Friday, January 13, 2006

The Holy Shrine

Last night after I got home from being 'fitted' for my chador, I came home and my darling Alibobert had cleaned up the place because we were having the Elahis over for tea.

I was supposed to make this amazing Pakistani style tea and wow them but it didn't quite work that way. The tea was *okay*, although AliBob said he loved it. Not sure how excited the Elahis were about it, but they were polite and drank it all. We also had snacks and stuff, and the Elahis had also brought several sweets over. They always outdo themselves.

So yeah, so much for being an amazing Paki hostess. At least I didn't screw up the fruit and we all enjoyed those. I forgot to take pictures of our little tea party. As always, we had a good time. They're such good fun.

Tonight, I went with Fatemeh, the Khanum, and Dr. Elahi to the Holy Shrine for the first time since I've been in Iran. It was great.

Okay, to readers who aren't Muslim, you might not understand how much contention there can be between Sunni Muslims and Shia (Or Shii) Muslims. In Pakistan they're killing each other, in Iraq, non Iraqi Sunnis (the ones who're being terroristy in general) are coming into Iraq and killing Shias.
In general, a lot of Sunni Muslims don't like Shias and don't even consider Shias to be Muslims. Some tolerate them, others don't and pass this hostility onto their kids and so forth. Of course, this hostility goes both ways, but I feel like if Sunnis weren't so mean to Shias, the latter wouldn't retaliate. It also differs from country to country. Iranian Shias, perhaps because they are safe in their Shia country, tend not to be anti Sunni or even concern themselves with the whole Sunni-Shia divide. We're all Muslims and that's good enough. In Pakistan, amongst many, I see a lot more hatred of and attacks on Shias and Shia retaliation by hating and attacking Sunnis too. I don't know, maybe it's the mentality of an oppressed people?

So Iran is a Shiite country. I think by now, everyone here knows I'm Sunni. At first, when people were finding out, I was embarrassed and didn't want it to be awkward and I didn't want them to hate me or dislike me or give me a hard time or give AliBob a hard time for marrying a Sunni.
Oddly enough, everyone knows I'm Sunni and it doesn't seem to matter to them. There's no shock, no ill feelings... there's just acceptance without judgment. They still share their Shia beliefs with me, are willing to teach me things I don't know and ask me excitedly if I have visited the Holy Shrine yet and that I really should because it's their source of pride and joy.

I wonder what a more fire and brimstone Sunni would say to them... "We think what you do is a sin. You don't follow real Islam. Your shrine-visiting ways are borderline blasphemous."

Whatever. I'm touched by their willingness to share their most precious site with me.

So I went to the Shrine, not knowing what to expect or how I would feel. I told Fatemeh honestly I felt stupid and I'd make a fool of myself and I wouldn't fit in and I didn't know what to do. She said no problem, no one will even know you're not one of them. Fatemeh and Khanum lent me one of their chadors. It was my first time actually being out and about in chador, and while I found it unwieldy and oftentimes a pain, I *love* the element of anonymity it brings. People just thought I was Iranian.

I tried taking pictures but they're forbidden so I snuck a few anyway. The lighting was too low to get a good photo of the insides but I'll post what I got.
First of all, it wasn't what I had expected. It's a huge area, this Holy Shrine of Hazrate Masoomeh. It has a huge courtyard with fountains and several entrances, and a new wing added on with a huge open room with marble floors and pillars and ceilings with some calligraphy in plaster.. (reminded me of Grand Central in NYC or Union Station in DC). There are several chambers and just lots and lots of room for people to pray or meditate or people-watch or sit with their families and hang out. You drop your shoes in a bag and can carry them around with you or drop them off at one of many (ours was #11) shoe storage cubbies behind a counter.

The room where the shrine is located is actually not that big. It is decorated with cut mirrors (much like the other shrine we went to for Dr. Elahi's uncle's 40th) and blue painted tiles and calligraphy. The floors are all marble but there are areas where big persian rugs are scattered for people to sit on. The women's area is separate from the men's area by a half wall so the shrine sits squarely in between the two so that both genders can visit and have a look inside. I think AliBob posted a picture he found of the shrine.

