ID : N-2864 Date : 2018/09/10 - 17:17
(Persia Digest) - USA TODAY, Kim Hjelmgaard, writes that Qom is Iran’s eighth-largest city, home to dozens of religious schools, and represents a major pilgrimage destination for Shia faithful from neighboring Iraq and Afghanistan.
Do the clerics or mullahs of this fiercely Islamic Republic have a sweet tooth?
Against all the odds, this possibility occurred to me while I was on a desert highway between Tehran and Qom, a conservative religious center 100 miles south of Iran’s capital that is one of the holiest places for the Shia branch of Islam – Iran’s dominant denomination.
For miles, the approach to Qom, Iran’s eighth-largest city and home to dozens of religious schools and a major pilgrimage destination for Shia faithful from neighboring Iraq and Afghanistan, is lined with giant billboards featuring gaudy advertisements for sickly sweet, fluffy-white, heated corn kernels and gummy-bear-type gelatin candies.
In Tehran, a smog-filled city of 12 million located on the southern slopes of the Alborz mountain range – a relatively untapped paradise for snowboarders and skiers in the winter, I was told – there were plenty of billboard advertisements for nonalcoholic beer, domestic cleaning products with names such as "Spif" and "Homeplus," as well as gigantic images touting the heroism (in soccer terms) of Iran’s national World Cup team. It had recently failed to get out of the tournament’s group stages in Russia even though the team had played well.
However, as far as I could tell, there were few billboard advertisements aimed at popcorn and candy junkies. In my first two days, I had not seen a single one.
Not so on the long stretch of desert valley asphalt that links Tehran to Qom, a road hemmed in by a landscape not dissimilar to what you might see driving through large parts of the southwestern United States. On this road, regularly traveled by mullahs, billboards hailing the delights of sugary snacks came thick and fast.
The cleric I saw in Qom were mostly riding on the back of motorbikes without helmets and coming in and out of mosques and religious schools and bookshops with serious facial expressions.
One of the reasons I decided to make the trip to Qom – a base for Iran’s first Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini following his return from exile in 1979 to lead the nation – was because I had arranged to interview the director of one of its many famous religious schools. This director was apparently a local mullah of some importance.
I wanted to hear what he and other clerics in Qom had to say about the domestic dynamic between the reformists in Iran’s elected government and the religious hardliners in its theocratic leadership. I’d been told that to truly understand Iran I had to first grasp the tensions and competing (but also overlapping) visions for Iran of these two rival camps.
But due to a later-than-expected departure from Tehran because of several interviews and meetings that had run over the allotted time, I was 90 minutes late.
When I finally arrived at the school, the director was unfortunately unwilling to do the interview.
He wouldn’t even see us.
"Why won’t you do the interview?" I asked through my translator and a local official from the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance, who was accompanying us for the duration of our seven-hour stay in Qom because it is deemed a city of national-security importance to Iran.
"Because you are late," came the reply down the phone.
The director’s deputy was also on hand and theoretically available to talk to a major American newspaper that had not been to Iran for more than 10 years.
► Day Two: Iranians explain their 'misunderstood' country
► Day 1 of trip: US reporter troubles with Tehran traffic
► USA TODAY journalist rare glimpse of life in Iran
► Iranian-American woman returns to Tehran
He was actually sitting in his car just a few feet away.
"I, too, am available," the deputy now said, getting out of his car.
He then got back into his car and proceeded to call his boss.
"Perhaps we’ll do the interview next time. When you are not late," the deputy said.
At the entrance to the school, two murals of the flags of Israel and the United States had been painted on the ground so that they could be trampled on over and over again – an effortlessly repeatable insult to two nations that Iran’s religious leaders have long disliked.
Poking up from the roots of a nearby tree, a lone cannabis plant was growing in the wild.
I looked at my photographer, then the translator, then the official, then back at the director’s deputy sitting in his car.
I did not do the interview.
But I did find another mullah to interview.
Mohsen Alviri, 56, a senior cleric and religious scholar, graciously received USA TODAY in his air-conditioned basement home office in Qom that is ringed by hundreds of books and journals. Outside, it was 115 degrees.
Alviri expressed concern for my health in the heat, asked if I was enjoying Iran, served tea, fruit and a selection of nuts and then calmly laid into western civilization and the current leader of the free world and White House occupant.
"The West has always claimed it is developing and thriving based on rationality, democracy and rules and regulations. Trump is none of these things," he said.
"With Trump, America has finally arrived at the last station on its journey to the end of its civilization. Trump is showing what America really is: Debauched. He is proving again and again there is virtually nothing left of western civilization."
Later that evening, as we left to drive farther south to the city of Isfahan, the photographer put on "Until It Sleeps," by heavy metal band Metallica, among his favorites. The translator knew and loved Metallica, too. For the duration of the song, and many more off Metallica’s 1996 album Load, my fellow travelers sang their hearts out.
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