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From Fire by Water

  • SOHRAB AHMARI

I thought I was an American before I ever set foot in the United States.


Chapter One
"You Brought the Imam with You"

SohrabWhen I first arrived in my adopted homeland, just before I turned fourteen, I spoke English fluently, with an American accent I had picked up from the movies.  If I suffered the exile's sense of loss, I don't remember it.  For while still living in the ayatollahs' Iran, I had given myself over to the American Idea.  The journey across the Atlantic ratified what I had already concluded in my heart.

First, I concluded that what was Western was preferable to the non-Western.  As a child, I could observe this basic civilizational fact in the packaging of any Toblerone bar, with its clean lines and rational dimensions, the outer layer of sturdy paper and the inner one of foil that crackled and gently ripped when the chocolate pyramids were broken apart.  I could smell Western superiority in the synthetic aromas that clung to relatives who had traveled abroad and to their belongings.  How I loved that sweet department-store scent of my grandparents' suitcase when they returned from one of their yearly trips to "the other side", to the West!

My native land smelled of dust mingled with stale rose-water.  There was enjoyment in Iran and grandeur of a kind, to be sure.  But when it wasn't burning with ideological rage, it mainly offered mournful nostalgia.  Those were its default modes, rage and nostalgia.  I desired something more.

Early on I intuited the philosophy of Jim Dixon, the professor protagonist of Kingsley Amis' novel Lucky Jim— namely, that "nice things are nicer than nasty ones."  The West was most definitely nice, judging by its artifacts.  The adults in my life generally agreed, and although these were lean years, I never lacked for Western-made toys and treats.  But no one I knew ever pushed this love to its logical terminus, as I did.

When I got a little older my taste in things Western expanded to culture.  I was an only child, and a lonely one, so I spent a lot of time locked up in my room with movies, music, and books, especially the illustrated kind.  There were the boy reporter Tintin and his dog Snowy, who careered around the world solving mysteries; Asterix, Obelix, and their tiny Gallic village that resisted Caesar's yoke with the help of a magic potion that lent them superhuman strength; the Little Prince of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry; and many others of the kind.

The most enchanting stuff came from America.  The atmosphere in Iran was stultifying.  Islamic conformity was enforced on pain of death.  Desperate for an escape, Iranians of my parents' milieu—middle class, educated, urbane— sought escape in the things that the mullahs reviled the most: American movies and U.S. "cultural arrogance".

My family was typical in this regard, but again I took things further than others did.  In the dream worlds of Stan Lee, Walt Disney, George Lucas, Steven Spielberg, and the like, I glimpsed a vision of human possibility.  A problem presented itself to the Hollywood (or comic book) hero, who then, through ingenuity, pluck, or sheer physical might, overcame it.  What a contrast this narrative structure presented to the fatalism that imbued Iranian mythology, in which misfortune was written into the hero's blood and no one ever overcame the Workings of Destiny!

In the Western imagination, moreover, the individual mattered as an individual.  Again, by contrast, the emblem of the Iranian sensibility was the young boy who, during the war with Iraq, had strapped himself with grenades and dashed under an incoming enemy tank.  To earn his spot on giant murals around Tehran and have his story recounted on state television, the model boy had consummated his devotion to nation and regime in this one irrevocable act of self-negation.

Can you blame me for preferring Luke Skywalker and Indiana Jones?

The Iranian way was irrational.  It wasn't modern.  "Rational" and "modern" were my watchwords from a very young age.  I had fuzzy notions of what these terms meant, but this merely magnified my enthusiasm for them.  If the Western way was better than the non-Western, then America was best of all.  America was the vanguard of Western-ness.  The fact that our leaders constantly denounced the evils of "Vaa-shang-ton" was sure proof of this.  America stood at the forefront of the modern and the rational, and that was where I belonged.

If you had told me, before I set out, that decades later I would find the heart of the West somewhere entirely different—in events that took place on a dusty, blood-stained hilltop on the outskirts of ancient Jerusalem—I would have cackled in disbelief.

