Sohrab Ahmari grew up in an almost stereotypically bohemian household. His parents were well-educated free spirits of the kind familiar to anyone who lived through the 1970s: They smoked and drank and had only one child. They encouraged their son to address them not as “mom” or “dad”—so bourgeois—but by their first names. They were atheists who wanted young Sohrab to be disdainful of the rubes who mindlessly put their faith in some imaginary higher power. They wanted him, above all, to always “be yourself.”
Ahmari’s parents threw grown-up parties and allowed their son to socialize with the adults as an equal. When they took him to the beach on holiday, they’d bring along a hot-water bottle full of booze and get buzzed with their friends in front of him. They divorced before his childhood was complete. This picture of Ahmari’s youth as a potted version of post-’60s suburban America will be familiar to anyone who has read or seen The Ice Storm. Except for one thing: Sohrab Ahmari grew up in post-revolutionary Iran.
From Fire, by Water is Ahmari’s remarkable memoir about his journey away from these very interesting beginnings. It is made more remarkable because it’s actually about two journeys: from Tehran to Utah to New York City—but also from Islam, to atheism, to Catholicism.
Until his teen years, Ahmari lived in Tehran in an upper-middle-class compound with his mother, father, and grandparents. His family was an odd collection: His father was a hard-drinking architect who, even as an adult, idolized Holden Caulfield. His grandfather had been a prosperous, secular government worker under the shah and had supported the revolution out of nationalist sympathies—and was shocked when things turned out badly.
Some of Ahmari’s childhood was not terribly distant from most Americans’—he had satellite TV and watched VHS tapes of the latest Hollywood movies. But there were important differences. For instance, on one family trip to the shore (his family was well-off enough that they vacationed by the Caspian Sea), the Ahmari family was stopped at a “morality” checkpoint by the Iranian komiteh. They were interrogated for two hours, during which time Ahmari prayed that his parents would not be flogged, arrested, or worse. This is not the sort of thing a boy forgets.
The result of such experiences was that, from an early age, Ahmari held his homeland in disdain. He saw Iran as a backward-looking culture whose animating forces were anger and grievance. Instead, he pined for America and the West, for modernity and reason and freedom. When Ahmari was 13, he got his wish: He and his mother were given green cards and they emigrated to the United States. They settled with an uncle who was already living in Utah. At which point Ahmari quickly became disenchanted with America.
From Fire, by Water is a book of many virtues, the most unexpected of which is Ahmari’s subtle brand of comedy, because, a third of the way through, it becomes, in addition to everything else, a fish-out-of-water story par excellence.
Ahmari arrives in the United States throbbing with excitement at finally being freed of the confines of religious zealotry. He expects America to be the godless, hedonistic, modern paradise he’s seen in the movies. Except that he’s in Utah. And while the Mormons he meets are all very pleasant and there are is no komiteh and you can, technically, drink coffee, the teenage Ahmari is quietly outraged at being surrounded by pious teetotalers who don’t smoke, or have premarital sex, or even swear. Finding himself surrounded by the closest thing the West has to a friendly, smiling Sharia, Ahmari decides to rebel. So he becomes a Goth.
The picture of this sophisticated Iranian teenager coming to America and being disillusioned not because it’s a den of soulless hedonism but because it isn’t decadent enough is, all on its own, worth the price of admission. Having him then don a black trench coat and combat boots in an attempt to stick it to the Osmonds? This is solid, 14-karat gold.
From the Goths, Ahmari progresses to real-deal socialism. He begins by cold-calling a local Communist group, the Worker’s Alliance, and joining so as to take up the class struggle. His group runs a self-published newspaper called Equity and the most sublime joke in From Fire, by Water may be that the next time Ahmari finds himself on staff at a newspaper, the publication is the Wall Street Journal. The second best joke is that Ahmari’s political conservatism is awakened by his experience working with Teach for America.
But Ahmari’s path to conservative belief is shorter than the one that ultimately leads him to religious belief and, finally, to the Catholic Church. It starts slowly. A heavy, self-hating drinker, Ahmari finds himself walking around the Penn Station neighborhood one evening killing time while waiting for a train. He had spent the previous night on a bender. For no good reason, he goes into the Church of St. John the Baptist, on 30th Street, as Mass is about to begin. He sits in the back pew. And he weeps.
Catholic converts tend to fall into two categories: heart Catholics and head Catholics. The heart Catholics are drawn to the faith because belief is something inside them that they cannot shake off. They can rationalize their love for the church no more than they can rationalize their love for their mother. It simply is.
For head Catholics, faith is a matter of reason: The church teaches certain things, and once you begin the chain of moral reasoning with the most basic precept (that truth exists), it leads, inexorably, to Catholicism. You can stop at as many philosophical way stations as you like—Aristotle, Hume, Kant—but for them the roads of reason, too, all lead to Rome. Many times a head Catholic can explain to you exactly why he believes. But ask them to describe the feeling of their belief and it is as if you’re speaking an alien language.
Ahmari is the rare Catholic who is both head and heart. He is reduced to tears by the beauty of the son of God humbling himself on the cross. But what brings him to the foot of the cross is his search for truth. Everything else is pale beside the foundational question: Is this true?
In one way, Sohrab Ahmari’s story is a particularly American one: Where else could a boy arrive from the shores of one of our fiercest enemies and end up writing for the Wall Street Journal—and Commentary, where he was a senior writer for a year before becoming the op-ed editor of the New York Post—two decades later? Where else could a former Muslim become an angry atheist, then fall under the thrall of socialism, and finally embrace the Catholic Church, all while being left wholly unmolested by the culture, the government, and the citizenry?
But in another way, Ahmari’s tale is alien to the way Americans live now. Today, a great many people believe things simply because they already believe them. They brook no dissent and view reexamination as an affront. What makes Sohrab Ahmari so different is that, even when he is at his most intransigent, his first commitment is always to the truth, and he is willing to keep asking questions in search of it.
In that way From Fire, by Water is a spiritual memoir perfectly suited to our time.