Exotic Seed, Sown Deep in the Persian Dust
From Fire, by Water: My Journey to the Catholic Faith
By Sohrab Ahmari
Review Author: Jason M. Morgan
Conversions to the Catholic faith are the striking obverse of Tolstoy’s famous dictum about families, “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” Before becoming Catholic, we are all unhappy in the same way, but God leads us singly, according to our soul’s most intricate pathways, to the joy that we were born to know as unrepeatable individuals. It is rather like the way stained-glass windows work. From outside a church, they appear leaden and flat. From inside, they flay the sunlight into an infinite kaleidoscopic array. No two converted Catholics are ever alike.
The conversion story of Sohrab Ahmari, New York Post op-ed editor and former editor with the Wall Street Journal, considered from one aspect, is Augustinian in tenor. Like Augustine, Ahmari’s pre-conversion life was the usual drudgery of intellectual autarky — the insistence on knowing the world apart from God — and alcohol-soaked nihilism. Whenever a sinner asks God to make him holy but not yet, the interim is invariably given over to the same pointless escapism that has ever plied the unfilled hearts of scoffers.
Like Augustine, Ahmari has been blessed with a considerable intellect, so his long detour running from grace was markedly intellectual. Augustine had Manichaeism to paper over the restlessness of a soul separated from its Creator. Ahmari, denizen of the modern world, had Marxism, which, as for so many others, was the imprimatur of validity on his secularism, itself an elaborate ruse to avoid having to listen to the stirrings of his inner self. The epoch and the charlatan might have been different — Mani for Augustine, Marx for Ahmari — but the broad contours of Ahmari’s pre-conversion life will sound familiar to anyone who has worn the same ruts in his own wasted years.
Drab sin, endlessly repeated, is the pre-convert’s lot. However, when Ahmari began paying attention to the voice inside that “urged me to do good and shun evil” — the voice that he eventually came to believe “gave unimpeachable testimony to the existence of a personal God” — the details of his remarkable life began to stand out in full relief. Ahmari’s conversion, like every other, was not a scripted event. “Had I read [The Confessions] earlier in life,” he laments, “the Bishop of Hippo would have saved me a lot of trouble and misery.” Perhaps. But it seems more likely that, whatever else might have happened, Ahmari would have had to find God in his own time and reckon with his past as he turned, little by little, toward the Author of time itself. Looking back on the harrowing tightrope walk over perdition that is every convert’s pre-conversion days in the Christless wilderness, Ahmari sees much more clearly how this all worked. His powerful new memoir tells of that slow turning to God.
In limpid prose that occasionally breaks free into lyrical splendor, From Fire, by Water recounts a childhood and adolescence the cultural and religious context of which most of Ahmari’s readers will know nothing. Born in Iran to extremely freethinking parents (who knew there were such parents in Iran?) just three years after the Ayatollah Khomeini turned the country into a virulent theocracy, Ahmari lived a life that is the opposite of what one might imagine of a boyhood in post-Revolutionary Tehran. For instance, Ahmari’s father and mother insisted that their son call them by their first names, even in public. This, of course, scandalized the capital’s cultural elite. Sohrab grew among his parents’ fellow non-conformists in a milieu marked by highbrow discussions of art and literature occasionally punctuated by the need to pay hypocritical deference to an Islam in which hardly anyone of his acquaintances really believed. Liberally supplied with ‘araq (“moonshine vodka”) by their Armenian Christian compatriots, Sohrab’s family and friends lived almost entirely separated from the ruling religious fanatics.
It’s not just in the highfalutin ways of the Iranian intelligentsia that Ahmari’s childhood defies our expectations. There was plenty of lowbrow exposure, too. His maternal grandparents traveled abroad frequently and were able to keep Sohrab generously supplied with VHS tapes of everything an American boy would want: episodes of G.I. Joe, Star Wars, WWF wrestling, and the oeuvre of Steven Spielberg, along with a steady stream of music cassettes, comic books, and other trappings of a thoroughly secular existence. From an early age, Sohrab was, at least culturally and linguistically speaking, already an American.
Sohrab’s father, Parviz, was an eccentric architect in a lucrative business partnership, and so Sohrab and his mother, Niloofar, lived in a luxury unknown to most Iranians. But this did little to satisfy Sohrab’s heart. “My native land smelled of dust mingled with stale rosewater,” he writes. “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.” For many long years, Sohrab thought that this “something more” was residency in the U.S., which he viewed as a secularist haven from the overbearing religiosity of his birthplace.
