Between 2002 and 2008 I went on ziarat to Iran four times. Then the kids took over and also work meant it was easier to visit Iraq, Syria and Saudi. So this year's ziarat to Iran was after a gap of about 10 years.
Everything seems to have changed for the better, mashallah. The shrines are all bigger and more capable of dealing with larger numbers of visitors and that's good. in the Imam Raza (a.s.) shrine complex one of the courtyards has been completely covered over and seems to have a continuous programme of talks, which are interrupted by congregational prayers followed by duas etc. There are also massive video screens in the Razavi courtyard relaying these talks.
But the biggest change is...Qom. From 2008 I remember it as a sleepy little town.
It seems to have become a city in the past few years. And there is a massive railway/metro system under construction. We were also amazed by the water fountains in underpasses, never seen that anywhere else before.
The pedestrianised courtyards outside the shrine are now massive. My favourite 'International Hotel' seems to have become more commercial. And perhaps it was the time of year, but I could find no room this time, whereas previously it used to be mainly empty, whenever I visited.
Inflation also seems to have had an effect. In the past £1 was worth 10,000 rials, now it's about 50,000. Maybe its age or laziness, but I really did not have the inclination to do the sums. So I would simply give storekeepers an array of notes and get them to pick whatever they wanted. An absolutely genius idea if you ask me. As I see it a taxi fare from Tehran is more likely to be £20, rather than £2 or £200. So as long as they weren't overcharging me by a factor of 10, we were good. We ate everywhere and everything. I told the family I wanted no complaints for the next several months about the fact we don't eat out in London (it's expensive).
The increase in hotels in Mashhad has meant that the Attrak hotel people have had to up their game - Grohe bathroom fittings!
This was also the first time with the kids, so a matter of passing onto them, thoughts about getting the most out of everything. I did try and stress the value of sticking to the etiquette of ziarat in order to get the most out of it and that's there's a significant level of value of being in the right frame of mind.
I reminded the 13-year-old about the therapeutic value of having a conversation with Imam Reza (a.s.) as the Iranian ladies do. She's not hugely brilliant about communicating her feelings to us. Particularly relevant since there was a suspected case of suicide in her school last year.
In terms of prep I told her to look at my blog iranziarat.com . She had tons of observations about areas for improvement. I told her that the site was her inheritance from me, so she'd better get ready to sort those out herself.