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My journey from Tehran to Rome

'I just sat in the back pews and felt waves of peace wash over me' (Photo: Mazur)

On July 26, I announced my decision to join the Catholic Church. Hours earlier, a pair of jihadists had attacked a church in France and murdered a priest, Fr Jacques Hamel, while he was celebrating Mass.

Two months before that, I had begun studying one-on-one with a priest in London, reading Catholic books and immersing myself in the catechumen’s life. But I had no intention of going public with my conversion, not until after being received into the Church.

When news of the killing first broke, I knew next to nothing about Fr Hamel. Photos online showed an octogenarian priest with wispy white hair and a look of quiet, ordinary holiness.

This priest, this man, had been forced to kneel and had his throat slit in the name of ISIS – an evil act that demanded a response. So like any good millennial, I took to my Twitter account and wrote: “#IAmJacques Hamel. In fact, this is the right moment to announce I’m converting to Roman Catholicism.” It was an impulsive thing to do, not exactly in keeping with our Lord’s teaching to be as wise as serpents.

Over the next 48 hours, thousands of people re-tweeted me, and hundreds contacted me through social media. Then my announcement made its way to Christian media. Well-meaning journalists read my Wikipedia entry, noted that I’d been born and raised in Iran, and concluded: Fr Hamel’s final act had been to convert a Muslim.

Thousands more shared these news stories on Twitter and Facebook, usually accompanied by the famous saying of Tertullian that “the blood of martyrs is the seed of the Church”. I wished my road to Rome had been as easy as “Moslem Writer Moved by Priest’s Martyrdom to Convert to Catholicism” (an actual headline from a Catholic outlet). The real story was much longer and more complicated.

When I was 12, I decided that there was no God. I remember the circumstances only vaguely. The year must have been 1997. I was on holiday with my parents in northern Iran, by the Caspian Sea. Many middle-class Iranians from the capital, Tehran, own modest cottages on the Caspian shore. My parents didn’t, but they had friends who did, and the summertime “villa trip” was a tradition.

I trace some of my happiest memories to these trips. There were usually other children – a delight for me, an only child. The days were invariably spent on the beach. Sharia law demanded strict separation of the sexes at sea. At most public beaches, the regime curtained off the water to create separate men’s and women’s areas. Everywhere there were banners and posters that read: “My sister, mind your veil. My brother, mind your eyes.”

But my parents and their friends usually found hidden corners where men and women could share the beach, away from the watchful eyes of the Islamic Republic’s morality committees. They would even bring bottles of araq, Iran’s searing home made spirit, in defiance of official prohibition. If the morality police showed up in their signature Toyota 4x4s, all wasn’t lost. Most of the officers could be bribed to overlook such iniquities.

The adults in the party would receive a stern scolding. They would make excuses, apologise and vow never to do it again.

Then the officers would say: “Well, if you’re having a good time, give us a taste of your candy.” This was the signal for the men to reach for their wallets, pool their cash and pay off the provincials. (There was always a non-zero chance, however, that the officer in charge was a true believer. Then a flogging could be in order.)

One night during that summer of 1997, in the borderland between childhood and pubescence, I began thinking seriously for the first time about all this. We’d returned to the villa from the beach. The air inside was dank with humidity. Evenings were reserved for cards and a barbecue, but I didn’t feel like sitting at the adult card table or horseplaying with the other kids. Maybe I’d had some dispute with the adults, though I can’t recall the substance.

I do remember retreating to my bunk bed upstairs and cursing everything. Religion, I concluded right then and there, was little more than a ritual of public hypocrisy – one that I’d be expected to perform. In our roshan-fekr (urbane, intellectual) milieu, piety was a sign of backwardness. But we feigned piety in public to keep our heads in the Islamic Republic. The trick was to take care that one’s double lives didn’t intersect.

Well, not if I could help it. At school, I had already begun clashing with my Koran teacher, whose real job was to inculcate students in the regime’s ideology, a mix of Shia chauvinism, anti-Americanism and Jew-hatred. When we returned from holiday, I escalated the war at school. Had I been a bit older it would have landed me in jail. But I was emboldened by the knowledge that soon my mother and I would be granted US green cards and immigrate to America.

At home, I air-drummed to Pink Floyd and read my father’s weather-beaten copy of Catcher in the Rye. My parents had divorced in 1991, but for my sake they’d kept up a charade of being married and living under the same roof. Now the marital theatre was over. The Floyd tapes, the Persian-language Salinger novel and a Japanese Noh mask were my father’s last gifts to me before my mother and I left Iran. I haven’t seen him since.

