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Scenes from the Qom religious school

badia fahs – hala nasrallah
December 23, 2017
Finally, I arrived in the holy city of Qom, after three-hour trip from the passenger terminal in southern Tehran. I went immediately to the city center where the Hawzah, the women's school where I was going to study religious sciences, is situated.

In the only spacious room in the school, I met with about a hundred girls in the early morning. They sat on the floor opposite the director, who listed the names of the books that we would study in jurisprudence, logic, Hadith and Arabic language, and the names of sheikhs who would teach us. Then she distributed the internal system of the school, and told us that the academic year of the stage of “beginners” (Muqaddamat)  would begin the next day after the noon prayer, and that we would be divided into four groups, 25 girls in each.

Then a girl from Ahwaz, who spoke good Arabic, informed us about the geography of the place. The four rooms to the east are the study rooms for the students of the “beginners” stage. Next to them is the management room. Opposite to them, on the west side, are the dormitories. Under the dormitory rooms there’s a spacious cellar, which is the “restaurant”. To our left, a modern building dedicated to the students of the “Sath” stage. Under the “Sath” hall , there’s the prayer hall.

Every house in Qom contains a basement that protects its inhabitants from the heat in summer and the cold in winter. A city that is all under the earth, locked in a permanent darkness. On the other side lies a rusty green gate, the entrance to the Hawzah. An arm’s length from the gate, towards the inner courtyard, hangs a thick black curtain that I later learned was a tradition followed by the people of the city. It allows women to address male visitors from behind the veil in order to preserve the boundaries between the two worlds. In the vicinity of the entrance there are a number of bathrooms, in front of which there is a long basin used for ablution and hand washing.

In my first hours in the Hawzah I learned to call the director “the big sister” and her assistants “mentors” and my colleagues are all “sisters.” My roommate is a very dark rural girl, sister “Sepideh”, which means “white as dawn”. I spoke a little about my village in southern Lebanon and she talked a lot about her hometown of Najafabad, the birthplace of Ayatollah Hussein Ali Montazeri, who contradicted the theory of the Wilayat al-Faqih, and consequently was sentenced to house arrest until his death. Najafabad is famous for pomegranate trees and onion plantations.

The next day, I joined my class late. I took  the book of “Explanation of the Al-Suyuti’s Alfiyah” and entered the class after I removed my shoes near the door. There, my eyes fell on a scene that no one would expect. The teacher sat in the corner of the class facing the wall, and the sisters sat with their backs to him. They have been wrapped up in their cloaks draped over their heads, so they seemed like tents. The mentor had alerted me before entering the class not to raise my voice with any question or query, but to write what I do not understand on a paper for the professor to answer later.

The desert climate makes ablution in the open courtyard at dawn in the summer a severe punishment. Frost disrupted the flow of water in the faucets, from which ice cones hung, connected to ice piles in the basin. The sisters considered that the morning frost a test of the truth of their faith, so they struggled against their trembling bodies and rushed to the basin, wrapped in the warmth of piety, under the eyes of the mentor who watched from afar and transferred her observations to the administration. It was incumbent on us to perform our five prayers in congregation in the prayer hall. A sister who had gained the trust of the administration, and not ours, led the prayer. We also met there to celebrate religious events and read weekly prayers and supplications. Wednesday night is dedicated to reading the prayer of imploration, and Friday night to reading Kumayl prayer. On the nights of Ramadan, we recite the opening prayer, except for the special works of Laili al-Qadr, and the fifteenth night of Sha’baan, the day of the birth of the awaited Imam al-Mahdi.

On the first Friday night in the Hawzah, after finishing the sunset and night prayers, we stayed in the prayer hall heading towards the Qiblah because our Imam announced that she would read the prayer of Kumayl. She began to recite, and gradually her voice became raspy, then she began to cry, choke, sigh, and then continued to recite again. Suddenly, the place exploded with sobbing and wailing, and the sisters fell to the ground, one by one, almost unconscious. Others beat their chests and their faces regretfully and sorrowfully. I looked around in horror, what happened to them! What sins did they commit to breakdown upon hearing the words of the prayer and its meanings? Just a little while ago, they were sure that they will go to heaven, when did their sins accumulate?

