Sunday, June 18, 2006

Fri, 9 June 2006

Salaam, dear everyone!

Struggling to catch up a bit before leaving Iran - Egads! - 10 days from now ... The time has been going so fast, and although I am flying high from my time here, at the same time I am soooo sad to think about leaving here ...

I would like to acknowledge and express my deepest gratitude for the support and immensely valuable activities of my dear longterm parallel- path musician friend, Cameron Powers. During my college years, Cameron was the first musician that opened the door for me, helping me out of my head to participate with others in the pursuit of - and enthrallment with - Middle Eastern music. (And how ironic that the first music we played together was Carmina Burana!) For many years Cameron and his partner have been traveling through the Arab world, bringing people together through the power of music, and working tirelessly to promote understanding across borders between Arab and American audiences.

He and his foundation, Musical Missions of Peace, have so generously contributed financially to my own mission here in Iran. Please check out his website(s), and this section from what he posted on his group mailings:

"Rowan is traveling through Iran currently. She is an American who is pursuing her dream of being a living-breathing-musical-cultural-bridge between the Persian East and the American/Greek West.

"Musical Missions of Peace is proud to be able, thanks to your donations, to help Rowan pay some of her expenses for this work.

"If you are interested in the history of Musical Missions or in making a contribution, go to and click on "Financial Subscriptions and Donations"

"If you are interested in reading the mission statement of the 501c3 Non-Profit organization Musical Missions of Peace, go to

"Please take a moment to read Rowan's latest updates at her blogspot.

"Thanks for your Attention, Cameron"

... And Thanks to you, Cameron!

This reminds me, if any of you have comments, please DO post them here on the weblog so that all may read them. Countless friends have written such extraordinary, touching feedback to me personally on my own email. I would like to share those comments from the beginning of my travels here two months ago, when I was simply writing to friends. Time prevents me now from collecting all your earlier comments and re-posting ...

Thanks to the suggestion of many, my "newsletter" evolved into this weblog. There has also been much encouragement to turn this into a book ... inshallah! (In case any of you are unfamiliar with this Arabic term, it means God-willing ... in Spain I encountered the comparable version, "ohallah".)

If you would like to make a comment, please click on the envelope icon at the bottom of each posting. Thanks to you all for your great support and enthusiam!

Not only do I wish to share my experiences here with all my personal friends and family members, but I feel called upon to help spread the GREAT news about the magnificent culture of Iran, which is so sadly misunderstood in the Western world.

Please feel free to forward this link to whomever you like. It is my wish that through sharing my adventures here, a different picture can emerge in readers' minds about Iran than what is so present in the news these days.

This could well be my last news posting from here, since time is so very precious. Ten days go by in a flash ... Will write more about my experiences here at some future date, since I have quite a busy "re-entry" schedule, including another bout of intense work in Athens. (Yikes!)

Before signing off for now, a bit about my solo travels, which began in earnest several weeks ago, beginning with the remarkable spiritual center of Qom ...

As many of you I am sure already know, a woman traveling alone over here is MOST unusual, strange, and looked upon with much disdain and suspicion. Nima's family - having become my own beloved family here in Iran - are extremely open-minded and progressive, and even they were having misgivings about my venture out on my own ... I finally managed to pursuade them that since I have managed to create a wonderful life from scratch in places as daunting as New York City, Athens Greece, Zurich Switzerland, all by myself (and of course with Greater Guidance), and travel throughout Central America alone, etc, I feel bold and able, with enough communication skill, to go out on my own over here, and immerse myself in the culture and throw caution to the wind.

I was fascinated to experience the very Holy city of Qom, the heart of Iranian Shiite religious study, full of schools and scholars and students studying Kor'an and the ways of Shiism in particular. With Nima's family's blessings and as ever support and love and guidance, I armed myself with a black chador borrowed from Nima's dear mother, my Lonely Planet Iran Guidebook, and all of my most brave thoughts and convictions, and took off after 9 pm on a bus from Tehran to Qom.

Also have to mention how invaluable the Lonely Planet Guidebook has been. It really is quite amazing that with this one resource it is indeed possible to travel alone, finding all sorts of things - sites, hotels, restaurants etc - that even my Iranian friends don't know about. (And great to be able to introduce some new places to them!)

Nima could not come in the beginning, and our plan was that he would meet up with me for a few days along the way to Kashan, Esfahan, Shiraz, Persepolis, possibly even Yazd and beyond. I wanted to not have any particular program or time frame, and to just follow my intuition and whatever seemed to sparkle, and to stay however long in any given place that felt right. In other words, to just surrender to "the flow", with some degree of language skill.

Of course I remember that famous bit of wisdom, that a little knowledge is dangerous! Now with my scarce ability with Persian language I can manage to express myself about anything, but when the answer comes back sometimes I am left in a complete and utter fog ... (interesting, as I am sure many of you know, how with some individuals there is no problem communicating in a new language, and with some others, zilch ...)

