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To Karbala,via Iran

On a family’s 1959 pilgrimage to Karbala, a young girl glimpses the modern charms of Iran’s thriving past

The Imam Hussain shrine. Photographs from Getty Images
The Imam Hussain shrine. Photographs from Getty Images (The Imam Hussain shrine. Photographs from Getty Images)

I am standing on a chair, looking through a port hole of a ship. I see young children diving into the sea for pearls. The place is Bahrain and I am two and a half years old. It is 1959.

My mother had taken ill giving birth to me, and my grandmother had vowed that she would take her daughter to Karbala, in Iraq, if she recovered. Karbala is the place where Imam Hussain, the Prophet’s grandson, was martyred in his fight against Yazid I, the caliph. Yazid had assumed the temporal leadership of Muslims after the death of his father Muawiya, the first caliph of the Umayyad caliphate, but till he received an oath of allegiance from Hussain, his spiritual leadership was in doubt. Imam Hussain, however, said, “A person like me would not give the oath of allegiance to a person like Yazid who had violated all tenets of Islam." Imam Hussain and all the healthy male members of his family and friends were martyred in the month of Muharram by Yazid’s army in Karbala. It has since become an important place of pilgrimage for Shias from all over the world.

A street stall in Tehran selling soup.
A street stall in Tehran selling soup.

My mother had gained back her health, as had my aunt Motahhira, for whom too my grandmother had made the same mannat. It was time to fulfil the vows.

Nani decided she might as well take her younger children and my sisters too. Being so young, I could of course not be separated from my mother. So, there we were, going into unknown lands, led by a 53-year-old matriarch. We must have made an interesting and motley crew. My aunt recalls, “With three grown-up daughters, three minor children and three very young grandchildren, Mummy embarked on her voyage to the shrines of Shia imams, leading us like a mother goose, with a bevy of goslings waddling around her."

And since we were going to Iraq, it made sense to go to Iran, another popular Shia pilgrimage centre, where the eighth Shia Imam Reza is buried, in Mashhad.

My grandmother, Begum Hameeda Khatoon, did not have a formal education but could read and write Urdu. Whatever she lacked in education, however, she made up for in spirit, a sense of enquiry, and determination.

Widowed at the age of 48, she adapted herself to her new circumstances and went about living life with her children.

In the coup d’état of 1958, Abd al-Karim Qasim had seized power in Iraq, abolishing the monarchy. Relatives advised my Nani against travelling to a land where political instability reigned but her mind was made up. Nani was convinced that nothing could happen to us since we were going to visit the shrines of Hazrat Ali and Imam Hussain. Her faith was calling her and she did not want to listen to anyone.

A photograph from the writer’s trip to Karbala. Courtesy Zamin Family
A photograph from the writer’s trip to Karbala. Courtesy Zamin Family

We left Moradabad for Delhi and once our passports had been stamped with visas for Pakistan and Iran, we were off on a train to Atari, from where we would go to Lahore, and via Karachi, to Quetta.

Even today my aunts, uncles and sisters remember the journey vividly. We had no reservations and since we were on a budget pilgrimage, we were travelling “inter class", which was between second and third class. The amount of luggage we had ensured that at least we had trunks to sit on even if we could find no place inside the compartment. As winter would be harsh in Iran and Iraq, we also had thick lihafs (duvets) with us. But it turned out that finding space was the least of our problems.

Our real adventure began as we left Quetta for Zahedan in Iran, a city on the border of Iran, Pakistan and Afghanistan. It’s hilly terrain and since the trains weren’t as fast in those days, it took around 40 hours to cover 732km. Even today, I find to my surprise that the journey takes 33 hours by train. The train, probably a passenger train, was travelling at a snail’s pace, my uncle Mohammed, who was 13 at the time, recounts his experience. The train had just left Quetta when officials entered to check passports. Why they hadn’t done it before we boarded the cross-border train is anybody’s guess!

Upon checking Nani’s passport, the officer declared that the visa for Iran did not mention her three younger children, who were listed on her passport. Therefore, she would not be allowed to enter the country. He advised her to get off, take a taxi to Quetta, get the endorsement from the Iranian consulate and then catch the train further on. He assured her that the train moved so slowly that she would be able to come back and catch the train.

She had no choice. Taking my eldest uncle with her, she took a taxi for Quetta. I shudder to think of the anxiety of the travelling party, headless without my grandmother. We were on a Pakistani train and in unknown terrain. Of course, there were no cellphones—or any other means of communication.

In Quetta, the visa was stamped in a jiffy and the taxi driver started back to catch the train. He asked my Nani for money for petrol. She was nothing if not smart and knew that if he saw she had so much money on her, he might attack her. She faked helplessness and replied that all the money was in the train, for she had left in a hurry. Immediately, the taxi picked up speed and rushed towards our train.

My aunt says that besides passengers, the train also carried goods smuggled from Pakistan into Iran. “We saw dining-car trays being unloaded covered with napkins. When a napkin flew away with the wind, we saw that there were shoes in the tray. Scores of such trays were off-loaded. In another compartment, the smugglers would not let the custom officer check the bags of one woman. The moment an officer touched it, someone from the gang of smugglers would begin to shout, ‘This is a widow’s stuff, leave it alone. Do not bother her’, and recite homilies such as, ‘Be nice to widows and orphans.’ It turned out that this woman had put her widowhood to making money with the help of smugglers. She travelled with them on a regular basis. Probably the custom officers were taking their cut too," my Abbo Khala recalls.

