PART I – Since your love became my calling

The last two months of school were over before we knew it. We were ordered by our teachers to tear out the first pages of our schoolbooks, the ones containing portraits of the Shah and the Royal Family, and to burn them in the school yard. Other pages relating stories of the Shah and his kindness were to be dealt with in the same way. Two of the three TV channels had been shut down. Since most of the station’s staff had been sacked and there had been as yet no time for restructuring, the one remaining channel broadcast for only three hours a day and its repertoire consisted almost entirely of news bulletins, recitations from the Quran and revolutionary songs.

At the beginning of the summer, when Mum finally got her high-school diploma and was admitted to an undergraduate course in nursing, we moved to a larger house with a swimming pool in North Tehran. The only reason dad could afford the rent was that the owner of the house had fled Iran for fear of being arrested as a collaborator with the Shah’s regime and he had been looking for a decent family to take care of the belongings he was leaving behind in the cellar. That house, with its swimming pool and large garden full of fruit trees, marked a new period in my life: for a while, at least, I was happy. It was also during this summer that I met Imam Khomeini.

Madar, who wanted to help me forget the tragedy of Azadeh, believed I should stay with her in the city of Qom for a while. But dad disagreed. While Madar believed religion would help me endure the pain better, dad believed that family rather than religion should be my source of strength. Then Madar played her trump card: if I went with her to Qom, she would take me to meet Imam Khomeini. This was an offer I could not resist; it would silence my classmates forever. And I had a most important request for the Imam.

Dad finally agreed to let me go with Madar. We set off very early in the morning to avoid the intolerable summer heat. We changed buses twice before we reached Tehran’s South Bus Terminal where we bought two tickets for Qom. Madar bought a sandwich and a drink for me, and we were on our way.

Between Tehran and Qom lies a desert, a yellow sandscape that extends in every direction until it meets the cloudless blue sky. Buses then did not have air-conditioning; as soon as the sun came up, everyone began to perspire and had to fan themselves. It was the day before Ramadan and everyone was in a state of high excitement at the thought of beginning the month of fasting in the Holy City of Qom. Every so often, someone would shout: ‘Salawat for the health of Imam Khomeini!’ or ‘Salawat for the health of the driver!’ or ‘Salawat for your own health!’ Salawat may be loosely translated as ‘blessings’ but it actually refers to a specific kind of prayer that is very important to the Shiites. Whenever someone shouted ‘Salawat’, all the passengers followed it with ‘Oh God, let your blessings be upon Muhammad and his family.’ The Sunnis only use the first part; they do not mention Muhammad’s family for they do not believe in the transmission of sanctity from father to son. This is the source of a major conflict between the Shiites and the Sunnis.

When the Prophet Muhammad died in Ad632, a dispute broke out over his successor. Those who were to become the Shiites—the followers of Ali—believed that, shortly before his death, Muhammad had publicly named Ali, his son-in-law and cousin, as his successor and the first Muslim Caliph. Those who went on to become the Sunnis claimed that Muhammad had never nominated a successor. As Ali was arranging the Prophet’s funeral, another group met to choose Abu-Bakr, the Prophet’s father-in-law and one of his closest companions, as Caliph. Since then, the followers of the Prophet have been divided into the Shiites, who believe Ali was the successor chosen by God, and the Sunnis, who believe the Caliph should be chosen by the elite. The Shiites, especially the Twelver Shiites, believe that Ali and the 11 descendants of Muhammad (the Imams) through his daughter Fatima Zahra and Ali carried the true legacy of the Prophet; that they were immaculate like the Prophet and that they remain the true governors of the Muslim world. According to the Shiites, the direct descendants of the Prophet should be venerated and be paid the highest respect. A male descendant is known as sayyed(‘Master’ or ‘Lord’) and a female is known as sayyedeh, and they represent a form of Islamic aristocracy.

Our family is part of this group and my father is designated ‘Sayyed Jalal’ rather than merely ‘Jalal’ on any of his Id. But, being a sceptic, he refused to use the title when registering my name. It wasn’t even an Iranian title, he was quick to point out, but an Arab one.

Khomeini was a sayyed and this lineage nourished the prophecy-stricken minds of the public who had been waiting for more than a thousand years for a son of the Prophet to come forth and shake the pillars of earthly tyranny. Not surprisingly, and unlike dad, being a sayyedeh meant a lot to Madar. The title confers a certain authority and people would, by and large, trust those who bore it. She believed that as true carriers of the Prophet’s blood as well as Ali’s, we had a responsibility to be there for our people, to care for them and to help them when they were in need.

