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.