Because I skipped ahead to our meetings at Tehran University, I have only one key set of meetings left to blog about—those that took place in Qom, the home of Iran's many seminaries, and the center of clerical power in the Islamic Republic.
Our first stop in Qom was at the Great Library of Ayatollah Al-Uzma Mar'ashi Najafi.
As a seminarian, Ayatollah Mar'ashi noticed that the oldest Islamic texts were becoming hard to find, and that they were primarily being purchased and collected by Europeans who didn't even believe in Islam. He made it his personal mission to acquire and restore important old Islamic religious texts.
Sometimes he fasted—as an act of piety, but also to save money with which to buy books. Slowly, over decades, he accumulated the greatest collection of old Islamic religious texts in the world of Shia Islam.
After the Islamic Revolution, his library came to be regarded as one of the pre-eminent treasures of Islamic Iran. Thousands of additional texts were acquired, world-class restoration experts were hired, the best equipment was acquired, dedicated staff members were trained, and the Mar'ashi Library began restoring severely damaged documents that would have previously been unsalvageable. Although Mar'ashi died in 1990 at the age of 96, his son continues to direct the library.
We toured the museum, viewing a Koran dating from just after the life of Muhammed, along with numerous other ancient books and illuminated manuscripts. We saw the meticulous processes through which library staffers restore ragged ancient pages.
Afterwards we were ushered into a meeting room where we had a chance to sit and talk with Dr. Mar'ashi himself, the son of the Ayatollah, and the director of the Library. And he turned out to be a delightful surprise.
Our tourguide had seemed intent on impressing us. He would tell us the facts about the ancient texts or the collection with great emphasis, sometimes asking what we thought of it all (seemingly fishing, again and again, for expressions of respect or amazement.)
Dr. Mar'ashi, on the other hand, was ordinary and humble, quite willing to speak in the most human and direct terms about virtually any subject. He told us about his visits to the United States, and his close relatives in Michigan.
We were closely watched, and Iranians journalists photographed our meeting, but I had the sense that he would have enjoyed a more heartfelt and probing conversation than we felt free to engage.