I Travelled Solo To Iran And It Changed My Life Forever


Noor Iskandar •  Oct 12, 2017

KHODA HAFEZ: May God Be Your Guardian

by Noor Iskandar

This morning,

they spoke about you like you are behind a black veil.

they spoke about you in tongues that cannot rival your silence.

In caustic vision like your muqarnas. out of this world,

the jewels across your palaces too blinding for their palms.

Breathtaking. You took the civilised diction from their throats,

spit them out into stained glasses.

You are abstract art they cannot fathom.

Layers of soil that speak no senses, scorching the dunes of Yazd.

Like the many ruins carved across your chest, they are just ancient dust.

They spoke about you like you had no chance to unwound yourself;

you are Sham's tomb, undecorated and defenceless.

They spoke about you like you cannot speak for yourself.

They spoke about you like I will have to come to your rescue.

They spoke about you like I cannot stop myself from thinking

I am yours.

They spoke about you this morning, Iran.


Paveh, Iran

May 2016

Paveh is a town in the Kermanshah Province in Iran, part of what is unofficially referred to as Iranian Kurdistan. Many who reside here are of Kurdish ethnicity. The majorities are Sunni Muslims who practice the same madhab (doctrine) of Imam Shaf'ii the most common in countries like Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia.

Azizam is a common term for ‘dear’ in Farsi. I met many Azizams during my sojourns. Arshad Badfar is one of them, a resident of Paveh who offered nothing short of compassion and hospitality during my two-week stay. He is pursuing his Masters in Artificial Intelligence at Islamic Azad University in Tehran.


Hawraman is a mountainous region located within the provinces of Kurdistan and Kermanshah in western Iran and in north-eastern Iraq within Iraq's Kurdistan Region.

“What a beautiful dawn”, I sighed, as the sun softly combed the fringes of the wildflowers at the crown of the hill. Purple. Deep. Almost blood-like. Oddly sparse, like bald patches. Cold. The wind made the forests sway like black chadors at sea. Paveh town unreeled like silk from a yardstick, in elegance, as though mimicking the slurs of the adhan, verse by verse.

“A beautiful dawn in a burning world”, the azizam whispered.

Flames are quite beautiful when seen from afar. I can understand how some may confuse beauty with pain. Fire is essentially light until it burns you.

I sipped mint tea as I watched footages of terror across the world, the headlines scrolling in Farsi. The images of sirens from the television spilled a strange glow across the face of Arshad’s father. We may not speak the same language but we both understand pain the same way, our frowns turn just the same.

A burning world is easy to say when it seems like the whole world is an asylum- a world in need of refuge and healing. But souls seeking peace does not sound that bad. How can it all be darkness when there are so many people still offering light, and chai, and almonds, and kisses on foreheads, prayers in goodbyes?

Arshad, a dear friend who hosted and toured me around, with the cliffs of Hawraman Takht at the background.

‘Khodafez’ unwinds elegantly on the tongue too, as though it knows no other way. Across Iran, these words are the most natural parting words. Much like petals you offer on palms, like mint leaves scattered on tea. In Farsi, it means “May God be your Guardian.” In a burning world, I am sure these words soothe more than mere shadows. It reminds me how prayers can move mountains in and around you.

It speaks of a paradox. The departure and the meeting. You bid farewell to that human encounter only to be meet with God. It speaks more than a goodbye; it is the equivalent of a memory and a memento mori. The exist and exit. The apart and a part. The seen and unseen. The noor and the no. The dear and the dead. Prayers that continue to thread like tasbih beads as I go on this spiritual journey. I am hopeful and my heart is brimming, burning with Light.

Tayebbeh, Farshad and Mohammad Rshidi, my rst azizams in Iran where I stayed at the Kamalalmolk traditional guesthouse in Kashan in January 2015.

A burning memory is from that wintry, January night in Kashan. The bloom of 2015. Rain pelting on the zinc roof of Kamalalmolk traditional guesthouse sounded so exquisite to a Singaporean boy. The whiff of night rain dancing with aromatic oils was just as exquisite. Farshad, the guesthouse manager served tea and cookies, in between servings of political and spiritual talks in his thick American accent. Tayebbeh, the female guest assistant, must have been exhausted, she was not present. I heard her the whole afternoon enunciating English phrases to the computer screen and caught her performing Maghrib prayers on the verandah earlier. We had guests, few family and friends of the other staff, Mohammad, taking cover in the enclosed communal space. His wife and daughter, Helia were there. I had to divert my awkward smiles and lack of Farsi by sketching Helia’s face. They were impressed. She returned the gesture with two quick doodles of me, one resembling a plump porcupine, the other a durian. We exchanged not many words that night. Just art, glances, giggles and smiles.

Guests of Kamalalmolk including Helia, Mohammad Rshidi’s daughter.

