imam Husayn.

So there you have it; it’s Tabrizi and formed from “shah” and “vay” [‘alas’]. I have no idea how widespread it is, but if it made its way into Russian usage it seems to be worth noting.


  1. Is this not the same ceremony that deviously made its way into English as Hobson-Jobson? See Of course, erudite Hatters may know all about that very interesting volume,

  2. It is indeed, and I’ve cited the book any number of times; I posted about it here, and the entry on Hobson-Jobson itself is here (“It is in fact an Anglo-Saxon version of the wailings of the Mahommedans as they beat their breasts in the procession of the Moharram — ‘Yā Hasan! Yā Hosain!’”).

  3. Note the 1618 quote: “. . . . e particolarmente delle donne che, battendosi il petto e facendo gesti di grandissima compassione replicano spesso con gran dolore quegli ultimi versi di certi loro cantici: Vah Hussein! sciah Hussein!” — P. della Valle, i. 552. This is the same as the “Shah Husayn” and “Vay Husayn” of the post; I wonder if della Valle was in Tabriz?

  4. I was sure (would be sure if I thought about it) that it was already discussed here.

    I saw it used in 21st century Moscow, namely during a conflict associated with insufficient number of mosques in Moscow. I am not sure if I remember everything right, but I think local Shia and Sunni communities used to share a certain space, but in a certain year the Sunni community did not let the Shia community to hold their ceremony there, and a Sunni commenter on the internet when arguing with Shia commenters on the internet was saying that their шахсей-вахсей is too loud and disturbs [Sunni] people.

    I don’t know if Russian-speaking Shias themselves use it though.

  5. I am on the road now on my phone, but this is the first clip I could find where you can here them say شاخسی واخسی or in Azerbaijani spelling Şaxsey Vaxsey antiphonally, several times clearly, at the very beginning and about 2/3 of the way through:

    (Video may take a while to load.)

    Searching for the term شاخسی واخسی in Persian in YouTube will call up an infinite number of other illustrative videos for LH readers.

  6. This is unrevealing:
    >They move a special stick from head to toe.

    Googling stick Muharram I see videos of ritual stick fights. Is that what the quoted passage refers to?

    A few years ago, there was a Muharram gathering on Chicago’s Daley Plaza outside my window. The juxtaposition of the Picasso* and ritual self-flagellation was interesting. I’ve always thought of the Picasso in relation to the horse at the center of the painting Guernica (though admittedly there’s little in its iconography that would suggest this.) And in turn, I’ve interpreted the painting as reflecting civil war, which is internal, so something like self-flagellation. Not saying that’s a justifiable interpretation — just my chain of associations.

    * There is no other name in usage for this statue than “the Picasso”. WIki calls it the “Chicago Picasso”, but if you live here, that’s ridiculous.

  7. Xerîb: Thanks very much!

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