My Iran Diary — Part 3

My Iran Diary—Part 3

by Yoginder Sikand

After President Ahmadinejad departs from the hall and the tea-break is
over, the conference resumes. Numerous Ayatollahs ascend to the podium
in turn, making roughly the same point about the expected return of
the Imam Mahdi from his long period of occultation, being physically
present in the world although unknown and unseen by all save for those
whom he is in direct communion with. When he reappears, the audience
is assured, all forms of injustice will be put an end to.

Outside the hall but within the premises of the vast auditorium
complex, a book exhibition has been put up. Several publishing
companies, private as well as state-funded, have set up stalls selling
or distributing literature to do with the Imam Mahdi, besides other
themes related to the Shia version of Islam. Only a few have any
literature in English, these being, with some exceptions, embarrassing
attempts at literal translation from the Persian. That saves me the
temptation, to which I normally immediately yield, of buying any
books. Instead, I purchase a few posters bearing intricately-etched
religious slogans in calligraphic style in Persian and Arabic.

The organizers have not given us a programme schedule as yet. I wonder
how, with so many invitees present, all of us will be able to make our
presentations in less than a day and a half. I spot an information
desk put up by the conference organizers at one end of the book
exhibition. I approach the young men sitting there and ask them when
my paper is scheduled for. It so transpires that they speak not a word
of English. They smile and shake their heads at me. I have no idea
what that means. I use the Urdu/Persian words for ‘conference’ and

‘Von minat’, one of the men answers blankly.

He taps away earnestly at his lap-top.

Five minutes later he announces, ‘You no paper in here’.

I am perplexed. Does he mean that information about my paper is not
available on his computer? Or does he mean that my paper is not to be
presented at the conference? I shudder at the latter prospect. After
all, I have spent over a fortnight wading through reams of dreadfully
boring propaganda material produced by the advocates of the fake
Pakistani Mahdi, Riaz Goharshahi, to write my paper for the

‘You must vaiting. Vee must ask confarance organiser’, the young man informs me.

I entertain myself reading my Iran guidebook till the ongoing session
of the conference concludes an hour later.

It’s lunch time now, and the audience streams out of the hall into a
large waiting room adjacent to it, where they settle down in rows on
the carpets that have been laid out. Thermacol boxes containing
chicken pilau and little plastic cups of yoghurt are distributed by
energetic volunteers.

I had hoped to be able to meet one of the conference organizers to
find out about my paper, but the few I can spot are busy confabulating
among themselves and with turbanned clerics. Perhaps, I think, I might
be able to meet one of them after lunch. But that is rendered
impossible as it is prayer time now, and they and the participants
arrange themselves in rows and commence their worship. No sooner is
that over than siesta hour is announced. The organizers and guests
from abroad file into a waiting bus that takes them to the hotel where
they are staying for an hour of what I think is undeserved rest, while
the others spread themselves out on the carpets on which they have
just had their lunch and doze off to sleep.

You could hardly blame me for being uncontrollably irritated. No
announcement has been made as to when the siesta hour gets over and
when the conferences commences again. Understandably annoyed, I decide
to skip the afternoon session of the conference. I skim through my
guide book. Tehran, it indicates, is a sprawling city, so, given the
fact that I have scheduled for myself only a day here, I have to be
choosy about the places I can visit. The guidebook mentions that there
are relatively few historical monuments in Tehran, which is really
what I am interested in. It speaks of numerous museums that dot the
town, most of these being vast palaces owned by the thankfully
overthrown Shah of Iran. It describes in considerable detail the
astronomically expensive artifacts that these museums boast of, mostly
the personal effects of the late Iranian dictator which he failed to
cart along with him when he fled the country in the wake of the
Islamic Revolution in 1979. It also mentions that entrance fees to
these museums are prohibitively expensive, too. For both reasons, I
decide to drop the museums from my itinerary.

Besides the vehicles designated as taxis, every car in Tehran can
serve the same function as a cab, or so it seems. Pedestrians can flag
down just about any car, haggle with the driver over the price, and,
if the car is heading in the same direction that one wants to go, can
get in and be dropped off.