Eventually, the freewheeling Parviz proved too eccentric even for Niloofar to tolerate, and Sohrab’s parents — in yet another all-American twist — divorced. They still lived under the same roof, partly as a concession to the Iranian religious police, and partly out of the desire to shelter Sohrab from the blow. But the relationship between mother and father had long since gone cold when one of Niloofar’s brothers, who had been living in the U.S. for years, helped Niloofar and Sohrab gain a “green kart,” as it was called in Iran, to start a new life in rural Utah. Sohrab was thrilled. It was what he had always wanted!
To put it mildly, though, life among the Mormons was hardly what Ahmari was expecting. Before long, he concluded that “the LDS faith was wackier and more implausible than Islam,” and “living in a state with a distinct Mormon culture was as oppressive as living in an Islamic republic.” They had moved “from one theocracy to another,” Ahmari used to joke.
Not only that, but the solidly upper-middle-class lifestyle Ahmari had enjoyed as a boy in Tehran evaporated in Salt Lake City. Without financial support from Parviz, Niloofar took low-paying jobs and was barely able to afford a mobile home. Stung by his tumble from bourgeois comforts, Ahmari took refuge in his mental adroitness, using his powerful intellect to shield his pride from the world — and from God. His former dreams mocked him as he realized that the American reality was often insipid, uncultured, and, in his case, colored by the countless indignities of being poor. His disappointment found an outlet in a carefully cultivated alienation as a rebel in junior high and as a black-clad Goth in high school. By the time Ahmari left home for college, he had turned into a doctrinaire Marxist and militant atheist, determined to go his own way and impose his misanthropic views on the universe at large.
But God works in mysterious ways. A series of small encounters worked together to lead Ahmari first to question, and finally to reject, the obnoxious cocksureness of his early adulthood, a worldview he describes as “a welter of resentment, confusion, and ideological crankery.” Paired with Mormon missionary roommates at university, Ahmari — who had been determined to convert them to dialectical materialism — was instead thrown off balance after thumbing through their copy of the New Testament one day. To his rapt astonishment, Ahmari learned that the Gospel of St. Matthew portrays the Son of God not as a conquering hero but as spit upon, tortured, laughed at, and nailed to a cross. “On the Cross,” Ahmari was shocked to discover, “it is the strong one who condescends to the weak and evil many. He allows them to persecute him.” Ahmari couldn’t help but notice the marked contrast to his own prideful insistence never to let the world get his number. There was more to Christianity than his Marxist comrades had told him. “What was it about sacrifice,” Ahmari began to wonder, “that left such a searing imprint on my mind?”
This offhand encounter with the Word of God set Ahmari on course to a destination he never imagined. In meeting the Person of Jesus in the Gospels, Ahmari’s deepest self was transformed. His first meeting with the Passion of Christ recalled for him an episode from his homeland, something he had until then remembered with distaste. Schools in Iran, Ahmari explains, have a religion teacher who teaches the Qur’an, acts as “resident ideologue,” and performs dramatic Shi’ite rituals. The young Sohrab hated his religion teacher, Mr. Sadeghi. But God brings goodness even out of contempt. This detested grade-school Qur’an instructor would offer a foreshadowing of Ahmari’s later reception into the Catholic Church.
Ahmari describes Mr. Sadeghi as “tall and swarthy, with a thick, perennially unkempt beard and a bearing that resembled an angry gorilla’s.” He wore “the uniform of the hezbollahi, a ‘partisan of God’ and a true believer in the revolution.” Ahmari admits, “I loathed this man. He was the very type of uncouth provincial who, thanks to the revolution, had suddenly come to wield great authority in a big-city school.” How could this simian hillbilly possibly help Sohrab on his road to salvation? It was a question, of all things, of Mr. Sadeghi’s recitation of a different kind of passion, that of Shi’ite holy man Imam Hussein.
“Every year,” Ahmari recalls, “during the Shi’ite mourning month of Muharram, the headmaster would summon the teachers and the student body from their classrooms to the schoolyard. All were required to show up, even the Armenian Christians.” The whole school watched as Mr. Sadeghi “teleported our minds and souls to Arabia in the year 680,” when the Arabs were divided over who should succeed Muhammad as caliph and commander of the faithful. “It wasn’t supposed to be like this,” Mr. Sadeghi intoned as he led the assembled, students and teachers alike, in “rhythmically beating” their chests with the palms of their right hands. “Mr. Sadeghi, his voice now breaking with sobs, recalled Hussein’s words,” foretelling his betrayal when all but 72 of his followers deserted him before the final battle with his rival, the treacherous Yazid. All 73 — Hussein and his men — were killed in an ambush. This episode from the earliest annals of Islam became for Sohrab a kind of synecdoche for life among fallen humanity.
