From Fire, by Water
By Sohrab Ahmari
Ignatius, 240pp, £18/$22
My first thought when reading Sohrab Ahmari’s From Fire by Water: My Journey to the Catholic Faith was, “Did he write his memoir too soon?” Sohrab only converted three years ago and he’s even younger than me (which, trust me, makes him very young), and some biographies do suffer from a lack of hindsight. Justin Bieber’s First Step 2 Forever: My Story was written when he was just 16, and it shows.
Sohrab, thankfully, is wise beyond his years and has led a life that is both exotic and surprisingly universal. He grew up in the Iran of the 1980s, a theocracy that tried to turn the clock back, an Islamic republic in which the heroes were suicide bombers and being caught with alcohol could get you lashed. And yet, when the police weren’t looking, Sohrab’s family debated, drank and even provided custom for a huge black market in pirate VHS tapes. Whenever you try to impose an idea on a populace, no matter how good, you generally turn them against it. If the regime should fall, jokes the author, it will leave behind the largest concentration of atheists on the face of the planet.
Rebellion and conscience are the universal themes of Sohrab’s book. The author was never really a Muslim in the way Westerners would define a believer – ie someone who actually believes – but in Iran you are Muslim because we say you are, and the only way out is apostasy.
The thing is, adolescents are nature’s apostates: they yearn for the different. At school, Sohrab had to recite the Koran but at home he rejected all faith (any faith), watched Transformers and dreamt of escaping to America. When his mother finally got them out on a green card, they wound up not in Hollywood or Manhattan but a trailer park in Utah – and the poor immigrant embraced Marxism. He kept that going until college in loopy Seattle (a city that would probably put Lenin off socialism), slipped into postmodernism, partied and finally – tired and emotional – rocked up in New York City. That was where he wandered into a Capuchin monastery. Encountering Mass, he burst into tears.
Cradle Catholics sometimes wonder why we converts do it – why join a faith that’s not your own? The answer is that Catholicism connects to life experience. It’s intellectually coherent, but it’s also emotionally nourishing and profoundly sensible: what a lot of us needed at the moment we joined was structure. Particularly we men. Men are prone to fits of energy and lethargy, and without some kind of rationalising force in our lives, it can all become channelled into the destruction of oneself or other people. You can find temporary redemption from our natural anarchy in a job, wife, kids or, I guess, Wicca if it floats your boat. But what your soul truly needs is cleansing, and nothing cleans whiter than the Catholic Church.
Nor is anything as patient. On two occasions Sohrab’s journey to the faith was encouraged by churches that happened to be open: that day in New York and, sometime later, after experimenting with Evangelicalism, at the Oratory in London. If you’re not a convert, you’ve no idea of how transformative this open-door policy can be, and the Church should make far greater effort to show its best face to the visiting stranger. Would Sohrab have felt the same degree of transfiguration if he’d encountered a children’s liturgy accompanied by the mouth organ?
I’ll ask him next time I see him. Sohrab and I are friends, and if I’m going to recommend a book I ought to be open about our connection – just as I shall be telling him in honest terms not to be so harsh on his younger self. Cannot sin lead us to grace? I’m not excusing or encouraging it, just observing that the growing self-awareness of a child that they are doing wrong is often what puts them on a better path.
Young Sohrab, an atheist in a Muslim country, experienced a very Christian kind of guilt and the reader can infer from his journey to the faith that what he was looking for was a means of doing something about it. Shia Islam provided a narrative of self-sacrifice: its great hero, Hussein, was a refugee and martyr. But the official religion of Iran’s dictatorship must have seemed morally compromised; certainly its hold is not as strong as the propaganda suggests.
Buy Sohrab’s superb book for its story of personal faith but also its revelations of life under a farcical theocracy. Such as the time Sohrab’s religious education teacher asked him to stay behind after Koran class to discuss a private matter, which must have put the fear of God into him. The subject? Could Sohrab get his teacher a bootleg copy of Titanic.
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