Throughout our tour of Iran we'd been in and out of mosques and shrines, sometimes several times per day. We'd learned to recognise the architectural styles and the functions of different parts of a mosque. We'd seen old, new and everything in between but we had almost always had the places to ourselves and we rarely came across 'real' locals going about their normal worship in these mosques. There were often school parties of earnest and eager young girls in matching uniforms. They flocked around the ladies in our group to indulge their curiosity about such exotic foreigners by asking hundred of questions; where did we come from, were we married, did we have children, and (with giggles and lowered eyes) did we know the footballer Cristiano Ronaldo……..? Such is the curiosity of school girls everywhere.
On our last day in Tehran we were thwarted in most of our touristy plans by finding that all the attractions were closed for a religious holiday. In a stroke of what might be thought of as genius but equally as 'pretty bleeding obvious' our guide decided that we should go and visit a shrine and this time he knew that it wouldn't be empty. It's logical isn't it? It's a religious holiday so let's go and do something religious.
I wish I could tell you the name of the shrine but I don't have any idea where it was or who was buried there. It didn't really matter because what I want to write about is not the detailed description of the building or the history of the dead person - instead I'd like to use this experience to illustrate the friendliness of the local people.
We walked through the narrow alleyways of a small market until we came to a square with the shrine to one side. It was absolutely packed with people - men to one side, women to the other. Our group split into two parts and the men headed straight in whilst we womenfolk headed off to get suitably dressed. If you still fondly remember dressing up for the school nativity play with your mother's spare tablecloth draped around your head and body, then you'll know exactly what to do in a Shi'a shrine. Passing behind a curtain we found a large bin filled with 'chadors-for-borrowing'. You'd expect perhaps that these might be black but they aren't – typically a temporary chador is white with a little flowery design, exactly like your mother's table cloth.
We ferreted around in the bins, trying to find appropriately sized chadors. Now you might imagine that 'one size fits all' and that's true. But if you don't want to trip over and kill yourself you don't want one that's too long and if you don't want to flash your feet and lower lets, you'll want one that's long enough. Once you've found an appropriately sized cloth, then there's almost always a friendly lady nearby who'd love to help you drape it just right. Since we tended to go into such places with our small back packs in place, the overall effect was often hunch-backed.
On this occasion one of the lady wardens from the shrine caught site of us and leapt through the crowd to come welcome us. She grabbed me by the hand and started to ask me lots of questions. Where as I from, where had I been, why had I come to Iran? She gathered our shoes and pushed off to the front of the line to hand them over to the shoe-minders and then taking my hand again and asking the others to "stay close" she pushed through the throng of worshippers. I felt like Moses crossing the Red Sea as the wave of ladies parted to let us through. Yes, they were there to worship but watching a bunch of European ladies was part of the day's entertainment. With her feather duster in hand, the warden waved everyone out of our way and took us into the shrine by the exit.
The feather dusters are the weapons of choice for shrine wardens. It's not considered appropriate to go round touching strangers in holy places so these ladies carry a stick about a foot and a half long with either lots of feathers or fluffy stuff on the end. They can remove the odd speck of dust from the pristine shrines or just 'dust' people out of the way. It wouldn't be right to get heavy handed and move people on by force so they just flick lightly and everyone moves on.
As I mentioned she took us in through the exit and pushed us forward to the holiest part of the shrine. All around us the walls were covered in intricate patterns of tiny mirrors. Ornate chandeliers hung from the ceiling, it was as if the entire place was sponsored by Swarovski. Getting us the best places by the edge of the tomb she pushed us forward to make sure we got a good view, chatting and smiling and asking where I'd been and what I'd liked. It wasn't hard to be enthusiastic. She said we'd seen more of her country than she had and wanted to know all about how we got there, who else was in our group, where were our husbands, how old were we and so on. All the while she dusted the locals out of our way until we got back to the shoe stand.
Stepping to the front she called excitedly to her friend. "Come quickly, these are the English people. They've been all over Iran". Her friend rushed over with our shoes "I just LOVE your culture" she gushed and then listed all her favourite English writers and all her favourite Dickens novels. She told us she longed to go to Stratford on Avon, London, the Lake District and once again I had to tell all about where we'd been, what we'd seen, how much we thought the Iranian people were really lovely and welcoming and kind. The smiles were broad and genuine
With our shoes returned and our chadors removed and bundled back into the bin we waved goodbye and headed back into the square where our next unexpected experience was about to begin.