Among the Believers

More

Technology was evil. E. F. Schumacher of SMALL Is Beantiful had said so: The Message of Peace, an English-language magazine published in the holy city of Qom, quoted him a lot, lashing the West with its own words. But technology surrounded us in Tehran, and some of it had been so Islamized or put to such good Islamic use that its foreign origin seemed of no account. The hotel taxi driver could be helped through the evening traffic jams by the Koranic readings on his car radio; and when we got back to the hotel there would be mullahs on television. Certain modern goods and tools—cars, radios, television—were necessary; their possession was part of a proper Islamic pride. But these things were considered neutral; they were not associated with any particular faith or civilization; they were thought of as the stock of some great universal bazaar.

Money alone bought these things. And money, in Iran, had become the true gift of God, the reward for virtue. Whether Tehran worked or not, $70 million went every day to the country's external accounts, to be drawn off as required: foreign currencies, secured by foreign laws and institutions, to keep the Islamic revolution going. But some people were scratchy. They could be scratchy in empty restaurants that didn't have the food their oldtime menus offered. They needed customers, but they couldn't help hating those who came. They were scratchy at my hotel, for an additional reason. After the revolution the owners had left the country. The hotel had been taken over by a revolutionary komiteh, and it was important for everyone downstairs to display pride. (It was different upstairs. The chambermaid told me by signs one morning that I wasn't to use the hotel laundry; she would wash my clothes. She did. When I came back in the afternoon I saw my damp clothes displayed in the corridor, hung out to dry on the doorknobs of unoccupied rooms.)

Nicholas, a young British journalist, came to see me one evening and began to quarrel with the man at the desk about the hotel taxi charges. The quarrel developed fast in the empty lobby.

Nicholas, tall and thin and with a little beard, was jumpy from overwork: the long hours he kept as a foreign correspondent, the "disinformation" he said he had constantly to sift through, the sheer number of words he had to send back every day. He had also begun to be irritated by the events he was reporting.

The man at the desk was big and paunchy, with a sallow skin and curly black hair. He wore a suit and radiated pride. His pride, and Nicholas's rage, made him lose his head. He went back to the manners and language of old times.

He said, "If you don't like the hotel, you can leave."

Nicholas, with the formality of high temper, said, "It is my good fortune not to be staying at the hotel."

I took the car at the stated price, to calm them both down.

Nicholas leaned on the desk, but looked away. The man at the desk began to write out the taxi requisition slip. In spite of his appearance, he was a man from the countryside. He had spent a fair amount of money to send his mother on the pilgrimage to Mecca; he was anxious about money and the future, and worried about the education of his children. During the boom an American university education had seemed possible for the boy, but now he had to think of other ways.

Nicholas was closed to pity. He remembered the boom too, when hotels had no rooms, and he and many others had slept on camp beds in the ballroom of a grand hotel and paid five dollars a night.

He said, "For seven months no one in this country has done a stroke of work. Where else can you do that and live?"

Behzad and I went to Qom by car. It was past noon when we got back to the hotel, and the hotel taxi drivers, idle though they were, didn't want to make the long desert trip. Only one man offered, and he asked for seventy dollars. Behzad said it was too much; he knew someone who would do it for less.

We waited a long time for Behzad's driver, and then we found that between our negotiations on the telephone and his arrival at the hotel his charges had gone up. He was a small, knotty man, and he said he wasn't a Moslem. He didn't mean that. He meant only that he wasn't a Shia or a Persian. He was a "tribesman," a Lur, from Luristan, in the west.

Qom had a famous shrine, the tomb of the sister of the eighth Shia Imam; for a thousand years it had been a place of pilgrimage. It also had a number of theological schools. Khomeini had taught and lectured at Qom; and on his return to Iran after the fall of the Shah he had made Qom his headquarters. He was surrounded there by ayatollahs, people of distinction in their own right, and it was one of these attendant figures, Ayatollah Khalkhalli, whom I was hoping to see.

Khomeini received and preached and blessed; Khalkhalli hanged. He was Khomeini's hanging judge. It was Khalkhalli who had conducted many of those swift Islamic trials that had ended in executions, with official before-and-after photographs: men shown before they were killed, and then shown dead, naked on the sliding mortuary slabs.

Khalkhalli had recently been giving interviews, emphasizing his activities as judge, and a story in Tehran was that he had fallen out of favor and was trying through these interviews to keep his reputation alive. He told the Tehran Times that he had "probably" sentenced four hundred people to death in Tehran: "On some nights, he said, bodies of 30 or more people would be sent out in trucks from the prison. He claimed he had also signed the death warrants of a large number of people in Khuzistan Province." Khuzistan was the Arab province in the southwest, where the oil was.

