The Illuminationist

Everyone has faith, but who are the real believers?

By Hooman Majd | December 14, 2010


Akbar stopped at the crosswalk and waited patiently for the signal to change. Cars, little Iranian-made Peugeots and Kias, zipped by at speeds astonishing for the narrow street, barely avoiding the deep trench by the sidewalk, the joob, that once brought the city’s water supply from the mountains to the north but today served more as a river of garbage on the days when snow was melting. He crossed the street, narrowly avoiding a decrepit orange taxi hurtling through the red light, with five scowling passengers bouncing in the seats, and held his furled umbrella aloft to signal other cars that he was intent on claiming his right of way. He continued walking, slowly at first, along the bustling streets of a once-dignified working-class neighborhood in South Tehran. Large dilapidated houses that had not yet succumbed to the building craze stood next to garish and flimsy apartment blocks, and Akbar wondered how much longer it would be before this part of town would be beyond recognition to anyone even half his age. He turned into an alley and picked up his pace as he walked past the dusty brown 12-foot-high mud walls of what were once paradaiso, the enclosed Persian gardens of homes selfishly guarded from outside view by their long-gone residents. As he walked toward the house at the end of the alley, Akbar looked up at the top of the walls: they seemed to him as impregnable now as they did when he was a child, accompanying his mother along this very same alley to the weekly roseh, Shia lamentations, at the old Ayatollah’s house.

Akbar stopped and knocked on the diminutive but heavy wood door in front of him, knowing that Ali, the Ayatollah’s manservant, would take his time answering. He waited a few minutes before lifting the ancient brass knocker again, thinking that Ali’s hearing must have deteriorated since his last visit here. As he dropped the knocker, the door opened slowly, and Ali’s head appeared, the rest of his body still shielded cautiously behind the wood barrier.

“I heard you the first time,” he said loudly.

“I’m sorry,” said Akbar. “Is Agha in?”

“Of course he’s in,” replied Ali, somewhat contemptuously. “Where would he go at his age? What do you want?”

“I’d like to see him for a few minutes,” said Akbar. “I’d like an estekhareh.

“Wouldn’t we all,” replied Ali. He stared at Akbar for a few seconds and then squinted. “It’s Akbar-agha, isn’t it? I’ll ask. But you should make appointments.”

“I thought you said he never goes anywhere,” said Akbar, as politely as he could. “I didn’t think it was necessary.” Ali disappeared up a narrow stone staircase while Akbar waited in the hall, holding his hat and umbrella in his hands. He took his glasses from his breast pocket, put them on, and peered down the dark corridor, hoping to catch a glimpse of the garden out back, a garden he had once played in with the Ayatollah’s children while his mother sat in an upstairs drawing room weeping for the martyrdom of Hossein. He shook his head and smiled as he remembered hearing the wails of the women drowning out the mellifluous voice of the hired mullah, the young mullah actor whose bass cries often punctuated the soprano squeals that wafted through closed windows and penetrated the garden air.

“Agha will see you.” Akbar suddenly stiffened and turned to face Ali, who had appeared beside him, apparently from nowhere.

“Merci,” he said, removing his glasses and following Ali up the staircase. He took off his shoes before entering the Ayatollah’s studya library of sorts with dozens of books piled on the Persian-carpeted floor and filling the heavy antique bookcases that lined every wall from floor to ceiling. Ali quietly disappeared, closing the door behind him, while Akbar approached the Ayatollah, turbanless but wearing a white skullcap, sitting on the carpet in a corner and looking up from an oversized book that lay open on his lap. “Salaam, Agha,” he said, stopping a short distance from the Ayatollah’s feet.

The Ayatollah removed his wire-rimmed glasses from his nose.  “Akbar-khan, is it?” he said. “Please, sit down.”

“Merci, ghorboun,” said Akbar, dropping to the floor and crossing his legs. Carefully he laid the umbrella and hat on the carpet next to him.

“You’ve come for estekhareh?”

“Yes, if it’s not too much trouble.”

“What do you need to know?”

“I’m going on a trip, Agha; a long one. I’m going alone, and I want to know if it’s advisable.”

