Honolulu is home now - among other homes
February 9, 2000
The ancient Sufi masters believed that life is a spiritual journey through
seven cities: Search, Love, Knowledge, Astonishment, Fulfillment, Riches,
and Poverty (or Union). In his allegorical poem, Conference
of the Birds, Attar (d. 1229) dramatized the journey into the story
of a flock of birds in search of Simorgh, the mythological phoenix.
The birds start out by choosing Hud Hud as their leader. As the most
spiritual of the birds, he knows where Simorgh lives. Hud Hud thus leads
them on through an arduous journey from city to city, to new heights. Each
city is named after the seven cities of the Sufi path. At each city, a
number of birds fall off by the wayside. Tired of the rigors of the journey,
many birds refuse to move on by offering their own ingenious and at times
At last, the flock reaches the seventh city high in the mountains. There
are, in fact, only a few birds left. To be exact, only thirty birds or
si-morgh in Persian. As they look around in search of Simorgh, they only
rediscover themselves, their own community, their own si-morgh (or Thirty
Birds). They ARE the Phoenix, the mythical bird.
I live in Honolulu. But my journey began in Mashhad, Iran, where I was
born eons ago. Today as I listened to the murmur of the rain falling on
rooftops, looking out my window at the misty Diamond Head and the roaring
Pacific beyond, a feeling of nostalgia set in. I was banished to paradise
in 1981 to stay here only for a year. Life' s mysterious design had brought
and kept me here. It is home now, among other homes - Mashhad, Tehran,
Hanover, Cambridge, Oxford, Paris, and now Honolulu - seven cities in all.
I had wandered from city to city as a migrating bird. But I had no destination
in mind. The journey was the thing.
I was born in Eastern Iran, in the Shi'a holy city of Mashhad - a world
apart from the hustle and bustle of the Western industrial world. At a
time that horses and buggies were the main transports, kerosene lamps the
main source of lighting, and children obedient and respectful. By Christian
reckoning, the time was 1937 Anno Domino. By Islamic reckoning, it was
1315 After Hijirae (Exodus). Same time, but 622 years apart.
That accounts for the fact that Christians consider the birth of Jesus,
the Son of God, as the beginning of history. Muslims view the decisive
point in history as when, in 622 AD, Prophet Muhammad and his band of followers
took an exodus from Mecca to establish God's first Islamic kingdom on earth
in the city of Madina. Since time is a figment of our human imagination
to punctuate our fragility, finitude, and frailty, we may consider the
Christian-Islamic quarrel about the beginning of history of minor importance.
Mashhad, meaning literally the place of martyrdom, was founded around
Imam Reza's shrine in the 9th century AD (770-819). He was the eighth of
the twelve Imams in line of succession after Prophet Muhammad's cousin
and son-in-law Ali, who is claimed by Shi'a Muslims to have been designated
by the Prophet Muhammad as his rightful successor. The glittering, golden
dome of his mausoleum dominated the city. It was a magnate that drew all
the faithful to its bosom.
At dawn, noon, and dusk, the drummers in the minarets announced the
passing cycle of time. Following the drummers, the mu'azzins (Muslim chanters
in the minarets of the mosques) called the faithful to prayer. They started
each call to prayer by chanting Allah-u-Akbar. God is Great, God is Great,
God is Great, three times sung in a melodious voice. It left no doubt in
the mind of the believers.
From all four corners, the crowds responded by swarming the huge courtyards
of the holy shrine of Imam Reza. They washed their hands, faces, and feet
at the round pools centered at the courtyards. They stood then at prayer
facing the dome. The rhythm of the faithful in prayer was an awesome sight.
Beneath that blue sky with the white pigeons flying about the dome, thousands
of people from all over, all walks of life were standing in prayer towards
They bowed, prostrated, sat, and stood up again, in a symphony of faith.
They murmured the mystifying Arabic words in unison. At dusk, the sun was
going down, the pigeons were resting on the sides of the pool, the faithful
were done with their prayers. The air was cool and breezy. Nature and humanity
appeared at harmony. A peace of the spirit reigned over the fury of the
Imam Ali became the fourth Caliph (Successor) of Islam and is regarded
by the Sunni Muslims, the majority sect, as one of the first four Rightly
Guided Caliphs (khulaf al-rashidun). But the Shi'a, meaning literally the
"partisans" of Ali, became a persecuted minority from the start,
championing moral righteousness and other lost causes. From time to time,
those in power toyed with them. As direct descendants of the Prophet, they
could bring some legitimacy to government. But as pretenders to the thrown
of righteousness, they were a nuisance.
Imam Reza was a case in point. He was asked by Mamun, the Abbasid Caliph,
to become his viceroy. He was subsequently sent to the ancient city of
Tus, the capital of Khorasan, as the governor of that province. Khorasan
had, in fact, played a key role in a revolution that brought the Abbasid
dynasty to power in Baghdad. Mamun owed the Iranians a debt of gratitude
for their support. He was sending them his own viceroy, a favorite Shi'a
Imam, as their new governor. But he was also wary of political mischief.