Eden, Utah (population 600) is a ski resort nestled in the Rockies, a couple of hours’ drive north of Salt Lake City. Eden was where my mother and I first arrived after emigrating from Iran. My uncle, my mother’s brother, had settled there not long after Iran’s 1979 Islamic Revolution, and so the Beehive State became our home when we followed him two decades later. We were now in the heart of Mormon country.

Utah was a place of astonishing natural beauty, with a deeply religious and conservative culture. Alcohol in beer was capped at three per cent by law. Coffee was considered sinful. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints maintained seminaries right next to most public schools. It taught that ancient Israelites had come to America, attempted to convert the natives and recounted their trials and New World revelations in golden tablets that form a sort of sequel to the Bible.

Mormonism came as a shock, and the shame of becoming déclassé compounded it. We weren’t wealthy in Tehran, but we lived respectably, in a vast two-storey house my grandfather had built.

In Utah, we initially lived in a tiny mobile home in a college town called Logan after moving out of my uncle’s. When I hitched rides with school friends, I’d ask them to drop me off a few blocks away so they wouldn’t find out where I lived.

Then there was the sheer awkwardness of being fresh off the boat. Thanks to private tutoring and years spent watching American movies in the Islamic Republic, I was nearly fluent in English before ever setting foot in the US. But mastering American mores was tougher. Being secular-minded in Iran was one thing; the free and close proximity to girls in school something else.

Well, all this was fuel for the revolution I’d first launched in the old country. If Shia Islam, with its rich iconography and theology, was all hypocrisy, then Mormonism and America’s Protestant ethic and cheerful consumerism were even more contemptible – and equally repressive in their own way. I’ve moved from one theocracy to another, I used to joke. It was an obscene comparison, but it helped me make sense of my circumstances.

I began dressing in black every day, contrived a gloomy persona and – this last probably saved me – read voraciously. Just before university, I discovered Friedrich Nietzsche’s Thus Spoke Zarathustra in a Salt Lake City bookstore. It set me off on an intellectual and spiritual road that, many years later, would bring me to an unlikely destination: the Roman Catholic Church.

Reading important books on your own in your late teens is an intoxicating business. Your critical faculties are still only half-formed. So you read each author thinking, “He’s so right!” and “Isn’t it just so!” – without pausing to note the differences among the various authors, let alone your own doubts and objections.

That was the case with me, anyway. If I could go back, I would try to read the great books in some coherent order, closely and critically, preferably with a good teacher. I didn’t lack for opportunities to do that. But I was too arrogant to allow anyone to tell me how and what to read.

I began with the half-mad Nietzsche. He proclaimed that God is dead and that Judeo-Christian morality is the product of a slave mentality, allowing the weak to vent their ressentiment at the strong. Well, wasn’t it just so with these obedient Mormons, these American bumpkins? Zarathustra spoke to my soul. I missed most of Nietzsche’s biblical allusions, but it didn’t matter. The point was to surpass God, and good and evil, to arrive at a new morality (whatever that meant).

Nietzsche opened up the whole constellation of existentialist philosophy (mainly Sartre and Camus) and the existential-ish novel (Bataille, Dostoevsky, Hesse and Kafka). I majored in philosophy as an undergraduate, and I would get decent marks with essays arguing, for example, that “the very possibility of a metaphysics is foreclosed after Auschwitz and Hiroshima”, or that “we are condemned to responsibility in a world divested of meaning” (or some such).

My confidence was born of the fact that I had almost no real sense of the things I was writing about – of the gravity of real life. I lived totally in my head. There, the world was meaningless; and if there was any point to life, it could only be reached on the far side of God’s absence.

Camus and Sartre, my existentialist heroes, disagreed over what to do in this meaningless world. Camus favoured a kind of personal and situational ethics over grand political projects. Man’s tragic destiny, the fragility and absurdity of his life, lent him a certain dignity, and the point for Camus was to uphold that dignity. Sartre, the communist, thought it was class struggle that opened the way to man’s true ground of freedom and commitment. I went the Sartre route.

The next stop was Marxism – specifically Trotskyism, a more romantic strand of the totalitarian ideology. In retrospect, it’s obvious why Marxism appealed to me: it went well with the latent anti-Americanism still imprinted on my Iranian mind. With Marxism, I could oppose the US as the evil capitalist hegemon without having to buy into any fanatical Shia mumbo-jumbo. It also assuaged my own class anxieties. My economic displacement, you see, was but a small ripple in the dialectic.

