by Karima Alavi
It’s my last Friday ‘Muslim day of communal prayer’ in Iran. After a twenty-six year absence from the country, my first return is coming to a close. I gaze out the window that overlooks the city of Shiraz and I’m filled with memories of my time here as an exchange student. Raw emotions make their way to the surface, as I wonder if I’ll ever make it back again. I feel a strong need to leave my fellow tourists behind and head to a sacred site’one of the city’s many shrines’ where I can be alone with my thoughts; alone in a crowd of fellow believers. I don’t try to understand this need. I just recall the words of my grandmother; ‘Listen to the voice within you. It’s the voice of wisdom.’
Although I dress in traditional Islamic clothing, I know that my blue eyes and light skin reveal my western origin. With a touch of trepidation about how Iranians might react to a foreigner in their shrine, I force my hands to open the drawer that holds my veil.
I leave the hotel wrapped in a black shroud that enables me to fade into the world of the sacred, as if I had surrounded myself in eternal prayer that keeps the touch of the profane away from my skin, my face, my heart. I can’t help but chuckle at the western feminists who will never know the delicious anonymity one gains under a veil. As they speak of rescuing me from the ‘oppression’ of becoming a drop in a sea of black fabric, I luxuriate in the freedom from trying to be someone special, someone different, a person who seeks everyone else’s admiration and approval. I turn away from this world and focus on God.
The shrine arises like a glistening mountain of gold and blue. The ceramic tiles of the minaret call me to a higher place and my spirit’ which is so fragile on this day’ rises to the sunny sky above me while clouds drift by as if they have all the time in the world. ‘They do,’ I tell myself, and lower my head, humbled by their beauty. My heart beats to an ancient rhythm as I walk through the shadow of the minaret that lays prostrate across the central courtyard and points toward the door of the inner shrine.
I follow the other women and enter the door only to encounter a man who’s quietly telling the men to continue straight, while the women are directed to walk through a black curtain to the right. All is dark for a moment as I stoop forward a bit and make my way through the layers of fabric that separate the men’s area from the women’s. For a short moment I have the sensation of traveling through a womb, wrapped in warmth and heading toward an exit that will lead me to unknown territory. Then I gasp as I emerge, enshrouded in shimmering lights that seem to come from another world. I can’t help but gawk at the ceiling; a domed structure completely covered in mirrors with delicate chandeliers swaying in a slight breeze. Light is everywhere.
Women engulf me in a sea of prayer and tears as they sweep me along their river of movement toward the tomb. Though I want to stop and look, I can’t fight the flow. I surrender and touch the wall to my left to steady myself as the crowd pushes toward their ultimate goal: the final resting place of Sayyed Amir Ahmad, brother of one of the twelve Shi’a Imams, saintly men who are direct descendants of the Prophet Muhammad.
The tomb is enclosed in walls of gold and silver that are decorated with Qur’anic verses and arabesque filigree. In the center, several arched openings become windows to the world of the afterlife where the grave sits in silent repose. Each window is filled with metal lattice that women cling to in devotion as they pray for their loved ones who are suffering from illness, sorrow, or the inability to conceive that greatest gift of all, a child. Their hands hang on to the grid as their bodies shake with sobs, filling the room with an intense longing for God’s mercy to be shown to those for whom their hearts ache. I’m suddenly overwhelmed with thoughts of my brother’s daughter who had just been in a car accident, and had held on to her best friend whose life quietly flowed away and drifted to a place unknown. Tears stream down my face and I find solace in holding on to the bars of the shrine, feeling the hands of the other women pat mine gently before moving on.
I think of the Iraqis who are burying their children in between bombing raids that drop from the sky as if heaven and hell have been reversed, making death come down like rain. An overwhelming weight comes upon me and I have to sit before I succumb to its power and fall to the ground.
Making my way to one of the marbled walls of the shrine, I slump to the floor and cover my face in the safety of my veil. All else drifts away and I beseech God to help my niece and all the other people who have suffered the final gaze of the ones they love. I have no concept of how long I’ve remained there, wrapped in my own world when a soft touch on the shoulder brings me back to the room that glistens with rays of light bouncing off the ceiling and showering us with its grace.
I look up to see the rugged, sun dried face of a village woman who had obviously spent much of her life toiling in a field.
‘Who are you crying for?’ she asks.
‘The daughter of my brother.’
‘Her friend died, and she was hurt,’ is all I can say before crying again. The woman stands up and walks to the wall that separates the men from the women. It’s just a couple feet taller than the top of our heads, and she must have heard her husband’s voice on the other side of the wall. ‘Hossein,’ she calls.
