Belated sharing, written in September:
Monday evening finds me kneeling in a neon green mosque, surrounded by Iranian women rocking back and forth in prayer, some pressing forward to touch tear-stained hands against the mihrab, others tracing lines of Persian in their prayer books, others fingering chains of blue or green prayer beads, murmuring and pressing their foreheads against holy rocks with “Ya Hussein” carved on them, still others just scrolling through their smartphone screens or trying to rein in their toddlers. The woman on my left looks at me, looks again twice, whispers “Salam” and offers me a chocolate. The woman on my right has her eyes closed, hands clutched tight around her chador, the cloth cape we’ve all been required to wrap ourselves in from head to toe.
I’m at a pilgrimage site just outside Qom, the holy city in central Iran host to many of the world’s most influential Shia clerics. This shrine is a spot where the twelfth imam of Shia Islam supposedly once appeared, so now pilgrims come to pray here, believing they will be blessed, healed or helped for it. I’m ironically reminded of the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem, where men and women also pushed forward in separate sections to rock back and forth in fervid supplication. I wonder here, as I often wondered in Jerusalem, what they are praying for. There are many grandmothers and mothers around me, and I wonder if they have sick children, unfaithful husbands, or sudden deaths like the ones that struck my church in Beijing last week and youth group in Shanghai months ago. I wonder if they are crying for understanding and peace in the face of broader traumas, like Americans felt with this week’s killing of another black man. I wonder if some have family members fighting in Syria alongside the state, for what they believe is the sake of preserving stability and combating Wahhabi-driven extremist groups, as the Iranian television reports 24/7.
The women are just like those that crowd around me on the bus every morning to say Farsi baladi? Do you speak Persian? And when I give a few broken sentences in response, they kiss me in delight. Azizam, the Persian version of habibti, they croon, adorning me with terms of endearment just for being here and listening, as so many Palestinian, Iraqi, Sudanese and Syrian women did before. I wonder if some are just tired. I wonder if their prayer helps. I know, at least, that it always helps to be heard.
I am surprisingly comfortable in Iran, where two Fridays ago I passed a street demonstration marching downtown, its leader chanting “Death to America, Death to Europe, Death to Saudi” through a megaphone, the people echoing after him. I know what that means is “Down with injustice, imperialism, oppression,” down with lack of accountability after hundreds were killed during last year’s hajj in Mecca, down with bombings on Yemen, occupation of Palestine and corporate profits at the expense of black and brown bodies. I know it also means, “Up with the regime,” something familiar to me from similar state-coordinated demonstrations in China as well as Jordan, where people are told to chant their support for the government, whether that’s reflected among the grassroots or not.
Days after that demonstration, young people told me at a party that they just want to live, just like I’ve heard from Israeli surfers in Tel Aviv, Jordanian musicians in West Amman, and now Iranian rich kids sneaking vodka, crop tops and a huge amplified bass sound system to party at their parents’ villas in North Tehran. All these kids could mingle at one party in the U.S. and you wouldn’t be able to tell them apart. Religion is more enforced in Iran than anywhere else I’ve lived in the world, but most people are less devout than even my “Communist” Chinese brothers and sisters. In Esfahan, my friends and I visited Safavid palaces redolent with splendor, all crystal domed ceilings, hand-carved mosaics and murals of lavish banquets filled with dancing and drinking women. “This was an Islamic dynasty? With the dancers and all that wine?” my Syrian friend asked, confused. “Of course,” our guide said. “This is Iran.”
When Afghan invaders overturned the Safavid dynasty, they scratched out the faces of the women in Esfahan’s palace murals, thinking them too lascivious. When the Islamic revolution happened in 1979, the new government replaced their flag’s lion with a sun on his back, an ancient sign of Persia, with the word “Allah.” They also replaced all the historic squares, mosques, and hotels that had “Shah” in their names with “Imam” instead. I asked our guide if they did that as a sign of power purging the former regime, or out of actual puritanical aversion to lions, suns and shahs. “Both,” she said, and then added: “But you know, Iranians were much more religious in the shah’s time. Especially the youth now, they couldn’t care less about Islam. They want to be Zoroastrian. Force people to believe, and they won’t. Tell them to be secular, and they’ll believe.” My Syrian friend laughed, “Kul mamnu3 marghub. Whatever is forbidden is desired.”
