Atlantic Monthly

Iran’s Nuclear Heart

Thirty Ramadans after V.S. Naipaul’s visit to Qom, I visited for the Atlantic, in search of the part of Iran not gripped yet by democratic fervor.   A truncated version of this piece appears here.

Tehran is on the edge of the mountains, and Qom is on a plain.   For a persecuted revolutionary movement, the distinction matters, because in Iran, as in most places, the mountains are where you go to hide, and to do what you can’t do openly.  This fall, after a summer of violent protests in Tehran that rattled the government and convinced it to send out hardline loyalists to club the protesters into submission, the opposition took to the hills that ring the anti-government suburbs of north Tehran.  Instead of painting its messages on buildings, it painted them on rocks.  Around Darband — the neighborhood where for years the northern Tehranis have fled to throw off their veils, eat co-ed picnics, and perhaps drain a thermos of whiskey — the protesters have sprayed furtive graffiti on small rocks. “Mir Hussein Mousavi,” says one, with a V for victory.  Another more direct one pledges “Death to Khamenei,” Iran’s head ayatollah.  Six months ago, cell-phone photos captured scenes of actual heated protest, and today those protesters trade images of these rocks, signs of a revolution gone dormant.
The Iranian government prefers to call it a counterrevolution. This fall, I traveled from the mountains of north Tehran to the plain of Qom, Iran’s most religious city, just a hundred miles away, where the original revolution — the Islamic revolution that brought the Ayatollah Khomeini to power in 1979 — remains robust and popular.  Qom is open and proud in its orientation, and it has no secrets, or hiding places, save one big one. That week, during my visit, Iran revealed that it was hollowing out one of the mountains near Qom (there are a few) for a uranium enrichment facility.
That facility, and its utterly predictable location in the heart of pro-Ahmadinejad country, are signs of dispiriting times. In Qom (and, indeed, in most of Tehran), Iran’s democrats is exposed for their own impotence: they scribble on rocks in the hills north of Tehran, while the defenders of the ayatollahs stride proudly and powerfully through the corridors of power.  A visit to Qom proves the strength of the revolution, and the mindset of the substantial subset of Iranians that powers it.
I told a Tehrani innkeeper, a supporter of Ahmedinejad, that I would visit Qom, and he said I would meet Iran’s common people, men and women with a clear-eyed view of the Islamic revolution.  “Iran had its chance to choose thirty years ago,” he said.  “And ninety-five percent wanted an Islamic government.”  Now, he said, the mobs of Tehran wanted to reverse a fact of history.  The Islamic Republic was thirty years old. How easy is it to pull up a tree from the soil, he asked, once its roots have grown thirty years deep?  And yet Mousavi’s supporters expected to rip the Iran from clerical foundations no less firmly rooted.  The effort was not only misguided but juvenile, ignorant of the entrenched reality of the current government.
If I went to Qom I would see something different and timeless.  Till the nuclear disclosure, the province’s most prominent location was the Shrine of Fatima al-Masumeh — which was never really a political site.  It is a site of religion and of architecture.  The Shrine, a large complex in Qom’s center, is tiled in blue and green, with mirrored tessellations that make it sparkle in the night. Inside, a metal cage holds the body of the sister of one of the twelve revered imams of Shiite Islam, and on all sides Shia converge to venerate her corpse and to pay homage, in their view, to something considerably more important than Mir Hussein Mousavi, the latest in a string of worldly fads.
Also shining brightly in the night, right at the Shrine’s entrance, is a large blue backlit sign, about the size of a truly boss home theater system, with fourteen lines of tightly printed Arabic facing visitors.  Pilgrims must say the lines before entering the Shrine, even if — like most Iranians — they speak very little Arabic.  When I approached the Shrine, about a dozen people were standing in front of it, each murmuring the text, a long and repetitive series of blessings upon Muhammad, his prophetic predecessors, and his descendants.  I stood next to a well-dressed Iranian man, and we murmured separately but at the same pace. I fumbled the words, but he and the rest of the crowd intoned each syllable just right, with the precision of diamond-cutters.
In the protests following this summer’s election, Tehran became the black hole at the center of the Twitterverse: no one could be sure what was happening on the streets, but stray messages and videos escaped here and there, and amounted darkly to rumors of revolution. Qom responded somewhat differently.  Its Masumeh Shrine and Feyzieh madrassah — the most distinguished center of Shiite learning in the world — has attracted to it a population pleased with clerical rule, and with a nuclear arsenal to guarantee its potency and survival.  As long as mullahs rule the country, Feyzieh madrassah is Iran’s incubator for the power, its Sciences-Po and its Kennedy School as well as its Vatican. A uranium enrichment facility could not find a happier home.
