MASHHAD – The Astan-e Qods-e Razavi – housing the holy shrine of Imam Reza and other haram-e motahhar (sacred precincts) – is undoubtedly one of the most dazzling religious complexes in the world. We are immersed in a celebration caravan featuring golden minarets, blue domes, a fabulous golden dome, a Timurid mosque, a kaleidoscope of calligraphy and floral motifs, museums, breathtaking iwans (courtyards with four vaulted halls, two of them entirely coated with gold), madrassas (schools), libraries, stalactite stucco decorated with multicolored glass, and marvels such as the 30-million-knot Carpet of the Seven Beloved Cities.

At sunset, lost in the multitude of black chadors (veils) and white turbans occupying every square inch of this huge walled island, the power of the Shi’ite faith hits as hard as the power of Buddhism when one visits the Jokhang temple in Tibet. The shrine complex was built by Shah Abbas at the beginning of the 17th century – and been enlarged ever since. Imam Reza’s shrine itself, where pilgrims from all over the Shi’ite world touch and kiss and weep and cling to a silver cage, is absolutely off-limits to non-Muslims.

The public relations officers that care for foreign pilgrims tell us that “your holy host is in fact Imam Reza, the 8th Shi’ite imam, born in Medina in 765 AD and martyred by the Abbasid Caliph Mamoon in 818.” Mashhad means literally “the burial place of a martyr.”

It is also big business. The foundation that manages the complex is now an enormous business conglomerate including almost 60 companies. Most of the funds come from donations, bequests and the selling of grave sites beneath the shrine: being buried next to Imam Reza is an invaluable honor. The foundation is heavily involved in charity, runs pharmacies and hospitals, provides housing, builds mosques and develops poor areas in the province of Khorasan.

ziyarah – a pilgrimage to Mashhad – is a key event in the life of a Shi’ite. As a pilgrim to the holy city of Mecca in Saudi Arabia receives the honorific title of haji, a pilgrim to Mashhad receives the title of mashti. If a pilgrimage to Mashhad, as some Islamic scholars say, can assure a place in Paradise, a pilgrimage to the “animal crossroads” is more like a vision of Hell.

The “animal crossroads” in Golshar district is Mashhad’s Little Afghanistan. In this opium and heroin free-for-all, Iranian informants try to appear inconspicuous under their thick Afghan beards, Farsi is drowned by a linguistic cacophony of Dari, Uzbek and Pashto, and the Mashhad police do everything to make the Afghans feel uncomfortable. We are only four hours by taxi from the Afghan border.

There are not many options if you are an Afghan kid in the mean streets of this ghetto. To start with, you almost never leave the ghetto itself – perhaps once a week to pray at the dazzling Imam Reza shrine. You can work in a brick factory in a wretched area 20 kilometers from Mashhad – surrounded by other intrepid Afghans. Tiny but heavy bricks are drowned in a mix of adobe and sand and then left to cook for a month in an undercover gallery – under the drowsy eyes of the semi-roasted Afghans.

Or you can make rugs in a clandestine workshop – where all the weavers are between 10 and 18. The youngest are on opium, the oldest on heroin. A dose of opium sells for 5,000 Iranian rials (60 US cents). One gram of pure heroin sells for almost $7. The young Afghans earn no more than 12 cents a day.

But you can forget about work and simply become a drug addict in the mean streets of Golshar. At least 30 percent of the kids are on opium – production is booming again in “liberated” Afghanistan.

Or you can try to study. If you are an Afghan kid and manage to finish high school, this is nothing short of a miracle. Semi-officially, there are now slightly less than 2 million Afghans in Iran. Only half carry a resident permit – which is the key to be enrolled in school. Illegals have to be educated at home or in underground schools – routinely closed by the police. While 98 percent of Iranian kids have finished primary school, illiteracy rates among Afghans remain very high.

The days when Ayatollah Khomeini wanted to export the Islamic revolution are long gone. Iran at that time (during the 1980s) was at war against Iraq and it badly needed Afghans to work in industry and agriculture. But in the early 1990s – after the end of the anti-Soviet jihad and the beginning of the mujahideen government in Kabul – Iran decided to get rid of its Afghans. Dreaded “transit camps” proliferated near the Iran-Afghan border, off the road between Mashhad and Herat.

Iran may be a multi-ethnic jigsaw puzzle, and Afghanistan may have been a satrapy (province) of the Persian empire – not to mention the Shi’ite faith uniting Persians and Tajiks and Hazaras. But racism is a fact. Most Iranians rule out the option of living in an apartment block with other Afghan families. And most would not tolerate their offspring marrying an Afghan.

Getting married is also not exactly an option for a kid in the Afghan ghetto. According to Afghan tradition, the groom must reimburse the family the total price of the milk consumed by his bride from her mother’s breast. This could amount to anything up to 4 million rials, a fortune at $500.

After the Islamic revolution (1979), a flurry of nationalizations, the eight-year “imposed” war against Iraq (no one seems to be able to say imposed by whom), and a certain international isolation, everything in Iran now costs 10 times more than in 1979.

Officials admit that the official “back to Afghanistan” policy may not succeed, even with massive unemployment corroding the Iranian economy. It’s not clear that Iranians are willing to take the hard-core jobs now performed by Afghans. Underpaid illegal refugees work night and day in the construction business – the only booming sector of the economy. Late at night, in the streets of Tehran, the father may be working while his daughter roams the closing cafes selling plastic-coated copies of Islamic verses.

Fouzia Hariri is the head of the release committee for Destitute Afghan Refugees in Tehran. She says that at least 1 million refugees still live in south Tehran. Her NGO – financed by Japan and the International Organization for Migration to the tune of $50,000 a year – runs literacy classes and a vocational training center teaching English, computer technology, sewing, carpentry and handicraft-making. The Australian and Dutch embassies are also involved in running programs – in agreement with the Iranian government.

Hariri, an Afghan, says that the Afghans face tremendous medical problems, such as tuberculosis. Some need complex operations, but Iranian hospitals charge very high prices. Female heads of families cannot afford rents that go up all the time. Most Afghans hold only a residence permit – which entitles them to no social benefits.

According to an agreement between Iran, Afghanistan and the United Nations, 400,000 Afghans should return home in the year 2002. Hariri considers the figure extremely unrealistic, “Return to what? They tell me there are no houses, no food, no water, the prices are high, and there are no jobs. And they say Iran is a good place for refugees compared to Pakistan.” There is some hope that after the loya jirga (grand council) in June in Afghanistan there will be more security – the all-important issue as far as the refugees are concerned.

As far as Afghanistan registers in Washington’s worldview, the only thing that matters are pipelines – the new Texas Silk Road in Central Asia. An eventual, selfish American-led commercial corridor may secure more jobs for petro-executives and corrupt officials – but certainly not for the mass of Afghan refugees. And there’s nothing Imam Reza can do about it.

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