QOM, Iran — For centuries, disciples of the spirit have come to this desert shrine town in search of guidance, power or solace. Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani studied at the seminaries here as a young man before heading off to Iraq and eventually becoming Shiite Islam's most widely regarded scholar.
Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, who lived here before his exile, returned to settle among the bearded and turbaned clerics after leading the 1979 Islamic Revolution. Each day, thousands of pilgrims make their way here seeking spiritual nourishment at the blue-domed shrine of Fatima.
Robert Tappan, a towering former U.S. Marine from Torrance, is one of them.
"Even though I have the beard, I still get a lot of strange looks," said the 35-year-old, whose light-reddish-brown hair and 6-foot-3 frame make it hard to be inconspicuous.
After years of zigzagging between career paths and coasts in the United States, Tappan converted to Shiite Islam five years ago, saved up money and secured some loans. Last fall, he headed here with his wife, Sara, to make a spiritual connection with his newfound faith as well as finish his doctorate in Islamic Studies.
But he has found himself struggling for answers about his new religion as well as his relationship to the U.S. in this conservative town, the religious center of a country now locked in a war of words with Washington and the West over its pursuit of nuclear technology, its ties to militant groups abroad and its role in neighboring Iraq.
Tappan says he's sensitive to the potential accusation in America that he's a traitor, a version of "American Taliban" John Walker Lindh. He has stayed away from the more politically extreme elements of the faith.
In Qom, he has befriended some of the most liberal and iconoclastic clerics, including Fazel Meybodi, recognized as a reformist who has questioned Iran's rule by clerics. The two share an office.
"I don't feel like the Iranian people feel like they are out for blood and they want to do anything to America," Tappan said. "I don't see Iran as the enemy at all."
Normally serene and engaged, Tappan becomes visibly uncomfortable and quiet when asked whether his presence in Qom could be interpreted as an approval of the Iran regime's human rights record and foreign policy.
"That's like saying all the human rights activists who live in Iran should emigrate," he said after a long pause. "Iran is so diverse, and all these schools of thoughts are here. You can't put a blanket categorization on the people."
But Tappan's journey to Qom has also disappointed him.
In addition to piety and affirmation of his faith, he has found materialism, political expediency and traditions disguised as religion.
"I was hoping for something else," Tappan said, "more profound."
Tappan, who was born in Houston, moved to Southern California as a youngster. He tried various teen guises. At one point, he said, he sported a mohawk and became a part of Los Angeles' late-'80s punk rock scene. Afterward, he and his buddies "got into the low-rider thing," listening to hip-hop music in what he calls his "pre-Eminem" phase.
"It was just like rebellion for rebellion's sake," he said.
Disturbed by his own aimlessness, Tappan decided one day that he'd like to be a police officer, and to prepare for that, he joined the Marines.
"I had this idealistic view, I guess, of wanting to help the downtrodden and the poor," he recalled. "Not like you have a mustache and be macho, but you could do cool stuff."
But the Marines had other plans for him. After basic training, he scored so high on aptitude tests, he was shipped off to the Defense Language Institute in Monterey, where he was placed in Arabic classes, much to his disappointment. "I thought, what am I ever going to do with that when I come out to be a cop in L.A.?" he recalled. "You know, I wanted to learn Korean."
But the introduction to Arabic would prove life-changing. The 1991 Persian Gulf War had just begun, and Tappan became fascinated with the debates percolating among his teachers about Iraq, the Palestinian issue and the problems of the Arab world.
A bureaucratic screw-up, he says, kept him from being sent overseas after his training, and he found himself repairing jeeps at Camp Lejeune, N.C. A bad shoulder got him honorably discharged after serving more than three years as a Marine, he says.
His intellectual curiosity piqued, he used his G.I. Bill money to get himself into the University of Redlands' Johnston Center for Integrative Studies, where he took courses in religion and the Middle East.
Encouraged by his professors to enter academia, he attended graduate school at the University of Virginia, dropping out to become an animal rights activist, and joined up again. Though raised by secular Protestant parents, he had become fascinated by religions.
"For whatever reason, Christianity never clicked with me," he said.
At one point, he experimented with the idea of becoming a Zen Buddhist and attended a few meditation retreats, but longed for a more personal connection to his faith. "I missed being able to pray or feeling like I had some kind of relationship with God," he said.
He felt drawn to Islam's calls for justice. He immersed himself in the differences between the dominant Sunni and minority Shiite sects. When Tappan felt the pull to Islam in early 2001, there was never any doubt he would go for the rebellious Shiites.
"I never discount the underdog," he said. "My conversion was more of an intellectual arrival rather than some epiphany or some sort of mystical experience."
At the University of Virginia, Tappan met Sara, a chatty Pakistani American who had grown up in Latin America. They fell in love and married. After his conversion, Sara, a secular Muslim who melds her faith with her MTV sensibilities, started calling him "Ali Bob."
Tappan, whose Muslim name is Irfan Ali, immersed himself in his studies, which combined his interest in religion and bioethics. It was his academic advisor and mentor, Tanzanian-born Shiite Abdelaziz Sachedina, who first suggested he go to Iran to study original texts.
After a year of bureaucratic dead ends, he and his wife got the OK to spend an academic year at Mofid University in Qom, which was established in 1988 by one of Khomeini's associates.
Tappan's mother, an occupational therapist and yoga instructor in Pomona, and father, owner of a bulk-mailing business in Monrovia, expressed alarm. They recalled daily televised images of bombings in Iraq as well as faded footage of blindfolded U.S. hostages paraded before cameras in 1979 in Iran.
