A Man Named Rasool

A Man Named Rasool<?xml:namespace prefix = o ns = "urn:schemas-microsoft-com:office:office" />
"Dignity does not consist in having honors but in deserving them."
            I recently traveled to <?xml:namespace prefix = st1 ns = "urn:schemas-microsoft-com:office:smarttags" />Iran on a mountain climbing expedition, and was instantly struck by the similarities between the Iranian people living in this isolated, often desolate country in the East, and our own people, living in the Western hubbub of ease and luxury.  Call me naïve, but I learned again the truth of the old platitude, people are just people, wherever you go.
            Iran, of course, is under rigid Islamic Sharia law.  Women are not permitted to be seen without head coverings and fully clothed from head to foot, even at the beach.  Thieves may have their hands amputated.  Prayer is required, and daily prayer times are prominently announced on the front page of the newspaper. 
            Yet, for all that, I found Iranians, like many Americans, surprisingly uninterested in religion.  Most Iranians we met did not bother with mandatory prayers.  They were remarkably secular, and the government did not seem to care. 
            Outside the bustling, overcrowded metropolis of Tehran, the pace of the local Iranians was understandably slower, but the lack of religious practices was no less noticeable.  At roadside stands, elderly men roasted chicken on open pits.  Children played alongside modest homes on dirt roads.  And outside the occasional tiny convenience stores, bored young men sat and watched the sporadic passing of traffic.  Other than the head coverings on the women, these scenes could have been out of almost any town in rural America.
            Several hours north of Tehran, toward the coast of the Caspian Sea, lies a little town called Roodbarak.  Located in the foothills of the great Alborz mountain range, it is home to many mountaineers, and serves as a departure point for expeditions.  It was there we first met Rasool.  A quiet man of modest height, Rasool was in his mid-50's.  His weathered face showed the strength of soul and spirit gained by years of not just enduring, but overcoming what life brought his way.  He was to be our mountain guide.
            Rasool spoke Farsi; we spoke English.  But for our helpful tour guide, Mohsen, our interview with Rasool would have been very brief and immensely awkward.  His beautiful home, overlooking the dense foliage of this well-watered region, was large and obviously expensive.  Yet in typical Iranian fashion, it was completely lacking in furniture.  Our discussions were conducted while seated on plush Persian carpets in the middle of Rasool's living room.
            Rasool's credentials were impressive.  He had been leading mountain climbing expeditions for decades, not only into his beloved Iranian mountains, but also into Turkey and all indeed over the world.  He had scaled the 29,000 foot Mt. Everest not once, but twice.  He had also survived what has been called the darkest, deadliest peak on earth, K2, in the Himalayas.
            There is a world of difference between the cold sterility of a man's résumé, on paper, and who he really is, in the warmth of flesh and blood.  In person, Rasool was even more impressive than his qualifications.  His calm assurance and gentle eyes exuded the confidence of a man who knew his business.  I liked him immediately.  And perhaps more importantly, I felt complete confidence in his ability to guide us safely through the mountains.