He knew history too well.
Tired of their Arab overlords, the Iranians could rally around the new
Imam and challenge Mamun's own authority. He had Imam Reza poisoned upon
his arrival. So claimed the Shi'a. Mamun had made a double coup, paying
homage to a favorite religious leader while having him permanently removed
from the scene. But he knew little about the power of myths. The hero became
a martyr. He became more powerful dead than alive.
A glorious shrine was built around his tomb. A new city emerged, calling
itself Mashhad - the place of martyrdom. The splendor of his shrine outshines
the worldly courts, and the faithful come to it with pains in their hearts,
tears in their eyes, and hopes for redemption in this world and the next.
I can never forget the sobbing of the wicked and the virtuous, the richly
attired and the tattered, landlords and peasants, and the men and women
pilgrims from all over the Islamic world pressing hard against each other
to touch his mausoleum.
I would accompany my mother on her daily pilgrimage to the shrine. The
best part of the pilgrimage was the doroshkeh (carriage) ride. As the horses
rapidly galloped through Mashhad's busy streets, the panorama of the city
unfolded, the golden dome came closer and closer, the crowds thickened,
the shops became more colorful, the sidewalks burst with startling activity.
As we traveled, vagabond boys would hang on the back of the doroshkeh
for a free ride. The driver would occasionally sense their presence or
a passer-by would give him a sign. The driver would unfurl his whip backward
in the direction of the boys. Some would run away, others would hang on
for a little while longer. Oh, how I wish I could join them! Their rebellion
against the rules was appealing to my sense of repression born out of the
good manners of a proper boy from a proper family.
The most vivid memory of my childhood is the piercing pain I felt in
my toes when I was walking with my mother along the narrow, stone-laden
streets of Mashhad. It had snowed heavily the night before, and streets
were filled with slush, penetrating into my little shoes and toes as we
walked fast to reach home from my grandparents' house. We could hear the
sirens and the screeching sounds of the Russian bombs as they exploded
into buildings. I clutched to my mother's hands, but the pain in my toes
was incessant, bringing tears to my eyes. We reached the low wooden door
of our house, desperately knocking again and again for someone to open
the door. I was hiding myself between my mother's chador, the long black
veil, and the door so that the bombs would not hit me if they fell close
I was four years old then. The war had broken out. The Allied troops
had invaded the country despite its protestations of neutrality. The Russians
from the north, the Americans and the British from the south. The Russians
occupied the northern provinces, the British and Americans the south. This
was to be a "Bridge of Victory", as Winston Churchill with his
knack for apt phrases subsequently called Iran. While the European routes
to Russia were closed down by the war, this was the only route available
to the Allies to transport war materials to Russia in its desperate hour
of need against Hitler. The Iranians were paying the price.
There were also brighter moments. As summer approached, my two older
bothers and I would go to Kuh-i-Sangi, a small recreation center outside
the city, where a swimming pool beckoned us. The Russian soldiers were
there ahead of us. They would cheer up as they saw us, the native children.
A few candies were all it took to break the ice. One of them spoke a smattering
of Persian; the rest spitted out a guttural Russian with loud laughter.
"They want to know if you think Imam Reza could really turn away
the bombs we threw at his shrine," the Persian-speaking Russian was
We were a bit too shocked to answer quickly. Rumors in Mashhad were
that the Russian bombs had been miraculously turned away from the holy
shrine of Imam Reza. Among his many other miracles, according to a general
belief, Imam Reza's invisible holy hand had seized the bombs dropped by
the Russians on his shrine. He had then transported them across the Caspian
Sea and Russian steppes dropping them on Moscow. The evidence for this
belief was clear enough for a while. Hitler was winning the war in Russia.
"Come on, tell us, tell us, could the Imam do that?" the chorus
of the Russian soldiers was becoming insistent and a bit impatient.
"We don't really know," my older brother Mehdi said sheepishly.
"But we have seen very little damage from bombing. Some bombs must
have hit the dome, but the rest... the rest must have gone to Moscow,"
he concluded more confidently.
"Ha, ha! So that's what you think! That's what happened! The bombs
went to Moscow? Your Imam must be Hitler's friend. We still have to teach
him a few more lessons."
The soldiers were clearly upset by Mehdi's daring reply. One of them
grabbed him by the neck and threw him into the swimming pool. Mehdi had
a gulp or two of water before he came up to the surface. One Russian soldier
went after him. He grabbed him by the neck again and pushed him down. A
few tense moments followed. The two of us kids, Nasser and myself, were
agitating by the side of the pool. The Russian soldiers were laughing in
Mehdi was brought out to the surface. He looked frightened. He must
have had a few more gulps. He breathed in desperation before he was pushed
down again. This went on a few more times. Nasser had jumped into the water
to rescue Mehdi from this deadly game. He could do no more than clutch
to the soldier's swimming trunk, which in the struggle came off halfway,
exposing his white bottom. There was a chorus of laughter. I was crying
on the sides. Finally, an older soldier who seemed to be in command intervened
and put a stop to the game. We were all drenched in fear. We had just had
our first bitter taste of imperialism.
