On a sunny autumn mid-morning Friday a huge howl made me run out of the house I was visiting to see what was happening. I rushed toward the sound. It was coming from the center of the village. The minute I saw the source, I brought myself to a screeching halt. It was a large gathering. A huge mullah—Shiite cleric—was seated on a chair under the shade of a solitary tree preaching. Men on one side on the ground took up about a third of a circle and women covered the ground on the other side. A narrow fire lane separated the fire from the kindling. I scanned the place quickly to decide my next move. Stay. But sit on that far away boulder. It is a safe place. You can see and hear things, yet you won’t be part of the ado. You won’t stick out either. See those three older men seated on that boulder far from the gathering taking turn at the water pipe; see the cluster of young men standing at a distance gawking. Why aren’t these men participating in the religious event? Are these men dissenters, skeptics or heathens? I suppose every group has its share of non-conformists. Some little boys are kicking a ball farther out. So, sit down and take in the scene.
As I eased myself on the boulder, I wondered how the massive thing ever got where it was—desert as far as the eye can see—miles and miles away from mountains and rivers. I frequently get side tracked by all the questions that pop up in the echo chamber I carry on my shoulders. Never mind. Take in the show. I will spare you a detailed report. You can, in a moment of recklessness, book yourself to one of these numerous frequent Islamic gatherings for first hand experience. Briefly, on that Friday the large mullah was narrating the purported tragic fate of Imam Reza—the eighth Arab Shiite Imam who is buried in the city of Mashhad in Iran.
The mullah was planning to go on pilgrimage to the Imam’s shrine as soon as the God-fearing faithful villagers coughed up enough money for his journey. No, it wasn’t a junket. No, he wasn’t going to Mashhad for a few seeghes—temporary religiously approved marriages that allow a man and a woman to bed together from as little as a few minutes or for as long as their hormones ruled. He claimed he was going to go to the shrine to personally plead with the holy Imam to intercede with God to forgive the sins of his flock. His flock, as wool-less as they were, still needed fleecing from time to time. And no one was more qualified to do the job than the large mullah who occupied the solitary chair. Did the villagers sin so that forgiveness was required? They indeed must’ve had, otherwise why would they be condemned to the hell they were in. Would their suffering on earth count for time done in hell? No, they have seen nothing yet, the man was saying. The hell they were in was plenty bad. But, the hell to come, as he described it, made the desolate, graceless desert village look like paradise.
Everything is relative, I suppose. The mullah described hell in such horrifying details that made my skin crawl. I knew I was going to hell. Couldn’t I go to a different hell, please? I dreaded his. He described hell at length and in harrowing details and said only a few words about heaven. He said heaven was a place of unsurpassed beauty and bounty. No work, all play, with rivers of honey and milk and lush fruit and other delectable for men. What about the women? What do they get? Men saturated to their eyeballs with milk and honey fueled passion? Is the next world also men’s?
Talking about heaven, however, was leaping ahead. First, you had to buy your way out of hell before even being considered for admission into heaven, he kept saying.
Question: Why did the massive mullah have to go all the way to Mashhad to pray for his riddled-with-sin congregation? Couldn’t he just save the wretched their badly needed coins by praying for them from where he was? Oh, the Imam was hard of hearing? You had to get up close? I don’t think even shouting directly in his ears would’ve made the man hear any better. He was dead for over a thousand years. He doesn’t need ears to hear? He is now telepathic? If so, he could receive the supplications just the same from the village. Unless of course he decides to ignore them like he had done so for centuries. The master crowd worker played his audience like a sitar. He told them how all those who betrayed the beloved Imam burned in God’s inferno full of scorpions, tarantulas, rattle snakes and more. To my astonishment, one of the men in the circle took advantage of the mullah’s momentary pause, “Your personage Agha, what sins the scorpions, tarantulas and snakes have committed to be condemned to hell, since God himself created them the way they are and wouldn’t these venomous creatures themselves burn in the raging inferno?” he asked.