‘Tell all the men to pray for the foreigner’s niece.’
I hear the sound of a stranger telling everyone to pray for my brother’s child. The voices of at least a hundred men begin humming with prayer. On our side of the wall, the other women look at me, raise their palms in the air and pray. It is then that I realize that I’m the only person who came to this shrine alone: everyone else is with family and friends. They sit in tightly knit groups and comfort each other, sometimes laughing, sometimes crying and I feel an enormous loss for not being part of a group of women that day. As I’m surrounded by their loving prayers, I feel threads of destiny weaving us together in an endless tapestry of mothers, daughters and sisters who have shared this blessing of life since the dawn of time and my loneliness drifts away like embers in the night.
Those seated along the wall slowly move toward me till I’m embraced between the shoulders of two women I would share this moment with, but never get to know. They have powerful shoulders that speak of strength: of lifting rocks and sowing fields before the setting sun allows them to surrender to the day’s exhaustion.
I find comfort in our shared silence as we wrap chadors over our faces and peer out at the crowd that moves past us like moments in eternal time. Because I’m seated on the floor, what I see first is the women’s feet moving along as their veils open up, revealing to me their life stories. There are ancient feet with bony lumps bulging from the side; feet that have walked so many miles of life that they seem weary and ready for eternal peace. There are delicate city feet with golden bracelets resting peacefully on the ankle. One woman hobbles along with a wrinkled clubfoot covered in the brown-black skin of southern Iran where Arab tribes have lived for centuries. Beautiful shimmering fabrics in red and green swish past me as Qashqai tribal women take time off from their mountain migrations to seek the blessings of the venerated man whose body rests a few feet to my left. The gold threads that are woven into their skirts flash rays of light across space and time as the women seem to float along the marble floor, and I’m in awe of their ability to maintain traditions in the onslaught of our televised McWorld. Enormous silver bracelets jingle around their wrists as they move to the back of the shrine to perform their prayers.
The women next to me slowly drift into a gentle slumber and I rise to say goodbye to this mystical place before heading back to the outside world. I wander in silence and take in the sights for the last time. Prayers are engraved in marble slabs along the walls that women touch as they recite the Qur’an. Ceramic tiles in brilliant blue and white reflect the flood of light that pours down from the mirrored ceiling, filling the room with a blaze of white. I watch two little girls in blue jeans and pink sweatshirts dancing in front of a floor fan as their grandmother looks on affectionately. There are grown women lying with their heads on their mother’s laps. Their heavy eyelids rise and fall in an effort to take in all the sights and sounds before it’s time to depart. I understand their need to make it last.
I head slowly toward the door and recall one of my favorite verses of the Qur’an, the verse about light:
God is the Light of the heavens and the earth
The parable of His Light is as if there were a niche
And within it a lamp: the lamp enclosed in glass
The glass, as it were, a brilliant star lit from a blessed tree
An olive, neither of the East nor of the West
Whose oil is well-nigh luminous though fire scarce touched it
Light upon light! God doth set forth parables for people
And God doth know all things.
I take one last look at the women who surround the tomb and bend down to re-enter the black cloth that leads to the outdoor courtyard of the shrine. Suddenly a clap of thunder shatters through the air and shouts of ‘Alhamdulli’Llah! God be praised!’ echo through the crowd like a wave of joy. I step into that enchanted mixture of sunshine and rain that has puzzled me since I was a child. Laughing, I wrap my chador around me and run across the glistening pavement to the columned portico on the other side of the courtyard. The delicately carved wooden pillars have eagerly absorbed the rain and are already filling the air with the musky scent of their ancient lives.
I turn around and feel a joy like I’ve ever encountered before. It seems to rise on wings from the horizon of my soul and embrace the sunlight, the raindrops and the whimsical scene before me where people are laughing and covering each other with jackets, chadors and oversized purses. I feel the touch of God’s plan for our salvation and it is Love.
It’s time to leave, and yet I feel no remorse. I feel only a content serenity as I quietly call for a taxi. A young Mullah jumps out from the passenger’s seat to open the back door for me, hesitating momentarily when he notices my foreign features. Smiling sheepishly, he waits till I’m in and then jumps back into the car. In typical Iranian fashion, we’ll share a taxi through this wonderful city and then never see each other again.
I smile behind my veil as I see the taxi driver and the mullah trying to make sense of me without staring: the rear-view mirror seems to hold a new fascination for them. They give each other puzzled looks and then we joyfully splash through puddles of God’s mercy as we pull away from the shrine, listening to the comforting rhythm of the rain on the roof of our car.