With a sense of panic I suddenly awake at 2:30 am. In just a matter of days I will be leaving Iran and heading for the Indian Subcontinent, and my soul is sad. For the past three years I have dreamt of exploring the country’s magnificent mosques, labyrinth bazaars and ancient archeological sites, and the last five weeks in the Islamic Republic have not disappointed. As I lay in bed, my mind races as I debate whether I should extend my 30-day tourist visa yet again, a surprisingly simple procedure that I have already done once while in Tehran. A second extension, while not as easy, would definitely be possible, thus allowing me to remain in the country for an additional two weeks.
Just a stone’s throw from my $3.75-a-night room at the spartan, but spanking clean, Tous Hotel stands the Imam Reza Holy Shrine in Mashhad, Iran’s most holy city. According to Shi’ites, 12 supreme holy leaders, imams, descended from the holy prophet of Mohammed, with Imam Reza, the eighth, being among the most important. It was in a small village on this spot in the 9th century where he was murdered, with his tomb quickly becoming a place of worship for Shi’ites worldwide. Pilgrims from around the globe flock to the city of Mashhad in eastern Iran, and last month alone over 11,000 foreign pilgrims visited this extensive religious complex, which consists of mosques, schools, research centers and religious offices.
At 4 o’clock that morning the muezzin’s call to prayer at the shrine breaks through the night’s silence. For the past two days I have been rudely awaken by his ear-piercing prayers, which my foam ear plugs prove defenseless against. But that morning, instead of rolling over and putting my pillow over my head, I spring out of bed and stand in front of the window.
A small, but steady, stream of worshipers makes its way to the shrine, and without even thinking, I scramble to get dressed. Female visitors to Iran must observe the hejab, a term referring to the proper Islamic female fashion code, and while in Iran I have been sporting what I term my poor-Polish-immigrant-just-off-the-boat look: a beige headscarf tied under my chin and a billowy beige coat, called a rouposh, which comes to just above my ankles. Many Iranian women, both old and young, wear a chador, literally meaning “tent,” an unwieldy cape, almost always black, that they enshroud themselves in and cinch closed with their hands or, when their hands are busy with babies, bags or the like, with their teeth.
Female foreigners, however, most often opt for the more manageable rouposh, which generally is long, but in recent reform-minded years sometimes reaches just to the knees. The only perk to wearing a rouposh is that it doesn’t matter what you look like underneath. And so that morning I wrap my headscarf around my rumpled hair and cover my long underwear and baby-blue tank top with my baggy coat. I then commit fashion’s most serious faux pas: I wear white socks and sport sandals.
The only thing stopping me from running out the door is that I need a chador, for all women, even if they are properly covered with a scarf and a rouposh, must don a chador when entering the shrine. For my earlier daytime visits I had borrowed the hotel cleaning lady’s chador, but it is now four in the morning and so I have to improvise.
With a quick tug, the white cotton sheet comes off of my twin-sized bed and – voila! – I have a chador. The sheet is only about half the size of a normal chador, and so as I dash out into the darkness, I do my best to cover myself with it as much as possible. With my hands tucked underneath the fabric, I clench it to my face and to my chest. Only my long underwear, socks and sandals are showing, as well as my still sleepy face.
Enshrouded in my bedsheet, I follow the flow of women to the special female-only entrance. There I open my sheet, exposing my long underwear and tank top, under which I haven’t even bothered putting on a bra, while a weary-looking woman thoroughly pats me down. Following a deadly 1994 bombing at the shrine security was severely tightened, resulting in body searches and the prohibition of all bags and cameras. Maybe I am being paranoid, but she seems perplexed by my appearance, and she then asks me where I am from. My hope is that she would think I am just an odd Muslim from another country, but without thinking I mumble “Am-er-ee-ka.” Her face breaks into a smile, and with a wave she welcomes me.
Non-Muslims visitors are restricted in their access to the complex, and during an earlier visit a female guide from the Office of Guidance for Foreign Visitors rapidly showed me where I could and could not venture. But once on my own I quickly lost my way, eventually stumbling into two courtyards, which I later found out were off-limits. I wouldn’t dare enter into the mosques or the golden-domed holy shrine itself, but once in the open courtyards, I didn’t see any harm, and so I stayed for a spell. That morning it is to the congested courtyards that I return.
As I step into the main courtyard, the call to prayer continues to cry out from the mosque’s minaret. Even though I had seen it before, as I stand there in the early morning hours, wrapped in my white bedsheet, it takes my breath away. Worshipers scurry across the courtyard into the mosque, with its segregated sections for men and women. Me, I plop myself down against a wall, sitting with my knees curled against my chest and my sheet completely covering me. And I watch.
I watch the bottoms of black chadors brush by me, I stare up at the stunning tiled minaret from which the muezzin is calling out to his fellow Muslims, and I glance up at the glistening tile work that surrounds me. In the wee hours of the morning the lit-up shrine sparkles like a priceless gem. With my eyes closed, I will every fiber of my body to remember the moment. And then I get teary-eyed. But only for a moment as the feeling passes as quickly as it came over me, and suddenly a stupid smile of pure, unadulterated bliss spreads across my face.
Near 4:30 the call to prayer picks up, and the courtyard empties out as people scramble into the mosque for the start of prayers. Within minutes I have the courtyard to myself, save for a few men who sleep soundly in the complex’s colorful corners and stragglers scurrying into the mosque.
With my head up and my heart happy, I aimlessly wander throughout the many courtyards and buildings that make up the massive complex. Through large, open glass doors, I spy men standing up and down as they follow the holy leader’s prayers, and behind a rich, green velvet curtain, the women worship. Non-Muslims are not allowed to enter mosques during prayers, and so I stand outside and take it all of it.
The worshipers’ prayers eerily echo into the courtyard and send shivers down my spine, and as I stroll the grounds I decide that never have I ever seen a more magnificent monument. My many travels have taken me throughout Europe and deep into the Middle East, but nothing could compare to the breathtaking beauty of the Imam Reza Holy Shrine this morning.
After about 30 minutes, prayers wrap up and hundreds of men and women silently stream out of the mosque. Daylight is slowing breaking; fatigue suddenly washes over me, so I follow them to an exit.
I had awoken two-and-a-half hours earlier filled with fear and sadness at the thought of leaving Iran. But as I step out of the shrine it is with a spring in my step. At first I am tempted to turn around for one last lingering look at the shrine’s golden minarets, but I don’t have to because I will recall the beauty and emotions of this morning for many years to come. My original plan was to say goodbye to the Islamic Republic with a lavish meal at one of the many traditional teahouses in which I had spent endless hours during my stay. But without planning it, I have just made peace with my impending departure from Iran, and am now ready and eager for the Indian Subcontinent.