Baptism 8.25.2014 / by Walter Kitundu

Finally free of jet lag and beginning to appreciate the long days, we stayed in, working, typing, corresponding all day. The drapes filtered the yellow light of day, shifting from cool to warm along with the moods of the sun. We were scheduled to leave at five pm and feeling a bit like we might be squandering the day indoors, barefoot, trundling between kitchen, couch and bathroom.

As the time approached we got ourselves together and hopped into a taxi with Shirin's cousin heading for Tajrish Market. Traffic again presented its magic trick of shoving three lanes of cars perpendicularly at one another and having them both emerge on the other side unscathed and at speed.

At the market we stepped down into a century old building full of historical details and a bewildering array of pickled preparations, produce, and sundries. It was calmer than Tehran Bazaar. The pace was commensurate with the feeling produced by the cooling breeze swirling down off the mountains to the north. 

We came across an old school barber shop and knowing I'd been wanting to shave my head for days I paused outside their doors. The green trim and cold fluorescent lights set a tone but the men at work inside, and the proprietor perched on a stool in the doorway cemented the mood. Barber shops have always felt like long established clubs and I was weary of asserting any right to membership. I tend to cut my own hair but the few times I've crossed the threshold have always been memorable and worth the imagined social risk.

I almost passed by but for Shirin's gentle prodding and my own budding realization that moments like that are for the taking. Warmly welcomed, my request was translated and received with a knowing nod and I landed in a green chair that was so well worn it seemed to disappear beneath me a moment later. The barber plucked the clippers from their hook in a dark recess under the counter, snapped them on and scraped them over my head with a force better suited to some sort of carpentry, or paint removal. I quickly got used to it. 

I offered my best phrase in farsi "I can't speak farsi well," and his reply left me stumped. Crestfallen, I used my next best phrase, "I don't know farsi." Shirin and her cousin engaged him for a moment and he learned that I'm Tanzanian, and the news ping-pongs between the other men in the shop while he looked down at me quizzically but with even greater warmth. 

After he made a few aesthetic decisions and tidied up my facial hair, I was ushered to a sink where he proceeded to rinse my head in water that oscillated from hot to tepid, his open palms scoured my scalp and rubbed my face and jaw. There is something quite powerful about human touch. A stranger's hands embraced my head with care and power under warm flowing water that began to run down my neck and soak my shirt. The sensory experience was deeply grounding and I felt like I was finally in Tehran. It was a baptism of sorts, an admission into the church of humanity, and it put into stark relief the often detached and abstemious social practices in the US.

Perhaps he sensed the transformation. We shook hands, his eyes locked to mine, and this man suddenly felt like family. Is this his gift? The shop now seems like a new anchor point in the city, welcoming in spite of the cold lights and eroded decor. In this propitious moment, we stepped into the sunshine at the base of an extraordinary mosque.

With my shirt still drying in the sunshine I removed my shoes and checked them before entering the mind altering brilliance of Imam Zadeh Saleh. The mosque was strewn with supplicant figures below and resplendent with millions of faceted mirrors above. Every wall and ceiling and column surface presented a dazzling fractured face and the effect was unearthly. It was solemn and quiet and deeply moving.

Though the place is entirely mirrored and full of reflection, it occurred  to me that in gazing upon it you can never see yourself. Your image is dissolved by the facets and never reassembles. It becomes a part of the community. And the space itself, solemn and still as it is, comes alive through the movements of the faithful. As they walk and pray, their sprinkled images ricochet through the room and it begins to breathe as though alive. It is highly reminiscent of moonlight on the surface of an ocean, the light trickling and dancing in unknowable patterns imbuing the space with peacefulness.

I'd never seen anything like it but I get the strong feeling I'll be similarly moved again during this trip. Outside the sun was sharp, feet were washed in the fountain, cars and busses careened through the roundabout, and the mountains were looming without threat, held by the warming light and darkening sky. While still bustling, the whole area felt settled and somehow peaceful. I'm guessing it's a reflection of my growing familiarity and ease with this place that I'm beginning to read it as comforting.

We sat and sipped tea before another taxi wound us up the slope to Bam-e-Tehran, the roof of Tehran. The elevated viewpoint, scratched into the mountainside, allowed us, and countless others, some much needed context. From the northern mountains we could see the grand city stretching out into the smoggy distance. Hills to the east, setting sun to the west, and the sparks of streetlights twinkling on below. 

Our mountain assembly was made up of tourists and locals alike. Couples strolled among families and larger groups of friends up the broad walkway as the view of the city morphed with the changing contours of the valley. Darkness fell and the distinct warm and dusty hues of Tehran were overcome by the anonymizing force of city lights. It started to look like any other overlook but for the bungee jumping, restaurants, street food, billboards and those solitary men strolling with an arm tucked easily behind their back.

I needed the air up here. I needed to be dwarfed by the landscape and get a sense of place, and on this day of quiet reflection and transformation I felt serene and deeply happy to share it with my love.

Dinner called and our cousin shepherded us via taxi to a lovely outdoor spot where we met friends for schnitzel, trout, and fine conversation. The temperature was so perfect it never called attention to itself. The fountain burbled and the tea flowed and I realized how overrated alcohol is.


We bundled into yet another taxi, six in the car including the driver, and the party continued. The cabby joked about the foreigner in their midst while being offered sandwiches by our cousin, and the general good feeling of the day seemed indestructible. We said goodbye and walked in the door at 1am surprised at how rich a day that began at 5pm could be.