Sohrab Ahmari author of From Fire by Water: My Journey to the Catholic Faith. (photo credit: BRIAN ZAK)
Sohrab Ahmari recalls a story from sixth grade that disquiets his conscience decades later. He kicked a young boy during a schoolyard brawl. Worse, he did it while the kid was on the ground, unable to fight back. Later, he visited the child's impoverished home to apologize.
Ahmari's tale of his life in Iran and coming to the United States is full of many tender passages that mix everyday challenges with deep inner passions and questions of faith. This particular one struck me because I recalled my own experience in grade school bullying a kid that appears similar to this story. Unlike Ahmari, I only tried to apologize years later, and with no success. And unlike Ahmari, I never had much religious faith.
"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 movies," the Iranian-born author recalls. Now, the op-ed editor at The New York Post, his new memoir From Fire by Water: My Journey to the Catholic Faith details his life in Iran and the US. "I could smell Western superiority in the synthetic aromas that clung to relatives who had traveled abroad," he recalls. At a time when so many in the West doubt that their way of life may be superior, it's interesting to see such clarity.
But Ahmari's early sense of some of what the West might offer, as compared to the religious indoctrination of the years after the Iranian Revolution, consists of the dream-worlds of comics, he writes. "I glimpsed a vision of human possibility" in Stan Lee, Walt Disney and Steven Spielberg.
In 1997, he took a trip to the Caspian Sea in Iran. He writes about the separation of sexes on the beaches, and how his more secular parents would seek out "hidden corners where men and women could share the beach." They secretly drank alcohol, which risked a lashing. He writes that a colleague of his father's had been caught once and whipped, "the skin on his back looking permanently like challah bread."
When Ahmari finally arrived in the America of his dreams, it was a bit different than he'd imagined. He writes of Eden, Utah, a small town, which was similar to the Colorado that Sayyid Qutb had witnessed in 1949. Qutb became a leader of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, and ostensibly shocked by the sexual independence of Americans. For the supposed Islamist "conservative," Qutb wrote about Americans with "round breasts, the full buttocks" and shapely legs. Perhaps what Qutb really wanted was merely to control women. Ahmari recalls that "like Qutb, I was nevertheless shocked by the easy sexual mores that I witnessed. My reaction, however, was radically different."
For a book about a journey to faith, Ahmari's navigation of religion from Iran to the US is particularly interesting. He writes about the Battle of Karbala in which Imam Hussein and his 72 followers were killed in 680 CE. It was a formative moment in the split between Sunni and Shi'ite Islam. In Iran, the story of Hussein is key to the national conscious of the ruling regime.
His second major experience of religion, after being forced to memorize long chapters of the Quran in Iran, was exposure to Mormons in Utah. He saw Utah just as much an oppressive experience "as living in an Islamic Republic." He himself took up goth subculture, and later consumed Nietzsche. "Nietzsche corroborated all my prejudices against religion and traditional morality." Faith was a fanciful tale that helps weak minds cope, he noted. It is for the gullible.
Later, Ahmari writes of picking up the King James Bible, and suddenly reading attentively about the "persecution of a Jewish man two thousand years earlier." He was struck by it.
Between college and law school, Ahmari participated in Teach for America and met a man named Yossi from Israel. At the time, he was a critic of the US war in Iraq, "I was sure too, that Israel's malign influence in Washington had something to do with the decision [to invade Iraq]." Ahmari notes that having embraced the radical Left, he had imbibed some of its "penchant for slandering and pouring opprobrium on the Jewish state." Understanding this became a learning experience. To counteract it, "I immersed myself in the website of Yad Vashem," he said. In some way this helped in the journey towards an appreciation of the Judeo-Christian foundations of the West, he wrote.
In the final section of his memoir, Ahmari writes about his journey to become a Catholic. It began in New York at a Capuchin monastery near Penn Station, before Sunday evening mass.
"Even at that moment, with my deep spiritual longing, there was a part of me that scoffed at the sacred mysteries, he wrote.
I thought From Fire, By Water was a story about conversion. But it's far more than that. It's about the journey of civilization and the great problems of our time. Ahmari finds himself in 2016 with Afghan migrants in Turkey.
"I put out word on Iranian social media that I was looking to accompany a migrant on the journey from the Middle East to western Europe," he recalled. He was looking to clandestinely cover the journey as a journalist. Reading this chapter at the end conjured up my own experience in 2015 with the same migrants, meeting them in Greece and traveling to Hungary. I'd met the same Afghans and given some of them my socks before saying goodbye, to cover the same story. Ahmari was received into the Catholic Church in December 2016.
Like most of us of a similar generation, we have been confronted with a difficult journey, not like the one of our parents in the 1960s or grandparents who might have been through the Second World War or the Depression. Today's challenge is not merely one that asks difficult questions of faith, but also of what will inspire this world in the years to come. The 20th century was one of great ideas, some of which became dark nightmares like Nazism, Communism and Islamist extremism. If we are to salvage this century, it will be through finding new answers. Ahmari's story is a search for those answers.
Seth Frantzman is The Jerusalem Post's op-ed editor, a Writing Fellow at the Middle East Forum, and a founder of the Middle East Center for Reporting and Analysis.