We were attempting to buy a flight out of Mashhad, to Tehran, without success, when a friendly mullah came to our aide. Muhammad, tall and stately in a white turban and long clerical robes, directed us to a travel agent who could book us on a charter flight, raising Joe’s hopes we might fly on another antiquated airplane.
His hospitality didn’t stop there. Muhammad became our unofficial guide for the evening, navigating us through Mashhad’s holy shrine to Imam Reza, and holding forth on various matters of Islam. Muhammad was partial to analogies. Praying was food for the soul, just as regular food fuels the body. Regularity of prayer ensures the soul doesn’t run out of fuel, just like a cell phone battery needs regular recharging. Why must you pray three times a day? For the same reason that only one phone number will reach your chosen destination.
Approaching the shrine complex, Muhammad pointed to my scarf and asked me what I thought of wearing hejab. I replied, as diplomatically as I could, that I respected the hejab but felt it should be a matter of individual choice rather than law. My answer belied my ignorance on Islamic matters. “Do you know why Islam requires hejab?” he said. “Why do you keep your money safe in your pocket?” I agreed that we want to protect it from thieves. “What about jewellery?” Jewellery, he said, was precious and an owner should carefully lock it away from prying eyes.
At this point we reached the gate of the shrine where I was required to don a chador to enter. Muhammad found us a booth where I could borrow one. A local woman helped me pull the shapeless black fabric into place, shrouding any body contours that remained in my standard Islamic dress. As we filed through the beautiful halls and courtyards of Iran’s holiest site I continually readjusted the fabric: the chador had nothing to keep it in place, and needed to be clasped together by hand.
Muhammad returned to the issue at hand. He explained how it was important for women to get married. He clearly approved when Joe indicated that I was his wife. “A woman should be only for her husband.” Then, returning to his favoured analogy, “women are like jewellery.” The comparison with property was not lost on me.