“Where are you planning to go?”

“America,” answered Akbar. “For the first time, Agha. But just to see my daughter. Not for any other reason.”

The Ayatollah laughed softly.  “Don’t worry,” he said, “you can visit Satan as long as you don’t fall into his embrace.” He watched Akbar’s face fall. “I’m just joking, of course,” he continued with a chuckle. “It’s just an expression, my dear, just an expression. And we’ll get tired of it, I assure you. Besides, Satan, as he exists, is most definitely not a country.”

He picked up his worry beads, his taspee, and began to finger them. Originally made of opaque greenish-yellow stones, the beads were now worn to translucence by his fingers over the years. He closed his eyes and tilted his head ever so slightly upward, and recited passages from the Koran in a low voice. His shaking fingers rapidly moved the beads, in groups and individually, so that to anyone looking they appeared to make two full revolutions in one direction and then the other. The Ayatollah’s voice grew louder and steadier, and then he stopped, his hands frozen. He opened his eyes, looked down, and carefully counted out a few more beads. Holding up his taspee for Akbar to see, his fingers marking the position of what were the significant beads, he firmly said, “Khoob ast.”

“Then I should go?” asked Akbar.

“Yes: it’s good. Go, go with Allah’s blessing,” said the Ayatollah softly.

Akbar smiled. “Kheyley mamnoon,” he said. “Thank you, Agha, for your time. Thank you very much.” He reached over for the Ayatollah’s hand and took it into his own, pressing his lips against the fragile knuckles. He then rose, gathered up his hat and umbrella, and walked backward, carefully, his eyes never leaving the Ayatollah, toward the door. Before he turned to leave, he bowed and said, “Khoda-hafez, khoda-negahdar.” Goodbye and God bless.  As he started to open the door, he paused and turned around, once again looking at the Ayatollah. “I’m sorry, ghorboun,” he said hesitatingly, “but may I ask you a question?”

“Of course. Perhaps I’ll even have an answer.”

“Sir,” said Akbar. “Sir, how do you know?”

“Are you in a hurry to go?” the Ayatollah replied.

“Yes, Agha, I very much want to see my daughter.”

“I didn’t mean America,” said the Ayatollah. “I meant from my house.”

“Well no, Agha. I mean, I should get back to my wife, but no particular hurry.”

“Then why don’t you stay for a cup of tea? The Ayatollah looked past Akbar at the door. “Ali! Ali!” he shouted in a weak voice. “Ali, come here please!” The door opened almost instantly, as if Ali had been waiting right outside the whole time.

Baleh ghorboun?” he asked.

“Akbar-khan would like some tea, I’m sure. Could you make some?”

“Immediately sir, I’ll bring it up in a minute.”

The Ayatollah turned his eyes back to Akbar. “It will be dreadful tea, but it should suffice. No one seems to know how to make tea anymore, Akbar-khan, don’t you think? Some things should just be left alone. If the Europeans want to invent tea bags for their own hurried lives, why should we buy them? Tea requires patience, and it’s a patience well rewarded, don’t you think? But I’m boring you. Come and sit down.”

“No, sir! I agree,” said Akbar, rejoining the Ayatollah. He sat down and crossed his legs, facing him at a respectable distance of a couple of feet or so, his hat and umbrella again by his side. “Tea must be brewed properly, with a samovar,” he announced firmly. “But can’t you just tell Ali not to use tea bags?”

“The relationship one has with one’s servant is peculiar,” replied the Ayatollah with a smile. “It starts out in one way and ends in another. Allah is all knowing, most certainly!” He waved a hand in the air. “Besides,” he continued, “I’ve asked him, and he insists that he uses the samovar, but he also knows that I know he doesn’t. Perhaps he’s testing me, after all these years of hearing me talk about the insignificance of such things.”

“Yes, sir.”

“But back to your question. Know what exactly? Are you seeking knowledge? Or illumination?” asked the Ayatollah, replacing his glasses on the tip of his nose.

Know that your estekhareh is always right. Know that Allah speaks to you.”

