About the Author
Simon de Laat is a third-year History student who is currently doing a Psychology minor in Leiden. In his free time, he likes to play guitar, play volleyball, drink coffee all day long and try out new craft beers. This is the first year in which he is part of an ACE committee
Disclaimer: I do not claim to have any authority over the story of Tahirih, nor should this story be considered a critique on Shiism or Islam in general. This entirely fictional portrayal of a historical character is meant for entertainment and possibly as a source of inspiration. Nothing more, nothing less.
The Story of Tahirih
We were running around and playing in the courtyard when I heard my father’s loud voice echo:
“Come on, boys, it is time for your lesson.”
My Father, along with uncle Taqi, who was standing next to him, had just returned from the mosque and were standing in the doorway in front of the courtyard.
“Ahh, can I also join this time, father?” I asked
“No, Tahirih, you know that is not possible.” Uncle Taqi replied.
“But……,” I desperately tried, but Uncle Taqi immediately cut me off.
“You know, I’ve had about enough of you constantly complaining about everything and anything. Allah has given you great spiritual strength to command the house, but instead, you want to learn about things that girls aren’t supposed to learn about. It has to stop!”
“Your uncle is right, Tahirih,” my father added, but when Uncle Taqi went inside, he came to me and said: “Tahirih, I don’t know how to deal with this. You know the law forbids you to receive education in the same room as boys.” “But you know Allah is supposed to help me learn, you always tell me!” I yelled back.
“I know, I know,” he calmly replied, “but I just cannot do it.”
But suddenly, he lit up and proposed: “But what if I tutor you in private in the evening? I know you are very eager to learn, and it is my duty as one of the mujtahids of Qazvin to provide a path to knowledge for those searching for it.”
“Yes, I would love that, thank you!” I replied in ecstatic fashion. For the first time in forever, I felt like my prayers had been heard.
“But it might be better if you don’t tell Uncle Taqi for a while. He might not agree with this.”
“I won’t, I promise,” I said, while still feeling euphoric. I hugged my father and, after he went back inside, I joyfully ran to my mother’s quarter to bring her the good news.
I opened my eyes and saw that the sun was already shining outside. Today was the day I would be going to Karbala, but it was as if my dreams tried to guilt me into staying in Qazvin. This was the fourth night in a row in which I had re-experienced a childhood memory. My head felt heavy, but after a few minutes, I was able to stumble my way out of bed.
But despite the fact that my dreams wanted to convince me otherwise, I had to get away here. The last few months, I had been in constant fights with my father, uncle Taqi, and Mohammad, who was both uncle Taqi’s sun and my husband. The fights, which had started a few years ago as mere disagreements, were getting worse by the day. My husband, whom I was married off to four years ago, had forbidden me to visit the library of my other cousin, Javad, but I still sneaked out regularly to go there. Last week, when I returned, he was waiting for me in front of the doorway, where he dragged me back inside and locked me up in my quarter. By now, I was used to my infidel husband treating me like an animal, but the fact that my father had also turned on me devastated me.
In the library, I had found out the truth. The truth, that the return of the Mahdi was upon us in the near future; the truth, that the Mahdi would lead us to a new era of prosperity and the truth that the Mahdi, and not the clerical elite, soon would be holding the mandate of true faith. The great Kazim, whom I had regularly written during my hours in the library, had taught me this, but no matter how hard I tried, my family refused to accept this truth. In order for me to follow this spiritual path and guide others, I had to go to Karbala to visit Kazim. My family would never allow me to go if I told them the truth, so I told them that I had lost my faith and that I had to visit the holy city of Karbala to rediscover it.
And so, on a cold February morning, when I was ready to leave for Karbala, I said my goodbye to my mother, brothers, and my sister. Uncle Taqi and my husband were, as I had already expected, not present, but I had still hoped that my father would show up. Just as I was about to depart, I heard a familiar, warm voice: “Tahirih, wait!”
I turned around and saw my father, who was sweating everywhere, running to me.
“You weren’t gonna leave without saying goodbye to your dad, right?” He said with a smirk on his face.
“Dad, you came!” I screamed, and while I hugged him, I felt the tears coming up.
“Of course I came, I just couldn’t let you go without a proper goodbye, I would never forgive myself.”
After a short moment of silence, he continued “I truly hope that you’re able to find what you’re looking for in Karbala.”
“I will, dad, I will,” I stuttered.
“I love you, Tahirih, have a safe journey.”
He let me go and as I lifted my last belongings onto the donkey I had received for the journey, I waved my family goodbye one last time, turned around and took off.
“Open up, women, we know she’s in there!”
I was sitting in my bed writing a poem when this deep, pressing, male voice on the other side of the window disturbed my Tuesday poetry ritual. A few seconds later, Nahid came into my room, urged me to pick up my belongings and leave through the back door.