Many years later, after the extraordinary success of Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code, my wife Maryam asked me to tell her the story; she didn’t have time to read it herself. I explained that the author claimed that Jesus Christ had not been celibate; that he had fathered a child, whose bloodline still existed and that the mythical Holy Grail represented this bloodline. Maryam laughed and said, ‘Really? That’s what it’s all about? He’s simply introducing the concept of sayyed into Christianity! That too at the beginning of the twenty-first century when even we have begun to rid ourselves of these superstitions!’

The sayyeds were granted the right to use a green shawl or hat as a mark of their unique lineage, green being the colour of the Prophet’s family. It was the colour Mir-Hussein Mousavi, also a sayyed and one of the supposedly ‘unsuccessful’ candidates at the 2009 presidential election, chose for his campaign. Rapidly taken up by his followers, it turned into a symbol of the protest that rose up against the electoral fraud and which was later transformed into a general call for democracy. According to Shiite believers, green reflects the true nature of Islam—peace and prosperity—and thus was chosen as the symbol of this concept 1,400 years before the foundation of Greenpeace, dedicated to environmental activism.

The only exception to this ‘wearing of the green’ was among the mullahs: mullahs who were sayyeds used a black turban to distinguish themselves from the others who wore white.

This was how Madar began my initiation into the Shiite faith through the stifling heat of that long journey across the endless desert. But it helped to take my mind off the mirage of a distant sea on the horizon that constantly appeared and disappeared. We passed a large whiteness in the desert which Madar told me was the Salt Lake, a small lake surrounded by a thick layer of salt left from Tethys, the ocean that had covered Iran around 90 million years ago. This white field and the frequent ‘Salawats’ of the passengers were to be our only distractions on the road; hence my attentiveness to Madar’s stories on the way.

After two hours of that brutal journey, a change in the scenery was greeted by joyous shouts and incessant ‘Salawats’: the Golden dome had appeared on the horizon, a tangible replacement for the recurrent illusion of the sea. This, I realized, was the highlight of the pilgrimage: the travellers had endured the heat, the boredom, the bumpy road and the alarming noises of the coach’s engine just for this glimpse of the Golden dome of Holy Masoumah. We had arrived!

A few years later, when the motorway between Tehran and Qom was opened, the journey became much shorter and easier, especially as the coaches and cars were now air-conditioned and there were more service stops on the way. But this modernization seemed to take away the magic of that first glimpse of the Golden dome long before one actually arrived at Qom. Today, Qom has become a large city; even when you stand in the heart of town, you have to search for signs of the holy shrine and its golden dome.

Madar lived in a room rented from an old lady who had a house with a small garden. The old lady lived alone and each evening one of her many children would pay her a visit. She had let out the room to Madar for a very low rent in return for her company. The house was only five minutes from the Haram or shrine of Holy Masoumah; so after lunch and an afternoon nap the first thing we did was set off on a visit.

Holy Masoumah was the sister of the eighth Shia Imam, Imam Reza, one of the most respected Imams who is now buried in Mashad in eastern Iran. She began her long journey from Medina in the Arabian Peninsula to her brother in Mashhad but fell ill on the way and died in Qom inAd816 when she was only 18 and still a virgin. Her tomb became one of the most venerated pilgrimage sites for the Shiites and one of the most prestigious religious schools was founded in Qom in her honour, turning it into one of the most important religious centres in the Shia world alongside Najaf and Karbala in Iraq.

It was a long time before I fully understood her importance; it seemed to me that she had done nothing special to deserve such veneration. But many years later, during my studies of Iranian mythology, I finally understood. ‘Masoumah’ in Arabic can be translated as ‘the Immaculate One’, just like the name of the ancient Iranian goddess Anahita, an idea that may have lent itself to the concept of the Immaculate Conception. Anahita was the goddess of water—springs, rivers and seas—and associated with fertility, healing and wisdom. The peoples of the deserts and wastelands, who were particularly devoted to her, built shrines to encourage her to bless their lands with water. Legend has it that Qom once held a shrine to Anahita; it was rededicated to and renamed in honour of Masoumah to prevent the Arab conquerors from destroying the shrine or banning worship there. This was only one of the many Islamic masks that the Iranians put on their ancient traditions and holy places to prevent their destruction by the Arabs who sought to demolish every remnant of the pre-Islamic civilization of Iran. In South Tehran, for example, an Anahita temple atop a mountain was renamed ‘Mount of Bibi Shahrbanoo’, Imam Hussein’s wife, and the tomb of the Iranian Emperor Cyrus the Great in Pasargad was renamed ‘Tomb of Prophet Solomon’s Mother’.

None of this was of the slightest interest or concern to those zealous believers who went every evening to visit the shrine and to pay their respects to Holy Masoumah, including Madar. There were hundreds of people there, perhaps even more than a thousand, preparing for the month of fasting by asking the saint to purify their souls and intercede on their behalf with God so that He would accept them in the month of his feasts, which was what Ramadan was usually called: the Feast of God. I, however, could never understand why people were not allowed to eat or drink anything during God’s feast.

