Al Asr Trip 2008 – A Recollection of Memories

Below is an account of my trip to Iran with the Al Asr Organization in 2008. I wrote this in September of 2008, a few weeks after I came back when everything was still fresh. I primarily wrote this up for my self, but there are many young brothers and sisters who go on this trip every year and it may provide good insight to those who wish to go in the future. I have edited it a bit to make it more presentable as it was originally written in a mixture of formal and informal styles.

In my post you will see some words that are underlined and those are hyperlinks, as I have made the post some what interactive. If you do read it, I hope you enjoy it InshAllah.

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I don’t know where exactly to begin as there seems to be multiple starting points, but I guess I can say I can start off from ShiaChat.com the forum. In March of 2006 I came across the 14th Annual Al Asr thread, but didn’t pay much attention to it then. Later on I realized that some of my friends in Toronto that have been to Iran had gone through this group and were speaking very positive of it and so were the many members on ShiaChat who had gone with the group. I decided that it was perhaps a group that I would want to go with and decided that I would plan to go the next year in 2007. Once again the 15th Annual Al-Asr thread was made and I had plans of coming, but I had to take a course at university during the summer. I was a bit upset as well, but everything happens for a reason and I truly realized this notion on my trip. That academic year I had sorted out my credits from before so I don’t have to take summer courses again and had made it my sincere intention to go with this trip. One good friend from the forum that I’ve now known for more than 4 years was also one of the volunteers on the trip. I was always in close contact with him and getting more information regarding the trip from him so I was well prepared for it from at least a year in advance. As 2008 approached and after the Ayam-e-Aza went by, the 16th Annual thread on ShiaChat was made once again and they had started the registration process for the trip. I signed up and then what every person on the trip had to go through I went through it as well, waiting for the visa to come and then paying for the ticket. I and the other non-UK residents had to pay for our ticket to London separately. I didn’t have any money and I didn’t want to ask my parents this time either as my mom travels often as well and she had just recently been to Pakistan and Saudi Arabia. I started looking for a job right after my final exam in April of 2008 and I found a job with work shifts of 4 PM till 1 AM in an in-bound call center for RBC (Royal Bank of Canada). It was my first ever job and was a bit tiring due to the shift timings, however it was paying well and I was working full time. Eventually, I had made enough to pay for the tickets and I did so and it felt great paying from my own pocket. I finally got my visa after a month as well and I traveled to London around July 10th. That week in London went by quick, which included going to an orientation. Finally that Sunday of July 19th came and we were all at Heathrow airport.

My aunt and my cousins came to drop me at the airport. I met my aforementioned friend at the airport – he was the only guy I knew at that time, – another virtual friend of mine who I also knew off ShiaChat for a while as well had already travelled to Iran a day before us. We checked in our suitcases at the airport, went for the afternoon prayers and then finally bid farewell to our family members. On our way to the planes another boy came up to me and asked me if I’m Ali Imran and I said yes and he told me his name and I he happened to be someone who I had spoken to before on ShiaChat as well. During our boarding, they got security dogs to sniff all of our bags (hand luggage) before we boarded the plane! But before we know it, we boarded the Iran Air plane and were on our way.

At this point I don’t recall too much and I can’t remember the faces of anyone, who was who and what their names were. On the plane I was sitting beside a brother and in our row we had this uncle who was also coming on the trip and Moulana Sabzawari. On the journey I was speaking with the brother beside me the whole time and then also with Moulana Sabzawari and the uncle for a while. At that time they had informed me that the group doesn’t know yet, but in regards to our flight from Tehran to Mashad, they were not able to find an earlier flight so we will be staying in Tehran for quite a while (a good 10-12 hours I believe it was). Finally we landed in Tehran – at this point I still wasn’t having free conversations with many of the brothers and was still trying to get used to each others personalities. When the plane landed in Tehran, I couldn’t believe I was actually in Iran. We were at Imam Khomeini international airport and to be honest it was a very decent airport. While at the checking out counters, all the individuals who had an American passport got questioned a bit longer than the rest of us. I had a Canadian passport and they asked me a couple of questions and asked why my dad is in Saudi Arabia and what do I do in Canada. It was funny because, when ever they would ask where you are from they didn’t expect you to say Canada or America, rather they wanted to know where you are really from. As in if you are Pakistani or Indian. Any ways, we came out and this was the first time that the guys were about to realize what they were going to deal with for the rest of the month. Suitcases. Yes that’s right, the boys had to carry around not only their own suitcases, but also the suitcases of every sisters on the trip (who were about 25 in number). I didn’t mind carrying their suitcases around at all and I don’t think any of the guys were bothered either. In fact, I think we all learned some valuable lessons on patience, hard work and brotherhood just by dealing with the amount of suitcases.