"My mom — any time something happens in the news in the Middle East, she gets jumpy," Tappan said. "It's not clear to most Americans that even though there's only one letter difference between Iraq and Iran, it's a different universe."
The Tappans arrived at Tehran's Mehrabad Airport in November. University officials took them from the capital's hodgepodge of skyscrapers and tangle of traffic through the desert highway to Qom, about 80 miles to the south.
Stretching from Najaf in Iraq to Mashhad in eastern Iran, the desert shrine cities of the Shiite world have for centuries had a particularly uniform layout: A crumbling Old City of narrow alleyways surrounds a holy site, which is the center of all cultural and commercial life. Tappan imagined that he'd be staying somewhere near the shrine.
But Qom has changed dramatically in the last quarter-century, and as a visitor enters, the first thing that catches the eye isn't the shimmering dome of the shrine but the sight of at least two glittering amusement parks, one a few hundred yards from the Fatima shrine, one of Iran's most sacred sites, and dozens of neon-lighted shops selling sohan, a saffron-flavored, pistachio-studded sweet similar to peanut brittle that is Qom's specialty.
The Tappans' driver headed out past the center of the sprawling city of 1 million, farther and farther along wide boulevards lined with fancy shops selling electronics, colorful evening gowns and fashionably cut suits. They passed turbaned clerics and Afghan laborers, women in form-fitting jackets and flimsy head scarves and young men with ponytails and skin-tight jeans.
On they drove, until they reached the Mofid campus, a sprawling complex of lawns, modern architecture and man-made ponds set against a dramatic mountain backdrop. The Tappans were housed in a two-bedroom apartment where they could watch BBC on satellite TV and bask in air conditioning.
"It really felt like the suburbs," he said.
Tappan was given an office at the university and immediately set about with his studies: exploring the way Shiite Islam was grappling with questions of bioethics such as in vitro fertilization, artificial insemination and surrogate parenting.
He was shocked to discover that he could bring up just about any topic with traditionally trained clerics. Is the withdrawal method a sanctioned form of birth control? Is it appropriate for a man to masturbate in order to produce semen for in vitro fertilization of his wife?
"We can ask even very blunt questions and people aren't upset by them," he said.
Outside the university and seminaries, he found more surprises.
"I'll go into a shop and they'll be asking me: 'Oh! What does this song say?' And it's like some bad Europop song," he said. "And I'm like, 'Oh, it says, "Hey, sexy lady." And they're like: 'Oh, yeah. We thought so.' "
Sara spends her days with the clerics' wives and teaching English to the granddaughters of Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, whose son-in-law oversees his Qom office.
"I mean, they are religious," she said of women in Qom, "but there is definitely this, 'Oh, he is cute!' "
Occasionally she updates her blog at http://www.sweetsohan.blogspot.com , which is devoted to their pastry consumption as well as adventures, such as the time a shopkeeper told her that Iranians don't like America.
"To this, I told him that America is a good country, and we love America and our family is there and Americans are very good people and just the government is bad," she wrote recently. "He agreed that yes, the American people are good. He still hopes that America's government is destroyed."
The angry man with a scruffy beard raised his voice as he spoke to those who had gathered on the grounds of the shrine complex. Over the heads in the crowd, Tappan could see the face of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the newly elected Iranian president who appears to be on a collision course with the U.S. in a dispute over his country's nuclear program.
Tappan, who had a little time to kill before an appointment, had wandered over to the shrine to pay his respects, but instead found himself in the middle of a political rally being staged by the country's most anti-U.S. elements.
With his loose grasp of Persian, Tappan could make out words criticizing his country.
"Death to America! Death to America," some in the crowd chanted, holding banners and raising their fists in the air.
Tappan was nervous, but quickly noticed most of the die-hards were near the stage, like the slam-dancing mosh pit at a punk rock show. The rest of the crowd appeared distracted and bored, milling about on the sidelines with him. "It just seemed so surreal," he recalled. "I wondered if it was going to be a problem that I was there."
He struck up a chat with a cleric. "Where are you from?" the turbaned man asked.
Tappan braced for criticism of U.S. foreign policy or the decadent ways of the West as he gave his reply: "I'm an American."
But the cleric merely nodded serenely and handed him his card.
" 'Oh, good,' " Tappan recalled him saying. " 'I teach in the school here. Here's my number. Come and visit.' "
Although the heated discussions about politics, sex education and reproductive rights with clerics were intellectually stimulating, Tappan was spiritually uninspired.
He was turned off by the government's melding of politics and religion, such as Ahmadinejad's rally on the grounds of the shrine complex and the bombastic billboards of clerics-turned-politicians looking over city squares.
The Tappans were appalled by the materialism of many Iranians. "All they want to know is how much things cost in America," Sara said.
Then Robert Tappan had his moment of spiritual connection. It came one day when he spotted a cleric, deeply entranced in thought, walking along a trail on Mofid's sprawling campus.
Up above, the rocky reddish mountains almost swooned over a landscape that could have been right out of Southern California.
"I got more a sense of the holy just where we live," he said during a drive through the city's outskirts.
"It is this beautiful, natural place. There's this mosque up on the mountaintop. You see people going up there for pilgrimage. In some sense I did find the holy — not necessarily where I thought it would be."
He had hoped his trip to Qom would bolster his faith, but it inadvertently reaffirmed his ties to his own country.
"Ultimately," he said, "I realized how much of an American Muslim I am — and that's OK."