Qom, a somber, dusty city 120 km south of Tehran, is the most holy corner of Shia theocracy. It is the place where the forces of the ailing monarchy sealed their demise by roughing up revolutionary clerics, where the Islamic Republic's most feared dissident is kept under house arrest, where in 1994 doves were slaughtered en masse in a misguided drive for urban renewal. Most ordinary Iranians will never bother to visit the nation's center of theological learning. For the secular, it is known derisively as a “mullah factory,” for the pious, as the place where men train to serve as models for the faithful, for the masses, who are neither, it is the place where sohan originates. As a child, I had thought the city was called “qam” (in Persian, gloom); years ago I was corrected, but when I arrived in the city I realized I had not been, in spirit, so wrong.
Beneath the religious banners, and amongst the mosques, the people themselves dramatize the drab city, women swathed in flowing black chadors, men in robes and turbans. The air smells neutral, and loudspeakers play Koranic verses. As the women's veils cling to their hair, the turbans around the men's heads, Islam clings to the senses.
To explore the streets of Qom, a traveler's gaze inevitably becomes that of an anthropologist-sleuth; surely people do not live without color, leisure, distraction? Pleasure must exist somewhere, hidden. Viewed through squinted eyes, Qom resembles German brown bread, brown, mostly flat, with bumps. Like most Iranian provincial towns, it is untouched by evidence that the outside world, or the new millennium for that matter, exists; there are no global brand names, no foreign cars, no foreigners. There are mosques, of course. And many, many seminaries.
The only hint that suggests an outside world are the faces of the seminary students, Ethiopians, Afghans, Chinese, and the odd European who has decided to devote his life to Shia Islam. Qom's current distinction as a seat of Shia religious power was late blooming; the British occupation of the other Shia holy cities of Najaf and Karbala in Iraq during the second world war unintentionally promoted the city. Now it is the lighthouse that signals its authoritative preferences to the capital Tehran.
The Golpayagani madreseh, or seminary, where more tolerant students and theologians gather, is built around a center courtyard with a small fountain. As in classical Iranian architecture, the courtyard forms a public gathering space within the private walls of the structure. Seminarians in blue, brown, and black robes swish about between classes, and the fountain trickled, in the late spring breeze. It would be idyllic, if idyll was permitted. The classrooms that line the second story, looking out over the courtyard, are starkly empty, lined only with Persian rugs, where students take their lessons sitting on the floor.
A guide in flip-flops escorted me up the staircase, until the shocked, imperious stares of the seminarians paused us half way up. Tremblingly, anxiously, I inspected my own long, robe and veil, afraid of an accidentally naked elbow offending pious sensibilities. But I was perfectly covered, perfectly colorless, only my face and hands visible within the folds of black.
An imposing teacher stepped forward, his voice full of approbation, and addressed my feet: “Where are you going dressed like that?” I was ashamed, as though I was wearing lace garters and heels. “You must wear a chador.” As he spoke, I silently assessed my situation: Tehran is a two-hour drive, I have no tent, the seminaries close in one hour, I'm to return to Cairo in three days. When I mentioned all this to him, he replied with a single, final: “No,” as though he was the last line of defense protecting a besieged faith.
My lips parted to plea for exception, but the teacher flung an arm toward the door, demonstrating with his refusal to look at me, to exchange sentences rather than words, that he was in charge, and that I was contemptible. Here, there are rules and tradition. A new generation of clerics might use the Internet and computers to archive their hadith, but in Qom, modernity is sifted through a sieve.
Our stand-off continued, the seminarians around us shifting their weight tensely. From the loudspeakers, the call to prayer filled the staircase, the lofty wail a jarring distraction from the moment's pettiness. Then, just as I despaired of seeing the inner sanctum of a seminary, a bearded student stepped forward, said, “Take this please,” and extended to me his russet robe.
I draped it over my head, pulling the scratchy wool together under my chin, and continued up the staircase, to the audience's relief. He ushered me into a cavernous, sun-lit classroom, and from the Arabic lilt in his Persian, I could tell he was Lebanese. His name was Reza. We sat down, crossed our legs, and established the crude biographies that allowed us to place one another: that I don't pray, that his father was killed in southern Lebanon by Israel's proxy militia. He waved a thin wrist around his head and toward the window, his expression at once perplexed and mournful. “Iran is a very closed society,” he said. “Why has it closed itself off from freedom and hope and security?” Through our short conversation, I discovered a man passionate about Shia Islam, reared in the relative tolerance of multi-sectarian Lebanon, deeply disappointed to discover his spiritual pilgrimage had taken him to a place so isolated, and rigid.
I suggested that perhaps he was looking for vibrancy in the wrong place. That dynamism and grace still existed in Iran, but elsewhere. This particular conversation, in this city, at the initiation of a third-generation cleric, was startling. “Tell me again why you don't pray?” he prodded gently, his manner stripped of moralizing tones. “Did you see what happened to me on the staircase? If that's Islam, harassment, and humiliation, I want nothing to do with it.” Reza stared at his hands.
Looking out the classroom balcony, the roof of the seminary blended into the brown line of Qom's horizon, and for the next hour we talked of orchards, and political turmoil (our national commonalities), until it was time for me to leave.
When I asked him whether he, already a foreigner, would be considered even more alien for having defrocked himself to lend cover to an improperly clad woman, he thought it about it for a moment and said, “If you go home, and for even one second, consider praying, it won't matter.”