Women were crying and touching the the shrine and praying fervently. Some people visit from very far away just for this one chance. There were women from all over. Pakistanis, Arabs, Turks, Tajiks, Mongols, etc. I felt weird touching the shrine, like a poser, and I wasn't sure what to feel or say. That was the most awkward part for me, I suppose, trying to feel something or some connection to it and actually believing that the Masoomah would hear what I had to say, but it was hard because this was never a part of how I was raised. I'm also kind of a cynic. It did remind me of the Catholic shrines you hear of where miracles happen and people go and pray to local saints. Though here, we didn't have any candles.

So I told the Masoomah that if she was there and could hear me (not sure how likely that is, since there were SO many people and I could barely hear myself think or talk) and had time, she could help me instill in myself a healthy respect for a tradition like shrine visiting. Hah.

To be fair, part of what made it hard for me to get in the mood was all the pushing and shoving. It's normal to people here, and in fact, even to most Pakistanis, but I suppose being raised abroad, I never grew up with pushing and shoving as part of my culture. It was always politely waiting your turn and all that. It really really really annoys me to no end, this shoving and pushing and knocking around.

I'm sure you've all read the news about the stampede that happened in Mecca and killed all those people. It happens almost every year and it makes me livid, not to mention embarrassed. How can people be so devoted and pious and God-loving/God-fearing (not the same thing, in my opinion) and completely forget the most basic principle of being kind to God's creation and your fellow man. How does rude shoving and pushing and anger and hitting mesh with anything good and beautiful and loving? It doesn't. There are no exuses. I don't care how pious you are, how devoted you are, how much fervor there is to fulfill God's will, how little time you have left in life, how long it took you to get here.. blah blah.. none of those are a good enough excuse to forget basic decency and good character and act like barbarians. I mean, can a Muslim imagine Prophet Muhammad being like that in his devotion? Again, where are the ethics?

So I did do the touching and I did a couple of kisses for good measure and so I would fit in totally, but then I just slipped out afterward. I also feel like if the place is imbued with the spirit of this amazing saintly woman who died here, then I don't *have* to touch the metal frame around her tomb to benefit... I could just soak up the vibes pervading the whole space.

I told Fatemeh about the shoving and she said you just have to push back but I explained that I find that so rude and sometimes painful if I get hit that I refuse to do it to other people. She understood but said that everyone pushes, so everyone knows to push back and no one minds. In my mind, it just has no place in a spiritual setting.. or anywhere else, for that matter.

So anyway, despite my inability to connect at the actual structure surrounding the tomb, it was still touching to see the emotion around me and I actually loved all the rest of it, sitting down, reading out of a prayer book in privacy, thinking. Everyone is sitting together and yet we are all in our own private space. I took advantage of having my chador pulled low over my face so I wouldn't have to worry about schooling my features around other people. I'm still self conscious. I thought of family and friends and I hope good things all come your way.

I also like that even though women's and men's spaces were segregated, there were big areas for them to worship and meditate and just be together while in a sacred space, so it did make it more family friendly.

I've decided I want to go back again. It really was something else.

And now, for the pictures, poor in quality as they may be.

This is Fatemeh and me (in chador!) right outside the entrance for the actual shrine room. The Khanum took this picture standing in the courtyard. The entrance is marked by that big green velvet curtain. In fact, if you peek inside, that thing you see straight ahead inside is the actual tomb and surrounding structure.

This one below, though blurry, is a look into one of the prayer/meditation chambers (it's the Imam Khomeini room) off the main great hall in the new wing. Those ceilings and walls are done up in mirror and the bottom half is marble. It's blurry because both Fatemeh and I had our hands on the camera and were trying to snap it superquick.

Here, I was hiding behind Fatemeh's shoulder so I could get a decent snap of something... anything. There are people sitting at the doorways with rainbow colored dusters ready to tap people who are transgressing the rules and I didn't want the guy sitting at this doorway to see me. Anyway, this is another chamber for the men. Or maybe it's a passage through to the shrine room.

Dr. and Mrs. Elahi and me (I'm on the left, can you tell?!?!) in the courtyard. Apparently it wasn't that crowded because the busiest days are Wednesday and Thursday nights, but for a Friday night, there were lots of people in my opinion.. a few hundred or so. It was just SO cold that most of the people were inside.

Us ladies in front of one of the entrance/exit arches. Which one am I?!



Blogger huma said...

the architecture looks beautiful -- i agree with you on the pushing and shoving position

2:54 AM  

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