December 19, 1997
As in other Persian homes I had visited, the women of the house wore Western clothes, went about their hair uncovered, and did not keep themselves hidden because an unfamiliar man had come into their midst. But unlike other Persian households where the women and children began questioning me almost as soon as I entered, my friend's family seemed distinctly uninterested in talking to me. His wife, daughter, and son barely said hello and then largely ignored me. I was surprised because I doubted that having Western visitors to their home was all that common for them.
My host had invited his friend and me to stay for lunch. While we were waiting for it to be prepared. I inquired about the various antiques and paintings that were on display. On one side wall between the living room and the kitchen there was something which struck me as odd because it was not old and valuable like virtually everything else in the room. It was a rectangular box which was divided into dozens of little square slots. Iranian currency had been placed inside a few of the slots.
"What's this?" I asked.
"This is where we put contributions for the poor," my host responded.
On an impulse, I pulled out my wallet and stuck a thousand rial note (less than a dollar) into the slots.
Suddenly, the wife became very animated. "Thank you!" she cried. "That was really nice!"
Without any transition, she asked me, "Hey, would you like to see a video? It's about Sufis." Sufism, a Muslim religious sect, was a subject I knew almost nothing about.
When I assented, the wife became even more animated. Her son and daughter also expressed enthusiasm as we all sat down to watch. My host's friend, though, looked distinctly uneasy.
As soon as the film began, it was obvious that this was not a commercial production, but a home-made one instead. The opening scene showed about a dozen men dancing or whirling in a religious fervor. People in the crowd around them were chanting and shouting encouragement.
A man who appeared to be the leader of the group paced rapidly back and forth in the front of the dancers. He held a curved sword upright in front of him. Suddenly he stopped, grasped the sword in both hands, and thrust it horizontally into his mouth -- blade first.
This action was repeated several times. Behind him, the dancers were working themselves up into an increasing frenzy. One young man, who seemed to be in a particularly excited state, stepped toward the leader and rolled up his left sleeve. The leader handed his sword to someone else. He then took a dagger and thrust it through the young man's lower inner arm. The young man appeared quite pleased with this state of affairs.
I, on the other hand, was not. Everyone else, though, acted as if this was quite normal. The wife in particular was enjoying the video.
An even better scene came next. Another young man stepped forward with a frighteningly ecstatic expression on his face. With his left hand, he reached inside his mouth and pulled his left cheek outward. The leader then plunged a dagger through the cheek. The young man continued to pull at his mouth. The leader then inserted another dagger (he seemed to have and inexhaustible supply) inside the young man's mouth. The film showed the blade of the dagger piercing outward through the same cheek as before.
Most of the people watching cheered at this. But I was not feeling cheerful at all. Although hungry when I arrived at the house, by now my appetite for lunch had completely disappeared.
Mercifully, the scene shifted away from Mr. Dagger Mouth. The camera now focused on a group of people, including women as well as men, who were eating something from a common bowl. They too were in an ecstatic frenzy.
"What are they eating?" I asked timidly.
"Ground glass!" the wife answered enthusiastically.
I could not prevent myself from groaning.
The son and daughter both looked at me and laughed. "I eat it too!" said the boy. "It's good!"
"We do it for Allah!" added the wife with her usual zeal.
I suddenly realized that this video was something more than just a curious documentary that the family had somehow acquired. My suspicions were confirmed by the next scene which focused on the group of dancing men. After a few seconds, I recognized that one of them was my host!
I involuntarily let out a cry of horror and shuddered violently. One of my contact lenses fell out. "I've lost a lens!" I shouted.
Someone turned off the video. With concerned expressions, the family all gathered around me. I doubted that they knew what a contact lens was, and so grew afraid that they might crush it.
"Is that it?" asked the father doubtfully, pointing toward the carpet. It was. Fearing one of them might mistake it for an hors d'oeuvre, I snatched the lens up quickly.
I thrust it into my eye and a sharp pain immediately ensued; the carpet had obviously been dusty. As unpleasant as this was, however, I was grateful for the sensation since it allowed me to focus on something other than the growing nausea in my stomach.
I then stood up and announced, "I have to leave immediately! I have an appointment at the hotel!" Everyone knew I was lying, but I didn't care. I just wanted to get out of there.
"I'll drive you back!" my host's friend volunteered. It was clear that he was as eager to leave as I was.
After a perfunctory good-bye, my savior and I got in his car and took off. We were both sweating.
Neither of us spoke at first. He finally broke the silence. "My friend is a great artist, and I respect him very much. But I can't understand why he eats glass or lets himself be stabbed."
My sentiments exactly!
About the author
Mark N. Katz is Associate Professor of Government and Politics at George Mason University. (Back to top)