It is near Tehran, but not of it.  The summer of discontent was most violent in the north of Tehran, and at the relatively secular Tehran University. But as one goes south in the city, the Mousavi tide recedes, and ground firms up in support of Ahmadinejad. The edge of Tehran gives way to desert, and about a hundred miles south is ultraconservative Qom.  Few people speak English in Qom. This was the Iran that this summer remained not only un-Twittered but without any desire to Twitter, that was content with things as they were already, and perhaps as they were quite a long time before that, too.  In my week there I met no signs of disloyalty to the government, except for a single sign on a door near the city’s center.  It was a campaign bumper sticker with a picture of Ahmadinejad below the slogan “Man of the People.” Someone had attacked Ahmadinejad’s face with a knife, and scraped out his eyeballs and cheeks.
Because Qom is a pilgrimage site, it attracts visitors from all corners of the Islamic world, and anyone with even a passing knowledge of ritual is welcomed. (No one else wants to visit anyway. If there were other non-Shia in the city that week, they were well hidden.)  In the right, or maybe wrong, light I can look vaguely Afghan, so the assumption of many fellow pilgrims was that I had come from central Afghanistan to visit Masumeh.
Before standing in front of the sign and chanting, I walked around the Shrine.  It is not large  — no bigger than a soccer field — but since everything in the town focuses on that sacred pitch, its importance makes it seem bigger. A large smooth-paved square lies to the east, and on its edge merchants sell chadors and sohan, a sweet pistachio brittle that seems to be the only thing that comes from Qom that every Iranian likes.  On that square, through a modest doorway a short walk from a Shrine entrance, is Feyzieh.  Through the day you can sit by the square’s fountain and watch robed mullahs come and go into Feyzieh.  In any other place these men’s bearing and dress would make them grave and forbidding figures, but here there are so many mullahs walking through the square, doing so many mundane activities (texting, scolding their children, eating candy) that the effect is to make them no more regal than anyone else.
But Qom is their city, and a visitor eventually notices that here Iran’s religious authorities are at their most confident and its people at their most observant. (But not as observant as they once were: when V. S. Naipaul visited Qom for this magazine in 1981, he visited, as I did, during Ramadan, and said anyone who snacked during the daytime fasting hours was whipped.  This year a pizzeria operated directly across from the Shrine.) The Revolutionary Guards, the uniformed element that executes the will of the mullahs, are uncharacteristically blunt about their suspicion of foreign non-Muslim visitors.  Outside Qom they rarely harassed me, and in the old US embassy in Tehran they even invited me for tea and a tour.  Here they relished their power and wielded it cruelly, issuing commands and interrogating me on street corners.
At Feyzieh, I spent a few hours in a quad sneaking photos of clerics, talking with students, and visiting the tiny room where Khomeini taught for 37 years.  When I left, a soldier noticed my camera (a hot-pink Polaroid i733, perhaps not the best tool of spycraft) and demanded to see every photo I had taken. My camera then had on it images of protests in Tehran. While I feigned confusion and smiled dumbly, I slipped out the memory card and eventually handed him a camera with no photos of Feyzieh or protests at all, just a small cache of innocent photos on its local memory — a few of monuments and street scenes in Tehran, and one of me playing air guitar in my hotel room. Only the soldier’s embarrassment for me at seeing the air guitar photo, and the intervention of a student I had befriended the day before, convinced him to release me.  Hours later, at the small house where Khomeini lived, another Revolutionary Guard first tried to take my camera, and then demanded money in memory of the Ayatollah.  He had let me into the house, a private building, so I gave him a hundred tomans, enough for a cup of tea.  He said sabz, sabz, “green, green” meaning that the Ayatollah’s memory accepted only US dollars cash.
But it would be false to pretend the city is pitilessly militaristic, or even unsentimental. The pilgrims who surrounded the Shrine, and who took such pains to enunciate every Prophet’s name just right, brought little else but sentiment, and brought it from far away. To the north of the Shrine is a long canal like one sees in Los Angeles, and its edges were strewn with identical, round, primary-colored tents — the abodes of poor pilgrims who camped out near the Shrine on the pavement, like Star Wars or Stones fans. Because the Koran exempts travelers from the Ramadan fast, they could huddle on picnic blankets around camping stoves and bowls of stew, at once observant and well-fed. Between snacks they entered the Shrine for prayers, and they trekked out to Qom’s other great mosque, Jamkaran, to deposit slips of paper into a sort of mystical Shiite wishing-well that legend said was enchanted a thousand years ago by the Mahdi — God’s representative on earth — himself.
