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December 11, 2008

An Outside Insider Probes the Iranian Psyche


by Ali Gharib

While in New York this fall for the UN General Assembly, conservative Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad admitted to National Public Radio that he watches Western television: "Of course, I'm like the rest of the people. People like movies and shows."

Though most Western media is banned or censored, it's well known that many Iranians regularly watch Hollywood blockbusters, US television and international news on illegal satellite dishes. Many Iranians, in fact, are familiar with the culture of US, even if only what they're watching.

However, most people in the US, including some influential ones, have little understanding about the culture, people, or politics of Iran. Part of this disconnect is the complexity of Iran today. The other part is the failure to get people who understand Iran to explain what goes on in the powerful country of more than 70 million.

Enter Hooman Majd, the New York-based author of the recent book The Ayatollah Begs to Differ: The Paradox of Modern Iran.

The son of an Iranian diplomat who, despite having spent most of his life in the US, has maintained a close connection to his homeland, Majd took up journalism after a career in the entertainment business. In recent years, Majd has traveled to Iran for extended visits and mined a wide variety of contacts for information and insights.

Majd describes himself as 100 percent Iranian and 100 percent American – like the Iran of his book, a paradox himself. It's Majd's upbringing that gives him a distinct perspective for explaining all things Iranian to a US reader.

In fact, when Ahmadinejad visits New York, Majd is literally the English-speaking voice of Iran – at the UN General Assembly, Majd's soft but self-assured voice delivers Ahmadinejad's speeches to the world's leaders and diplomats, as well as the press, in an articulate US accent.

But Majd's real contributions to dialogue between the two erstwhile allies, turned suddenly hostile in 1979, are his original interpretations of Iranian society found in his reportage and book. Majd's prose, with its often long, illustrative sentences, has the conversational lilt of storytelling with a literary attention to detail that leaves accurate impressions of Iranian curiosities.

Take, for example, the Iranian concept of "ta'arouf," which eludes many Westerners and often confounds them when confronted by an overly polite Iranian.

Ta'arouf, Majd informs the reader, is "a defining Persian characteristic that includes the practice, often infuriating, of small talk, or frustratingly and sometimes incomprehensible back-and-forth niceties uttered in any social encounter."

Ta'arouf, like many of Majd's overarching themes of paradoxes in Iranian thought, is woven throughout the book. The above definition occurs on page 39, but the following sentence sets the scene for upcoming situations of great import to today's US-Iran relations – by injecting the word "negotiations", Majd conjures the diplomatic standoff over the Iranian nuclear program.

"Ta'arouf can be a long-winded prelude to what is actually the matter at hand, whether the matter be a serious negotiation or just ordering dinner, or it can... be insincere but well-intentioned politesse."

The idea of duality also dots the volume, again mirrored by Majd himself, who, though largely an unapologetically Western-raised son of an ambassador of the Shah's government, is "at ease" with more conservative elements – his maternal grandfather, Kazem Assar, was an Ayatollah who Majd used to visit during summers.

Majd is also related to former Iranian President Mohammad Khatami (1997-2005), the reformist cleric whose tenure gave way to Ahmadinejad's.

The connection to both opposition reformers and the hardliner conservatives in power gives Majd's access, and therefore his coverage, of Iranian internal politics a unique balance (though he clearly favors Khatami personally, perhaps attributable to an Iranian penchant for familial pride).

And Majd's interviews from inside Iran, with everyone from religious authorities to former and current government officials, are often remarkably frank, as are his assessments of them.

Take his chat with one of Ahmadinejad's deputy foreign ministers, Manoucher Mohammadi, whose Holocaust-denying and overemphasis on his academic background Majd gently mocks in his retelling (Majd's humor is apparent).

But the interview is not combative or unproductive. Majd uses the interview to explain "haq", or "the Iranian preoccupation with rights", an important concept in Shia Islam.

"[The] historically-challenged deputy foreign minister... seemed delighted in Iran's apparent change of tack in international relations from an emphasis on ta'arouf to one on haq: from Khatami, the master of ta'arouf who presented a benign image to the world, to Ahmadinejad, for whom ta'arouf cannot exist without a forceful, and unambiguous, defense of haq," writes Majd.

"Ta'rouf and the preoccupation with the issue of haq form two aspects of the Iranian character that are key to understanding Iran, but are often overlooked or misunderstood by non-Iranians."

Along with haq, Majd uses another paradigm to look at Iranian character through the lens of Shiaism (Iran is a spiritual center of the Shia minority sect of Islam): an inferiority/superiority complex, explored in a more dry and wonky setting by Brookings fellow Kenneth Pollack in 2004.

But Majd has expanded and updated the concept to better understand Iran's conservative revival with Ahmadinejad's election in 2005. Iranians have a superiority complex because of the nation's rich history and sophistication, and an inferiority complex from belonging to a minority sect and Iran's common classification as a third-world country.

It's the latter distinction, used to explain a strong class divide that remains despite the promises of the Islamic Revolution to eliminate it, that Iranian-American scholar and author Reza Aslan calls Majd's most important contribution to understanding modern Iran.

Though Majd visits friends and contacts in chic northern Tehran who drink, smoke marijuana, and lead secular lives within the walls of private homes, he stays in the working-class southern part of town during his visits to the Iranian capital of more than 15 million.

It's those Iranians who propelled Ahmadinejad into office, and honest insights into the demographic are few and far between.

That, perhaps, is what is so striking about Majd's intimate portrait of this mis- or under-understood country: his honesty.

In a short promotional video for the book online, Majd says that he sets out to tell "the story of Iran and its people as they are – warts and all – and not how we presume them to be."

By interacting with and reporting on a broad range of subjects, including the opinions of north and south Tehranis, reformers, conservatives, exiles, Iranian history, and even a funny tale of smoking potent opium with addicts outside the holy city of Qom when, unexpectedly, a mullah comes in and joins them, Majd largely accomplishes his goal.

(Inter Press Service)

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  • Ali Gharib writes for Inter Press Service.

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