Excerpt from Azadeh Moaveni's "Lipstick
March 3, 2005
Excerpt from Chapter Four of Azadeh Moaveni's "Lipstick
Jihad: A Memoir of Growing Up Iranian in America and American in
Iran" (Public Affairs, 2005). Moaveni grew
up in San Jose, and studied politics at the University
of California, Santa Cruz. She won a
Fulbright fellowship to Egypt, and studied Arabic at the American
University in Cairo. For three years she worked across the Middle
East as a reporter for Time magazine, before joining the
Los Angeles Times to cover the war in Iraq. She lives
Qom, a somber, dusty city 120 km south of Tehran, is the Vatican
of the Islamic theocracy. Most Iranians -- who derisively called
it a "mullah factory"- did not bother to visit, and thought
of it only as the place where sohan, a buttery brittle of pistachios
and saffron, originates. As a child, I thought the name of the
city meant "gham," the Farsi word for gloom, and heard
it discussed as the epicenter of clerical evil, the Death Star
from which the mullahs plotted their takeover of Iran.
When I told Khaleh Farzi I was going there with Scott, the Time magazine correspondent, to talk to dissident clerics who opposed
the Islamic regime, her face pinched with worry. Hamid, she's going
to Qom, she called out to my uncle. What if they steal her? Promise
you'll head back before sunset!
I pulled my inkiest, roomiest roopoosh out of the back of the
closet for ironing, and wondered whether I was sick, looking forward
to a trip that should instill a normal person with dread. I wasn't,
I decided. It was actually a very positive sign. It meant I preferred
the distraction of work (fat clerics and all) to staying home all
day feeling sorry for myself.
No, Qom was an excellent idea. Between the drive, the reporting,
and the filing of notes, it would consume two whole days.
The road from Tehran was flat and dusty, as was the city, which
from the distance appeared like a few bumps in the desert, with
splinters poking out into the sky. If a world beyond existed, there
was little evidence to prove it-no colors, just lots and lots of
On this winter afternoon, Qom seemed very much an antique land,
its streets filled with turbaned clerics of all ethnicities, carrying
religious texts under their arms, as they had for centuries. But
the debates inside those brown walls were current-secularism, democracy,
Shiite militancy and jurisprudence. Unlike most other parts of
the Middle East I had traveled, where hardly anything of note was
debated in public, let alone Islam, in Qom the clerics were busy
fighting about the soul of the religion, and the future of the
We visited one of the city's computer centers, elaborate places
designed by the clerics to prove that Islam's seventh-century ideology
can coexist with modernity. The government loved to promote the
centers, and every foreign journalist who visited Qom was dragged
through one of the fluorescent-lit rooms where turbaned clerics
stared at screens and listlessly clicked away at mice. Scott wanted
to know if Qom's clerics were trying to export Shia revolution
by CD-ROM. The immense cleric who was showing us his archive of
hadith was puzzled by the question and asked me to repeat it.
"So, are you trying to export revolution by doing this?"
For a minute he just looked at me, squinting through the fleshy
folds of his sleepy eyes. He was clearly not used to sitting up
straight. His work, as he might say, taxed the mind, not the body.
My father always said clerics were the laziest species on earth.
But this one in particular, oozing out of his chair like Jabba
the Hut, one slipper hanging off his toe, seemed to prove him right.
The thought of exporting anything at all, let alone revolution,
seemed to tire him. I tried again.
"Er, my colleague here would like to know, if perhaps these
tools could ever be, or do you conceive them as possibly ever being,
helpful in the export
of the Shia Revolution."
"Um, no, they're just for Muslims to study with. So, you
said you live in
"No, he says no exporting going on," I told Scott in
English and turned
to hiss at the cleric, in Farsi: "No, I used to live in Cairo."
"Because I come to Cairo occasionally for conferences. Maybe
I could call you? Do you have a phone number?"
"What's he saying?" demanded Scott, pen poised above
"Oh, the same thing. That these are study tools for the
faithful." The cleric walked us to the door, readjusting the
black turban-which marked him as a direct descendant of the Prophet
Mohammad-along the way. "Did you say you live all alone in
Cairo? No family there or anything?"
I brought my scandalized
account of this encounter to the dinner table that night. My
aunt and uncle both snorted with laughter, as they typically did
I came home and breathlessly pronounced an insight that was,
apparently, a cultural platitude. My father had taught me that
lazy; more specifically, that they were unsuited to run a country
because their work kept them in seminaries, sipping tea in robes,
and that sort of languid profession did not lend itself to the
more challenging task of administering a government. Convinced
their worst sin was sloth, I had not assumed they were equally
lecherous. One really could not have a proper conversation with
a cleric. They were absurd. A one-hour interview with a mullah
inevitably cycled like so:
First fifteen minutes: Gaze averted, stares at own feet, wall,
space, anywhere but two-foot radius around opposing female.
Second fifteen minutes: Slowly casts glances in direction of
head and talking voice.
Third fifteen minutes: Makes eye contact and conducts normal
Last fifteen minutes: Begins making googooly eyes,
smiling in impious fashion, and requesting one's mobile phone
I didn't understand why they did this with me, since they are
supposed to favor round women and fair women, and I was neither.
Some actually complained about this, with mock concern for my health
("Miss Moaveni, have you been ill? You've lost so much weight...
Don't you like Iranian food?"). How they could detect
a body underneath the billowing tent I wore, let alone its fluctuations,
was beyond me. I asked Khaleh Farzi, who explained that clerics
had x-ray vision. That was why they didn't mind keeping women veiled.
It was only over time, after repeated exposure to womanizing
clerics, clerics who stole from the state and built financial empires,
who ordered assassinations like gangsters, who gave Friday sermons
attacking poodles, that I came to understand the virulence of my
father and my uncle's hate for the Iranian clergy. Perhaps their
flaws were no greater than those of ordinary mortals, but ordinary
mortals did not claim divine right to rule, ineptly,over seventy
As the gravity of the Islamic Republic's hypocrisy
revealed itself, I came to the slow, shocking realization that
Iranian society was sick. Not in a facetious, sloganny way, exaggerating
the extent of culture wars and social tensions, but truly sick.
The Iran I had found was spiritually and psychologically wrecked,
and it was appalling.
Jihad: A Memoir of Growing Up Iranian in America and American
in Iran" is available at amazon.com.