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Letter from Zahedan

28 May 2009 14:00No Comments
Photo/Momentary Lapse of Vision

The Sunnis of Zahedan | originally published on May 20.

Dispatch from Zahedan, Iran

As I pack for a reporting trip to Zahedan, the capital of Sistan-Baluchistan province, I hear my mother's voice coming from the end of the hallway.

"Where? Zahedan?" she protests.

"Yes, Zahedan and perhaps a couple of other cities in Sistan-Baluchistan," I tell her, referring to the southeastern province near the borders of Pakistan and Afghanistan.

"No, Zahedan absolutely not," she retorts. "It is dangerous and the security is bad there. The streets and the roads are not safe at night. Everybody says so."

. . .

It is a 90-minute flight from Tehran to Zahedan.

As my taxi makes its way down Daneshjoo Boulevard, the city's main thoroughfare, my mother's warning plays in the back of my mind. The place seems harmless. Along with Zahedan International Airport, the city's major universities are located on this tree-lined boulevard.

I ask my cab driver if all the streets in Zahedan are as pretty. "No ma'am," he says, turning to me with a bitter smile. "This is the street for the rich and those in power so that when they come to Zahedan, all they see is this street."

My cab driver is very tan and has eyes that are a mixture of green, blue and brown. As common in Iran, a discussion ensues and quickly heats up. The driver pours his heart out, lamenting the terrible quality of the drinking water, complaining that Zahedan still remains to be connected to the national gas line, and so on. He also brings up the Sunnis, who outnumber Shiites here by a 60 to 40 percent ratio.

The driver is taking me to a hotel which used to be the best in the city. He says it's now run down. The hotel is near Amir-al-Momenin Square (an honorific referring to Ali, the first Shiite Imam, meaning "Leader of the Faithful"). "Do you have an Abu-Bakr Square," I ask the driver. He smiles again. "No way, ma'am." Sunnis recognize Abu-Bakr as the successor to Prophet Mohammad. Needless to say, the Shia don't.

. . .

It is around 3 in the afternoon and most stores and shops are closed. As a local Baluchi who is closing his own shop tells me, Zahedan is so hot in the early afternoon that most businesses have to do the same from 2 to 5 p.m. The city is quiet, but not dead though. This is due to the many universities, college students and internet cafes in Zahedan.

Almost everyone dresses in traditional Baluchi garb, so it's easy to tell the locals apart from those who are here to study -- they are often wearing jeans. My own clothes are a clear giveaway as well. Besides, local Baluchi women do not frequent such cafes. The occasional female college student to be found is usually from Fars or Khorasan province.

Abdol-Ghahar and Khaled, two seminary students, attract my attention. They have blond hair and long, almond-shaped eyes. Though they are dressed in Baluchi clothes, they do not speak in the local accent. They are both 19, and come from Dushanbe, Tajikistan. They are "Talebs," or seminary students, from Dar-ul-Olum Maki, a Sunni seminary.

According to Abdol-Ghahar, who like his friend speaks in a Dari accent, they are both Hanafis, a Sunni sect. They came to Iran through Mashhad and have been in Zahedan for more than a year. In that time they have managed to memorize the Koran in its entirety. They were however issued one-month visas and are now illegal aliens. If they get caught, they face up to six months in jail. As a consequence, they never leave the city out of fear of detension. They say they wish to study in Zahedan for another four years and then continue at a religious university in Egypt. Ultimately they want to become Hanafi religious educators.

But why do that by leaving Tajikistan and living in Iran illegally?

"The government in Tajikistan is secular. The Jews have influence in my country and try to sow the seeds of discord among Muslims," Khaled claims. "The United States spends $17,000 a day in Tajikistan to take away Islam from my people."

