A Surprise Invitation, Tabriz, Iran

On a transformational trip to Iran in 2016, our small group was told we could visit an important pilgrimage site in southern Iran. When we got there the Mullahs told our irrepressible local guide that too many tourists were requesting admission and they were cancelling our visit. Our guide disappeared apparently to negotiate that decision.

After a few minutes he returned and told us to quickly prepare to go in. That meant the men and women separated, and the women donned chadors resembling faded flowered bed sheets that covered us from head to toe. We were rushed inside where we were overwhelmed by the beauty and serenity of the surroundings. The combination funerary monument and mosque was constructed in the twelfth century. After our visit we were invited in to an office and offered biscuits and tea and reams of propaganda-filled pamphlets. Once we were alone with our guide we asked if everyone got such VIP treatment. “No, he said, I told them you were recent converts to Islam.”

His networking and negotiating skills played out at the end of our visit as well after the rest of the group had left and my husband John and I were alone with him in the northern city of Tabriz. In the evening we heard drumming and I asked if we could follow it to photograph whatever festival was taking place. He agreed, after explaining what we would be experiencing. The annual event was The Day of Ashura, when Shi’a Muslims all over the world pay their respects with the flowing of blood as they mourn the slaying and martyrdom of Imam Hussein Ibn Ali, the grandson of the Prophet Mohammed, killed in 680 near Kerbala. Arriving at the site he asked the Azeri men assembled there if we could participate and they agreed. I went inside with the women where nothing much was happening. My husband however joined the men who were doing symbolic flagellation.

On the outside of the building a group of men had gathered in a large circle to wield sticks and do a sort of repetitive dance. They asked John to join them. Honored, he did, as I stood in the center of the circle photographing, the only woman around. Their official event photographer came over and gently took my camera from my hands, so he could take a photo of me carefully placed in front of John as he swayed with the other men. That portrait of the two of us that night is one of my favorite photos from that trip, because it represents the kindness and warmth with which we were accepted into the local community. 

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