When the governments of America and Iran have been, for three decades, such bitter and suspicious adversaries, then perhaps it is fitting that one of the best books in English on modern Iran—a work that might serve to explain one culture to the other and, indeed, to the rest of the world—should be written by a man who suggests he is “both 100% American and 100% Iranian”. The math of those numbers, of course, doesn’t add up, but to me this seemed like one of the very few false notes in Hooman Majd’s otherwise erudite, spirited, and often laugh-aloud funny survey of contemporary Iran, The Ayatollah Begs to Differ.
The Ayatollah’s gaze: Majd supplies the context to stereotypical views about Iran. Zohren Soleimani / Bloomberg
The grandson of an ayatollah and the son of a diplomat in the employ of the old monarchy of Shah Reza Pahlavi, overthrown in 1979, Majd is someone whose credentials as an interpreter of the conflicting currents of Iranian politics, religion (which itself is highly political in Iran’s theocratic regime) and culture could hardly be bettered. Although he has been an American resident all his life, Majd’s Farsi and grasp of Iranian verities are more than adequate. In the book, he manages simultaneously to obscure the American side of his identity, growing a beard and hauling down his fastidious dress sense a couple of notches, and to derive capital from it, allowing native Iranians to admire his stylish cellphone and entertaining their fantasies of immigration.
The stereotypical view of Iran is that of a country fiercely Islamic and often fundamentalist, where mullahs inveigh against the godless West, basic social and political freedoms are denied, women live as second-class citizens, and excellent kebabs and art films are made. Majd works away at all these perceptions, refining them and often supplying the context that either refute them or make them seem more reasonable.
That Iran is Islamic may not be as important, he argues, as the fact that Iran is specifically Shia, and subscribes to a strain of Islam to which its own neighbours in West Asia are hostile. Shia Islam is more receptive to music, poetry, religious ritual and pictorial representation than the more orthodox Sunni strain. Merged with the distinct emphases of ancient Persia’s pre-Islamic, Sassanid civilization (itself rich in song and poetry), it has created a religious ethos that is distinctly Iranian, and cannot be adequately explained by larger and murkier phrases such as “Muslim” or “anti-modern”.
Neither is Majd, we quickly sense, a stereotypical liberal, all fired up because women still have to wear a hijab in public (Majd shows that Iran’s own gender rights movement is more concerned with other issues); critical of the role, indeed rule, of religion in political and social life; and insistent that Western-style liberal democracy is the only answer to the problem of political authority and legitimacy. Indeed, Majd often supplies, or at least quotes, ingenious defences of some of the more bizarre moves of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, now Iran’s President for a second term and a self-styled “man of the people”. Majd shows that although Iranian people are often critical of the excesses of the current government as well as the larger principles and continuities of theocratic rule, by and large they do not want a change from the idea of “Islamic democracy” ushered in by Ayatollah Khomeini’s 1979 revolution. Indeed, as Majd shows us through his description of the modest, low-key lives led by Iran’s political elite, |Iranian leaders at least do not live inside a self-fashioned bubble that leaders in democracies worldwide seem to fashion for themselves.
And while the Iranian regime is certainly not very tolerant of political dissidents and agitators, neither is it the case that Iranian people enjoy no freedom of speech at all. One of Majd’s emphases is the separation made in Persian life between the public and the private spheres, the most obvious symbol of which is the high-walled garden (or pairidaeza, from which the English word “paradise” originates) found in traditional Iranian homes. Within and across their homes, Iranians are relatively free to confer, and to articulate controversial and even seditious opinion. “It is perhaps because of the home and the garden as the defining centre of life,” writes Majd, “that Iranians find living in a society with such stringent rules of public behaviour somewhat tolerable.”
Lastly, Majd is a fabulously charming presence, and a writer with enough command of prose style to be able to transfer the hues and tones of his own attractive personality into his book. His jazzy chapter headings, love of jokes, speculation, snatches of poetry and sensual pleasures, alertness to subtle social graces and put-downs, and willingness to hear what Indian scholars of subaltern studies would call “the small voice of history”, make this much more than your standard-issue non-fiction tract. Don’t miss this one.
Chandrahas Choudhury is the author of Arzee the Dwarf. Write to firstname.lastname@example.org