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Take me instead!
The one thing they've managed to fine tune in Iran

By Borzou Daragahi
February 7, 2002
The Iranian

Whatever their lot in life, whatever joys they share or miseries they suffer, whatever car they drive or section of town they live in, most people in Tehran eventually find their way to the gigantic Behesht-e Zahra cemetery, as I found out following the rather unexpected death of Hushang, a 62-year-old relative of my host family.

Behesht means heaven. Zahra was a daughter of Prophet Mohammad.

It's early in the morning, and I've had very little sleep. I'm sitting in the backseat of a Kia Sport with my friends Ali and Arash in the front. We're driving south of the city to the funeral. The sun shines harshly on the blanched, rocky terrain. Arash, bless his soul, had the benevolence and foresight to prepare a thermos full of hot coffee for the hour-long ride. He even added sugar and milk! Bickering and gossiping lightly the whole way; Ali and Arash are perfect company.

Driving on the highway, however, is a terror ride. There's not much traffic. But the few drivers fail to comply with the most basic, commonsense driving protocols. An ancient truck overloaded with produce crawls along at 20 miles per hour, hovering back and forth between the fast and middle lanes. A late-model Mercedes zips across three lanes of traffic into the slow lane. I knock on glass. I sip coffee out of plastic.

Everything in Iran from Internet access to the state bureaucracy is a colossal, time-consuming and blunder-filled mess. My friend Samad has had to wrestle for weeks with the Education Ministry because they themselves lost his daughter's file and won't release her grades until "someone" finds it.

I don't even want to think about doing anything as complicated as opening a bank account or obtaining a copy of a lost passport. I was told over two months ago, for example, that it would take anywhere from "two to six months" to issue me an updated edition of my birth certificate, despite having filled out all the requisite forms and forked over the proper fees.

But apparently, however, the one thing they've managed to fine tune in Iran is the process of putting you to your final rest.

To get to Behesht-e Zahra from Tehran, you drive past the multi-acre shrine for Ayatollah Khomeini. The cemetery was the site of Khomeini's famous February 1, 1979 speech, in which he launched a regime obsessed with spilt blood and martyrdom. "If God forbid [the Shah] had continued to rule, he would have drained our oil," he said back then. "We would have been slaves of the foreigners. This is why we shout. This is why the blood of our young has filled the streets."

Nearly 13 years after Khomeini's death, his shrine is still not completely built. Authorities try to lure visitors with stores selling subsidized meals and consumer products. Still, save for a few cars and buses, the parking lot is nearly empty. Along the highway, gruff, desperate men sell funeral wreaths they probably lifted from the cemetery.

Unlike the quaint solemnity of North American cemeteries, Behesht-e Zahra is gigantic and bustling. Of course, traffic inside is a tangled snarl and parking is a hassle. Soldiers bark orders at cars. "You! In the Peugeot! Keep moving!" They sound mean and angry; it seems cruelly inappropriate to holler over a loudspeaker to downcast mourners coming to pay their respects.

Huge portraits, flags and banners spangled with political and religious slogans adorn the section of the cemetery reserved for those who died in the eight-year-long Iran-Iraq war. I wonder if they'll open a new section for victims of a U.S. bombardment should Bush decide to launch a military adventure here in the spirit of the Iraqi, Serbian or Afghan campaigns.

Six-foot-high wreaths studded with fragrant jasmine abound. Like everywhere else in this rigidly class-conscious society, there are good and bad neighborhoods. Plots range in price from about $125 to just over $3,000 for a nice shaded one.

The most amazing part of Behesht-e Zahra is the central depot, which is so crowded you're constantly getting bumped and shoved. It includes shops selling soda, flowers and snacks. There are even a few automatic bank machines. Mourners stand in the middle of the depot and gape at an electronic screen announcing the names and plot numbers of the deceased; I am spellbound. It's like you're seeing the departed off at the airport to heaven. When your deceased's name pops up on the departures screen, you gather your crew and step out into the courtyard.

The deceased's remains are wrapped in white cloth (or a kataan) in proper Islamic fashion, hoisted onto wooden rack, and carried by the men into the main courtyard. In the Islamic tradition, there's no casket. Mourners place flowers upon the deceased. They follow along praising Allah, screaming, crying and hitting themselves. "If only it were me!" the women cry to the heavens. "Take me instead!"

In the courtyard, the body is laid upon the ground. The mourners gather, and a white-turbaned cleric leads them in prayer. The men, continuing to cry and lament, then carry the remains to an ambulance, which proceeds to the burial site. I spot a few mourners videotaping. I'm told it's common.

The process takes about 10 or 15 minutes and roughly three or four of these rituals happen simultaneously, so about 16 deceased are escorted through per hour. Nothing in Iran gets done that efficiently, especially nothing operated by the government, as is Behesht-e Zahrah.

