iran 10: tehran… politics, shrines and martyrs

tehranamericaIran has a complicated relationship with the rest of the world. Whilst on one hand it has been labeled as an “axis of evil” by the West, the war with Iraq lasted for eight years and claimed hundreds of thousands of lives as trench warfare and poison gas were used for the first time since the first World War. Yet Iran’s only retaliation to it all is a couple of banners and a handful of painted wall murals outside the now ex-United States of America embassy in Tehran, and a Martyrs Cemetery where young impish school children sing songs and pay homage to their country’s dead heroes. It makes you wonder.

As the world ostracizes this ancient nation nestled between Iraq and Afghanistan, Iran itself carries about its own business as usual. It has a largely flawless infrastructure throughout its vast expanse, a wonderfully rich heritage and an educated and graceful people with ready smiles and laughter. “Iran good?” is the question asked by everyone you meet. There is such an eagerness to be accepted. To be liked. To be understood.

The country is, for the most part, a cash economy at present as a result of the various embargoes and sanctions imposed on it. Credit cards and travelers cheques don’t work here. Just plain cold hard cash. And for tourists, preferably in US Dollars or Euros. Yet there is no currency black market. One can change forex at certain bank branches, money changing shops, jewelers, carpet shops or in the streets.

I had spent my first two days in Iran in the Tehran of art, beauty and bazaars. I now wanted to see the Tehran that was the country’s response to its modern history and the global arena. I picked up my camera, a few thousand Rials and took the metro to visit the Holy Shrine of Imam Khomeini and the Martyrs Cemetery.

The resting place of Imam Khomeini is around 35 kilometers south of Tehran, and on the main road to Qom, Iran’s second holiest city after Mashad. The shrine is one of the largest Islamic complexes in the world. As I visited the shrine in the late afternoon, it was full of the faithful wrapped in chadors floating around the dimly lit interiors, kneeling on the floors, circumambulating the tomb, murmuring verses from the Koran and tying green ribbons on the lattice. The devotion to the Imam literally palpable.

Ayatollah Khomeini (24 September 1902 – 3 June 1989) was a senior Shia Muslim cleric, Islamic philosopher and the political leader of the 1979 Islamic Revolution in Iran which saw the overthrow of the last Shah of Iran. Following the Revolution, Khomeini became the country’s supreme leader, the paramount political figure of the new Islamic Republic, until his death. He was named Time’s Man of the Year in 1979 and also one of Time magazine’s 100 most influential people in the 20th Century. Interestingly, he was also a Sufi poet with published works.

My next and last stop in Iran was the Behesht-e Zahra, the main military cemetery for those who died in the Iran-Iraq war. The cemetery was beautiful. Calm and serene. I know, it sounds kind of strange to describe a war cemetery with such words. But death is not mourned at these infinite rows of flower covered tombs. But rather celebrated, with flags, banners and children singing songs. These are the country’s heroes, and they have not been allowed to be forgotten. The faces smiling from the pictures placed on the tombs are still alive. The dreams and ideals of the activists still ablaze.

As I wandered around, I found myself suddenly bombarded from all sides by scores of young school girls screaming “I love you” and flashing Victory signs with their little hands. Their eyes laughing with mischief. The laughter pouring over their faces. Wherever I turned I was overtaken by the pitter patter of their feet. “My name is Fatima.” “Your name?” “Iran good god good?” “I love you! I love you!” And then they would break into guileless honest laughter. The guards would raise their fingers, touch their foreheads in greeting. The relatives, in stilted English, would try and explain, blaming the West’s seesawing attitudes almost apologetically, of what had happened to their dead.

This is Iran. Warm. Unpretentious. Sensitive. Polite. And independent.

And the fact is that by ostracizing Iran, it is paradoxically the rest of the world that is losing out. We are losing out on a slice of humanity’s rich cultural heritage and its people’s sincere warmth and affection despite everything. Every journey has a lesson to impart. My trip to Iran taught me that by building walls we only isolate ourselves. And by reaching out and accepting the different, we learn how similar we all are. And how beautiful are the differences.

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Metro station, Tehran
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The Ayatollah Khomeini shrine with the faithful
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The Martyrs’ cemetery pays tribute to the millions who died in the Iran-Iraq war; The day I had visited, a group of school girls were on a school trip to the cemetery, singing prayers for the dead

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