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 amusing excuses.
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 Mecca.
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 flesh.
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 by.
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 asking us.
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 delight.
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 of imperialism?
……Oh, East is East, and West is West, and
…………never the twain shall meet.
……Till Earth and Sky stand presently at God's
…………Great Judgment Seat.
But Kipling's last two stanzas, often forgotten, conveyed another message:
……But there is neither East nor West, Border,
…………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 noticed it.
“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 Policy Research.