I'm surprised to hear the joyous catcalls I've usually associated with weddings coming from one group of mourners. A young woman had died the day before her wedding. Weeping, the women toss rice onto her body as she's carried away.

Amazon Honor SystemThe vast, vast, vast majority of women here wear chadors. In fact, only among the group of mourners I'm with do women wear hijab lite and men the suits and ties of the Western-oriented intelligentsia. Only among our group do people talk on cell phones or look away or decline to pray along while the cleric conducts the rites. And only among our group do the men and women mingle together during the cleric's prayer. If I were to take the people here as a representative sample of Iranian society, I'd have to say that only 10% are Western-oriented and secular.

One woman I know wears a light blue headscarf, looking joyous in a sea of black. The deceased was her sister's husband. She lived in the West for many years, but returned. The people here are warmer, she said. She asks me what I think of all this. I tell her I was fascinated with the departures terminal. She laughs.

We climb into cars and a touring bus rented for the occasion and head toward the final resting place. Another wrestling match with cemetery traffic. I'm surprised at how crowded the place is. The plots are basically right next to each other, and there's no way to get around without stepping on the horizontal tombstones.

They place the white-robed body into the grave. I'm slightly nervous that someone will try to throw themselves in along with the deceased. I've heard of that happening at Iranian funerals. But everyone in this crowd is way too classy, way too restrained to do anything like that. Instead they pile a mountain of flowers onto the burial site. People take turns going to the grave, handling the soil and weeping.

I notice a pair of fresh-faced conscripts standing about. Funerals are a dangerous business in the Islamic world. Many a despot -- including the previous overlord of this country - has been shaken by the emotional eruptions at funerals for those who died at the hands of authorities. The demonstrations leading up to the overthrow of the Shah were essentially a cycle of mourning rituals for those killed by the Shah during previous mourning rituals.

But the reason for the soldiers here now is more mundane and contemporary: there has been a spate of armed robberies during funerals in the more isolated sections of the cemetery, with bandits making off with mourners' jewelry and cash. It is suggested to our party that we take all the flowers back to the city. "Junkies will be here to steal them five minutes after you leave," a cemetery employee informs us.

Immediately following a death, friends and family usually gather at the house of the deceased to commiserate. But Hushang and his family were in the process of moving when he passed away. So they had the requisite seven days of crying, remembering and feasting (lots of feasting!) at another relative's home, which happened to be in the same apartment complex where I was staying. People paid their respects to the family for a week, bringing enough flowers to fill the whole place. It's like a dinner party every night for a week. In accord with Muslim tradition, there's another commemoration on the 40th day after a death.

I feel sorry for the deceased's family, who seems to be responsible for feeding and entertaining all these people. The guests come impeccably dressed. I am dazzled by the women's outfits. Thank goodness I brought my black suit. Men sneak off to down shots of vodka. People sit awkwardly waiting for tea and sweets and food to be served. When a new guest arrives, mourners stand and shake hands or kiss. If they don't know the person, they make a gesture toward standing, then quickly sit.

I'm bored. I make small talk with the guests. I chat with the hired help in the kitchen. They know I'm that journalist from "Amreeka". They're friendly to me because I bring my own dirty plates and glasses into the kitchen. I ask one what she thought of President George Bush's threats against Iran, about the possibility of war with the U.S. She tells me that three of her nephews and her son-in-law were martyred in the Iran-Iraq war. "If there were a war, it would be our class who would be martyred," she says. The others working in the kitchen remain silent.

I had never met Hushang. But I have hung out with his son, Mehdi, who's about my age. I turned him on to the band "Death in Vegas", which he really liked. I had tea and pastries several times with Hushang's wife, Mena, far and away the most serene, relaxed person I've met here.

Gradually, I find out a little more about Hushang, a bespectacled man who could have passed for 50. He was an intellectual. He was down to earth. He was a thoughtful man who despised -- passionately despised -- the direction his country had taken. "Our parents' generation are dying off so fast," says my friend Ali, one in the car to the funeral. "The revolution put so much stress and pressure on them. They're all withering away before their time."

Hushang loved poetry, especially the Iranian poet Hafiz. There's a lovely hardcover book of Hafiz poems floating around the house. "Let's see what Mr. Hafiz has to say," a guest says. He flips the book open to a random page. He reads. He shivers. He closes the book and weeps.

Perhaps he read the following:

Little sleeper, the spring is here;
Tulip and rose are come again,
Only you in the earth remain,
Sleeping, dear.

Little sleeper, the spring is here;
I, like a cloud of April rain,
Am bending over your grave in vain,
Weeping, dear.

Little flower, the spring is here;
What if my tears were not in vain!
What if they drew you up again,
Little flower!


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