Sohrab Ahmari was born in Iran, grew up Muslim, immigrated to Utah in the United States, became a Marxist, left Marxism, became a conservative journalist, and converted to Catholicism in 2016, when he was 31 years old. His 2019 memoir, From Fire by Water, describes this journey.
Ahmari made national headlines with his May, 2019 First Things op-ed, “Against David Frenchism.” In that piece, Ahmari argued that Christians must resist cultural trends like drag queen story hour and the “paganized ideology” of “elite institutions.” Christians must “fight the culture war with the aim of defeating the enemy and enjoying the spoils in the form of a public square re-ordered to the common good and ultimately the Highest Good.” Donald Trump, Ahmari argued, is the Christians’ ally in this culture war against pagan ideology. Trump has shifted politics and culture “away from autonomy-above-all toward order, continuity, and social cohesion. He believes that the political community – and not just the church, family, and individual – has its own legitimate scope for action. He believes it can help protect the citizen from transnational forces beyond his control.”
Ahmari’s piece touched off a widespread debate among conservatives. Critics accused Ahmari of arguing for a Christian theocracy in the US. His article could have been titled “For Theocracy,” said Nico Perrino of FIRE, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education.
I could not wait to read From Fire by Water. I imagined it would be like Seeking Allah; Finding Jesus by Nabeel Qureshi, Nonie Darwish’s Wholly Different, and Mosab Hassan Yusef’s Son of Hamas. All these books dramatically recount their authors’ conversion from Islam to Christianity. I also thought From Fire by Water would be like David Horowitz’s Radical Son and Mortality and Faith, memoirs that also follow the journey of a former leftist who became a prominent conservative author.
In fact From Fire by Water is not like any of these books. Ahmari was never much of a Muslim, in spite of growing up in Iran, and his journey was more gradual, cerebral, solitary, and bookish than those of the previously mentioned authors.
Initial news accounts of Ahmari’s conversion often mischaracterized his journey. “If I was reacting against anything, it was against the materialism and relativism that had taken root in the West beginning in the nineteenth century. I had turned my back against Marx, Nietzsche, and Foucault, not the prophet Muhammad, whose religion had left only faint imprints on my soul by the time I entered adulthood.”
Ahmari’s Iranian family was not particularly observant of Islam. They were members of the well-to-do educated elite, living in Tehran, the capital city. Their faith “such as it was,” “amounted to a kind of liberal sentimental ecumenism.” Islam was worthwhile insofar as it contained some humanistic elements. Zoroastrianism was revered because it arose in ancient Persia. Christianity “was simply wonderful, a gentle, Western religion.” Armenian Christians in Iran were his family’s source for wine, arak, and salami.
“I thought I was American before I ever set foot in the United States,” he writes. He arrived just before turning 14 years old. He already spoke English fluently, with an American accent he had picked up from the movies. He had concluded that the West was superior to Iran, based on the elegant packaging of Toblerone chocolate bars. Relatives returning from trips West brought with them the scent of a better world. Iran smelled of “dust mingled with stale rosewater.” Iranian culture alternated between “burning, ideological rage” and “mournful nostalgia.” Iranian narratives were informed by fatalism that dictated misfortune. In Western narratives, heroes confronted obstacles that they overcame, all through their own gumption. In the West, “an individual mattered as an individual.” In contrast, a boy who donned a suicide vest and threw himself at an Iraqi tank was one prototypical Iranian hero.
Ahmari writes that he would eventually discover that those Western action heroes, capable of changing their own fate, were not rooted in the careful packaging of Toblerone bars, Western air freshener, or any other expression of consumer-item superiority. Eventually, he says, “I would find the heart of the West somewhere entirely different – in events that took place on a dusty, bloodstained hilltop on the outskirts of ancient Jerusalem.”
Niloofar, Ahmari’s mother, studied abstract expressionist painting at a university. Ahmari tells us that she was “sweet tempered, mild to a fault, and something of a great beauty,” but he never tells us much more about her.
The author describes his father Parviz at greater length. Parviz Ahmari was unconventional, a man of “sensuous self-indulgence” and “utterly incapable of restraining his passions.” He smoked and drank heavily, and was “a thoroughly irresponsible husband and father … rumors of mistresses, gambling, and opium addiction swirled around him.”
“All Iranians had to perfect the art of leading double lives.” Young Sohrab had to be trained not to talk about his family’s behavior in front of strangers who might deliver his family members to government imprisonment or torture. A family friend was caught with cassettes of Western music and flogged. “The skin on his back” looked “permanently like challah bread.” Ahmari’s family was once interrogated for two hours because there was an unrelated man in the same car with his parents. The police suggested that the only reason the man was there was for a planned ménage-à-trois. As in Iran’s theocracy, children must also be trained in communist dictatorships. Don’t tell strangers what books mommy and daddy read, what jokes they tell, what foods they consume, and what company they keep.
