I come out of the Sheikh Lotf-Allah Mosque drained. I come out lonely and sad. I am not a believer. I have no business hypothesizing on the subtleties of spiritual attainment in the scriptural sense. But the Sheikh Lotf-Allah mosque has driven into me the realization that intense art does not lead the heart to pray. The breathtaking Eroica is not meant to offer the peace of the Gregorian chants.
I realize I need a long quiet moment to swim out of this demanding beauty. So I collapse on a bench again beside the vast expanse of green. The sharp noon has given way to a polite afternoon. The whole Naqsh-i-Jahan is dotted with families enjoying a day-out. Adults are chatting away aimlessly, once in a while digging into basket bags carrying food. Many men are simply sleeping. And children are making the most of the vast unhindered space, some exhausting their pent-up energy running behind the fun-ride horse carriages encircling the square. That spurs me to aim the camera and I am stopped from taking a snap for the third time in Iran.
A kid comes running: Musafir, wait, wait. Don’t snap away as yet. I quickly down my camera with not a little apprehension: have I inadvertently broken some social convention. Am I not supposed to take children’s snaps without explicit permission, as you can’t in many European countries. If you do, you might promptly be charged of pedophilic intentions! Indeed a venerable elderly professor had once told my wife, Baisakhi, in the UK that he would think twice before spending a long time with his grandson alone in a room. In our culture, the grandpa who doesn’t yield to a child’s demand to play the horse and give him a ride on his back, even if for a few minutes, crawling on the floor, might be considered a recluse failure! Is then Iran like Europe in this regard? I prepare myself to apologize profusely to the child’s guardians.
But I am grossly mistaken. There is no sign of his guardians. No one comes to reprimand me. He runs to me alone and starts jumping around urging me to take his picture as he splits himself into laughter. I aim the camera again. No-no-no-no. Wait, wait. What now? He wants it to be taken with his parents. He literally drags me to them: a middle-aged man, his wife and another son, spending a happy afternoon away from home. The couple is embarrassed to the extreme at their son’s naughty demand. But they yield and pose for me. Just as I am about to click, the kid is up in a flash: no-no-no-no. Wait, wait. There’s my brother playing. Let me fetch him too. His mother’s mild rebuke falls on deaf ears, and from behind a large hedge appears the youngest one, instantly throwing himself on his dad’s lap. I click.
Isfahan, the Nesf-i-Jahan, the half of the world, had much to offer to the Musafir, but nothing, no garden, no vaulted mosque, no intricate miniature on palace walls, neither the grand bazaar nor the subtle Berian, could even remotely compare with the eternal moment of joy that the unknown kid offered me that afternoon.
(1) Once the venerated 15th century mystic saint was lying in a mosque courtyard, exactly like our gentleman, with his legs towards the holy Qiblah. Out came a furious Mullah and screamed, ‘You stupid! Don’t you know that’s the direction of god?’ Said Kabir smiling, ‘Oh! Really? Can you please kick my legs to point to a direction that’s not the direction of god?” The Mullah gave Kabir a hard kick, moving his legs, and to his horror in his mental vision he saw the direction of the mosque’s Quiblah change with the direction of Kabir’s legs. He did it again and again and again with the same result each time to his increasing horror, until the saint’s simple point dawned on him!