Sunday, May 28, 2006

LA Times Story

Hi all, Salaam!

Many of you found this site through the recent LA Times story--thanks for stopping in.

For other friends and family, the story is linked here:,1,2465412,full.story

Not bad overall, though there are a few minor points of error, mostly personal/date facts, but really just fine points that can't always come out in a single article. But we hope it gives Americans a bit more insight into the reality of life in Iran, its people, and culture.

Some of those things...

It wasn't quite so much a notion of religious calling that took me to Iran. Yes, that was there, but the real reason was for my studies. Even were I to become a non-Muslim, I would still return to Iran over the years for my work--it's that important. My own journey was there too, and was significant, but was not the primary reason I came.

I don't have a beard anymore! :)

I consider myself really a convert to Islam, rather than to Shii Islam specifically. I think those designations and divisions are really not important, and don't matter much after a specific stage of understanding. Though in general I like the way the Shii law and methodology has developed better and I am more persuaded by the view of history, succession of the Prophet, etc. as presented by Shiis (though much of these views were also held and advocated by the great Sunni scholars--see Mottahadeh's book on how 3 of the 4 founders of the still-extant Sunni legal schools were all supporters of Ali's political claims, at least).

My time in the LA punk scene was more early to mid 1980's, not late 1980's. By the time Eazy E, NWA, Ice T, BDP, and Public Enemy were releasing music, I was already into the rap scene. And "pre-Eminem" meant, white suburban kids in low riders and bass before Em was making music. I don't remember saying "rebellion for rebellion's sake", especially since the punk scene was especially crucial in shaping my ethical and moral attitudes, but maybe I meant cruising, drinking lots of alcohol, and not caring about school was some sort of wayward, futile rebellion.

An Arabic linguist mostly fixing hummers in Camp LeJeune? Sadly, that's true! Not the best use of all those hours of study...

Yes, I used some GI Bill $$ to fund my pricey private university, but it was nowhere near enough and the good old U of R basically reduced my other grants when they found out I got the GI Bill (and wouldn't promise to restore them if I saved my GI Bill for later) and that's a grudge I still carry today. Hope that explains why I never send alumni contributions!

Though Johnston was the best place to get an undergraduate and life education and I'd do it all over again in a heartbeat.

Yes, my wife is chatty, though we're not quite sure what secular means in this sense. But Borzou is incisive, so he was probably on to something there!

My parents don't quite live/work where it says they do, but it's close enough.

Our BBC Prime doesn't work any more. But that's ok, Eastenders is no fun without Sara here anyway.

Sara taught Ayatollah Ardebeli's family more than Ayat. Sistani's, but because they're interrelated and because most people reading that article don't know Ardebeli but do know Sistani, it got reported that way. She also taught a family member of Mujtaba Lari, the famous contemporary Shii author. A lot of folks in these power circles know one another.

The blog post where Sara said to the shopkeeper that it's the American government that's bad was just her literal translation of the simple Persian sentence she was able to construct. We both love America, our Constitution, Bill of Rights, etc. But like around 60% of our fellow Americans, we are not huge fans of our current government. But hey, that's democracy!

I'm not really that turned off with the government's mixing of politics and religion--that is in some way the people here have agreed to conduct their affairs and that's their right. Again, there is a spectrum here of ideas about politics and religion in Iran and I prefer to observe that rather than give any prescriptions about it.

However, I was annoyed that the government would use a religious site that is the property of all Muslims to promote it's own, national agenda. We had a worse experience praying at Imam Reza's shrine in Mashhad, where after the prayer, the young man led (some) of the people through a standardized semi-religious, semi-political "prayer" including some political statements that don't apply to non-Iranian Muslims. Quite annoying.

And the thing about materialism meant, as I said in the last post's comments, that the question is attached to the assumption that since we are Americans, we have lots of money. Of course, we have so much school debt that I blush to mention it here. Suffice it to say, we are accepting donations...

I think that covers it.

We're happy to take any more questions and comments--post away!



Blogger Elizabeth said...

