Memoirs of a Zaair – Al Asr 2012

My brother was on the Al Asr trip this summer and has written up about his experience. The trip takes youth usually from the UK, Canada & the USA to a month-long ziyarat & educational trip where they not only get to visit the holy shrines, but also learn a lot about the religion in general. This trip is one of the most life-changing experiences that a sincere youth can go on. I went on the trip back in 2008 and wrote about my experiences here. Though it has been more than 4 years since I went, it had an impact on me that I believe I still carry within my persona.

The Prophet (pbuh) said to Abu Dharr (one of his companions): “O Aba Dharr, take advantage of five things before five other things [take advantage of you]: Your youth before your old age, Your health before your sickness, Your wealth before your poverty, Your free time before your being busy and your life before your death”

It is said that when you go for the ziyarat of the Ahlul Bayt (as) it is only by their invitation that you do so, and I’m definitely thankful for getting to be one of the “chosen ones”. The decision to go on the Al-Asr trip was made over a short period of time. I had heard about the trip a lot and I was aware that some of my friends and members of the community were also interested in going. I recall accurately that it was a Tuesday night and I was with my family sitting in the living room. My brother was on his laptop uploading a D’ua on YouTube (*AluQeema shameless plug*) and out of the blue I said “I think I want to go on the Al-Asr trip this year“, there was a moments silence which was eventually broken by my brother who replied “OK, I just signed you up“. So that was basically that, I was officially going. There was a short period where my friends from the community, for various reasons, were starting to think twice and momentarily had changed their minds. But eventually we all signed up and I couldn’t have asked a better group of friends to go on this journey with. This was going to be the greatest summer of our lives.

Having previous knowledge of the trip and its history, I learned quickly that some of the scholars (like Sheikh Hamza Sodagar & Sheikh Usama Abdulghani) would not be joining us on the trip this year because as they were out for tabligh in the west. This did bother me a little bit as I had grown to love these ulema a lot and was hoping to benefit from them over the month. Luckily they were going to be present at Muslim Congress in Dearbron which is only a few hours’ drive away from Toronto. I decided that if I can’t spend a month with them (as well as the number of other great scholars that are present at the conference), a weekend would suffice. This would essentially be the kick-start to my “greatest summer”.

Fast forward a little bit to July 9th and the Toronto group was on their way (a day behind in relation to the Americans and the UK group) via Turkey. We arrived in Tehran late at night, and I got to see the infamous convertible hijabis for the first time as we started to land. The airport was literally like a school during summer break – completely empty, which we had no complains about because we were too tired to wait in large cues at the customs.  Anyways, we made our way out and were greeted by two of the brothers including a friend from Toronto who was there from before for a two month course. We immediately made our way to another domestic airport to make our way to Mashad. Once we arrived, we learned our flight had been delayed, being dead tired that’s the last thing we wanted to hear as we just wanted to get to our final destination and rest on a nice comfortable bed. But Alhamdulillah, experiences like these are made a lot easier when you are with good company. First thing we did was pray Fajr. During the long waiting period, we were all understandably RIDICULOUSLY exhausted but refused to sleep and were in a hilariously hysterical state. It was during this waiting period where we got a taste of the first Iranian dish at the restaurant on the 2nd floor of the airport. Contrary to popular belief, Iranian food does have enough flavor and you don’t need to pack hot sauce or ketchup with you. The flight to Mashad was short, we got our first (but not last) experience on the famous Iran Air, where their motto is “We will get you to your destination, dead or alive…more likely dead” – the ascension and descending of the plane was as if it was trying to set the world record for fastest take-off and landing. It wasn’t all bad though, the food was good I guess.