Zahedan was once called Duzdab, which translates into town of water thieves. It had a considerable Sikh population and when the then Shah of Iran, Reza Shah Pahlavi, visited it, he saw many people in white robes with flowing beards and wondered what such pious people were doing in a land named after thieves. He renamed it Zahedan, or land of the pious.

When we visited, the Sikhs, though small in number, were still quite visible, thanks to the shops and businesses they owned. After the Islamic Revolution of 1979, many of them left Iran. Around 60 families remain now.

Zahedan was also a major junction on the historic Silk Route and all along the way we stayed in simple musafirkhanas or small hotels dotting the route. We were carrying an oil stove and, wherever possible, cooked our own food.

From Zahedan, we took a bus to the holy city of Mashhad, where the shrine of Imam Reza is located—it’s also a major city on the Silk Route. Imam Reza was murdered by king Al-Ma’mun in 823 AD. The small village of Sanabad was renamed Mashhad-e-Reza, or place of martyrdom of Reza, as the imam was buried here.

The Iranians are very fond of “Al-Hindi" or Indians, and we were welcomed and showered with gifts.

After staying for three weeks in Mashhad and visiting the shrine many times, my grandmother’s caravan was ready to move to Tehran, where we had to apply for the visa to Iraq.

The distance from Mashhad to Tehran, Iran’s capital, is 890km. The train was very impressive and, unlike Indian trains, it had a heating system. We had reserved seats. We were used to India and suspicious by nature so, when the conductor came, asked for our tickets and, to our surprise, walked away with them, Abbo Khala, horrified and scared that we might be accused of travelling ticketless, hung on to his coat-tails and would not let go till he returned our tickets. We knew no Farsi and he knew no Hindi so he mimed his way and showed a bag full of tickets of other passengers that he had collected, gesturing that she should drop our tickets in the bag too.

Today we see Iran as a conservative country. Back then, however, it was a Westernized, modern country. My two uncles would just stand and gaze at the shop window of a television store. They had not even heard of TVs in Moradabad.

We were mesmerized by the advancements in Iran. It had departmental stores with escalators! Never in our wildest dreams had we thought we would get to see flying stairs much like Aladdin’s flying carpet, or fountains with coloured water.

When I visited Iran again in 2009, I was shocked to see the difference between it and the rich Gulf countries. We went to a seedy restaurant at a mall in Tehran, using an escalator. The restaurant must have at some point been fashionable, but in 2009 it was struggling. I found it difficult to reconcile what I experienced with the stories I had heard, and my own memories of Iran in 1959.

There were old cars running on smooth roads, the shops were shabby and the women were dressed in chadors, nowhere nearly as glamorous as the veiled Arab women in the Gulf.

Back then, however, after a week of fun and sightseeing in Tehran, we were ready for the next step of our pilgrimage. The visa for Iraq was stamped, and this time my Nani ensured that her minor children were also mentioned on it.

The journey from Iran to Iraq was not smooth. The political turmoil due to the coup d’état meant that the normal rail route from Tehran to Baghdad was closed. There were many checkpoints, all heavily guarded—that is the situation even today.

Since we couldn’t cross over directly into Iraq, we had to go to Khorramshahr in Iran and cross the Shatt Al-Arab river on a small boat to Basrah (now Basra) in Iraq. From Basrah, we boarded a train to Baghdad. Abbo Khala remembers, “Though we were not confronted with any violence, the atmosphere was tense."

In 2010, when I visited Iraq, it was still in the grip of unrest and a sectarian war was playing out on its streets. The first thing I saw when I came out of the airport in Baghdad was a sniper post with a huge signboard, “We shoot to kill."

The trains in Iraq were horrible compared to Iran. Iraq itself was nowhere as modern and developed as Shah’s Iran.

Somewhere on that journey, I fell sick. We were not used to snow. My Nani immediately vowed that once I got well she would take me to the shrine of Imam Hussain in a chador and make me pray.

Another very clear memory I have is of pestering my mother for sweets: “Amma, mithai. Amma, mithai." In Karbala and other shrines in Iraq, people whose vows have been fulfilled distribute sweets. Since it’s difficult to give these to the thousands of visitors individually, they raise their hands high and throw them into the crowd. I was too small to run and grab one. My mother, busy praying, told me to ask Maula (Imam Hussain). I have always had a one-track mind, and pay full attention to whatever I am doing. I started off with my tiny hands lifted in the air, “Maula, mithai, Maula, mithai." To this day, I get goosebumps when I remember a very beautiful young girl coming to me and giving me a handful of sweets, just for me.

Of course, everyone around started telling my mother, “This is a miracle. Why didn’t you ask her to pray for something else?" We who are never satisfied!

It was time to return home, and excitingly, we returned by ship.

MS Santhia belonged to the P&O Line/British India Steam Navigation Co. We left Basrah on 10 January 1960, stopped at many cities and docked in Bombay (now Mumbai) on 20 January.

We had returned safe and sound from an exciting three-month trip. I don’t think they make women like my grandmother any more.

Rana Safvi is a historian and author of author of several books, including Tales From The Quran And Hadith.

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