I was given a strong preparatory talk about the seriousness of Qom ... no laughter, keep a straight face, don't let any hair show from under the chador, don't look anyone in the eye, keep head low. Nima's father escorted me to the bus station, engaging with the driver and fellow passengers, requesting that they look out for me, which they certainly did ... sooooo kind.

Having braced myself for maintaining and presenting a somber and reflective mood, I was delighted and rather up-ended when on the bus they were showing a verrry funny movie, which had everyone in stitches! It was a real slap-stick comedy ... including scenes of two men and a woman with totally correct Islamic attire sporting Superman/Superwoman costumes, flying off into the air. Also real wild-western style shootout scenes, complete with lassos, cowboy hats and boots, (including the woman, also naturally wearing her bandana under the hat). The story line I did not quite catch but that didn't prevent me from getting swept up in the wave of giddiness that was surging through the entire busload of chuckling, cackling souls. A delightful trip - uniting everyone in lighthearted laughter, always the best ice-breaker and disarming humanity-connecting factor ...

Finally arriving in Qom around midnight, as soon as the bus driver stepped out, without reminder from me, he conscientiously orchestrated getting me into a real taxi (I'll leave it up to everyone's imagination, what that might mean ...) I was so touched by his consideration of me, after being on the road for almost two hours! With the Lonely Planet Guide, I made my way to a friendly hotel under the wing of the complex of Holy buildings, and Shrine of the Sister of Imam Reza, Fatemeh, who lies in peace there since the 9th century A.D. Had to compose - and paste on - a straight face again after the hilarity of the film on the bus.

We went screeching off into the night, and on towards the center of town. The driver was anything but what I would expect in a city like Qom - rather cowboy-like, appearing to have just gotten off the range, with a suntanned and very wrinkled face and neck as if he had been sitting in the saddle steering cows and horses around for years, even with a distinct aroma of what I imagined to be chewing tobacco, cowboy style.

I have learned to agree on prices with taxi drivers before taking off - which always seem to be negotiable (HAH! Imagine that in New York City!) We agreed on a price, and when we arrived next to the hotel, he complained that it was too little. Bracing myself in that certain defensive posture of sticking-up-for-myself, I said, we agreed on THAT price, and did not give him any more, and then of course felt guilty as soon as he went muttering off, leaving me in a cloud of dust, with the glorious Shrine sparkling before me and the mysteries of Shiism breathing palpably all around me ...

(Of course when I left Qom for Kashan, I found my own very gracious taxi driver who wanted less money than the arriving one for the same distance, and then I happily gave him more, still feeling ashamed about my earlier stinginess ...)

Taking a deep breath, I sauntered into the hotel, now well past midnight, trying to look like a dignified traveler with nothing at all amiss in my late - and solo - arrival. Four or five men sitting around smoking in the lobby, and one of them finally got up and even smiled, and came over to the counter. I was a bit concerned about having to give over my US passport, and then he asked me where I am from, and I answered, Greece. His friendly response, Oh, wonderful! ... and as nonchalantly as possible handed the passport to him, hoping he would not notice country origin ... (It is NOT that I dread my own American identity - I simply do not care to be associated with US foreign policy. Of course in retrospect, I regret having missed those earlier opportunities to be a living demonstration and representative of another kind of America(n) ... more about that later ...)

Then when he had the passport in his hand and was looking straight at it, he turned to me with a kind of twisted expression, and asked, are you from Russia!? Disguising my flabbergasted reaction, I said, No, I am from Greece ... Oh, OK, and shrugging, he handed over keys for two rooms to check out, and summoned a porter and off we went upstairs. The porter was very kind and introduced me to a smiling worker in the hall with a huge box of tiles (... at this hour ... !?) who was also delighted to know that I came from Greece.

Next morning I suited myself up in the chador and went off to discover Qom. It felt wonderful to wear this clothing, and I was glad that it was not such a hot day. At first I wanted to just blend into the crowd on the streets as much as possible, and to feel the energy. One really great advantage about being encircled by a large swathe of black cloth is that it levels all issues about individuality, and my blondish, blue-eyed saunter around town went unnoticed. Truly fascinating mixture of faces and postures ... and I could not help making the comparison to the streets of Athens, both places filled with men walking around wearing long robes.

Circling wide around the Shrine complex, I paid my respects to Ayatollah Khomeini, whose former residence I visited along the way. Finally entering one of several gateways, without knowing what time it was, I was astonished that exactly as I set one foot through the door, the Azan began. Kismet ...

The Azan is the formal call to prayer, a man's voice singing lines from the Kor'an, which is broadcast from loudspeakers throughout the Islamic world, in Iran at sunrise, noon and sunset. I remember my first visit to an Islamic city, Istanbul, and my first enrapturement with the sheer musicality and profoundly powerful resonances of the Azan ... As a musician involved with Middle Eastern music for most of my life, the rich sound, the wave-form that spreads out everywhere from the Azan is one of the most engaging, attractive elements of dwelling within the Islamic sphere ...

... A flow of women in their flowing garments, and I was swept up with them into the inner section for the prayer ceremony. We were directed by a few women with long fuzzy sticks (looking rather like dusters) to line up in parallel rows, side by side. I surrendered to the moment, to the Azan, and to the worship. Mesmerized deeply with the man's melodious voice leading the prayer, the intensity, power and grandeur of the vast space, the huge crowd of worshippers ...

