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The main square and bazaar outside Qom's shrine in Iran bustles even late at night, a time when Iraqis at home would be afraid to go outside.

Iran is a hot destination for Iraqis seeking calm

Religious tourism healing old wounds

By Anne Barnard
Globe Staff / May 13, 2007
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MASHHAD, Iran -- Jalil Abbas prayed at the Shi'ite Muslim shrine he had dreamed of visiting all his life, relaxed and energetic even after a 19-hour bus ride across Iran. Free for the moment from the fear and tension of their home in southern Iraq, his young nieces explored the busy market, showing off matching pairs of pink-tinted sunglasses they bought earlier in the family's religious pilgrimage. Abbas's wife, Shukriya Hadi, soaked in the calm of the shrine's vast courtyard, where knots of women and children relaxed on the smooth paving stones.

It didn't bother them that they were Iraqi Arabs in mostly-Persian Iran. Nor did Abbas, 45, feel nervous here, even though he spent most of his 20s as a conscript solder in Saddam Hussein's bloody eight-year war with Iran.

Making his first trip across the border, Abbas said he saw a different Iran from the dangerous, meddling power that Iraqi and US officials describe when they accuse the neighboring country of fueling the fighting in Iraq. Instead, he and many of his fellow pilgrims found a deep resonance with their Shi'ite faith, a social order they admired and, most of all, a respite from violence.

"We envy the Iranians for the way they live," Abbas said on his fifth day in Iran. He felt a kinship with them, he said, that was growing stronger than his ties to Iraq's Sunni Muslims, who share his nationality, Arabic language, and ethnicity.

He even said he would like to see Iraq adopt a system of government like Iran's -- the theocracy established by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini after the 1979 Islamic revolution, in which ultimate power rests with Shi'ite clerics.

"I believe justice would come with this system," Abbas said, challenging a long-held US assumption that Iraqi Shi'ites want their religious leaders to shun a direct role in government.

The United States rested its hopes for success in Iraq on the Shi'ite majority that the Bush administration believed would embrace US involvement, and support a unified, multiethnic Iraq that might serve as a democratic model for Iranians and others in the Middle East.

Instead, four years after US troops toppled Hussein, Iran has used its own brand of public diplomacy to win the trust and admiration of neighbors long thought to define themselves as Iraqis first and Shi'ites second. It's just one way that Iran has benefited from the US invasion of its chief rival.

"We are Shi'ite and they are Shi'ite. We are the same faith," Abbas said. "Iran is the only country that helps us Shi'ites."

US and Iraqi officials have long accused Iran of covertly funneling weapons to violent Iraqi groups, harboring militants, and funding Iraqi political parties. But one of Iran's biggest levers of influence is overt, spontaneous and, to many Iraqi Shi'ites, benign: Now that cultural and economic links severed under Hussein are being restored, Iraqis are finding that Iran is a great place to visit.

About 750,000 Iraqis have come to Iran since Hussein's fall in 2003, said Iraq's ambassador in Tehran, Mohammed Majid al-Sheikh. Most come on three-month pilgrim visas that many stretch to the limit to enjoy a break from Iraq. And many now view their wartime enemy as a harmless neighbor, maybe even a model to emulate -- where religious rule feels more stable than the pluralistic but chaotic experiment in democracy back home.

The Iranian government has seized the opportunity to wield the soft power of persuasion. It makes pilgrim visas cheap and easy to get. It welcomes another 1,500 Iraqis a year for medical treatment. It offers the poorest pilgrims free housing, religious instruction, and reminders that Saddam Hussein's invasion of Iran sparked the war that killed hundreds of thousands of Iraqis, most of them Shi'ites.

Tour operators, who need the government's good graces, often throw in an extra stop on the way from Qom, a center of pilgrimage and religious study in central Iran, to the main attraction in Mashhad. They visit a more modern shrine -- the one to Khomeini.

The bus carrying Abbas's family pulled into a parking lot past rows of banners honoring Iranians who died fighting Iraqis. Abbas looked at the gilt minarets that tower over the grave of Khomeini, who labeled the United States "the great Satan" and presided over the 444-day seizure of US hostages.

To the war veteran, the message was clear: "He was a great man, a righteous man," Abbas said. "Look what he has, and look where Saddam has ended up."

Iran is ambivalent toward its Iraqi visitors, courting them but refusing them refugee status despite pleas from the United Nations. Economically stressed Iran fears it could end up like Jordan and Syria, each playing host to about a million Iraqis.

But Iran is happy to encourage the boom in religious tourism.

In Qom, Iraqis are almost everywhere, marked by their guttural Arabic, patterned headcoverings, and the tribal tattoos on some women's faces. The ones who can't afford hotels, up to 400 people a night, stay at the Zeinab mosque in a marketplace alley.

