I asked one driver about sanctions. On first appearances, they didn't seem to matter much. Shops were well-stocked. Long queues still formed in front of pricey restaurants. Elvis impersonators walked the streets with all their bling.
"Sanctions have only helped the rich become richer," he said. "They make more profits because excuse, sanctions. If they can't buy something here, they go holidaying in Europe to buy. Sanctions only kill us poor people. Like when Trump made that speech, next day Real was half in value. The shopkeepers increased price every few minutes. Nowadays, we can't get some important medicine. We can't afford food. That's what America, Arabs, and Israel want. They want Iranians to be poor."
A month after our trip, massive protests would break out across Iran over prices of petrol and other goods.
One driver said, "I am just waiting for my visa for Europe. Everybody you see on the street, that one that one, everyone is waiting for their visa. For me, it is already six months. Some complication. But it's ok. I'm Iranian. There has to be complication."
Some reports suggest that between 15-25% of Iranian graduates emigrated every year. Iranian talent has excelled overseas, from Dara Khosrowshahi, the CEO of Uber, to noted mathematician, Maryam Mirzakhani, to writer, Behrouz Boochani. But a particular breed of Iranian talent had largely stayed and flourished: the doctors. And among doctors, none were as revered as the plastic surgeons. When we first saw the abundance of young men and women walking the streets with bandaged noses, I had assumed that sporadic fights were breaking out from sanction-induced stress. But no, these were all aspirants to a straighter or shorter nose.
We didn't meet any nip/tuck maestro but kept running into doctors. Our quest to buy wet wipes—rare in Iran—,led us to a large hospital in Isfahan. The confused security guard took us to the emergency ward because there was a doctor who spoke English. The beds in the neon-lit room were soiled with big blood stains and moaning patients. When we apologized for our intrusion, Dr. Reza said,
"Don't worry, everyone here today will survive."
He took us to a small shop just outside and once we got the wipes, he offered to pay, a situation we avoided after much insistence.
The Tabriz-diaper incident had made us cleverer in handling such Iranian niceties or tarof. When it came to paying for the diapers we had bought in Tabriz, I got into a physical contest with Dr Anvarghighi from one of the universities. I eventually managed to overcome her and push through my debit-card to the shop owner. To my surprise, he said that it wasn't working. Dr Anvarghighi must have told him in Azeri Turkish to make such an excuse so she could pay finally. This was Iran.
Our last destination was the city of Qom, the headquarters of the clergy. Just like we had to explain to everyone outside Iran why we were visiting Iran, we had to explain to everyone inside Iran why we were visiting Qom.
"Qom, to see mullahs? There are so many nice places in Iran. Why?"
We had to hire a car from Isfahan to Qom because all buses had already been booked by Shia pilgrims from Pakistan who were traveling for the holy month of Muharram. I saw them wherever we stopped along the way, easily distinguishable with their knee-length full-sleeve shirts and baggy pants. They were moving in groups, small and large, with anxious eyes and hesitant steps. Persecuted in their Sunni-majority homeland, and occasionally murdered, they seemed to have carried their fears across the border. During one rest stop, our very friendly driver insisted on Lobo using the women's prayer room for changing Domki's diapers. Outside, I picked one pilgrim and spoke to him in Urdu. He replied in too servile a tone, perhaps taking me for an Iranian official.
"Yes Sir, we come from Karachi," he said. "See Sir, all of us have this green band on our sleeves. Sir, we went first to Mashhad, then Karbala, now going back via Qom. Yes Sir, it is a long and expensive journey. But what to do Sir, we believe. We must do it at least once in our life, no Sir?"
Once we looked above the throng of Pakistanis, we saw the sun reflected in the gleaming golden dome of the Fatimah Masumeh Shrine, one of the holiest sites for Shias. There were countless other domes and minarets too. Mosques, shrines, madrassas, and theological universities packed Shiite Islam closely into Qom.
Gradually we meshed into a slow-moving crowd, thousands of footsteps rustling along towards the entrance of Fatimah Masumeh Shrine. Giant statues of zanzeer (metal chains) that Shias use to flagellate themselves reminded us all of the suffering of Ali and his followers in the battle of Karbala.
Rules dictate that men and women have separate security screenings and that an official guide had to accompany non-praying tourists at all times. We had arrived on a busy day, so I had to wait till an English-speaking guide was free. The guards offered me a chair next to the X-ray belt. Soon I fell under a spell of hypnosis as visitors appeared one by one, got their bums and groins patted by the guards, and then walked out. They were all alike, scrubby Pakistani men, weary from the heat and travel, none seemingly rich, dressed uniformly. Yet, they were all different, some strong, some crippled, a few heavily ornamented. One of the guards kept dialing for an English speaking person.
The Head Guide showed up himself and took me inside. A massive crowd of Pakistani men and full-veiled women, all in black, had gathered. Lobo and our Qom guide Shima were almost unrecognizable, just the little ovals of their faces visible from the full length hijabs the shrine had made them wear. Shima had earlier said that despite Qom's conservative reputation, there was no need for a full chador. She herself didn't wear one. On Qom's streets and markets, it had been fine. But this was 'the' shrine.
