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Armed with innocence

Buses in Iran in 1971 were works of art. They were decorated by their drivers with all manner of beads, pictures and fringes. My friend Patti and I alighted from this one in the city of Qom in central Iran after traveling all night.

We ended up here haphazardly, as we had to every destination of our trip. Patti and I were students in the Junior Year Abroad program at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. This being the tail end of the "hippie" era, all things Eastern were "in," and we weren't about to miss our chance of traveling in the Middle East.

We chose Iran by going to a travel agent and asking how far east we could go on our budget. When she suggested Tehran, we quickly agreed. After booking our tickets, we looked at each other and asked simultaneously, "Where is Tehran?"

Originally, we planned to hitchhike, but after a quick look at the available vehicles and drivers we decided to travel by bus. I don't remember why we decided to visit Qom. Probably for the same sort of reason we decided to visit the city of Resht, on the Caspian Sea. We had discovered that in Iran, Resht jokes were the equivalent of "moron" jokes in America. So, of course, we had to check it out.

Anyway, we were certainly surprised to find that the traffic into Qom was extremely congested. Buses were converging on this dusty city, literally in the middle of the desert, as if it were morning rush hour in New York City. Crowds were rushing here and there with bundles and battered suitcases.

Patti and I were used to sticking out in a crowd. Two young American women in jeans and T-shirts with backpacks traveling alone was an unusual sight in this Muslim country even during the reign of the Shah, when all things American were popular. But the attention we were getting was not the amused curiosity we were used to. The men, especially, were glaring and shouting angry words at us.

We pushed our way through the crowd to the bus station to get more information. A young man asked us in broken English what we were doing there. When he learned we were tourists, he rolled his eyes. He told us we couldn't have arrived at a worse time. He explained that the city was full of pilgrims coming to celebrate a holy day that commemorates the martyrdom of two religious leaders who are buried in Qom. Warning us that it could be dangerous to be seen on the streets in western clothing, he suggested we get on the next bus out of town.

Patti and I decided we had hit the jackpot. There was no way we were going to miss all the excitement. Seeing that we were determined to stay, our rescuer escorted us to a shop owned by his aunt that sold "chadors," the one-piece garment that covers Muslim women in Iran from head to foot. Each chador is individually tailored, and we hid in the dressing room while ours were prepared. Then, our friend's aunt showed us how to drape and hold the chadors closed. Next, our friend found us accommodation in a rooming house, not an easy feat in this small town overrun with pilgrims.

The room was a dump, furnished with two single beds with sagging mattresses that smelled strongly of urine and mildew. The only redeeming features were the large window that looked out onto the main street of Qom and the easily accessible roof that gave us an unrestricted view of the city.

Going to the bathroom shared by everyone on our floor was an adventure. It was a room with a hole in the middle of the floor and pedals on either side and no running water. We were used to these accommodations and had learned to hold our breath, squat while holding our clothing out of the way, carry toilet paper, and take care of business quickly. As we were the only female guests, we took turns guarding the door from the men who staked out the bathroom in hopes of trapping one of us.

Our guide recommended that we stay in our room until the end of the holiday. We asked if we could go out as long as we were wearing our chadors. Our friend advised Patti not to risk it. Her blue eyes and round cheeks would give her away. But he reluctantly agreed that with my coloring and features I might be able to pass. He coached me to walk slowly, avoid any hip sway, and keep my eyes lowered.

We awoke the next morning to what sounded like thousands of voices ululating. Rushing to the window, we saw crowds of people heading for the mosques where the martyrs were buried. The main street was lined with ecstatic women and children, while hordes of men marched down the street shouting, gesticulating and scourging their bare chests and shoulders with knives and zanjeers, whips made of chains with hooks on the end. By the end of the day, blood covered the streets. We quickly donned our chadors and rushed to the roof to watch but were spotted from the street.

Frustrated, I decided to risk going out. I blended into the sea of people going to the mosque. When addressed, I pointed to my ear and shook my head, hoping my questioner would assume I was deaf. When I reached one of the mosques, I noted that the women were removing their shoes in the courtyard. I realized that my stylish sneakers would give me away, and I put them out of sight.

Visiting this mosque was worth the risk; it was one of the most beautiful and elaborate I had seen so far. Intricate carvings of abstract designs accentuated the graceful arches that separated the rooms of the mosque. The walls were a phantasmagoria of colored and mirrored mosaics. The atmosphere was electric with the throngs of fervently praying worshipers.

The next day, the streets were quiet. Our guide came to see how we had fared and was incredulous that I had walked the streets unharmed. I, however, had never doubted my safety. And I never questioned the assistance of our friend who took us under his wing for no discernible reward.

We were blessed with the kindness of strangers. Took for granted the bus driver in Shraz who insisted on dropping us off at the women's dorm at the University, the Jewish shopkeeper in Tehran who invited us to a Passover Seder and many others who appeared like fairy godparents to offer a helping hand to two feckless American girls. Our naivete seemed a suit of armor that protected us from the evils of the world.

Lynda F. Gurvitz is a psychologist who lives in Clearwater.

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