Heaven’s Door, by Pico Iyer

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From The Half Known Life, which will be published this month by Riverhead Books.

Four hours in Iran, and already I was having to rethink almost everything. The local guide who’d greeted me as I stumbled out of customs had begun to speak about his days at a boarding school near London in the Seventies. We’d pulled up at a luxury hotel, and I’d heard the strains of “Yesterday” being plaintively piped through the lobby. In one corner, a small sign in English pointed to a tiny room: mosque. Very close to it, a Swarovski shop was dripping in crystals and a Yves Rocher boutique promised this season’s offerings from Paris. Now, as I strolled back from an early morning walk, I saw Ali, my official Virgil, striding toward me with a smile.

“Shall we make Tus our first stop this morning?” Ali’s English would not have sounded out of place in Windsor Castle.

“Actually, I was hoping we could go to the Imam Reza shrine.” The central mosque in Mashhad, with its fourteen minarets, four seminaries, seven interlocking marble courtyards and cemetery, was said to be the largest such compound on the planet.

“There are a few complications today,” Ali said. “Perhaps we should drive into the country?”

I followed my companion out to a car, where a burly older man waited to guide us through wide tree-lined streets under large freeway signs in English. All Iran was a garden in the poetry of its local hero Ferdowsi, Ali explained; the same man had laid down both the outlines of a legal system and a code of courtly love. We were traveling to the small town of Tus because it was there that Ferdowsi was buried. We drew up to a marble edifice, at the far end of a quiet, formal garden. Then our driver slipped into the space behind us. He walked up to the sepulchre in which Ferdowsi’s body was said to rest and placed his hand on the cold stone. He took off his cap and set it against his heart. In a rich and sonorous baritone, he delivered a long sequence of verses from the poem that turns history into myth and vice versa.

I have made the world through a paradise of words.

No one has done that but me.

Huge palaces and monuments will fall into disrepair,

But I have made a palace out of words that shall never fade.

Through this I have immortalized Iran.

The driver put on his cap and offered me a reassuring smile. “I didn’t know if I could sing again,” he explained. “Seven months ago I was diagnosed with cancer of the throat. My doctor advised me not to sing. But when I come here, I have to try. For Ferdowsi. For Iran.”

After forty years of travel, I’d begun to wonder what kind of paradise can ever be found in a world of unceasing conflict. And the natural place to embark upon such an inquiry seemed to be the culture that had given us both our word for paradise and some of our most soulful images of it. For centuries, Persians had cultivated ravishing visions of paradise in their walled gardens, sometimes as emblems of the higher garden that awaits the fortunate.

But what gave particular power to the world’s largest theocracy now was that many competing visions of paradise seemed to be crisscrossing every hour, with furious intensity. The vast space in southern Tehran known as “Zahra’s Paradise” was one of the largest cemeteries on earth—home to one and a half million dead bodies—and fast-track entry to heaven was said to be the privilege of martyrs.

Yet many of Iran’s citizens were still known for the remarkably refined and sensuous versions of an earthly paradise they fashioned behind closed doors. The turbaned clerics, as they saw it, were ruthless politicians pursuing worldly ends under the guise of religion; the only pleasures that could be enjoyed in such a system lay in romance and intoxicants, the latest luxuries from abroad.

Both secular and religious souls continued, meanwhile, to quote from the Sufi poems that Iranian schoolchildren, to this day, learn by heart. Find a heaven within, Rumi wrote—this line, as I remembered it, came back to me now as Ali and I sat on a platform in the sun, munching on chicken with barberries—and you enter a garden in which “one leaf is worth more than all of Paradise.”

That evening, I asked at the hotel’s taxi desk whether a car could take me into the heart of town. Before long, a lean character of around thirty, with a boyish smile, was leading me out to his battered compact.

“You come for the festival?”

“Festival?”

“This week,” the driver explained. “The anniversary of Imam Reza.” Millions of people had gathered from every corner of the Shia world, he said—from Yemen and Pakistan and Lebanon and Iraq, from all the provinces of Iran—to mark the auspicious occasion. The shrine of the imam is believed to cure sickness and sorrow in every pilgrim who visits; an Iranian exile would later tell me that it was also now a massive cartel, a multinational corporation with land assets valued at $20 billion. It ran fifty-six companies, the exile said, including Iran’s only Coca-Cola plant.

