Mashhad to Tehran

Mashhad is a big city. After spending so much time going through semi-desert landscape and the dusty bare towns of Kandahar and Herat, it was disconcerting to be back in what was definitely civilization. And it wasn’t just the big city traffic and the big city buildings, it was evident in the people as well. Of course I had to go and visit the Shrine of Imam Reza. That was obligatory. Not because of any religious reasons, but because it is there, a massive complex that not only contains the tomb of Imam Reza (a very important figure in Shia Islam) but it is also considered the largest mosque in the world. There is another mosque in the complex, a museum, a library and four schools that teach religious matters.

To walk through the mosque – as in India at important shrines — I had to put cloth covers over my shoes to prevent my soles from scratching the marble surface or tracking dirt over it. And also, most probably, to avoid insulting the shrine, since it is considered insulting to show the sole of the foot or the sole of the shoe to someone. The locals, who mostly wore open-toed sandals during the hot season [When is it not hot?], left their sandals at the side of the entrance, but heathen westerners like me were allowed to just slip on cloth covers and enter to enjoy the wonder of the mosque. And it is a wonder. Like the Taj Mahal, it has intricate inlay work all around the imposing main entrance and all around its many balcony portals. Of course I didn’t take any pictures, since I was determined to hold all the pictures of what I saw in my head so that I could write about everything later from pure memory. Well, this resplendent beauty and complexity defies memory, at least exact memory of every detail. All I can say is that I was overwhelmed. Ad I was very happy to spend as much time inside as I could because it was much much cooler that outside on the relentless sun.

The centerpiece was of course the tomb of Imam Reza (who by the way is Ali ibn Moosa a descendant of Muhammad). It is set in a chamber that is adorned with inlayed texts in the walls and turquoise filigree inlays over the arches. UNESCO has declared the whole complex a world heritage site because of its historical architectural beauty and of course its cultural value. You know what? Go find some pictures of it. They are everywhere on the Internet.

After my refreshing and awe-inspiring tour of the mosque, I stepped back out into the glaring sunshine and was immediately drawn to the fountain in front of the mosque. I sat down on one of the cement seats that surrounded the fountain and let the slight breeze that filtered through the fountain stream and over the water in its pool refresh me. I dipped my hand into the water and spread it over my face and hair and bare arms. Then I sat there and stared at the imposing entrance to the mosque. Not far away from me sat a young man in traditional clothing, a roomy white top and white trousers that also had lots of room for the circulation of air. He smiled at me and came to sit next to me. His English was excellent and we got into conversation. He was a theology student but was able to speak about all sorts of things, and he was definitely not a narrow-minded fanatic of any sort. In fact, he was quite up-to-date as regards the state of the world and world culture in 1971. I was a little surprised because I thought that he would have been more intent on trying to convert me, but he wasn’t trying at all. In fact, he said that one of the most important aspects of learning to be a mullah was understanding the world and what people thought, all sorts of people, whether they were religious or not. It was his duty, he said, to talk especially to foreigners and find out how they looked at the world, what made them tick, and how, if necessary, he could one day be of help to someone from that foreign culture.

I was impressed of course. The young man couldn’t have been much older than me. He wasn’t sporting a heavy beard, just some wisps of light brown down along his chin line and over his lip, though he did have head-covering against the sun, a large white skull cap that also served to identify his religious status. He was extremely polite during our whole conversation and asked very direct and penetrating questions about what I thought about certain scientific aspects, like the journey which had recently been taken to the moon. My interest in science had always been rather keen, so I was able to talk quite freely in that area and he took in my answers like a sponge absorbs water. But my time in Mashhad was limited. I had a bus to catch to Tehran. So, as a parting gift he gave me directions as to the shortest route to the bus station and I thanked him and walked away, leaving the massive complex and the student of the world who would one day be an advisor to his parishioners behind me.

Yes, there is a train service between Mashhad and Tehran, and I took the train on my way back to India, but this time I rode on a bus.

*

And since this a little over a year later than the last entry, I am going to add a little biographical note about my mother. Why? Why not? I’ve mentioned her a few times and I thought it might be proper to at least give you a sketch. She was much more complex than I can possibly describe her, and though I have worked on a few stories and even a script treatment that covers an aspect of her life during the second world war, I keep running into aspects of her that actually make her more of a mystery to me instead of less of one. Maybe that’s how it is with everyone. What you see is only a tiny fraction of what is, like the dark matter that is most of the universe. We can’t see it, but now we know it’s there.

This year, on the 1st of March, I cut my hair.

