In Holy City Of Qom, Twenty-Four Hours With Iran's Mullahs

The shrine of Fatima al-Masumeh in Qom
The shrine of Fatima al-Masumeh in Qom
Marc Bertinelli

QOM - “What are you going to do there?” asks an Iranian youth I meet in Tehran. “For us, that’s not even Iran.”

My destination is Qom, 120 kilometers south of the capital.

On this day, at the end of March 2013 (year 1392 according to the Persian calendar), it is snowing. I arrive at the shrine of Fatima al-Masumeh – sister of one of the Twelve Imams, considered by Shiites as the spiritual and political successors to the prophet Muhammad – where 10 to 15 million pilgrims come each year.

11.30 a.m.
I take my shoes off at the gate of the foreign pilgrims reception desk, from which I am told to enter. A mullah with a cup of tea and a white turban – black ones are for the descendants of prophet Muhammad – starts talking in a refined English. He is in charge of welcoming foreign travelers and inquires emphatically about my life. I tell him about my communication studies, but I do not mention my work as a journalist for Le Monde Académie, which could get me into trouble with the police. Since June 2009 Iranian authorities hardly deliver visas to foreign journalists any more.

He goes on to other subjects, gets confused while translating an extract from the Koran and ends up asking for advice on English grammar. The call to prayer cuts him off. One of his assistants takes over. Calmly, the assistant tells me about his hatred for the Israeli government and his skepticism regarding the Holocaust. When the mullah comes back, he curtly ends the conversation: “We’re all brothers.”

12.30 p.m.
Pleased with my interest in his religion, the mullah decides to invite me to have lunch with him at the shrine’s cafeteria. Vali Gheibi, who will soon turn 50, is a mid-ranking cleric in the Shiite hierarchy. He is married to a woman whose dowry cost him one golden coin, about $400 – an acceptable price given the circumstances – who has given him three children.

He joined the clergy more than 30 years ago, when he was 14. He was tormented by many existential questions and decided to follow in the footsteps of a religious man who had given him “convincing answers.” He remembers that at the beginning, his relatives thought he was crazy.

During the 1980s he fought against the Iraqi invader for about a year, shot some rockets and lost many friends: “No, it is not sad," he corrects me. "Islam says that martyrs go to paradise.” It is now time for his English lesson at the other end of the city. He allows me to join him, so I get into his car.

Most Iranian drivers snake in and out the dense and chaotic traffic, but mullah Vali Gheibi refuses to switch into third gear. The motor cries in pain. Avoiding the cars parked on the street is a dangerous exercise. The bismillah (“In the name of God”) he whispers every time he swerves does not reassure me.

Vali Gheibi becomes less formal as time passes. He talks a lot and makes me listen to podcasts of a Californian English teacher he downloaded from the Internet. He wants me to learn how to hum the lyrics of la illah il’Allah (“there is no other god than God”).

2 p.m.
In the International Center of Islamic Studies of Qom, everybody is wearing socks for the lesson, and drinking tea. The lesson is on the impact of American culture on Islam. The teacher, Muhammad Kevin (he changed his name), is a slender 30-year old British man who converted to Islam eight years ago. With his tiny glasses and cropped beard, he rants against the fact that American Muslims dance too much.

“They even dance in mosques,” a student adds.

But the teacher replies: “I don’t think they have sunk that low.”

The text they are studying criticizes “the pressure of the dominant paradigm that is the melting pot” – a Western system that forces believers to deny part of their religious identity. The discussion then turns to whether or not Muslim men are allowed to beat their wives. Some students argue that Muhammad would have tried to limit this behavior. The teacher throws me a worried look and curbs the conversation: “It is very bad publicity to talk about this in the presence of our guest.”

Vali Gheibi, who is the eldest of the ten students, dozes through the lesson and then hands a small piece of paper to one of his classmates – who laughs out loud. Later on, he proudly tells me that he owns more than 30 joke books. The Prophet Muhammad says it is important to bring joy to those around you “I have jokes about dentists, teachers, and many other jobs…”

6 p.m.
The English teacher has to leave to participate in a discussion on Iranian television. I accompany him. The program is about the integration of Muslims in Europe. They want me to come back in the next couple of days to discuss the French situation. Because I am leaving the next day, I have an excuse to say no.

Once he has finished, Muhammad Kevin invites me to join his family at the restaurant. He has been living in Iran for six years, which he believes is “the best political regime in the world.”

I am taken aback by his calm, his knowledge and his obsession with a Western conspiracy against Iran. Before I leave, he gives me a book about Shia Islam. Although his children are tired, he insists on walking the streets of Qom with me so that I can meet my next host.

9.30 p.m.
Mohammad – a young man studying to be a mullah I had met during Kevin’s class has invited me to spend the night at his place. I find him in the kitschy basement of his family’s home. At only 24, he has already been the boss of a carpet company, like his father, and now has enough resources to dedicate himself to religious studies. He tries to measure his knowledge against mine, criticizes bad Muslims, and mostly talks about himself, displaying a great talent to make himself come out looking good. “Do you want to see pictures of me in Ukraine? Do you like my beard? Look, it’s me when I was a child. What percentage of my English do you understand?”