Last month I spent a few days visiting refugee friends who’d been resettled in Canada. One afternoon a Syrian friend, R, started telling me as usual about how Mohammad was a man of peace who did many good things to help people, brought social change and more equality, etc. I asked R how he deals with Muslim leaders who preach messages of sectarian incitement on YouTube and in mosques. How does he reconcile his peaceful, inclusive Islam with these people spouting hate and drawing lines between Sunni and Shia?
“That’s a hard question. Give me some time,” he said. We walked up a hill overlooking the river splitting Gatineau and Ottawa and perched on a statue’s base, stretching bare feet into the sun. “I guess I just have to represent Islam to those around me,” R said at last. “I don’t agree with what those people preach and I try to present a different version.” I told him that I understand – I watch videos too, of American soldiers blasting praise songs before going to fight countries that I love, or of very loud Christians marching in hatred against girls who have abortions, Syrian refugees and homosexuals, all categories in which I count some of my most beloved. I watch U.S. politicians affirm their faith and then spew chauvinistic militarism in the name of God, and I feel so alienated. But that’s also when I need to humility, to understand where these fearful words come from, to engage those I flinch away from and to represent a different kind of Christianity.
R’s problem with Christianity is that it doesn’t seem to offer justice, he says, and that’s not okay. “You have to punish the bad guys,” he said. “And some things are not just bad, they’re evil. How can you let them go?” I’m reminded of my friend E, who said, “Isn’t George Bush a Christian? So he could do whatever he wanted in Iraq and then because of Jesus, God would just forgive him? How can you be okay with that?” It’s hard for me to answer R from Syria and E from Palestine, because they know. They’ve been raised in countries filled with injustice and hurt, some dating back centuries, others just a few years fresh fresh but enough to strangle you a hundred times over. It’s hard for me to answer in Iran, too, whose history is rife with exploitation at the hands of ruthless shahs, rapacious Western nations, lying Americans and traitors who siphoned the country’s wealth to imperialists for the sake of personal profit. I see why the loudest and most effective message is one of justice in the hands of God, and we His servants struggling and sacrificing ourselves to make things right. I see why there are martyrs’ murals all over the walls of Tehran, and why nationalism is tied up with rhetoric of resistance, victimhood and righteousness. “How can you turn your other cheek to evil?” R asks me. “You do that, and all the good people will be devoured.”
I spend a lot of time thinking about Christianity, Islam, their parallels and connection in the context of Western hegemony and ongoing conflict in the Middle East – mostly because I want to love my Muslim friends better, to understand their truths while reflecting back on mine. I am hoping Iran will help me find answers to R, E, to the martyr’s mothers on all sides of conflicts in this region and to all those thirsty for justice in a world where religion is so politicized, where suffering is so deep, and where Christianity is so often associated with the blood and slime of imperialism.
The longer I spend away from the West, the more I love the church without a flag. I love the church as men and women of peace, kindness and joy, bringing bags of lentils and rice to hidden Sudanese families in Jordan, embracing the crippled and blind as “brothers” in southwestern China, loving those who point guns at their faces in Palestine, Xinjiang and Iraq, and responding to darkness by washing feet. I love the church that offers an alternative to vengeance without surrendering to injustice. I want to find it here.
I also want to listen well – to God, to the people around me, to the stories waiting to be told. I am glad to be here if only to put faces to Iran, so that what pops to mind when I hear the word is not nuclear deals and Shia militias but the Persian families begging me to join their picnics, the grandpa who sells me saffron and pistachio ice cream then tells me about his friends doing business in China, and the women’s apartment guard, Fatima, who loves having me teach her yoga in my broken beginner’s Farsi at 6:30 in the morning. I want to write well too, but only eventually, not on my student visa (haha), not yet. For now I am thankful to be here, small and foreign once again, and I pray to be all here.