“You have to leave, Tahirih, now. Otherwise, everything would have been for nothing.”
Nahid had been Kazim’s wife for at least 30 years, but unfortunately, Kazim had passed away shortly before I arrived in Karbala. After receiving this news upon arrival, I had felt devastated. Helping Kazim spread the truth about the return of the Mahdi was the sole reason I had decided to go to Karbala, so after learning about his passing, I had felt like my entire life purposed was taken from me.
The first few weeks after my arrival, I had mainly spent endlessly roaming the streets of Karbala. Even though by the end of the first week I already knew the city inside out, I still felt completely lost during that time. As a holy pilgrimage site, the city was continuously filled with pilgrims from all over, which had allowed me to disappear into a crowd. I received some weird eyes from time to time, since I was alone and not with a man, but most of the time, I was left alone, which I needed. Nahid and I had tried to take care of each other, but for the most time, at least one of us was out of the house and when we were together, the atmosphere usually was cold and silent.
But after a very tough first few weeks, me and Nahid had begun to bond. She told me about Kazim’s passion for teaching and learning, about his constant squabbles with the government and powerful clerics of Karbala, and about the many wonderful young students that he had been able to teach. Even after his death, his students, many of them young women, kept coming back to his house to read and learn, as the house had become a sacred place for them. Curious about the truth beyond that of the clerical elite, they read and talked until deep in the morning and I bonded with many of them. After a while, I started teaching them to preserve Kazim’s legacy. At first just at Nahid’s house, but after a while, we started to take our ideas onto the street. Even though we were a small group at the beginning, our gatherings grew bigger and bigger, which created suspicion among those who were in charge in Karbala. But we knew that, especially in the face of setbacks, we had to keep going, and so we did.
But now, it seemed like everything would come crashing down.
“No, I’m not leaving, Nahid. We’re only just beginning,” I replied, sitting on my bed.
But Nahid, who clearly was worried about my safety, said: “But the government wants you out, my dear. They see you as a threat and the longer you stay here, the more you will be in danger. Think about what Kazim would have wanted.”
“I’m sorry, but Kazim would want us to keep fighting.”
“We will, Tahirih, we will, but you have taught the people well. They will continue to gather and fight, even without you, I’m sure of that.”
This argument went for a while. Deep inside, I knew she was right, but I was also terrified of being forced to return to Iran. I wanted to see my parents, brothers, and sisters again, but there was no way I was ever going back to my husband and I also wasn’t exactly looking forward to look that foolish uncle of mine in the eyes. Still, deep inside, I knew that my work here was done. Just I was about to say to Nahid that she was right, the banging on the door started again.
“I can hear you talking. Open up now, or I will be forced to break the door open!”
“Patience, master, let me assemble my precious belongings first.” I sarcastically replied, and I heard Nahid chuckle next to me.
I packed my clothes, put on my hijab, said my farewell to Nahid, and went outside through the front door. What I saw there, completely blew my mind. In front of me was the high cleric of Karbala with some lower government officials and members of the security force. But behind them, all of Kazim’s followers had gathered together. As I was escorted out of the city by the security members, my students followed me to a small hill at the edge of the city. When we arrived there, a young man and woman climbed to the top of that hill, where the man started to preach: “My fellow believers. We are disappointed to announce that our beloved Tahirih, our solace of the eyes, our liberator, will be leaving us. But not to fear! Word has reached us that Mahdi has arrived upon us and that he is in Shiraz. The wonderful clerics of Karbala have allowed Tahirih to go back to Iran and further spread the word of the Mahdi there.”
After a short moment of silence, the young woman continued
“Together, we will spread the word of the Mahdi. For too long, our internal sense of purity has been polluted by those who have unjustly controlled our sense of worthiness. But no more! Together, we will move to the dawn of a new time. A time of divine justice for all, a time of equality, a time of internal peace. May the new prophetic cycle begin!”
The followers at the bottom of the hill started cheering and clapping. For a moment, I even saw a blink in the eye of some of the security members. The clerics and government officials, however, were boiling in anger and ordered the security forces to arrest the two preachers, which they did. The two preachers peacefully cooperated, but the situation was very tense and some of my students at the bottom of the hill began to resist more aggressively. I wanted to do something but was surrounded, which made my chances of escape were very slim, so I hold tight. After a while, the situation stabilized, and Kazim’s followers slowly started to return to the city. Shortly after, the majority of the security and government officials began to return to the city, apart from the few that would stay with me until we reached the border of Iran. After a long and treacherous journey, we arrived at the border, where they abandoned me, and I was left to continue on my own. I decided to go back to Qazvin, where a new set of unpleasant surprises would be waiting for me...
Part 2 coming soon