“I don’t know that Allah speaks to me, Akbar-agha. Perhaps he does, perhaps he doesn’t. If he does, I’m unaware of it. As for the estekhareh, that’s more difficult. But let me ask you this: do you want to go to America?”

“Yes, I suppose,” said Akbar. “Well, yes, of course,” he added firmly. “I want to see my family.”

“What would you do if the prediction, the estekhareh, the divination if you want, was in the negative? Would you still go?” asked the Ayatollah.

“No sir. But I would probably try another estekhareh with you again.”

“Or perhaps with another Ayatollah, no?” said the Ayatollah with a smile. “So, Akbar-khan, your intuition tells you that you must go. Then go.”

“But what about the estekhareh?” asked Akbar, a deep frown on his brow. “Your divinations and prophesies have always been right Alameh, always correct—everyone in the neighborhood knows that!”

“Perhaps it’s the intuitions of everyone in the neighborhood that are right,” replied the Ayatollah, taking his glasses off again and resting them on the pages of his book. “Ali will be in with the tea now.” The door opened just then and Ali shuffled in, clumsily kicking off his plastic slippers. Carrying a metal tray in one hand, he approached the two men, and as he leaned over to offer the small, clear glasses of tea, he set a bowl of roughly shaped sugar cubes on the carpet between them. “Did you use the samovar?” asked the Ayatollah, raising his eyebrows.

“Yes, sir,” replied Ali, grinning widely. “Of course.” He turned and walked away, holding the tray on a swinging, outstretched arm. Akbar took a sugar cube and placed it between his lips. He lifted the glass from its saucer, the cube disappeared into his mouth, and he took a noisy sip of tea. As he brought the glass away from his lips, the sugar cube reappeared between his lips, slightly smaller and lodged in the corner, as if patiently awaiting the next stream of hot tea.

“Ghorboun,” he said to the Ayatollah, somehow keeping the sugar cube firmly in place as he spoke, “how did you know Ali was walking in at that precise moment?”

“Because I know how long it takes for a tea bag to become this exact color,” replied the Ayatollah, holding his glass in the air for Akbar to see. “And this is the color of Ali’s tea.”

“And Ali swore he used the samovar,” said Akbar.

“Naturally. He doesn’t disappoint.”

“Sir?” Akbar fidgeted uncomfortably. “I still don’t think I understand about the estekhareh. I mean, your eminence is a learned Alameh, and an Ayatollah, a ‘sign of God’ after all, and is known to have the ability to prophesy. You are able to tell us ordinary people what paths to take. Surely you aren’t suggesting to me that the estekhareh is a superstition?”

“Did I say that?” said the Ayatollah absent-mindedly.

“No sir, but you spoke of intuition, and you said it’s the intuition that may be right.”

“Is that not possible?

“Yes, of course, but estekhareh tells us much more than intuition, or doesn’t it?”

“Yes, Akbar-agha, in some ways it does. God gives us signs in our own language, certainly. But let me ask you this: a thief or a murderer may have an intuition to steal or to kill. Does he come to me for estekhareh first?”

“I don’t know, eminence,” said Akbar. “I suppose not, or at least I suppose a thief or a murderer wouldn’t ask God for guidance on those matters.”

“No,” replied the Ayatollah, “they probably wouldn’t. So perhaps the thief’s and the murderer’s intuitions are actually the opposite of what they believe them to be, or more precisely, what we believe them to be.” Akbar took another sip of tea. He looked up at the books on the wall, and then looked straight into the Ayatollah’s eyes.

“But you’re an Ayatollah, sir,” he said after a moment. “A philosopher too, I know; but an Ayatollah.”

“We are all ‘signs of God,’ aren’t we?” said the Ayatollah with a laugh. “How could we be anything else? But intuition, my dear Akbar, intuition is the cornerstone of illumination.”

“Illumination? As in light? I’m not sure I understand,” said Akbar. “Sir,” he continued, “I’ve heard you called a Sufi, but I always thought it meant you were an ascetic.”

“Sufi is a word, Akbar-agha. I’ve been called many things, but I still prefer my own name. If illumination is what you seek, however, perhaps I may be able to help you. And I think by your original question, you seek illumination.”

