The Ayatollah Begs to Differ

The Ayatollah Begs to Differ: The Paradox of Modern Iran By Hooman Majd Doubleday 272 pp. $27.95

Who are the Iranians? Hooman Majd offers an illuminating answer in The Ayatollah Begs to Differ: The Paradox of Modern Iran, a captivating new book that invites us to “peer inside the Iranian soul.”

If anyone can prove adept at explaining Iranians to Americans, it ought to be Majd. An Iranian-American writer noted for his essays on Iran in The New Yorker, Salon, GQ, and the New York Observer, Majd was born in Tehran in 1957, the son of an Iranian diplomat and the grandson of an ayatollah.

He was educated in England and the United States and is as at home in Manhattan as he is in Tehran. As one of his friends put it, Majd is “100 percent American and 100 percent Iranian.”

“Iranians,” Majd writes as he attempts to deconstruct modern Iran, “are known to have a public face and a private face, a public life and a private life.”

This dual existence is Majd’s subject,  explored through revealing interviews with the famous and the infamous, the weak and the powerful.

In his travels behind “Persian walls,” Majd encounters a colorful cast of characters with vivid stories to tell. These stories – unvarnished and uninhibited – represent a shade of the human narrative that is modern Iran.

But first things first: “If you want to know us,” said former President Ayatollah Akbar Rafsanjani, “become a Shia first.” Iran is an ethnically diverse, Muslim country of more than 70 million people. Roughly 85 percent of the world’s 1.5 billion Muslim population is Sunni, but in Iran (and a few other countries), Shiism reigns supreme.

Majd observes that Iranians – who see themselves as a race apart from their Arab neighbors – take inordinate pride in their inheritance of what they consider to be “the greatest civilization known to man.”

But, Persian pride can become Persian arrogance, especially towards ancient conquerors, like the Arabs. Iranians believe, Majd notes, that Arabs may have brought Islam to their land, but they offered “nothing else of any value and may have, in fact, hindered Persian progress in the arts and sciences.”

The Greeks fare no better in the estimation of Iranians. Alexander the Great is considered a great barbarian, but he was forgiven, at least, for marrying a Persian woman.

In considering the duality of modern Iran, Majd devotes considerable attention to the strange presidency of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

“What is it,” he asks, “about Iran that gave us Omar Khayyam and Rumi centuries ago, and gives us Ahmadinejad and the mullahs today?” A blacksmith’s son, Ahmadinejad was born in 1956 in Aradan, Iran. Inspired by Ayatollah Khomeini’s 1979 Iranian Revolution, he embraced a life of politics and rose to the presidency on a populist platform in 2005.

Ahmadinejad earned international contempt for his belligerent comments toward Israel and his revisionist views of the Holocaust. Majd rebukes Ahmadinejad and his associates for their “singular and puerile obsession with the Holocaust, which most Iranians feel has nothing to do with them.”

Ahmadinejad will pass, Majd predicts, but the deep social problems facing Iran will persist. For example, he quotes alarming statistics from the English-language daily newspaper “Iran News”: “ ‘Iranians hold the 1st spot among world countries regarding narcotics consumption.’ ”

The paper goes on to estimate that 4 to 6 percent of Iranians are drug addicts. Opium (which Majd sampled), heroin, crack, and other drugs are easily available to Iranians, even clerics. Majd watched in amazement as a young mullah puffed on an opium pipe while giving religious advice to his students in the holy Shia city of Qom.

Iran is not a nation of angels, but this is no surprise.

Majd shows that Iran suffers from many of the same problems as the “decadent” West: AIDS, abortion, prostitution, and alcoholism. Majd believes that many Iranian social taboos are slowly fading away as a more open and democratic Iran is emerging.

“The Ayatollah Begs to Differ” is notable for challenging the persistent stereotypes of Iran – the shrieking fundamentalists, stern clerics in black turbans, and women imprisoned in chadors. According to Majd, these are outdated symbols for lazy observers, and Iran is not portrayed as an Islamic penal colony in his three-dimensional portrait.

Many recent books have attempted to elevate our shallow understanding of Iran, but this  book soars above them as a discerning guide to a complex country.

Joseph Richard Preville is an American writer living in Sur, Sultanate of Oman.

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