Once we had gathered all the suitcases we came out and I went straight to Sheikh Hamza to greet him and to deliver the salaam from certain people in Toronto (as he had been reciting in Toronto the Muharram that year). We also met Brother Mohsin (the organizer) for the first time and then our friend who was there before us with another brother who had been to my mosque in Toronto many times was in fact related to some of my close friends here in Toronto. Naturally, we clicked on very well right from the start. At this point I must add, I still wasn’t talking freely with any of the other guys, as in, we weren’t really having conversations or anything – I wasn’t feeling left out or anything but just that everything was happening so fast and I was a bit tired as well. We prayed Fajr at the Tehran airport. I believe some time around then, the rest of the group figured out that we will be in Tehran for a few hours as our flight to Mashad was later on in the day. After Fajr, we took the suitcases and started loading them onto the small truck. After that we boarded the bus as we were off to the grave of Ayatullah Khomieni, not a long drive away from the airport. At this time on the bus, I started to look around at all the brothers a bit more carefully and started to see what they look like and even started to make moderate conversations with the few who were around me.

We finally reached Ayatullah Khomeni’s grave and we started taking pictures as soon as we came out the bus. We came and we sat on this grass area and were waiting for breakfast – we got pasta and I liked it! All the brothers finally started to open up a bit and started cracking jokes (what all South Asian guys do best). There was this old man who came and was screaming “Naan Shireen, Naan Shireen, Naan Shireen” – Sweet Bread, it’s like Sheermal and for some reason the guys just started laughing and that was perhaps the first phrase we learned in Iran and would use it as jokes through out the trip. After eating, some of the guys became restless as we didn’t know why we were all sitting outside and not going inside to see the grave of Ayatullah Khomeni. So some of us went in ourselves, recited Fatiha and of course took pictures. Then we went to this area in the middle where there was a big pillar just to rest and sit down. They guards inside wouldn’t let us sleep and one of the boys in our group kept sleeping and the guard would come and wake him up. Very shortly after, some of the brothers took a folder filled with Noha and Qaseeda writeups and we started reciting right then. We had then even decided which specific ones we will try to recite on the upcoming Shahadat and Wiladat dates. The day passed by and we were getting a bit irritated and restless. For some odd reasons, we wanted to play soccer (football as the Brits call it) and we tried to look for a ball. From the apparent view of the area, there was no hope of finding a ball – at least I couldn’t see any stores in the area. One of the brother randomly disappeared and a few minutes later he came back with a ball in his hand as he actually found a place that was selling them. We started playing for a while there and then soon after we boarded the bus again making our way to the Tehran local airport for our flight to Mashad.

Cutting the long story short – story of pulling out the suitcases from the bus and loading them back on to the trolleys and checking them in and going to the gate area and praying Dhuhr and Asr – we boarded this plane (Iran Air) which was going to take us to Mashad. We flew to Mashad and once again after dealing with the suitcases and loading them onto the buses (this time it was two different buses) we were on our way to the hotel in Mashad. Once we reached the hotel, we unloaded the suitcases again and put them in the entrance for the sisters to carry their own to their rooms and the we took our own to our rooms. Finally we were in our rooms. All the guyys and Sheikh Hamza were in one room. The managers were in the room beside ours. By now I had managed to learn almost everyones name and we were all having proper conversations (I guess we thought we might as well, since we are going to be spending the whole month together). That day in Mashad we didn’t do anything as we were all tired and just rested through the day – we had dinner, prayed and really just went to sleep – we were knocked out!

The next morning we had an introduction assembly where we all briefly introduced ourselves and why we chose to come on Al Asr. After that we were given a briefing on the ethics of Ziyarat and also about some rules and regulations of the trip itself. Soon after the assembly we all got ready for what we had all been waiting for; the ziyarat of Imam Ridha (as). We boarded the bus and I remember reciting a noha on the bus and couldn’t believe I was reciting something in such a holy place. It had always been a dream of mine to be able to recite something in Medina, Karbala, Najaf and Mashad and now one part of the dream was coming true. Finally the bus took a turn onto a road and we laid our eyes for the first time on the shrine of Imam Ridha (as). We read a loud salawat which was followed by almost a complete silence on the bus. It was as if we were in a different world and before we knew it our eyes had become watery and tears started to roll down. I don’t know why I was crying at that point and I still can’t figure out why. Was it due to the fact I was so happy to be granted the opportunity to be able to do the ziyarah of the Imam or was it over the fact I kept repeating the sentence Assalam-u-Allaika Ya Ghareeb al-Ghuraba in my mind over and over again – perhaps it was a combination of both. We proceeded towards the entrance and my legs were trembling. In the background I could hear the echoes of someone reading masaaib which made me cry even more. As we finally made our way to the actual zarih inside we did our first Ziyarah beside Moulana Sabzawari. After ziyarah, the first time almost all the guys went and tried to at least touch the zarih it self and I believe almost all of us did – it’s not easy at all I must say as it is jam packed. After that I went to the side of the zarih and tried to pray 2 rakah and behind me was Moulana Sabzawari. After praying he told me to look towards the zarih and he took a picture of me with his digital camera – it was a very memorable moment for me. After the ziyarah we had time to sit and recite the Qur’an or just read other duas while there was still time for Dhuhr. After the salah we used to meet at a meeting point, then make our way back out of the harram and onto the bus back to our hotel.