He told another paper that there had been a plot—worked out in the South Korean Embassy—to rescue Hoveyda, the Shah's prime minister, and other important people from the Tehran jail. As soon as he, Khalkhalli, had heard of this plot he had decided—to deal a blow to the CIA and Zionism—to bring forward the cases. "I reviewed all their cases in one night and had them face the firing squad." He told the Tehran Times how Hoveyda had died. The first bullet hit Hoveyda in the neck; it didn't kill him. Hoveyda was then ordered by his executioner—a priest—to hold his head up; the second bullet hit him in the head and killed him.

"Would this man see me?" I had asked an agency correspondent, when we were talking about Khalkhalli.

"He would love to see you."

And Behzad thought it could be arranged. Behzad said he would telephone Khalkhalli's secretary when we got to Qom.

The telephone, the secretary: the modern apparatus seemed strange. But Khalkhalli saw himself as a man of the age. "He said" (this was from the Tehran Times)"the religious leaders were trying to enforce the rule of the Holy Prophet Mohammed in Iran. During the days of the Prophet swords were used to fight, now they have been replaced by Phantom aircraft." Phantoms: not American, not the products of a foreign science, but as international as swords, part of the stock of the great world bazaar, and rendered Islamic by purchase.

There was a confusion of this sort in Behzad's mind as well. Behzad's father had been imprisoned during the Shah's time, and Behzad had inherited his father's dream of a "true" revolution. Such a revolution hadn't come to Iran; but Behzad, employing all the dialectic he had learned, was forcing himself to see, in the religious fervor of Khomeini's revolution, the outline of what could be said to be true. And as we drove south through Tehran—at first like a bazaar, and then increasingly like a settlement in a polluted desert—it was the city of proletarian revolt that he was anxious to show me.

Low brick buildings were the color of dust; walls looked unfinished; bright interiors seemed as impermanent as their paint. Tehran, in the flatland to the south, had been added and added to by people coming in from the countryside; and clusters of traditional square clay-brick houses with flat roofs were like villages.

We passed a great factory shed. Some kind of beige fur had adhered to the walls below every window. Behzad told me it was a cloth factory and had been a center of the revolution. The army had gone in, and many workers had been killed.

After the oil refinery, puffing out flame from its chimney, we were in the true desert. There were no trees now, and the views were immense: mounds, hills, little ranges. The road climbed, dipped into wide valleys. Hills and mounds were smooth, and sometimes, from a distance and from certain angles, there was the faintest tinge of green on the brown, from tufts of grass and weeds that were then seen to be really quite widely scattered.

From the top of a hill we saw, to the left, the salt lake marked on the map. It looked small and white, as though it was about to cake into salt; and the white had a fringe of pale green. Behzad said that sometimes it all looked blue. Many bodies had been dumped there by the Shah's secret police, from helicopters. And the lake was bigger than it looked. It was a desolation when we began to pass it; the green water that fringed the white was very far away. The land after that became more broken. Hills were less rounded, their outlines sharper against the sky.

It was desert, but the road was busy; and occasionally there were roadside shacks where soft drinks or melons could be had. Behzad thought we should drink or eat something before we got to Qom, because in Qom, where they were strict about the Ramadan fasting, there would be nothing to eat or drink before sunset.

We stopped at a bus-and-truck halt, with a big rough cafe in Mediterranean colors and a watermelon stall on a platform beside the road. The watermelon man, seated at his stall below a thin cotton awning that gave almost no shade, was sleeping on his arms.

We woke him up and bought a melon, and he lent a knife and forks. Behzad halved the melon and cut up the flesh, and we all three—the driver joining us without being asked—squatted round the melon, eating as it were from the same dish. Behzad, I could see, liked the moment of serving and sharing. It could be said that it was a Moslem moment; it was the kind of sharing Moslems practiced—and the driver had joined us as a matter of course. But the driver was a worker; Behzad was sharing food with someone of the people, and he was imposing his own ritual on this moment in the desert.

Two saplings had been planted on the platform. One was barked and dead; the other was half dead. Between them lay an old, sunburned, ill-looking woman in black, an inexplicable bit of human debris an hour away from Tehran. Scraps of newspaper from the stall blew about in the sand, and caught against the trunks of the trees. Across the road a lorry idled, its exhaust smoking; and traffic went by all the time.