We rushed from courtyard to courtyard, passing through throngs of devotees, barely hearing what the guide was saying in his pure American accent, "Fatimah Masumeh, sister of Imam Reza," "270 kilograms of gold on the dome," "beautiful Mirror Hall," "difference between shrine and mosque," "tyrannical rule of the Shah." There was movement all around us, kneeling, rising, moving, taking selfies, crying. Perhaps hundreds of thousands were present, sitting in small groups organized by villages or towns in Pakistan. A leader stood at the center of each group, reading passages from the war in Karbala. They described each arrow that flew that day, each thirst, each insult, each death. The leaders cried as they read. Everyone else cried. A hundred thousand pair of eyes dropped tears and grieved. I recalled what our friend, Professor Amir, had said, "The story of Ali moves us. Even people who are not religious are moved every time they hear it."
How could an incident more than 1,300 years old hold such power? Could there then ever be peace between the Shias and Sunnis?
Later I asked my Sunni friends about Shias. Budi, an Indonesian Sunni, said, "They have different praying habits and practices. Like they pray three times, we pray five times. So some Sunnis call them heretics and sometimes even attack them. Shias, meanwhile, think they are superior because they have more saints than us. Maybe they are more relaxed than us about religion but when it comes to Karbala or Muharram, they can still go crazy."
"Move, move," volunteers appeared from all directions inside Fatimah Masumeh shrine, pushing carts with stacked rolls of heavy carpets. It was time for prayers. A thousand carpets unrolled and spread on the floor with a thousand thuds. Swarms of the black veiled women and the long-shirted men folded over on these. This was not one of the several unpeopled mosques and shrines we had visited in Iran; this was the beating heart of Shia Islam.
We had to leave soon; other English-speaking guests were waiting for a guide. Ours helped carry Domki during the long walk out through the crowds. Once outside, Lobo took off her chador with much relish. As we walked back towards Shima's home, Lobo spilled out her experience of the shrine in one long gust.
"The female guards were angry, why no full hijab? Shima explained but they still looked angry. After I wore the chador they gave, I began to feel so hot. So suffocating. But they made us wait for the guide. Baby was crying. She needed milk. I was feeling very vulnerable. So many people were passing by in that small screening room, all fully in black. For the first time, I was surrounded by women so fully covered. I was so shocked. They looked so unapproachable."
"Then suddenly a hand came out, all wrinkled and dirty and it reached to caress baby's cheeks. I moved away; didn't let her touch."
We told the guards that I needed to breastfeed. One said so sternly that no, here there is CCTV. Then another said I can but to face away from the camera. I did that and Shima covered me. Then it was all very peaceful. Then I started thinking that I had been so rude to that woman who wanted to caress the baby. So many people in Iran have done that but it was only her that I refused. Was it because she looked poor and old?"
Throughout the trip, Lobo had been struggling with the veil, even though she was just covering a little of her hair and the neck as most young Iranian women seemed to be doing. She found it clumsy, a constant battle to keep it in place. It was hot. With time, her discomfort turned into outright anger as the piece of cloth converted into a giant unfair insult. I was also dressing conservatively in public. But a veil was different. More than a dress, it was a symbol with different meanings for different people. And as a man, I just couldn't imagine how Lobo might have felt wearing it. In my previous solo trip to Iran, I had largely ignored its forced existence on the women I saw and met. And in this trip, a staunch atheist like me had often reminded Lobo to keep the veil in place, becoming the voluntary guardian of this male-dominated theocracy.
Writers such as Nina Ansary have convincingly argued how the mandatory veil helped improve participation of women from conservative families in public life and education, the ones who would have otherwise stayed indoors. On the other hand, several women such as Yasaman Aryani have been sentenced to decades-long imprisonment and lashing for not wearing the veil in public.
Shima said, "Actually, I wanted to wear the veil earlier than was due. It was like a feeling of having grown up. My parents, especially my father, were very surprised. He said, 'Once you put it on, you have to keep wearing it. Are you sure?' Now he makes so much fun of me."
As we waited for the taxi to take us to Tehran airport, Domki romping around untethered on the carpet in Shima's house, I wondered if I would want her to grow up in such a system where she would lose her right to choose her dress and risk several lashes if she didn't comply. I thought of the never-ending generosity that we had encountered; wouldn't raising a child here be so joyful? But then I pictured that day when we would walk up to Domki with a veil and ask her to wear it for life. I couldn't continue further.
Shivaji Das is the author of several books including The 'Other' Shangri-la: Journeys through the Sino-Tibetan frontier in Sichuan. His writings and work with migrants have been published in journals TIME, The Economist, BBC, South China Morning Post, Reuters, and others. He has been featured in literary festivals in Botswana, Japan, Singapore, Malaysia, The Philippines, and India. He is from the north-eastern province of Assam in India and is presently working in Singapore as the Managing Director — APAC at Frost & Sullivan.
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