Burn at this candle, light up your heart and soul, put on a new body when you have flung away this old one. . . . The Friend himself is coming, the door of felicity is opening. —Rumi
I am a Quaker woman living in Qom, Iran. From the rooftop of our apartment building where neighbors in chadors hang their laundry and chat, I can see desert expanses of biblical proportions. Only hardy eucalyptus trees add a hint of green to our tawny landscape. Minarets thrust heavenward. The ethereal gold domes of Qom’s Hazrat-e Fatemeh Shrine gild the northern horizon. To the west are the snow-capped Zagrob peaks, undulating toward the troubled border with Iraq.
My husband, David, and I have completed our first six months in service with the Mennonite Central Committee’s Muslim-Christian Exchange. Five days a week we study at the Imam Khomeini Research and Education Institute (IKREI)—the Quràn, Shiite thought and practice, and Islamic mysticism. A marvelously patient Farsi tutor comes to our apartment Saturday through Wednesday, four hours at a time. Thursday is a free day and many Fridays find us in Tehran for worship with Armenian Christians.
One of the first people we met in Qom was a young cleric working on his MA program in Abrahamic Religions. Standing in the midst of a group of visiting U.S. peace church leaders, this young man sought us out. By way of introduction he said with enthusiasm, "I am a Quaker. I am your son." At first I wasn’t sure I believed this faithful young Muslim. Maybe he just wanted to be friends with two U.S. citizens. I became convinced later over tea. "Tell me," he said firmly, "are you Hicksite or Gurneyite? I love them both."
In Iran, city buses segregate people by gender, which is where I met Feteme, in the very back seat. A 6’3″ basketball player and university physics major, this stunning and friendly young woman immediately invited me home that afternoon. She introduced me to her older sister, Dinah. "Our father," said Fateme, "once taught school with a Jewish man whom he liked very much. He thought so highly of this friend that he read the Hebrew Bible from cover to cover. When Dinah, his first daughter, was born, he was determined that she have a nice Hebrew name."
Our first weeks and then months rolled by with studies and visits and friends. It became clear that the greatest threat to our well-being was likely to be neighbors overfeeding us. We are frequently invited to dinner with friends and neighbors. When I protest that David and I would love to but simply must devote some time to study, Qom-ites are undeterred. They knock on our apartment door and thrust trays full of food, traditional ice cream laced with saffron and fresh walnuts and pistachios, into our hands.
Maryam is an older woman who lives in an apartment upstairs from us. The first time she came to visit, I flung the door open in jeans and T-shirt. Seeing her in full chador, I began to apologize for my casual attire and explained that I am a Christian and hoped that I hadn’t given offense. "You listen here," said Maryam in firm French (clearly discerning that my Farsi was unequal to the occasion), "Jewish, Christian, Muslim—it makes no difference to me. We are all children of Abraham and Sarah. I love that you are living here in Qom, and I hope that you will be happy a long time." Warm hugs ensued (and more food).
In mid-April the grim word of Virginia Tech’s student deaths was on the 11p.m. news in Iran. Our phone began to ring as soon as neighbors turned on their TVs. "I am so sorry." "Our hears are sad with yours." "Are your children back home safe?" "Why is it that mentally ill people are allowed to buy guns?"
The next evening there was a knock at the door. It was our friend, Quaker Mohammad. He had brought along a complete dinner for us, plus cans of nonalcoholic beer (which for some reason he thinks we really like). "I know that your souls are sad," he said firmly. "I have come to sit gently with you, to lighten your hearts. I am a Quaker, too. I am your son."