Looking for a grave
July 3, 2001
If you're a woman and you don't have a chador, then the first thing you
have to do when you get to the tomb of the King of Lamps in Shiraz is to
get one. I, not knowing this, got out of the cab, took in the sight of the
blue dome dangling above the dirt-colored streets of old Shiraz and marched
straight to the gate.
"Khanum," the guard said, "you need a chador."
"I don't have one."
"Get one from there."
"There" turned out to be the bookstore; a plain building to
the left of the gate with windows covered in announcements of newly arrived
items: Khomeini's speeches, the entire Quran on a poster. "There"
also happened to be closed.
So I stood waiting in the afternoon sun, watching people coming and going.
The tomb of Shah Cheragh in Shiraz is a pilgrimage site situated in a circular
square where the sight of pick up trucks carrying blackened pots the size
of my living room for cooking nazri food is rather common. The shrine itself
is surrounded by small shops, a bazaar, and street vendors, one of whom
was a guy carrying a tiny bird in a cage. For a mere 200 tomans, the bird
would pick out a faal-e Hafez for you with its tiny beak.
People come from all over the area to visit the shrine and ask for favors
from the brother of Imam Reza, Musa, kissing the large gate on their way
in or out. I, on the other hand, was not here to see Musa's tomb nor to
ask him for any favors. I was here in search of another grave, the grave
of the father of a friend. The bookstore finally opens and people attack
There is a rush to get in and buy Qurans, pictures
of Prophet Mohammad baring his right shoulder at the tender age of 17, and
books of prayers. I walk in with the crowd and go to a guy who upon my asking,
hands me a black chador, which I drape lazily over my head and the large
book bag holding my camera. I gather the chador in the middle and tuck it
under my armpit: I am ready to go in. Click image
I pass the guard, pass through the much kissed gates, through the foyer
covered in tiled poems, and into the courtyard. The mirror-covered shrine
is to my right, where people are coming in and going out, giving their shoes
and receiving them. I go up the two steps leading to the front porch (and
thus main entrance) of the tomb and am hit by the smell of feet oozing out
of the make-shift shoe reception room. Give the shoes, receive a little
token indicating their existence, pull on the slipping chador falling off
my head, and turn around.
Where do I begin to look for the grave of someone whose name I do not
know, nor the date of his death? There are people walking in and out of
the shrine, people sitting on the carpet-covered floor of the porch, children
running around. I ask a random passerby where the graves are and he shrugs,
directing me to a room across from where I am standing. "Ask him, he
I walk into a hojreh off the front porch. A small simian-looking man
is sitting behind a metal desk, speaking into the microphone, calling for
the mother of a nervous looking girl to come collect her child. I wait patiently
and when he doesn't even glance at me after 3-4 minutes, I blurt out: "Salaam,
I'm looking for a grave."
He looks at me disinterestedly: "Whose grave?"
"When did he die?"
"I don't know. I think about 40 years ago."
"Then I don't know where it is. The Javid buried here died 37 years
I look at him, thinking he must be joking, but he's not. "37 years
sounds fine. Where is it?"
"Near that photography booth, right across from the entrance, under
So I walk towards the photographer sitting
behind a desk, waiting to take souvenir pictures for the pilgrims. Click image
"Is there a grave around here?"
"Did they tell you there was one?"
"Well, I don't know where then."
"He told me under this pillar."
"Well, I don't see any graves here. Go ask him, that guy in that
room," and he points to the simian with the microphone who has now
stepped out of his hojreh to give directions to someone else. I walk back,
tripping over my chador. I stumble into his room. He looks at me without
even a glint of recognition in his eyes.
"Where exactly is the Javid grave?"
"Somewhere over there."
"Over where? It wasn't where you told me it was."
"Did you look under the carpets?"
Carpets? No, I had not.
I trip out again, walk to the pillar. Someone is sitting leaning against
"Bebakhsheed, but could you get up and let me lift the carpet?"
"What are you looking for azizam?" the old woman asks.
For the sake of simplicity, I say "My grandfather's."
Without moving, she shifts to the other side and I try to lift the carpet
but I can't. I am carrying a big bag under a slipping chador that I do not
know how to wear, and the goddamn carpet is heavy. I look around and see
several amused faces looking at me. I let go of the chador and use both
hands to pull the rug to one side. Greenish marble with brownish veins stares
straight at me.
I drop the carpet, smooth it out with my foot, and march back to the
"It wasn't there."
"Where you told me it would be."
He gets up from behind his desk, walks out of his hojreh, me following
him furious. "I'm taller than him at least," I think in glee.
He faces the entire length of the porch, raises his hand, and says: "It's
somewhere here, under these carpets. You have to look for it. Somewhere."
Do I detect a little bit of pleasure in his voice? Has this become a test
of wills between a lone individual who wants to get something simple done
and a bureaucrat? I'm ready for the challenge, I think, as I arrange my
bag on my shoulder, pull my chador forward, and firmly tuck it under my
Somewhere? Okay I am determined to find it.
I walk and walk down to the edge of the porch. I pick up with great difficulty
the first carpet and pull it back. There are about three different names
engraved in the marble, placed at an orderly distance from one another.
None of them is the one. I drop it, smooth it with my foot, arrange my bag,
arrange my chador, and move down to the next one.
"What are you looking for?" a young man asks me. "Her
grandfather's grave," a voice behind me says.
I turn back. There are about 10 people standing behind me, just looking
on. Not giving me a hand, not helping out. Just looking at the girl with
the chador on her shoulders, stumbling from one farsh to the next, looking
for her "grandfather's" grave. The comment was from an old man
with a child in his arm. I smile at everyone, a little foolishly, a little
annoyingly, a little distractedly and return to my task.
By now, most people around me know what's going on so by the time I get
to a carpet, people have already moved enough to give me room to lift it.
Every once in a while, a new person would come along, and I could hear whispers
behind me and feel the added presence of one more onlooker. Now, I had no
choice but to finish the task.
I go down the length of the porch and finally
reach where I had started this whole quest: In front of the simian's office.
I lift the carpet, peer at the green marble and there it is! Etched into
the veined marble I read "Manouchehr Javid 55/11/4." I'd found
Jahanshah's dad's grave. Click image
"I found it!" I say proudly, straightening my back with some
difficulty and turning to my audience. They all look pleased, especially
the old man who had been closely following my actions.
"What are you going to do now?"
"Take a picture," I say reaching into the bulge of a bag I'm
carrying. Everyone approves and continues watching. When I am done, I turn
around, thank them (for their support?), and walk towards the shoe section,
grab my shoes, and trip back to the gate. As I reach the gate, I realize
I had not even gone inside, had not seen the grave everyone else goes to
see. Had not whispered an urgent nazr to the shrine of the King of Lamps.
I just lean forward, kiss the door like everyone else, and step into
the crowded square.