I signed up to a Trotskyite group called Socialist Alternative. In my free time, I hawked its pamphlets and joined labour union picket lines (rest assured, I did my share of hooking up, hard drinking and drugs, too). I wept after finishing The Prophet, Isaac Deutscher’s three-volume hagiography of Trotsky. I wept for a Soviet leader, and became insufferably self-righteous.

But Marxism never was able to answer questions having to do with my inner life. It didn’t banish my personal demons, or give a satisfying account of what I now would call fallenness – my own and others’. Nor, for that matter, did Lacanian psychoanalysis, the Frankfurt School, post-structuralism, queer theory or any of the other fashionable philosophies I tried on, each in turn.

Glancing at life’s rear-view mirror, there is always a temptation to impose more cohesion on one’s thoughts than they possessed at the time. I’m no doubt doing that now. But if I were to boil down my worldview as a young man, before I came to the faith, to a single idea, it would be this: man’s place in the world is unsettled; we are homeless.

Capitalism’s pitiless destruction of older social forms, Darwin’s discovery of evolution, Freud’s conquest of the unconscious, the political horrors of the 20th century – all these things had made it impossible to cling to any eternal or permanent truth about humanity. The ancient prophets and philosophers had deluded themselves. Everything about people was a product of historical conditions and social power dynamics. And therefore people were infinitely malleable.

There were only two problems. First, these ideas didn’t withstand the scrutiny of real life. After university, I was accepted into a programme called Teach for America – the British equivalent is Teach First – which dispatches recent graduates to classrooms in the inner cities and underserved rural areas. My assignment took me to the Rio Grande Valley region of Texas, on the US-Mexico border. Nine out of 10 students at my school received subsidised lunches from the government, and the region was (and is) caught in the crossfire of America’s war on drugs.

As a committed leftist, I had to believe that the achievement gap between rich and poor students was purely a problem of redistributive justice. If only schools in the Valley were as richly funded as those in white, suburban districts, there would be no achievement gap.

My teaching career quickly disabused me of these notions. Even in the direst classrooms, great teachers – I wasn’t one, by the way – could make tremendous gains with students by setting high expectations and emphasising hard work, honesty and tough discipline.

That may not sound like an earth-shattering realisation to you, but it was for me. It didn’t lead me directly to Almighty God, but it suggested that there were gradations of character in all human circumstances. That there was great wisdom in old moralistic notions I used to sneer at. And, maybe, that there were permanent things about what makes all people tick. To judge the moral gradations implied some universal standard. And more often than not, that standard arose, not from anything external, but from a voice inside (a whisper in my case).

Well, as CS Lewis would ask: where did that whisper originate? And was it a coincidence that the other view – the one that said that morality is merely a function of power, history, biology, language and so on – gave me an alibi for shutting out the whisper when it became inconvenient?

If there were differences among individuals – if some ideas about right and wrong were better than others – the same held for nations. I’d spent enough time in the US and Iran to tell the difference. Ideologies that saw citizens as infinitely malleable to the whims of the state – modern political Islam is one of them – were capable of any monstrosity. Whereas societies that treated man as inherently dignified, while far from perfect, fostered genuine human flourishing. They were manifestly more pleasant to live in.

Well, where did the West get this curious notion that human beings have an inherent dignity that overrides the whims of Pharaoh? Recognising the Judeo-Christian foundations of the West didn’t make me a Christian, of course. But it helped. If I enjoyed the beauty and ordered liberty I saw around me, then I had to give credit to the ideals that gave birth to it. You couldn’t have one without the other. The beauty and order reflected an underlying truth. It wasn’t my truth, but I no longer lightly dismissed faith.

If pressed back then, I would say: “I don’t have the gift of faith, but I profoundly respect people of faith and their contributions, etc etc.” It was a sort of reverent boilerplate that I’d perfected for the occasion.

It wasn’t true. And this brings me to the second problem I ran into with my materialism. All along, going back to that 12-year-old profession of atheism, when I really wanted something or when I was in trouble, I’d recite the few Koranic verses I knew. Or, more often, I’d supplicate a non-denominational Almighty in the sky. Then, once the desired thing was obtained or trouble past, I’d feel a bit silly and return to my materialist certainties.

My hunger for God persisted, though, and I’d feel the pangs most acutely in moments of great shame. My life’s overall trajectory was upward, but it was marked by bursts of dangerous anger and self-destructive behaviour. Shame begat shame, and the cycle repeated itself, even as I went from material success to success. I needed something or someone to break the cycle.