I hid under my cloak, having a bout of hysterical laughter, my body shook and tears rolled over my cheeks until my eyes were swollen. The next day, they thought I had been crying like them.

The birth of Imam Mahdi had a special ritual, beginning on the night of the middle of Sha’baan and ending the evening of the following day. We gathered that night to celebrate the occasion in the prayer hall after lighting a large number of candles we put on the wall of the Hawzah and at the gate. The lights were turned off after the prayer, and the elder sister started supplicating, and we repeated after her, “Oh you honoured by Allah, intercede for us with Allah” We were all looking at an invisible space in the darkness, waiting for our Mahdi to appear, to be among the first to join his army.

People here do not like to talk, rarely smile and do not exchange greetings. If we come across a man as we walk, we have to stop and turn our faces toward the wall of the alley.

We complete the celebration of the middle of Sha’aban by visiting the Jamkaran Mosque south of Qom, which is said to have been built by Imam Mahdi himself. There are people crowding to the place, where we completed the supplications that we began on the eve of the occasion, and asked our imam to appear, prayed the noon and afternoon prayers, and four rak’ahs to salute and two for the Imam. Then we went back to the Hawzah for a modest breakfast that fits the great occasion.

Friday is the day of our weekly holiday, which begins after Friday prayers at the shrine of the Infallible Lady. The Infallible is Fatima, the daughter of Imam Musa al-Kadhim, the seventh Shiite imam of the Twelve, and the sister of Imam Ali al-Rida, their eighth. Her resting place is in Qom, the Qiblah of the Shiite Muslims, from the four corners of the earth. Our Hawzah, the rest of the seminaries, the scientific institutes and the mosques were an extension of the shrine of the Infallible Lady, which is situated at the heart of the holy city.

To the north of the shrine lies the city’s most famous mosque, the “Grand Mosque”, an institute of higher studies. Alongside it lies the historic Balasar Mosque. A number of small mosques on the western side are also connected to the shrine. On its southern side is the so-called “Grand Yard”. It is a large courtyard with four giant doors leading to the inside of the shrine: Bab al-Kabeer, al-Qibla, Tabtaba’i and the Republic. On the east side, the most important of the Islamic seminaries in Iran, the Faydiyah (Feyziyya School), which was built in the Safavid era. During the reign of the Shah, the place witnessed bloody confrontations, including the spark of the Islamic Revolution (1963).

On the other side of the school is the al-Faydiyah, another scientific Hawzah called al-Hujatiyah, which is reserved for non-Iranian students. Foreigners were not allowed to join the “Faydiyah”, so the Iranian government provided them with the opportunity to acquire Islamic science in the Hujatiyya, just like the low-level universities that Communist Russia had dedicated to third world students.

We used to perform ablution before going out to Friday prayers, and the big sister stood at the gate of the Hawzah playing the role of the police officer: She would ask us to pull one side of our cloak from the inside to cover our faces so that only our eyes would be visible. Sister “Friba” had charming eyes and a long nose. The big sister tells her to reveal her nose to cover up the beauty of her eyes!

We go from the Hawzah to prayer, walking silently behind our mentor. People here do not like to talk, rarely smile and do not exchange greetings. If we come across a man as we walk, we have to stop and turn our faces toward the wall of the alley. We leave behind a series of similar clay caves, then emerge from the hell of the spiral alleys to the spaciousness of the bazaar. Here the scene of the city changes slightly, the streets widen, and are adorned with a few trees, swarming among them there are heavy-moving birds. The streets are crowded with passers-by, wearing turbans and black robes, and children crawling in all directions.

At the edge of the city there is the deep course of a winter river that dries up in summer and turns into a dumping ground for debris and dirt, a breeding ground for insects and odors, and ends at a wide desert with reddish mountains in the horizon. From there, dry winds blow with a lot of sand in the day, and at night the city shivers with waves of frost. It seems that the desert climate has a clear effect on the mood of the people of the city, their behaviour, the dry relationships between them and cold emotions!

