March 9, 2010

Book review: "The Ayatollah Begs to Differ," by Hooman Majd

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The Ayatollah Begs to Differ by Hooman Majd

The Ayatollah Begs to Differ: The Paradox of Modern Iran
By Hooman Majd
Doubleday

Like millions of other Americans, I am in the active process these days of increasing my knowledge base regarding the Middle East and Southeast Asia, from its former level of "zero" to a new level of "more than zero." But this of course immediately presents a problem to armchair scholars -- namely, with a subject so vast, where do you even start when you know literally nothing? For example, it's definitely important to understand the complex feudal empires that ruled these areas during what's known in the West as the Middle Ages, although such study doesn't even begin to explain the region in the here and now; but by concentrating solely on contemporary issues, one misses entirely the strong cultural background that led to these attitudes in the first place. Do you filter all your information through the all-important subject of religion in this section of the world? If so, then how do you begin to understand the actions of West-friendly reformers? But then without a solid grounding of religious education, how do you even begin to understand something like the Taliban, and why they seemingly have a surprising amount of support from people who aren't particularly violent or reactionary themselves?

So thank God, then, for books like the recent and fantastic The Ayatollah Begs to Differ by Hooman Majd, because it's actually several things at once -- not just a primer on historical issues regarding the old Persian Empire, but a field guide to the modern Iran it became, an on-the-ground report about daily life inside a working theocracy, even a funny Bill-Bryson-style travelogue about a clueless Westerner smoking opium with random strangers, participating in a self-flagellation festival, and going skiing at a bling-bling-filled Muslim mountain resort. And in fact Majd is in a uniquely great position to be telling a story like this; after all, he was born into an Iranian family of high political influence (both during the last years of the Shah and the first years of the Islamic Republic that came after), but then eventually moved to New York and became a senior executive within the entertainment industry (and a contributing writer to Andy Warhol's Interview magazine, back when it was still good), making him simultaneously an insider and outsider to modern Iranian culture, about as perfect a position to be in to relate to fellow Americans exactly what daily life is like over there these days.

And indeed, over the course of several trips he makes there during the waning years of the Bush administration, Majd presents us with a nation profoundly more complex than most Americans even have a clue concerning, a place where the historical and modern clash in sometimes amusing, sometimes tragic ways -- a society that in theory is an open democracy, with public elections and a strong emphasis on basic human rights, yet ruled at the top by a circle of religious experts whose judgments are not allowed to be questioned, a country that creates elaborate public dress codes but are then ignored by half the population with no repercussions (well, except around elections, when conservative candidates will initiate morality crackdowns to look good in the eyes of voters, almost exactly what you see during American elections as well). And in fact that's probably Majd's most surprising conclusion of all, that current Iran is not actually too terribly different than Bush's America in the early 2000s, a "free" society but full of draconian rules but that most citizens then promptly ignore, leading back to that free society it's supposed to be, but with the whole thing manifested in this overly complicated, seemingly contradictory way.

And Majd tells us this story in a great way too, by gaining access to events and people that he can only pull off by being from a politically connected family -- over the course of this easily readable 250-page manuscript, we get to sit in on interviews with high-ranking government officials, attend booze-and-pot-filled parties full of urban liberal hipsters, witness a series of ultra-conservative religious rituals in the country's rural wastelands (think the Islamic version of a Pentecostal tent revival in the Deep South, full of writhing true believers speaking in tongues), and of course eavesdrop on a whole series of private home-based salons and dinner parties, centered around middle-class family gardens and friendly afternoon opium sessions (the Iranian equivalent of cigars and cocktails among businessmen), which is where the vast majority of the nation's collective decisions are very quietly made. And this of course is the biggest contradiction of all concerning modern Iran, as Majd so deftly shows us through conversation and example, the simultaneous superiority and inferiority complexes that most Iranians suffer from (caused respectively from the clash between their ancient Persian past and more recent colonial days), resulting in a society where among other things one is perfectly free to publicly criticize the government, just as long as you don't do it too loudly or attract too much attention (and wow, talk about the Bush years in a nutshell).

It's a fascinating book full of all kinds of surprising and paradigm-shifting conclusions, and I have to admit that I've had my entire worldview concerning Iran profoundly change just from this book alone. It's the perfect kind of informational title for most Americans, funny and entertaining even as it teaches much-needed basic lessons about Islam and Persia, and it comes today highly recommended to nearly every person on the planet, Iranians themselves included.

Out of 10: 9.8

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Filed by Jason Pettus at 2:14 PM, March 9, 2010. Filed under: Literature | Literature:Nonfiction | Reviews |