Trip to Iran opened my eyes to my heritage

Senior+Rida+Zar+and+members+of+her+family+pray+at+the+shrine+of+Bibi+Masuma+during+a+trip+to+Iran+in+March.

Rida Zar

Senior Rida Zar and members of her family pray at the shrine of Bibi Masuma during a trip to Iran in March.

Rida Zar

Walking down the steps of the airplane with shaky steps and onto Irani soil for the first time, I couldn’t help but think, “How did I get here?”

I’d always been someone who loved to travel and planned on sightseeing in Italy, France, Greece and several other countries but Iran was never one I considered. 

Just two weeks prior, my mom sat my three younger siblings and I down to talk about going on Ziarat — Muslim pilgrimage — during the school year. My initial reaction was to shut down the idea all together since catching up on all the missing work and lectures would be draining to say the least, but seeing the hope and desire in her eyes, I was left with no choice but to begrudgingly accept. 

After the “panic packing” phase, we traveled from Los Angeles to Istanbul, Turkey for our layover. The 12 ½ hour-flight was filled with movie watching, seat shifting and a lot of sleeping. During the six (later extended to eight) hour wait until our next flight, I met a majority of my fellow Zahireen  —  people who go on the religious pilgrimage. We chatted about our expectations for the next few weeks, their excitement feeling contagious. 

My second flight within the same 24 hours landed me into Iran for the first time. We quickly grabbed our luggage and made our way into the bus, which we rode for roughly an hour before arriving at a several story hotel. Entering through glass doors, we were greeted by wooden furniture, leather couches and a long fish tank. The most breathtaking part for me, however, was the mosque, which was less than a minute walk away. The pristine Islamic architecture with angelic light blue accents took my breath away, keeping my gaze lingering on it.

A few days later, we traveled another few hours to the shrine of her brother — the Zari of Imam Ali Raza. The size of three football fields, the charming architecture mimicked each other, identical in the interior designs adorning the ceilings and golden-colored chandeliers dangling high. 

At the other locations we visited and the markets we bought souvenirs or snacks from, I was able to get a better grasp of the culture. Tasting the sugar in their foods, the honey added to tea and freshly baked bread sold by the street vendors showcased their affection for sweetness.

 Seeing these clean cities and organized lines to get into the Zaris, it wasn’t hard to recognize how much Iranians valued these monuments. 

Our next flight took us all the way to Iraq in the city of Najaf. Once we arrived, we went to several religious sights, the most notable being the Zari of Imam Ali where huge bouquets of various flowers adorned the majority of the borders. 

The following two hour flight landed us in Karbala, Iraq, where the Zaris of two of his sons rested — Imam Husain and Mola Abbas. 

The short walk between the two, called Bain ul Harmain, was constantly flooded with people making their way especially on the 15th of Shaban, a date in the Islamic calendar when the Imam of our time was born. 

Throughout my experience in the countries, I had the opportunity to interact with locals and learn more about the way they interact with others. For instance, I got to try their take on some classics like chicken (with sweet glaze added over) and rice (with dried pomegranate seeds sprinkled on top for added flavor) in addition to their own traditional foods like falafel.

While Americans certainly aren’t known for their kindness, I found myself in shock at the lack of public interaction and harsher tone. In America, if you smile or nod at people, they smile or nod back and a polite “please” and “thank you” is common. I didn’t experience much of that here. 

When I addressed the culture shock with my mom, she explained that, through years of war and loss of loved ones, many of the people have grown harsher in their demure, coping with their grieve and the generation trauma in whichever way they can — one being the enhanced sweetness in their dishes. 

Especially in light of the Ruso-Ukrainian war, I worry about the long term effects the decisions of higher up authorities have on the masses, who often end up enduring the majority of the blunt. 

Although initially disgruntled by the cold shoulder I received from the locals, I realized that their way of speaking and caring for one another was another crucial part of the culture I received the privilege of experiencing. 

Receiving the opportunity to further immerse myself in a culture so foreign to my more westernized upbringing led me to appreciate the beauty of both lifestyles and the overlapping characteristics we all share, regardless of origin. 

If I do get to take the trip to the other side of the world again, I hope to re-immerse myself in the culture, now with a deeper appreciation.