Iran: In the Realm of Mercy

Karima Alavi

Posted Jun 28, 2009      •Permalink      • Printer-Friendly Version
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Iran: In the Realm of Mercy

by Karima Alavi

Unsure of how Iranians will react to an American in their shrine, I tighten my fingers around the knobs of the drawer that holds my veil. After a short pause, I give the drawer a quick pull. It’s my last Friday in Iran, the Muslim day of communal prayer, and after a twenty-five-year absence from the country, my first return is coming to a close. Gazing out the window that overlooks the city of Shiraz fills me with memories of my initial journey here as a young exchange student. I watch motorcycles weave between cars. Kabob stands line the street, and children kick a soccer ball between shoppers who move along the wide sidewalks. Raw emotions make their way to the surface, and with a breath that weighs heavy in my chest, I wonder if I’ll ever make it back again. But today, I 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 call back the words of my grandmother: “There is wisdom to the voices within. Listen closely.”

Making my way through the crowd below, my mind begins to draw inward toward a sense of the sacred and I wrap my black chador tighter, as if surrounding myself in a protective, eternal prayer. A hidden grin works its way across my face at the thought of feminists who will never understand the delicious anonymity one gains under a veil. As they speak of rescuing me from the “oppression” of becoming a drop in a giant 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. Diving into that sea of black veils, I find the strength to turn away from those concerns and focus on another realm.

The shrine appears ahead of me like a glistening mountain of gold and blue. Ceramic tiles line the minaret and call me to a higher place and my spirit, which is so fragile on this day, reaches toward the sky, where clouds drift by as if they have all the time in the world. “They do,” I remind myself, and lower my head, humbled by their beauty. My heart beats to a distant rhythm as I take my first steps into the minaret’s shadow that lies prostrate across the central courtyard and points toward the door of the inner shrine.

I leave my shoes outside and join the women entering the shrine where a voice tells the men to continue straight, and directs the women to walk through a black curtain to the right. Stooping forward, I make my way through the layers of fabric that separate the men’s area from the women’s, and the space around me is engulfed in darkness. For a 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. As I emerge, I gasp at the light, so mysterious, it seems to come from another place. My eyes are immediately drawn to the domed ceiling that’s completely covered in tiny, cut mirrors. A gentle breeze blows into the room and a chandelier hanging from the center of the dome sways till it fills the void above me with a shimmering splendor.

Women engulf me in a river of prayer and sweep me toward a tomb to our left. I need time to stop, to get my bearings, but it’s impossible to fight the movement so I surrender and touch the wall to steady myself. The crowd pushes me toward their ultimate goal—the final resting place of Sayyed Amir Ahmad, brother of one of the twelve Shi’a Imams whose lineage descends from the Prophet Muhammad.

The tomb is enclosed in walls of gold and silver, decorated with Qur’anic verses and arabesque filigree. In the center, several arched openings become windows to the afterlife, where the grave sits in silent repose. Each window is filled with a metal lattice that women cling to in devotion, their voices melding into prayers for those who are suffering from illness or sorrow. Their hands hold on to the grid and 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.

Without warning, I’m overwhelmed with thoughts of my niece who has recently been in a car accident. I picture her clinging to her best friend whose life is flowing away, drifting toward an unfamiliar dawn. Tears stream down my face and I find solace in holding on to the bars of the shrine as the other women pat my hands before moving on.

My head drops toward the shrine and I place my forehead against the ornate gilding of the window, anxious to feel its cool touch against my skin. But the repose I seek is illusive. The instant my face makes contact with the metal, images rush through my mind; villages burn, and children call out in napalmed agony. Explosions of dust blast across a New York street, and a birthday gift for one of the dead is tucked back into a closet. There are slow-motion images of bombs falling through the Iraqi sky, making death pour down like rain, as if heaven and hell have been reversed. The scent of freshly dug earth fights its way into my lungs, and fathers— drained by sorrow—float before my eyes, staring back while clutching tiny bodies wrapped in blankets.

An overwhelming weight comes upon me and I have to sit before its power crushes me toward the floor. Making my way to one of the marbled walls of the shrine, I slump to the ground and cover my face in the safety of the veil. All else drifts away and I beseech God to help my niece, and all people, who have suffered the final gaze of the ones they love. I remain there, wrapped in my own space, when a tap on my shoulder brings me back to the room with its sparkling light. “Khanoom, Madam.”

Before me is the rugged, sun-dried face of a village woman who looks as if she’s spent the bulk of her life toiling in a field. She leans down to ask me a question.