The daily schedule after that generally used to be breakfast in the morning, then go out – we would usually pray Dhuhr outside where ever we would be – and then come back from outside. Then we would eat lunch and get some time to rest followed by two back-to-back classes. After class we used to get more rest time (and when I say time for rest I’m speaking a good few hours where we could easily relax or socialize). By then it would be time for Maghrib and Isha. After that we would go for dinner followed by a group discussion at night and then we were told to hit the beds (however most of us used to sleep very little and very late at night). This was the general schedule, obviously there were few days where we didn’t have classes and times where we were out a bit longer than usual or nights where we didn’t have group discussions or had Dua Kumail/Tawassul on the respective night alongside the various Jashans and Majaalis as well.

One of the days, we traveled to Nishapur. At first when we came out of the bus there were a lot of people who were there with horses and you could ride the horses (obviously had to pay them as well). I jumped on a horse pretty much as soon as we got off the bus and that was really fun. The man let the horse go on it’s own and it galloped pretty fast – for a bit I thought I would fall, but thank god I didn’t because that would have been very embarrassing. Anyways, in Nishapur we visited graves of some famous people, like Umar Khayyam – his grave was under this magnificent piece of architecture (a poet and a mathematician), Farid ud-Deen Attar (a herbalist) and Kamal al-Mulk (a painter). After them, we went to a grave of an Imamzada (Mohammad Mahroq). He was one of the offspring of Hazrat Musa Kadhim (as). I can’t remember if we did all this on the same day but regardless I’ll mention the next two places in Nishapur as well. We went to the qadamgah of Imam Ridha (as) where the footprints of Imam Ridha (as) were. Beside it, there was a well of Imam Ridha (as). The boys decided to give pursa to Bibi Fatima (sa) and we did matamdari right outside the qadamgah. When ever we did matam outside we used to get a lot of people staring at us or recording us, perhaps fascinated by the way we did our matam. After that (once again I can’t remember if all this was on the same day or not but we also visited the grave of Bibi Shatita. You can read more about her about 3/4 of the way down here – just search (CTRL+F) Shatita. Anyhow, in Nishapur after doing all these things (which as I mentioned, I have doubts as to whether we did all these things on the same day or not because I recall doing wudhu at the grave of the Imamzadah for prayer) we went to this guest house where we had lunch and prayed Zuhar and Asr. After prayers, we went to eat and then we were free to do what ever. Some guys went to rest and slept under this shed area, while some of us went and met up with some Irani kids, had conversations with them and played some soccer as well. After resting there for the remainder of the day we made our way back to the hotel in Mashad.

Let me speak a bit about our classes that started off in Mashad. Sheikh Hamza was giving lectures on Aqaid and Ahkaam. The Aqaid lectures were amazing because this was the first time I was learning about the very own Usool-e-Deen that we think we know all about. However Sheikh was playing devil’s advocate at times, throwing questions at us that made us ponder over various things. The first few lectures were all on Tawheed and these lectures may I add, were based on pure rational arguments rather than using the Qur’an and Hadeeth. For some it was too much to handle, some who were a bit young and couldn’t grasp the material they were welcomed to join Sheikh Hamid who was speaking on tafseer (not that tafseer was going to be any easier!). These lectures on Aqaid would continue till the end of our stay in Qum, where we went from Tawheed, Adalat, Qayamat, Nabuwat and Imamat. Followed by the Aqaid lectures we also had sessions on Ahkaam where we got a lot of fiqh rulings clarified and were free to ask questions. During the nights in our group discussions, once again we were free to ask any question and start discussion. I recall asking the first question in our very first group discussion since everyone was just silent and staring at each other. I won’t go over the details of what was discussed in these lectures and group discussions, because that would be too much to explain and get into.

Going back to the harram of Imam Ridha (as), we visited the graves of Sheikh Bahai and Sheikh Hur al-Ameli. Outside of the harram, we went to Bazaar-e-Ridha (as) a few times where we could go shopping; most people bought rings from here. Soon the day of the Shahadat of Imam Musa Kazim (as) approached. That day we went to the haram during the day and as usual made our way to the ziyarah. This time I had done the ziyarah and by now most of us guys figured out that it’s really not about struggling and trying to get to ‘touch’ the zarih, so after ziyarah I left and went to this hall where the Imam leads the prayers and where they usually hold majlis and lectures. I knew that they must be doing something there and I was right. In a totally packed hall, they were having the Masaaib of Imam Musa Kadhim (as). I obviously could not understand everything that they were saying, but even the few words that were similar to Urdu and just the way they recited the Masaaib were enough to make anyone cry. Later I figured out that I was listening to one of their well known reciters by the name of Mahdi Samavati, in the harram of Imam Kadhim’s (a) son. One of the days we did a noha inside the vicinity of the haram of Imam Ridha (as). After Dhurh and Asr that day we went back to the meeting spot and made our way back to the hotel. I believe it was either a Tuesday or a Thursday night so before Maghrib/Isha we had a majlis. After salah and dinner we had a du’a (Kumail or Tawassul – can’t recall) and we had matam right after that. On a Friday we went for Ziyarah again, but this time near the evening time and we read Dua Simat and the sun set was beautiful. After the Dua and Ziyarat we did Maghribain and came back to the hotel.