We often forget that prayers reside in so many spaces, even in silence. I kept getting distracted, thinking of the brief trip to Qom that morning. The coach was filled with more ladies wrapped in black chador than usual. Men were wearing religious headdresses and garbs. Qom is the second most religious city in Iran so that was no surprise.

Buses in Iran are extremely cheap, coupled with entertainment and snacks. I must have paid a different fare because some of the passengers received no complements. An aged lady kept muttering to the coach servers, begging him for a stash of food but the young man kept dismissing her. Her chin reminded me of my mum, soft and full of shape like the domes of the shrines in Qom.

Her chador slipped coyly around the frame of her face, her hands tightening the edges. I unpacked my lunchbox and removed the almond cookies, packet citrus drink and local made snacks, signalling the man seated in front to pass it to her. She was confused, turning around to meet the soft smile of a non-Iranian. She carefully enjoined her palms and prayed in tears. I say a stranger’s prayers or prayers unheard are the most heartfelt. To have that capacity to summon good faith, no bounds to blessings on another being is like halal magic. It never wears out.


Now, as I cradled the morning sun of Paveh in my eyes a year and some months later, the face of the stranger in Qom was still so vivid. I understood now why Arshad’s mum, Reyhan, looked familiar. She had the same wholeness to her presence as that lady in Qom. She was named after a flower, sweet basil. In Kurdish culture, most of the women are named after flowers whilst the men after rivers and mountains.

A lady amidst the mountains of Hawraman Takhte

Everyone carries glimpses of Him with themselves. I often caught her stealing glances my way and so did she. That trying to reclaim familiarity of a concept so foreign but never actually entering someone else’s life. I often tell my friends that what I yearn for in life is to leave a mark in the nostalgia of others.

This time, my Farsi is decent; throw in a few Arab-Islamic phrases and you forge a bond. That morning, she caught me at the balcony, still entranced by the graceful bustle of Paveh. She picked a flower from the vase and told me to sniff the fragrance. There is something about pale flowers that catches you off-guard. Like departures.

I think she saw me praying on the cream rug that Fajr, how I kept touching the frills of the rug. The rugs they use to perform namaz at the Kurdistan province of Iran appear oddly rustic. Plain, earthy tones, shades of light brown, like delicately-weaved reeds. Makes you feel one with the earth you are kissing, sufficiently warm. It is also larger than usual, enabling it to be wrapped around your shoulders like the Bedouin shepherds.

Arshad’s mother, Reyhan, at the hills of Paveh where we had a picnic one late afternoon.

See, I have always thought that your being is an embodiment of prayer, a prayer rug is one with your skin. You carry the mosque on your shoulders and support the congregation across your spine.

There is something so alluring about the burden of sacrifices and surrendering. She folded the rug and handed it to me, gesturing her hands behind her ears like the first step to namaz. Then she kept gently landing her palm across her heart. Her eyes were watery and she kept slurring in Farsi. Arshad articulated to me that his mother wanted me to have this as a parting gift; I am like her son and when I do pray on the rug back at home, it shall become our intermediary. “When you pray on this, remember me and make dua' for us as we will dua' for you too.” And her black chador with subtle motifs, she placed in my palm. And a beautiful chain of prayer beads for my mother. Perhaps, absences ease across the creases and bodies of worship.

If you love someone, the best sign of affection is to have them in your prayers.

An aged man praying in the mosque near the Zrebar lake in Mariwan.

“Maybe we will never meet again, Insha’Allah”, a riveting line from another azizam before we parted ways in Hamadan. (Insha’Allah means ‘God Willing’ in Arabic and is usually used to express a surrendering to God’s plan albeit always with a hint of hope for the favourable.) The pain of that uncertainty and possibility of truth in that profession burst a wound within my heart. So when Mevlana Rumi said, “The wound is the place where Light enters you.” I am all of wound. They are all Light. Strangers, strange people, people that have rivers of prayers run through them. I, the seeker.

I fathom now that the thing about goodbyes is that you need to be present, to enter, to exist first in order to leave, to depart, to no longer be present. We do not just cross paths, we course through the tributaries of Light.

Men, dressed in the traditional Kurdish wear, waiting for the prayer call outside the mosque in Hawraman Takhte.

In 2011, during my first critique as a photography major, I showed an interior space of a mosque. My professor said, “Access. The beautiful thing about differences is access. You get to see universes not visible to you.”

I have grown to learn that being present is not just a physical concept. You exist between veins, inhales, synapses, abandonment and vapour. You come to dwell within emotional territories. against mountains of prayers. My sister likes to claim that “each profession is a prayer” so a prayer must be what keeps us alive. It makes sense; I am always losing, lost and I will always return to You, found.

Arshad's sister-in-law, Shadi, with the Iran-Iraq border at the background.

Khoda Hafez.

Photos provided by the author. 

This essay was first published in Mackerel Magazine, 21 August 2016.