The summer of ’95 was one of the every-other-extremely-hot-and-dry-summers my family spent in Iran. Mom assured me that there were four weddings waiting for us, and though that fell through to several funerals, our days were still spent traveling through the vineyards of Shiraz, the mists of Northern Esfahan, the deserts of Ahvaz, the taxi smog of Tehran and the holy city of Mashhad.
In Shiraz we stayed with my dad’s family, in Ahvaz with my mom’s, and in Tehran we shacked up with my bachelor uncle. But in the green of Mashhad, my dad sprung for Hotel Homa – the first five star hotel built after the Islamic Revolution, with pathways elongating through gardens seemingly too colorful for a heathen country. The staff did lose our reservations, however, and after a frustrating day spent in the hotel’s gorgeous lobby, and several drags of my five-year-old sister, Sara, through that same green garden, my family was promised a room for the next day.
Luckily, there wasn’t much luggage to heft because mom had left the suitcase full of Captain Crunch and Frosted Flakes in Ahvaz (only on condition, however, that I would try and eat whatever Persian breakfast was put in front of me). The staff at Homa had been cordial enough to call in reservations at a smaller, fewer-starred hotel – some white-washed, stair-cased, city apartment complex that rented to vacationers and foreigners. The walls were bare, the lobby was unremarkable and the staff much friendlier and much less pompous. Yellow lights and gray stairwells welcomed us to our second floor-for-the-night apartment. I have no memory of any of the food consumed there, or of any other light color than yellow, but before I settled into my stiff, bleached, white sheets for the night, mom tried to convince me that the hotel wasn’t that bad.
Besides, she said, Homa was just a treat along the way. The real reason, she reminded me, that we were in Mashhad was not just to vacation away from the desert, and my dad’s family, but because of Nazr, the religious contract my parents had tied with the long dead eighth Shi’a Imam Reza. They’d asked him of something, (as of a recent conversation with mom, she doesn’t remember what it was) and in return my parents had promised to pay homage to him at his grave in Mashhad as well as to slaughter a lamb with which to feed the homeless.
Perhaps it was this bit of oddity related to me at bedtime that should be held responsible for the dream I fell into that night.
In line were rich colored robes, two or three before me and only one after, each waiting his or her turn, like me, to shake hands with whoever was sitting on the decorated throne, the only notable noun in the room. Everyone was older, silent, colored in reds and purples and trimmed in gold.
As they cleared, each having shaken the hand of the dark-haired man on the throne, I approached him, my own hand forward and empty, ready to receive what he had to give. Imam Ali-Reza squeezed my hand, and it was then that I woke, disturbed as to what the dream meant, in the white-walled room, in Mashhad, only ten hours before visiting the Shrine of the Imam.
Sleep was no comfort that night. The walls blinked, the sheets chaffed, the dream carouseled, and painted on the back of my lids was the Imam, on his throne, with his hand extended promisingly.
Morning awoke painfully, stirring me to the sound of my dad in the shower, my mom blow drying her hair, and Sara bouncing.
Bounce, bounce, bounce.
“Sara, stop it.”
“No.” The bouncing continued.
“Good morning, iskham,” Mom called to me.
“Sobbehkher,” was the dry response I croaked back.
“Khoob khabedi?” she inquired of my sleep.
“No. I had a really weird dream.” I replied in English.
“What was it?” She humored me and switched languages.
“I dreamed that I was fourth in line to meet Imam Reza.”
However flatly I had delivered the line, there was still an ebullient hug. Everything was an omen to mom, and though I was well acquainted with her dreams of angels and war before certain events took place, I was too afraid to give the dream any meaning, though the tone of prophecy continued to box my ears.
That night, safe in our Homa room, I pulled on a thick pair of black stockings under my long-sleeved, purple-flowered dress. The stockings looked stupid, but they were essential to getting into the Imam’s shrine. I knotted tightly a modest black scarf secure around my head and adjusted my dress so that my wrists weren’t bare. I tugged it down, feeling it too short, though it settled inches below my knees.
The air in the taxi was thick and stale, even though the air outside offered refreshment. Dad was lucky enough to be male, which only required that he wear long pants and long sleeves – which he did loosely and comfortable, I jealously noted. My own scalp prickled under the sweat, making it itch, itch, itch, though I tried not to fuss because poor mom was wearing a double coat of Islamic armor: a long, black chador over all the typical going wear. Her face shone moon-like, yellow because of low platelets or exposure to hepatitis B or something. She sweat more gracefully, using her chador to wipe at her face with a covered, black hand.
Sara had it easy. She was five and her short hair made it look like she could be of any sex, which is why when we finally arrived at the entrance of the lit up shrine, with its classical Persian architecture modernly gold from the spotlights, dad hefted Sara onto his shoulders and they left to stand in the male line.
In the female line I grasped my mom’s chador-covered-hand tightly, anxiously, impatiently. The air was crisp alone, but with the swarms of covered figures crowding their own anxiousness, impatient themselves as they pushed as far up the line as possible, the temperature increased, and only continued to as we reached the front of the line.