“They have committed no sins. They just do their jobs as assigned by God. They don’t burn either. They are made fireproof first,” the mullah answered without missing a beat. “What happens next, after the sinner is bitten and burned?” the nervy guy asked the follow up question. “The scripture promise that the next life is eternal. You go to hell, you stay there forever. You go to heaven, that’s your abode everlasting. People who doubt the scripture are assuredly hell-bound,” the mullah said with a menacing voice. The women wailed and cursed the impudent questioner and the men seemed ready to dispatch the infidel-sounding man to the dreaded inferno immediately. One of the acts that earn merit points is the killing of heretics, infidels and apostates and the faithful are determined on accumulating merit points. I concluded that questioning religious dogma seldom produces satisfactory answers. What is certain, however, the sin of asking questions expands the torture served the questioner both on earth and in hell. A minute after the unwelcome interruption, the mullah skillfully steered the Rozeh Khooni—Shiite’s religious revival composed of a mix of passages chanted from the Quran and narration of the suffering of the Imams—train back on track. The women wailed, beat themselves on the head and rocked back and forth in agony. The men sobbed and beat themselves on the chest. What in God’s name is going on here? Isn’t the world already beating up without let up on these miserable people? Are these wretched people going to heaven? Will the mullah be there too? That’s no heaven that I care to go to, no matter the rivers of honey and milk and all the lush stuff. I’ve got to find me a different heaven.
As I cogitated, this popped up in my head: Heaven is a happy heart, hell is a heavy heart. Yeah, we are all in hell alright. And this is the Islamic idea of entertainment on Friday—the day of rest and recreation? The showman hit the climax by shrieking, with his unusually high-pitched voice, the heart-wrenching episode of the Imam Reza’s death, as tears glided out of the two slits he sported for eyes. The infidel enemies fed the Imam poison, he screamed. The congregation reacted hysterically. I had heard a different version about the Imam’s death. Aren’t there always two sides to a story? The other version claims that the Imam died from gorging himself on huge quantities of Mashhad’s delicious grapes. Apparently, being from Arabia, his system couldn’t handle alien delectable Iranian fruit and he died from a severe case of the runs. I can’t vouch for either version. I’m just reporting. Besides, the man died over a thousand years ago, from poison or diarrhea, let him be. What do these wretched people have to do with his death, self-inflicted or otherwise? Why mourn the man at all, if indeed he was a saint of their God. He must be having a ball in the purported lush heaven feasting and frolicking. Why feel sorry for the lucky man? He should mourn their dreadful plight and use any influence he has with God to do something about it. Why didn’t these people spend the day doing something that would bring a bit of cheer to their anguished heart? Maybe it is true that misery likes company. Those miserable people yearned for more misery. They wouldn’t know how to deal with happiness and joy. The Bible says, “As ye sow, so shall ye reap.” But this mullah was sowing doom and gloom and reaping a trip of joy and titillation. All along, people, one by one, got up and went to the mullah’s assistant seated to his right on the ground and gave him some coins and an occasional note. The assistant thanked, blessed and assured them that Agha will pray for them at the shrine. The mullah played his hand so well that even I, a cynical disbeliever, was moved to tears and fears from time to time. At one point I checked my pockets searching for coins to offer him so he would pray for me too. You can never be too safe. All I could find in my pockets were holes. Darn it, the precious coins I never had must’ve fallen out of the holey pockets I had. Do you blame the mullah for fleecing the fleece-less? Don’t. It is the order of this world. The less you have, the more you give and the more you have the more you take. Besides, the mullah had pressing ongoing expenses in addition to his planned pilgrimages. He had three wives to support and a bevy of kids to feed. He was seriously thinking about getting a fourth wife. How would he do that if his flock didn’t part with generous amounts of wool? He should plow the un-giving fields? That would be foolish and the village’s only obese person will end up looking like the rest of the walking skeletons. “One prosperous man is better than a thousand destitute,” some prosperous con man must’ve coined that one.
The mullah was the village’s one and only prosperous person and better than us, the destitute thousands.