Alcohol is forbidden in Islam, but the Ahmari family attended parties where alcohol was served. Unrelated men and women mingled at these parties. When discovered by the komiteh or morality police, the police would lecture them sternly, accusing them of behaving like customers at a whorehouse. The Ahmaris and others had to empty their pockets to pay bribes. Upon receiving the bribes, the komiteh would be on their way, forgetting any question of upholding public virtue.
Similar hypocrisy reigned in schools. One teacher upbraided Sohrab for his “Westoxication,” an Islamist slur for Iranians who valued the West. That same teacher kept Sohrab after school in order to access his family’s “movie guy,” who provided bootlegged, contraband videotapes of Western films. The West-hating Muslim teacher wanted to see Titanic. When Sohrab and his mother announced their move to America, this same devout Muslim teacher, eager to condemn “Westoxication,” asked Niloofar about the green card process. “He, too, hankered for the Great Satan’s embrace.”
As in other authoritarian systems, the worst rose to the top. One Koran teacher was a sadist in sweat-stained, ill-fitting clothes, “the very type of the uncouth provincial who, thanks to the revolution, had suddenly come to wield great authority in a big-city school.” He forced children to assume stress positions for extended periods and sent them reeling with his blows. “Mr. Sadeghi was a bruiser.” Sadeghi trained children in regarding self-sacrifice for Islam as the highest good. Remembering Hussein, a Shiite hero, “the sound of some four hundred men and boys beating their chests filled the schoolyard.”
The family’s live-in maid, a “homely, illiterate old woman,” told little Sohrab ghost and djinn stories. “All of her stories had the same moral … it was always the skeptical characters whom the djinn would drag into the netherworld.” Ahmari became an atheist around age 12. Ahmari realized he had made the break with his childhood belief when he stopped believing in djinn. Ahmari says that “if the Islamic Republic collapsed one day, it would leave behind the world’s largest community of atheists.”
In 1998, Ahmari, his mother and grandmother immigrated to Utah. A bookish boy, he rapidly became a teacher’s darling. In classroom debates, he would argue for infanticide in order to get a rise out of others. He considered himself a nihilist and began to read Friedrich Nietzsche. Ahmari read Thus Spake Zarathustra “belly down on my bed … barely stepping out to eat and wash.” “Values are relative,” he learned. “What was wrong for the many was, perhaps, right for the few … all faith is but a fanciful tale that helps weak minds cope … organized religion is a con played by the hustling cleric on his gullible flock.”
Seeing similarities between Nietzsche’s concept of the Ubermensch and the communist concept of the vanguard that would lead the mass of men to a brighter future, “by the age of eighteen, I was quite literally a card-carrying Communist.” Ahmari changed colleges and traveled from Utah to Washington in order to be closer to communist comrades. By the time he joined the Party, communism had already been discredited by the fall of the Soviet Union. Why, then, did he join? “The thrill of épater les bourgeois” and to act out his disappointment that the American he migrated to was not the America of his childhood imaginings.
Ahmari continued to spend days reading, no doubt belly down on his bed. He worked through Foucault, Lyotard, Baudrillard, and Judith Butler. He hung out with other “cool” guys, also readers. He drank and often woke up painfully hungover and wondering what he had done the night before. “In those black hours, it did me no good to recall that all moral norms are historically contingent or that resisting Western hegemony Is the duty of the subaltern.” He would pray, and then feel ashamed of himself for praying.
Ahmari graduated college and joined Teach for America. This was the turning point. No longer was Ahmari lying belly-down on his bed, alone in his room, reading. Suddenly he was responsible for other young lives. “At the slightest contact with reality, much of the bosh that clouded my mind dissipated.” Ahmari met Yossi, an Israeli-American. They almost had a physical fight. Yossi once called Ahmari an “anti-Semitic piece of garbage.” But Yossi’s example would change Ahmari’s life.
Yossi went against the Teach for America grain. He did not teach his students to feel like helpless victims and future troops in inevitable class warfare. Yossi demanded order, responsibility, and consequences. Observing Yossi’s example, Ahmari concluded, “Character and virtue, then, preceded material circumstances; leftist ideology put the cart before the horse. People and their conduct weren’t reducible to language, race, class, and collective identities.”
These reflections caused Ahmari to realize that there is an internal measure of virtue. From whence that internal guide, if there is no God? Ahmari educated himself about the dark side of communism. He concluded that “To restrain man’s hand against man, he has to be bound by some absolute authority outside himself … How was it possible to uphold the dignity of the person if there wasn’t something special about his origins?”