“I’m not a well-read man, your eminence,” said Akbar. “I’ve been a working man all my life; I’m not good with books and philosophy.”

“Knowledge gained by intuition is more valuable than that gained by books,” said the Ayatollah.

The Ayatollah suddenly looked very tired and leaned back against the wall of books. “You must come and visit again,” he said to Akbar, closing his eyes. “I’m an old man and I have very few visitors. Not even many requests for estekhareh any more. Perhaps the State is now in that business, no?”

“Of course, eminence,” said Akbar, quickly rising to his feet. “Thank you very much for your time and for bothering with an uneducated man like me. I apologize for questioning you; it’s just that all these years I’ve always wondered. About how we know.”

“Don’t apologize!” said the Ayatollah, opening his eyes and looking directly at Akbar. “All these years ordinary people have come to me for estekhareh, they’ve come to me with questions about the most mundane things, but you’re the first to ever ask me about knowledge. What took you so long?”

“Everyone has faith, I suppose,” said Akbar, scratching the three-day stubble on his chin. “But I wanted to ask about estekhareh, your eminence, not because I lack faith in it, but because I now realize that I want to know rather than to believe.” The Ayatollah nodded slowly, and then closed his eyes again.

“Akbar-agha,” he said softly.

“Yes, ghorboun?”

“You want to know what you believe, or you want to believe what you know?”

“I believe, eminence,” said Akbar. “My belief is unwavering, but I want to know—so I suppose I want to know what I believe.”

“You’ve chosen a good path, Akbar-agha,” said the Ayatollah. “And along the way, listen to words that come out of the heart, not just from the tongue.”

“Thank you, ghorboun.” Akbar brought his right hand to his heart and, bowing slightly, walked backward toward the door. Once outside, he turned to put his shoes on and then slowly descended the stone steps to the vestibule. Ali was waiting for him at the front door, and Akbar handed him an envelope that Ali quickly stuffed into his shirt pocket. “Khoda-hafez,” he said as he walked out into the alley. “Salaamat-bashid,” he heard Ali say behind him, and he felt Ali’s gaze fixed on his back until he turned the corner.

“Ali! Ali,” called the Ayatollah when he heard the front door close.  “Ali, get me my cane; I want to go for a walk.”

“It’s time for a nap, sir, not for a walk.”

“Get me my cane, Ali! I don’t want to nap, I want to walk.”

“I think you should rest for a while, sir—I can tell you’re tired.”

“I’m going for a walk in the garden, Ali, because I’m tired. Just get my cane for me and help me up.”

“If you insist, sir, but …”

“Ali. Please. And tell khanoom I’m going to the garden,” said the Ayatollah, his eyes falling on the envelope sticking out from Ali’s shirt pocket.

“Khanoom is praying,” said Ali.

“Of course she’s praying,” said the Ayatollah. “But tell her anyway.”

“Yes, sir,” replied Ali. A few moments later he reappeared with the cane and helped the Ayatollah up to his feet.

“Ali,” said the Ayatollah with a grunt. “We don’t take charity.”

“Yes, sir, you don’t take charity,” said Ali. The Ayatollah again looked at the envelope still in Ali’s pocket.

“We can manage on my pension,” said the Ayatollah.

“Yes sir, and I have to buy the groceries,” said Ali. “And khanoom prays all day: all day and all night.” Ali helped his master to the door, one short step at a time.

“Perhaps she sees something we don’t,” said the Ayatollah, stopping at the door. He breathed heavily. “Ali,” he said. “Do you know how old I am?”

“No, sir,” replied Ali. “And neither do you.”

“I must be close to a hundred now, don’t you think?”

“Perhaps. But what does it matter?” Ali pulled gently on the Ayatollah’s arm, guiding him to the narrow stone stairs.

“It doesn’t,” said the Ayatollah, carefully negotiating a step. “But,” he said, pausing for a moment, “it would be good to know on the day one dies.”

“Why?” asked Ali, nudging him softly. “Allah knows when to take a person.”

That, He does,” said the Ayatollah, taking another step.

