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 in Beirut.
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 mosques.
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 Islamic Republic.
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 Cairo?”
“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 his notebook.
“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 when I came home and breathlessly pronounced an insight that was, apparently, a cultural platitude. My father had taught me that clerics were 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 conversation.
Last fifteen minutes: Begins making googooly eyes, smiling in impious fashion, and requesting one's mobile phone number.
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 million people.
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.