An Apostate Iranian’s path to God

A book review of From Fire, by Water by Sohrab Ahmari

(COMMENTARY) “There was enjoyment in Iran and grandeur of a kind . . . But when it wasn’t burning with ideological rage, it mainly offered mournful nostalgia. Those were difficult modes, rage and nostalgia. I desired something more.” So begins From Fire, By Water, which recounts Sohrab Ahmari’s spiritual journey from revolutionary Iran to membership in the Communist Party before Ahmari finally finds a spiritual home in the Roman Catholic church.

Ahmari was born in Tehran, six years after the Iranian revolution of 1979. It was a “land of conspiracies and denunciations, wild utopian fantasies and pervasive dysfunction, where each day began and ended with a litany of names of the newly executed.”

Ahmari was the only child of two free-thinking Iranian intellectuals whose home was filled with shelves stacked with Persian and Western novels, uncensored art books, and illegal VHS copies of the latest Hollywood films. Ahmari’s parents and their friends would find hidden corners of beaches where men and women could mingle freely and drink alcohol. His parents planted in him the “dangerous idea” that he could, and maybe should, question the things held sacred or untouchable by others. Ahmari aspired to join “the creative class” of Tehran’s dissident painters, poets, and novelists.  

From Fire By Water  book cover

From Fire By Water book cover

From an early age, America was Ahmari’s promised land. “I was an American before I ever set foot in the United States,” Ahmari wrote. In school, he would provoke his teachers by incessantly praising the West and the United States. In art class, he would draw characters from G.I. Joe and make a point of emphasizing the American flags emblazoned on their combat gear. Ahmari’s heroes were Luke Skywalker and Indiana Jones, not Iranian boys who strapped themselves with grenades and martyred themselves under Iraqi tanks.

By the time Ahmari arrived in the United States at the age of thirteen, he spoke English fluently, with an American accent he had picked up from the movies. America, Ahmari thought, would be something like his Iranian creative class writ large. Every corner of it would be urban and advanced, chic and clean--and  devoid of religion.

Ahmari and his mother settled in Eden, Utah, where they lived in a trailer park.  Ahmari’s mother worked graveyard shifts at a gas station while taking art classes during the day.  She drove a dilapidated Dodge pickup that frequently broke down. In Utah, to Ahmari’s dismay, he learned that he had “moved from one theocracy to another.”  In his classes, he continued to stake out contrarian positions--this time to vex his Mormon teachers. In his social studies classes, he defended abortion and post-natal infanticide.  On September 11, 2001, he pontificated about the sins of U.S. foreign policy.

In Utah, Ahmari became enamored of Nietzsche, Marx, and Sarte.  He became a card-carrying Communist. He imitated the Beat Generation and indulged in debauchery which included drugs, alcohol,  and one-night stands.

From Fire, By Water shows us why the skeptical and infertile West has lacked resources to respond to an energetic and virile Islamist revival.

Ahmari’s path to God took place in “fits and starts,” with much “regression and backtracking.”  A pivotal moment came when Ahmari came across a leather bound King James Bible left on a coffee table by one of his Mormon roommates.  He read the Gospel of Saint Matthew in one sitting. “Against my every inclination and instinct, the evangelist’s account of the suffering and crucifixion of Jesus had me transfixed,” Ahmari wrote.  Amari began reading books by survivors and critics of Communism, which led him to renounce his membership in the Communist Party.

“I now shuddered at ideas that I had entertained a few months earlier.  I wanted nothing more to do with man-made utopias of any kind. I wanted to rededicate my life to thwarting utopians.  I became a conservative almost instantly.” His conservatism prompted a growing respect for the Judeo-Christian roots of Western culture.  “Man needed the ‘steadying brakes’ of God’s laws and the sacrifice of One who stands in for all of history’s victims and perpetrators. The old ‘thou shalts’ and the heartbreaking sacrifice that I read about in Saint Matthew’s Gospel were a bulwark against totalitarianism, perhaps the only one.”  

