Posted by CODEPINK Staff
I ( a CODEPINK co-founder) and Col. Ann Wright, a retired U.S. state official, are spending a second week in Iran on a citizen’s diplomacy visit, engaging with Iranian women’s groups and officials to build bridges and create peace from the ground up. We arrived Friday. Here’s a bit of our experience Thursday (bit of time delay in getting this up…sorry!)
The days have flown by. Ann and I spent Thursday in the religious city of Qom, where the old, narrow streets are flooded with turbaned men (black if they are descendants of the prophets, white if they are not) and black-cloaked women. Our host for the day was the head of U.S. Desk of the Foreign Ministry, Davood Mohammad Niar, who drove us from Tehran in his car, chatting along the way about politics—all strictly “off the record.” Also accompanying us was Leila Zand, a representative from the U.S interfaith group, Fellowship of Reconciliation.
Davood is a devoted Muslim and with great pride and enthusiasm he showed us the library in Qom that has more than 30,000 handwritten books, some more than 1,000 years old. They are mostly religious works but also ancient books on math and the sciences. We were told that some of the writing — the examples so tiny that they were barely readable by the naked eye--was done by eunuchs!
The books are historic treasures that have been meticulously maintained. Some of the workers in the back rooms of the collection spent a year just learning to replicate the intricate drawings and calligraphy before even starting their restoration work. They took great pride in showing us the “before and after”-- books once consumed by insects that now look miraculously intact.
The collection was started by a revered Ayatollah Marashi, who began buying the ancient books when he was a poor, young man. He was known to go hungry in order to save his pennies to buy books, and fought with British collectors who wanted to take them out of the country. In fact, he even spent a stint in jail for his determined efforts to keep historical books from leaving Iran.
It is clear that Iranians have a great love of things ancient and of their cultural and religious heritage, a connection to the past that one rarely feels in our fast-paced, consumerist U.S. society.
From there we visited the women’s religious college called Jami’at Al-Zahra, or the University of Lady Fatimah Zahra.The Iranians claim that the school is the world’s largest Islamic university dedicated to the education of women. Boarders and commuters together add up to more than 10,000 students, including foreign students from about 40 countries! The government has invested a lot of money in this beautiful, new complex of classrooms, dorms and a library surrounding a vast courtyard. While they have some male professors and workers, the inner sanctum of the school is a “male-free zone,” where women are free to unveil themselves. I was surprised, however, that even in this inner sanctum where we met with the director and some professors (Davood was not allowed to join us), the women continued to be covered. In fact, I was the only one who readily threw off my headscarf, and felt that our hosts looked at me askance.
The women we met with were warm and welcoming, offering us tea and snacks, giving us books they had written on Islam. They also brought a student to meet us — an 18-year-old American girl from Dearborn, Michigan! Like the other students, she was clothed in a chador that revealed only her eyes to her mouth, but she smiled broadly and was a charming Lebanese-American. She seemed very happy to be studying there and enjoyed the camaraderie of the other devout women. In contrast, we felt the heavily religious atmosphere to be stifling.
When, during the following days, we would tell Iranians that we had visited Qom, many of them would make a face and say scornfully, “Qom, why would you go to that terrible place run by those conservative religious people?” It is one manifestation of the great divide between the devout Islamists who have taken control of this nation and the more secular Iranians who long for a separation between “mosque and state”. We would feel this divide throughout our stay.