Dear Robert,

My name is Elizabeth. I am taking a graduate class at North Carolina State University called, Contempary Religious Crisis. I read a story about you in the Fayetteville Observer titled "Muslim em-Marine looking for answers." I was hoping that maybe you would be interested in sharing the story of your faith and how you came to the point you are at now. I have a paper to write for the class and I think your story would be very interesting. Thanks. Elizabeth

9:32 PM  
Blogger ohassan said...

As Salaamu Alaikum Brother Irfan,
I was moved by your story and I felt a connection to you and your family. I am a Muslim American and a graduate student entering UCONN this fall. I want to write my thesis on the History of Islam in the African American community and the last two years I have poured over much of that history. It is a blessing to see more and more of American Muslims seeking knowledge and entering the path of scholarship. We need to formulate theories and ways of living as Muslims in this society.May Allah bless you and your family.I have a msyspace and a Muslimspace and I always try to be in touch with other Muslim students and scholars.

Omar Hassan Dphrepaulezz

9:43 PM  
Blogger Irfan Ali said...

Salaams Omar,

Thank you for visiting the blog and for your comments. I enjoyed looking at your sites and it seem we have a lot of shared interests!

Good luck with your graduate studies, they sound fascinating. I suggest you join the following discussion group of Muslim graduate studies in the field of Islam and Middle East studies:

They've got lots of interesting discussions, resources, and contact for your work.

Irfan Ali

12:57 PM  
Blogger Citizen110 said...

Salaam Irfan and Sara,

I too saw the article in LA Times. I'm an American that does not feel threatened by Iran in any way and has been writing my Congressman and Senators to try to persuade them not to support any military action against Iran over the nuclear enrichment issue.

I have this idea that it may be helpful if American cities could develop some kind of "Sister Cities" relationship with some Iranian cities. Do you think something like this would be possible? On an individual level I've been trying to make contact with people living in Iran via the internet to try and establish connections and hopefully friendships.

I wish to end the mindless assertions that people in the US and Islamic countries are ideological enemies that have nothing in common!

5:57 PM  
Anonymous Dezhgir said...

Dear Robert,

The line in LA Time story when you tell the paper that shopkeepers continue to ask you how much this or that would cost in the US and you discover a naughty materialism in Iranian people is indeed a very cute observation.

I dare to add two observations of my own:

Iranian people have degenerated financially and consequently morally during the past 30 years. While for example China and India, half of the world's population, have pulled out 400 and 200 million people respectively out of abject poverty during the same period, Iranian real GDP has fallen to almost half since 1978. Measured by constant dollar Iranian per capita has declined to almost a third sir. That explains a lot on why my fellow Iranians look pop-eyed when finally "a real" rich American just passes by.

second is a tip about the people of cities of Qom and Mashhad Robert! All Iranians are not like them at all and don't trust anyone who tells you otherwise; Qomis and Mashhadis are more Materialist and hugely different from all other Iranian citizens! please remember those two shrines in the two cities have historically been and are a huge Business Hub to many who have for ages made the most profit selling services and goods to tens of millions of Pilgrims. Even to many Iranians they are characterized as very Materialist and Opportunist! "Qom, as a city in whole, Is a big Business".

If you ever came to Tehran I have a flat and would be more than glad to show you around if you ever wished.
please know that the dearest thing we may have in common is that my fiancée too is named Sara whom I love endlessly. My Email is; I am an student of International Relations and I am not currently occupied.


3:39 AM  
Blogger Irfan Ali said...

Hello Herbie,

Thank you so much for writing and for your positive actions on Iran.

I'm not sure if a sister cities scheme can work between the US and Iran, at least, not at the moment. Because it usually involves some sort of economic ties, and some sort of exchange/visit of people, which might be too difficult to pull off in either country right now. Then again, it's totally outside of my area of knowledge, so perhaps the possibility is there.

As for making individual friendships, as you've probably noticed, there are lots of computer-savvy Iranians who would love to correspond with a "pen-pal" from the USA or Europe. Maybe you can set up an online program to match Iranians with Americans for email/chat correspondence?


7:05 AM  
Blogger Denise said...

Robert, I enjoyed your story in the Times and am writing you to support you in your endeavor over there. I was raised a Catholic in LA, did the whole punk rock thing in the early 80's too, and have traveled extensively around the world, but never to the middle east.