They reached the bottom of the stairs in silence, and the Ayatollah brushed Ali aside as he slowly made his way down the dark corridor toward the garden. The bright light of the outdoors only barely penetrated the hallway, but the Ayatollah took sure steps toward the light even though his sight was failing him, and Ali followed a pace behind. He paused by the open door of the drawing room and looked in on his wife. Seated on her knees on a prayer mat, she was swaying gently back and forth, loudly and forcefully reciting from the Koran that lay open in front of her.

“Khanoom,” said the Ayatollah. “Khanoom-jan: Allah has heard you, the Prophet has heard you, the Imams have all heard you, even the Hidden Imam Mahdi has heard you. Come outside and get some fresh air.” His wife ignored him, continuing her almost trancelike recitations.

The Ayatollah watched her for a few moments and then turned back to his slow march to the garden. When he reached the entrance, he held his hand out to Ali, who quickly stepped to his side and took his elbow. He proceeded through the open door, squinting against the light, almost blinding in contrast to the dark corridor he’d just left. “Ali,” he said, standing on the worn stone pathway that encircled the small garden. “Leave me now; I want to walk alone.”

“No, Agha, let me stay.”

“I’m just going to take a little stroll around the garden. Leave me, just this once.”

“I’ll be in the kitchen, watching through the window,” said Ali. “Look toward me when you want to come in.”

“I will, I will,” said the Ayatollah, leaning on his cane. “Take care of khanoom,” he added.

“She doesn’t need me,” said Ali, not moving. “She has her prayers.”

“She will.” The Ayatollah moved slowly, still squinting against the sun. He paused every few steps, both to catch his breath and to focus his gaze on the mulberry bushes and cherry trees that bordered the garden. He stopped at the chicken coop in the corner of the yard, long since abandoned, and remembered the loud cackle the hens made whenever he used to throw them some crumbs. He stared for a moment at the neglected rose bushes against the mud wall—once khanoom’s pride, now badly neglected in favor of prayer. He turned the corner and walked toward the back of the garden, where in summers past, the entire family would sleep on beds, covered by mosquito nets, set up by Ali in the open air. He stopped again under the massive eucalyptus tree that shaded the area and rested a palm on the trunk. “Just like me,” he said aloud, “you don’t know how old you are, do you? But what does it matter? Allah has deigned to give you a much longer life than mine.” A tree, he mused as he moved on, lives on light. “Quiddity,” he said, again aloud.

Akbar hurried home, paying less attention to the traffic than he normally would and almost getting run over a few times. But he had a big smile on his face when he arrived at his front door, a smile that dissolved as he fumbled in his pockets for his keys. He banged on the door with his umbrella. “Khanoom!’ he shouted, “khanoom, open the door!”

“What’s the matter?” said his wife, Aghdas, as she opened the door.

“I can’t find my keys,” said Akbar, stepping inside. “Where are they?”

“How should I know? They’re probably in your pocket, where you put them this morning.” She reached into his jacket’s pocket and fished out a pair of keys, tied together with a yellowed piece of old string. “You see? Right here.” Akbar took the keys from her hand and walked into the small sitting room staring at them. Light was reflecting off them in a way he hadn’t noticed before. He turned them over between his fingers, watching the light move with the motion.

“Estekhareh was good,” he said, not looking up.

“What? What do you mean?” asked Aghdas.

“Exactly what I said,” Akbar replied indignantly.

“You said, ‘I believe because I know,’” said Aghdas. What’s that supposed to mean?”

“What are you talking about?” said Akbar. “I said ‘estekhareh was good.’”

“No you didn’t, but good: I knew it. Are you sure you feel okay?’

“I feel great, khanoom, better than ever. How did you know about the estekhareh? Why did you say, ‘I knew it?’”

“Listen,” said Aghdas patiently. “You’re saying one thing when you mean another. Maybe you should go and lie down for while.”

