A Los Angeles Times and Economist Best Book of the Year.The grandson of an eminent ayatollah and the son of an Iranian diplomat, journalist Hooman Majd is uniquely qualified to explain contemporary Iran's complex and misunderstood culture to Western listeners. The Ayatollah Begs to Differ provides an intimate look at a paradoxical country that is both deeply religious and highly cosmopolitan, authoritarian yet informed by a history of democratic and reformist traditions.Majd offers an insightful tour of Iranian culture, introducing fascinating characters from all walks of life, including zealous government officials; tough female cab drivers; and open-minded, reformist ayatollahs. It's an Iran that will surprise readers and challenge Western stereotypes.
"Perhaps the best book yet written on the contradictions of contemporary Iran....It captures like no book in recent memory the ethos of the country, in elegant and precise prose." (Los Angeles Times) "Essential reading for anyone wanting to understand the paradox that is Iran (as well as America) in the post-Bush world." (GQ)
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This book does an excellent job of giving the reader the perspective of the average Iranian. Where it falls short is coming to grips with the downside of Iran's theocracy. It does not address Iran's support of terrorists at all, an astonishing omission. While it does discuss other negatives, it tends to downplay them. It discusses the fact that Iran closes opposition newspapers, but notes they often quickly reopen under other names. It makes it sound like it is no big deal. The author does not discuss the burden this obviously puts on a free press or that Iran jails journalists it does not like. The book is worth a read, it definitely humanizes Iran, an important contribution, but a more objective author would have taken Iran more to task for its suppression of human rights and support of terroism.
Majd, an Iranian-born, American-raised journalist who returned the country of his birth several times during the last decade, is intent on providing a tour of modern Iran that cautions against any simplistic understanding of a multi-layered country and its people. Though the demonstrations of 2009 showed obvious discontent with the Islamic regime, that, according to Majd, shouldn???t be read as a sign of impending rebellion. Many Iranians, particularly the working class, are proud of their nation???s Islamic roots, and the system still enjoys a popular base of support.
Majd also attempts to explain quirks of Iranian culture and attitude that often elude Westerners. He argues that there are strong traditions of rights (if not exactly ???freedoms???, in the liberal, secular Western sense) and self-effacing politeness (which means that Iranians are often far more reasonable and less extreme in person than they might be in a faceless crowd). Both these factors create a society, as he sees it, in which people act one way in public, but feel free to express themselves as they like in private, a realm that the regime is careful not to intrude too far into.
Most of this understanding is revealed in pieces as Majd travels the country and meets Iranians from different walks of life, from cab drivers to politicians to mullahs to conservative religious families to liberal intellectuals to the chic Tehranian elite. We learn, for example, that some Iranians look with contempt on the low-class style and dubious diplomatic skills of their president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, while others admire him as a man from the streets who stands up to the West. Some question the need for religious strictures in public life (while being careful not to criticize Islam itself), while others find intense emotional outpouring in passion plays about the Shi'a saint, Hussein ibn Ali. They admire many things about the West, but distrust it for its past political interference. Like Americans, Iranians don???t always agree with each other, but they certainly do agree on being a people who can run their own affairs and have earned the right, through years of hardship and war, not to be told when to jump and how far by outsiders (a similarity in popular attitude to the US which, ironically, seems to fuel the ???nuclear energy??? head-butting with Washington). Generally, I found Majd to be skilled at turning his experiences into engaging, revealing anecdotes, though the larger narrative is a bit wandering.
That said, I thought that the author had some obvious biases. While he???s not uncritical of the ruling regime, he???s certainly not highly critical of it, either, and seems optimistic that the government is moving in the right direction on its own. As one of his friends puts it late in the book, ???your breath is coming from a warm place???. Meaning, of course, that someone who enjoys the freedoms and privileges of America is hardly someone to put aside the criticisms of Iranian dissidents and dissenters. Then again, that line kind of proves Majd???s thesis: Iran is too complex of a country to be easily summed up by anyone -- including himself. Will an "Islamic democracy" movement, guided from within the system itself, really bear fruit? I can't say, but Majd makes it seem plausible.
All in all, a good ???beginners guide??? to Iran, but perhaps not the guide to end one???s education with.