After 5 years of rebellion against my mother’s wishes, I finally had enough and went to the hairdresser I used to frequent 5 years ago. She was happy to see me, and we laughed a lot and I got handed my pony tail (curly hair pony tail) as a souvenir. I took it home with me, showed my wife, photographed it, but after about a week of just looking at it, I finally threw it in the trash.

My mother would have turned 104 on 19 March, so I decided that she should have a quietly reassuring birthday glance through the wormhole of time or from one of the parallel universes and see me with hair that hasn’t stopped shocking her since she was 99.

I actually went to visit her grave for the 100. I thought that was the least I could do. She’s entombed in a wall with lots of relatives over and beside her, so she can’t be feeling all that lonely. Anyway, I did knock on the marble wall, just in case, you know, but there was no reply, which was both reassuring and a little disconcerting. I mean, I assume she has been slowly disintegrating in there since 1992, but what if she just up and left?

During her lifetime she moved around a lot. After growing up about less than a kilometer from where she’s allegedly entombed, she never stopped moving. She was left to live with her grandparents after she was born, and when her parents finally allowed her to come to Rome, when she was 7, she went from school to school, never spending much time in any of them, mostly because she was restless and far too smart to put up with the nonsense she was being taught. Finally, when she got to university, she became a track star and sportswoman. For 5 years she was the fastest woman in Italy in the 100 meters. After that, war, and the diplomatic service kept her running from place to place, city to city, and while I was growing up in BH, from apartment to apartment. We lived in 14 different apartments in 11 years. Well, one of them we lived in twice, with a few years in between the moves in and out. In her retirement in Umbria she moved apartments at least 5 times and finally just gave up apartments altogether and started traveling from hotel to hotel around Umbria. She slowly divested herself of worldly goods and in the end had one red Samsonite suitcase for her clothes and a pair of knee-length boots that she kept mentioning to me in the months before she had her stroke. “The boots, the boots,” she would say.

By the time she was ready to take her leave, I had difficulty in locating where she was, she had moved so often. Finally I found out that she was in hospital and made it down in time to see her. She couldn’t talk because of the stroke. But she grabbed my arm with the hand that still worked and sat me down, and through stare-command ordered me to shut up and watch. Slowly, over the next 5 days, she slipped away.

But she had one more trick up her sleeve. Her pension check arrived on the day she passed, and in order to collect it, I had to travel to Perugia with my cousin, a postman, and talk with the postal authorities, who were the ones who would give it to me and then cash the check. It being Italy, the doctor in the hospital, understanding the situation perfectly, wrote a very clear and precise letter which stated that due to medical reasons, my mother was “immobilized” and not able to travel to collect her check, so her son was going in her stead. My cousin the postman did most of the talking in Perugia and after about an hour of smiles and nods and suspicious looks and shrugs and hand gestures, they gave me the check, cashed it, and we drove back to my “immobile” mother.

So, being the trickster and super-intelligent lady she always was, and of course restless as as a fly or a cockroach caught in the open during daylight hours, I can’t really vouch for her true whereabouts. The weather is quite good there and I had the word WILLPOWER put on her marble wall so that people would at least know that if the wall crumbled and there had been no earthquake, then she was most probably on the loose. I haven’t read about any tornadoes or menacing dust devils traumatizing people in the area, so maybe the marble wall is still holding her back.

The question remains: For how long?

PS: “The boots.” Yeah, well, of course I got the suitcase after the funeral and went through it. Nothing really to keep. I even contemplated giving the boots away until I thought: “Hmmm.” Being knee-high boots, in order to keep their shape, she had stuffed crushed up newspaper all the way down into the feet of the boots and up to the tops, which were made of a fine soft leather. I slowly removed the newspaper and, lo and behold, down at the bottom of the boots, on the inner soles of both, was cash money in nice crispy Italian Lira. In fact, it was just enough money to pay for the funeral and the wake, which we held (I invited all the local relatives, about 15 people) in a very good restaurant, as lunch after the funeral.

*

BASHO MOMENTS

a cat, no, rabbit
under a bare lakeside bush
winter-sculpted roots

turtles by the shore
black shells glisten in water
three stones in the lake

a murder of crows
peck for hidden snowdrop bulbs
before they might bloom

the wet gravel path
runners slosh past on thin mud
I walk toward my Spring

equinox is near
winter hides and then appears
blackbirds are singing

footsteps follow me
I turn my head and nothing
nothing steps closer

lines I speak out loud
sound real like the crow’s cackle
and mean just as much

just a willow tree
branches black against the sky
tendrils long for Spring

Next: Tehran to Erzurum

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