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 it.
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 knows.”
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 ago.”
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 the pillar.”
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 the pillar.
“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 guy's room.
“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 arm.
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. Doesn't matter.
I just lean forward, kiss the door like everyone else, and step into the crowded square.