It does not matter what the seed is. If God’s grace is allowed to work, then every beginning will blossom into happiness with Him in Heaven. And so it was with Sohrab Ahmari. The strange seeds of Islamic indoctrination would bear fruit in remarkable ways. An early recognition that not all was right with the world, that not all was as it seems, later led Sohrab to begin listening to the still, small voice of conscience within him. This tiny opening to God’s grace would let in a torrent of transformation — but only after the adult Ahmari experienced his share of despair.
After a particularly debauched weekend in New York City, Ahmari — who at that time was working as a trainer in the Teach for America program — was circling a city block in downtown Manhattan, killing time while waiting for a train. Lost in remorseful thoughts, he almost unthinkingly stepped into a Capuchin monastery, the front door of which he hadn’t noticed on his previous circumambulations. It just so happened that Mass was about to be said. Torn between curiosity and contempt, Ahmari took a seat in a back pew.
Almost completely ignorant of Christianity, and yet with a longstanding Marxist-atheist grudge against Catholicism in particular, Ahmari looked on at the proceedings with a mixture of fascination and disbelief — until “something extraordinary happened.” The friar celebrating Mass spoke the words of consecration: “On the night He was betrayed….” The Host was consecrated. “A bell rang out thrice,” Ahmari remembers, “and I felt waves of peace wash over me. I was as still as a statue. Tears streamed from my eyes and down my face. These were tears neither of sadness nor even of happiness. They were tears of peace.” When the friar next consecrated the Precious Blood, “my silent tears gave way to choked sobs,” Ahmari recalls. “I was in the proximity of an awesome and mysterious force — a force bound up with sacrifice, with self-giving unto death, the idea that had made my heart tremble ever since I was a boy.” As he left the church that day to catch his train, Ahmari glanced up to see a picture of Pope Benedict XVI. He began to cry once more. Embarrassed by his tears, he hurried through the front door. But he had crossed another kind of threshold that day.
Conversion takes a lifetime, not a moment. We are not plaster figurines that can be turned in an instant to face another direction. And so it was with Ahmari. Attracted especially to the spirituality and intellectual holiness of Benedict, Ahmari nevertheless went through a further season of kicking against the goads, fighting the God who was calling him home. Ahmari tried evangelicalism, tried non-committal spiritual humanism, tried wrestling with the angel until he was all worn out. Eventually, he asked himself, “Why are you resisting?” He was received into the Catholic Church on December 19, 2016, after being catechized by a priest in London. Like fellow convert Evelyn Waugh nearly one hundred years earlier, Ahmari accepted all of it like a child. The “something more” that his heart craved as a youngster in Iran was fulfilled, it turns out, by transubstantiated wine, water, and unleavened bread.
Ahmari’s From Fire, by Water is a beautiful work of honesty and quiet witness to abiding truth. It is sure to inspire others, as it did me, to return anew to the source and summit of the Christian life, and to give thanks that, because “of the free consent of a Jewish Virgin of the Galilee,” even I have “a shot at eternal salvation.” It is a book of succor, then, but it unsettles as much as it soothes.
When I first heard of the book, I thought, “Iranian exile converts to Catholicism — what a compelling leap!” As I finished From Fire, by Water, though, I couldn’t help but blush at my arrogance. I had assumed that, as an American, I had been born pre-baptized, as it were, in the Christian culture that our Protestant fellow-countrymen once labored to create. The distance from my native New Orleans to the Tiber, I thought, was surely much shorter than the light-years separating Iran and the Vatican. An immigrant from the mullahs’ Persia might as well have come to the Church from the far side of the moon.
And yet, is it not the opposite that is closer to the truth? I had the blessing of attending Catholic school as a boy, but what of the millions upon millions of Americans who have no religious affiliation at all? Such people now greatly outnumber Catholics in the U.S. Is the Islam-blanketed Middle East really a less-fertile ground for the Lord’s work than our fruited plain, which now hosts creeping Satanism, pandemic-scale opioid addiction, and chilling nihilism that has become, for many, their only creed? Far from working against his conversion, Ahmari’s early experience with the loudspeaker-retelling of Imam Hussein’s Shi’ite sacrifice was the tinder that took the Holy Ghost’s spark when the time was right. The average American public-school student would be lucky to have even half as much.
Ahmari’s erstwhile adoptive home of Utah notwithstanding, the U.S., far from being a theocracy, has devolved into a “dictatorship of relativism” against which Ahmari’s spiritual godfather, Pope Benedict, warned us. After reading From Fire, by Water, I had to admit something I would not have credited just a few years ago: It seems far more likely that a Shi’ite Muslim would enter the Catholic Church than that a deracinated, post-Puritan, secularist liberal would. Even in his pre-conversion days, Sohrab Ahmari, the atheist Marxist, was looking for something, at least. Most of my countrymen seem convinced that there is nothing worth looking for in the first place.
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