Then we turn towards the shrine. There we join the masses of worshipers who crowd in the courtyard and surrounding spaces. After the prayer, the stampede begins to enter the Holy Shrine, the sanctuary of the faithful and their refuge at time of joy and adversity, the visitors sweep through its gates, kiss its columns and turn to its stones, begging for relief. Those entering the shrine often lose their shoes, which they leave in the wooden boxes at the big door, where the hands of the shoe thieves are waiting. Poor children come from faraway, snatch the shoes of visitors, sell them at a low price to poor people like them, and remain barefoot. Inside people fight and push, women carrying pieces of cloth wiped the cage with them. Time goes by while they keep kissing the bars, weeping and mumbling in incomprehensible words.

The vendors in the Bazaar do not call for their goods, nor stop the passers-by to market their products. They sit in their narrow shops, like prisoners in adjacent cells. Women bargain with the vendors while looking in the opposite direction, so that the eyes do not meet.

A woman enters a shop selling souhan, the famous dessert made of saffron, pistachio and butter. She’s wearing her black cloak inside out, and comes out of the shop immediately. The seller tells us to go out, closes the door of his shop in a hurry, follows her and they disappear into the crowded market. Widows in the Holy City usually wear their gowns “inverted” as a semi-secret signal to their desire to have a “pleasure contract”!

Religious events of the Shi’a sect, which exceeded 100 events every year, have assumed, or imposed, sanctity in the Islamic Republic. Life comes to halt and the production stops in a country that grows in a frightening way.

Apart from the long summer vacation, another long holiday was the Nowruz holiday, the Iranian New Year’s Day according to the solar calendar that coincides with the beginning of the spring on March 21. This holiday lasts for two full weeks, and for each day there is a ritual and tradition. Attempts by the extremist ayatollahs to cancel the Nowruz ritual or reduce the number of days, under the pretext of increasing productivity, failed. Although the new leaders were keen to highlight Iran’s religious face only to the Islamic world, but the Iranian people’s attachment to its nationalist roots and the remnants of their “Zoroastrian” habits remained stronger than its rulers’ tendency towards Islamization and their artificial religious customs. The Iranians, despite their varied ethnicities and different affiliations, remain committed to this single occasion, which links them to the beauty of their past and their original culture, as a distinguishing feature, and an annual opportunity in which the Iranian stands in front of the mirror not to see his face but to see himself as it should be – free from all pressure.

The sisters packed their few belongings in dwindling bags and left us to visit their families. I stayed in the Hawzah with a small group not exceeding ten. They were from remote border areas, preferring to postpone their visit to their families for the summer vacation. Traveling there would entail much hardship and fatigue. After dinner we gathered around the big sister in the restaurant, where she announced news like a thunderbolt!

Said that the administration will honor the sisters who have refrained from celebrating the occasion that is contrary to the Islamic teachings by sending them tomorrow to Tehran, to visit Imam Khomeini! Sister Atifah fainted on the spot, and as I sprayed the water on her face to revive her, the sisters were shedding tears, astounded that they were just a few hours from seeing Paradise!

At night, each of us went to her dormitory. It is the only time since I came to the Hawzah for me to sit in the darkness of my cell alone, at the edge of a small prison, the Hawzah, in the middle of a big prison, the holy city, which is only part of a larger prison, the Islamic Republic! The vast geographical area, which narrowed the dreams of its people and their ideas, and forced them to live lives which do not resemble them.

The religious lessons that were rampant in the Shiite community in southern Lebanon, with the beginning of the Islamic Republic, were the primary reason for my intention to join the scientific Hawzah in Qom. The newly religious sister in our village, influenced by the wave of Shiism coming from Iran, having spent her youth free of all religious restrictions and social norms among Lebanese leftists, gathered us two days a week in her home, charging us with a mixture of Islamic morals and complex religious values; an ideal example of what Muslim women should be. While I became a religious “chicken” and decided to acquire religious knowledge, she ended her university years and got a job at a bank Beirut.