“I’m fine,” said Akbar. “Really, I am.” He moved to the window and pulled aside the drapes. “We need more light,” he said under his breath, staring out onto the street. His eyes followed a green van, badly rusted, as it bounced along the rough asphalt. In the back window there was a picture of Imam Ali, a magnificent image of the saint that contrasted sharply with the vehicle it was affixed to. “Besm’allah,” Akbar muttered as the van passed the small neighborhood mosque at the end of the street, barely avoiding the ditch, and turned the corner. Just at that moment an old man came out of the mosque, picked up a straw broom leaning against the outside tiled wall, and began to sweep the entrance. Dust clouds swirled all around him, but seemingly oblivious, he carried on furiously. A young cleric, barely in his 20s and wearing the black turban of a Seyyed, a descendent of the Prophet, walked out of the mosque. The old man stopped his sweeping for a minute, and the cleric stepped over the joob and walked into the street. He looked in Akbar’s direction for a second and then disappeared around the corner. Two women hurriedly walked past his window, the black cloth of their chadors billowing with their every movement, and ignored a street vendor’s exhortations and pleas from across the road. The owner of the little grocery shop down the street stood outside surveying the scene, fingering his worry beads and occasionally stealing a glance in Akbar’s direction. Akbar sighed and nodded, almost imperceptibly. “Khanoom,” he called softly, and then turned away from the window.

The Ayatollah stepped onto the grass and made his way to the small pond in the center of the garden. It was empty, the turquoise paint faded and peeling, the fountain in the center now just a rusted pipe jutting rudely toward the sky. But he imagined it filled with water, the fountain spraying crystal drops onto the ledge, and he saw himself as a younger man heading for his vozou, his ablutions, before prayer. When he reached the pond he slowly lowered himself to the ledge with both hands on his cane and sat down with a sigh. It was so much easier when he was young, wasn’t it? He turned and looked at the house, at the sunlight bouncing off the shuttered windows of the unused bedrooms on the second story. When he was gone, khanoom would sell the house and move into an apartment building just like the one that loomed over the back wall of the garden. And those bedrooms, now empty for years, would be demolished by developers along with the rest of the house, forever severing the ties his children had once had with this small patch of land. Akbar, his only visitor of the day, would soon travel far to see his child, perhaps even a grandchild or two. The Ayatollah’s own daughter was in America, married to an American, her children lost to Islam, his wife often lamented. “No matter,” he said aloud, “but she doesn’t understand, even with all her reading and all her prayers, that they’re not lost to light.” He had never met these grandchildren, and he never would, but at least he had had other grandchildren nearer home. Grandchildren who rarely came to play here; children who wouldn’t discover the joys of the garden as their parents had once before them.

The Ayatollah reached his hand down into the empty pool and felt the cool water coming up to his elbow. He dipped his other hand and again felt the cool water against his skin. He closed his eyes, waving his arms about, enjoying the sensation. He then lifted both arms, held them in the air and bent his elbows, the palms of his hands facing him. He marveled at the drops of water trickling down his forearms, light, sunlight, reflecting off every single one like a thousand dazzling stars. He rubbed his left arm with his right hand, from the elbow to the wrist, and then repeated the action with the other arm. He felt his wet palms with his fingers, and then drew a moist line across his forehead. He dipped his hand back into the empty pool, kicked off his slippers, and touched the top of his feet with his fingers. Sunlight glistened off his wet feet, and he stared at them for a moment, enraptured. “My ablutions are complete, just like my life. Be’esm’illah-o-rahman-o-rahim,” he said in a strong voice. He turned to look at the house and caught Ali’s gaze through the kitchen window. He smiled, nodded, and rested his hands on his knees. He closed his eyes and looked upward as he felt the sunlight growing stronger, his eyelids barely a match for the intensity of the light. The light grew stronger and stronger until the stars and little white flecks and odd shapes that were dancing on the inside of the curtain covering his eyes slowly disappeared, yielding to a brightness he had never seen until now.  I believe because I know, Akbar-agha!” he almost shouted. He opened his eyes, but the light was still there, as bright as ever, illuminating everything to a white glow. For a brief moment the Ayatollah thought he could see Ali running toward him, but the image dissolved into the light like a disappearing mirage in the desert, and the Ayatollah again closed his eyes.

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