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Finding Zoroastrianism in the Heart of the Iranian Desert

By Deena Guzder (from Pilgrimage Through Iran series)

I wake up in my Tehran hotel to a placard signaling the direction of Mecca. In the cabinet drawers there is a minaret rock, prayer rug and Koran. Today I depart for the desert city of Yazd, the holiest city for Zoroastrians.

In the domestic airport, men and women are separated for security checks. I am more conscious of my gender than I have ever been in my life. In Zoroastrianism, men and women are considered equals. Here I have to remember not to shake men's hands, use the wrong entrance or let my headscarf slide to the back of my neck. My minder said that punishments for hijab violations grow in severity for each additional offense. The first time, a woman is admonished; the second time, she has to pay a heavy fine; and the third time she is given a prison sentence of a week to two months. "Prospective husbands check how many hijab violations their prospective wives have so they know if she's a liability," joked my minder. I hazard a smile against my feminist sensibilities.

There is a terminal in the airport for "Haj" pilgrims. Entering the Iran Air flight, the steward said, "In the name of God Almighty and God all Powerful, we welcome you on board." A little less than two hours later we land in the belly of the desert. While disembarking, my minder walks near me and says, "I was told to keep an eye on you. Intelligence is very good here and they probably know you're a journalist so they delayed your visa even after it was approved." I'm not sure what to say, so I simply shrug and keep walking.

Although Yazd is the birthplace of Zoroastrianism, it is also called "the City of Muslims" since most of its population of half a million follows Iran's majority faith devoutly. But Zoroastrians have a strong presence. "This is a very honest city because the Zoroastrian religion stresses the importance of truth," said one shopkeeper when I asked about the legacy of the faith. "And you'll never get ripped off here!" he chimed while handing me a Persian carpet to admire. I ask if it's a magic carpet. When he nods in the affirmative, I ask if I can fly on it. "No, it means that you can pack it up and take it on a plane," he laughed. "And I'll give you correct change because you're Zoroastrian." The shopkeeper then showed me different Zoroastrian motifs in the carpet's designs and explained how the wool is taken from the neck of a sheep so it's very soft.

A spice store in Yazd that is known for its saffron.

Lush flowerbeds are pervasive in the desert, thanks to a highly sophisticated system of irrigation. Yazd is known for its pomegranates, walnuts, beetroots and pastries. Today, it's also known for "yellow cake," which is not a dessert but an element in the uranium mines. "Yazd would be the first place to be bombed if there is a war," said my minder.

There are no immediate signs of Zoroastrianism when you land in Yazd and I'm advised to dress even more conservatively than usual. I decided to wear a loose, all black cloak that is suffocating. My minder tells me to watch out for rattlesnakes, scorpions and cockroaches. For a moment, I'm a little disappointed that my ancestors don't come from some tropical paradise near, say, Hawaii, where people gallivant in bikinis all day long.
The workweek here is Saturday to Wednesday. Today, Friday, is a holiday. I roam around Amir Chakhmagh Square and then have tea at Khan Traditional tea-house inside the bazaar. I go to evening prayers at a nearby mosque and overhear a conversation about the twelfth imam who professed to return and save the world from corruption. One woman exclaims, "He should be coming any Friday now because it's about time!" There is a wooden structure symbolizing the coffin of the imam and his martyrs. I am told that it is often carried around and mourned after as people self-flagellate, which makes me realize the vast differences between my own faith and the interpretation of Islam practiced here. In Zoroastrianism, depression and gloom are considered sinful; the prophet taught that personal happiness is a noble goal.

In the mosque I meet an Iranian TV documentary maker. When I mention that I'm Zoroastrian, he says, "Zoroastrians are good people!" I respond, "Muslims are good people!" He tells me his family was Zoroastrian four generations ago. Lowering his voice, he says that this mosque was built over a Zoroastrian fire temple. The muezzin's call to prayer interrupts our conversation.

My minder and I share a dinner of eggplant, basmati rice and pomegranate curry. We talk about politics and my minder predicts that the U.S. won't attack Iran: "The time for solving differences through warfare and bloodshed is over," said my minder. We also talk about our personal lives. My minder was a professional basketball player and male model during the Shah's reign. His family lost their fortune after the revolution, so my minder got a job escorting foreign nationals for different embassies because he speaks fluent English. He asks me if I'm expected to marry a Zoroastrian so I can have Zoroastrian children. I shrug. "You have to do something about those strict rules before all of you die out," he said. We smoke a hookah and play Persian backgammon since there's nothing else to do in the desert. I ask my minder if he ever considered leaving Iran. "I don't want to go the U.S. and get my Ph. D., as in 'Pizza Hut Delivery boy,'" he jokes.

I spend the rest of my time in Yazd with the Zoroastrian community. I visit a fire temple where the holy flame has burned for 1,500 years. The priest tells me there are 200 devotees in Yazd. When I ask if the Muslims respect the Zoroastrians, he says "some of them, but not all." He introduces me to two young Zoroastrians dressed in traditional garb. Their bright outfits contrast the dusty dunes of the desert. "We have many problems with the government," said Banafshe, who is in her mid-twenties. "It is difficult to get a job, and when you tell people you're a Zoroastrian, they do not treat you the same." She added, "This year the government prevented us from celebrating one of our holy days because it overlapped with a Muslim holy day. They were scared that the Muslims would attend out event because it's more festive. We still held our celebrations but very discreetly and only with a small fire."

While visiting the abandoned Towers of Silence where the Zoroastrian dead use to dispose corpses by exposure to natural elements, the priest said I could remove my headscarf. "You are fine over here because this is our holy site." Today, there are not enough Zoroastrians to warrant keeping the towers in commission.

Image: Yazd photo 500
Zoroastrian women climb into a tunnel leading to an abandoned Tower of Silence.

Banafshe and I go shopping in the evening so I can buy lighter and brighter clothes. "Many Muslim friends try to convert me and say 'why are you Zarthushtie? You don't have a real God and worship fire,'" she said. "We are not seen as equals here. If a Muslims kills a Zoroastrian it's only one eighth of the punishment of a Muslim killing another Muslim. It's not fair because we are the original Persians." I want to ask her more but she seems uncomfortable.

... Payvand News - 11/04/08 ... --

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