Zahedan--1975—an Iranian town on the Pak/Afghan border.The only Westerner in town, I was resident alien for a day. Ramadan is the month in which the Qur’an, according to tradition, was revealed to the Prophet Muhammad. It is the Islamic month of fasting, in which participating Muslims do not eat or drink from dawn until sunset.
People did notice me, an American, but seemed tolerant. I was traveling with Ali, an Afghan I had befriended on the bus. We were headed to Tehran; me, to retrieve a document from a bank; him, on his way to Lebanon to visit his sister who worked for the UN. The whole town was out celebrating Ramadan. Men, further back in this procession, were marching and lashing their backs with whips, symbolic ritual of their devotion to Allah. For such a crowd, it was quiet. The procession ended in the cemetery at the center of town.
Zahedan, home to many of Iran’s minority Sunni Muslims, seems to grow incongruously from the desert floor. On May 28, 2009, however, it exploded into the news, when a suicide bomber killed 30 and wounded 60 people at a Shia mosque. No one claimed responsibility. Days later, on Thursday, June 1, 2009, at least five more people were killed and dozens wounded in an arson attack at a financial institute. In response, the border with Pakistan, where it triangulates with Afhanistan, was partially closed.
On Saturday (justice is swift), three men were hung for providing explosives for the bombing and, on Monday, authorities said that they had arrested a number of Sunni and Shias suspected of instigating violence. A group called Jundullah, or Soldiers of God, claimed responsibility for the mosque attack. The Sunni group has previously been linked to al-Qaeda.
Ali and I decided to climb the hillside for a better view.
The town stretched out below us. Not a whole lot of tall buildings. I remember one shops that rebuilt automobile alternators. The mechanics seemed young.
The procession was headed to the cemetery—horizontal tombs on the ground--at the lower right of the above photo.
We did not have much interaction with citizens. I remember walking with Ali by a small dwelling on the way up the hill, and some girls, with their covered faces, darted out of their house. They did not expect to see us, and darted back in, but then peeked out of their door, laughing with brief flirty waves. Ali waved back and smiled; he was kind of a long-haired hippy Afghan, with multi-colored shirt, and charismatic smile. He was on his way back from India where he taught dance for women in a theatre production.
For me, it felt a long way from home. But the people were friendly and tolerant, even for the middle of nowhere.