Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Post #226 - A Tale of Two Cities

Continuing with the Qom portion of my trip report...

At the theological school of Jami’at Al-Zahra (Isamic University for Women), we were met by administrators and faculty of this institution that includes 900 foreign students from over 40 countries. After a period of language training, students can pursue a two-year certificate, a BA or an MA in Islamic Spirituality and Shi’ite Studies. Short courses are also offered (in Persian, English, Arabic and Turkish), and other curricula are done for high schools. The seminary serves 4,000 residential and commuter students, and another 8,000 through distance-learning.

Meeting at Imam Khomeini Education & Research Institute
Among those who spoke with us was Mr. Mohammad Ali Shomali, PhD, head of the Department of Religions at Imam Khomeini Education & Research Institute (and holder of a degree from a university in the UK), his wife Ms. Mahnaz Heydarpoor (one of the school’s deans and author of Love in Christianity and Islam). We also met Mrs. Laurie Pierce, an American Mennonite participating in a Canadian exchange program, in Qom with her husband Matthew and their toddler Ramona. Members of the December delegation (who also met them) had written:

"Laurie, who is studying Persian literature, said that aside from missing family and the bother of having to dress in a chador, life was quite alright. Occasionally she and her husband are asked why they don’t convert to Islam, but once they tell people they are comfortable being Christians, the matter is dropped. When asked if people feel free to talk about politics, Laurie said that’s all they ever talk about!

"She praised the improvements in health and education that have occurred since the revolution. Compared to Egypt, where there is so much poverty, Iranians are better off, she thought. The economic gap is growing in Iran, she added, but for now, no one goes cold or hungry."

§ § § § §

Although Qom is the smallest province in Iran, it is arguably more the center of power than Tehran. A geological feature of the area might hold some symbolic significance for America's dealings with the government of Ahmadinezhad. One writer on the history of the city notes:

Salt Lake outside of Qom
"One of the wonders of this governate is that there is a sandy land near it, which no one can walk in. Whoever enters this land will sink as if he sinks in water and mud and he cannot save himself from that. The river of the city flows until it reaches this sandy land to sink in it."

North of Qom we passed the large Salt Lake -- where it is reputed that the Shah’s savak (secret police) agents once dumped bodies they needed to dispose of, to be swallowed up my the lake and eventually dissolved by its minerals – looking like a vast snowfield in the midst of the desert.

§ § § § §

Later, we passed automobile-sized mounds of earth that were evidence of the vertical shafts dug to connect with "qanats," the underground canals – some centuries old – that feed domestic and agricultural areas with the water from mountain springs. These qanats, which can be as much as twenty miles or more in length, must be planned, dug and kept flowing by individual workers who descended through narrow shafts dug from the surface. Species of fish have evolved in the channels that are colorless and blind, never having seen a ray of sunlight, a bit like some of the Iran "experts" in our State Department, cut off from any direct knowledge of the Islamic Republic.

§ § § § §

Imam Khomeini Mosque (near Tehran)
Imam Khomeini’s Shrine is still under construction beside the highway on the outskirts of Tehran well beyond the city’s busy avenues and neighborhoods. It will be an impressive sight – with minarets of 91 meters tall (commemorating the age of the leader at his death) when completed. But it already seems a bit removed from the life of the people in the capital, who must make a special trip to pay homage to the “father” of the Islamic Republic.

§ § § § §

 Martyrs section, Behesht-e-Zahra Cemetery, Tehran
Before reentering Tehran, our bus pulled off the road, down a cedar-lined lane and into the heart of the huge Behesht Zahra, the main Tehran cemetery. We stopped in the special section for the shahid or “martyrs” of the Iran-Iraq War. Perhaps I had unconsciously expected something akin to the serried ranks of white monuments that one sees at Arlington or other American military graveyards, but I was unprepared for the very different approach taken here. Each of the deceased was the subject of a small, but lovingly elaborated memorial. Most had a locked, glass-front display case at eye-level containing objects of importance only to the martyr’s family or friends – a photograph from carefree days, an medallion of athletic achievement, a souvenir of his studies or hobbies. Below this was a grave marker with inscriptions carved into stone; beside it loved ones had planted shrubs, flowers or vines. Each was as personal as it possibly could be, as individual as each young “martyr” had been in life, and rows of them went on as far as one could see. The dates of births on the markers were sprinkled across the sixties, meaning that many did not see their fifteenth birthday before they gave themselves bodily to the war. Without their sacrifice, would Iran have become a province of Iraq? Would there ever have been a Gulf War or a U.S. invasion of Iraq?

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