His mother, with only her nose and eyes uncovered, comes by and flatters me, while his sister – a doctor in sociology and the head of a company – discretely takes a picture of me with her brand new smartphone. I sleep on one of the cozy Persian carpets on the floor.

8 a.m.
My host Mohammad wakes up two hours before me to pray and study the Koran, which he wants to learn by heart. He drops me off at the place of a 17-year-old man I met yesterday and whose name is also Mohammad. This warm and funny man manages to combine religious devotion and joie de vivre. He tells me about the French city of Marseille, which he discovered by watching the movie Taxi. He says he found it very entertaining, but that he hardly ever watches movies. Especially not if they haven’t been approved by the regime, because often, “people are kissing each other” and he is worried this might give him “bad thoughts.”

He doesn’t listen to much music, mostly only religious chants by a Saudi imam, who “even though he is Sunni,” has a beautiful voice. Mohammad dreams of becoming an international lawyer, so he is learning many languages: English, Arabic, but also Russian and even Hebrew. Above all else, he wants to be a mullah like his father.

A few months ago, a week before his law classes at university started, he suddenly changed his mind and decided to attend a madrasa (“Koranic school”). He will study there for 15 years, every morning, six days a week, thanks to the $20 monthly scholarship he will receive.

After we visit some nice Koranic schools, he takes me to Friday prayers. A crowd of believers bowing in unison fills the 1,000 square-meters of the mosque. I sit on the side. A young child tries all he can – from screaming to grasping his father’s trousers – to catch his attention. To no avail.

After the prayer, the sun had melted the snow in the streets of Qom. Vali Gheibi joins me and takes me in the direction of Kashan, a two-hour drive to the south. When we get to the suburbs, he hails a taxi for me. His goodbyes are long and emotional.

The taxi driver – a young man with a sad and disillusioned face – shows me the firearm circled with flames he has just drawn on his forearm with a marker. He finishes his cigarette, lights another one. After a few meters, he declares: “I hate your friends, the mullahs. I blame my father and grandfather for letting them take the power after the revolution.”

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7 Ways The Pandemic May Change The Airline Industry For Good

Will flying be greener? More comfortable? Less frequent? As the world eyes a post-COVID reality, we look at ways the airline industry has been changing through a pandemic that has devastated air travel.

Ready for (a different kind of) takeoff?

Carl-Johan Karlsson

It's hard to overstate the damage the pandemic has had on the airline industry, with global revenues dropping by 40% in 2020 and dozens of airlines around the world filing for bankruptcy. One moment last year when the gravity became particularly apparent was when Asian carriers (in countries with low COVID-19 rates) began offering "flights to nowhere" — starting and ending at the same airport as a way to earn some cash from would-be travelers who missed the in-flight experience.

More than a year later today, experts believe that air traffic won't return to normal levels until 2024.

But beyond the financial woes, the unprecedented slowdown in air travel may bring some silver linings as key aspects of the industry are bound to change once back in full spin, with some longer-term effects on aviation already emerging. Here are some major transformations to expect in the coming years:

Cleaner aviation fuel

The U.S. administration of President Joe Biden and the airline industry recently agreed to the ambitious goal of replacing all jet fuel with sustainable alternatives by 2050. Already in a decade, the U.S. aims to produce three billion gallons of sustainable fuel — about one-tenth of current total use — from waste, plants and other organic matter.

While greening the world's road transport has long been at the top of the climate agenda, aviation is not even included under the Paris Agreement. But with air travel responsible for roughly 12% of all CO2 emissions from transport, and stricter international regulation on the horizon, the industry is increasingly seeking sustainable alternatives to petroleum-based fuel.

Fees imposed on the airline industry should be funneled into a climate fund.

In Germany, state broadcaster Deutsche Welle reports that the world's first factory producing CO2-neutral kerosene recently started operations in the town of Wertle, in Lower Saxony. The plant, for which Lufthansa is set to become the pilot customer, will produce CO2-neutral kerosene through a circular production cycle incorporating sustainable and green energy sources and raw materials. Energy is supplied through wind turbines from the surrounding area, while the fuel's main ingredients are water and waste-generated CO2 coming from a nearby biogas plant.

Farther north, Norwegian Air Shuttle has recently submitted a recommendation to the government that fees imposed on the airline industry should be funneled into a climate fund aimed at developing cleaner aviation fuel, according to Norwegian news site E24. The airline also suggested that the government significantly reduce the tax burden on the industry over a longer period to allow airlines to recover from the pandemic.

Black-and-white photo of an ariplane shot from below flying across the sky and leaving condensation trails

High-flying ambitions for the sector

Joel & Jasmin Førestbird

Hydrogen and electrification

Some airline manufacturers are betting on hydrogen, with research suggesting that the abundant resource has the potential to match the flight distances and payload of a current fossil-fuel aircraft. If derived from renewable resources like sun and wind power, hydrogen — with an energy-density almost three times that of gasoline or diesel — could work as a fully sustainable aviation fuel that emits only water.

