Its prayer time at Shah-e-Cherag. The Lord of Light reflects the piety of believers in a million mirrors. Fragments of love and wishes. Tears pour down from women’s eyes and hands reach over my shoulders for the tomb of one of the 17 brothers of Imam Reza. We do not really know why this man is holy, but visitors seem to expect a miracle from him and raise their prayers to heaven…what sort of wishes do they pray for? what do these people hope? what do they dream of?
The voice of the mullah resonates with strength calling for prayer and a swarm of black chadors sprinkled here and there by white sheets – the version of chador that one can borrow at the entrance to the shrine – pile themselves next to one another getting ready for their 5-a-day dialogue with god, laying their little turbah towards Mecca – a small round stone which is shias’ substitute of real soil for prayer, a representation of pure earth for the devotees. For most of them the ritual is a holy repetition of sacred words, the same movements, the same rythm of a prayer performed daily in unison. But for one covered woman in the room everything is new. I stay motionless watching quietly from a corner as the prayer unveils one more layer of everyday life for hudreds, for millions, in Iran among other places. In the crowded mosque I somehow feel like a disturbance, aware of my non-belonging to this congregation. I fear a judgement that I do not get to hear, and expect somebody to ask me to leave. But instead I receive a simple “welcome”, one that feels like the heavy Q’ran we were gifted some days before – an invitation to a religion that has and will accompany us for a big part of this journey.
Many times we had asked ourselves and our muslim friends where and when do women pray. We had conjectured how it looks and even now, with the spectacle in front of my eyes, I wonder how they move inside this cloth that does not want to stay still over my head. As they follow the holy words of the mullah with their bodies I watch motionless from the edge or the room. There is something of voyeur in watching people pray, but having seen men naturally kneeling towards Mecca at airports, parks, petrol stations or roadsides, I should be well used to the sight by now – the only differences are here the uniformity of their chadors and the children that can hardly stay still. Watching them transports me back to a meditation hall where covered and motionless a different hundred people sit in a silence that looks just as alien to the passer by, to the visitors that does not know what is going on inside. I try to forget strangeness, close my eyes and listen to their service and to the movement of the feet and fabrics. I try to fall within but my ignorance takes over and I feel total incomprehension. I remember the childhood evenings of rosary with my grandma, the Easter clebrations in the Spanish streets, the prayers that I devotedly sung in a language that is mine, albeit not the one of Allah. I remember once and again that the holy words of their gods do not bring me peace or illumination, that their rituals and their prayers are beautiful performances of which I am a simple spectator, the voyeaur in the corner. I still wonder how this chador sticks to their head and can only guess what they hope for – the hope of salvation that believers search around the world.