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Piety among atheists
The whole house would seem more humble

By Siamak Vossoughi
October 31, 2002
The Iranian

I did not see my grandmother often since she lived in Iran, in her own house by herself. Despite my mother's appeals to come and live with us, she was not about to spend her old age somewhere far from home.

But every few years she would go to the immigration office and tell them that she was an old woman now, and this might be her last chance to see her daughter's family, and they would eventually give in and give her permission to make the trip.

We would go to the airport to meet her, and then we'd see her melancholy face again, and we would remember the old beauty of her simple presence in the world.

Her visits were full of wonder for me because they meant the coming of religious piety to our proudly atheistic house. There was never any resentment in it, perhaps because they weren't really all that different in the end, her faith in God and my father's faith in man.

When I was young, she would try to pass something of her piety down to me. I remember how she had learned that the word for Allah in English was God, and since I lived in America, she would tell me about God. She name wasn't important, as long as I knew His greatness and that He was always with me.

My father didn't say anything then, not wanting to upset her, and probably knowing that soon enough I would shrug off all notions of religion and God. I especially shrugged off the notion of a religion that would take over our country and fight some foolish war and call it holy, and make it so that my cousin's family, who'd gone there after the revolution, would not be allowed to come back because my cousin would soon be of draftable age.

And I began to feel something furious in me that wanted to question my grandmother when she spoke of God, to point to the war and to me missing my cousin and say, look where religion has gotten us, what God is there whose supposed representatives lead men to this?

But it would always come out sounding awkward, and I would feel more desperate than proud. She would look at me uncertainly and then I would see that it wasn't the same thing, even if it was her God in whose name men were being sent to fight and to die, with promises of a key to heaven. It wasn't her.

And it wasn't the way she would sit quietly for a long time and then ask my mother what time it was and slowly walk to her room for her evening prayers. In my heart I still liked the sight of her at her prayers, the way the whole house would seem more humble and everyone's actions purer and simpler.

So I began to see her piety with a sort of a gentle humore, as if to say, well, she is my grandmother from our homeland, it is funny and nice that she so devoutly believes in God. I would smile at things like her earnestness in covering her hair before going out of the house, how she saw no reason to change that just because she happened to be in America.

I would joke about the time when my little sister had seen her with her prayer beads and had asked her why she was always playing with her necklace. She knew that our laughter was out of love and she would laugh along with us, with the delight of someone who had not been too familiar with laughter in her life and thus seemed to marvel at the novelty of it each time.

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