Superficially, Sohrab Ahmari and I would seem to have very little in common, and yet, in our respective journeys, we had discovered an essential bond that transcends and supersedes every accident of birth. In discovering the true Home of Man, we had discovered the true brotherhood of men.
I’ve recently had the surprising pleasure of reading From Fire by Water: My Journey to the Catholic Faith by Sohrab Ahmari. The pleasure was surprising because I wasn’t expecting to enjoy it. The fact is that I rarely read conversion stories. It’s not that they’re unimportant or not worth reading. On the contrary. Such testimonies are edifying and encouraging because they bear witness to the discovery of the goodness, truth, and beauty of Christ in a darkened age. It’s simply that I’ve read so many such stories over the years that I’ve moved on to pastures new. These days, I’d rather read a good novel, a good poem, or good literary criticism.
I would never have paid Mr. Ahmari’s book much heed had it not been selected for the FORMED Book Club that I’m co-hosting with Fr. Fessio of Ignatius Press. Forced to read it, so to speak, I found myself gripped by Mr. Ahmari’s grappling with the big issues and was swept away by the engaging sweep of his prose. I knew as I began reading that I was in the hands of a very fine writer, who could keep me turning the pages, eager for more, and, as the pages were turned, I discovered that I was also in the presence of a very fine mind, a mind alive to the great ideas that have shaped and are shaping human history. I was also surprised at how much Mr. Ahmari’s journey to the Catholic faith had in common with my own journey, especially as we began from very different starting points. I was born in the early sixties in the East End of London, coming of age in the 1970s in the radical atmosphere of secularist street politics; Mr. Ahmari was born in the mid-eighties, spending his childhood in the very different sort of radical atmosphere of Islamist Iran in the years following that country’s Fundamentalist revolution. And yet, in spite of such very real differences, there was much in Mr. Ahmari’s journey which paralleled mine, these similarities serving to cause our paths to finally converge towards Rome.
Let’s begin, however, with the obvious differences.
I never realized how little I actually knew about post-revolutionary Iran until I read the early chapters of Mr. Ahmari’s book in which he recounts his childhood in a country which I had perceived as a monolithic tyranny. Turning the pages, I discovered that western influence (of the worst sort) was prevalent in the wealthier classes of Iran. This was the atmosphere which prevailed in Mr. Ahmari’s own family and in the network of friends with whom they socialized. Whilst paying lip service to Islam and the Quran, this stratum of Iranian society considered themselves intellectual, in the western understanding of the word, owing allegiance to the post-Enlightenment philosophical tradition, which treated all religion with patronizing and supercilious indifference. One consequence of this intellectual atmosphere, which Ahmari’s elementary school Quran teacher called “westoxication,” was the encouragement of lowbrow American culture in the home. And so it was that Mr. Ahmari spent his childhood watching crass American TV shows, such as Baywatch and the latest music videos on MTV, beamed in via satellite, or Rambo, G.I. Joe, Transformers, and WrestleMania, all of which were readily available in contraband VHS format. What was even more surprising was Ahmari’s boasting of his pro-American sympathies at school, his heretical and dissident opinions earning him disdainful reproaches from his Quran teacher but nothing worse. There were no midnight raids on the Ahmari family home by the police, no confiscation of the “westoxic” videos, no disconnecting of the satellite dish, and certainly no hauling of his mother and father off to prison. In reading these early chapters of Mr. Ahmari’s book, I saw parallels with life in the Soviet Union in the 1960s, or with Elizabethan England in the 1590s, in which very real tyranny was nonetheless far less “total” in historical fact than it is in Orwellian fiction or in the totalitarian nightmares of the Orwellian imagination.
The surprising parallels between Mr. Ahmari’s life and my own, which were superficially present in our shared experience as children of lowbrow American TV, begins in earnest in Mr. Ahmari’s reaction to life in the United States after his arrival as a thirteen-year-old in 1998. I would arrive three years later, four days before 9-11, and, in spite of being much older than thirteen and being newly married to my American wife, my own experiences resonated with Ahmari’s sense of culture-shock. For both of us, there was a chasm of difference psychologically between the perception of America seen from the outside and the experience of it on the inside. For Mr. Ahmari the process was one of disillusionment with the host culture, followed by rebellion and an intellectual voyage of discovery fueled by the reading of philosophy. In this path, he was following a very similar trajectory to the one I had taken at his age.
He rebelled by becoming a Marxist revolutionary; I rebelled by becoming a neo-Nazi revolutionary. He saw through the facile façade of socialist ideology through his practical experience of fellow radicals, his “comrades,” and through the reading of books which exposed the inadequacies of dialectical materialism; I had seen through the facile façade of National Socialist ideology and had experienced the same disillusionment with the reality of “comradeship.” Like Ahmari, I began to take the pursuit of reason seriously, following the rational path to truth in the development of an insatiable appetite for good books.
And the parallels continued. He felt the same sense of nausea following nights of drunken debauchery and the hung-over memories of the previous night’s shameful behavior, recoiling in horror as I had done from the consequences of what we would later call sin, much as people with healthy consciences have always done. We think perhaps of Shakespeare’s lamenting of “th’expense of spirit in a waste of shame” or of the confessions of the French and English Decadents. Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.
After one night of nauseous drunkenness, Mr. Ahmari found himself drawn to a small Catholic church in Manhattan, experiencing the numinous beauty of the Mass for the first time. As I read his recollection of this pivotal moment in his journey, I recalled a day of drunkenness in Edinburgh which led to my stumbling (literally) into the Catholic cathedral as Mass was in progress.
The final coup de grace in the parallel and then convergent paths that Mr. Ahmari and I had taken was in our shared discovery of the beauty of the Latin liturgy at the 11am Mass at Brompton Oratory in London. As I read Mr. Ahmari’s reaction to his first experience of this extraordinarily beautiful liturgy in an extraordinarily beautiful church, I felt as if he was describing exactly what I had experienced on my first visit to Brompton Oratory a quarter of a century earlier.
As I finished reading Mr. Ahmari’s book, I was struck by the sense of déjà vu that had accompanied my reading of it. He and I had followed remarkably similar paths in spite of the chasm of difference, geographically, culturally, and temporally, that separated us. Superficially, we would seem to have very little in common, and yet, in our respective journeys, which paralleled each other and then converged, meeting finally in Rome, we had discovered an essential bond that transcends and supersedes every accident of birth. In discovering the true Home of Man, we had discovered the true brotherhood of men.
In order to encapsulate in poetic form the sense of transcendent unity that I have endeavoured to convey prosaically, I have tampered with the opening lines of Rudyard Kipling’s poem, “The Ballad of East and West:”
Oh, East is East, and West is West, and never the twain shall meet,
Till Earth and Sky stand presently at God’s great Judgment seat;
But there is neither East nor West, Border, nor Breed, nor Birth,
When two men of faith stand side by side, though they come from the ends of the earth!
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Editor’s Note: The featured image is “Salisbury Cathedral from the Bishop’s Grounds” by John Constable (1776-1837), courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.