There, Ahmed Tabatabai, an Iranian state employee, decides which visitors get cash assistance or free trips to Tehran for medical help. He prints pamphlets to correct what he calls Iraqis' "cultural poverty" and historical ignorance. One Arabic booklet quotes wartime speeches by Khomeini lamenting that "honest Iraqis" were being "martyred at the hands of a criminal regime" -- a sentiment most Iraqis now would surely agree with.

An Iraqi-born imam offers religious teaching to Iraqis who, he said, are in "complete darkness" after years under Hussein's repression of Shi'ite practices.

At the Umm Albaneen tour agency across from Qom's domed shrine, Mohsen al-Askari, who fled to Iran from southern Iraq after Hussein crushed a Shi'ite uprising there in 1991, considers himself a kind of shepherd for disoriented Iraqis -- "psychologically collapsed," he calls them.

He's also a clever businessman: A fruit seller in Qom's market when Hussein fell, he launched his bus company within days.

He waved in a limping Iraqi passerby. Majid Mohsen, 33, was in Iran for surgery on his right lower leg, crushed in a December bombing that killed 101 people in central Baghdad.

The next afternoon, Askari loaded about 40 Iraqi pilgrims onto a bus to Mashhad, more than 600 miles to the east, near the Afghan border. Among them were Abbas, his wife, her sister Intisar Hadi, 25, and Intisar's four small children, whom the childless older couple helped to raise. Abbas carried the youngest, Roqaya, 3, limp and sleeping, onto the bus.

He makes just $187 a month working for a state-run wheat company in Kufa, near the shrine city of Najaf. The overnight bus cost $9 each, but would save a night in a hotel.

Spontaneous prayer
Few of the Iraqis spoke Farsi, and the Iranian bus driver knew just a few words of Arabic. But as the doors hissed closed, they spontaneously chanted together a Shi'ite prayer for the road: "Peace be upon Mohammed, and the family of Mohammed."

They were bound for Mashhad's shrine to Imam Reza, one of the 12 early Muslim leaders revered by Shi'ites.

The bus stopped first at the Khomeini shrine, on Tehran's outskirts. The passengers passed through metal detectors to peek inside the mosque -- though most didn't go up and kiss the grille around Khomeini's grave the way some Iranians did.

As darkness fell, the bus rumbled east from Tehran through fields and small towns. The passengers watched lights coming on -- luxurious, decorative lights rarely seen in power-starved Iraq. Neon palm trees flashed patterns of color in the medians.

Abbas's family savored the simple pleasure of driving through the night, without fear of carjacking or kidnapping or roadblocks where a gunman might kill them just for being Shi'ites.

At a rest stop, almost no one could afford the $3 meal of rice and stewed chicken the bus driver enjoyed. Abbas's family dragged out huge metal pots and blankets and sat on the gravel to eat rice they'd cooked in Qom.

At 6:30 a.m., the pilgrims stopped at a shrine that holds a rock slab said to bear Imam Reza's footprints. Shukriya Hadi, Abbas's wife, touched the fence around it and wept. Her nieces, Mayasa, 9, and Fatima, 8, ran giggling around the leafy grounds.

Three hours later, the family climbed off the bus, dazed and blinking, and into a taxi to go to the golden dome of the shrine. When Hadi saw it, she held her palms to the sky and whispered a prayer.

In a maze of alleys , they found a two-room suite for $7 a night. By 5 p.m., they had rested, bought a frilly dress for the three-year-old, and visited the shrine. As dinner stewed, they talked with a Globe reporter they met on the bus.

Safety and prosperity
The main benefit of Hussein's fall, the family said, was their new religious freedom. Visiting the shrine, Hadi said, was "like paradise."

"I feel very safe and very calm," she said. "[At home,] when my husband goes to work, I'm always worried. I always think that he may not come back. Here I'm happy. I go to the shops, to the marketplace, to the shrine to do my rituals. I pray for the safety of my relatives and for Iraq to become safe again."

At home, the family gets four hours a day of national-grid electricity; the girls study by kerosene lantern to save on generator fuel. A relative lost his legs in crossfire between US troops and militia gunmen as he took his pregnant daughter to a hospital. Dangerous roads stop them from driving two hours to Baghdad's revered Kadhimiya shrine.

To Abbas, Iran looks well organized, prosperous, calm. The country is "falsely accused" of harming Iraq, he said -- by Americans, who arrived as friends but are "turning into enemies."

His good feelings about Iran came despite his contempt for Iraq's pro-Iranian parties, which he called "militias" out for jobs and money. As for clerical rule, he dreams it can be established some day if Shi'ite southern Iraq becomes a semiautonomous region.

One thing confused him. Despite Islamic rule, "Iranians have less faith, are less religious than us. We don't know why," he said. "Saddam's regime tried to take these rituals from us, but could not."

As darkness fell, his nieces squeezed onto prayer mats outside the shrine, comfortable in a crowd of black-clad women, some in the Iranian chador, some in the Iraqi abbaya, chatting and bustling before evening prayers. Above the murmur, the moon rose over the gold dome of the shrine.

Anne Barnard can be reached at Recent stories by

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