My family was essentially unhappy, but my childhood was a happy one, even magical, notwithstanding the bombings and revolutionary terror that convulsed the world beyond our doorstep—and the discord and turmoil inside.

I grew up in my maternal grandfather's house.  Baba Nasser, as he was called, was a natural tinkerer.  He would make gardening hats out of cardboard packaging, writing desks out of random two-by-fours, clocks out of papier-mâché—all sorts of household objects that other people purchased ready-made, my grandfather built with his hands.  He was also an incorrigible hoarder.  If he happened upon a rusty nail on a sidewalk, he would pick it up gently, as if he were rescuing a wounded sparrow, wrap it in a napkin, and slip it into a side pocket.  Once home, he would deposit the nail into the drawer he maintained as a sort of Home for Lost Nails.  There were similar homes for broken staplers, misshapen paper clips, and sundry nuts and bolts.

The two-story he built, in an old neighborhood in central Tehran, was his ultimate tinkering project.  It was a large estate, with a flat roof and concrete walls.  He planted flowers in the low, narrow troughs of soil that lined the exterior, to enliven the off-white facade.  There were roses and lavenders, jasmines and sunflowers.  A walled garden and garage divided the house and the neighboring three-story that abutted it on one side; on the other sides the house stood free.  Ivies covered the garden and climbed the neighbor's wall.  A persimmon tree rose above the ivies, absorbing the sun's rays and refracting streaks of red and orange when it bore fruit.

The main entrance gave way to a vestibule and stairwell that in turn led to two identical apartments, one on each floor.  The units followed more or less identical plans.  There was a long, narrow corridor with two bedrooms on each side.  The expansive living area and dining room were situated at one end of this corridor, while the other end opened up to the garden.

Baba Nasser and my grandmother—we called her Maman Farah—occupied the ground-floor unit.  Their apartment was decorated to Maman Farah's superior taste, with ornate furniture and stately wallpaper.  Baba Nasser could hoard all he wanted, but under the terms of a long-standing entente with his wife, he was required to confine his knickknacks to his personal office.

My grandfather was a civil servant in the National Iranian Oil Company, then as now the most vital economic institution in the country.  Maman Farah chipped in her earnings as an Arabiclanguage teacher at an elite girls' school.  In fact, her salary was gradually overtaking his— astonishing, given that she belonged to the first generation of Iranian women to enter the labor market.  This, combined with her forceful, sometimes mercurial, personality, meant that their marriage didn't always adhere to the patriarchal pattern that prevailed in Iran.

Things were good.  Baba Nasser and Maman Farah took regular vacations.  They maintained multiple cars.  They hired all sorts of help, including at one point a chauffeur.  Then life struck them with a one-two punch from which they never quite recovered.  I hadn't yet been born when these events took place.  But they indelibly marked my life.

First came the catastrophe of 1979.  That was the year Iranians overthrew the shah's benign autocracy and replaced it with the Ayatollah Khomeini's Islamist regime.  Baba Nasser was a victim of this act of national folly as well as a two-bit participant, for he, the mild civil servant, had imbibed the revolution's ideas.  He had chanted "Allahu Akbar" from his rooftop by night and marched in the streets by day.

Talk about ingratitude.  Baba Nasser's prosperity was a testament to reforms enacted by Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi and his father, Reza Shah.  The two Pahlavi monarchs had forged a modern state out of the detritus of the Persian Empire.  They gave the country stable borders, roads and universities, a professional civil service, a modern legal code.  An Iranian middle class had emerged, and my grandparents were climbing its upper ranks as the revolution began.

"We will lose all of this."

"You don't know what you're toying with."  "Talk of an 'Islamic republic' is nonsense."

"Do you really think Khomeini will play nice with the likes of you?  Fools!"

So warned many of our relatives.  There were several counterrevolutionaries in the family, as I would later learn (for, as I say, I was born after these events transpired).  Some had served the shah's security apparatus or were otherwise connected to the ancien régime.  Others simply had greater political foresight.  Baba Nasser wouldn't pay heed.  He had no brief for political Islam as such, though he did grow more pious in the years after the revolution.  He notably gave up drinking alcohol and wearing ties.  Abstinence was mandated by law under the new dispensation, while Western neckwear was frowned upon; ties were a symbol of decadence.

