There is something about standing in the midst of a never-ending sort of silence, a sobering realization that in every corner stands a slight but present shadow of yourself.
Before it became an encounter, it started as a necessary confrontation. I’d anticipated a meeting with my selves for a while.
My journey to this moment was tumultuous. On the one hand, I became enmeshed with all these processes we’ve imposed on our natural, God-given right to migrate: bank statements, insurance, VISA requests, letters, permissions, money. Checked. Verified. Questioned. Although my soul was eager, my body was exhausted. Flying through time-zones, getting caught in all sorts of interceptions, material and otherwise, losing batteries, and no way to fully recharge and recover from the absurdity of it all: Tokyo, Hong Kong, Moscow, then, finally, Tehran. I often looked out the window and entertained visions of a convicted Greta, projected on the night lights of distant cityscapes from above. My reunion with myself came at the cost of our climate.
On the other hand I had barely recovered from a case of dehydration I caught just one week before my journey. Being dehydrated materialized one of my longest childhood dreams: fainting. Not once, but apparently twice I fainted. I spent my final week in Phnom Penh on a dieta consisting of 5 pills a day, boiled eggs, bananas and pocari sweat. I wasn’t ready to travel again. I broke down multiple times between the curtains that isolated my bed from the remaining 5 at the dorm, my one and only palace of peace.
Dinner time saved me from my abyss of stoicism. I can’t recall whether I chose beef, chicken, or fish. I checked my bag to make sure I was definitely carrying a scarf, a wannabee hijab. I revisited my intentions and hoped that on my arrival, I’d finally find what I’d been looking for.
ما تبحث عنه يبحث عنك, or “What You Seek is Seeking You”
I arrived on an interesting day. The Mourning of Muharram includes several rituals that are usually associated with the Shi’a branch of Islam. It happens on the first month of the Islamic Lunar Calendar, and I arrived in Tehran on Ashura, its tenth day.
Ashura marks the height of the entire month’s rituals: the day that Husayn ibn Ali, the grandson of Prophet Muhammad was martyred in the Battle of Karbala. For Sunni Muslims, this day marks the liberation of Moses from Egypt through God’s partition of the Red Sea, as well as Noah’s leaving of the Ark.
I spent the entire day in the company of thousands of people. The degrees of familiarity varied at each new corner in Tehran’s busy bazaar. Although everything was closed, open hands, with generous sips of tea or coffee or the delicious saffron-infused sherbet abounded. Plastic-wrapped meals circumnavigated above our roughly tied hijabs, chief among them the Ghormeh Sabzi, a generous blend of freshly chopped lamb, all kinds of vegetables and dried lime. We received this meal with sangak bread, and recalling the delight with which I ate it, I can now confidently justify my child-like excitement. Indulgence wasn’t an option, but a must.
By the time the evening fell, the whole city’s life was caught within the parlours of its intricately built Mosques. Worshipers and pilgrims relied mostly on the altruism and willingness of these familiar strangers who spent hours cooking for the masses. I, neither worshiper nor pilgrim as of yet, stood shyly among them in a shared hope for some much anticipated nazri. Nazri was soon to become my go-to daily bread, a reassurance that nourishment is not simply regarded as an individual need, but that the act of eating and giving food should be experienced as a shared activity. It was only later on my trip, while tasting yet another delicious Persian dish in Shiraz, that I was gently told that “not every food is nazri”, the innuendos of which I should at a later time address.
But alas we were too late. Though we lit our candles and partook in the final stretch of the day’s ceremonies, the absence of nazri was deeply felt. So we did the natural thing and turned to fast food options, which in Iran usually means a tangy kabab or more western delicacies such as pizza and burgers. It was at this time that I started to think of my own exodus.
I often tend to forget that the universe does not revolve around me, and that things don’t happen to me, but with me. I’d barely spent an entire day in Tehran, and still I found myself unknowingly witnessing a tradition that predated even the existence of some of my oldest ancestors. If I was standing on the same ground where pilgrims had stood since time immemorial, standing still was a waste of time. I felt a martian-like urge to go somewhere, elsewhere that was not Tehran. I made silly excuses like “Tehran is too busy”, or “Tehran is just like any other metropolis”. When everyone seemed to converge in the capital to share in this heightened spiritual apex of the nation’s supposed identity, I felt I needed to get out, and to, perhaps quite literally, have God forge of the path ahead a partition through which I could take a shortcut to myself.
Amir sat in front of me, eating a delicious sandwich which I forfeited for a pizza. I asked him, in your opinion, where should I go? Isfahan?, I offered before he could answer. Everyone goes to Isfahan, I thought.
Look For the Answer Inside Your Question
The answer came to me much later in the evening, after we had discussed travel plans, Iranian dishes, and a street artist whose work kept being disappearing from public view. Kashan, he started, if you ask me my opinion, I think you should go to Kashan. I arrived in Kashan on the next day.
Kashan immediately felt like what I had been hoping to achieve: the fade out of the colour orange, a mist both light yet indisputably present in the not so distant horizon that easily characterizes the ancient mud-brick architecture of Iranian cities. The paths to my abode, narrower by the step, taking me through the historical houses of celebrated silk merchants, allowing for the small glimpses of the coming resting phase of the sun, briefly stationing itself in between the pillars of the nearest mosque.
I kept rehearsing the lines I would say to myself. First I would take a step into the great sand. Red, crystal-like sand whose smoke from the intense heat would propel my feet to keep moving so as to escape the pain of standing still. This superimposed collective human experience, and the feelings that a pilgrimage in the desert evoke. It’s the way of the saints, both in a physical world, and in a spiritual dimension where existential crises abound — more so if you’ve just turned 25.
I wanted to ask myself a couple of questions. I hoped that I could find a mirror of my current composition glistening in between the finest grains of sand. I hoped to make tangible the act of reaching out towards the wind and maybe hearing the voice of God as he once spoke to the most heartfelt of vagabonds.
There was so much exhaustion lingering on my body. An exhaustion I’d been carrying for a time much longer than what this current existence represents. Ultimately, I hoped to, for a moment, become one with the sand and simply evaporate.
My disappointment came in bangs, but not so loud as to disturb the intricate tapestry of the dunes. The wind covered my disgruntled tracks, and I thought of the creator. Who is this Creator? I came all the way from freeing myself, and at the end of my pilgrimage arrived here, and was met with a harsh truth, and thirst.
My thirst was not satisfied. The story I’d been telling myself, and hoped to tell others of my journey, was but a delusion that dissipated into thin air.
It was just before sunset again. This would be only my 3rd sunset since arriving in Iran.
On this third day, I became the Prophet. For a moment, I was uprooted and transported into a recent past. Just about a month prior, I had been sitting in the middle of the forest in Siem Reap, sketching away distant dreams and visions. One such vision manifested over and over: the sight of silence, the sweetness of truth.
I thought the point was to find some answers, but I found out that the beginning of the true pilgrimage starts by arriving at oneself.