Arriving in Mashad, it finally hit me that I was back in the Middle East after a long time, the heat was quiet welcoming, we were greeted by brother Ali Zaidi one of our great teachers and mentors on the trip. We all grouped up and got in a bunch of taxis and made our way to the guesthouse, the traffic wasn’t as bad as I thought it would be and the drivers were pretty smooth for the most part. Our driver however got lost and started lecturing us in the car for not having anyone’s phone number even though he was at fault for not paying attention following the 3 other taxis and busy making a stop to make tea. We finally arrived at the guesthouse (lucky us actually, we didn’t have to unload any luggage as it was already dealt with at that point). We met more of the mentors (Br. Amin, Br. Mohsin) as well as Sheikh Amin and another good friend from Toronto who had left a few days earlier than us. Br. Ali Zaidi took us all straight to the dining hall for some food, we were hungry, but way too tired to think about eating, I was so tired I didn’t realize I was eating my rice and kebob upside down and it wasn’t until someone pointed it out to me that I realized the kebob was at the bottom because the box was upside down…clearly I, more than others was more tired. After settling in and meeting the other brothers from U.K and the U.S – as well as one brother from Pakistan – we went straight to the shrine of Imam Ridha (as) for our first official ziyarat. We were all pretty fixed on the thought of what it will feel like and what not and I remember it was as if I was floating across the courtyard, I felt so light and I (and many of the other people) had a complete loss of emotions and were in tears (while the ziyarat was being recited). It was incredible. We made our way inside as It was time for salaat. I remember I was next to Sh. Amin and he told me I looked really tired, and I replied I was but I couldn’t complain anymore because I was finally at the presence of my beloved Imam and the thought of sleep was no longer in my head. After salaat we made our way towards the zareeh. Now I grew up in Saudi Arabia, and have had the honor to do Umrah numerous times, and had some experience with the crazy flows of crowd that try to touch the blackstone; but I must say being in that crowd trying to reach the zareeh was a true jihad.

[Side story: we had uniforms for whenever we were outside the guesthouse, simple white dress shirt and black dress pants, and I had some really bad luck where I ruined 3 of my 4 white shirts the first 2 days and laundry was either done by hand or once in a while. The first one got ruined because I got some blood on me during my first attempt to touch the zareeh, the second was a coke spill and the third was good old oily Desi food stains.]

The schedule for most of our stay in Mashad was jama’at at Fajr, then breakfast and 3 classes in the morning  (aqaid, ahkaam and everyone’s favorite, spouse selection) followed by lunch, then salaat and the haram at night, dinner usually after that haram.

Qadamgah in Nishapur (Footprints of Imam Ridha [as])

One of the days we did have a little road trip and got to go to Nishapour, this is where I finally got to bring out my DSLR for some photography. I was upset because camera’s weren’t allowed in the haram, I knew of this beforehand but after seeing the beauty of the haram I really wish I could’ve captured those moments for the sake of my own memories. Anyways, we got a little history lesson and some group photos taken, it was a good relaxing day overall. We also got to visit the place where they had the footprints of the Imam and the well which was dug by him, and later had dinner at a restaurant in a mountain area. After dinner, we actually climbed up a mountain in search of a waterfall, which turned out to be at a lower area – so while the climb was a waste, it was still fun.

Another one of the days was dedicated to visiting other areas of the haram, including the library which was beautiful. Especially the namaaz room, which again I wish I could’ve captured with my camera, absolutely beautiful and genius design. Other architectural designs and numerical significances were explained to us and were really interesting for me because I enjoy that stuff personally. We also got to see the art museum as well as the carpet museum (which wasn’t as boring as it sounds, and was pretty well air-conditioned so we didn’t rush that part of the tour). Another day was dedicated to visiting the bazaar where we all pretty much bought our rings from. We also got attacked by shoe-polishing kids who were quiet crafty and were quite persistent in trying to make us pay for services we did not ask for, it was pretty funny. That day we prayed in a small open roofed mosque close to the bazaar which was a cool experience as well.

We also got to eat at the dastarkhaan of the Imam on the last Friday that we were in Mashad which was really nice experience as well. During one of the last days, we had the opportunity to meet with Ayatollah Makaram Shirazi who spoke to us and gave us great advice regarding self-building and our duty.

