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The 2 Lives of a Newly Minted Cleric

By Elaine Sciolino
The New York Times
October 6, 2000

TEHRAN - The black cloak was draped over his shoulders, nearly covering his neatly pressed long gray robe. The white turban carried on a gladiola-covered tray was placed on his head. Grand Ayatollah Nasser Makarem-Shirazi, one of the most senior religious leaders in Iran, expressed confidence that the new cleric would carry on the work of his father, a beloved senior ayatollah from Shiraz who had died a few days before. The crowd of several thousand cheered, "Praise be to God!" over and over.

The "bestowing of the turban," as the crowning ceremony is called, was over in five minutes.

Amir Mahallati has been a diplomat, a visiting professor at Princeton, Yale and Columbia, a scholar in residence at policy institutes in Washington and a self-appointed pitchman for promoting understanding between Iran and the United States.

As Iran's ambassador to the United Nations in the late 1980's, he was recalled home after he promoted an early end to the Iran-Iraq war. A self-taught expert on medieval Persian poets, he can effortlessly recite their mystical love poetry.

Now suddenly, at 48, without any formal religious training or scholarly writings to his name, Mr. Mahallati has been transformed into a cleric. And not a low-level cleric, either. He has been made a hojatolislam, the same rank as Iran's president, Mohammad Khatami, and just one level below ayatollah.

"To go from being a layman to a cleric overnight!" Mr. Mahallati exclaimed over dinner at a private home in Tehran one evening. "Well, I've never been one to be cautious."

The vocation is usually passed down within a clerical or deeply religious family. For 300 years the Mahallatis have been clerics. Mr. Mahallati's grandfather was a learned ayatollah who taught Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the father of Iran's Islamic revolution of 1979.

But the clerical profession in Iran is also surprisingly informal and democratic. No central authority grants theological students the right to don, or doff, clerical garb. There are no fixed rules or requirements for becoming an ayatollah or a hojatolislam. Still, making a man with no formal religious training a cleric overnight is unusual.

And it was done in part for a very temporal reason.

Even though the Islamic Republic confiscated vast swaths of property and countless businesses and homes from private owners at the beginning of the revolution, there is a strong tradition favoring private ownership. Powerful clerics often control profitable "endowments," charitable enterprises that help feed the poor.

Ayatollah Majdeddin Mahallati, Mr. Mahallati's father, built a seminary, a hospital, a mosque and free housing units for families that had lost their breadwinners, and founded a charity to provide social security payments to the poor. He willed his endowments to Amir, his eldest son.

That son said the primary reason he had become a cleric was "to fulfill a father's dying wish and to continue the charitable works of the family." But he acknowledged that if he had not moved to Shiraz and donned a turban and cloak, the endowments would have reverted to the Islamic Republic.

"If I hadn't taken over," he said, "the state would have stepped in. My father created these endowments, and so he had the right to say who should succeed him. And he chose me." He added that the endowments were deeply in debt.

So Mr. Mahallati came up with a comfortable compromise. For part of the year he would wear his clerical turban and robes and study, preach and advise the faithful in Shiraz, all the while running his father's enterprises. The other part of the year, he would dress in civilian garb. He would lecture, travel and promote Iranian and Islamic culture from his headquarters in a modern townhouse where he lives alone in suburban Maryland.

The arrangement allows him to maintain his legal resident status in the United States.

In Shiraz he has moved into his parents' house, where he lives with his mother, and keeps in touch with his American friends by mobile phone and e-mail. He studies Arabic and jurisprudence for three hours every day, and for several hours after that he receives visitors. He goes at noon to lead prayers at his grandfather's mosque; in the evening, at his father's mosque.

Mr. Mahallati admits that he is feeling his way in his new role. Shortly after he was made a cleric, he was visited by more than 100 people from Shiraz who told him that his father had traditionally given them a good lecture and a good meal. So the son arranged for a lavish dinner. He gave a long talk on an unusual subject, filmmaking.

"I told them that they had no excuse for denying their sons and daughters a world in the arts, and if they came to you and said they wanted to be actors or directors, you tell them to go wholeheartedly into these fields," he said. "I told them that preaching day and night to people does not work. You have to use the language of art and popular culture.

"And then I said to myself, `Oh, my God, here are the heads of the most conservative families in Shiraz, and I'm promoting movies.' My language isn't clerical language."

Mr. Mahallati studied economics at the National University in Tehran, civil engineering at the University of Kansas, political economy at the University of Oregon and international relations at Columbia University. So when people come and ask him complicated questions about Islamic jurisprudence or alms-giving or how they should properly wash themselves, Mr. Mahallati admits that he often does not know what to say.

"Sometimes I say to myself, `O.K., let me just use common sense.' Other times I say: `I have to study the matter. Please come back tomorrow.' So far I haven't blown it."

There are other adjustments. When he was a diplomat, he was under strict instructions not to shake the hand of any woman who was not a close family member. A hand over the heart and a bow had to suffice. In private life in the United States, he has let common sense prevail. But now he will revert to the hand over the heart and the bow.

Even wearing the clerical robes took some adjustment. "You cannot walk fast in this clerical costume," he said. "It doesn't look good. The robe starts flapping in the air."

He still has to learn how to wrap a turban. For the moment, a friend wraps six of them at a time in advance, so he always has one ready to pop on. He is sometimes told that his neatly clipped beard is too short and his hair too long.

And he already senses that his once anonymous life has evaporated. One afternoon in Shiraz, when he sneaked out to an Internet cafe in his civilian garb, he was spotted by one of his father's followers, who called him by his religious title and told him how nice it was to see him.

"My cover was blown," Mr. Mahallati said. "The weight of the cloak can sometimes be very heavy."


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