            The Climb
            The next day we began our climb.  We hiked from Roodbarak, at about 6500 feet elevation, to our base camp at almost 12,000 feet.  It was unseasonably warm, which made our hike even more difficult, since we were already climbing over one mile in elevation.  As we slowly made our way up, I would occasionally glance to the front of our team, where Rasool almost skipped along, hands clasped behind his back as if out for an evening stroll.  He never even seemed to break a sweat. 
            At the base camp, a cement block structure erected by the Iranian Climbing Federation, we set up camp, stretched, and tried to catch our breath.  Rasool immediately began cooking and preparing our dinner, barely pausing after the long hike for a drink of water.
            A few Iranian mountaineers also stayed at the camp.  Almost without exception, they all knew Rasool.  He was a local legend.  Everyone wanted a word, a pat on the back, or at least a look at the ubiquitous smile of encouragement Rasool offered.  The respect this man had earned from his peers transcended any language barrier.
            The next day, we set out to climb Takht-e-Soleiman, "Solomon's Bed."  At 15,300 feet, it was higher than any mountain in the U.S.  Our sore legs and aching joints, coupled with severe inclines and the lack of any real trail, slowed us even further than the previous day.  But up ahead, energetic and undaunted as ever, Rasool glided along.  After a couple of hours of grueling hiking, two of our team decided to turn off and explore the lower regions of the mountain.  Mike Morrison, an experienced climber since his childhood in the Colorado Rockies, and I stayed with Rasool. 
            Step by painful step, dodging the occasional rock slide and pausing more and more frequently for air, we slowly made our way to the peak.  Along the way, Rasool stopped to call to a group of Iranian climbers who had taken a wrong path.  With Rasool guiding them from afar, the men carefully made their way back across a particularly treacherous stretch of loose boulders, although not without an occasional scare as their missteps caused more than a few dangerous rock slides, nearly crushing their unfortunate companions below.
            At the summit, we high-fived two Iranian teams that had successfully scaled the heights, paused for photos and a quick lunch of tuna fish on Iranian flatbread, and headed down.  Rasool, misunderstanding our attempts to ask him for an easier path down, led us instead by a quicker, and hence even steeper and more difficult, path back to the base camp.
            So down we went, trying desperately to keep up with Rasool.  The periodic patches of snow were melting, even at this altitude, making for difficult footing.  Peering down the mountain, I saw it was a straight drop almost as far as the eye could see, alternating between snow and loose boulders for hundreds of feet. 
            We therefore tried to be extra careful, especially considering how tired we were.  But early on, Mike lost his footing and began sliding and rolling down the hill.  Providentially, he was last in line, above Rasool and I.  Try as I might, though, I could not stop him.  But trusty Rasool proved not only sure footed, but sure handed as well, and managed to push Mike into the snow and stop his descent.  I shudder to think what may have resulted had Rasool not acted so quickly.
            As we continued our trek, Mike fell again.  But this time he was prepared.  He had taken out his ice axe, with which, together with his trekking pole, he was able to keep from rolling out of control despite his fall.  As we continued down the steep descent, it was painful to watch as Mike fell repeatedly, struggling each time to right himself and pick himself up from the heavy snow.  But he was persistent and apparently tireless, as he continued on without complaint. 
            Thankfully, I fell only once, on loose rock, and managed to roll back to my feet after a single revolution, no worse for the wear other than a bruised shin and a skinned knee.  Rasool, who must be part mountain goat, never fell or even appeared to lose his balance. 
            When we finally reached the camp, Mike and I could barely move.  Our legs were stiff, our whole bodies ached, and all our strength seemed to have been left up the mountain.  But not Rasool -- he was spry as ever, bouncing back and forth with dinner preparations, stout Iranian tea, and anything else we needed.  His stamina was limitless. 
            In the days since returning from Iran, as I pondered our adventure, I have thought often of Rasool, and his remarkable influence on all those lives he has touched.  Like the granite rock of the mountain, Rasool provided steadfast assurance, hope and encouragement.  The Iranians felt it, from the young teens to the graybeards among them.  And we sensed and experienced it as well, despite the depths of our differences in culture, language and even religion. 
            Rasool's quiet example challenges us.  Do we live our lives in such a way as to provide a role model and positive influence for others?  Do we take full advantage of the opportunities we are given to interact with diverse individuals from different backgrounds, to encourage them and point them in the right direction?  In short, do we, like Rasool, live in a way so as to be deserving of honor, whether or not we publicly receive it?
Steve Crampton serves as Chief Counsel of the American Family Association Center for Law & Policy (CLP), a public interest-type law firm. The CLP=s web site is www.afa.net/clp. Mr. Crampton=s daily radio show, AWe Hold These Truths,@ can be heard on almost 200 radio stations nationwide.  He can be reached at clp@afa.net.

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