Ahmari found the answer to these questions in the Judeo-Christian tradition. “Western democracies were morally superior … because they still hewed to a Judeo-Christian line … if I savored the ordered liberty that I saw around me, I had to give credit to the religious ideals that had given birth to it.” Eventually he would come to conclude that “A skeptical and infertile West lacked the spiritual resource to deal with an energetic and virile Islam … To deal humanely and intelligently with Islam … Americans and Europeans needed to honor their own Judeo-Christian roots.”
One Sunday evening, afraid of appearing a “gullible sap,” Ahmari walked into a Catholic church. During the re-enactment of the Last Supper, he broke into sobs. “I was in the proximity of an awesome and mysterious force, a force bound up with sacrifice, with self-giving unto death.”
As ever, books brought him around, specifically, Robert Alter’s The Five Books of Moses and Joseph Ratzinger’s Jesus of Nazareth. The universality and timelessness of the Bible caused him to ask if the Bible was the work of “human hands alone.” The Bible is simply not comparable to other religious works that are thousands of years old. Most Pagan texts are “of merely archaeological, historical, or literary interest; the Torah was a living text that spoke fresh truths across a distance of three thousand years.” The story of the Fall offers a truer insight than can be found in more recent attempts to explain human nature. People are broken, and no intervention, short of Jesus’ sacrifice, will fix us. Of course Ahmari read Augustine. “All false doctrines, Augustine said, seek to negate man’s responsibility for sin.”
From Fire by Water is largely a journal of books read and interior life. One chapter, “The House on the Cape of Olives,” stands out as quite different. Ahmari describes, on journalistic assignment, posing as an Iranian migrant traveling along the route from countries like Afghanistan into Europe. This chapter evokes Ahmari’s experience vividly. A group of men hide out in a migrant safe house. The house is crawling with cockroaches. “Migration itself is a form of jihad!” one insists. Another man, a sadistic bully, torments an effeminate boy. This chapter is brief but unforgettable. Ahmari includes it, he says, to demonstrate what a hell on earth human beings can make for each other, absent God.
Again, From Fire by Water is not like the other memoirs I had read about Muslims converting to Christianity or left-wingers moving right. It is very much a book about a man for whom reading big-name authors is a primary activity. I was truly astounded by the “Cape of Olives” chapter because I had begun to wonder if Ahmari could write narrative prose with description, characters, and plot. Clearly he can, and he can do so superbly.
I’m a more plebian Catholic than Ahmari. My religion is less about what I read and more about what I do, and how I interact with others. As a woman, I was troubled by the relative silence of women in this text. Clearly Ahmari’s mother is a key figure, but he says next to nothing about her. Yes, there are Islamic constraints on how much a man can discuss his mother in public. But Ahmari does vividly describe what appear to be two prostitutes who try to drum up business during his assignment as a faux migrant.
For this review to be complete, I have to mention Ahmari’s insistence on unquestioning obedience to clerical authority. Ahmari was instructed in Catholicism by a priest who asked him few questions, and invited no discussion. “This was catechesis, not a dialogue … what, really, did I have to say to the Church that she needed to hear? Nothing.”
Ahmari’s silent, unquestioning submission is very much not exemplary of Biblical or Church tradition. God converses with humans, including the lowliest, throughout the Bible. Adam, Cain, Abraham, Sarah, Moses, The Samaritan Woman at the Well, all converse, argue, debate and bargain with God or angels, voicing their most mundane concerns, which God takes seriously. Hannah, a woman shunned because of her barrenness, named her son “Samuel,” meaning “Heard by God.” Jacob’s name was changed to “Israel,” “He who wrestles with God,” after Jacob did just that. St. Teresa of Avila, a Doctor of the Church, complained to God about falling in mud. She also griped about her wagons getting stuck in mud. “If this is how you treat your friends, no wonder you have so few of them,” she famously said, to the creator of the universe.
Ahmari acknowledges an accusation made by not a few critics. “Had I found in the Catholic faith a way to express the reactionary longings of my Persian soul?” I don’t know. I do know that unquestioning obedience to Catholic clerics has a spotty history in recent days. I think, of course, of the clerical abuse crisis. My Catholic Church is a church that can handle questions, and provide answers, and participate in dialogue.
My other hesitation about From Fire by Water. I keep thinking of that young man “belly down” on his bed, reading some great author or other. Ahmari details his own history from influential author to influential author. I wish From Fire by Water had provided the reader with greater assurance that Ahmari is finally home, and he won’t be moving to any new ideology any time soon. He does provide a careful roadmap. Nihilism, Marxism and postmodernism left him with questions, questions that were answered overwhelmingly during the mass’ reenactment of the Last Supper. I just wish I could feel more secure that my new brother in faith won’t go through the process he has gone through before, that is, finding a new author or ideology that refutes the previous one.
Danusha Goska is the author of God through Binoculars: A Hitchhiker at a Monastery