I enjoyed reading about how you found the materialism in Iran, in a place you never thought you'd find it. I felt the same about my trip to India. I went there to find spirituality and found out there was more of that in selfish, money-hungry LA back home than in India could ever have.

As for religion, I have been open to many religions too, hinduism, buddhism, and now I'm back to Catholicism, but with an open eye, I guess you could say. So I think if this works for you, then go for it. It sounds like everything has led you to this path for a reason.

And I think it's more like 75% of Americans who hate the current government! It's an embarassment, to say the least. Enjoy your time in Iran. Be safe. I can't wait to read more.

7:50 AM  
Blogger Irfan Ali said...

Salaam Dezhgir!

Thank you for writing and giving some further insight into the things we have been experiencing here.

We were told by other Iranians about Qomis and Mashhadis, but in many ways those stereotypes didn't hold up. In fact, the worst place we experienced was Isfahan. Of course, there are many Iranian stereotypes about Isfahanis, but this was really above and beyond what we expected. Sara may blog about that when she has some time.

Further, we even get these questions and expectations about our vast riches from colleagues and other educated folks. It's ironic that they all earn more in Iran than we do in the USA, yet still we *must* be dripping with money! :)

In fact, Qomis have been the best at not treating us like Martians, as well as charging us fair prices and so on.

Thanks for the offer in Tehran. I got there frequently for my research, but usually just for day trips since I have so much to do. I'm hoping to be based there rather than Qom in the future, as it's a better spot for my research.

Khoda negahdar,

10:15 AM  
Blogger Irfan Ali said...

Dear Denise,

Thanks for visiting and sharing your story. I'm sure we must've met at some gig at Fenders, the Olympic Auditorium, or one of the many other venues in the LA/OC scene! :)

I also went to India several times while I was working for PETA and experienced what you wrote about. Again, it was personally disappointing as I was fairly involved in a lot of yogic and meditational disciplines at the time and hoping to find something spiritually moving and significant.

Again, there are all kinds of socio-economic reasons for this, but for a Western seeker, it seems to reinforce the notion that we can find something spiritual in our own traditions and situation. Like the Dalai Lama recomends staying in the religion of your birth, because of the cultural and traditional ties you have to it, but exploring, using, and benefiting from teachings from other traditions as well.

Good luck with your re-engagement with Catholicism. It is often said that Shiis are the Catholics of the Muslim world! I'm glad you found your grounding back there, though with a healthy dose of skepticism. I've always really admired Dorothy Day and the Catholic Workers Movement.


10:25 AM  
Blogger mohammed said...

Salaam Ali Bob,

I read the times article and of course it piqued my interest. For sometime I have been considering coming to Qum to study, even if only for a short period of time. I was curious about the disappointments you experienced. The article quotes you as saying, "I was hoping for something else, more profound." Can you elaborate on that. What are the things, if any, that you appreciate about your experience in Qom, and what are the things that leave you disappointed? You mentioned materialism, were there other things as well?

8:13 AM  
Blogger Irfan Ali said...

Salaam Mohammed,

I would certainly advise you to come to Qom, even for a short period, if traditional (and traditionally taught) Islamic sciences are of interest to you. There is an institute here that offers short-courses on language and Islamic sciences and is a good short term option.

I don't know if I can easily sum up my disappointment. Basically, I expected to somehow be more integrated and accepted into the "ummah" here, but found that no matter what I did or even how much I tried to fit in, I was always treated as an outsider (except by my very few close friends). More than that, I found that the religion here is very much an Iranian Islam, rather than Islam or even Shiism in general. While it still shares many features with Islam in its other forms, it is distinctly Iranain in tone and outlook.

In some ways I have it easier than other outsiders. As a Westerner I still invoke some awe here, and people will try to do what they can for me. However, Iranian racism/discrimination is pretty strong, and I've seen my Desi (Indo-Pak) friends have to struggle to get the respect they deserve even as Muslims, let alone human beings. I've heard worse stories about Desis, Africans, African-Americans, et al. who are trying to work their way through the system here and face many difficulties--difficulties stemming not from their ability and talent, but their ethnicity.

