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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