The room is full of garish plastic flowers that make it impossible to concentrate on what the man seated in front of me is saying. Not helping matters is the overwhelming heat, which has me fidgeting uncomfortably in my chair. The black chador draped over my head—in keeping with Islamic dress code—falls, and a sweaty clump of hair slips to my shoulder. Mr. Hosseini, one of the highest-ranking Islamic leaders in Qom, Iran’s religious capital, doesn’t notice. He is rhapsodizing.
“There is a reason why I want to meet personally journalists who visit the Hazrat-e Masumeh shrine,” Hosseini informs me through my translator and guide. “There are many misunderstandings about Islam. I want you to remember this: Islam is peace. Unfortunately, politics always separates people. But we are not hostile to anyone.” Clearly, he means it, but I’m being forced to listen so it isn’t very convincing.
I’ve only just arrived in the sleepy city of Qom with my photographer, Pieter-Jan, after a one-week stay in press-packed Tehran. In the taxi from the train station to the city center, our driver was puzzled: “Beh name khoda, in the name of God, what are you doing here?” Before I could explain that we’re here gathering research for an upcoming book on youth movements, he caught my eye in the rearview mirror, smiled, and shook his head. “There are rarely any foreigners in this city—not even journalists. You will be the talk of the town.” He dropped us at the Hazrat-e Masumeh, the holiest shrine in Qom, and we quickly understood what he meant. “Salam khareji! Hello, foreigner!” a young man waved at me from the other side of the street. “Be behesht khosh amadid! Welcome to paradise!”
We had barely entered the shrine when the head supervisor insisted we come with him to the office of the local hojatoleslam. This title is given to clerics of advanced standing in Islamic studies—in essence, influential interpreters of the Koran and setters of the moral standard. They wield immense power in every echelon of Iranian culture, and it was made obvious that if we refused to meet with him, we would not be interviewing or photographing anyone anytime soon. “Don’t worry. Mr. Hosseini just wants a friendly talk with you,” the supervisor said to us. I’d had a similar chat with civil authorities in Tehran—it is a strange thing to get accustomed to. Lees verder