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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.
Categories
Atlantic Monthly

¡Hola, Hezbollah!

In the November Atlantic, a short profile of my friend Shaikh Hassan al Burji (pictured here with his very cute kids, Ja’afar and Sara).

Sheikh Hassan al Burji with his kids

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Atlantic Monthly

Security Blanket

Originally appeared in the January/February 2009 Atlantic.

Mullah Masood Akhundzada, guardian of the Shrine of the Blessed Cloak of the Prophet Muhammad, in Kandahar, is wary of guests. When his brother was the guardian, 13 years ago, he accepted an insistent visitor. Today, a youngster with a Kalashnikov shadows Mullah Masood around the shrine, just in case the visitor, Mullah Omar, or any of his friends return.

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Atlantic Monthly

A Question for Islam

Excerpts from Sherry Jones’s The Jewel of Medina do not make it sound like fiction worthy of the novel’s latest defender, Salman Rushdie. Denise Spellberg, an Islamic historian who reviewed the manuscript, called it “soft-core pornography,” and “ugly” porn at that. Consider a first-person passage from Aisha, who, according to some traditions, married Muhammad at age 6 and had sex with him at 9:

This was the beginning of something new, something terrible. Soon I would be lying on my bed beneath him, squashed like a scarab beetle, flailing and sobbing while he slammed himself against me. He would not want to hurt me, but how could he help it? It’s always painful the first time.

Yeesh. But do these sentences sound grotesque because of the author’s prose, or because of her subject?

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Atlantic Monthly

The Family That Protests Together

Something tells me that today, as hundreds weep not two hundred yards from my office, is not the day to say something nice about the most reviled family in America. But when is the day? Every year, the followers of the Reverend Fred Phelps protest hundreds of funerals — mostly the funerals of soldiers — and each set of mourners deserves better that to have anti-gay fanatics waving signs denouncing them as “fags” and “fag-enablers” (a category that apparently captures everyone but the Westboro members themselves). The bereaved Russerts certainly do. I sympathize with the woman who stopped her car and asked a passerby to run over and snatch away the “Russert in Hell” sign. But if we must choose one funeral as an occasion to rectify the public’s ignorance of the Phelpses’ bizarre history, it might even seem fitting that the occasion would be the death of a man recognized as an emblem of truth-seeking and setting records straight.

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Atlantic Monthly

The Muftis of Cascadia

In the UK, during the early days of the fatwa against Salman Rushdie, a similarly buffoonish quasi-governmental body moved to stop the film International Gorillay from being released in Britain. A hit in Pakistan, the movie portrayed Rushdie as a whiskey-soaked Jewish lothario who intended to subvert Islam by running a network of discos and casinos. Rushdie himself intervened to lift the ban, saying the offense was real, but not worth the practical or moral harm done by banning what amounted to just an exceptionally dumb movie — even if it was a movie that encouraged his own murder. British audiences watched the film, and thanks to YouTube, you can too.

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Weekly Standard

The Mennonite and the Mammonite

The Weekly Standard, 04/21/2008, Volume 013, Issue 30

Asunción
Something’s strange about Sunday-morning service at Raíces, the biggest Mennonite church in Paraguay’s capital city. The pastor leads worship in Spanish, not the traditional German. A girl in the congregation wears spaghetti straps and has a dragon tattoo on her shoulder. Those electric guitars don’t seem very traditional, either. Why are two guys in the back pew packing heat?

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Atlantic Monthly

Great Schism

In Washington, this is a week of two Christian passages: Pope Benedict XVI’s celebration of his 81st birthday, and the burial of Bishop S. C. Madison, leader of TUHOPFAP for seventeen years. One of the largest and most powerful of the “black holiness churches,” TUHOPFAP is known for its street brass bands, cheap and delicious soul food, and mass outdoor baptisms, which involve fire-hoses and huge tanks of water imported from the River Jordan. This morning, members packed TUHOPFAP’s D.C. church, known as “God’s White House,” to bury Bishop Madison and mourn his passing. Many of the women wore white — a sign, perhaps, of the celebratory mood that the church seems incapable of casting off, even at the somber farewell to its beloved leader. In the cafeteria, Saint’s Paradise (“Where our Main Ingredient is Love”), no one cried into his grits, and the church’s signature brass piped its music, major-key, in over the intercom. But a question remains: Who will lead the Church next?