The small bus drove us after the noon prayer towards Tehran. I sat in the back seat, looking through the glass of the bus at the holy city, which began to disappear from my eyes as a smoky jinni returning to its bottle after failing to meet the demands of those who brought it out of its eternal isolation! On my right appears the Salt Lake. The Shah of Iran, deposed Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, used to throw his dangerous opponents in it, when he found that shooting them or hanging them was not enough to cure his anger. I felt very angry at this part of world which got used to this morbid isolation, which does not recognize a stranger, even when he comes closer, and even renounces those who are close and increases their alienation. I wished it to be swept by the salt of the lake, to dissolve and decompose to, erase its effect and impact forever! I had put my personal papers, some money and a few things dear to my heart in my handbag, looked back at the room spitefully, slammed the door, and jumped on the four stone stairs with agility that had forsaken me since I arrived.

The strangest thing to see in Tehran, the city that confuses the conscience with its apparent consistency and hidden inconsistencies, is the view of Mount Damavand, with its white peaks over the course of the four seasons, a welcome sight of an angelic space in a forest of darkness. We get off the bus to buy water and chocolates. In Ferdawsi square, the national poet who eternalized the emperors and heroes of Persian mythology with his famous “Shahnama”, he turns his face towards the center of the city, which is vibrant with all sorts of paradoxes.

There is a street called “Inqilab”, full of libraries whose windows show traditional and modern Persian works, and other works translated into Persian from all the languages ​​of the world to allow the Iranians, in whom Islamization has revealed the gift of reconciling the forbidden with the allowed, with the opportunity to become acquainted with the literary works of Gogol and Aragon Eliot, Neruda, Tolstoy, Hemingway, the Bronte sisters, Marquez, Tagore, Aziz Nissin, Nazem Hikmat, Naguib Mahfouz, Gebran, Mahmoud Darwish, Emile Habibi and many others. Literary works such as Lolita, Madame Beauvari, The Great Gatsby, Satanic Verses, Thousand and One Nights, and Fikriya by Mohammed Arkoun, Ali Shariati, Jamal al-Din al-Afghani, Muhammad Abdo and others, circulate secretly. To the street of Palestine, which embraces an embassy bearing its name, where there are still remains of inscriptions of the Star of David engraved on the stones, since it was an embassy of Israel during the reign of the Shah. A number of Palestinian employees live there under strict security control, not to preserve their lives but to prevent them from contacting their leadership.

We take the bus again to get to the intersection of Wali ‘Asr Street, as the government of the revolution named it. Proponents of the Shah still call it Pahlavi Street, but the patriots call it Musaddaq. One of the longest avenues in the country and in the whole East, it demonstrates the depth of the contradiction in the society of the Islamic Revolution, or perhaps the rebellion!

The bus takes us up to the north and reaches the aristocratic “Jamaran” neighborhood. This is where the leader of the revolution lives in a modest house with a small garden with spring flowers and green trees all year round, isolated from life. The demonstrations on the city’s bottom, the lists of executions marked by his signature, and the battles on the Iraqi-Iranian front have not affected his sense of tranquility.

We walked through the garden gate after passing through a number of routine inspection booths. Moments later we saw “Lion of Jamaran” as the Revolutionary Guards call him. He sat on a wooden chair. Then one of his guards came and placed a piece of white cloth over his right hand. He called out to us, “Come, sisters, to kiss the leader’s hand!”

We knelt before him one by one, seeking some of the blessing of the prophets and imams with a quick kiss on the white cloth. I was the first to get the blessing of the historical kiss, and then quickly emerged from the door of the garden, as one who had not mastered his performance would come out of a theatrical scene. I took my small bag from the observation booth, and ran away from the eyes of the Revolutionary Guards, the security services, the clergy, the strange rituals and the negative mix of politics and religion, hoping for a dose of delicious freedom!

I arrived at the Top Khuna square, to the south of Tehran. I do not know why exactly I chose this place, perhaps because it is the only remaining effect of the “King of Rey”, the witness to the most powerful terrorist and assassination groups that have passed in Islamic history: The Assassins. From here, the first guerrillas began to carry out the assassination operations under the influence of “hashish” (hemp), after their leader, “Hassan Al-Sabah,” provided them with excess doses of promises to enter Paradise if they completed their terrorist operations successfully.

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