The main force animating his worldview was nationalism.  His father, my great-grandfather, had taken part in the Constitutional Revolution at the turn of the twentieth century, and he was later elected to the Majlis, or parliament, that came about as a result.  But constitutionalism didn't take to Iranian soil.  Instead of liberty, it yielded license and chaos.  Baba Nasser came to see his father's failure, and everything else he didn't like about the state of national affairs, as the work of nefarious foreigners, especially the cunning, foxlike English.

Baba Nasser was born in 1927.  Various imperial powers at the time treated Iran as a plaything.  They kept the country indebted and willfully breached its borders when it suited their geopolitical ends.  Predatory concessions gave the lion's share of profits from developing Iranian oil to British firms.  Communist subversion hatched in Moscow was also a real threat.  Baba Nasser's suspicion of foreigners wasn't entirely irrational.  But over the years it had hardenedintoa paranoid historyof theworld, inwhich Iranians or Muslims had invented everything that was worthwhile, only to have their ideas and resources pillaged by the West.  Thus, he saw the shah's pro-Western diplomacy, not as sound Cold War policy, but the vilest treachery.

My grandfather was hardly alone in viewing Iranian history as a long chain of humiliations suffered at the hands of outsiders, going back to Alexander the Great's conquest of Achaemenid Persia.  Rare is the Iranian who hasn't been nursed on 2,500 years of grievance.  The old man who detects a hidden British hand behind every petty mishap— the missing tobacco, the broken teapot—is a stock character of Persian comic literature.  Iranians laugh at him without recognizing themselves in him.

Sohrab6

In the slogans of 1979—"Independence, Freedom, Islamic Republic!" and "Neither West nor East!"—old-school nationalists like my grandfather heard echoes of earlier constitutional battles.  Yet they couldn't explain what freedom would mean to a regime based on the precepts of Shariah law.  Nor did they ask how Khomeini would square republicanism with his doctrine of the guardianship of the jurist, according to which a Shiite cleric was to guide the nation as supreme leader.  The tide of enthusiasm swept away all doubt.

The scale of these fellow travelers' miscalculation became apparent after the revolution's triumph.  Immediately, Khomeini laid the foundations of a total state.  He outlawed political parties, purged the institutions, dismantled independent labor unions, and summarily executed his erstwhile leftist and secular allies.  The hijab became mandatory for women.  Dancing, drinking, foreign movies and music, and most other forms of fun were now strictly proscribed.  The revolution didn't bring Iranians the popular sovereignty they craved, and it robbed them of the social and individual liberties they retained under the former regime.

The new Iran was a land of conspiracies and denunciations, wild utopian fantasies and pervasive dysfunction, where each day began and ended with the litany of names of the newly executed enemies of the revolution, barked out on state radio by men with mad foghorn voices.  My grandfather was too moderate and mannered to thrive among the bearded fanatics who ruled this new country.  His wife fared worse.  Naturally blond and blueeyed, and never as psyched for the revolution as Baba Nasser had been, Maman Farah found herself sidelined at the school where she taught, and insulted on the streets.  Once, while she and Baba Nasser were out strolling, a young revolutionary ran up to them, screaming: "Go home, dirty Yanks!" The young man apologized profusely when he realized that my grandparents were Iranian, but they got the message all the same.

Yet Baba Nasser never could admit that the revolution had been a blunder.  Instead, he shrank into his hobbies.  When he wasn't fooling around with his gimcrack inventions, he spent hours transcribing thousand-year-old Persian manuscripts on astronomy and mathematics into modern type, to prove, once and for all, that Iranians had originated all the pivotal scientific insights that the Western usurpers claimed for themselves.

My grandparents' other great disappointment was their daughter's marriage—which is to say, the union that produced me.