The last night in Mashad was very bitter sweet, I felt I made my best connection with the Imam (as) that night as we got a longer stay and stayed quiet late till around 2 am I believe. Some of the brothers also did matam right outside the haram which was also very nice.

A few of the nights, we had some spare time after dinner and before lights out and got to play some street soccer. I knew from past experience that sports is usually a great way to learn everyone’s names and get to know each other and bond, and that’s exactly how it went. It was fun and we got some of the mentors schooling us as well, especially Sh. Mahdi, I still don’t know how he was destroying us playing on concrete in flip flops with a size 2 ball.

The next part of our journey included a trip to Esfahan. We initially had a 2 night 3 day stay there but because Ramadhan was right around the corner we cut that trip short so that we could keep our fasts from the start (and also be able to visit the Haram of Bibi Massoma on the Thursday night for D’ua Kumail). I couldn’t escape loading the busses this time around, but It really wasn’t as bad as I thought it would be except for a few suitcases of the sisters which all the brothers feared (one yellow one specifically gave us all nightmares). Our Iran Air flight got delayed so we settled down at a side, had some food and a discussion session with Maulana Shirazi (our spouse selection teacher) and Br. Aqib (our aqaid teacher). Finally we boarded and the entire flight was spent in solving each other’s tricky riddles, we also got a great ariel view of the Haram at night all lit up which was also beautiful. We landed safely (Iran Air was good to us this time around) and made our way to the guesthouse.

Esfahan was a really nice experience, we got to visit Chehel Souton (40 columns), the grave of Allamah Majlisi, Naqsh Jahan, and a mosque which we were told was almost a 1000 years old. It certainly looked that way from both the outside and the inside; it was like time travelling, great experience. The funniest thing to me was the overly decorated mannequins; the detail was quiet hilarious, colored hair and facial hair for the guys, eye shadows and crazy amount of makeup on the female mannequins, funny stuff. I really enjoyed just walking in the streets and the bazaar and just taking in the cultural experience. I grew up in the Middle East, but Iran so far was nothing like the rest of the Middle East except for the heat. We had a swimming pool at our guesthouse in Esfahan and got to go swimming as well which was pretty cool.

Now it was time to head towards the holy city of Qom, we were all exhausted and slept through the entire bus ride. We arrived at the guesthouse which was literally a short walk away from Masjid Jamkaran and settled in. The next day we got a little briefing about the city of Qom and who Bibi Masooma was and then made our way to Jamkaran where we got to pray Dhuhr and Asr. That evening we went to the haram and did our ziyarat and were there till Maghrib. After Maghrib we got to experience D’ua Kumail which was recited beautifully by Haaj Mahdi Samavati. For the next 14 days our schedule was re-adjusted due to Ramadhan. Our days started with Dhurain followed by our 3 classes (with Maulana Sawadi now being our aqaid teacher, as well as the Iranian revolution). We also had some Qur’an classes with Br. Asim which we all enjoyed and benefitted from greatly. After classes we usually had time to rest till Maghrib and then we would have iftaar followed by a visit to the haram.

The first Friday we got to also experience D’ua Nudba after Fajr at Masjid Jamkaran which was another incredible experience. During the 14 days, we had a number of days where we would head out and got to learn about the Hawza and Islamic universities visiting their campuses and all that good stuff. We also visited Bayt ul-Noor, Bibi Shatitia’s grave, as well as a warehouse where they were constructing the new zareeh of Imam Hussain (which will replace the current one in the near future).

We enjoyed front row seating during Jum’ah prayers twice and although had trouble staying awake at times, it was another moment I can’t forget. It was the month of

Qur’an Session in Haram of Bibi Masooma Qum

Ramadhan so we also got an opportunity to sit and participate in the Qur’an recitation after Dhuhrain where 4-5 great reciters would rotate and take turns reciting. Maulana Sabzawari also joined us on the trip in Qum, but on the last night – he was with us in Tehran and it was great to have him speak to us as well.