I hail a passing car and asked to be taken to the Imamzada Saleh. This
enormous structure at one edge of north Tehran houses the tomb of a
son of one of the twelve Shia Imams. Its entrance as well as the walls
inside are decorated with literally thousands of tiny turquoise blue
tiles, which have been fitted together to make exquisite geometrical
designs and verses from the Quran. This structure is by no means
unique. Most Iranian mosques and shrine complexes, particularly the
older ones, look almost identical.

I enter the tomb complex, which is packed with pilgrims imploring the
scion of the Imam for his help or offering prayers for his soul. I
settle on the carpeted floor and watch the pilgrims prostrate, placing
their heads on little tablets of clay in the Shia fashion. I get
talking to a handsome young man who sits next to me. He recognizes me
as an Indian and says ‘Hello’. He tells me that he studies at a
college in Chandigarh and that he is back home for his summer
vacations. We bond immediately. He takes me out and insists I should
have an ice-cream. He pushes a packet of pistachios into my hand as we
exchange email addresses and depart.

Summers in Iran can be almost as unbearable as in India, I learn to my
surprise. Tehran in early September is almost as oppressively hot as
Delhi. I treat myself to two more ice creams to temporarily escape the
heat. I then seek refuge under a giant Chinar tree in a park opposite
the shrine, where numerous families are picnicking, an apparently
favourite Iranian pastime.

My guidebook mentions that the house that was used by the late Imam
Khomeini is not far from where I presently am. After I’ve relaxed for
an hour, I force myself up. I ask directions and am given directions
to a bus–stop from where I can get a vehicle to take me to where I
want to go. The traffic is thick and incessant, and I wait helplessly
to cross. Noticing my consternation, a man comes up to me, takes me
gently by the arm, flays his hands about at the advancing cars and
deposits me safely at the bus-stop across the road. He then wades his
way back through the traffic and waves out to me when he reaches the
other side.

Iranians, on the whole, are a very friendly and helpful people. Such
acts of courtesy as this I am to witness throughout my week-long stay
in the country. Each time this happens to me, my blood boils when I
think of the falsity of the venomous propaganda about Iran and its
people so sedulously cultivated by the Western and Indian media.

The bus drops me off at a crossing, and the driver indicates that I
must walk up a lane to get to the Imam’s residence. A few steps ahead
I stop and ask a woman driving a car where exactly to proceed.
Modestly clad, she seems to be in her early thirties. Sitting next to
her is an elderly woman, perhaps her mother. Two little girls,
probably her daughters, are in the rear seat.

To my pleasant surprise, the woman asks me to hop into the car and
offers to take me to where I want to go. I am overwhelmed by this
gesture of kindness—a woman offering a total stranger a lift in her
car. This would probably neither happen in India nor certainly in the
West.  So much for the media’s hate-Iran propaganda.

The Imam’s house is located in a lower middle class locality in north
Tehran. This was where he settled—a modest, indeed austere, two-roomed
tenement—after his triumphant return from exile in France in 1979
following the fall of the US-backed deadly dictator, Reza Pahlavi, the
Shah of Iran. The house is now a museum of sorts. Although visitors
cannot enter inside, one of its two rooms can be seen from the
outside. Hardly ten metres in length and in breath, the room contains
a simple cot, some little decoration pieces placed on an alcove and a
mirror. This is where, the guard on duty tells me, the Imam would meet
visiting dignitaries and from where he ran the affairs of the entire

Adjacent to the house is a Hussainiyah, a sort of mosque, where the
Ayatollah would deliver sermons and interact with members of the
public. ‘Imam Khomeini is a Reality that Shall Always Live’, announces
a banner in Farsi stretched across the wall. The basement of the
Hussainiyah now hosts a museum commemorating the Imam. It contains an
interesting collection of photographs depicting various scenes from
his life, some of his personal artifacts and even note books
containing his Sufi poetic creations etched in very delicate Persian

The friendly museum caretaker hands me a collection of works by the
Ayatollah in English and Urdu. It’s free of cost, he informs me when I
ask him how much I need to pay.

I depart from the museum, hoping to relax at a roadside coffee-shop,
but am informed by a friendly guard at the exit that there are none in
this locality. He indicates a kettle nestled on a stove kept on a
shelf in a nearby room that spews out little clouds of smoke. He hands
me a cup of delicious milk-less tea and we exchange a few Farsi/Urdu

I then make my way back to the hotel, nervous that I might have missed
my presentation, and dreading what might transpire if that has
actually happened.