The Ayatollah Begs to Differ: The Paradox of Modern Iran
© 2008 Hooman Majd
Whatever nebulous conception most Americans have of the Middle East, Iran should stand apart. Not because it is currently DC’s designated enemy, but because Iran is different. Its people are not Arabs, the state religion is a markedly different of Islam than that practiced and promoted by its Sunni neighbors, and its political constitution is its own, a curious fusion of theocracy and democracy which was self-invented. The Ayatollah Begs to Differ profiles Iran as a nation of paradox, a place increasingly secular but ruled by clerics, driven by both aggressive insistence on its rights and an internal ritual of utter deference and hospitality.
When I began reading this over the weekend, it wasn’t in anticipation of the House of Saud’s business partner in the White House stirring foreign policy turds. Bush’s obsession with Iran, and Obama’s later difficulty in coming to a concordance with them, made me increasingly curious and even fascinated by the land formerly known as Persia. Hooman Majd mentions here that Persia was formally dropped in the 1930s in favor of the older Iran, both to invoke a glorious ancient past and to buff over the inglorious recent past, when old Persia was an increasingly bedraggled object in a tug of war between Russia and the United Kingdom. Iran’s foreign policy is driven primarily by a need for self-protection, from both its Arab neighbors and from interference from farther points. The two often intersect, as when the United States abetted Saddam Hussein’s eight year war against Iran.
Foreign policy is only a small part in this guide, however. Majid is Iranian-American, but not the kind who bemoans that Iran is not more like Europe and the United States. He has close ties with a former president of Iran, the reformer Mohammad Khatami, and his father was a leading cleric. His warm regard for Iran is not predicated on what it can do differently, but what it has done already and can mature. The Ayatollah Begs to Differ includes some of the usual “experiencing Iran” chapters, like his Ashura experience in Qom and anecdotes about traffic and family life, as well as unique interviews with friends of his in Iran — like the aforementioned minister Khatami. Majd’s book is draws on time spent in Iran just as Khatami’s administration was being replaced by the more strident one of Mamoud Ahmadinejad, whose aggressive posture against the west over nuclear development was cheered by many in Iran who thought their country was the whipping boy of the international community. Majd is not a fan of Ahmadinejad, however, despite his sympathy for Ahmadinejad’s working class supporters. One worrisome aspect of Ahmadinejad for Majd is the man’s fervent religiosity; he is not merely observant, but anticipates the imminent end of the world and is willing to talk about it, much to the dismay of the leading clerics who do not believe theology and eschatology are the province of the uninitiated.
Although I’ve read a fair few books on modern Iran in the last few years, even so The Ayatollah Begs to Differ offered a lot of insight. I’ve read previously how common exterior walls are in Iranian residential architecture, for instance, keeping outsiders firmly at bay — but Majd writes that the law also respects this boundary, and that Iranians tolerate so much social policing in the community because they are largely left alone inside their own homes. Majd’s extensive chapter on Iranian ritual ta’arof was both amusing and informative; I’ve encountered numerous world-travel memoirs that marveled at Iranian hospitality. Although this strikes me as attractive to a small degree, the way its expressed by Majd seemed exasperatingly drawn out. Taking a cab involves an endless spiel of “How much do I owe?”, “No, sir, I am your humble servant this was my honor, please go”, “No, I insist I pay, how much?”, “God forbid sir, it was nothing”, etc. Eventually the bow-haggling stops and honest money changes hands. Majd also notes that while the language is outwardly deferential, this ritual of civility is also competitive, and practitioners of the ‘dark’ ta’arof like to reduce their rival to begging them to accept the money or the favor.
Slightly more colorful 1st edition cover: