Saturday, June 10, 2006

Proselytism And Apostasy

I finally got off my fat as and left the land of the Lotus Eaters a.k.a. my mum's appartment with it overstocked fridge, computer and satellite TV. I knew that if I didn't leave soon my trip would die a shameful, and slothful, death. So I decided to head south before it get too hot (though somehow I think I'm already too late).

My first stop was Qom. The city is the religious heartland of the Islamic Republic as it is not only home to one of Iran's holiest Shi'ite shrines, the haram of Hazrat Fatima al-Masumeh, but also because it is the site of the main theological seminary for Shi'ite mullahs. So, though it is barely an hour's drive from Tehran it's a world away from the plush boutiques and girls pushing the boundaries of hijab of northern Tehran. Away from the capital the chador count rises sharply and in Qom it positively skyrockets. But seeing as I wasn't planning on taking any lessons in Shi'ite Islam the town soon lost its interest and I moved on further south to the city of Kashan.

Kashan is renowned throughout Iran for its beautiful tiles and carpets, though I was most captivated by the traditionl, mud-brick houses and little, winding alleyways of the old town. The design of the houses does everything to maximise coolness in the hot, dessert environment: the houses are generally built below ground level; tall towers called badgirs (rechristened roof-badgers by one of the travellers I've met) catch the slightest hint of a breeze and send it to the rooms below; and deep tunnels, called sardabs, are used for storing perishable food and keeping it cool. I spent a good deal of time just wandering around and clambering along the old city walls from where there's a gorgeous views of the sandy-coloured roofs of the city. Kashan also has a string of enchanting little sights that can keep person occupied for a couple of days, such as the exquisite gardens of Fin, reputedly the finest example of classical Persian garden design, an old archaeological site (not much more than a large mound of bricks, but the entry was free so I'm not complaining), and a couple of charming little shrines. At one of them I had a rather long debate with a young mullah about religion, philosophy, being good and the afterlife. It was a strange, yet pleasant experience as the mullah was very gracious and courteous (probably because he saw me as a foreigner), and at the end he said that he hoped that he had set me on the path to a higher realisation. It's funny that, but Muslims often try and convert me, and sometimes in the strangest places: whilst buying a train ticket in Lahore the man at the counter urged me that Islam was the only true faith and a taxi driver in Shiraz said that if I only listened to devotional Koranic singing it would change my life completely. I always have to tread very carefully though, not just to avoid offending, but because in Iran proselytism (of anything but Shia Islam) is forbidden and apostasy can carry the death penalty. The latter could, theoretically, cause me problems, as my mother is Iranian (and therefore Muslim) and my father had to "convert" in order for them to get married. Though I seriously doubt that I'd get into any difficulties because of this, it's still better to err on the side of caution.

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