Praying to Mahdi
I write my wish on the official slip and let it
twirl down to the bottom of the well. A cool breeze arises
August 18, 2003
The six of them attended my Microsoft
classes some nine months ago. I used to be their age, living in
Iran. I suppose they have come to like me now because I tell
them about the old days, joke around, and because I told them
at the beginning of the term to relax and not address me as Doctor-Mohandes.
I remember the first day I walked in with my backpack,
they all stood up. I was touched but out of my element. I was initiated
into American casualness at the age of nine. When I attended college
classes at Columbia, some students put their legs up on the front
seat even while Brzezinski was lecturing. Today, my Tehran students
refuse to cross the doorway unless I go through first. They have
silently and patiently taught me to respect the Persian culture
and just let things be. So be it.
One of my students, Massoud, is twenty-six; for
the past four years he has worked with his dad. His dad used to
work for Ottis before
the Revolution. Afterward, Mr. Esfahani established his own elevator
and electric stairway consulting firm. Massoud and his father are
hikers and often camp high in the Zagross Mountains. The boy has
neither the money nor the legal possibility of immigrating to the
West. So, he has decided to leap into the unknown and attend university
in Bangalore, India.
Sara calls me to invite me to Massoud's good-bye
tea party. She is twenty-four, very grounded in Iran; she doesn't
want to leave,
not even for college. Her grandfather, a holy man in Mashad with
many devotees, recently passed away. They served several hundred
pots of rice to the needy during the seven days of mourning. Sara's
father studied engineering in India,and now he runs a sand and
gravel plant in the desert plains of Lorestan. The family has invited
me down when I get the chance to go.
I do want to say farewell to Massoud, so I take
my friend Shadi with me to the Milad Tower hovering about the trendy
first four floors of the tower are packed with crowded stores.
Most of the Westernized clothing is imported from Turkey. One floor
is wholly dedicated to jewelry and Swiss watches. I am not sure
who buys Patek Phillipes at an exchange rate of 820 Tomans to a
Dollar, but there are three under the spotlight. On the third floor
I am browsing Persian-made pots and pans, when my eyes become fixated
on a Harley Davidson mug. Outside that store, the owner is selling
battery powered scooters. Two college girls talk on their mobiles
as they pass by a lingerie shop and a music store displaying electric
guitars -- there is a perfect Gibson Les Paul look-alike marked
with the Arian brand.
Onward, we climb to the fifth floor, where we finally
spot our party at the Galaxy Coffee Shop. The windows are etched
of the Zodiac and Japanese calligraphy. On the black bar, sits
a Pentium laptop playing Leonard Cohen's "I'm Your Man". There
are wine glasses hung upside down from the rack above the bar --
is no visible sign of wine. Some of the college girls are so tightly
packed into their Islamic manteaux, that the overcoats might well
explode at the first sneeze.
My students are welcoming. Shahnaz
is the daughter of the pre-Revolution Panasonic dealer. Her father
moved the family to LA during the
turmoil; he succeeded there before dying of a heart attack. She
lived in the West for eighteen years; and now, she is back studying
hotel management at an Irish-sponsored university in Tehran. Like
so many, she is trying to reclaim confiscated wealth. She is a
busy fireball always juggling several projects; she speaks Farsi
with an American accent but is well adjusted to this society. Her
boyfriend, Rassoul has never been abroad. He is taking Microsoft
classes and hanging in limbo, waiting to see what happens to his
Sanam and Nahal are also in limbo. They have been
taking private lessons for the concour (nation-wide college
for the past three years. They hesitate to take the test because
they want to be certain that they are accepted in their field and
location of choice. If you score low in your preferred field, let's
say architecture at Tehran University, you could wind up studying
animal husbandry in Zanjan.
Sara has brought her younger sister along, she watches
the little one like a hawk.
Mr. Naficy, there are two crooked girls
who have begun hanging around Nasrine. My mother and I are really
What do you mean, crooked?
We are pretty sure they are prostituting in high-school.
One of them arrives at our doorstep in a different man's car
The other keeps trying to drag my sister to one of those ecstasy
What's an ecstasy party?
You know, the pill
that makes you feel like you're flying. Anyways, my mother and
I are not letting those two girls near our home.
Nasrine is pretty upset but someday she will understand why we
are reacting this way. Normally, I wouldn't be so harsh, but when
I was her age, plenty of girlfriends, addicts and prostitutes,
tried to get me into their game. Something about human nature,
I guess; when you're down, you try to drown a friend with you.
Out of the bunch, Massoud is the first who is cutting
the cord and moving on with his personal dreams. He is scared;
this is the
first time he is leaving home. He comes from a religious family,
and they are close-knit family.
I ask him, How was your trip to Mecca?
was a lot of energy like I experience in my silent meditation.
You know, when you are amongst 100,000 praying from
their hearts, the energy just swirls around and eventually penetrates
you. I did not like a lot of the Hajis who seemed insincere and
just there to show off their wealth, but for every one of them,
there were a hundred shedding tears for Allah.
an assortment of raisin cake, ice cream, and Crème
Caramelle. There are at least eight kinds of coffee on the
menu. In the past two years, gourmet coffee shops have sprouted
We end the get-together after an hour, and I offer to take three
of my students home. One is on his mobile setting the other two
up for blind dates. I press on the brake in front of the optometrist.
My knee aches as I press, and Shadi jumps out to pick up her bifocals.