In Mashad we also went and met Ayatullah Makarem Shirazi and he gave us a lecture on the media and how we should be well aware of the propaganda and tricks the Western media in particular plays to confuse the masses. Before Ayatullah Makarem Shirazi, one day we went to the office place of Ayatullah Behjat. We had majlis over there and one of the best Ziyarat-e-Ashura I have ever heard and once again we were all in tears. This is also the day we met Sheikh Hamid. Back in the hotel, the first few days the hotel was packed with hundreds of of scholars, who were in fact mostly Sunnis. Some of us started to have discussion with these scholars; they were there for a conference that was being held. After them, we at least a hundred orphan boys who came into the hotel and a few days later they left and we had about a hundred orphan girls. Our hotel was beautiful, especially at night time when the fountain used to be turned on with lights. We used to play soccer at night time while some played basketball. The guys used to do wrestling as well and it was fun to watch (as I’m not much of a wrestler). One word of caution: don’t ever wrestle with Sheikh Hamza, as he took everyone down, even the guys that were bigger than him in size.

In the harram of Imam Ridha (as) we went to this museum as well, which had a lot of original historic items and paintings, carpets and we went to this one area that had original Qur’an that were written by the Imams (as) and also  by other famous personalities. The boys were joking around saying if we can ask the guard to let us go through the Qur’an to check if there is any Surah Wilayah written in it (a joke based off propaganda that is done against the Shi’as). One of the days the manager was asking that he needs about three or four boys who can go to the haram early in the morning (before Fajr) with everyone’s passports so we can get the entry stamp to be able to go and eat at the dastarkhaan of Imam Ridha (as). I didn’t go, but the few guys went and came back without a stamp as they went a bit late and the lines are apparently huge so only the first few certain people can get it. So they went the next day and Alhamdolillah they were able to get the stamps. For those who went on the trip, if you open up your passports and go to the page where you have your Visa, you’ll notice a stamp and that means that you’ve eaten from there – as you are only allowed to do so once per year. Near the last days of our stay in Mashad, we got the opportunity to do amaal on Shab-e-Mairaj inside the haram of Imam Ridha (as), before Fajr prayers. The amaal were led by Sheikh Hamza as the rest followed.

I believe as the days went by, we started to get this feeling of sadness because we were realizing that we’ll be leaving Mashad in a few days. The last day approached and we knew that this would be the last ziyarat. As usual we went to do ziyarat and did our Dhuhr/Asr prayers. I wasn’t feeling anything unusual at that point, until I saw everyone reading the farewell Ziyarat. I borrowed the book which had the ziyarat in it, walked towards the middle where the water used to be, looking towards the dome and main gate and started reciting the ziyarat. Once again tears started to flow before I had even begun reciting the ziyarat. Just the fact that I realized that this was going to be the last ziyarat of the Imam (as) – for this trip anyways, after reciting the ziyarat I started to ask as many hajaat as I could and also prayed that Allah (swt) enables me to come for ziyarah one more time (InshAllah). Slowly we made our way to the exit but we were all walking very slowly, looking back at the harram each time and crying our eyes out. We stopped at the gate which took us outside of that main courtyard and we stood there and just simply cried. That’s all I remember from there and a brother had to comfort me and take me out as I saw most of the guys were already gone. I didn’t want to leave at all. As I came on the bus, I saw everyone was in tears just like me. There were no masaaib being recited or nohas or anything like that, yet each one of us was in tears and literally crying as if a close family member had passed away in front of our eyes. While we were all crying on the bus, Sheikh Hamza started to recite Dua al-Faraj and the whole bus just started crying even more. This was the final ziyarah in Mashad and it is something I will never forget and I pray that Allah (swt) gives me and everyone an opportunity to go for ziyarah one more time, InshAllah.

That evening, we started to pack up our suitcases and were getting ready to leave for the airport – to fly back to Tehran and the drive to Qum. The guys loaded the suitcases one more time onto the bus. One bus wasn’t enough so we got a second one and put half of the suitcases onto the second bus. The sisters all went on the first bus alongside most of the boys. We couldn’t fit all the boys on that bus so some of us came onto the second bus. On our way to the airport on the bus I recall doing a few nohas and salaam. Besides that when ever the two buses would cross each other on the roads the guys from both the buses did long and loud Naray-e-Haideris. When we reached the airport we unloaded the suitcases again and went to the airport and prayed Maghrib/Isha. After the flight to Tehran, we grabbed the suitcases one more time and loaded them onto another bus. It was a big and comfortable bus and as it was late in the night the lights were turned off for the trip from Tehran to Qum (about a 2 hour drive). I noticed everyone fell asleep, but me being the restless individual that I am, didn’t sleep at all. As a matter of fact I remember taking out a large chocolate bar from my bag and eating it all! It was very late at night and by the time we reached Qum it was almost Fajr time. At that time we realized that Masjid-e-Jamkaran was literally a few minutes walk away from our hotel.