We also had just learned a lesson in resistance. Once the fear was gone,
we bragged about how we told off the Russians. The family also was learning
its own forms of resistance. Blackouts were the order of the night. Darkness
left a lot of room for us mischievous children, but adults were in a more
serious mood. Father was clutching to his short-wave radio while watching
the skies for any sign of flights, friend, or foe. Others would gather
around him for his news and views. The war had brought us closer together.
There was an air of expectancy, a cry of need, a withering of pettiness.
Even us children quarreled less and listened more.
As I reached the age of seven, the fear of that war was overshadowed
by the fear of another war, the school. I was told one fine fall morning
that I must accompany my two brothers to Sharq School. The name was mystifying,
Sharq, the East, which East? East of Mashhad, East of Iran, East of the
world, East of the moon? I could never figure that one out. It suggested
a new self-consciousness, a new self-definition, East as opposed to West.
They were both relatively new concepts. I don't know who invented them
first. Could it be Oswald Spengler's Decline of the West (1918-1922)
that popularized the twin? Or was it Ruyard Kipling, the poet laureate
......Oh, East is East, and West is
............never the twain shall meet.
......Till Earth and Sky stand presently at
............Great Judgment Seat.
But Kipling's last two stanzas, often forgotten, conveyed another message:
......But there is neither East nor
............nor Breed nor Birth
......When two strong men stand face to face,
............though they come from the ends
of the earth!
As a seven-year old school kid, without knowing Kipling, I understood
him intuitively. My teacher was a bearded, fierce-looking man with a long,
threatening cane in his hand. As he would pass by the aisles of the crowded
classroom where the children were pushing against each other on two rows
of long wooden benches, a cold fear would run up my spine. Would he point
his cane at me? Will he strike? What have I done to deserve this fate?
Why couldn't I stay at home? To play? To run about freely? To make mischief
as I pleased? To be spoiled by mom, sisters, and old auntie? Why, Why?
The answer came one morning. I was feeling a bit feverish. My mother had
"Are you okay to go to school?" she asked me solicitously.
"No", I jumped at the opportunity. "I feel giddy."
I was faking illness. But what about the school? The fierce, bearded
teacher? His cane? What is he going to do when I eventually returned to
school? Give me a good beating? How can I rise up to the challenge of meeting
him again? As my mother spoke, I thought of an idea.
"You better stay in bed."
"What about school?" my brother Nasser asked in envy.
"Oh," I said, "if the teacher asks for me, please tell
him that the boy has died".
Everybody was laughing knowingly. I couldn't see the humor.
The illness lasted for a year, and I had to somehow amuse myself. I
hit on an idea. Why not produce a newspaper just like the one uncle published.
It would have news, some family news, but also some news of the war. It
also would have some fiction and poetry. But above all, it would have an
editorial and a cartoon. It would sell at one Rial (the Iranian currency)
a copy. I loved the cartoon part of the newspapers best. I set out to do
that part first. The story of Keshvar and Zivar in our first grade textbook
provided the inspiration. The picture told the story. Two sisters were
fighting over a doll, dragging it in a tug of war until it came apart.
Now, no one had a doll. Each had a forlorn and shredded half.
My cartoon instead showed two boys fighting, labeling them as Russia
and Britain. Their doll was a map of Iran being pulled apart until it was
torn into two pieces. My editorial drew the moral. Iran was being torn
into a divided country by Great Power occupation and rivalries. "We
must save the country before it is torn into pieces; the foreigners must
leave it alone", the editorial exhorted the readers. A budding nationalist
and journalist had been born.
Grandfather, a Qajar prince with the imposing title of Borhan ul-Molk
(The Reason of the State) was most amused. He bought up all of the five
copies of the newspaper. But he also read me a skeptical poem in a mix
of Persian and Arabic:
Two things are chillier than ice.
A grown-up acting as a child, and
A child pretending to be a grown-up!
I knew there is a message in the poem, but I couldn't figure it out.
Years later I realized I had found my locus perhaps too soon. I had identified
with the doll and was feeling the pain of being shredded into pieces.
The rain had stopped. The sun was shining. Trees were still wet, drenched
in there luminous green, greener than any green I have seen anywhere. I
looked at the sky. The clouds were drifting away revealing an ocean of
blue. And the ocean was reflecting the blue of the sky with a thousand
glittering shades of color. Diamond Head sat at the foot of the ocean like
a naked goddess. I had reached my seventh city.
Majid Tehranian is professor
of international communication at the University of Hawaii and director
of the Toda Institute for Global Peace and