Ahmari’s experience  as a Teach for America volunteer in Brownsville, Texas reinforced his budding conservatism. In Brownsville, an Israeli-American roommate, Yossi, became “a providential source of grace and a spur toward my ultimate conversion.” Yossi spent nearly every waking hour making sure his students could read and write at grade level. He would get to class before dawn, and when he returned home late at night, his clothes would be soaked with sweat.

Yossi greeted each student at the door with a firm handshake. He delivered rich lessons and never compromised academic standards or disciplinary rules. The kids loved him because he supplied structure and stability that were missing from their homes.  Yossi worked educational wonders because he modelled for his students character, virtue, and hard work and rejected the ideologies of identity politics and racial victimization.  Yossi “disabused me of my leftist certainties and turned my worldview upside down--or rather, rightside up.”

In the years that followed, Ahmari continued to engage Scripture. Two critical texts in this regard were Robert Alter’s translation of the Torah and Pope Benedict’s Jesus of Nazareth.  These books helped him find a metanarrative that could explain the tragic nature of human history.  

“The failure of the various utopian visions I had championed . . . attested to the truth of the Fall.  Every attempt at achieving perfect justice and liberation on human terms was bound to fail, because it would inevitably run up against fallen human nature.”

One Sunday afternoon, after a weekend of humiliating “excesses” in the Village, Ahmari wandered into a Capuchin monastery a block from Penn Station.  “The first thing I noticed on entering was the serenity of the place, which struck me as almost impossible, miraculous even, amid the pandemonium of Midtown [Manhattan].”  As the priest celebrated the Mass, tears streamed down Amari’s face. “These were tears neither of sadness nor even of happiness. They were tears of peace.”

After a brief detour in an evangelical church, with “cheesy, irrelevant” contemporary worship, Ahmari found a spiritual home in a Catholic Church in London, where he submitted to “a body two millennia in continuous existence.” The high point of his instruction in the faith was reading St. Augustine’s Confessions.  “This fourth-century North African seeker had waded through the same river of error as I had!” Amari wrote.  He adopted Augustine as his patron saint. On December 16, 2016, Amari was baptized and confirmed into the Roman Catholic Church.  He took his first communion and had the archdiocese validate his civil marriage. “Four Sacraments in a single day,” Ahmari writes.  

Ahmari announced his conversion to Catholicism following the gruesome murder of Father Jacques Hamel in Normandy at the hands of a pair of jihadists. Amari’s announcement was inaccurately interpreted in the media as a “point for Team Jesus against Team Muhammad.” From a young age, the mullahs in Iran had innoculted Ahmari against any appeal to Islam. “Living in an Islamic theocracy--where God appears in the form of floggings and judicial amputations, scowling ayatollahs and secret police--has a way of souring one on things divine,” Ahmari writes.  In joining the Church, Ahmari was turning his back “against Marx, Nietzsche, and Foucault, not the prophet Muhammad.”

Ahmari is a lucid and witty writer, and his memoir is delightfully entertaining, but the value of his testimony is the warning that it gives to his readers.  Ahmari reveres Western democracy, and he wouldn’t choose to live under any other form of government. In no other system could an immigrant cycle through so many ideologies without being harassed by the government.  But democracy heightens the need for the “steadying brake” on autonomy that our Judeo-Christian roots give us. Rampant autonomy will likely lead to “despotism as hideous as the statist projects of the last century.” Or, it will lead to a dystopian culture of abortion clinics, euthanasia facilities, and test-tube babies.  Secularism will turn the West into a Nineteen Eighty Four or into a Brave New World.

From Fire, By Water shows us why the skeptical and infertile West has lacked resources to respond to an energetic and virile Islamist revival.  Islamists gain steady streams of recruits by addressing an enormous human problem--spiritual, cultural, political, and ethical alienation.   Western secularists respond to this culture of death with insipid promises of self-actualization, often laced with cynicism, nihilism, and moribund Marxist theories.  This is no answer to Islamism. Armies and politicians will not defeat Islamists who give their followers a thirst for martyrdom by writing wild treatises about the wrenching dislocations of modernity.  To defeat Islamism, we need thinkers like Sohrab Ahmari, who can write sanely of these dislocations and show us a path to redemption.