The synchronized physical movements of the prayer began; standing ... bent from the hips, back parallel with the floor, hands on knees ... standing again, receptive hands raised, up and down, kneeling, forehead to the floor in surrender and submission to God ... and all the time being uplifted by the sound quality of the Azan, permeating every cell, every degree of listening and receiving ...

At the conclusion of the formal prayer, which came far too soon for me, I felt united, integrated, empowered ... and immensely grateful for this opportunity and privilege to share this experience with the women of Qom, and also with the men on the other side of the curtain whom I could not see, but could certainly hear.

I sat for a long time in various corners of the complex, feeling more alive than ever, soaking up the energy and adoring the humanity of the women in there conducting their lives. Many were intently studying Kor'an, some in separate, dedicated sections, some in their own private corners in deep reverence ... all wearing head-to-toe chador, all sitting on the carpeted floor ... a few were sprawled out apparently catching a nap, some were having a picnic, some seemed to be resorting to gossip, and some - such an ironic contrast - were munching on cheese puffs.

Floating through the building complex, feeling more upright than I had before, as if I had just been initiated ... The buildings are full of stunning architectural details, patterned domes, dazzling mirror mosaics. Approaching the Shrine of Fatemeh ... More women with fuzzy sticks, directing the swell ... Although it was not as intense an experience as in Mashhad, since there were fewer women (the spectacular architectural magnificence of Mashhad also lends its influence), it was still a feat to reach the Shrine itself, feeling drawn, targeting myself through the sea of emotional bodies and souls. This time I was able to grab onto the bars and stay there for a few minutes, surrounded by and communing with intense - female - energy, especially since such a distinguished Sister lies there. Remembering the woman-angel who helped me to touch the Shrine of Imam Reza in Mashhad, I lead others' hands forward, and also deposited money into the openings in the glass surrounding the Shrine that were being passed up from the back.

Finally after a few hours I made my way out across the inner circular courtyard, now wearing sunglasses, since I had spotted another woman wearing them earlier ... I finally must have betrayed my "otherness" since at last one man approached me excitedly, saying, where are you from, who are you with? Startled, I answered with a smile, who am I WITH!?!? ... I wished later that I had said to him, I am with noone, and I am with everyone, and I am with God ...

I eventually emerged from the complex, noticing a small enclosed graveyard in the area in front of the complex, and went inside. Walking slowly, contemplatively, connecting emotionally with photographs and memorabilia of lost loved ones, studying the intricate, beautiful horizontal gravestones that function as tiles on the ground ... stopping to watch a few men working on one site. Suddenly and completely out of the blue I burst into tears ... Sharing with others' losses, this inevitable reminder of the fragile nature of life on this plain ... Remembering my own dear loved ones, now feeling so vividly the separation - and connection with them - from another dimension ...

Collecting myself, found a great spot for lunch, packed up my things, expressing my farewell and gratitude for all the soulful people of the hotel and of the light-bearing magnet of Qom, feeling complete. And yet, at the same time I knew only too well that I had only touched the very outermost layer of this enchantingly powerful place ...

... and set off on the bus for Kashan and beyond ... next chapter(s).

Meanwhile, springing several weeks forward to today ...

Having truly fallen in love with Iran, today in Tehran was especially full of heartful reflections ... A visit to a travel agency, at last a meeting with a gentleman with whom I have been communicating for more than four years about coming to a language program here (inshallah will happen soooon!), a visit with my excellent language teacher during this period ... Everyone so helpful and patient with everything, as well as my bungling efforts with zabane Farsi ...And then I went alone by metro to buy a suitcase, all of these episodes resulting in a sharp deepening of this love story, engaging with the people of the streets of Tehran - as well as a fine suitcase.

On the metro, so many gentlemen offered me their seats ... when I came out, I went down the wrong street, and finally asked a police officer for directions. He was so kind, so utterly gracious and handsome in his uniform, and knows the streets so well, guiding me and several other lost passers-by towards the light ... Two visits at a hardware store, a battery for my watch, then the suitcase store ... and on and on, each and every one of the individuals whose lives touched mine were so thoroughly kind. Their inevitable questions about where I am from, and this time I answered, feeling as if I were finally emerging from some unnecessary extra skin, America, and Greece.

If I had not been alone, these simple, precious encounters with human souls, lighting up like candles spreading out across the city, simply would not have happened. Finally I realized that these everyday meetings with people in the normal course of life, with a vulnerable, open heart, is what provides the foundation for making a difference in this world ...

I came sailing back on the metro, dragging the new suitcase behind me like a feisty puppy dog, dodging stares and grins for my unusual (here in Tehran) metro companion ... (Whoever invented suitcases on wheels is a true genius!) Happiness, feeling light, full of love and compassion from and for each and every person with whom I had contact ... and returned to my dear family here and shared with them, with tears of joy welling up ...

With fondest salutations for all,



Post a Comment

<< Home