Abdol-Ghahar cuts off his friend. "Here we are focused on our studies," he says. "Back home, we had to work and couldn't study as much. Even if the Iranian police detain us, it is God's plan. Our families don't really know our plight here. We always tell them everything is fine and they continue to send us pocket money. The seminary provides us with food and a place to sleep but no cash. Also, if we wanted to go back to Tajikistan to see our families, we would have to cross the Pakistani border and pay smugglers to get us back into Iran."

I asked Khaled how he feels about studying in a Shiite country. "We are here to serve and please God," he says. "Anyone whose motto is 'There Is No God But Allah' is our fellow Muslim brother."

I bring up the Taliban and both became visibly upset at the implicated comparison. "The Taliban are not Talebs. They are uneducated thugs. We are religious students. We are not interested in politics or taking up arms," they say emphatically.

. . .

When you mention the Dar-ul-Olum Maki to most Sunnis in Zahedan, their eyes sparkle. The seminary was established in 1970 by Moulavi Abdol-Aziz. It is one of the largest "Hanafi Sunni" religious complexes (mosque plus seminary) in the region.

The clerics and religious educators of this seminary have enormous influence on the Sunni community of Sistan-Baluchistan province. Instead of relying on the judiciary and the legal system, most Baluchi Sunnis still try to resolve any dispute, disagreement or quarrel among themselves by going to the high clerics in the Dar-ul-Olum Maki and asking them to arbitrate. Another reason the seminary is quite popular among the Sunni community is that it offers health and medical care as well as other services.

A large number of youth from the Hanafi Sunni sect from adjacent provinces as well as neighboring countries enroll in the Dar-ul-Olum Maki every year. Dar-ul-Olum Maki has a seminary for girls and young women, which was opened some five years ago; it now has more than 800 female students. Almost all of these students are covered with the chador and niqab (a veil which covers the face like a mask, allowing only the eyes to show). This is when they leave the seminary. Of course, while inside, the niqab come off.

Just getting into the women's seminary is an elaborate process. Once I get in, I talk to a women called Sabereh, a "Koran interpretation instructor." She is the most outspoken among the women in the seminary. "We don't dress this way at home," she says. "Baluchi women's traditional dresses are very colorful, but once outside we put on the chador and the niqab. We are used to it and we have no problem wearing it."

I ask Sabereh how women here feel about their husbands being permitted by Sharia--Islamic canon law--to take on multiple wives and practice polygamy. "Of course, we don't want our husbands to take on second wives," she says. "No woman irrespective of tribe, religion or nationality likes such a thing."

Another woman interjects: "You should know that Sabereh's husband has recently taken on a second wife."

The seminary is currently run by Moulavi Abdol-Hamid Ismail-Zahi who has consistently supported reformist candidates for president.

Kids of all ages can enter the seminary as religious students possessing only a rudimentary level of literacy. Young girls are eligible after they finish primary school. After seven years as a religious student in the seminary, they become a Fazeleh, a religious educator.

The classes are conducted by the Talebs, who sit on the floor. Their Korans are placed on a small table located in the middle of the room. Until a few years ago, there were no female instructors. Back then, a curtain separated the female Talebs and the male teacher. There was absolutely no oral communication between the female students and their male teacher. If a student had question, she had to write it on a piece of paper and pass it to the male instructor under or through the curtain. Even today, because the head of the women's seminary is a man, communications between him and female instructors and students take place through a curtain.

Moulavi Ahmad Naruyi, the acting Friday prayers leader of Zahedan's Sunni community is one of the most influential clerics of Dar-ul-Olum Maki. When asked about the rise of "Talibanism" in Sistan-Baluchistan, he angrily denies the charges. "We are Hanafis," he says. "The clerics of this region and this mosque have absolutely no affiliation with those of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. In fact, they chastise us for our beliefs and for being Hanafis. The Taliban in general are against women going to school and being educated. But as you can see, we have a women's seminary here. Many of the clerics here send their daughters to university and all of them have television sets in their homes. As you know, the Taliban ideology never allows such things."

Copyright (c) 2009 Tehran Bureau

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