Ice cream for the soul

An eye-open­ing pil­grim­age into the heart of Iran

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Travel & Indulgence - JILL WOR­RALL

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.

TOM JELLETT

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