The Ayatollah Begs to Differ. By Hooman Majd. New York: Doubleday, 2009, 272 pp. $24.95.
The Ayatollah Begs to Differ is a lively little romp through the recent history of Iran and a peek into the Persian soul. The author, Hooman Majd, is an Iranian-American who wields an incisive, eloquent, and witty pen. Although he was educated in the West, he was born in Tehran, is the son of an Iranian diplomat, the grandson of an ayatollah, and has served as a translator for both Khatami and Ahmadinejad.
In the Introduction, Majd tells us that his “hope is that this book, through a combination of stories, history, and personal reflection, will provide the reader a glimpse of Iran and Iranians, often secretive and suspicious of revealing themselves, that he or she may not ordinarily have the opportunity to see.” In this hope, Majd succeeds, particularly in contrast to the handful of others who have attempted the same thing in recent years.
The reader is taken on several excursions into the world of Iranian politics. Majd argues that Iran is a class-based society, whose wealthy elite are constantly in conflict with the blue-collar masses. It is these same masses who brought current President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to power.
Ahmadinejad, Majd says, is a master politician who knows how to appeal to the religious and national pride of the masses, assuring them that he will help them to throw off the yoke of colonialism and imperialism. As the son of a blacksmith, he has major “street cred” among the underclass and is the first President to give speeches in colloquial, rather than classic, Persian. Majd speaks of Ahmadinejad’s style, “the bad suits, the cheap windbreaker, the shoddy shoes, and the unstylish haircut…[They are] signal to the working class that he is still one of them.”
The reader will also have a quick course in Shia Islam. Majd tells, for example, of his visit to Jamkaran, the home of a huge mosque which was built on the site of an alleged appearance of the 12th imam, the Imam Mahdi. (Supposedly the 12th Imam never died, is in a state of occultation, and will return one day as the Muslim Messiah.) On Tuesdays, the reader is told, one can drop a note to the 12th imam in a well. The imam, though invisible, takes requests and answers prayers on that day.
In another vignette, Majd tells the story of a Sufi cleric who entertained audiences, answering questions and often helping various individuals discern God’s will on particular issues. Sometimes, “he would hold a Koran in his hand and pray, again with eyes closed, and at the right moment stop and randomly open the book to a page, whereby he would ascertain from the passage his finger pointed to what answer to give the petitioner.” Sound familiar?
Along the way, Majd uses historical research and personal experience to give the reader quick and colorful lessons in Iranian (Persian) civilization and culture. The Persians have a superiority/inferiority complex. They are a fiercely proud people, with a rich history, who see their culture as superior to all others. Take the Arabs, for example. While many Americans might imagine a friendly co-existence between Persians and Arabs, they could hardly be more wrong. The Persians understand themselves in opposition to Arab culture. Though the Arabs bequeathed Islam to the Persians, Majd writes that the Arabs have brought “nothing else of any value and may have, in fact, hindered Persian progress in the arts and sciences.” And yet at the same time, they are shamed that their country has been relegated for years to the status of a third-world country.
It is for this reason, Majd explains that “Iranians of a certain age can be forgiven for feeling a tinge of pride in their nation’s rapid ascent to a position of being taken seriously by the world’s greatest superpower.” Whatever can be said about Iran these past thirty years, it cannot be said that Iran is submissive to any other political power.
And yet, Majd also speaks of Iranian social decay. Iranians are #1 in the world in narcotics consumption, with 4-6% of Iranians being drug addicts. Majd tells the story of his being expected to take a puff on the opium pipe on one of his visits. On that occasion, there was in the room a tall young mullah, who “calmly spent the next hour puffing away, drinking tea, fingering his beads, and occasionally answering questions of religious philosophy.” Indeed, Iran suffers from many of the same ills as the US: AIDS, prostitution, addiction, and abortion.
The Ayatollah Begs to Differ is strongly recommended as the best introduction to Iran on the market. There are other books that focus on particular aspects of Iran—Sandra Mackey’s The Iranians explores Iran in the context of the 1979 revolution, Vali Nasr’s The Shia Revival gives an in-depth treatment of Shia Islam—but Majd’s book is the best snapshot of the country as a whole.
Bruce R Ashford, PhD
Dean, The College of Southeastern