Twice following bouts of heavy drinking in my early 20s I found myself instinctively, almost spontaneously, going to Catholic Mass. I really couldn’t tell you why, but I just sat in the back pews and felt waves of peace wash over me – without having any clue as to what was going on.

There was no definitive moment that led from those early experiences with the Mass to my knocking on a priest’s door and asking him to instruct me earlier this year. There were no visions or sudden epiphanies.

Somewhere along the way, I resolved to be honest with myself, if not others, about my need for Almighty God. One milestone was Benedict XVI’s visit to America in 2008. I was deeply impressed by his ministry and remember thinking to myself that this was a very holy man.

I picked up his book Jesus of Nazareth. It went over my head, mostly because my grasp of Scripture was still terribly spotty, and you can’t make sense of Jesus of Nazareth without knowing the Bible. I’d read the Passion story in one of the Gospels as an undergraduate and Robert Alter’s marvellous translation of the Pentateuch after college. That was it. The one thing that stayed with me from Benedict XVI’s book was the Pope’s profound meditation on the idea that Almighty God had become man and entered our history – which is to say, the central mystery of Christianity. Et incarnatus est.

Making some sense of the Incarnation “unlocked”, if you will, the civilisational glories of the West and imbued them with real meaning for me.

Take Caravaggio’s The Denial of St Peter, my favourite painting, a work that can bring me to tears. I could have told you all about Caravaggio’s tumultuous life, spoken at length about why the painting is considered a masterpiece, and recounted the basics about the events he was portraying. But then I came to understand why any of this mattered: that the Person whom St Peter is denying isn’t just his great friend and teacher, but the very God Himself, God from God, who has entered our fallen world. And whose greatest act is to endure humiliation, be spat upon, crucified and even denied by his friends.

The Denial of St Peter, by Caravaggio
The Denial of St Peter, by Caravaggio

The beauty of the painting became, for me, a sign of the underlying truth. The story of the three denials, in other words, was no longer just a moving narrative, but part of an event upon which all of cosmic history pivots. More than that: an event and an idea that shook me to my core.

Still, I continued aestheticising my spirituality. Among friends I’d sometimes inject Christian themes into the conversation only to quickly add: “You know, I don’t take this stuff to be true – but it is all very beautiful, isn’t it? It’s been a civilising force, no?”

St Peter had nothing on me in the denial department. Until one day I stopped denying.

You may still ask: why Catholicism? Well, I dabbled for a couple of years with Evangelical Christianity. Catholics don’t exactly send you text messages asking: “Would you and your wife like to join us for Sunday service?” Evangelicals do.

My mother was Born Again a few years ago, and as a journalist, I would occasionally write about persecuted Christians in Iran and the Arab world. One of my sources, a conservative Evangelical activist who campaigns for the persecuted Church, became a great source of encouragement in my Christian journey. In the end, though, I couldn’t do anything with Evangelical Christianity. I admired Evangelicals, but their theology didn’t satisfy. I couldn’t just blink and conclude “I’ve been saved.”

Life experience had led me to see the Christian idea of the Fall, and our Lord’s gift of radical repentance, as the most sensible solution to the brokenness all around me. That much was clear. But with Catholicism there was the added assurance that came with two millennia of continuous authority. The Church’s hierarchical character, which so repelled my Evangelical friends, was one of its attractions for me. It meant that, having seen off a thousand heresies, Rome would be less likely to permit the Christian idea to be distorted by the passing fads of the day. And those fads – from leftist politics to “mindfulness” to Indian banana treatments – looked like so many third-rate substitutes for Catholic sacramental life.

Then there was the liturgy. I longed for worship that gave full expression to the mysteries of the Christian faith. The Cross had to be there, but also our Lord’s crucified body – with the pierced side, and the bloodied hands, the scourged and welted back, and the thorns cutting into the forehead. The sacrifice had to be restaged, and His Mother had to be there, too, because she was our link to His divinity, to His becoming flesh. I longed for the Mass, in other words.

So I returned to the Mass. And eventually I knocked on that priest’s door and told him that I wanted to become a Catholic. “OK,” he said simply. “I shall instruct you.” Now, I can pray, more often than not without feeling a shred of hypocrisy, “Hail, Mary, full of grace …” And add with confidence: “Fr Hamel, pray for us.”

Sohrab Ahmari is an editorial writer for The Wall Street Journal in London and the author of The New Philistines: How Identity Politics Disfigure the Arts.

This article first appeared in the September 30 2016 issue of The Catholic Herald. To read the magazine in full, from anywhere in the world, go here.