I can sit in the courtyard, think about my life, and shed
January 10, 2002
There are days when you wake up as if in a cocoon spun gently around
you by sadness. The cause of your sadness seems illusive, intangible, and
even at times irrelevant. All that matters is that you feel wrapped tightly
inside it, unable to lift a finger to break its silken threads, unable to
On such a day, I decided to head North, towards the mountains, towards
Bazaar-e Tajrish, hoping that the bustle of people, their bumping into you
as they rush about their shopping, their unnecessary catcalls that result
in unexpected bursts of laughter or a faint smile, will help me break through
As I was walking around in the fruit section, eyeing the lettuce and
the tomatoes that were stacked up high, I heard the faint sound of the Quran
and saw a sign pointing towards Imamzadeh Saleh. The streets of Tehran for
me are saturated with memories of someone I loved and have lost, and I had
been walking around with a large lump of grief in my throat waiting to burst
into tears. In the courtyard of the shrine, I can sit down and cry and it
won't seem strange to anyone, I thought as I headed towards the blue dome.
I walked out of the bazaar, right outside the gates of the shrine where
a policeman was shooing away two men, one old, one young, who were crouched
against a wall drinking tea out of plastic cups. "You can't sit here,"
he said listlessly motioning them away with his arms as if the men were
pigeons. "Baba, khodaa pedaret ro biyaamorzeh, let us finish our tea,"
the old man said as they both got up and moved two steps further up.
By now, I had reached the women's entrance. I walked in and saw a woman
in her 40s studying a book assiduously. "Excuse me, can I just walk
into the courtyard?" I asked, shifting the 8 porcelain plates, one
bottle of olive oil, one jar of olives, and a jar of torshi-ye Bijar in
She looked up and motioned towards a horizontal metal pipe that had several
flowery prayer chadors thrown on it. With great difficulty, I stuffed some
of my purchases in my book bag causing it to bulge unnaturally, grabbed
a chador that smelled of pretty much every kind of body odor imaginable,
and tried to pull it over my head. "What are you doing?" the lady
said clearly annoyed after which she pulled my chador over my head, straightened
it out in the back and gave me a little push towards the door. "You
can go now."
Great! Now I can sit in the courtyard, think about my life, and shed
The minute I stepped out in the sun, an old woman walked towards me.
"Buy my candles. My hands are blessed and will make your wish come
true." Having failed to achieve happiness in a modern way, I was ready
for any alternative. What better thing than to light a candle and ask God
for a favor, especially if this woman's hands are blessed?
"Can I light just one?"
"Sure azizam, you can light as many as you want."
"Okay. One candle please," I said smiling.
"You have to buy six," she said looking away scouting the courtyard
for other customers.
"But I want one."
"You still have to pay for six."
I was in no mood to argue, I took one, paid for 6, and asked where I
could light it.
"You light it as you leave the Imamzadeh," she responded making
a motion towards the entrance.
Cool. So now I'm holding a greasy, off-white candle in my hand, trying
to formulate my wish such that I don't give God a loophole to trick me with
it. It's the pre-azan Quran, and I take in the holy atmosphere, the little
howz of water, the people going towards the shrine, walking around the courtyard,
sitting in the sun, mostly older but a good number of young people too,
andthe construction? There's construction going on in the shrine, I realize
with great irritation. Is there anywhere in this city where you can be spared
the site of these ugly yellow bricks and creamy colored dust and the sound
of large hammers chipping away at something or another?
Apparently not. I refocus: Remember, you're here to meditate, be calm,
take stock of your life, and of course SHED SOME TEARS.
As I head towards the women's entrance to the building of the shrine
itself, I see a sign: The office of the representative of Ayatollah Khamenei.
I look through the window: Two turbaned clergymen in a room smaller than
my bathroom, sitting behind a computer. I look at the sign again: Above
it was written: Responses to your religious questions, and an arrow pointing
to the right. I go to the right. It's the men's entrance.
"Excuse me," I say in my most innocent girly voice to the man
responsible for the pilgrims' shoes, "I have a religious question to
ask the leader's representative. Where can I go to ask it?"
If he had doubts about my sincerity, he didn't show it. "Go to the
women's entrance, there's a phone there, it connects you to them and you
can ask your question then."
Okay. So now I need a religious question. I rack my brainBless me father
for I have sinned? Too Christian. I have problems with figures of authority?
Too psychobabble. What kind of religious questions can I ask? I figured
once on the phone, I'll decide something. The main entrance to the shrine
is crowded with women going in and out. A beautiful young woman with sorrowful
eyes is standing at the entrance, under the mirrored ceiling, handing dates
to everyone. I don't see a phone.