Not to mention the level of religiousity disappointed me in that it is largely ritualistic. Of course, I should've expected that, as that is usually the religiousity of the average person. However, that level of action and belief actually seems to be encouraged, instead of being seen as the baseline to improve upon, and thus it remains at that one level. Having had a similar disappointing experience with the majority Sunni Muslims in the USA, I had naively hoped that the Shii in Iran would be different. I suppose I was just spoiled in learning my Islam from intellectuals and mystics!

However, you can find intellectuals, reformists, mystics, philosophers, and most anything else you are looking for. It's just that you have to dig deeper--it's not what you find at first glance.

Finally, I really didn't like the adab (lack of) in the shrines. Usually Fatima Masuma's shrine here in Qom isn't bad. People are usually fairly polite, don't hog all the space for too long at the tomb, etc. But Imam Reza's shrine in Mashhad was awful. Even if you grant people were so moved by their piety that they forgot others, it is still hard to justify their behavior. It really turned me off in a big way, and made me worry even more about making Hajj. I've heard Hajj is also a big lack-of-adab fest and I'm not sure if my faith can bear it!

Thanks for writing and feel free to ask more questions if you need to.

Fi aman Allah,
Irfan Ali

10:20 AM  
Blogger mohammed said...

Salaam Irfan Ali,

Thanks for the detailed response. I have heard quite a few complaints about the racism that many experience in Iran. Its a little surprising and unfortunate that racism is still so deeply ingrained in many Muslim cultures, when here in the US, most Muslims pride themselves on Islam's idea of a multi-ethnic, undivided (in theory) Ummah. By now I have heard several stories about friends experiences and I think its about time I visit and gain an experience of my own. Best wishes during your stay in Iran and in your graduate studies.

4:55 AM  
Blogger Irfan Ali said...

Salaam Mohammed,

Glad to have been of some help. Good luck with your own search for knowledge!

Irfan Ali

5:02 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Assalaamu Alaikum!

A friend sent me the LA Times article a few days ago, and I learned about you guys for the first time then. I have been living in Qum for the past two years, and I have been a Northern Virginian since birth (not to mention that I have a younger sister who is currently at UVA). So naturally it was super exciting for me to read your guys’ post and feel a connection.
I am not sure what you meant by Sara leaving…leaving Qum or Iran? Please let me know if she is here, because I would really like to meet with her.
Actually, my husband and I want to meet with both of you (he’s been here longer than me…almost nine years). I understand that you are extremely busy, but if you ever have time, please let us know and we’d love to have you over for lunch or dinner sometime.
And let me know if Sara is here, I still have my hopes up!

Fi amanillah,

2:27 PM  
Anonymous Saeed said...

Dear Robert & Sara; SalAm

As you may boringly guess I too read the piece in LA here in Japan. See how shrunken our village become :-)
My name is Saeed and am an Iranian or put it more accurately come from Mashhad and have spent few years in Ghom studying until I got in trouble with "Dadgah-e Vijheh-ye RowhAniyyat" then imprisoned and later left Iran for NZ; anyhow.
Dear Robert; I do not like to advise you or anything but I think the main/ultimate source of PURE MEANING rests deep inside YOU as a Human Being. You Are The One & Only The One that has to be discovered for your own sake which you can call it Nejat/FalAh/RastegAri/HedAyat/etc.!Now, saying that I'd like to take a quantum leap forward and conclude that in the best world imagined it is this very notion that is/supposed to be the mission of Prophets & their claims. One of the most profound pious thinker & believer I have encountered among us Iranian is Dr. Abdol Karim Soroush:

You Two Take Care & Good Luck with your QUEST :-)

4:26 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hi Robert,

Thanks for a very interesting BLOG. I hope that you can continue with it again soon. I have a very interesting book that I would like to recommend to Denise and others that may be interested: "Roman Catholics and Shi'i Muslims, Prayer, Passion, and Politics" by James A. Bill and John Alden Williams. University of North Carolina Press, 2002.

As well, WWW.Al-ISLAM.ORG is a very useful website for those interested in Shi'i is has a large collection of works in full text, many excellent English language references.

Fi Amaanillah


4:35 AM  

Post a Comment

<< Home