One example comes out of California, where fuel-cell specialist HyPoint has entered a partnership with Pennsylvania-based Piasecki Aircraft Corporation to manufacture 650-kilowatt hydrogen fuel cell systems for aircrafts. According to HyPoint, the system — scheduled for commercial availability product by 2025 — will have four times the energy density of existing lithium-ion batteries and double the specific power of existing hydrogen fuel-cell systems.

Meanwhile, Rolls-Royce is looking to smash the speed record of electrical flights with a newly designed 23-foot-long model. Christened the Spirit of Innovation, the small plane took off for the first time earlier this month and successfully managed a 15-minute long test flight. However, the company has announced plans to fly the machine faster than 300 mph (480 km/h) before the year is out, and also to sell similar propulsion systems to companies developing electrical air taxis or small commuter planes.

New aircraft designs

Airlines are also upgrading aircraft design to become more eco-friendly. Air France just received its first upgrade of a single-aisle, medium-haul aircraft in 33 years. Fleet director Nicolas Bertrand told French daily Les Echos that the new A220 — that will replace the old A320 model — will reduce operating costs by 10%, fuel consumption and CO2 emissions by 20% and noise footprint by 34%.

International first class will be very nearly a thing of the past.

The pandemic has also ushered in a new era of consumer demand where privacy and personal space is put above luxury. The retirement of older aircraft caused by COVID-19 means that international first class — already in steady decline over the last decades — will be very nearly a thing of the past. Instead, airplane manufacturers around the world (including Delta, China Eastern, JetBlue, British Airways and Shanghai Airlines) are betting on a new generation of super-business minisuites where passengers have a privacy door. The idea, which was introduced by Qatar Airways in 2017, is to offer more personal space than in regular business class but without the lavishness of first class.

Aerial view of Rome's Fiumicino airport

Aerial view of Rome's Fiumicino airport

Hygiene rankings  

Rome's Fiumicino Airport has become the first in the world to earn "the COVID-19 5-Star Airport Rating" from Skytrax, an international airline and airport review and ranking site, Italian daily La Repubblica reports. Skytrax, which publishes a yearly annual ranking of the world's best airports and issues the World Airport Awards, this year created a second list to specifically call out airports with the best health and hygiene standards.

Smoother check-in

​The pandemic has also accelerated the shift towards contactless traveling, with more airports harnessing the power of biometrics — such as facial recognition or fever screening — to reduce touchpoints and human contact. Similar technology can also be used to more efficiently scan physical objects, such as explosive detection. Ultimately, passengers will be able to "check-in" and go through a security screening anywhere at the airports, removing queues and bottlenecks.

Data privacy issues

​However, as pointed out in Canadian publication The Lawyer's Daily, increased use of AI and biometrics also means increased privacy concerns. For example, health and hygiene measures like digital vaccine passports also mean that airports can collect data on who has been vaccinated and the type of vaccine used.

Photo of planes at Auckland airport, New Zealand

Auckland Airport, New Zealand

Douglas Bagg

The billion-dollar question: Will we fly less?

At the end of the day, even with all these (mostly positive) changes that we've seen take shape over the past 18 months, the industry faces major uncertainty about whether air travel will ever return to the pre-COVID levels. Not only are people wary about being in crowded and closed airplanes, but the worth of long-distance business travel in particular is being questioned as many have seen that meetings can function remotely, via Zoom and other online apps.

Trying to forecast the future, experts point to the years following the 9/11 terrorist attacks as at least a partial blueprint for what a recovery might look like in the years ahead. Twenty years ago, as passenger enthusiasm for flying waned amid security fears following the attacks, airlines were forced to cancel flights and put planes into storage.

40% of Swedes intend to travel less

According to McKinsey, leisure trips and visits to family and friends rebounded faster than business flights, which took four years to return to pre-crisis levels in the UK. This time too, business travel is expected to lag, with the consulting firm estimating only 80% recovery of pre-pandemic levels by 2024.

But the COVID-19 crisis also came at a time when passengers were already rethinking their travel habits due to climate concerns, while worldwide lockdowns have ushered in a new era of remote working. In Sweden, a survey by the country's largest research company shows that 40% of the population intend to travel less even after the pandemic ends. Similarly in the UK, nearly 60% of adults said during the spring they intended to fly less after being vaccinated against COVID-19 — with climate change cited as a top reason for people wanting to reduce their number of flights, according to research by the University of Bristol.

At the same time, major companies are increasingly forced to face the music of the environmental movement, with several corporations rolling out climate targets over the last few years. Today, five of the 10 biggest buyers of corporate air travel in the US are technology companies: Amazon, IBM, Google, Apple and Microsoft, according to Taipei Times, all of which have set individual targets for environmental stewardship. As such, the era of flying across the Atlantic for a two-hour executive meeting is likely in its dying days.

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