We squatted in the sand and ate. The driver spat out the watermelon seeds onto the road. I did as the driver did; and Behzad—but more reverentially—did likewise. Abruptly, stabbing his fork into the melon, saying nothing, the square-headed little Lur jumped off the platform. He was finished; he had had enough of the melon. He walked across the dingy desert yard to the cafe to look for a lavatory, and Behzad's moment was over.

I had imagined that Qom, a holy city, would be built on hills: it would be full of cliff walls and shadows and narrow lanes cut into the rock, with cells or caves where pious men meditated. It was set flat in the desert, and the approach to it was like the approach to any other desert town: shacks, gas stations. The road grew neater; shacks gave way to houses. A garden bloomed on a traffic roundabout—Persian gardens have this abrupt, enclosed, oasis-like quality. A dome gleamed in the distance between minarets. It was the dome of the famous shrine.

Behzad said, "That dome is made of gold."

It had been gilded in the last century. But the city we began to enter had been enriched by oil; and it seemed like a reconstructed bazaar city, characterless except for the gold dome and its minarets.

Behzad said, "How shall I introduce you? Correspondent? Khalkhalli likes correspondents."

"That isn't how I want to talk to him, though. I really just want to chat with him. I want to understand how he became what he is."

"I'll say you are a writer. Where shall I say you come from?"

That was a problem. England would be truest, but would be misleading. Trinidad would be mystifying, and equally misleading. South America was a possibility, but the associations were wrong.

"Can you say I am from the Americas? Would that make sense in Persian?"

Behzad said, "I will say that you come from America, but you are not an American."

We made for the dome and stopped in a parking area outside the shrine. It was midafternoon, and it was hotter in the town than in the desert; the gilded dome looked hot. The Lur driver, in spite of our sacramental watermelon feast, was mumbling about food. Ramadan or not, he wanted to take the car and go out of Qom to look for something to eat; and he wanted to know what our plans were.

Across the road, near a watermelon stall at the gateway to the shrine, there was a glass-walled telephone booth of German design. Behzad went to telephone Khalkhalli's secretary.

The high wall of the shrine area was sprayed and painted with slogans in Persian. There were two in English—WE WANT REPUBLIC, KHOMEINI IS OUR LEADER—and they must have been meant for the foreign television cameras. The second slogan was a direct translation of Khomeini e Imam, but as a translation it was incomplete, suggesting only (with the help of the first slogan) a transfer of loyalty from the Shah to Khomeini, not stating the divine authority of the leader or the access to heaven that he gave. In Iran, where for eleven hundred years they had been waiting for the return of the Twelfth Imam, Imam was a loaded word; and especially here at Qom, where the sister of the Eighth Imam was buried. Access to heaven, rejection of nondivine rule, was the purpose of the "republic" proclaimed here.

Behzad, opening the door of the telephone booth, the telephone in his hand, waved me over.

When I went to him he said, "The secretary says that Khalkhalli is praying. He will see you at nine this evening, after he has broken his fast."

It was 3:30. We had told the driver we would be only three or four hours in Qom.

Behzad said, "What do you want me to tell the secretary?"

"Tell him we'll come."

Then we went to break the bad news to the impatient Lur—or the good news: he was charging by the hour. He said something that Behzad didn't translate. And he drove off to look for food, leaving Behzad and me to think of ways of spending five and a half hours in the torpid, baking city, where nothing could be eaten or drunk for the next five hours.

THE shops opposite the shrine sold souvenirs—plates with Khomeini's face on them, cheap earthenware vases—and sweets: flat round cakes, brown, soft, very sweet-looking, breaking up at the edges. Food could be sold to travelers during Ramadan, Behzad said; but it wasn't worth the trouble. Not many people were about. A crippled old woman, a pilgrim no doubt, was wheeling herself slowly past the shops. We surprised a plump boy in a booth taking a nibble at a brown cake, part of his stock; but he judged us harmless and smiled (though a couple of people had been whipped some days before for eating).

The souvenir shops also sold little clay tablets stamped with Arabic lettering. The clay was from the Arabian cities of Mecca and Medina (good business for somebody over there); so that the faithful, bowing down in prayer and resting their foreheads on these tablets, touched sacred soil. High on the shrine wall, in glazed blue and white tiles, there was, as I supposed, a Koranic quotation.

Behzad couldn't translate it; it was in Arabic, which he couldn't read.

Arabia! Its presence in Iran shouldn't have surprised me, but it did. Because with one corner of my mind I approached Iran through classical history and felt awe for its antiquity: the conqueror of Egypt, the rival of Greece, undefeated by Rome; and with another corner of my mind I approached it through India, where, at least in the northwest, the idea of Persia is still an idea of the highest civilization—as much as France used to be for the rest of Europe—in its language, its poetry, its carpets, its food. In Kashmir, Farsi khanna, Persian food, is the supreme cuisine; and of the chenar, the transplanted plane tree, or sycamore, of Persia (so prominent in both Persian and Indian Moghul painting) it is even said that its shade is medicinal. In Qom these ideas had to be discarded. Here they looked to spartan Arabia as to the fount.

