Up close with the Ayatullahs

Teheran in October of 2012 seem quint and beautiful and the welcome right at the airport seem out of place with the notion of a country under the thumb of a clerical establishment. I was struck by the women bearing roses who were at the airport not to welcome us, the delegates arriving for the conference and exhibition, but to receive the ordinary Iranians coming back from trips. It seem that is the normal way they welcome back people who have sojourned.It was a surprise to me as I expected to see the religious police busy checking to ensure that women are wearing the sanctioned hi jabs and burkhas.
Indeed one surprising feature of Iran, for me was that half of the people you encounter on the street are women who seem to represent nearly half of the country’s work force.Someone pointed out to me that  the Iran Iraq war during the days of Saddam Husein, which led to the killing of lots of Iranian men, may have pushed more of the women into the work force. And there was no escaping reminders of that war and other trials and tribulations faced by Iran especially in relation to what they call, the Great Satan, the name they use to refer to the United States of America.
I was surprised at the vibrancy of the Iranian media especially the sheer number of news agencies, online media and television. I must confess however that because much of it was in Persian,it was difficult to make out if all shades of opinions are represented.What was clear to even a non native like me was the use of the media to reinforce the message ofthe revolution to a generation for whom it may begin to look like a distant event. One of our guide during our stay,a young man looking for opportunities came across as a hard nosed member of the Teherani bazaar,given the way he was keen to make a deal out of helping us change some of our dollars.
The Iranian currency is another matter all together.The sanctions imposed on the country clearly showed in the  seeming free fall of the currency. It was my first time of seeing a single currency note  worth 500,000. I wonder how it is exchanging now and how the new government of President Rouhani is tackling this obvious economic challenge.
Coming from a Sunni background, there was a sort of learning curve in terms of the obvious differences in the way we observe some of our religious obligations. I recall our confusion at Friday prayers at the famous University of Teheran mosque, venue of a lot of the revolutionary fervour in the heady days of the revolution and where to date, the leading members of the regime observe their prayers. We did not realize that it was Asr prayers being said immediately after the 2 raka’at Friday prayer, even as we struggle not to look out of place without the mandatory piece of clay on which Shia adherents place their forehead during the prayers. There was also the demonstrations denouncing the Great Satan, Imperialism and other perceived enemies of the Iranian people.
Much as I valued attending Friday prayer at the Teheran University given the way it offered a glimpse into the mindset of the ruling elite, the highlight of the trip are my encounter with Fatimeh, a school teacher whom I met on the ground of the expansive fair ground where the exhibition of the news agencies and other media held. It was a chance encounter whose meaning I am still trying to fully understand. I was struck by the fact that she could speak English as she told me that she is a school teacher minding a brood of school children who came to the fair ground.Our encounter lasted for less than ten minutes within which I got the sense of the sadness of her situation. She looked to me about 50 years of age and she told me that she had never married and it did not seem like she had much chance of ever succeeding. It was the way she put it that touched me as I could see the sadness in her eyes coupled with the acceptance of something inevitable. It was later I understood that there are many women like her, who because of way the Iran/Iraq war decimated a lot the men of about her age, many of such women have less chance of experiencing marital bliss.
We had a chance to visit the Holy city of Qum, considered to be the largest centre of Shia scholarship and the  base of the spiritual leader of the Iranian revolution, the late Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. There is a clear difference between Qum and Teheran almost similar to that between Mecca and Medina in Saudi Arabia. It is in Qum that you notice most of the women are completely covered up in burkhas or hi jabs and the centre of gravity seem to be the grand mosque where Shia pilgrims congregate. I recall my shock in Teheran that I hardly heard the call to prayer around the area of hotel Laleh where we stayed in central Teheran. Indeed the hotel used to be called InterContinental and was the playground ofthe Teheran jet set before the revolution.
It was during a visit to the library of of the Ayatullah al Uzma Marashi Najafi who died in 1990 and is said to be a great preserver of Islamic heritage. I was humbled by the depth of learning of Ayatullah al Najafi and his lifelong quest of gathering rare Islamic manuscripts.We were told that during his life he devoted everything he got to purchasing those rare manuscript to the extent that he avoided eating one of his daily meals in order to save money and buy rare manuscripts and books. He was said to have willed that he be buried at the entrance of his vast library so that the feet of researchers of Islamic sciences step beside his grave and he got his wish fulfilled as we also passed by his grave as we got in to contemplate a fraction of his vast collection. It includes one of the earliest copies of Qur’an and another rare copy of the Holy book written with human hair.
We also visited the only house owned by the late Ayatollah Khomeini  where we were  conducted round his bedroom, library and other quarters.
Not far from the city of Qum is a hill on which one the early Prophets, Ezra used as a retreat. You could see the city of Qum from the top of the hill where people visit as pilgrims.
Because of my fascination with places with deep history and ancient civilization, Iran is one place I will love to go back to and explore some more. May be then I will get a chance to visit the famous university town of Isfahan and have more cups of tasty pomegranates like the one we we had during a visit to a Teheran bazaar. The depth of devotion to scholarship we glimpsed also leads one to ask questions about how little we are doing for anything beyond the here and now.


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