As we reached our hotel in Qum, we unloaded the suitcases again and we carried them to our rooms. We prayed Fajr and hit the beds. The next day we went to the ziyarah to the haram of Bibi Masooma Qum (sa). We did our first ziyarah together with the Sheikh, outside in the courtyard. After that when we went inside, it was fairly easy to go up to the zarih and touch it – in fact I even managed to grab a picture of her grave inside. In Qum we followed the same general schedule – with the classes and group discussions. It was here in Qum where Sheikh Usama also joined us (Sheikh Hamid didn’t come to Qum with us) and then it was a lecture split of one hour each by Sheikh Hamza and Sheikh Usama. Sheikh Usama was speaking primarily on Islamic Spirituality which also went into depth on certain topics. In Qum, there were various stores right outside the vicinity of the harram of Bibi Masooma Qum (sa) and that was perhaps where a lot of us did most of our shopping, because it was very convenient and beside the harram. There was the Ansariyan book store where we bought many books from as well. It had been well over 10 days into the trip and most of the guys were feeling the absence of the computer and internet from their lives. It took us about an hour to find an internet cafe – even though it was right there, we just kept going the wrong directions. We finally checked our e-mails after so long. The guys also used to go to the restaurants and eat together from time to time. I liked this one store where we used to buy burger and fries from.

Besides the grave of Bibi Masooma Qum (sa) within the vicinity of the harram, there were also graves of Ayatullah Burujurdi, Shaheed Mutahari and in fact there is a whole list of scholars who are buried there. Outside the harram we visited the library of Ayatullah Marashi Najafi which also had his grave within. One of the days in Qum, we went out to this park a few hours before sun set and stayed their till Maghrib/Isha and had dinner there. The guys had a good time there and played some soccer in this little area of the park we found.

The great thing about the Qum hotel was the fact that we were a walking distance away from Masjid-e-Jamkaran. I didn’t go there on the first morning or every morning, however I was able to go a couple of times and it was great. It was also in Qum where we spent the 3 back-to-back days of Wiladat, of Imam Hussain (as), Hazrat Abbas (as) and Imam Zain ul-Abideen (as). The first Jashan was on Imam Hussain (as) and Sheikh Hamza gave a short speech and we also had qaseedas that nigh. It was great because you could see Masjid Jamkaran all lit up from the window. The next day on Wiladat of Hazrat Abbas (as) we had the same sort of routine, Sheikh Usama gave a speech, we had qaseeda and Sheikh Hamza then recited Dua Tawassul as it was a Tuesday night.

We met Ayatullah Lari and Ayatullah Araki in Qum as well. Ayatullah Lari is known for his books and his library and he gave a small talk to us and also allowed us take any two books from his library. Ayatullah Araki knows English and he also gave us a small talk and we prayed Maghrib/Isha at his house. Besides these two Ayatullahs, we also visited the house of Imam Khomeini in Qum. Another place we went in Qum was the Ibadatgah of Bibi Masooma Qum (sa), where she used to worship. Back in the harram of Bibi Masooma Qum (sa), during night time when we used to go there for ziyarah and Maghrib/Isha, we used to do matamdari outside in the courtyard and we had many people staring at us alongside many Pakistani men who would even join us.

Two other places we went in Qum were swimming and the guys went to Hawzah Imam Khomeini. The hawzah was very nicely built; it had a fairly big auditorium, also had computer labs and a decent library. The hawzah also had a gym and some guys started to work out for the heck of it and do boxing. Soon it was time for Dhuhr/Asr salah and we prayed in the prayer hall. On the side they had abas on the hanger that some of us even tried on. After prayers we went out to eat in this restaurant and had the usual rice with chullo kebab.

Once we all went as a group before sunset to Masjid Jamkaran and did the formal a’maal for the mosque over there. After the prayers, there was a recitation of Dua al-Faraj inside the masjid and once again everyone in the masjid had started to cry. As I made my way out after the dua, the mosque looked beautiful (as it was still decorated because of the wiladat). After that once again, our last days in Qum were coming close. It was a Thursday which was going to be our last ziyarat at the harram of Bibi Masooma Qum (sa). We prayed Maghrib/Isha there and after that I had heard perhaps one of the most beautiful Dua Kumail I have ever heard in my life. The whole hall was weeping and I loved how they used to mix masaaib with the duas. After the dua, we went into the courtyard, and had a short majlis by Sheikh Hamza with masaaib followed by matamdari. I read a noha first, followed by another brother and we ended it off with us three reciting another noha together. I made this sound like the last ziyarah because it was the last ziyarat for me as I wasn’t able to go the next afternoon as I was not feeling well at all. After the group came back we were ready to depart once again, but not to Tehran. We are off to this isolated place called Visf, in the middle of no where, which was another 2 hours drive from Qum.