There, a mean-looking woman, wearing a similar looking black chador, pat me down roughly. She ran her hands, now out from under her armor, over my arms, my stomach, my back, and as she ran them down my legs she stopped and flicked my ankle bone, black under the stockings, and something I didn’t even realize I had until the woman told me she could see it.
“Oh, come on.” Mom pleaded to the lady, in Farsi.
“I can see her ankles.” The woman pursed her thin lips.
“She’s NINE,” Mom continued, “I hardly think that God is going to hold this against her.”
The woman begrudgingly let us by, with one last warning that if I showed up with my ankle jutting out again, I wouldn’t be allowed in. Later that night my dad would claim that his patting down was far more degrading than ours, but only because the attendant grabbed his balls while searching. Score two for hijab.
Rolling her eyes and firmly grasping my hand, mom led me through the checking hall and through the doors of the shrine. Sweat began dripping, dripping, dripping down my neck, back, legs, only to be absorbed by those same black stockings. Women were pushing from every direction, religiously eager to get to the Imam Reza’s tomb, regardless of whom they mowed down in the process.
From far, and from behind many black chadors, I saw that the tomb itself was nothing more than a golden box, just a golden box with designs and green net hanging off the top of the box. And yet everyone seemed frenzied to approach as closely to it as possible. The closer we got, the less air was available. The chadors up closer were much more violent, tripping, jabbing, elbowing their ways through the weaker chadors.
And the wailing, oh the wailing these women let up. They screamed as if murders and rapes were taking place in front of them; they clawed their faces, under their dramatic tears, until they were actually crying a blood solution. They continued pushing, pulling, shoving, screaming, and still we got closer, closer, closer.
Closer, we lost control of our movements. The chadors shoved forward and shoved back, moving those of us caught in the middle of a motion oddly similar to sitting in an inflatable tire tube during the tempest. Air strained to reach the corners of the room as the women in front breathed it selfishly, not thinking to leave any for anyone, not even for me. I inhaled and only got a mouthful of fetid, musky chador odor.
I panted, beginning to panic, beginning to see black, beginning to think that my dream was far more unrealistic than what the current situation could allow. Slouching, I gave myself up the push of the wave, settling deeper into my tire tube, hoping to be washed further from this rocky shore. There was no omen here, no magic, no real religion even; only a group of people who thought that if they screamed louder, wailed more pathetically, and clawed away heavier chunks of face than anyone, than they were the real, true Muslims.
Later that night, enjoying the room space air of our Homa room, the male and female factions of my family discussed critically the behavior of the other Muslims at the shrine. My sister snored from the bed closest to the window, exhausted by her own time spent amongst religion. I lay on the second bed, tracing the diamond patterns on the hotel comforter, listening to my mother debrief.
“I couldn’t believe it,” my Mom said in Farsi for the umpteenth time. “I just couldn’t believe it. Those women,” she continued to my dad, “pushed and clawed and screamed as if the world were ending. I’m embarrassed for them, really. In a place of peace! In one of the few places to show restraint, order, civility, class! I have never seen such a lack of class!”
Face heavy with thought, my dad replied, slowly, meticulously, “The men didn’t act so badly, though they did grab my balls while patting me down.” He looked at me when he said balls, growling the word mischievously, making me at the same time both embarrassed and giggly.
“Mostly,” he continued to my mom, “I was concerned with not losing Sara. She sat on my shoulders the entire time—“
“Bringing your total height to, what, five feet?” Mom broke in playfully, grinning at me from the corner of her mouth.
My dad, sensitive as always about his height, contorted his face to show his lack of amusement and plunged on. “It was hotter than hell. No air, too many bodies, and Sara weeding the white hairs from my head made it all a little distracting.”
So he had experienced much of what my mom and I had, I noted, somewhat relieved. I rolled to my other side and yawned a big yawn. The names of religions and prophets and holy figureheads made hot the wires in my brain. Maybe I could just be nothing, I scratched my head, long having stopped listening to my parents’ conversation.
Crawling under the covers I decided that I couldn’t be nothing, I had to be something. Sleepily I wondered what a Muslim actually was. I liked the story of Jesus and had never had doubts that at some point Moses did part the sea and Abraham did have a daughter named Sara and a guy named Buddha meditated himself to enlightenment. Did that mean I was a Christian, Jew and Buddhist too? Was I only Muslim because I was born into it? Were my parents Muslims because they were born into it? My grandma is Muslim and she took me to a Catholic church once. Was she Catholic too? Could I be Muslim culturally? Like how being Jewish entails culture AND religion?
I didn’t know.
Just as I’d become content enough with the answer to fall asleep, my mom startled me, “Did you brush your teeth?”
“No,” I mumbled unhappily from under the covers, kicking them off and slumping to the sink. If nothing else, I knew there wouldn’t ever be a night that this question wouldn’t haunt me too.