As we pushed through a tiny entrance, all we could make out was celebration. On every side, people were seated on carpets under a huge moon. At last we came to the entrance of the innermost sanctum where the imam was buried, and my new friend looked over, assessing my intentions. He gestured for me to follow him inside.

We entered a very small room, thick with the smell of unwashed socks. The crowds were so intense that little boys were being passed from shoulder to shoulder so they could arrive at the front and kiss the golden grille behind which lay the saint. Men were running their hands down their faces and weeping as if at their mother’s funeral. I’d lost contact with my driver, but then I caught sight of him across the room. His hand was on his heart, and he was stepping backward, so as to never present his back to the long-dead holy man. His eyes were welling with tears.

As we walked back to his car, however, he explained that he had fled from Iran several years before. He had researched the Schengen Agreement, so he knew he could get to the Netherlands. There he had made contact with a human trafficker and had paid the stranger twenty-five hundred dollars. The trafficker had led him to a truck and given him a special pipe through which he could breathe as he lay in the back, among five fellow stowaways from Afghanistan, hoping to escape detection. After arriving in Britain, he was given a lawyer to plead his case. Finally, after three years, he had been granted asylum.

“But you’re back here?” I asked him.

He nodded. “When I was in England, I was thinking about my people all the time. Sometimes, when I think of my family, the tears come out.”

So, every summer, he stole back into Iran, to see his mother, his hometown, the mosque he could not forget. “You miss this place when you’re away?” I asked as we pulled up at the hotel, sounding foolish to myself.

He looked almost sheepish. “Even when I am in England, I call my brother and ask him to go to the shrine and hold up the phone so I can feel it, hear it.”

I had thought, after writing articles about Iran from afar and a novel partly set there, that I knew something about the country. Now, however, within twenty hours, I found myself in the middle of something far richer than any of my reading and research: a dissident risking his being to travel back to a land he’d risked his being to escape, and a deeply devoted Islamic soul who did not wish to live in an Islamic republic. I’d known before I arrived that Iran, with its many visions of heaven, would be sinuous and textured, a paradise of complications. But now I was having to make sense of passionate displays of religious surrender from those who wished to have no part of religious rule.

When I’d read accounts of the Garden of Eden as a boy, I’d always been encouraged by the transparency they ascribed to the walled paradise; in the garden, light and dark are very clearly defined, and its artless residents know exactly which tree is forbidden, which not. Here in the land of embroidered interiors, however, everything was in shadow and in constant motion. The judgments of God are seldom so ambiguous as those of the men who say they speak on behalf of God.

My last night in Iran, I was eager to meet the niece of a friend; I had no intention of getting my long-suffering and law-abiding guide in trouble, so I arranged to meet her in the hotel lobby instead of her home. When a pair of smiling women in their mid-forties came in, one of them caught my eye, waved hello, and led her friend toward me. Soon, they were whisking me off to a stylish vegetarian restaurant.

One of the women, who was a playwright and director, explained, “You start a project and don’t know what the position will be tomorrow. They send someone to observe your work—everything is ‘under observation.’ Then, when you’re finished, they say you can’t show it, and everything is gone. Your time, your money.”

There had been a battle, I learned, over whether live music could be played during a production of Uncle Vanya. Yet a seventeen-year-old Iranian woman had sent a film to Cannes about the incarceration of twelve-year-old girls in her country, titled The Apple. To be “protected” from temptation, she might have been saying, was only to become dangerously defenseless before it.

“Do many people want to leave?” I asked.

“All,” she said. “It is like a utopia for them,” she went on, “traveling to the United States—where everything is possible.”

“It’s human nature, don’t you think? The place you haven’t seen is heaven.”

“I don’t think so,” said the other. “When I was young, we were not exposed to other places. We did not know about them. Maybe some people dreamed of coming to Tehran. Now all the world is a small village.”

“A small village,” she went on, “in which we know so little about our neighbors.”


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