Baba Nasser and Maman Farah had two children, a son and a daughter.  Their son (my uncle) they sent to study in the United States shortly before the revolution, and he settled in Utah and took an American wife afterward.  Their daughter stayed in Iran, to study abstract expressionist painting at university and, naturally, to find a husband.

As a young woman, my mother, Niloofar, was sweet tempered, mild to a fault, and something of a great beauty.  But I think she was one of those daughters who struggle all their lives to win independence from their mothers.

My grandmother, you will recall, was a capable matriarch.  Maman Farah knew how to cook the full repertoire of traditional Persian recipes; how to host big parties; how to juggle career and home life; and how to cultivate people who might be of help to the family, essential in a society that runs on favors.  Maman Farah couldn't bear to see her daughter stumble in any of these areas.  Rather than permit my mother to emerge as a full woman in her own right, she stepped in to help wherever she saw shortcomings.  Maman Farah's love was fierce—and suffocating.

When my mother was twenty, a suitor turned up in the form of a brash architect with olive skin, an eagle nose, eyes hinting of mischief.  He was seven years her senior.  A family friend made the introduction, and though there had been other proposals that went nowhere, my grandparents instantly approved this one.  It was understood that the new couple would move into the upstairs apartment following nuptials.  There was too much uncertainty to let the children live alone, Maman Farah figured, what with the new regime throwing the country into one crisis after another.

My parents never had to accept full responsibility for supporting themselves, since they knew that they would always have a comfortable roof over their heads, and Maman Farah and Baba Nasser would be there to pick up the slack if they shirked their duties.  This intergenerational arrangement wasn't without its benefits.  It might have worked if my father had more conventional ideas about family life.  But there was very little about Parviz Ahmari that was conventional.

He was one of six children of Buick Ahmari, a painter andcalligrapherof somerenown who, amongother things, had introduced the pop-art style to Iran.  The family hailed from Iran's northwestern provinces and belonged to the Azeri (Turkish) minority.  Azeri was the first language in my father's house, and his parents and siblings spoke Persian with a distinct Azeri accent.  My father had worked strenuously to shed the accent; not a trace of it was left when he entered adulthood.

But he didn't shed some of his father's coarser, provincial ways.  "Apa", as the old painter was addressed in the Turkish manner, had a violent, unpredictable temper.  His wife (my grandmother) was a sad and mousy woman, as might have been expected.  She spent her time either toiling in the kitchen or else tiptoeing around the minefield that was her husband's ego.

Apa was a strict vegan and preferred raw to cooked food, believing this to be the secret to longevity.  His notions on diet and digestion were the cause of interminable disputation among the Ahmaris.  His dilapidated flat, in a working-class neighborhood of Tehran, permanently gave off a septic smell, because for some eccentric reason or other he refused to repair a broken toilet in the guest bathroom.

His place also brimmed with beautiful objects: works of calligraphy by Apa and other masters; miniature paintings in the classical Persian style; rococo pictures of cherubs and plump society ladies; cigarette holders, snuffboxes, and jewelry cabinets inlaid with fine marquetry.  Under Apa's roof, beauty and aesthetic order contended permanently with disorder and decay.

Much the same could have been said about my father.  He possessed an intuitive visual and spatial sense, which he had honed at the University of Tehran's prestigious architecture faculty.  He also had a strong hand for drawing and drafting.  He would have none of the hesitant, shaky lines employed by many artists as they tried out new ideas.  The line should be bold, he thought.  It should come from a place of manly confidence.  "Better to be definite and wrong than to pussyfoot around with the pencil," he would say.  He had read widely and was blessed with a quick and capacious mind.  He could be immensely witty.  It was this side of him that made my father such a good match for my mother.

But there was another side, a sensuous self-indulgence that left my father utterly incapable of restraining his passions.  When he ate, he chewed and swallowed with such fervor that you would have thought he had never been fed.  If alcohol was served at a social gathering, he would be the guest draining the last of the bottles and rummaging the cupboards for more.  When he argued—whether over politics or architecture or any quotidian matter—his voice invariably rose.  He smoked incessantly, three packs a day, at least.  He would wake up in the middle of the night to smoke, and fall asleep with his cigarette still lit.  His bedding was riddled with burn holes.

