This past fall, I spent three weeks traveling across the vast desert terrain of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. The desert is powerful and restrained. It captivates the human imagination with the layered sand that lifts and settles in a gentle breeze of silence across the kingdom. The silence humbles you, but speaks volumes to the visitor who wills to endure the desert’s gravity.
A visit to Mekkah and Medinah gravitates one to the earth. Surrounded by thousands of pilgrims, one is reminded of being of the earth and returning to it. Performing the Umrah rejuvenates the intuitive and numbs the rational mind while reminding that although faith resides in us, it transcends the singular spirit when it is practiced in unity with others.
Unity has evaded the Saudis and the Iranians, despite their common faith. Mutual neglect foretells of politics that are perpetually different, and that Shias clash with Sunni Salafis who follow the preaching of Abd al Wahab. In reality, Saudi Arabia and Iran talk past each other when their politics could be similar on many fronts. And while I am a Shia, I also found peace praying in Masjid Aisha in Mekkah which I visited when a Sunni friend recommended that I do. As a result, I discovered that the boundaries of faith can stretch. Faith is a common denominator among us that evolves with the intuitive and rational mind.
Before leaving for Saudi Arabia, I was advised not to disclose my Iranian identity. But no one in the kingdom seemed convinced that I was an American despite my U.S. passport. It was the farsi look that gave me away, and which brought solid hand shakes when I traveled across the kingdom. In Mekkah, a newlywed spoke of her admiration for Persian poetry as she trimmed my hair after the Umrah. On the plane to Medinah, a veiled lady gave me the white rosary that she prayed on when she discovered that I was from Iran. At a wedding in Riyadh, women cheered as I paced my steps to revel in the sound of Bedouin music. In homes, I received genuine and proud hospitality, which I tasted in delicacies of kashks and koloches consumed with tea that was repeatedly and meticulously served to me.
The silence of the desert continued to seep through my soul despite the rich experiences I gained. So I decided to succumb to its weight and only then did it begin to reveal glimpses of its layered realities to me. In reality, I discovered in Saudi Arabia that I could be an Iranian and an Arab because much about the kingdom reminded me of the old Iran in which I was raised and of which the Iranian revolution has left only a faded memory. In reality, my faith stretched as I read prayers standing behind followers of the Sunni faith. There I stood, the only woman with a group of fair-minded men on a rare visit to the home of an architect and faith leader in Jeddah when a guest asked if I were a Shia. I replied that while I am a Shia, I never consciously think of myself as one.
In Saudi Arabia, I discovered I was neither Arab nor Iranian, neither Sunni nor Shia, and neither man nor woman. I was a believer who comfortably navigated all worlds when they opened to embrace me. It was the alchemy of the human soul that made it work in the end. Or according to Rumi, there is a communion of the spirit when you close both eyes to see with the other eye.
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