We were going there for two days just to relax and chill out. As we reached there, all we saw were huge mountains around us and we were in the middle of them. That first night, I was still not feeling well but for some reason I wanted to be one of the first one to climb the major big mountain which had a flag at the very top of it. It was night time after namaz and me, Sheikh Hamza and 2 other friend started to climb it. We thought we would beat the Sheikh to the top very easily but the mountain was very difficult to climb, especially at night time where you couldn’t see much and it had a lot of rocks and cactus – alongside that it was very steep. I was 2nd place until we reached a point where my ‘not feeling well‘ kicked in and I started to feel very weak and I was only half-way up the mountain and short on breath as well. I sat down for a while and just stared at the stars – there were literally thousands upon thousand stars we could see from the mountain and even a few shooting stars here and there. But after a while I decided to just come back down the mountain. All the other boys went up after me but I didn’t want to risk it that night. The next day the boys woke up and made their own breakfast as we had access to a kitchen in each of our rooms. We made Pakistani chai for once and made omelette as well. After breakfast, the boys decided to climb the mountain again, this time it was day time so it was a bit easier and I was able to climb it easily since I was feeling much better and refreshed. We used to take breaks as we climbed up and I would look down and you could see the other guys climbing up as well. So we reached to the top and another friend was first to reach to the top where the flag was. We stayed up there for a good hour or two, took a lot of pictures from up there down towards where our rooms were, did qaseedas and ended up with Dua Tawasul.

After that we had a class and then later on in the day we had a BBQ which Sheikh Hamza took care of. That night, once again Sheikh Hamza and the rest climbed up the mountain. We were taking pictures from the top once again – this time in the night. At the top we once again read a couple of qaseedas followed by a few salaams. After that Sheikh Hamza recited Ziyarat-e-Ashura on top of that mountain and it was beautiful as we could see the moon in between the peaks of a few mountain tops and also the clear night sky with starts twinkling. Those 2 nights in Visf were great and the next day once again we made breakfast again in our room – this time I took care of the chai and another friend took care of the omelette. We (most of the guys) woke up very late and were eating breakfast very late as well and so ended up missing both the two classes they had on that day. After noon prayers and lunch, we once again started to pack up for our drive to our last destination – Tehran. I don’t think I need to mention this again, but yes the guys loaded all the suitcases onto the truck one more time. After that, we got on the bus and were on our way to Tehran – which was about 3-4 hours away from Visf. We stopped in the middle of our way, where we could just buy snacks or use the washroom and then were back on the road.

On our way to Tehran, we could see the trend change as we started to notice a lot of women that weren’t perhaps observing the hijab in a manner we had seen in Mashad or Qum. It seems a bit more liberal (if that’s the correct word to you) compared to the previous two cities. After we went past the Tehran check point we saw how different of a city it was. After a long drive, we finally reached our destination in Tehran, a hotel located on this very narrow street. We got our keys in that hotel and there were about three guys to each room. I was on the 2nd floor with a boy – he was the youngest boy on the trip, around 15 – and he was simply one of the most coolest, amazing person I’ve ever met in my life. Anyways, the truck with our suitcases came and we had to unload the suitcases again in this hotel. The rest of the brothers and sisters were on the higher floors. That night we just rested as we were too tired to do much. It was in Tehran and in this hotel however where we had the lectures on the history of the Islamic Revolution and also on Wilayat-e-Faqih, which were followed by group discussions later on in the night after dinner.

In Tehran we visited the house of Ayatullah Khomeni and spent some time there. There was an art gallery there as well which had many photos of Ayatullah Khomeni. It also had items that belonged to him such as letters and other pieces of writings. After that we drove to the Shah’s Palace and that is where we prayed Dhuhr/Asr. We checked out the many different rooms in his palace. It was a contrast that we were being shown between the simple room of Imam Khomeini in comparison with the massive palace the Shah where he used to live. After the palace we went to a restaurant to eat. This restaurant was called SFC (Super “Istaar” Fried Chicken) and we would be seeing the burgers from this restaurant for almost the rest of our stay in Tehran – and I must say all the guys loved it and couldn’t get enough of it. It was like any other fast food restaurant, the burgers were nice – some sisters were complaining that they were too big and even one was hard to finish. The guys were going for seconds – must have been all the hard work we used to do carrying suitcases.

We also went to Behesht-e-Zehra where thousands of people and martyrs are buried. They also had a memorial around the graves for those who were martyred in Hajj. It was perhaps around these days where we were in our hotel and we were informed that we had to pack our suitcases, hand in all our cell phones and cameras and that we were leaving the place. They informed us that the area we are moving to did not allow cameras and phones there. For a while we got a bit curious and worried as to what’s going on. We didn’t know why we were moving out (I think some of us were just thinking about having to move the suitcases one more time) and why so much security. Anyways, it wasn’t anything big. The hotel we were staying in was charging a lot and we got a new place that was much cheaper. It was on top of a very high mountain. It was a long drive up the mountain since it was very high. That night, after we ate dinner in the hotel (SFC once again) we once again loaded the suitcases onto the bus and made our way up to that place (which had residence sort of similar to Visf) up the mountain and you could literally see all of Tehran from the top. For those of you who are from Pakistan from the Islamabad region, I can say that it was a lot like going up to Peer-Sohawa. I grabbed one picture with my phone while going up on one of the days before they took it from me. After we moved there, we unloaded the suitcases from the small truck that made about four up and down trips with the suitcases.