There is, of course, construction going on in the women's entrance. I
move down and stick my head into the entry under construction: A phone!!!
I move towards it excitedly when I hear someone yell at me from behind.
I turn around. It is an old bearded man wearing a dusty short dark blue
uniform and matching pants, holding what looks like a duster in the shape
of a very large multi-colored Popsicle. I thought he was a janitor and probably
used it to shake off cobwebs and other dusty things in the shrine. Shaking
the Popsicle duster towards me, he shouted "Dokhtar, get out of there!"
"I wanted to ask a religious question."
"You can't. Anyway, they've all gone to prayer," he said sternly
and waved me away again.
By now, I just wanted to light my candle, which had broken in two during
my shuttling back and forth, and leave. I saw another kinder gentler looking
uniformed old man, holding a Popsicle duster.
"Where can I light a candle?"
"At the entrance, outside the shrine when you leave," he said
"I was wondering, what is this you're holding?" I asked pointing
to his duster.
"This?" he said, searching for an answer. "This has various
uses. I use it to point people this way and that," he said demonstrating
what he meant, "I also use it for this," upon which he began tapping
my shoulders as if he were knighting me (should I kneel? I began to wonder)
and muttering things to himself.
"Go now my dear. You've been blessed."
Happy in my new blessed state, I returned to the entrance, gave back
my light blue chador, and exited, candle in hand. I looked around at the
empty area in front of the shrine. Not a single sign of where I could light
"Where can I light my candle?" I asked the bored guard sitting
in front of the gates.
"Nowhere, the municipality came and swept it all away. It's not
"Hmmm..." I said with a fake knowing nod of the head.
As I began to walk away, another younger looking woman approached me.
"Buy my candles, my hands are blessed."
Geez, should I take this as a sign? I wondered. "I already have
a candle, but I thought it was not permitted here anymore."
"It's not, you have to go to the other entrance," she said
shoving her candles and bags of birdfeed towards me. "Go there across
the courtyard over there where there's construction and at least buy some
birdfeed from me. My hands are blessed."
Fine. My bag is heavy with 8 porcelain plates and other things, my back
is killing me, but this broken candle, I will light even if I have to do
I buy birdfeed from her, slip into the women's entrance and quietly take
another chador so that the women reading her book won't notice me again,
and start walking diagonally across the courtyard. On other side there is
a fenced section with lots of pigeons picking at the seeds that cover the
I stand next to a little boy, a tiny tiny boy, wearing a warm poofy orange-red
jacket and a knit cap. He's holding the fence and staring intently at the
pigeons. His father is crouched behind him quietly. They are Afghani.
I sat down too and asked the kid, Mahdi, if he wanted to feed the pigeons.
His face was all eyes and his eyes just stared at me. When his father gave
him permission, he brought out his small hands that held at the most 5 seeds
and turned to the pigeons and threw them. They fell two steps in front of
his feet. He took a shy step back.
"He's sick," his father said. "We've brought him here
from the provinces to see a doctor but no one can tell what his illness
is. No one can cure him. He has a fever all the time and throws up."
I look at Mahdi who's gone back to holding the fence and quietly watching
the pigeons while on his other side a young boy chats up two teenage girls.
"He's been sick since he was born. No one can say what's wrong with
him. So we're going back but before we do, I brought him to the shrine to
ask God to cure him. He is our last hope."
"Do you want me to introduce you to other doctors?" I asked
but the father shook his head and said "Doctors can't do anything anymore.
It's all in the hands of God now."
I took the bag of birdfeed, prayed for Mahdi's health and threw the seeds
in the middle of the area; the pigeons all flocked to it. Mahdi did not
The candle was still in my hands and after asking many many people,
I was directed to another exit to the shrine and was told I could light
my candle in one of the alleyways near the shrine. I finally came upon it:
A cardboard makeshift box standing above a square plate covered in milky
wax and holding four lit candles. The keeper of the flames approached me
out of nowhere took my candle and lit it.
"It took me a while to find you," I said.
"May God bring the heavens down on their heads," he said with
a shake of his head. He then launched into a monologue about politics, about
the municipality, about how it was the university people's faults for all
of Iran's misery, how going to school was a waste of time, about the power
struggle between the Parliament and the Judiciary, and about his sister
who had finally married at the age of 38 all because she insisted on going
"Let me give you a piece of advice: Don't read so much, go live
life a little," he ended his speech with a twinkle in his eyes. I nodded,
rather impressed by his breath of knowledge and said goodbye.
As I walked away, I turned around and saw the flame had gone out on the
candle I had lit. I realized after all this, I had forgotten to ask God
for something. I also realized that I wasn't sad anymore.