Ayatollah Begs to Differ

Madj, Hooman. The Ayatollah Begs to Differ: the Paradox of Modern Iran. New York: Anchor Books, 2008.

Reason read: the Iran-Iraq War of 1980.

Iran, a land of contradictions and gross misunderstanding. Madj shares historical facts and personal reflections revealing a side of Iran and Iranians few westerners get to see. Does he want to clear up misconceptions? He understands there is a widespread lack of thoughtful acceptance of middle eastern culture. The United States especially is not on solid ground with their relationship is an understatement. The two sides are polarizing when there is so much more to understand. How can westerners reconcile dead camels on display, their throats slit for religious sacrifice? Other illogical points to consider: Birth records in Iran were instituted in 1930. Also, the chador was illegal for women to wear in the 1930s. Interestingly enough, the Shah was persuaded not to enforce this law until it was finally changed in 1941. The Islamic Revolution of 1979 promised to do away with class. Even the employees of the President dress the same as the man who poured their tea. In contrast, Madj says “When American…politicians may often come from ordinary backgrounds their lifestyles usually change dramatically when they have reached the pinnacle of power, they are long removed from their more humble roots” (p 17). This doesn’t happen in Iran.
Madj sits comfortably in a dual cultural identity, western (educated in both England and the United States) and middle eastern as the son of an Iranian diplomat and the grandson of a professor of Islamic philosophy. It’s as if he wants us to understand him as much as he wants to explain Iranian culture. Take the practice of ta’arouf, for example. He recognizes that it is an exhausting and sometime ridiculous practice similar to an over-polite chess match. Or customary gestures of hello: in the United States you thrust out your right hand to grasp someone else’s right hand (and shake vigorously), but in Iran you instead place your right hand over your heart as a gesture of respect. It’s the little things…

Quote that struck me, “Just as one doesn’t have to be religious to feel and appreciate the emotion of a gospel signer, one doesn’t have to be devout to feel the emotion of Muslim religious music, and Shia chants reach into a place deep in the Iranian soul, formed by centuries of cultural DNA and the certain Persian knowledge that the world is indeed a wicked place” (p 87).

Author fact: Madj is a writer of short fiction and has his own website here.

Book trivia: Majd includes some really great color photographs.

Nancy said: Pearl didn’t say anything specific about The Ayatollah Begs to Differ.

BookLust Twist: from Book Lust To Go in the chapter simply called “Iran” (p 108).



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