In Tehran we also visited the graves of two Imamzadahs, one by the name of Imamzadah Abdul Azeem and it was here where we prayed Dhuhr and Asr. We read his ziyarah as well. There is a narration which is in regards to visiting the grave of Shah Abdul Azim. The narrator mentions that one of the people of the city of Ray had gone to meet Imam al-Hadi (as) and said, “I had gone to visit Imam al-Hadi and the Imam asked me, ‘From where are you coming?’ I replied, ‘From visiting the grave of Imam al-Husain.’ The Imam replied, ‘However, you should definitely know that if you had visited the grave of ‘Abd al-‘Azim which is near you then verily it would have been as if you had visited al-Husain ibn ‘Ali.” ~ From Thawab al- A’mal by Shaykh as-Saduq.

Besides him we also visited the grave of Imamzadah Saleh and we read his ziyarah as well. In the courtyard of the shrine of Shah Abdul Azim, we did matamdari and recited one noha.

Fortunately during the time we were there, Tehran was hosting the International Mahdaviyat Conference. The conference had many important personalities speaking, like Ayatullah Kashani and Ahmedinijad. Almost all the guys were able to shake his hands as well. After the first half of the conference there was a break for coffee and snacks. I just went on the computers which were reserved only for journalists. They tried to remove me, but I spoke to them for about ten minutes telling them I am a Forum Admin, showing them the logo for ShiaChat.com and told them that I need to use the internet. So they were like, “Veb Journalist?” and I’m just like sure if that’s what you want to call it! They finally let me sit on it in peace. After the second half of the conference we had Dhuhr/Asr and then we had lunch (rice). We then made our way back to the hotel.

In the place where we were now staying (on the mountain), there was another peak on it which had graves of those martyrs who they could not figure out the names of or identify them in any other way. The boys were able to climb this mountain quite easily (as it had a pathway) and was nothing compared to the Visf mountain (which was actual climbing rather than walking up a steep path). It took us almost the same amount of time to climb it as the mountain at Visf and by the time we reached up it was time for Maghrib. In between Maghrib and Isha, Sheikh Hamza was telling us a story about war and about those who would go and pick up the martyrs from the battlefield. He told a story where he said that there were a group of people who were looking for martyrs and they couldn’t find anyone. At that time they said let’s do tawassul do the 5 members of Ahlul Bayt. They did so and when they started looking again they found a body and luckily also found his ID. They found a second person and then a third and a fourth body. All of these bodies had identities. When the found a fifth body they could not find his identification. They tried hard to find it and kept digging. After a while they stopped and one of the man told them that it is no use. We did tawassul and we found the IDs of the other four, but we made one of our waseela Lady Fatima (sa) and there is no exact place known for her grave and no identification and us not being able to find this man’s identification may be linked to it. Just that statement at the moment brought tears to my eyes. We prayed and right after that we asked Sheikh Hamza to recite Ziyarat-e-Ashura. It was amazing and an experience totally out of this world; once again we were all crying our eyes out. After the ziyarah, we went to the graves of the martyrs who were buried there and read Fatiha for them. We did matamdari after that as well on the mountain, unfortunately none of this is recorded as we didn’t have our cameras and phones. The reason why we didn’t have them was because this area apparently had some high profile offices and they did not want images to get leaked out which would display their positions and surroundings.

One of the last places we visited in Iran was the Shah’s torture prison. This was an eye-opener for all of us, as we saw the various devices and methods of torture that used to take place in there. One device was like a small cage in which you couldn’t sit or stand properly and there was a heater underneath you which would burn your feet and you would be trapped in there. Another device was used for electrocution. They had solitary confinement rooms and they had a room which displayed pictures of all the prisoners that were in this jail, women and males alike. It was here where I figured out that Ayatullah Khamaeni (alongside many other scholars) had also been kept and had been tortured equally as bad as the other prisoners. The man who was giving us the tour of the place, he had his picture up as well as he was once a prisoner in these cells. Outside of the main prison area yet still inside the building, we went and prayed Duhr/Asr. After prayers we went where we were now used to going to. Yes, SFC again, where we munched on burgers and fries with drinks.

We had now pretty much reached the end of the trip. We had a farewell assembly, where 3 brothers and 3 sisters were to give a speech about their experiences on the trip. I was one of the individuals who did a speech. After the assembly, the night came when we were to all pack our suitcases and get ready for departure. However once packed, we got the opportunity to do the a’maal of 15 Shaban. We started off with a few qaseeda, a short speech and then the prescribed a’maal. We also prayed Namaz-e-Ayaat that night (we prayed it once at Qum as well) due to a Lunar eclipse which was visible in the very clear sky at night. It really felt at this point that these were the last a’maal we are doing in Iran and we couldn’t help but cry at the recitation of the duas being recited by Sheikh Hamza. After the a’maal we were handed our certificates on behalf of the trip. One thing I should add is that, during this whole month, we – the guys – did play a lot of soccer, just in case I made my post sound like it was all about academics and no sports were being played. We had a place to play in the Mashad guesthouse, in the Qum guesthouse as well as at his hotel on the mountain where we were staying. We played a lot of it usually after the group discussions or on the nights when we didn’t have any group discussions. During the last day in Tehran, one of our close friends on the trip left early (the same one who had arrived a day early as well).

Anyways, the moment finally came when we had to depart. Once again we loaded up the suitcases – we knew this would be the last time, so all the boys without hesitation helped out. Everyone from the trip had come to drop us to the airport, including the Moulanas. We drove to Tehran airport which was about a 2 hour drive from that mountain top. We unloaded the suitcases and we prayed Fajr at the airport as well – the same place where we prayed when we first landed in Tehran. After we prayed Fajr, we had to make our way to the departure zone. This was the moment where we had to bid farewell to the Moulanas, gave them hugs and then had to walk ahead. It took us a long time to check in our baggages, because there were a lot of us and a lot of passports and suitcases to deal with. We were pretty much the last ones to board the plane as well; me and three other brothers were perhaps the last ones from the group to board the plane. The plane finally took off and we were on our way to London. It was a day journey and the skies were clear and at one point during the flight I was able to grab a picture of the ground beneath us. We finally landed in Heathrow and some of us made our way to the Non-UK Passport desk while the rest of the group went to the UK Passport holders desk. It was fairly easy coming out; they didn’t ask us too many questions as they saw we were from a group and I was in transit anyways. We came out very quickly and then we just had to wait for our suitcases to come. The guys were very nice enough once again to help the sisters get their suitcases from the ramp. One of the brothers who had been on the trip a few times before told us that now would be the time to say farewell to each other, because once you go out you have family members waiting and everyone will be leaving for their homes. I didn’t want to leave anyone, especially my favourite person on the trip – the young boy I was talking about earlier. He started to cry as he hugged us all and made me teary as well.

We all came out and met with our family members who were awaiting us all very anxiously – they hadn’t seen us for a month. Though I felt as if the journey is over for the residents of UK, but I still had another 7 and half hours to travel to Toronto. I stayed in London for only 2 days and Alhamdolillah reached my destination safely without any hassle at the airport (the man didn’t flip through my passport and notice my Iran visa).

I know it has been a long read, but just some final words: the trip was a month long trip, so one can imagine staying with a dozen guys alongside two-three Sheikhs in one room for so many days, trying to getting along with each other, people of different backgrounds and personalities; how much of a close relationship we all built with each other. I have no complaints about Al-Asr, it was an amazing trip. Unfortunately Moulana Sabzawari wasn’t with us for the most part of the trip, as he left for Iraq only after a few days in Mashad and may Allah (swt) accept his ziyarah in Iraq and also bring further success in the work for which he went to Iraq for. I feel as if there is still so much to say, I rushed through the ending paragraphs of Qum and Tehran but I hope I gave out the general essence of how amazing the trip was. We had a lot of stories which took place while we were on our breaks or during sports, on the mountains, in our rooms but I guess it’s not really necessary as one would need to understand the context of them. However the main point was that the boys overall had a lot of fun and enjoyed the trip greatly.

In conclusion, not only was I able to strengthen my faith, develop such an amazing spiritual connection with Allah (swt) and the Ahlul Bayt (as), but also able to learn many valuable lessons from the trip. Seeing a country on a ground-zero level was a much better experience than sitting here and for the most part just reading news regarding a country through Western media outlets. For sure the country just like any other country did have it’s negatives and positives, but I believe the negatives get exploited and presented disproportionately in the Western media in order to demean the country and the Islamic Revolution. Overall I felt great as Iran felt like home, home that the Shias specifically can look up to today and in fact even all other Muslims can look up to as a role model. I got a better understanding of the Revolution itself and from the classes we had I learned a lot as well in terms of Aqaid. We felt that what we learned as a lot of depth, I can only imagine the depths they must go to within the Hawza. It surely made me consider going to Hawzah in Qum and InshAllah hopefully I will be able to do so in the near future.

Allahumma Salay Alaa Muhammad Wa Aalay Muhammad, Wa Ajil Farajahum. I pray that Allah (swt) accepts all of our ziyarahs and duas. 

O Allah! Forgive me my such sins as would affront my continency O Allah! Forgive me my such sins as would bring down calamity.
O Allah! Forgive me my such sins as would change divine favours (into disfavours).
O Allah! Forgive me my such sins as would hinder my supplication.
O Allah! Forgive me such sins as bring down misfortunes (or afflictions).
O Allah! Forgive my such sins as would suppress hope.
O Allah! Forgive every sin that I have committed and every error that I have erred.
O Allah! I endeavour to draw myself nigh to Thee through Thy invocation And I pray to Thee to intercede on my behalf And I entreat Thee by Thy benevolence to draw me nearer to Thee And grant me that I should be grateful to Thee and inspire me to remember and to invoke Thee O Allah! 
~ Excerpt from Dua Kumayl

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