My parents wed in 1982.  My father planned a no-frills ceremony and reception—business casual for him, an ordinary dress for my mother, only a handful of very close friends invited.  Formality and tradition were to him so much bourgeois humbug.  Afterward, he refused to report for military conscription.  It is hard to blame him, since the hellish Iran-Iraq War was raging at the time.  But as an architect, he wouldn't necessarily have been sent to the front.  And his in-laws time and again offered to leverage their connections to settle the issue for him.

"Parviz dear," Maman Farah would tell him, "you'll show up a few days a week.  You'll sit at a desk.  It'll all be over in six months.  No more conscription headache."

"Yes, yes, of course.  Later, later."

But he never got around to it, mainly because he couldn't be bothered with the bureaucratic hassle and chose to live below the legal radar.  My father was an invisible man of sorts.  He couldn't vote, open a bank account, even purchase a plane ticket.  As far as he was concerned, though, it was everyone else who was going about things the wrong way.

"Come, come," he would say.  "People destroy themselves because they forget to live in the moment."  He had a talent for justifying indolence as a matter of high philosophic principle.

My mother went along.  Partly it was because she had similar ideas, and partly because she had a ductile soul that took the shape of any stronger personality with which it came into contact.  Such antibourgeois attitudes were in vogue among most of my parents' friends in the wild 1970s and well into the '80s.  The difference was that, as my parents grew older, most of their friends concluded that bourgeois stability beats bohemian drift.  My parents stuck to their free-spirited ways, even as the price steadily climbed.

My childhood cast of mind, with its clarity and mania, I owed to this odd mélange of personalities.  I was born exactly six years to the day the Ayatollah Khomeini returned from his Parisian exile to herald the Islamic Republic.  The coincidence was the subject of a running a joke in the family.  When I was a boy, one of our relations, a gregarious retired police colonel, would ask me at every get-together: "When were you born, Sohrab?"

"February first," I would say, playing along, for of course he knew the answer.

"Pfft-pfft," he would reply, holding his nose.  "You brought the imam with you"—meaning Khomeini.  The Old Colonel loathed the new regime and, indeed, Islam itself.

The punch line didn't need explanation, because everyone deplored the mullahs (everyone, that is, except Baba Nasser, who tried valiantly to keep his faith in his country if not in the revolution).  Yet no one dared to voice even mild opposition in public, let alone mock the supreme leader, who was revered as a quasi-messianic figure.  That same Old Colonel would take the greatest care to ensure that his opinions didn't travel beyond our family.

He simultaneously lived two sets of lives, and not just when it came to politics.  It was whispered knowledge in the family that the Old Colonel and his wife were fond of poker.  Under the shah, gambling had been legal, and the monarch himself owned half of the casinos in Tehran.  After the revolution, the Old Colonel continued to gamble, even though the new regime banned all games of chance.  Only, now he and his wife played in secret, with a select group of individuals whose discretion was beyond reproach.

All Iranians had to perfect the art of living double lives in those days.  Parents had to be especially cautious.  Children, as everyone knows, like to spill the beans on what their parents say and do, a source of amusement and embarrassment for mothers and fathers everywhere.  But under a revolutionary regime that tried to surveil and control citizens' private lives, to fashion a sort of homo Islamicus, a child's loose lips could sink lives.  Childish curiosity called on parents to balance candor against self-preservation.

"What is that bitter, bitter stuff that you drink?  Why mustn't I talk about it?" I remember asking my mother such questions all the time.

A less conscientious parent might have snapped: "Mama probably shouldn't drink wine, and you definitely aren't going to—end of discussion!" But my parents were different.  They took my questions seriously and tried to offer cogent answers.  My father was particularly emphatic on this point, because to him the worst offense was to insult anyone's intelligence, including a five-year-old's.

Thus, in response to my question, my mother might have explained: "We drink this grown-up drink, because we have drunk it in our family for a very long time."

"Why have you done that?"

