Fatima's Tomb

QOM, Iran
March 21, 2011

The stewards of the shrine wouldn't let me inside with all my bags. One of them pointed around the corner with one of the long, rainbow-colored feather dusters they use to direct and prod people to move throughout the halls of the shrine.

A left-luggage office was just a few steps away from the gate I had tried to enter through. Inside, an attendant seated behind a desk looked at the new, black, sturdy case I was checking in. He asked me a question guessing at what might be inside. He probably wanted to make sure that I wasn't leaving anything precious. The case did look like it might contain something valuable.

"What's inside the case? Is it a camera?", he asked in Persian.

"No, it's not a camera. It's a qalyan," I replied.

"Okay. It's your Koran." He had mis-heard what I said but seemed to fully accept and understand this explanation.

Toting around some special case with a Koran inside was a fair presumption. I was dropping off my bags before entering one of the most sacred sites in Iran, the burial site of Fatima, sister to Imam Reza. The shrine is second in importance only to another tomb in Mashhad.

"No. It's not a Koran. It's a qalyan", I said in my second accented attempt in Persian. The attendant jiggled his head, clearly still not understanding the key word, which meant "hookah pipe".

I opened up the case to show him what was inside.

He broke into laughter and pronounced the word in a loud, exaggerated, and overly precise voice: "Qal-yan!". He enunciated the vowel of the first syllable like the "Cal-" in "California". I had been saying it like the "call" in "call center".

After establishing what was inside the case the left-luggage attendant had a follow-up question: which country was it that I hail from? His first guess: Lebanon. "Nope, try again," I said. Pakistan? I could tell that he must have no clue and was just naming the nationalities that most often come visit the shrine.

"I'm American," I said.

"American!" He broke into a broad grin and shook my hand.

Pilgrims Cluster around
and Kiss Fatima's Tomb
He scribbled out a claim chit; I deposited my bags and entered the shrine complex.

I'm glad I took the time to pause in Qom. There is a reverent atmosphere throughout the shrine that I last recall experiencing the first day of my first trip to Iran, some three years ago. That was the night I visited the holiest shrine in the country, the one in Mashhad. The grounds and buildings surrounding Fatima's tomb may be smaller but they're no less elaborate. There's no shortage of pilgrims here, either.

Though second in size and holiness to Mashhad, the site here in Qom shares many similarities. Both have those same feather-duster-wielding stewards tapping people to move along and keep the flow moving. Pilgrims kiss gates and intricate latticework upon arrival and departure. Men spontaneously bellow out religious chants to which everybody in the crowd but me knows the formulaic response. Flowing calligraphy and geometric tilework tower throughout.

The one drawback to stopping in Qom is that I can't stay through the night. Today is the holiday of Nowruz. I'm not the only one who's decided to take a trip to Qom today. Not one of the hotels I've enquired at has had an open room. After being declined at the first few, I noticed that most of the remaining hotels I scouted out had already posted signs at the door stating in Farsi "No Vacant Rooms Available".

With nowhere in town to spend the night, I'll try to get a bus to Tehran. That's just a couple hours north of here. I'm hoping the hotel situation will be better up there.

Next stop: Tehran.