In the back there are giggles, then, quietude. The yellow moon
of Tehran, Carbon fume flowing out of exhaust pipes, and motorcycles
weave in and out like flies. For this moment I feel old, unacknowledged
by time. I tell the whispering shadows about my days when I was
handsome, played guitar, and made the petro-dollar beauties cry
with "Leaving on a Jet Plane" and "Suzanne".
When I take Shadi home,
she proposes, I am going to Qom tomorrow. Do you want to
Why not? After all I have never been there and have
never visited the mosque where the faithful come to pray to Imam
Zaman -- Mahdi the Messiah, the last Shiite saint who vanished
in a well.
heart of every Shiite that Imam Mahdi will return some
Are we traveling alone?, I ask Shadi.
No, Agha Yahya
and Nadia are coming along to renew their Persian visa.
Shadi is a skilled fashion designer
who sculpts Channels and Diors right out of fashion magazines.
Two years ago, she
met Agha Yahya
in a handicraft store. Yahya and his wife Nadia are Afghan
refugees who fled the Taliban. He is a medical doctor
sewing skirts in
Tehran. They live in a poor part of town and Nadia bides
her time in their apartment awaiting the return or her cousin,
husband, and high-school sweet heart. Yahya's bus ride from
House to the apartment takes two hours.
Two months ago, the Afghani couple's lives began
to take a series of quick turns. After the Taliban lost power,
took a leave
of absence to visit his ancestral home in Kabul. The American
safekeeping forces were present but the home of his childhood
had fallen into
dirt. Hungry vandals had even dug up the pipes and power
and bartered them for bread. Yahya squatted amidst the
ruin whispering a farewell to Afghanistan. A neighbor girl ran
over and told
him Nadia is calling from Iran.
Yahya, we have an immigration interview at the Canadian
Embassy in three days. Do whatever it takes, but get yourself
Three days later, the Canadian Government approved
the couple's application for immigration. Yahya is excited and
eager to join his two brothers in Toronto and help out with
stand. Shadi has come to depend strongly on Yahya's sewing
skills. These days, her soul is torn between well-wishing
for a dear
friend and concern about finding Yahya's replacement.
The three of them pick me up at 7:30, thursday morning.
Tehran is already simmering like a samovar. The six-lane
to Qom is seething with mushy asphalt. The landscape
except for hills decorated with slogans -- Hail
to Imam Reza; Buy an Emerson side-by-side freezer
for your bride; This is
the home of the 88th Army Infantry.
Off in the
horizon, I gaze at the vast salt lake (Daryacheh Namak).
One man recounted, Persia was an ocean before
When it dried up, all the salt receded to the deepest
part of the ocean
floor -- that, my friend, is now our great salt lake.
few kilometers, standing on the side of the road, is a deeply
tanned banana vendor holding a cardboard
bunch. The bananas boast the Chiquita brand.
traveling fast and arrive in the holy city of Qom in two hours.
Yahya goes off to pay his passport
Shadi, Nadia, and I wait for him at a pastry store.
We order cool, pistachio-colored melon juice (Ab
The son of the store owner is watching a Robin
Hood cartoon dubbed in Farsi. I gaze at
the faces on the
There are Mullahs
everywhere. Many of them have slanted, Turkmen
I ask the store owner if he has a restroom.
Over there, he points at the mosque across
the street. It's open to the public twenty-four
hours a day.
I make my way across the street and pause to
read a poster pasted on the mosque tiles. There is a picture of
his biceps and snarling like an animal. The header says, Emperor
Club. We offer classes in Karate, Judo, and clarity of mind.
Next to the mosque is a bookstore displaying its bestsellers.
men wearing black shirts leaf through a paperback-- How to
Communicate with God.
Across the street is the Al Zahra Optician.
There is a poster of Arnold Schwarzenegger sporting aerodynamic
it, the picture of a revolutionary leader peers down in disapproval.
Another little store catches my sight. The owner maintains
and sells antique Singer sewing machines, complete with oak
to hold needle and thread. Shadi passionately turns the wheel,
and the rhythmic clack takes each of us back to our childhood
Back at the pastry shop, Yahya is waiting, eager
to show up with his bank receipt before the passport clerk retires
prayers. We complete the task at hand. It is time to pay
respects to the Messiah Mahdi. We follow the signs to the holy
At high noon in July, there are at least two hundred cars
parked near the mosque complex. These are not ritzy cars -- Paykans,
vans, taxis, buses, and mopeds.
The entrance, a roofed pavilion with no walls, casts
its graceful shade on weary travelers. The pilgrims are lying
down on straw
mats and heavy blankets; their samovars are steaming. The
more fortunate ones chew on goat cheese wrapped in Taftoon
A little boy of six sits next to his sleeping brother and
father. He is staring into oblivion, perhaps waiting for
We make our way to the holy well. The mosque
officials charge us 20 Tomans for a slip of paper on which we
write our wish
granted by the vanished saint. Instructions on the back
guide seekers on how one should request a favor from
By the well,
everyone is quiet and pensive. The only sound is that
of the public address system.
A mosque official speaks,
Dear Moslem brothers
and sisters, we ask that you please shut off your mobile phones
other request to our brothers; the sisters at the Southeast
corner of the mosque
are complaining that the young brothers are
casting impure looks at the sisters. Brothers, please
return to the men's corner as soon as possible.
I write my wish on the official slip and let it
twirl down to the bottom of the well. A cool breeze arises
An old man sits by the well, thumbing his prayer
beads. His eyes are watery as he prays for the
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