BOOK REVIEW A peek into a Persian paradox The Ayatollah Begs to Differ by Hooman Majd
Reviewed by Ian Chesley
It might give you pause to know that the author of The Ayatollah Begs to Differ:
The Paradox of Modern Iran worked as a translator for Iranian President
Mahmud Ahmadinejad, and served as an advisor to former president Mohammad
Khatami on his tour of the US in 2006. He may very well have been the one who
translated some of Ahmadinejad's pearls, such as "In Iran we have no gays" or
that the factuality of the Holocaust requires more "research".
In fact, Hooman Majd is in a unique position to translate between Iranian and
American contexts. One of his grandfathers was a grand ayatollah (one of the
highest clerical ranks in Shi'ite Islam). His father was a diplomat for the
shah's pre-revolutionary government, and Majd himself was raised and educated
entirely in the West. He is frank about his youthful enthusiasm for the
Islamic revolution of 1979, an enthusiasm shared at the time by the vast
majority of Iranians exhausted by the shah's police state.
Nevertheless, Majd remained in the US after the revolution as a member of the
community of expatriates. He spent time working in the entertainment industry
before trading on his connections to the Iranian political elite (Khatami is a
cousin of a cousin, for instance) to travel to and write about political
affairs, international relations and culture in Iran. His sensitivity to both
American and Iranian assumptions and desires makes this book indispensable for
anyone trying to understand the two countries' relationship.
The Ayatollah Begs to Differ is part autobiography, part political
reporting. But the book's greatest value is in Majd's clear explanations of the
most important concepts in Iranian society. He teases out the implications of ta'arof,
a word that describes the fundamental set of rules which govern any interaction
between two Iranians.
Various short translations for the term like "self-deprecation" or "fighting
for the lower hand" don't really do justice to this concept. Majd meditates on
the idea at length, and he points out how ta'arof works in practice in
his descriptions of dealings with Iranians in Iran.
He is also keen to make a distinction between national pride, to which experts
have ascribed Iran's desire for nuclear power, and haq, or "rights". He
claims that for ordinary Iranians the nuclear issue is not a matter of pride,
but rather a newfound sense of having the right to it, that is, pursue a
civilian nuclear program. This sense of haq is something like the rights
demanded by student protestors or bus union members - the reasonable petition
of the proverbial little guy. Although this explanation ignores the fact that
the government regularly manipulates haq rhetoric in concert with an
improbable reading of international arms conventions, it makes clear the
necessity of taking the popular support of Iranian "rights" into account.
The book makes another valuable contribution, albeit on a smaller scale, with
its deftly drawn portraits and vignettes of everyday Iranians and their
relationship to the Islamic government. It is true that the refuge of a bad
travel writer is to describe the contradictions and "paradoxes" of a country he
knows little about, but Majd uses the device productively to counter the flat
stereotypes that characterize much writing on Iran. For example, many
commentators in the West perceive the political scene in Iran as monolithically
clerical and singularly anti-American. On the other end of the spectrum,
sympathetic journalists speak with prominent dissidents but have no access to
the broader sphere of what was called "kitchen-table talk" in the late Soviet
Majd gives us fleeting glimpses of this semi-private sphere, a space where
average Iranians express what is really on their minds. He treats the reader to
a long passage on smoking shir'e, or already-smoked opium dregs, in the
home of an impoverished acquaintance. After a conversation about financial woes
to the accompaniment of a Persian music channel beamed from Dubai in the United
Arab Emirates, a young mullah unexpectedly appears to partake in the opium
He calmly spent the next hour puffing away, drinking tea,
fingering his beads, and occasionally answering questions of political
philosophy, none of which I fully understood. And while he was busy
pontificating, the other men, one by one, took the opportunity to perform the
afternoon prayers: facing Mecca, they bowed and kneeled in the cramped room,
carefully avoiding my outstretched limbs, and mumbled verses from the Koran as
PMC blared the latest Iranian pop hit, the cleric calmly smoked away, and I
continued to struggle to stay fully awake.
Even the Islamic
revolution's political elites find themselves bemused by the strange
contradictions in Iranian society. During Khatami's visit to New York in 2006,
Majd was present at the residence of Iran's United Nations ambassador for a
night of diplomats trading jokes about the bizarre directives they would
receive from headquarters in Tehran. And while this may all make one wonder who
actually supports the government, Majd dutifully interviews several true
believers and passes along their thinly-argued justifications.
Technology is driving the gradual transformation of Iranian society. The
Persian-language blogosphere is huge and growing every day, despite the efforts
of the government censors. The young people in Majd's book are portrayed as
much less concerned about democracy than about the latest products of the West.
His interlocutors can't restrain their techno-lust, enviously wondering whether
his new Motorola phone, bought in New York, "gives good antenna" (a calque of
the Persian phrase meaning "gets good reception").
For anyone trying to get a deeper perspective on Iranian society and the future
of the relationship between Iran and America, this book is an excellent place
to begin. While the negotiating positions of their governments may seem
intractable at the moment, The Ayatollah Begs to Differ demonstrates
that America and Iran have, however improbably, a great deal more in common
than one might expect. Both would prefer to see Iran become a member of the
mainstream international community. It would be overly simple to say that it's
only a matter of translation, but having a translator like Hooman Majd is a
prerequisite to bridging the divide.
The Ayatollah Begs to Differ: The Paradox of Modern Iran by Hooman Majd.
Doubleday (September 23, 2008). ISBN-13: 978-0385523349. Price US$16, 56 pages.
Ian Chesley studied and taught Persian at Harvard University, and was
awarded a doctorate in Russian literature in 2007.