Ice cream for the soul
An eye-opening pilgrimage into the heart of Iran
WE are pilgrims in the holiest city in Iran and we’re trying to finish our saffron-flavoured ice creams quickly so that we can enter the shrine complex. Mashhad, in northeastern Iran, manages to combine spirituality with just a whiff of English seaside resort.
Here it’s possible not just to recharge yourself spiritually but you can replenish household supplies of saffron, perfumes and prayer beads. In fact, you can shop until late and pray all night if you wish — Mashhad’s shrine to Imam Reza is open 24 hours a day, every day.
Imam Reza (Ali ibn Musa alRida) was the eighth Shia imam. Iranian Shias believe there are 12 imams, or leaders, who are direct descendants of the Prophet Mohammed’s cousin and son-inlaw Ali (who to Shias is the first imam). It is this core belief that separates them from the Sunni Muslims who dispute the right of Ali’s descendants to be Islam’s leaders. Instead, Sunnis believe that the prophet’s followers and friends were the rightful people to select his successor.
To them Ali is simply the fourth Islamic caliph or ruler. Incidentally, the 12th imam is also known to Shias as the absent or hidden imam, who will appear again in the days of judgment and resurrection. Imam Reza, a direct descendant of the Prophet Mohammed, was born in about AD765 in Medina. A charismatic man, he became the eighth imam when he was 35.
Shia Muslims believe he was poisoned by a rival spiritual leader, Caliph Ma’mun, in about AD818. His burial site (known as Mashhad, or place of martyrdom) quickly became a pilgrimage site, and today it’s the most important in Iran. He is the only one of the 12 imams to be buried in modernday Iran. More than 14 million Shias from all over the world visit it every year. Along with the shrine itself, the vast precinct contains religious schools, mosques, libraries and museums.
Mashhad, with its pilgrims and glittering shrines, is not actually the start of my 8000km journey around Iran following the routes plied by the caravans of old, but it represents the beginning of my love for Iran and my first steps on its soil.
Its significance is intensified for me because it is also close to the place where I met Reza for the first time — a meeting that has led to a lasting and deep friendship.
When Reza brought me here that first time, I’d been in Iran less than 12 hours and was floundering in a sea of the unfamiliar. My memories of that visit include being refused entry to the shrine precinct by a wizened elderly lady on duty at the women’s security gate. ‘‘Muslim?’’ she inquired.
On my reply, she waved me imperiously out the way I’d come. I’d felt unaccountably inadequate and had to summon Reza back from the land of the believers to sort things out. Non-Muslims are allowed into the massive shrine precinct; it’s the inside of the shrine itself that is forbidden.
As we walk towards the shrine on this second visit, we reminisce about Reza’s remonstration with the guards from the other side of the thick Persian carpet that hangs down over the entrance to the women’s checkpoint.
‘‘The problem,’’ says Reza, ‘‘is that people from all over Iran and of all ages and backgrounds volunteer to work at the shrine. They do it to show their love for Imam Reza but sometimes they do not know the proper regulations, although they can be very enthusiastic about the rules.’’
We stop outside the ice-cream shop. Reza orders saffronflavoured cones. Along with its spiritual importance to Shias, Mashhad is the centre of saffron production and many of the shops that line the main thoroughfares leading to the shrine are stocked with packets and j ars of the dried squiggly anthers of the crocus flower. Taking saffron home to family and friends is a pilgrimage tradition.
Although it’s after 10pm, the footpath is crammed with people. Tiny stores festooned with strings of prayer beads, blue evil-eye pendants and posters of Imam Ali and other religious heroes are doing a roaring trade. There are street vendors, too; we pass four young men, their arms encircled with a dozen watches, while nearby a man has attracted an attentive audience as he unwraps a roll of sparkling headscarves.
About 100m in front of the shrine the road transforms into a roundabout. Traffic is careering around it — cars merging with the flow with just centimetres to spare while pedestrians dart through the chaos. Reza prepares to launch us into the maelstrom of speeding metal.
‘‘Just stay beside me and keep moving. I can’t take your arm because it is not customary here,’’ he says with a faint trace of irony.
Apparently, the authorities would rather I was flattened by a pilgrims’ bus than risk any physical contact between unrelated men and women. We dodge between car bumpers, seemingly invisible to the vehicles’ drivers. It’s up to us to avoid them, not the other way round.
Close to the shrine two long pedestrian ramps lead to the main gates. The ramps are separated by a vehicle underpass that is choked with traffic travelling right under the holy site. It’s only at the top of the ramp that I remember I have not brought a chador with me. Without the all-encompassing piece of fabric I won’t be going any further than the gate.
I am wearing hijab, but my Iranian manteau (a mid-thighlength light coat) and headscarf are not sufficient here. It would take us an hour to make the round trip to the pilgrims’ hotel where we are staying. Reza stands, thoughtfully stroking his chin, then suddenly makes a run for the security booth at the top of the ramp.
Reza’s style of running is one of his many endearing characteristics. It’s the Irish dancing equivalent of running: while Reza’s lower half runs, his upper body stays almost motionless.
He glides to a stop outside the booth and begins a conversation with the guard. At one point, Reza turns around and points in my direction and they both contemplate the unsuitability of my attire. The guard disappears from view but returns straight away with a cloth bundle that he hands to Reza.
‘‘What a kind man,’’ Reza says. ‘‘He has lent this to you. Can you remember how to put it on?’’ He unfurls the sprigged blue cotton and almost completely circular chador. Last time I was here we had to stop a woman passer-by to help me don the garment. Working out the intricacies of a chador is not something Iranian males get much practice in. But this time I’m determined not to have to ask for help.
I hold the chador out behind me and let it drop over my head, gather up a handful of fabric in my left hand and catch the edge on the right side with the same hand and grip it tight under my chin. This frees up my right hand for keeping the rest of the chador from gaping lower down. But, of course, now both myhands are occupied, my shoulder bag promptly starts sliding down one arm.
Satisfied I have the chador mostly under control, Reza checks for any sign of escaping hair. My hair is thick, blonde, unruly and unused to being tamed. It’s always trying to make a break for it from the confines of my headscarf. So far it’s behaving.
We head for the gates — Reza to the men’s security check, I to the women’s. I’m nervous; I don’t want to be rejected again. I haul back the thick carpet over the entrance and step in. This time it’s a young woman in her early 20s sitting there behind a wooden table. I open my chador to uncover my bag and she leaps to her feet. I’m going to be evicted.
She walks around to my side of the table, reaches up with both hands and rearranges my chador. ‘‘Welcome,’’ she says. This is an edited extract from Two Wings of a Nightingale: Persian Soul, Islamic Heart by Jill Worrall (Exisle Publishing, $29.99). Also available as an e-book; exislepublishing.com.au.