Many of the pilgrims came from Iraq. The lingua franca in the area has, in fact, very nearly become Arabic. My hotel, the Arya, was a hive of Arab pilgrims, and in the back streets I ate fine Iraqi kebabs served by Abu Ahmad, who displays a poster of the late Iraqi ayatollah Muhammad Sadiq al-Sadr. (Saddam Hussein had him machine-gunned to death outside a Najaf mosque in 1999.) The Arabs may just be the most gregarious pilgrims, but in a day I had a Bahraini, a Saudi, and three Iraqis sit with me outside the Shrine to chat, and only two Iranians — one a garrulous Tehrani engineer who had flunked out of a Surrey technical college forty years ago, and worked for two years at a chicken-and-chips shop in Brighton, and wanted to practice his English. When another man, a slightly crazy-looking man with a large white beard and green cap, came by and started saying English words too, the engineer hissed that the bearded man must have “worked with the Americans” and turned his back on him.
Those nostalgic for the Shah see a bitter irony in the Arabization of this seat of power. Their anti-Arab racism is severe. Five years ago I visited a bookseller in Tehran who kept a forlorn, dirty shop with almost no English-language acquisitions since the Islamic revolution kicked out all the foreign engineers, businessmen, and military advisers in 1979. As a result its books are obsolete technical manuals, instructional texts, as well as romance novels from forty years ago. He complained to me that “we have an Arab government,” by which he meant not only one slavishly devoted to the Koran but one whose government, like most Arab states, barely disguises the fact that it is a dictatorship. (Unlike the Shah, presumably, who did not hide his autocratic impulses at all.) “The Arabs know only how to sleep, eat, and…” here he struggled for the English word and eventually just put his hands on his hips and thrusted his pelvis repeatedly toward The Handbook of Metallurgy.
This hatred of Arabs and mullahs was something many Iranians from larger, more secular cities echoed.  When referring to mullahs, Iranians point their index finger straight down over their heads and make a spiral — a gesture meant to recall the clerical turbans (black for descendants of Muhammad, white for everyone else) but which to Western eyes looks like the “he’s crazy” gesture, offset by ninety degrees.  This resemblance may be intentional.  The Iranians in Tehran and Isfahan suppressed titters when I told them my itinerary included several days among the mullahs.  It was as if a Pakistani came to the United States and announced that he would spend most of his trip in Salt Lake City and Tulsa, to pass meaningful days at the Tabernacle and at Oral Roberts University.  Some Iranians were less amused, and even bitter.  “Why don’t you get a mutah while you’re there,” scoffed one man in Kerman, referring to the so-called Shiite practice of “temporary marriage” that most Iranians, but not the most conservative clerics, view as little better than a contrived excuse to whore around.
The streets of Qom are not pretty or tidy, but the Shrine is kept in the most immaculate and fragrant condition, considering that its daily traffic must rival that of a moderately busy railway station. The body of Masumeh lies in a cubic cage near the complex’s center, and when pilgrims have ritually cleansed and incanted, they come inside and circle the cage counterclockwise, reaching over each other to feel its metal lattice and lunging forward to let their lips linger on the Arabic lettering at its corners. This holy mosh pit sucked me in toward the Masumeh soon after I entered, and just as fast, after I grazed the cube’s corner with my hand, spewed me out into the open prayer area of the Shrine.
That area, by contrast, was unusually tranquil, and filled with pilgrims of all ages, from Iraq and from all parts of Iran.  Here they enjoyed what to me has always been the most credibly godly trait of mosques, namely the welcome they extend to families, children, readers, nappers, and even just people in quiet conversation. Men alone prayed, read Koran, and prayed again.  (Every twenty yards, a bin held the clay disks of soil from Karbala, called turba, that Shia place before them when praying. The forehead taps against it when they prostrate themselves.) Kids played tag, and the Shrine’s employees — men in dark jackets who waved rainbow-colored feather-dusters as signs of authority — enforced discipline only at evening prayer, when they shooed the women to their side of the mosque and told the kids to quiet down.
The pilgrims seemed motivated as much as anything not by passion for Ahmadinejad — I never heard anyone say his name, though the “Leader” Ali Khamenei was mentioned repeatedly over the outdoor loudspeaker — but by a total denial of politics, and a preference for its replacement with something else much simpler.  In Tehran the previous week, I heard much bruiting about protests, violence, provocation. One Turk whispered to me his friends in Tabriz were on Mousavi’s payroll, and were coming to stir trouble in democracy’s name at a government protest. Here I felt the opposite of these idealistic flurries, and instead the happy docility of a one-party state.
It was mostly happy, anyway.  After evening prayers, as the Shrine disgorged its pilgrims, my friend from Surrey found me in the crowd. The afternoon’s reminiscence had clearly jarred him.  The chip shop where he worked in Brighton was no paradise, but he seemed to have surprised himself with a wave of nostalgia. Suddenly he rattled off a list of other places he had visited in those earlier years and desperately wanted to see again — Hamburg, Paris, Vienna, Geneva, all cities now extremely difficult for him to visit, because of restrictions by his own government and others.  “I would like to go back. They cannot keep us here,” he said, putting his hand on his face to mimic the government’s hand pushing him to the ground.  “We are not animals.  This must stop.”
This last part he said loudly, confident that no one around spoke English who would not also agree.

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