Saturday, December 22, 2012

Tehran cemetary

The transition from west to the Middle East begins at a European airport.  In the waiting area for the flight to Tehran, a young woman stands up and holds her hands close to her face, appearing to be reading a small, imaginary book.  She bows her head slightly, and then kneels to the ground, bringing her head down to the cold stone floor.   The ritual lasts no more than a couple of minutes, and after she finishes, she simply sits down and carries on a conversation with her fellow traveler.  But then someone else, over at the corner of the room, stands up and starts the ritual, facing exactly the same direction, holding up the same imaginary book.  

It’s time for afternoon prayers, and the devout do not need anything other than their faith to perform it.

Tehran is a densely populated, sprawling city that sits on the edge of a mountain range.  In the winter, when the westerly wind blows away the brown smog, the city is spectacular: a pearl necklace of snow covered jagged granite rise up toward the clouds, seemingly a few feet away from the tall apartments in the northern edge of the city.

The only reasonable method of transportation is the metro: a clean, modern system that is slowly growing.  At the last stop on the southernmost point of Line 1, something delightful awaits the traveler.  As you near the exit turn styles, a few people are standing with baskets or boxes full of cookies or sweets, giving them away for free.  They wait until all their food is gone before they go in to catch the train.  This is the stop for Beheshte-Zahra, the city’s main cemetery for its millions of inhabitants.  In the Iranian tradition, visiting your loved ones at the cemetery is a ritual, filled with compassion and giving to strangers; you offer food to a stranger, and silently ask for a prayer for your departed. 

The cemetery itself is a checkerboard of graves, marked only with black rectangular granite or white marble tombstones, lying flat on the ground, with the face of the departed chiseled in the stone.  The tombstones are works of art commissioned by ordinary people, each piece using calligraphy to describe a departed, often including a few tearful lines of poetry to measure the loss.

Many of the tombstones have only the top half marked, leaving one half unfinished.  Here is a wife or a husband, awaiting their mate.

People are grieving, of course, but there is a sense of shared pain, as all have brought something to give, making a friend for a moment, receiving a smile, a nod of the head, a few words of comfort.  Some even bring small stoves and make traditional soups (in winter) near the grave that they have come to visit.  You see the elderly woman making the soup, and the young boy walking with small bowls and spoons, offering it to strangers.