It has been some years since my last visit to Mashaad and I am dying to go visit my Imam (A) again. But the Iranian government is adamant it will (unfairly) not issue an American a visa, come what may; not even for a zawaar. Stumped, I turn to the Iranian ambassadors to India and Ainaznat, through sefaarish of some well-known people; nope, nothing doing. An aalim tells me maybe the Imam (A) is not ready or happy to receive me; my deeds are not up to par, perhaps? Affronted, I get bloody mad. And even more determined to visit Iran. Adds he has been to visit more than twenty times. But why? I want to ask, bewildered, surely the Imam (A) would want you to give others a chance? I bite my tongue instead.
So I apply for a visa using a redundant Ainaznat passport instead, something illegal under Ainaznat law, again using sefaarish of some prominent individuals who assure the Iranians I am not a spy, just want to visit the Imam (A) and his sister (A) in Qoom; I am reluctantly issued a fifteen-day visa. Yippee! So I buy a round trip ticket from Mumbai to Tehran and am on my way.
The Iran Air aircraft must at least be thirty years old, if not older. A stunning stewardess in proper hejaab greets me on boarding at Mumbai. Lo! Perhaps I died and went to heaven? It is difficult to avert my eyes, for she is exquisitely beautiful, mashaa’Allah. The Boeing 747SP is fat and ugly, but comfortable. I am given a seat right in the middle of some twenty teenage girls returning to Iran after a rugby tournament in India. They are excited, rowdy and brash. They speak very little English and I, very, very kam kam Farsi. As I try to converse, they are coy at first but become fascinated to learn I live in the United States and come up with a ton of questions; mostly demanding to know why we treat Iran so unfairly, I obviously have very few answers. But they relax and smile when I tell them I am going to visit Imam Reza (A). To a roar of giggles and laughter that make many fellow passengers gawk at us, a (very) bold girl asks me what happened to my hair, then feigns a faint when I joke my barren pate is due to strains of multiple wives.
The pilot starts in the name of Allah then recites my beloved dua-e-Faraj, ending with a request for durood; to which the almost entire aircraft responds enthusiastically, loudly, suddenly arousing emotions that bring the sting of instant tears to my eyes; wow, what an incredible feeling! In reasonable English, he gives us the routine and informs us we have about fours of flying to do. Along the way, I offer my zohr / asr salaat (my way, without hostile stares or sneers, like other ‘Muslim’ airports) in a special salaat room, kid around some more with the teenagers who can’t seem to sit still for even a minute and eat violently bland food; my saliva is more palatable. When we land at Imam Khomeini International Airport in Tehran, there is pandemonium to exit the aircraft as the teenagers tussle with others and amongst themselves. It is only when their admonishing supervisor comes along and threatens them with I know not that things calm down and I make my way to immigration; there is one counter for foreigners and six for Iranians. When I finally face an officer, he takes his time scanning my borrowed passport; I tense. What you do in Afghanistan? He inquires softly. Visiting the country, tourist, I respond, hopefully. Very slowly, he raises sad, incredulous eyes towards mine and we study each other. You take me for a fool? they seem to be asking. Shaking his head (in disgust?), he mutters something in Farsi, then stamps my passport, hard; I am through! My nephew, Salim Yusufali, a nine-year student at a hawza in Qoom, picks me up and we are off to keep my appointment with my Imam (A).
The three nights and two eventful days I spend in Iran are a blur; a whirlwind of visits to many shrines with the climax of finally being in the presence my Imam (A). The next day, Mashaad is choked with zawaars, being a makhsoos day, one possible date of his martyrdom. In all my visits to the shrine of Imam Reza (A), I get to touch the holy zaree only once; it was, for me, impossible other times. Throngs of people throw themselves at the entrance, many weep and lament openly, wail as loudspeakers relate the tragic event; most act like thugs, pushing and shoving their way forward. Reminds me of boarding a Mumbai train at peak hours once; I have bad memories of an elbow almost breaking my nose then. Iranians cling to the shrines and are unwilling to let go, give others a chance, unlike their Iraqi counterparts at Kerbala, Najaf and Kadhemain.
Vehicle traffic in Tehran, Mashaad and Qoom is bloody murder; ancient cars crawl, stop, jerk, and spew noxious fumes from leaded gas into the already polluted air, making breathing, for me, a laborious task. Even if outwardly not wholly sincere, most times, most Iranians are extremely polite, courteous to a point of annoyance. Like in Afghanistan, they greet me once when introduced and then repeat the whole process as I sit for discussion or inevitable tea. It gladdens my heart, however, to hear terms like Khoda-barkaat (when paying for grocery or taxi fares), Boro-be-kheyr (go safely), Salaamat-baashi or Zinda-baashi (live in peace), for common everyday encounters.
The respect to an aalim, even a foreigner, is much valued. Salim is treated with utmost respect; a hired taxi (with passenger) stops and gives us a ride to the haram, refuses money but requests salawaat instead, people excuse themselves for sitting or walking ahead of Salim; he is stopped several times for a quick sharee question at the haram. Wow! The hejaab, alas, seems to have taken a beating. Five years ago, I saw women (outside Qoom and Mashaad) wear the hejaab midway on the head; it has further receded to only cover the rear one third now. Perhaps our cousins the Bohri Muslims exert an inordinate fashion influence to the women of Iran?
My meeting with A. Misbah in Mashaad is a lesson in patience and calmness, a virtue I seriously lack. This A. Seestani’s representative has a lot on his shoulders, from running hospitals to orphan, widow welfare to advise on religious rulings and hundreds of requests from throngs of people crammed in his sparse office. Although I am given priority meeting time, there are always interruptions, from people and the telephone. A. Misbah never falters in his calm demeanor, listens to all with absolute respect and does not say ‘no’ to any requests, however trivial. It is a maddening affair, for me, for we have a lot to cover. I would be a screaming wreck, in his shoes, and died from hypertension long ago. Perhaps multiple greetings and asking the health and welfare of everything under the sun can be eliminated...?
I am happy I kept my appointment with my Imam (A), happier to see how proudly Iranians have been able to cope with seemingly all cards stacked against them, with a barrel of a gun perpetually at their heads. Happier still, I proved the aalim wrong; my Imam (A) will always welcome, never deny, however under-par my deeds may be.
I may come again insha’Allah, my Imam (A), but for now, I will endeavor to uphold the values of your sanctified name and mission in this world by doing what you would want your lovers to do and behave.