"Because we enjoy it.  When you get older, you might try it, too, and see if you like it."

"But what about the law?"

"The law in our country says otherwise now, but we disagree with the law."

I can't say that I learned to distinguish between morality and law thanks to such discussions.  That came much later.  But I did learn that one could deliberate over right and wrong, that it was permissible to have private reservations about public rules.

My parents were excessively lenient by Western standards, let alone Iranian ones.  For one thing, they encouraged me to address them by their first names, Parviz and Niloofar.  I have yet to meet anyone, Iranian or otherwise, for whom this was the norm growing up.  But my parents wanted me to see myself as their coequal friend or some such.  Terms like "Dad" and "Mom" or "Pa" and "Ma" were redolent of formality.

I had a huge room to myself in the upstairs apartment of Baba Nasser's house, and I could draw whatever I wished on one of the walls.  When there were parties, I was free to mingle with the guests as I pleased.  When we visited other people's homes, I would be granted an exemption from the kids' table and invited to dine with the adults.  Since I hated plastic ware, thinking it somehow childish and beneath me, my Armenian nanny would see to it that I was served in china, unlike the other kids.

At kindergarten, I didn't have to lie down with the other children at nap time.  Instead, my parents demanded that I be allowed to read, according to my preference.  The teachers were flabbergasted when one day, during "song time", I stood up to protest: "What is this kiddie play?  Let's hear some real music!" (I liked classical Persian music at home.) When I drew caricatures of my parents' friends that distilled their personalities—a bossy colleague of my father's dressed up as a goofy general—I received praise instead of rebuke.

These liberties and privileges gave me a certain self-assurance.  I also developed an early taste for the life of the mind, because I had regular access to the artists and intellectuals whom my parents counted as friends.  Away from the kids' table, I could hear the adults discuss the Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava's latest building or that new movie by the dissident Iranian auteur Bahram Beyzaie.  I absorbed this elevated talk daily, even if I didn't understand most of it.  I learned the Persian word roshan-fekr—"intellectual", literally "enlightened thinker"—much too soon.

I lacked the wisdom and experience that separate precocious children from thoughtful adults, but I had an uncanny knack for mimicking maturity.  I could sit at table with my grandparents and their friends, for example, and opine with gusto on current affairs.  "The Japanese economy is surely overheating," I might have said, regurgitating something I had heard on the radio.  It was obvious that I had no idea what I was talking about, but my composure delighted grown-ups all the same.

The downside to roshan-fekr parenting, especially with an only child, was that it fueled my pride and selfishness.  I was sensitive.  I wanted to be "good".  But I came to associate being good with wowing adults.  This blunted my curiosity somewhat and left some of my raw talents uncooked.  What could any adult teach me, after all, when my first priority was always to impress him—with my grasp of language, with my appreciation for adult things, with my gifts for drawing and composition?  That I seldom failed to impress only compounded the problem.

Then, too, every boy needs the occasional paternal "thou shalt".  My moral instruction, if it could be called that, was an open-ended dialogue with "Parviz".  This took place against the backdrop of my father's own character flaws, which with each passing year came into sharper focus.  I longed for some cosmic and moral absolutes.  Yet the only absolute command that my father handed down to me was: "Be yourself."  It was maddening.  Who was this "self" dwelling inside me, to whom I owed such fidelity?  My father wouldn't say.

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Acknowledgement

ahmariSohrab Ahmari. "You Brought the Imam with You." chapter one  from From Fire by Water  (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2018): 21-36.

Reprinted with permission from Ignatius Press and available on their website.

The Author

Sohrab6Sohrab Ahmari is an Iranian-American journalist, editor, and author. He is currently the op-ed editor of the New York Post and a contributing editor of the Catholic Herald. Previously, he served as a columnist and editor with the Wall Street Journal and a senior writer at Commentary magazine. He is the author of From Fire by WaterThe New Philistines, and Arab Spring Dreams: The Next Generation Speaks Out for Freedom and Justice from North Africa to Iran.

Copyright © 2018 Ignatius Press
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