“Who are you crying for?”

“Dohktareh baradar-eh man. The daughter of my brother.”

“What happened?”

“Her friend died, and she was hurt,” is all I can say before crying again.

The woman straightens up and walks to the wall that separates the men from the women. It’s only a couple feet taller than the top of our heads, and she must have heard her husband’s voice on the other side. “Hossein,” she calls.


“Tell all the men to pray for the foreigner’s niece.”

The man calls out for everyone to pray for my brother’s child, and the voices of at least a hundred men hum with prayer. On our side of the wall the other women look at me, raise their palms, and pray.

It is then that I realize I’m the only person who came to this shrine alone; everyone else is with family or friends. They sit in tightly knit groups and comfort each other, sometimes laughing, sometimes crying, and I see my enormous loss for not having come with other women that day. Yet, as prayers surround me, I can almost touch the threads of destiny weaving us together in a tapestry of shared lives, and my loneliness drifts away like embers of a dying flame.

As if reading my thoughts, those seated along the wall inch toward me until I’m braced between two women. Their shoulders are powerful, and speak to me of days spent lifting rocks and sowing fields, before the dark of night allows them to settle into their 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 time. Still seated on the floor, I watch veils open just enough for the feet before me to reveal their life stories. There are ancient feet with bony lumps bulging from the side, feet that have walked so many miles of life, they seem weary and ready for eternal rest. There are delicate city feet with golden bracelets dangling around their ankles. One woman hobbles along with a wrinkled clubfoot covered in the brown-black skin of southern Iran where Arab tribes migrated centuries ago.

Glistening fabrics of red and green swish past me as Qashqai tribal women take time from their mountain migrations to seek the blessings of the venerated man whose body rests a few feet to my left. The gold they’ve woven into their skirts flashes rays of light as the women seem to float along the marble floor, and I gaze in awe at their ability to maintain traditions in the onslaught of our televised McWorld. Thick silver bracelets jingle around their wrists as they move to the back of the shrine to pray.

The women next to me have drifted into a deep slumber and I leave them, so I can say goodbye to this mystical place before heading outside. I wander in silence past walls where Qur’anic verses are engraved across marble slabs. A grown woman rests her head on her mother’s lap and two little girls in blue jeans and flowered blouses dance in front of a floor fan as their grandmother watches affectionately. The blue and white wall-tiles reflect a flood of light that pours down from the mirrored ceiling. Meandering toward the door, I recall one of my favorite verses of the Qur’an:

God is the Light of the heavens and the earth.
The parable of His Light is as if there was a niche,
And within it a lamp: the lamp enclosed in glass
The glass, as it were, a brilliant star lit from a blessed
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
And God doth know all things.

After taking one last look at the women who surround the tomb, I 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 sky and shouts of “Alhamdu Lillah! God be praised!” echo through the crowd on a wave of joy. Outside is that enchanted mixture of sunshine and rain that has puzzled me since childhood. Wrapping my chador around me, I 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 look around and find a serenity that I’ve never encountered before. It seems to rise on the wings 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 oversize purses—and I see before me the touch of God’s plan for us, and it is the touch of love.

It’s time to leave and I lift my hand to signal 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 light skin and blue eyes. Smiling sheepishly, he waits till I’m seated, before jumping back into the car. In typical Iranian fashion, we’ll share a taxi through this city and never cross paths again. I hide a snicker behind my veil while watching the taxi driver and Mullah attempt to make sense of me without staring—the rear-view mirror seeming to hold a special fascination for them now. They give each other puzzled looks before the driver steps on the gas and splashes through puddles as we pull away from the shrine, listening to the comforting rhythm of the rain on the roof of our car.

About Karima Alavi:  While working toward her Master’s Degree in Asian Studies and History, Karima Alavi received one of ten Bicentennial scholarships to study language, history, and art in Iran. She returned to Iran in 1978 to teach English at the University of Isfahan, and became one of the few Americans who remained in the country throughout the Islamic Revolution—an experience that inspired the novel she’s currently writing. Upon her return to the United States she taught at Quaker schools, including Sidwell Friends School in Washington, D.C., where Chelsea Clinton was her history student. She’s currently working on her MFA in Creative Writing at Texas State University. A frequent conference speaker, Karima returned to The Axis of Evil in 2004 as a lecturer for American educators touring the Middle East.  Karima Alavi is now blog posting journals and letters from her travels to Iran (78-79 and 03-04)