Iranians, by and large, are subtle about their piety, and identify more closely with Persian tradition than with Islam. Faith is a personal matter, commanding of respect, but it does not infuse our culture in the totalizing way I have witnessed in certain Arab countries, among many Sunni Muslims. Westernized, educated Iranians are fully secular—they eat pork, don’t pray, ignore Ramadan—and so it had never occurred to the exile community to start up a mosque. Hiking groups, discos, political soirees, definitely, but a mosque would have been in bad taste; the revolution had made Islam the domain of the fundamentalists. But Maman was one day struck by worry that I’d grow up ignorant of Islam, and decided some formal religious training was in order. Every four years she seemed to choose a new religious avenue to explore, convinced our lives were lacking in spirituality, and since we had already done Buddhism and Hinduism, and briefly toyed with Mormonism, it was Islam’s turn.
That was the summer she enrolled us in a Sunni mosque. It was called the San Jose Islamic Association, but it was really an enclave of superpious, Sunni Pakistanis who had dedicated their experience in America to avoiding their experience in America. A shabby pink Victorian housed both the mosque and the Islamic Association; bearded men led the sermon, and the women in the back, dressed in salwar kameez, dashed off at the final “allah akbar” to heat up the naan. The sermons were boring, and the Pakistanis were cliquey, but the afternoon morality class was the worst.
Brother Rajabali (or some such pious name), a dark, spindly man whose unenviable job it was to make the harsh Sunni morality applicable to our lives in California, had dedicated the afternoon’s lesson to sex, and how its only purpose was procreation. Maman nodded gravely, the Bosnian girls scribbled notes to one another, and I sat wondering whether all Sunnis were so narrow-minded. Eventually, I convinced a coalition of relatives the mosque was run by fundamentalist, radical Sunnis who were trying to brainwash me. My grandmother interceded, afraid I would be turned away from Islam forever, and we never set foot again into the sad old Victorian with its angry believers. They still send us their monthly newsletter, full of ads for halal meat grocers we never frequent.