Adventures in Qom

Friedel and Andrew at the shrineUnder clear blue skies, we scrambled up a rocky path to the top of Khezr mountain. From the peak, the holy city of Qom spread out under our feet, the gleaming gold dome and twin minarets of its famous shrine sparkling in the unusually strong winter sunlight. A single doorway led into the coolness of a tiny mosque, a place of pilgrimage for Muslims seeking help and comfort from Allah. An elderly woman sweeping the entryway looked up with a smile as we stepped inside, only too happy to oblige when Friedel asked for help putting on a chador from the pile available for visitors.

Qom is Iran’s most conservative city – the home of religious clerics and the starting point of the 1979 Islamic revolution. Here, simply wearing a headscarf and covering your arms and legs is not enough to gain entrance to a sacred place. A chador is essential to ensure modesty, a point the woman was keen to drive home as she draped a piece of fabric like a bedsheet over Friedel. It covered everything from head-to-toe in a swathe of black.

“Wear a chador all the time or God will want to know why you haven’t on the day of judgement,” she said with a pointed finger and all the firmness of a mother delivering a lecture to a misbehaving child.

The dome and minaret of the mosqueIt was just the sort of welcome we expected from Qom; friendly but stern. Truth be told, we might not have come at all if we hadn’t met two Americans living in the city and decided to visit. Iranians thought we were crazy for accepting the invitation.

“People in Qom make me nervous. They always look to make sure I’m wearing my chador correctly,” said one particularly religious friend. If she was uneasy going to Qom, what awaited two Western tourists who might unwittingly fail to live up to the stricter interpretations of hijab? As a man, Andrew has a relatively easy ride – just covering his arms and legs is enough – but for Friedel things are more complicated. She’d only just mastered the mysteries of the headscarf let alone those of the semi-circular chador, which even practiced Iranians say takes years to truly wear with grace. Without zippers or buttons, the chador must be constantly held by your hands or, when those are full of shopping, your teeth.

We shouldn’t have been worried. Within minutes of our arrival we found ourselves, in the best tradition of Iranian hospitality, embraced not only by our American friends but by a troop of students studying English and very eager to make us at home. Over popcorn and juice we got to know each other.The carpet sellers' hall

The next day they took us on a tour of the city, revealing a side of Qom that wasn’t just about religion. In the cool alleyways of the bazaar, carpet makers knelt over their latest work, carefully adding the finishing touches to silk masterpieces worthy of being framed. Outside the streets were packed with families tucking into freshly fried doughnuts and we couldn’t help but notice a small number of women in fashionable and shapely manteaus.

Friedel was, however, still struggling with her borrowed chador as we entered the holy shrine. In a moment of clumsiness, the cover slipped from her head, catching the attention of two guards. “Hello Missus,” they called immediately, chasing after us with a multi-coloured featherduster they use to point crowds in the right direction. We anticipated the worst, ready to be scolded and asked to leave for entering a sacred Muslim place. Not at all. “Where are you from?” they wanted to know before asking if we were Christian and welcoming us to the city.

Later, at ceremonies marking Arba’een, one of the most important events in the Shia calendar, we continued to feel the warmth of the people of Qom. Smiles greeted us from every corner and picnicing families motioned for us to join them. We couldn’t help but feel that Qom had been given a rather undeserved reputation. A holy city it certainly is with deep respect for Islam. Waves of black chadors still rule the streets giving an initially sombre impression but appearances are decieving. Here in Qom, as we’ve experienced everywhere in Iran, the people couldn’t be more kind.


  1. Marie
    1st March 2008 at 9:06 am #

    So good to hear from you! Sounds a fascinating experience, but also a bit scary.

  2. Ingrid and Yves
    1st March 2008 at 11:36 am #

    Hey you!
    Finaly a sign of life of you! We where so worried, because you did not write your log for 3 weeks. You started to be our main topic of every day. “Are they in trouble? How to find them? Where to search? Whom to inform?” So please let us know your emergency plans. We are so relieved to read, that everything goes fine. What happend between Yazd and Qom?
    Greetings from Ingrid and Yves

  3. friedel
    1st March 2008 at 1:31 pm #

    Hello Ingrid, Yves and everyone else who was so relieved to hear from us. We didn’t know any of you were so worried! What happened between Yazd and Qom? Well, nothing much really. Just a trip to Tehran and lots of waiting for embassies to issue visas. We’re still waiting for Turkmenistan to let us know if we can come for a visit…. That’s why we didn’t write. Mostly we were just staying with friends and watching BBC World. Not so exciting to blog about.

    As for emergency plans, well we don’t have any official ones. Up until now we’ve tried to check in every few days but from here on in that could get more and more difficult. We know that when we cross into Turkmenistan we may well go 2 weeks without internet access, until we reach the capital of Uzbekistan. We’ll always let our families know before we set out on the road when we expect to reach the next big city and check in so although we may not blog someone out there usually has our next destination and hopeful date of arrival.

    You could also check our journal on Crazyguyonabike — TravellingTwo

    That site is very much text based and much faster to load than ours, so if we come across a slow connection in Central Asia we may update there first until we can reach our own site.

  4. Ingrid and Yves
    1st March 2008 at 2:04 pm #

    Now we calmed down, even without any glass of wine 😉 Of course we understand that there are days or even weeks of no events so that there is nothing to write. But before, you blogged almost every day and we got used to read your blog every morning as first. Ok, almost, more important is a cup of coffee…
    This time we where so uncertain, because you checked in a hotel in a city, you wanted to stay for longer and we got the intension, that you have internet access.
    Now we are very happy! It was such a relief to see the new blog entry this morning.
    It is also nice to see that you are welcome in the heart of the islamic world. Yesterday I was a bit thoughtful and I realised, that there would be much less suspicion, fear and war, if we would know each other a bit better…
    Have a good time!

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