One of the fun activities we had were the late night sports in the indoor gym. Since our schedule was adjusted and our days started later, we used to stay up till Sehri & Fajr playing sports. We usually rotated each night, one night for soccer, and one night for volleyball. We had a lot of fun and not only bonded more with each other as participants but with the mentors as well (Sh. Amin, Br. Salman, and Br. Ali).

Probably the most memorable part for a lot of us was our daily walks & trip to Masjid Jamkaran every Fajr, or as I liked to call it, the Jamkaran Fajr Crew. The mosque was usually fairly empty during Fajr (since the mosque is basically on the out-skirts of town) and we all usually got to sit in the first row of the Jama’at. It was a very spiritual experience for us and many of us used to go a little earlier to pray Namaaz-e-Shab.

Another experience at Jamakaran was Tuesday night, where you couldn’t recognize that it was the same place. During the night of Tawasul, groups of people from all over would come and attend the spiritual gathering; it was a very lively atmosphere.

On one of the nights we got to eat out at a restaurant and enjoy some games at the arcade and also went go-karting. I embarrassed myself pretty bad in the basketball game and go-karting, getting only 8 points in basketball and crashing in the go-kart race, but overall it was really nice and we all enjoyed ourselves.

The last day, we were told not to go to Jamakran for Fajr as we were leaving early and there wouldn’t be enough time. But a few of us insisted and got permission. Interestingly enough, almost everyone decided to make their way for one last time and we took some group pictures after words – Jamkaran Fajr crew stayed true to the last day. We were now on our way to Tehran for a few days – our final destination before heading back home to our countries. The bus ride to Tehran wasn’t too long but we were all completely exhausted at this point of the trip and had no energy to do much. We had someone recite Dua Imam-e-Zamana as well as D’ua Ahad on the bus as our journey began. We kept our fasts, but we had to break it due to travelling. We had a tight schedule for the next 2 days so before we even went to our guesthouse in Tehran, we made our way to the Shah’s palace, where NO one had ANY energy and at every stop a lot of us were found sitting and lying down anywhere to get some rest and some shut-eye. After the Shah’s palace we made our way to Imam Khomeini’s house where we were slightly more awake. I think it was the ice-cream that woke us up. Anyways, we prayed and learned a little bit about Imam Khomeini, his house, the Hussainiya attached to his house and had a guest speaker speaker deliver a short speech. After that, we made our way to the second floor of the Hussainiya and some delicious fast food, SFC cheese burgers and fries…I can still taste it mmmMMM, good stuff!

Following lunch, we made our way downstairs to the gallery where they had some really amazing rare pictures of imam Khomeini and some nice artwork as well which I enjoyed. We finally arrived and settled at the guesthouse, which was actually really cool – a giant dorm like room where everyone was in the same room . It was a really nice way to spend our last couple of days together. The guesthouse was right next to Imam Khomeini’s shrine and was only a short walk and we had time to visit that as well. The next day, we got to go for Jumm’ah at Tehran University and again got some front row seating and met some high profile people.

The last day, I wasn’t feeling too well and wasn’t planning on heading out, but I thank Br. Ali Zaidi for convincing me to come as it turned out to be a very special day. It started with a trip to Behest-e-Zehra.  Learning about the martyrs, visiting and seeing their graves and hearing their stories, looking at the pictures of the revolution – it was all a great learning experience. After Behest-e-Zehra we got to pray in a private Hussainiya and met another high profile figure which was another once-in-a-lifetime experience.

We made our way back to the guesthouse for lunch and I was pretty much done, but there was one last item remaining for the day, and that was going to the famous Milad tower in Tehran. I convinced myself this time that it was the very last thing and it didn’t matter how exhausted I was, I would just suck it up and go spend these last moments with my good brothers and teachers. The view was really nice from the Milad Tower and so was the food at the restaurant.

The trip was now coming to an end, the mood was bitter sweet as we were eager to return home to our families, but sad that we had to leave our Al-Asr family behind and of course sad that we were leaving the presence of the Ahlul Bayt in both Qom and Mashad.