Almost half the crowd comprised clerics or students at the religious school of Qom on their way to becoming mullahs. I was hoping to see Imam Khomeini there but Madar disappointed me by saying that he had more important things to do at the moment. However, another Grand Ayatollah was present and people were waiting in queues for a chance to kiss his hand. (It was Ayatollah Shariatmadari, whose rank among the Shiite clergy was by no means lower than Khomeini’s.) I, too, joined the queue for the privilege of kissing his hand, for privilege it seemed to me then. He was one of the clergy who, in 1963, declared Khomeini a Grand Ayatollah to prevent the Shah from executing him: the judiciary did not have the authority to execute, or even imprison, a Grand Ayatollah.

When it was my turn to kiss the old man’s hand, I felt just a little disappointed. I had expected a personality with eyes as piercing as those of Imam Khomeini. But this was just an old man, sitting there with his hand extended, indifferent to the kisses bestowed upon it by the people. I bent and kissed his hand and walked away towards Madar who was waiting for me, both excited and envious for women were not allowed this show of affection. How could I have known that Ayatollah Shariatmadari was now one of the most prominent critics of Khomeini? That he claimed Khomeini’s idea on the Rule of the Jurisprudent to be completely against Shiite ideology? In three years’ time, he would be arrested, beaten and dismissed from his rank of Grand Ayatollah on the orders of the very man to whom he had given the title 15 years earlier. He died while still under house arrest in 1986.

Madar took me inside the shrine. It was a huge building with three gigantic prayer halls, in the centre of which stood the burial chamber, confined in a golden cage. An opening above the cage allowed people to throw in money, offerings to ensure an answer to their prayers. It was almost sunset and everyone was waiting for the sound of the azan, the call to prayer.

Although I am not a religious person, the sound of the azan has always fascinated me. There I was, standing in the middle of the huge courtyard, watching people doing the wuzu—the Islamic pre-prayer ablutions—when thousands of white doves landed on the golden dome of the shrine and turned it white. The sun had disappeared; the sky had turned crimson and flung red and yellow shadows on the scattered clouds when the first words of the azan suddenly echoed in the air, inviting people to collective prayer: ‘Allah-o Akbar, La Ilah a Illallah.’

Madar stood among the women and said her prayers. I didn’t know how to pray, so I stood a little way off, near the pool, watching the birds.

Praying was another thing I was going to learn during my stay in Qom.

Meeting Imam Khomeini had been my only reason for coming to Qom with Madar and I kept asking her about it. ‘We have to wait for Mustafa, the landlady’s son, to show up first,’ she said. He was a volunteer who had joined the newly founded Revolutionary Guard and had many friends in Khomeini’s household. While we waited for his visit, Madar and the old lady took on the task of my Islamic training, of which praying and fasting were the most difficult aspects. Praying involved my memorizing a lot of Arabic words that meant nothing to me despite Madar’s efforts at explaining. I wondered why we had to pray in Arabic and not in Persian; if God knew everything, surely he must know all the languages. But Madar explained that Islam was not an individual religion; it was a religion that united mankind, and prayers, especially collective prayers, were a symbol of this unity in which no race or colour enjoyed any advantage. Muslims have to pray to God in a common language and, as Allah had spoken to his Prophet in Arabic, Muslims offered their prayers in that language. So in Mecca, when millions of people from around the world join in prayer, they all pray in the same language: a remarkable demonstration of unity. Years later, I realized that Muslims, despite their common language of prayer, are far from being unified. Exactly a year after this trip to Qom, Iraq attacked Iran and the two Muslim nations slaughtered one another for eight years, both in the name of Islam.

The fasting aspect was more challenging, although the rules were simpler: don’t eat or drink anything; don’t tell any lies; don’t swear; and don’t hurt anyone between sunrise and sunset. Not swearing and not lying were easy but not eating or drinking for 15 hours for a nine-year-old stuck in the summer heat of that desert city was an entirely different matter. I was therefore allowed to practice ‘Sparrow-head Fasting’. I would fast from sunrise till noon; then I would have lunch and fast again till the evening. A gentler version of the adult fast, this is designed to encourage children to participate in the fasting month. For me, even this was a serious challenge.

We were not supposed to tell lies or swear during the month of fasting; were we then allowed, I asked Madar, to do so during the rest of the year? She smiled and replied that human beings are creatures led by the twin drives of anger and self-protection. Swearing is a natural way of releasing anger, and lying is an instinctive attempt at self-defence. However, these instincts belong to the lower regions of the human soul and we have to learn to overcome them through this month of spiritual discipline.

As I had nothing else to do, I learnt how to pray and began to practise my fasting skills.