Behzad suggested that we should visit the shrine. If anyone asked, I was to say I was a Moslem. I said I wouldn't be able to carry it off. I wouldn't know how to behave. Was it with the right foot that one entered a mosque, and with the left the lavatory? Or was it the other way round? Was it the Sunnis who, during their ablutions, let the water run down their arms to their fingers? Did the Shias, contrariwise, run the water down from their hands to their elbows? And what were the gestures of obeisance or reverence? There were too many traps. Even if I followed Behzad and did what he did, it wouldn't look convincing.

Behzad said, "You wouldn't be able to follow me. I don't know what to do either. I don't go to mosques."

But we could go into the courtyard, and to do that we didn't have to take off our shoes. The courtyard was wide and very bright. At one side was a clock tower, with an austere modern clock that had no numerals. On the other side was the entrance to the shrine. It was high and recessed and it glittered as with silver, like a silver cave, like a silver-vaulted dome cut down the middle. But what looked like silver was only glass, thousands of pieces catching light at different angles. And here at last were the pilgrims, sunburned peasants, whole families, who had come from far. They camped in the open cells along the courtyard wall (each cell the burial place of a famous or royal person), and they were of various racial types: an older Persia, a confusion of tribal and transcontinental movements.

One Mongoloid group was Turkoman, Behzad said. I hardly knew the word. In the 1824 English novel Haddi Baba (which I had bought at the hotel in a pirated offset of the Oxford World's Classics edition), there were Turkoman bandits. I had once, in a London saleroom, seen a seventeenth-century Indian drawing of a yoked Turkoman prisoner, his hands shackled to a block of wood at the back of his neck. So the Turkomans were men of Central Asia who were once feared. How they fitted into Persian history I didn't know; and their past of war and banditry seemed far from these depressed campers at the shrine. Small, sunburned, ragged, they were like debris at the edge of a civilization that had itself for a long time been on the edge of the world.

Near the mosque was the two-story yellow brick building where Khomeini had taught and lectured. It was neutral, nondescript; and nothing was going on there now. Behzad and I walked in the bazaar. For most of the stallkeepers it was siesta time. In one bread stall, stacked high with flat perforated rounds of sweet bread, the man was stretched out on a shelf or counter on the side wall and seemed to be using part of his stock as a pillow. Behzad bought a paper. It was very hot; there was little to see; Qom's life remained hidden. We began to look for shade, for a place to sit and wait.

We came upon a small hotel. It was cramped inside, but newly furnished. The two men seated behind the desk pretended not to see us, and we sat in the little front lounge; nobody else was there. After some minutes one of the men from the desk came and told us to leave. The hotel was closed for Ramadan; that was why, he added disarmingly, he and his friend hadn't stood up when we came in.

We went out into the light and dust, past the souvenir shops again, with the brown cakes and the tablets of Arabian clay, and were permitted to sit in the empty cafe opposite the KHOMEINI IS OUR LEADER slogan. It was a big place, roughly designed and furnished, but the pillars were faced with marble.

There was nothing to drink—a bottled cola drink seemed only full of chemical danger—and the place was warm with the raw smell of cooking mutton. But the shade was refreshing; and the relaxed exhaustion that presently came to me, while Behzad read his Persian paper, helped the minutes by.

Jump to comments
Presented by
Get Today's Top Stories in Your Inbox (preview)

The Remote Warehouse Where Confiscated Wildlife Ends Up

A government facility outside of Denver houses more than a million products of the illegal wildlife trade, from tigers and bears to bald eagles.


Elsewhere on the web

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register. blog comments powered by Disqus

Video

Is Wine Healthy?

James Hamblin prepares to impress his date with knowledge about the health benefits of wine.

Video

The World's Largest Balloon Festival

Nine days, more than 700 balloons, and a whole lot of hot air

Video

The Origins of Bungee Jumping

"We had this old potato sack and I filled it up with rocks and dropped it over the side. It just hit the water, split, dropping all the stones. And that was our test."

Video

Is Trading Stocks for Suckers?

If you think you’re smarter than the stock market, you’re probably either cheating or wrong

Video

I Spent Half My Life Making a Video Game

How a childhood hobby became a labor of love

Writers

Up
Down

More in Global

More back issues, Sept 1995 to present.

Just In